Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Wednesday Update - (Dis)organizing A Novel

(ROW80 update at the bottom of this long post....)

LET'S FACE IT, writers are fascinated by process.  Even readers can get caught up with those questions of how that magical "story" thing happens.

So when Elizabeth Spann Craig at Mystery Writing is Murder wrote about how she organizes her novels, I was inspired to take a look at my own "pre-production" process....  And after running away screaming, and hiding in a closet, (because I have a very chaotic method) I finally crawled out and decided to write this post.

I suppose my overall writing process is what Dean Wesley Smith calls "cycling."  It sounds a little like rolling out pie dough -- making multiple passes at a story, each pass gaining momentum and taking the story further.  But that implies that a cycler still writes chronologically. That is, you write a portion of the story, cycle back to an earlier bit and push forward again.

I do not write chronologically.  I think and write laterally - the whole thing at once.  So I approach a story more like a painting -- in layers.  (I wrote about this layering process earlier.)

When you are a layerer, or cycler, you don't get to plan and write as two separate steps.  It all overlaps.

But that isn't to say that I don't do formal prep work!

Here's my dirty little secret: You know those lovely, detailed, beat-by-beat outlines you hear that neat, well-organized writers create before they write?  I actually do create those.  I often create several of them... but not until I'm almost done writing the book.  Like maybe when I'm 3/4 done.  I use them to pull everything together.

But that's the end of the planning process, what happens earlier?


The process starts with idle thoughts and even, yes, literal, actual sound-asleep dreams.  I consider this to be a separate part of the process, so I'll save it for another post.  But it is where the formal process starts.

Usually I will write down notes at this stage though, and maybe play around with ideas in a journal.  But mostly I just let the ideas cook until enough little pieces and characters crash into each other that the seed of a story forms.

And at some point, I fish that seed of a story out of the pot, and it becomes a project.

The Naming of the Folder

The thing that turns a loose idea into A Project for me is a name.  Sometimes a story has a title right from the start. Sometimes I go into a mad, frantic tizzy to find a title.  It doesn't even have to be a real title -- it can be a working title.

However, if it is to be a story,  it has to have an identity in my head.

Titles and identity are important to me.  They are, in some ways, like a blurb or pitch or cover or synopsis.  They "brand" the story in my head.  The Man Who Did Too Much had its title from the start.  It reflects what the story is about, and I think in the end, what the series is about.  Same with Have Gun, Will Play. (With Mick and Casey, the titles almost always come first.  When they don't, then the story is more of a struggle to write, because it isn't as clear in my mind.)

But sometimes getting the right title doesn't come easily, and I have to go with a working title.  For instance, I don't know what to call the series for The Case of the Misplaced Hero.  I still think of it as "The Serial." (I'll talk about that a little tomorrow.)

So anyway the story starts when it takes on an identity, and I create a folder for it, and all the notes and sketches go into that folder.  If the scraps of idea are all in my head, I start a text document in which I blather out what's in my head.

At that point it may go back on the shelf for later, or I may start actively working on it.


I think of the next phase of my process as "doodling."  It takes two forms:

One is more logical Note Taking -- writing down ideas and facts and thoughts.

The other is Exploratory Writing.  That's where I write random bits of dialog and scene, fiddling, finding the voice of the story and the characters.

The thing about exploratory writing is that it can vary all over the place. You can write dark and light and strange. You can put your characters in situations completely outside the story -- to develop them and to learn about them.  And with that I might write it down or I might just think about it.  But regardless, I can write things from outside the story's voice. 

For instance, I actually wrote the scene in which George rescues Gwen from before The Man Who Did Too Much begins -- from Gwen's point of view.  It seriously doesn't fit in the book.  It's not even a very good scene. But I had to write it to know what was going on with her.  And him.  (And I also imagined a lot of childhood and background scenes, which did find their way into the book, when George and Karla are chatting at the bar in the middle of the book.)

Now, usually, all this time I'm doodling, I'm also writing for real -- but it's hard to tell the "real" writing from the exploratory writing at first.  But every book is different.  Some just start filling in right from the start, and the exploratory writing actually IS the real writing.  And some take a lot of writing around the fringes to "find" the story.  I think the main difference between these variations has to do with voice.  When I find the voice of the story, the writing quickly becomes "real." 

However, there's one other thing I'm looking for at this point -- something more relevant to the idea of "organizing" a novel or outlining it: I'm looking for magic moments.  For the stuff that thrills me about the story.

To me, the structure of a story has to be built out of those magic moments. 


At some point I accumulate enough bits to see the shape of a story.  It won't exactly be an outline, but I a feel for where it's all going, and a couple of the twists that will get me there. 

When I first started writing, I found that the best approach here was to just know who all the characters were and what their plans were, and where they were to start, and then I just needed to have a good idea what would happen in the next three chapters, and have some general idea of the end.  For instance, with The Adventure of Anna the Great, I knew there would be a chase across the rooftop of a burning mansion.  I didn't know how it was going to come about, or how the characters were going to survive -- but by knowing that, I just naturally wrote the location into the story as I went.

I often use bits of more formal structure in seeing where I am going now - but it's still a case of following the exploratory stuff, and seeing where the natural changes of direction will be in the story.  Given my movie background, I tend to think of these major directions as four acts. (The classic movie "three-act structure" has four parts to it.  I'll talk about that one day....)

When I have an idea of the three big events that Change Everything in the story (a body is found, a character loses his job, or gets arrested, or finds his spouse cheating on him) then I can use that to organize the mess I've created in all that doodling and writing out of order.

Because when an event Changes Everything, you know whether a scene happens before or after it.  And once I have a sense of those big events, all the rest starts to fall into place, just naturally.


When I have huge rafts of story actually done, THAT'S when I drill down and start writing those micro-level outlines.  I'll do chapter outlines, beat-by-beat scene outlines, and everything. They change as I go -- they're just thinking on paper.  They're there to remind me of what I intended to do.  They're not a road map or blue print. They're... notes.

How do I organize all this stuff?

By the time I'm halfway through a manuscript, I have a gazillion little notes and snippets and documents, most of which I never want to look at again -- but I don't like throwing them away.  So I organize it all via "file management" on my computer.

There is only ONE working manuscript, which lives on my hard drive, at the root level of the folder I created at the beginning of the process.  It has a "+" at the beginning of the name so I can can always find it.  It's the only thing I edit.  I back this up all over the place, but I never work on it in any other location, so I won't get mixed up as to which is the right version.

I also have a "done" folder, where I put anything I have already entered into the manuscript, or have decided not to use.

I also often have a working notes or outline document, which is where I put my current working version of my notes/outline for reference.  I usually treat this like a blog -- where I put the latest version of my notes at the top, and just let the old version scroll out of sight below.  I can go find them if I want them, but they're mostly out of sight, out of mind.

And every so often I might clear the decks and throw that document into the "done" folder and start a new one.

Series Bibles

I love the idea of a perfect three-ring binder with colored tabs, filled with organized notes about the characters and the place, maps, lists of names, etc.  The little Fan Girl inside me loved to make those for books and movies I loved, as well as for the stories I write.  But I never actually followed through on those, even as a kid.  I have started them many times, but I always ended up stealing the paper out of them to write something else on.

In this virtual age, I should be able to do this on computer, and have it all organized and everything, but alas, my efforts at that just end up with the other ten million notes in my DONE folder for each project.
 Some of these series, however, are getting complicated enough that I do need to track more place names and minor characters and things like that. (What they call a "Series Bible" in TV.)  Plus these kinds of notes can be useful material for creating background and fan pages... So I'm trying to remember to create special Master Lists just for this sort of info.  Not succeeding at that yet.


All I said above is how I organize a regular novel.  But every book is different, and I find that I have to modify the process often.  When I wrote The Misplaced Hero, I had to write in chronological order.  I was surprised at how well process stood up to that, but it still had an effect.  I'll talk more about that tomorrow when I do a "post-writing" breakdown on that story.

Mystery writing, of course, takes a little more formal planning, and I'll talk about that too in future, but I don't know when.

See you in the funny papers.

 A Round of Words in 80 Days Update

This Segment's Progress:

Sunday, Day 0 - 240 minutes.
Monday, Day 1 - 125 minutes.
Tuesday, Day 2 -130 minutes.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I'm very late coming by here! Thanks for the mention. You've got quite a method here! But it works for you...that's all that matters.

When you find the time (not likely, is it!), those Bibles are really helpful. They don't even have to be elaborate at all...just basic style sheets with some extras on them.

And I like the way you think of your outlining as just "notes." I have to think of mine that way, too, or else I feel more tied to them!

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, Elizabeth:

After I posted this, I realized I should call this post "(Dis)organizing a Novel."

For the series Bible stuff, I do take the notes I need, but they're scattered.

One thing that's going to help, I think, is that we now live in an online world. Sometimes making such information (common locations, character lists, etc) is a great thing to do on a website for a series.

Well, heck, Shelfari has a page for that sort of thing for fans to share with each other.

That makes more incentive to do it formally, anyway.

Steph Beth Nickel said...

Thanks for sharing your process with us. Although we label and categorize how we do things, I imagine every writer has his/her own spin on things. All the best for Round 4. TTFN

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, Steph! Yeah, the creative process varies all over the place. Not only does each writer have a different process, each BOOK might be different.

Rhiannon Johnson said...

I've had this link saved for a while and wanted to let you know that I just added it to my Writing Resources page on my blog ( This post helps me explain how I approach my work.

Lori said...

I am planning/writing my first novel and unlike many other articles I have read, this post really confirmed my own process. The affirmation and gratification I get from it came at just the right time. Thanks!!!