Chapter One: The End.
December 16, 2013 6:35 PM   Subscribe

Tell me the story of how you managed to keep your novel organized!

Long ago I wrote a book. It was a bad book. Aside from its badness, it was also hard to keep track of in my head. I wrote out the scenes on index cards, and that was easier. I could lay them all out on the floor, shuffle them, add bits or take bits away.

Now, I am halfway through a new book, and I don't have enough child-free floorspace to lay out cards, so I am trying to figure out a better way to outline.

I have a notebook, with handwritten notes about scenes, stabs at diagrams showing how they fit together. Other notes and the text itself are here on the computer. Having them in two separate places is helping me lose track of what I'm doing, though; notes get lost especially easily in the word processing files.

How do you manage to outline your fiction? Do you have a way that lets you easily see the larger patterns of your story at a glance, but still lets you expand out to see how individual scenes fit together? Do you use paper? Index cards? Post-its? If you use software to do it, does the software let you easily see the relationships between your notes? (I have especially wondered that about Scrivener and Evernote.)
posted by mittens to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
Scrivener. I am not a novelist but it was critical to me for keeping my dissertation together.
posted by synecdoche at 7:01 PM on December 16, 2013


For me paper beats digital files in this case. Pin it to your wall if you can not lay it out on the floor.

With word processing software it's a lot of scrolling between pages 18 and 67 if you need to compare/combine. Or you end up having separate files for each chapter, which is sometimes confusing as well.
If it is hanging on the wall you can take a step back, walk by it for a day or two and let everything fall into place in your head.
Good luck!
posted by travelwithcats at 7:26 PM on December 16, 2013


Yes, scrivener. It's amazing.

With word processing software it's a lot of scrolling between pages 18 and 67 if you need to compare/combine. Or you end up having separate files for each chapter, which is sometimes confusing as well.

This is not a problem with scrivener. Your whole book is kept in a "notebook" of virtual folders, index cards, and text snippets. You can easily enter a split screen mode and compare files at a glance. It's amazing, seriously. Never writing a book in anything else.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:29 PM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I didn't outline. I wrote half the book and by the time I'd written half I figured out roughly how the first half should have worked, wrote the second half to go with the first half I now perceived, then went back and rewrote the first half. Then after I did all that I realized the ending was wrong and rewrote the whole thing again. I don't think that's a bad way to do it. Now that I think of it, I did have a bunch of Post-Its with notes (basically, just single sentences or words) that I had stuck to the wall over my desk.

I just finished writing a book in Scrivener, or rather, I wrote 2/3 of a book in Scrivener before quitting it (Scrivener, not the book) since it wasn't giving me anything I needed. On the other hand, the idea of organizing a novel with scenes on index cards is very foreign to my own way of working, and it seems to me that one thing Scrivener would be good at is replicating the functionality of a pile of index cards.
posted by escabeche at 7:33 PM on December 16, 2013


If you want a good companion piece to Scrivener, Scapple is made by the same company and is a mind-mapping/flowcharting program I'm finding quite useful before transitioning a project into Scrivener. Scapple also has a 30 day trial that is 30 days of ACTUAL USE, which is to say rather than being 30 calendar days, it keeps track of the days you open it and only deducts from your trial time when you open it on a new day.

What I am doing is flowcharting my scenes by chapter so I can shuffle them around and make sure the story looks right and all the characters are where they need to be and such and only then am I breaking it into a proper outline and moving it into Scrivener.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:38 PM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've written things in Scrivener, but not a novel. I think it's an awesome tool, and it has a ton of features. You can just use the basics and be very happy, but if you really delve it, you can make it do all sorts of interesting and complex organizational things for your novel. Browse/search the Literature and Latte forums for examples of how novelists use Scrivener.

Also I've heard great things about Aeon timeline for organizing the events in your novel.
posted by shivohum at 7:41 PM on December 16, 2013


Disorganized writing is a symptom of disorganized thinking, which is understandable because a novel is a big project that is hard to get one's mind around and it's easy to get distracted by irrelevancies at any step of the process. I have found that a good tool to promote organized thinking is the book Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing, by Larry Brooks.

The book helped me get a handle on a big project. So now, I figure out how long the thing ought to be... say, 100,000 words, which is about 400 manuscript pages of 250 (double-spaced) words each. I therefore automatically know where it ends, where the middle is, and so on. I know where my plot points go, where my pinch points go, and what ought to be happening at any given stage. The book covers concept, character, theme, story structure, scene execution, and writing voice.

I'm not saying it's perfect, and I don't think it's the right method for everyone, but it sure has helped me -- and I'd written six or seven books before I discovered Brooks' book.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 5:04 AM on December 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I am writing my second novel now. Half-way through the first one I found, like you have, that the challenge of a novel lies in its size and scope. I use Scrivener now for anything longer than a 4000-word short-story. It lets you set descriptions for each chapter and section so you can effectively write your outline into the structure of the project, then shuffle around scenes and chapters as you change your outline. Before I found it, I tried to do what Scrivener does using directories and index cards and complex color-coded maps but it's so much easier to have that organization system built into the program I use to actually write. I cannot fathom ever going back to the old way. You can get a free 30-day trial if you're anxious about shelling out $50 for a tool you may not like, but IMO it's well worth the one-time fee if you are at all serious about writing.

Also, you're writing an outline, right? I was convinced before my first novel attempt that I wasn't one of those outlining people, but I was wrong. Dead wrong. Keeping a 100,000 word project organized is a massive undertaking, and you simply won't be successful if you don't have a road map for where the story is going to go, though not every detail, of course, need be set in stone.
posted by deathpanels at 6:08 AM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Another option is yWriter which is available for free.
posted by maurice at 9:29 AM on December 17, 2013


There's also Storybook, which I use.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 9:38 AM on December 17, 2013


I find that Scrivener took me too much time to figure out -- time I needed to work on my book. Plus, I have a collaborator, so Scrivener didn't seem useful unless we were both using it, blah blah. Anyway, I use a VERY VERY DETAILED outline and ye olde index cardes. But I pin them on a corkboard on the wall -- ta-dah! Out of the reach of toddlers.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 9:57 AM on December 17, 2013


I love using tech tools for almost everything - but when it comes to writing/outlining/crafting speeches - where I used to use index cards I now use post-its in various sizes.

I sometimes start with a giant easel pad size for an "at-a-glance"

Then with major categories I use the Big Pad

Then as I fine tune, I use smaller sizes so I can mix ideas and stick them to different sections.

The different sizes and sizes and colors are my godsends. Even regular post-its and minis are thrown in the mix.

I don't have a current project to take a photo of but this may give you a similar visual to how I do it.

Oh - and don't forget - You can always condense a story so much more than you think - imagine the shortest story ever told
posted by emjay at 7:09 PM on December 17, 2013


You might want to look at The Snowflake Method
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:55 AM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


So many options! I realized, looking around my office, that as much as the cards-on-wall idea appealed to me, I don't think I could actually do it with this limited space (although emjay, your photo was great, like watching autumn leaves!). I decided to give Scrivener a try. I'm iffy on the corkboard part at the moment, but the outliner view actually was really useful in breaking down what I'd already written to get an overview. So thanks everyone for all the suggestions! (I still have my notebook here in case I need to make a few squiggly arrows pointing at things.)
posted by mittens at 5:26 PM on December 18, 2013


I just finished writing a book in Scrivener, or rather, I wrote 2/3 of a book in Scrivener before quitting it (Scrivener, not the book) since it wasn't giving me anything I needed. On the other hand, the idea of organizing a novel with scenes on index cards is very foreign to my own way of working, and it seems to me that one thing Scrivener would be good at is replicating the functionality of a pile of index cards.

You needn't use the software that way unless you want to. Most of the templates are designed like that because it's a popular way of working for both fiction and non-fiction. If you want to shuffle a chapter, or maybe untangle it into two, it's dramatically easier to do so if everything is broken up into topical sections. Organisation is then just a matter of drag and drop rather than scrolling and cutting and pasting over and over, a process I find to be very prone to human error. But if you write short chapters, or just flat out don't think that way while writing, it's just as valid to write sections to whatever length you prefer. Lots of people use chapter-length files instead of folders with lots of sections in them.

Disclaimer: I'm part of Literature & Latte.
posted by MysteriousMan at 1:42 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


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