OMG, organized!

Author: Sara Mueller

It should be noted that organization is not my natural state.  I perfected the filing method of ‘largest on the bottom, smallest on the top’ at an early age.  Recently I saw ran across some blog posts on ‘Writing Bibles’.   I wish I could remember where I picked up the links, but I didn’t write it down.  Notably posts by Nathan Bransford’s and at The Write Thing.  Anyone writing anything longer than a short story might want to go read them.  I first ran across the idea of organized writing notebook in ‘Guide to Fiction Writing’ by Phyllis A. Whitney.  It has a ton of good information in it, and a chapter on writing notebooks that as far as I’m concerned is pure gold.  When I finally broke down in a moment of total befuddlement and admitted that my recall of my own work is something less than perfect, I tried it.  I was sold.

My notebook system looks something like a 3 ring binder with dividers that I swipe from my son at the end of a school year.  What, like I’m going to buy new ones?  That would be way too official feeling and would scare the crap outta me.  Old office supplies.  You know you have some.  I divide up differently depending on the book. My usual start looks like this:

I start doodling about on paper, brain storming on some vague idea.  After a while I have a stack of brain storms.  Possibly some characters.  I toss some, and put the others into a notebook divided up more or less like –

Themes – usually I just write these on the front of the first divider as they come to me.  For example “Corset”, “Motherhood”, and  “Agape vs. Eros” were some of what’s scrawled on the first divider in my Bone Orchard notebook.

Characters – I have to keep track, otherwise I end up with every other secondary character named with the same letter, or with some other quite simple mistake that’s the product of my memory being a sieve. I have a sort of character questionairre that I got… er, a long time ago?  From a creative writing teacher?  I think?  It’s long, it’s grotesquely detailed, and I have never ever answered the whole thing about a given character.  Name, age, hair color, build, height and weight, distinctive features, siblings, parents, pets, job, schooling, grades in subjects… whatever.

It keeps moles from wandering around, mustaches from appearing where they have no business being, and makes sure that Hank the best friend and artist doesn’t turn into Hank the best friend and car repair guy.  Hank is free to change jobs, but as the writer of Hank, I’d better know if he does.

Plotting – That part where I muck about on paper while I decide what’s going to happen.  For me it looks like a lot of free form writing, scratching out, rewriting, underlining, stars by stuff I’m liking at the moment… and most importantly the outcome I think I want.  Frequently it looks like notes I took (I hope I thought to take notes) while talking it out to a friend.

Flow Chart of Nepharius Deeds – what I think happens and in what order.  It might have a calendar and/or a timeline in it.  It might be an outline for you.

World – any bits of the world I might need to keep track of.  Maps, politics, governments structures, a second moon, the reason cheese is purple, rough notes on magical systems or star drives or…

Inspiration – mostly pictures I print out or find.  More often these days I toss images into a folder on my computer.  Might be a dress, an actor, a painting, a recipe, or any other shiny thing that made my brain go ‘hey, that’s like my book!’

To Be Researched – what it sounds like.  Stuff I can’t find in five minutes online.  What was the formal title of the Duke of Alva’s lieutenant who attacked the camp of William the Silent outside of Mons?  ’cause you know that the brain space for remembering that title was more important than remembering to get gas in the c… rap.

Bibliography – Sometime I use actual books for research, and I want to know what books I’ve actually used, what books were rubbish for my purpose, etc.  This saves a lot of time.  I also have bookmarks on my computer that I tag with the manuscript title.

Barf Drafting – with thanks for the header title to Kristine Kathryne Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith.  A blank section that’s purely for me to write long hand in.  Typing and longhand writing use slightly different parts of my brain.  Often when I’m stuck I can shake my brain loose by going back to pen and paper (or pen and paper towel or pencil and… you get the idea).  This section is full of rough draft stream-of-consciousness stuff that may be useful or not, but I keep it at least until I’m sure sure sure and positive with no take backs that I’m not going to use it.

Okay, notebook!  Go me!  Then… I push it to one side, write the story, and only refer back when I discover that Hank is needed again and what the hell weird pet did I think he had?  An iguana? (Dig out notebook) A frog?  Nah,  I like this idea better.  Oh hey, and lookie!  I can… right!  Got it!  (scratch out, write down, search and replace the frog with an iguana on computer, close the notebook and stuff the notebook back under the cat bed). Write write write, four chapters later looks the babysitter needs a name… (move cat, open notebook, write down name, replace notebook, replace cat).

There’s only one reason my notebooks aren’t purely electronic.  Batteries die, hard drives seize, motherboards fail, and technology goes out of date.  Or I’m on a plane and we’ve been landing for an hour and a half.  Or I’ve jotted down notes on a napkin or an envelope.  I know I could transcribe, but I already wrote it down once, for pity’s sake, and there’s a paperclip right here.  And I might need to know about Hank’s iguana again when in five years I’m offered a spin off deal.  What did I name that critter, and do I want to go page by page through three books to find out…?

MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL – Don’t forget to write the book. The notebook or Bible or binder system is a tool, not the goal.

How do you organize your writing?  If you don’t, why don’t you?

(no cats were harmed in the writing of this post, though Lucy would like it known that she is pathetic and old and should not be subjected to any indignity not accompanied by cat treats and/or a long convalescence in a lap)

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