Friday, August 3, 2012

Organizing Your Writing Life--Cool Systems, Structures, and Navigation Tools That Professional Writers Use When Writing a Book

One of the most common questions in my book-writing workshops is this:  How do you keep your book-in-progress organized during the year(s) of putting it together, revising it, and getting ready to submit it?  What systems, tools, and organization techniques do professional writers use?

  I've always been fascinated with systems.  A good system will make everything smoother.  But many writers--maybe the same writers who dislike structure tasks (see last week's post, below)--balk at even the idea of systems.  It takes away from the free flow of creativity.   

Fine, I usually think when hearing this.  But in my own writing life, I know better.   

Keeping loose and free of systems or organization methods works great for a while.  When the book first starts to cook, you only need to listen and be the scribe.  But after a while, those scribed pages mount up into a pile that can terrify most writers.  It becomes impossible to keep track of what you've said where.  Or what you need to do next.   

Each published writer will have her own system.  Here are a few that work for me.  

Tool #1:  A Writer's Notebook
I start every new book project with two things in place:  my computer files and my writer's notebook.   

My writer's notebook is not fancy--although if you are really into journals and cool paper, it can be.  It becomes the place where you begin making a map for your book.  This map is something you create as you go.  

It starts easily enough with a written conversation between you and your book project, and this conversation takes place in your writer's notebook.  

In it, you will begin "talking" with your book on paper, and from the answers that come, you will create your book's map.  During the book-writing journey, your writer's note­book will become a valuable aide.  Think of it as kind of a writerly Pinterest all your own.   

My favorite writer's notebooks are made by Claire Fontaine.  They come in all kinds but the best are grid lined inside.  Although made in France, they aren't very expensive (so you can scribble and not be neat!), yet they feel classy and interesting.    

Whatever kind of writer's notebook you go for, use it to collect these kinds of things:

inspiring quotes on writing
ideas for scenes
character sketches
research notes
photos and images that resonate with your book idea
snippets photocopied from other books
descriptions of settings you like (with photos!)
interviews with characters 
lists of questions
lists of "islands" (scenes) you want to write
continuity checklist for revision
query letter ideas
places to submit your manuscript
feedback notes from readers

The list goes on.  It varies by individual writer.   

My writer's notebooks become like an artist's sketchbook over the time I work on my book--full of images and ideas for things I want to include in the book at some point.  It's my place to keep them safe, like a creative to-do list.  I love browsing through my writer's notebook whenever I get stalled out or need perspective on my book project.     

This is a repository for whatever might deliver both inspiration and signposts when I get lost.  I use it until the book is published.  

Tool #2:  A Storyboard (Preferably Using Scrivener or Another Desktop Storyboarding Software)
At my workshops and online classes, I guide writers through creating a storyboard for their books-in-progress.  Storyboards are a gift from the film industry and many publishers use them to check a book's structure and flow.  Writers use them to (1) brainstorm a plot or sequence for their book when first starting out and (2) keep an overview along the way.

I make a storyboard and revise it several times for each book I write.  It replaces the publisher's editor, who did this for my early books (when publishers had editors in house).   

I published 12 books with hand-crafted storyboards; they worked great.  Then, a writer at my annual Madeline Island retreat showed me a software program that did it better--and was completely intuitive.  It transformed my storyboard life. 

Called Scrivener, it was only available for Mac.  I had a PC.  But I'd been thinking about converting to Mac for several years.  Then I learned about a program called Paralells that let me run both Windows and Mac platforms on a Mac Air.  Sold.  Bought the Air, downloaded Scrivener, and have been a happy camper since.

Although I've explored other storyboarding software, Scrivener remains my all-time favorite for organizing my book via storyboard.  At $45, it's a great deal too.  Check it out at  

Here's a great video that talks about setting Scrivener up for character research--including making an inspiration board with images.   Using Scrivener to Brainstorm Characters   

 Scrivener takes a bit of time to set up.  I copied and pasted my chapters into it (50 chapters took me about 2 hours) from Microsoft Word.  Then it took another couple of hours to synopsize each chapter onto Scrivener's bulletin board and its index cards that can be shuffled around.  But each of these cards is connected to an "island" or a chapter, and you can move them as you need, so nothing is set in stone.  Each can be expanded too, so you can write more than would fit on a regular storyboard's Post-It note. 
The coolest thing about Scrivener is the binder, a column to the left of the page which lets you see your book's organization at a glance.  My friend at Madeline Island had hers set up by the three acts, with individual chapters listed under each act.  I did the same, adding the name of the point of view character for each chapter.       

Tool #3:  An Inventory List 
Nicki, a memoir writer from the Boston area, emailed me last week about her need for some way to "navigate between islands of writing that are now each in separate word documents.

"Often I am writing a new island," she said, "that covers a topic I know I have written about before.  But there is no easy way to search for it within separate Word documents unless I go through each on individually.  This would be time consuming as I have a lot of them.

"Maybe I need to start keeping my writing in some other format?  This has become a crucial issue/problem."

Nicki may benefit from an inventory list.  Scrivener's bulletin board is an easy way to create one.   

Before Scrivener, I did an inventory list manually.  It was routine maintenance for my book at the end of each week of writing:  I added to and updated this list of islands and chapters religiously--it was too easy to get lost and repeat scenes, otherwise.  

To make this maintenance easier, I learned to set up my book in an "island" directory when I began writing.  Here is an example of an island directory from my latest book, Your Book Starts Here.

Nonfiction Books (main directory) 
--Your Book Starts Here (specific book in progress--working title) 
--Chapter One islands (what I think might go into chapter one) 
--three questions (names of islands) 
--Greece trip
--top reasons we write books
--Margo's story
--David's story
--Linda's story
--exercise for three questions

 Sometimes I date the islands as I create them, with a version number, such as "Greece trip 12.2.10 v. 3."  When you get into the hundreds of islands, as it sounds like Nicki has, this can help you sort and search easily.

I also create a master file for all the islands, which makes it easy to do a global search for scenes or snippets by key word. 

Tool #4:  Character Timelines
This is a good tool for all genres, even nonfiction writers who are including research about real people, interviews, or anecdotes and want to be sure they aren't repeating information.  Character timelines are another kind of inventory.  They record what kind of major and minor events you've included so far--or what you need to include in future.

Start by drawing a line on a large sheet of paper, like a river.  I draw one character timeline for each of my main players--anyone I want to keep track of as the book grows.   

Then, using Post-It notes (one color for "written" and another for "to write"), place events and important information about this character along the timeline.   

Essentially a character storyboard, you can use this timeline to check character growth.  Does the person actually grow and change, and are the stages of growth linked to outer events?   

Character timelines also show you immediately if you have dropped someone out of your story.  (As I did, with one of my heroine's love interests in a novel . . . ooops!)  Or if  you've repeated anything.   

Perhaps Nicki could use this kind of timeline to keep track of what she has included and what's still to come.  Character timelines a big hit at my Madeline Island workshop--many ah-ha's come from working on them.

Tool#5:  Printed Drafts in a Binder
 I may be old-fashioned in this:  I like to have hard copy (printed copy) of everything.  I back up my files religiously but still . . . 

I may not print out each island when they are not yet "continents," or chapters, but I will always print chapters-in-progress, even the early drafts.

I collect these in a big binder.  Each chapter has its own archives--the earlier versions--filed behind the most recent version which is on top.  The chapters can be separated with tabbed pages so you can flip through the book easily.

In this purely electronic age, what's the point of wasting all this paper?

If you've ever lost your book-in-progress, you won't need an answer to that.  

If you haven't, consider this:  It's an amazing boost to the flagging spirit to see the printed book (even a rough draft).  All those pages make you feel good.  You've done some awesome work here, and this is the result.  

I also find it easier to find things in printed drafts than electronically--despite Scrivener's amazing abilities.  I can page through and locate the scenes I need.  Or I can use the tabbed separator pages to cluster ideas for the chapter or document what I've included so far.

Maybe one or more of these ideas will help you get your acts together, in terms of organization.  Feel free to post your tips, techniques, and methods below!

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Choose one of these methods to try.  Set aside a few hours to put it into place.