Organization: The Philosophical

For those of you who only wander by periodically, I should mention that today’s Wander is Part Two.  Last week, “Organization: The Practical” is Part One.  You can read it here.

“Breaking the Wall” Stuff

This paradoxically rambling discussion started when a friend of mine who is writing a historical Fantasy novel asked me the following question: “How do you organize all the material associated with writing a novel (outline, notes, questions, character descriptions, timelines, research, snippets, relevant quotes, etc. etc.) so that it’s easily accessible as you write?”

She went on to talk about how she had “so many computer files, in addition to notebooks, all full of background information and research and actual bits of writing I want to use.  The files themselves are fairly well-organized, but they are unwieldy, and honestly I don’t always remember which folder I filed some specific piece of information in and I spend a couple valuable minutes clicking or flipping between documents or notebooks in an attempt to remind myself of a certain characteristic, or plot point, or relevant fact.” 

Last week I talked about notebooks, computer programs, and other physical things you can use to organize your materials.  Today I’m going to talk about the philosophical foundations that underlie how you decide what to organize.  This discussion is going to touch on both research and world-building, since for me the issues are inextricably intertwined.

So here’s the key question.  How much research do you need?  How much of your world needs to be in place before you start telling your story?

Start by reminding yourself why you started writing this story in the first place.  Write down  that thought that hit you one day and made you all excited about writing the book.  This is not a plot summary.  It’s “I wonder how the events in Lord of the Rings would look if you were one of the dwarves?”  (Dennis McKiernan’s ”Iron Tower” books.)   It’s “What happens after a child raised by wolves enters human society?”  It’s “What if mah-jong wasn’t just a game, but building a universe?”

Write this down in a very few sentences, then use it as a talisman to guide how much research and world-building you need.

My experience is that most novices err on the side of too much of both.  They painstakingly draw maps of entire continents or entire worlds when their story isn’t going to go beyond a single area of one small city.  Unless the story is about world politics, a handful of place names and the like will carry the story forward.  Even if the story is about world politics and culture clashes, you don’t need perfect maps.  Through Wolf’s Eyes is a good example of this.  There’s a lot of political intrigue in that novel, but the only map I had was scribbled on the back of an envelope.

I know several people who still have not completed their Great Novel because they keep getting caught up in research.  I’m not immune to the temptation to immerse myself in research.  When I was researching the “Breaking the Wall” books, I read seven books related to mah-jong.  I reach about Chinese writing styles, culture, clothing through the ages, and breeds of dogs.   In addition to my “big binder,” I ended up getting a multi-pocket file folder to stow various bits of additional information related to Chinese myth, legend, magic, symbolism, and the like.

For me, research is usually driven by two impulses.  One is the fear I’ll miss some essential element.  When I realize I’m simply trying to cover all aspects of a topic for no other reason than they are there to be learned about, then I force myself to stop.

The second impulse toward research is more subtly seductive.  It’s that wonderful feeling that hits when you discover something really, really cool.  This leads to the desire to keep researching not so much for information as in hope of getting that “oh, cool!” buzz again.  Beware!

If, like my friend, you’ve been researching your novel for years – a process which, for her, is complicated by the fact that she’s setting her tale in a real city and building the story around actual events (think of the works of Tim Powers) – the question “How much information do I need in order to tell my story?” can be a useful organizational guideline.

After you ask yourself that question, set up a new computer file (or files) or a fresh new ring-binder or both.  Then start transferring to these only the material you need for the story in process.  Not the series.  This one novel.  Focus on characters, crucial settings, and crucial world-building elements.

A reverse outline (if you already have a text) can be of great help with this process.  As you reverse outline each chapter, put the information about the characters, settings, etcetera into the appropriate file.  This will keep you from including material you don’t need.  An added bonus is that by the time you’re done, you’ll have a plot outline.  Given that the three key elements of a novel are plot, characters, and setting, you’ll have all three in a neatly organized fashion.  Tah-dah!

Don’t have a manuscript to outline?  Start writing!  As you discover points that you need to research, make a note of elements.  If the element is something that will stop you from moving the plot forward, then you have a research guideline.  Find that data, move it to your new file, and get back to writing.

If the element you’re missing is something minor (I once had a friend admit she blew an entire day she could have been writing researching the style of hat a character would be wearing), skip it and write!  If you love research, then use researching that hat or weapon style or the name of that grocery store chain as your reward.

Please note, a preliminary outline will not serve you as well as a reverse outline in organizing your research materials.  It’s too easy to start thinking everything and anything is going to be of use.  I strongly suggest you start writing and discover as you write what you actually need.

The rest of your accumulated research and world-building material doesn’t need to be thrown away.  Remember, too much is as useless as too little.  Information hoarding is like physical hoarding.  If you get to the point that you can’t find something, then you might as well not have it, right?

As I hope you agree, the question of organization has nothing to do with whether you use a computer program, a ring-binder, a bunch of file cards, or a Ouija board.  It has to do with organizing your thoughts, then finding the tools that will help you achieve a finished novel.

Now, I’m off to write…  Later I’m going to be doing a lot of both research and organizing of world-building materials, but I’ll have the story to guide me along the way.

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4 Responses to “Organization: The Philosophical”

  1. King Ben's Grandma Says:

    As always, I look forward to reading what you write, even your blog posts!😜 Writer bring me magic and take me away from the pain of my Fibromyalgia. Thank you for sharing your words with me and the world!🌷🌼📕📖📚

  2. Paul Says:

    It’s easy for me to get fascinated by the research, and do more than I need to do.

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