Friday, June 16, 2023

Organizing the Mess of a Book: Four Methods for Staying Sane and Focused

The two most common questions I get: (1) how do you find your ideas and (2) how do you keep it all organized?

I used to write a weekly food column for the Los Angeles Times syndicate. My job was simple: come up with 600-1000 words about something related to food, design and test one or more recipes to go along with it, and send it off to my editor. Other than the natural mess recipe-testing makes in a home kitchen, I didn’t have much to organize. I liked the ease of the weekly deadline, I loved eating the leftovers from testing or inviting a bunch of friends to come over and share.

My column got noticed. I got asked to contribute to books. That was my first foray into the world of 300-pages of writing. My first moment of understanding how big and unwieldy a book-sized writing project can get.

Early days, I just put parts together and sent them off to my editor to organize. I wasn’t able to—or interested in—seeing the big picture. Then I got approached by a larger publisher and asked to not just contribute but write a whole book myself. I’d be assigned an editor, but I was responsible for delivering the manuscript by deadline, all 90,000 words of it.

That was back in the Stone Age of file folders. I brainstormed my chapters and wrote each on the outside of a paper file folder, in a circle. Then using a method some call clustering or mind mapping, I designed the parts of the chapter as spokes radiating from the title in its circle. Then I began my research.

Each piece of information—since these were food topics, I might research the history of the kiwi fruit, for instance—went physically into the file folder for the chapter where it would live. My interview notes got distributed the same way. I didn’t begin actually writing until the folders were fat and I had plenty to work from. I knew if I had to look at a blank page on my computer screen, I’d lose confidence fast. The contents of each file folder was spread on a table, and I created a possible order for all the pieces. Sometimes I wrote bullet points for each piece on an index card so I could just shuffle those instead (an early storyboard).

After I had most of my material and a rough order planned out, I’d sit down and begin entering everything into the computer. Again, each chapter got its own computer file. I didn’t arrange the chapters in any final order yet—I wanted to see how they’d line up with their contents in place.

The first draft was pretty awful, usually. But I made sure I got it written then printed out. I edited on the hard (printed) copy and input corrections into a new Word document on my computer. There was a master file for the manuscript, individual files for each chapter, then all the chapter (and manuscript) revisions.

By the time the book was ready to send to my editor, I had a file drawer of drafts and revisions and many, many electronic iterations.

Incredibly cumbersome. But it wasn’t a bad system. I wrote five books this way, all published, selling well for years. I remember moving from the house where I did most of those books and struggling to throw out all the paper copies with their edits. It felt like destroying history.

Organizing my writing this way continued for a few more books, until I got to my first contract for a book that wasn’t about food. The publisher I approached said yes to my proposal for a self-help/spirituality hybrid. I was thrilled—until I realized I had no idea how to structure it.

Some of you who’ve been in my classes have heard this next step: A writing friend gave me a book called A Writer’s Time by Ken Atchity. The genius of A Writer’s Time is the concept of writing in islands or snippets of ideas, scenes, information. It makes good use of the random brain, the flow (unorganized) part of our creativity. I brainstormed islands and created enough to fill the book. Again, my file folders came out and I created my chapters, the circled title and the spokes of topics within. Then index cards to start a sequence of chapters.

There I stalled. Organizing the flow of this new book was not like arranging the courses of a meal.

Again, someone in my lovely writing community told me, just in time, about storyboarding. I learned my first storyboard in the shape of a giant W, with rising and falling action. It’s said that Joseph Campbell first tried this method. If you google storyboard W you’ll see how the idea has taken off.

Using my index cards at first, then Post-it notes for more ease, I arranged the rising and falling action of my book on the storyboard chart. Here’s a video about it, if you’re new to the whole idea. It was new to me but it’s not uncommon now—a method used in screenwriting, filmmaking, editing. I remember seeing my first storyboard at an ideation session for one of my food books. We gathered in a conference room at the publisher’s and on the wall were large white sheets of poster board, arranged like an empty cartoon. We literally sat there for eight hours and filled them in.

Voila, a book.

These were good techniques for organizing massive amounts of writing, yet I was ecstatic when I discovered yet another, better way to keep sanity around a book project: Scrivener.

I’ve devoted many posts to the glory of Scrivener as a writer’s organization tool, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’ve written five books using it. It hasn’t failed me yet. Gwen Hernandez was one of my first online teachers and she’s excellent if you want a tutorial or class to get going with it.

I love writing books and will keep doing it for a while. Sometimes, though, I think longingly of the past, those 600-word columns. Or the short stories I write now, just for a break. Short pieces of writing are easily gathered in file folders. Even multiple revisions or printed pages from feedback become simple revision lists. While a book used to take up at least one file drawer, forty-five of my short story drafts fit into one woven shelf basket in my writing room.

I also sometimes long for the tangible, the feel of printed paper and not a keyboard. I never would go back to a typewriter but I do miss the satisfaction of a pile of completed pages stacked on my desk.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise: browse the recap of methods, plus a few new ideas, below and use them as fuel to explore your current organization and what it might be missing. Pick an idea that interests you and try it out, even a little.

Method 1: Project Box
Twyla Tharp is famous for this method--each choreography project gets its own new box. Into that box she puts all her notes, objects, fabric samples, videos, anything that has to do with the project.

If the container is big enough and inspiring to your creative self, a project box works for a book. One stalled-out day, when I couldn't write, I collaged the outside of a large wooden box and tried it for a year. Images on the collage led me back into juicy writing time after time.

Method 2: One or More Bulletin Boards
I read about a writer who starts her book with seven bulletin boards in her kitchen (big kitchen, I thought). She pins everything to them that has to do with the book. Images, lists, sketches, photographs, diagrams. As she writes the book, she condenses the number of boards to one, discarding all the material that doesn't actually fit the book now.

Anything easily visible--a board on a wall--helps the writer keep the book at close attention.

Method 3: Old-School File Folders
Using the method described above, try file folders as organizing tools later in the book process. Once your have chapters organized in your computer, create a folder for each. On the outside of each folder, brainstorm ideas—let yourself fly with this, no holding back.

Or try my method of a circle with spokes coming off. In the center of the circle is the chapter's purpose (or title if the purpose is still evolving). On the spokes are the scenes or points the chapter now includes. Add and subtract as you revise. Inside the folder are the research notes, photos, images, lists of ideas, anything you want to keep in mind as you continue to write.

Method 4: Scrivener or Other Software

Some writers combine Scrivener with other software, such as Aeon Timeline (great for figuring out different thru lines in a story) or Devonthink Pro, which comes highly recommended by one of my online students, although I haven't used it yet. But new software comes out constantly so do your research.

Software includes learning time, It helps if a writing buddy can show you the ropes. I was fortunate to get great help for Scrivener setup during one of my workshops.

When Private Becomes Public: Facing Criticism and Exposure As Your Book Gets Published

We all have a great deal of personal freedom with what we choose to write--or do we? I've spoken with many writers, of all genres, who are conscious of the reader looking over their shoulder, judging their words. Or family, people they want to include (fictionalized or real), who may get hurt or shun them for the way they tell their story.

Some writers don't care. "It's my story, I lived it, and I can tell it however I like," one student told me. More power to you, I thought. I knew her as a forthright activist, never shying from truth telling and confrontation. I'm not that way, and maybe some of you aren't either. You may, like me, worry a bit (or a lot) about judgment.