How To Organize Material for your Novel
In light of my latest post about Pre-Writing, I thought I'd follow-up with an article on how I organize my writing material. Now that I'm writing my second book, I'm taking care to put everything I need in a place that's accessible. There's no one way to do this, of course, but here are the tips and tricks I learned after my messy first book.
Each book should get its own folder
I have a folder on my desktop titled "Alyssa." Inside are my WIPs (works in progress), labeled with the title of the book. This can include books you haven't drafted yet, but simply have ideas for. If you don't have a title, name it after the protagonist--or at least something that will help you remember what project it is.
There's not a single writer who nails their book on the first draft. Inside each of your book folders, start a file called "Drafts." As I'm working on the manuscript, I don't name the Pages (or Word) document after the working title--I name it "Draft One." When the revision process begins, I copy the document and call it "Draft Two."
Won't that mean I'll have more than one document on my computer called "Draft One" if I have multiple projects? you may ask. The answer is yes. But it shouldn't be a problem, since all the drafts are divided by folders for each book.
Deleted Scenes Bin
Sometimes we write scenes we aren't so sure about. Sometimes we write scenes we find really inspiring and evocative at the time, only to come back later and discover it's absolute garbage. Or it doesn't make sense. Or it doesn't fit the scenes that come before and after it.
This is where the "Deleted Scenes Bin" comes in handy. DO NOT, I REPEAT DO NOT, IMPULSIVELY DELETE A SCENE BECAUSE YOU THINK IT'S TRASH. Writers are often very hard on themselves. It might not suck as much as you think it does, and perhaps you can find a place for it later. Even if you recycle one piece of dialogue, it'll be worth it.
Start a Word document for each questionable scene. Title it something that will give you a clue about what it's called. You could even throw in a few of the characters so you'll remember who's in the scene. Most of my "deleted scenes" reinvented themselves in the latest draft, even in just bits and pieces.
This is where you're gonna need to pull up Excel. Start at the beginning. Create a birthday (day, month, year) for your characters. I put dates in the left column and a quick phrase on the right to capture why it's significant. You don't need to go overboard with details here. Just pick ones that are relevant, even if they don't make it into the book. It's helpful for you to know "offscreen," so to speak, because a character's memories will inform the person he is at present.
This also comes in handy for flashbacks. Sometimes you'll want to delve into a flashback with a more specific transition phase than "One time I . . .". With an outline, you can say, "Sixteen years ago, I . . . ." Every detail counts.
Don't let a timeline limit you to the past, though. It's perfectly okay to create the timeline as you're writing the book. Think of it as sending quick update texts to loved ones: taking my driver's test! On my way to work! Just landed in Dallas! You don't need to add every single detail of your character's day, obviously, but it helps you keep track of time and connect the dots between scenes or chapters. Passage of time is one thing you don't want to mess up.
Closely related to the timeline is the calendar. Pick a year for the book to take place (even if you're not writing historical fiction) and print out a calendar from Google. This will give you a clearer visual of your book's timeline. Go ahead and write in the margins.
Even if you don't consider yourself an outliner, you'll still want this folder on your computer. If you haven't read my post about using the Three-Act Structure to outline, I explain that there's a way to plan ahead without going into full-blown outline mode. Pantsers can be organized, too!
Think of this Word document as the catch-all for your miscellaneous ideas. Whenever an idea zaps you, put it down here. It could be scenes, character traits, imagery, dialogue, symbolism, or whatever else strikes you.
All books will require at least a little bit of research, so you'll want a few Word documents where you can keep everything accessible. You can type up a bullet list, links to websites, or pull pictures from Google.
This may fall under the research category--or you can simply have a document where you store pictures that remind you what your characters, settings, cars, or pets look like. It also helps you keep details straight--like that dimple on the left cheek, or the crack in the windshield. Even pictures of what you envision your book cover to look like will spark inspiration and excitement.
What does your protagonist's daily routine look like? If she's in high school, write out a schedule for what classes she has, who her teachers are, and who she has class with. If your protagonist is an adult, what time of the day does she usually visit the grocery store? Which day is her yoga class?
For my first WIP, I built a few rosters to keep track of my athletes. I wrote down their name, number, age, position, and a few physical descriptors. Not every character from the lacrosse team got a mention, but having a full list of names for every sports team in my book made the book more real for me. In case I ever needed a quick mention, all I had to do was pull up the roster and pick a name. I loved this because it gives the book a sense of bigness and business--and shows that the protagonist is a social butterfly who has lots of friends.
This can work for adult fiction, too. Who's in the sales department? Accounting? HR? Who's the Regional manager? Assistant to the Regional Manager?
If you're like me, titles don't come to you the minute you starting writing your book. Start a document for when they hit you mid-draft, even if they're bad. You may be able to find some variation of what you have that works. And always remember that you can change it. Try out the title for a while if you're not ready to commit.
Whatever you want!
The needs of your book are going to look different than the needs for my book, so add whatever you need. The material for my first book was pretty disorganized, but now I know how to manage the rush of imagination for my second book. The more you write, the more you'll learn what works best for you.
- Family trees
- Character profiles
- Character interviews