How can I turn notes into something useful?
December 30, 2006 6:59 AM   Subscribe

I've been noting down ideas for a potential novel for over a year. Problem is, I now have so many that it's tough to keep track of it all. How can I organise and consolidate them into something workable?

These notes cover every possible aspect of the project, from content to stylistics and observations. Should I categorise them, and if so, how would I go about it/what categories would I use? I want to be left with something functional and useful so that I can incorporate the ideas as smoothly as possible. Any suggestions of how you have tackled large quantities of notes would be incredibly useful!
posted by Acey to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
wait for next november and do the nanowrimo (seriously !).

You fill find a ton of interesting advices in the forums.

Also, software like this one (free, win) or this one (osx, not free) may help you finding the right structure etc.
posted by Baud at 7:13 AM on December 30, 2006

Thanks Baud, I will give that one a try. Incidentally, this thread was very useful for general guidelines to help you get started, for anyone who might be interested, and this thread is useful on the software front. Really, I'm just looking for people's experience with what works for them.
posted by Acey at 7:20 AM on December 30, 2006 [2 favorites]

Check out this product called Scrivener:
"Scrivener is a project management tool for writers that acts like your own little writing shed at the bottom of the garden, where you have cork notice-boards, ring-binders, photos, clippings paperclipped to jottings, notebooks and reams of typewritten pages piling up - along with a secretary who keeps it all in neat piles and uses his speed-reading skills to find what you need as soon as you need it."
posted by mattbucher at 7:45 AM on December 30, 2006

I put together a brief outline to refer to, but for me, I know a project is not really ready to come together until I've got a grasp on how it all goes together in my head. Too many notes for me means it hasn't jelled yet.
posted by rikschell at 8:00 AM on December 30, 2006

These notes cover every possible aspect of the project, from content to stylistics and observations.

This advice may not be right for you, but: I'd say, don't organize them. Have them in a big heap on your desk, or, if you've got the strength for it, put them in a drawer and have faith that you'll remember the ones that actually belong in the book.

At least for me, once the book was half-written, it was already clear that lots of the preparatory work I'd done was going to have to be junked -- the book just went a different way. Not that the preparatory work isn't useful; it fertilizes the field, so to speak, but you just never know what'll pop up thereafter.

On second thought, this is a classic annoying example of answering "How do I X?" with "I don't think you should X" so feel free to ignore.
posted by escabeche at 8:01 AM on December 30, 2006

Outside of specialized writer's software, the first step might be to just dump all the snippets into a spreadsheet. Then you can use the extra columns to classify and tag the snippets appropriately (is this something concerning the protagonist's childhood? is this something that has to happen after item A23 but before A17? is this a phrase I want to use to set the tone?)

From having writer friends, I feel obliged to advise that you not worry so much about finding/developing the perfect system. Get the ideas dumped into one place, and just start writing!
posted by kimota at 8:02 AM on December 30, 2006

Write each note on a post-it, and cover your walls with them. Okay, that's not actually super-constructive, since Self uses his walls covered with post-its for years' worth of ideas, not necessarily for those of a single novel. But the photos are impressive :-) .
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 8:11 AM on December 30, 2006

I think the best way to start your novel is as follows:

1. Sit down and organize the story. Think about what the plot points will be and how the characters will act. A short outline in yWriter or Word will help you immensely.

2. Look at all your note cards and decide what you can use for this story. All the other notes can be filed according to category.

3. Begin writing.

It sounds simple, but it isn't. I usually allow at least a week to create the characters and plot the story. Then, I do another week of research and filling in any obvious holes in the storyline.

After that, it all depends on how fast you write.

You might benefit from getting one of those novel writing books from the library, like Get That Novel Started! by Donna Levin. There are a ton of other books like Levin's. Hers is just the one I happened to use.

The December issue of Writer's Digest also had some good articles about how to get your novel going and finish it.

On the software front, I've only used yWriter, and found it to be pretty decent for organizing scenes and plotting out characters.

Good luck.
posted by reenum at 8:13 AM on December 30, 2006

One thing you might try is a tip from User Interface Design (index card prototyping). It's also called contextual inquiry Bascially, for each character of your novel, you create an index card where you briefly describe them. Alternately, you can start with one major index card where you describe the plot of the novel. Using a very large bulletin board (it helps to have a "war room" devoted to this so you don't have to take things down and put thm up, start brainstorming by writing ideas about characters, plot lines, etc. and orgainize them by taping or using post-it note glue. Eventually, a patternwill emerage from which you can write an outline to follow in writing your novel. Here's somehing that's helped me: Always have a plan and always be ready to abandon your plan. Good books about the process of writing - the classic (to me): Bird by Bird by Anne Lamot.

I couldn't find an exmple of an CI wall, and you should b warned it's mostly a tool for softare development, but I have found it invaluable for sorting and orgainzing vague seemling-ly related thoughts.
posted by katyjack at 8:28 AM on December 30, 2006

Put them ALL into one novel. It will be awful (I am 99.9999% sure of this) but at least all of your ideas will be down.
posted by travosaurus at 8:43 AM on December 30, 2006

I've found making a mindmap with something like Freemind to be a useful (though imperfect) way to organize thoughts I have for big projects.
posted by Good Brain at 8:57 AM on December 30, 2006

Some thoughts so far:
I have had my walls covered with ideas for some months now, and I have several notepads/books full of scribblings. Whilst that is hideously unorganised, after loading up yWriter, I'm beginning to wonder whether or not I really want things to be that organised. I've only attempted writing a book once before, and I planned every single scene before even beginning to write and - to be honest - it sucked all the fun out of writing the thing. The drawback from not planning things is that you end up like I am now: drowning in bits of paper that you can't find holes for.

Thanks for the ideas so far. It's becoming clear that it will take a bit of trial and error to figure out what works best. I'll take a look at the books mentioned too. A little bit of guidance will be a helpful thing when entering unknown territory like this.
posted by Acey at 9:06 AM on December 30, 2006

I recommend Papel as an organisation/ writing tool. It's Freemind and yWriter all in one.
posted by dayvin at 9:26 AM on December 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

Anyone have a working link for downloading Papel?
posted by Good Brain at 10:01 AM on December 30, 2006

Try this.
posted by Acey at 10:02 AM on December 30, 2006

If you have OS X, you might want to check out DEVONthink, Mori, or Yojimbo (previous Ask MetaFilter threads).
posted by kirkaracha at 10:07 AM on December 30, 2006

Acey, that download requires sms activation:

"To activate download of Papel 6.10.20, send an SMS with the words EN FIC to the number 79007 (service only avaliable in United Kingdom)"
posted by ceri richard at 10:15 AM on December 30, 2006

For the book that I should be writing right this very minute instead of loligagging on metafilter, I use a binder with tabbed inserts and all my notes/ideas/info goes into there along with the book itself.

The trick is not to let it build up too much but - a heck - I'm gonna do some writing now
posted by dropkick at 10:55 AM on December 30, 2006

This link should work for Papel. I just downloaded it from there.
posted by Memo at 11:24 AM on December 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

Thank you Memo, the second server download does indeed now work.

And thanks to dropkick for the wonderful use of loligagging - haven't heard that word for at least 30 before my grandfather passed away.
posted by ceri richard at 12:45 PM on December 30, 2006

It's good to have some notes to refer to when you get stuck, but as others have noted, you need to just jump in and get down a first draft.

Focus on your characters. Sometimes it's easier to start if you decide to inhabit one of them and let them tell the story in the first person. You can always change point of view later.

Your characters are the story. They're like the horse that knows the way home. Don't start from a premise of trying to illustrate ideas or a theme or whatever. Let your characters start interacting with one another, and the plot will follow.

Good luck!
posted by frosty_hut at 1:05 PM on December 30, 2006

Excellent advice, and thank you Memo for finding a working link. Dropkick, stop loligagging!
posted by Acey at 1:09 PM on December 30, 2006

Also, for the record, Papel seems ideal for the more visually minded. Thanks, dayvin, for the recommendation.
posted by Acey at 1:21 PM on December 30, 2006

I've only attempted writing a book once before, and I planned every single scene before even beginning to write and - to be honest - it sucked all the fun out of writing the thing

maybe so, but this is the way to write something good. You don't have to plan it to death, but some kind of outline is essential.

Somewhat on a tangent, but writing is not fun most of the time. It's work. This is not me saying this- look up interviews or quotes by any successful writer. Having ideas is fun. Finishing something gives a great sense of accomplishment. Actually writing something is work. How many people enjoy their job all the time? If you only write when it feels "fun" you will not write much.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:19 PM on December 30, 2006

oh, also, I use computer Post-It notes to keep my important notes, like themes and character arcs, close-by and organized when I'm writing.

You can find a bunch of post-it softwares at
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:21 PM on December 30, 2006

The following works for me for organizing masses of material.

I've used the following definitions:
IDEA = a note you've written
SUMMARY = a short version of an IDEA
GROUP = a collection of related SUMMARIES
CONNECTION = material that connects GROUPS
SECTION = a collection of related GROUPS

Put all your IDEA notes in a pile, in random order.

Create a word processing document (Doc. A). Use paragraph formatting to put 3 blank lines after each paragraph. Type the number 1 followed by the first IDEA. Then the number 2 followed by the second IDEA, etc., until you have entered all the IDEA notes, each with its own number

As you go along, you'll get new IDEAS, and it's fine to edit existing ones or make new ones, but remember that the your job is getting them down, not improving or adding to them. When you have everything entered, save and print out Doc. A.

The next step is easier to do by hand. Take a legal pad, look at IDEA 1 and write a short SUMMARY (4-5 words) of it, followed by the number 1.

Skip 2 or 3 lines on the legal pad, look at IDEA 2 and write a SUMMARY, followed by the IDEA number (here, 2). Continue with IDEA 3, etc.

As you go through, you'll find different aspects of the same IDEA. Instead of making a new SUMMARY, enter the NOTE number at the earlier SUMMARY. This gathers related material. Don't worry about duplicates. They'll be picked up in the next step.

When you finish making the SUMMARIES, tear the sheets out of the legal pad and cut them into horizontal strips, each containing one SUMMARY and its associated IDEA number(s).

Lay out the SUMMARY strips on a large table and sort them into related GROUPS, including any duplicates.

Sort the SUMMARIES in each GROUP in logical order, and then sort the GROUPS themselves into at least a tentative order.

You'll certainly find gaps within and between GROUPS. In a new word processing document (Doc. B), write new IDEAS to fill gaps within a GROUP, and also brief CONNECTIONS to tie the GROUPS together. Use alphabetical labels this time (A, B, C, etc.). Save and print out Doc. B, cut it into horizontal IDEA and CONNECTION strips and put them on the table within and between the GROUPS they fill or connect.

Take the legal pad, lay the first 10 or so strips on it and tape them down. Then tape the next 10 on the following page, etc.

Create a new word processing document, Doc. C. Make it single-spaced with a 3 inch margin on the right.

Open Doc. A and Doc. B and copy the IDEAS and CONNECTIONS into Doc. C, in the order they're taped down on the legal pad.

Format Doc. C as triple-spaced, save and print it out. (You're done with Doc. A and Doc. B, but save and keep them anyway.)

Read through the printout. You'll now see more gaps and holes. Make marginal notes of what's needed -- new IDEAS, GROUPS and CONNECTIONS. Then open Doc. C and add them.

As you work on Doc. C., you'll see that the GROUPS fit into SECTIONS, for which you'll probably need to make a new printout with numbers for each GROUP, cut them apart and shuffle them on the table. And of course new gaps and holes will appear and need to be filled and connected.

I know this seems fussy and mechanical, but it works miracles and gets you past the giant task of making something organized out of the mountain of unrelated notes. You make the connections one at a time, and end up with everything woven together. Better yet, it shows you where the holes are -- where you need to do more work.

It also means that you don't need to write an outline in advance. The structure emerges as you make the connections and shuffle the smaller parts around.
posted by KRS at 9:21 AM on December 31, 2006 [3 favorites]

I've been published for 6 years, now working on my 13th book. I've tried files, excel, post-its and writing on my hand. For me (it seems to be very individual) the only thing that works is the 3x5 index card. I carry them with me at all times. I write down EVERYTHING that occurs to me. Bits of dialogue, plot elements, recurring motifs (such as the appearance of letter writing in a story), character descriptions, backstory, questions, things that need researching--but the trick seems to be to only write down one thing on each card.

Then, when the piles of cafe napkins and torn envelopes and food-stained notebook paper with shreddy edges have all been distilled down to a neat stack of note cards, they become building blocks. Eventually in the course of a book, I will end up with one for each scene (written or unwritten) and several more for elements in that scene. I have one for each appearance of secondary characters (to make sure they have a point and mission to advance the story) and every stage of every relationship.

It sounds like too much work. I hear myself say that every book. And then I do it anyway. At some point--usually when I am completely stalled and tired of staring at the ceiling--I take all my cards and spread them out on the floor, each scene in sequence, following a three-act structure and tuck all those character and motif and element cards behind the scene cards.

Then (seriously!) I stack them back up in order and make a flow chart. This ends up being about ten feet long and accordian-pleats to a book I can refer to at the computer.

The only reason I'm going into so much detail about a plan that I'll bet no one else ever bothers to try is to illustrate that I had to develop a system through trial and error that works for ME.

Still, I would pick up some index cards if I were you. So much neater than bits of torn paper.
posted by writergurl at 2:56 PM on January 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

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