Friday, December 9, 2011

A Long and Winding Road . . . Gets Me Lost

By Peg Brantley, Writer at Work, Stumbling Toward Publication

Technical difficulties.
Brain farts.
Frequent stops.
Blurred vision.

I need help.

There must be some fabulous, fool-proof (and I mean that literally) method to keep details straight. Something even those of us who are technically challenged can use.

My main characters are fine. We've been living together for so long I know their idiosyncrasies and habits well. But minor characters? Even in real life, I have trouble remembering people's names. Let alone some walk-on who insists on being referenced again ninety-seven pages later.

What about those loose threads? Those little bits of information I introduced to later feed into something bigger and um . . . where are they? what were they?

I have folders. They're pretty (I buy the printed ones at the office supply store—a different design for each manuscript). They're also closed unless it's a research item, or a character study.

I have a spiral notebook. Somewhere. And while it might have some information in it, I can't count on it to be thorough. Because I'm not even quite sure where it is. And whether or not I actually took the time to write down what I'm looking for at this moment.

Stickies? Where would I stick them? Eventually my computer screen would be covered, and then it really would be a hit and miss proposition.

And unless someone wants to come and sit down with me to teach me Excel, I'm not inclined to spend much time inside the big green "X" icon. I have enough trouble with the address list I keep in it somewhere. It frustrates me beyond belief.

There's probably something cool in Scrivener for this. If so, please tell me where it is and how to use it.

Is that what edits are for?

It could also be that I'm at that place with this manuscript where it's all suddenly become a muddle and I'm convinced it's a mess and hopeless and what in the world have I barfed up?

Seriously, smart and organized writers . . . how do you keep things straight?


  1. Peg, it gets easier with practice. But I do keep files. I keep a character file in an Excel spreadsheet, where I list characters names and details. I also keep files for evidence, ideas, and problems. When I worked in Word, I used the Notebook layout view, so I could keep them all in the same document and easily click back and forth. But you can keep these types of files in Scrivener too, and they're always right there. You can even use a split screen to keep a particular file/list open while you write. I do this in the final edit to ensure I don't forget anything.

  2. Oh, Peg, I feel your frustration! I've had trouble with this too. I usually email information, research, notes to myself then save them in an email file under my book title. That's the only way I can keep things straight and together. Sometimes I'll cut and paste to combine info into these email files. Convenient and works for me. The key is to fill in that SUBJECT line. I have a tendency to send blank emails to myself. DUH! I wish I knew excel frontwards and backwards, but the only thing I can do on it is keep up with rejections: Title, Date Sent, To whom, When Rejected. {{sigh}} Good luck!

  3. I hope you get lots of great tips, Peg! I buzzed this on FB and Twitter.

    And don't forget that freelance editors like me catch lots of inconsistencies, discrepancies, plot holes, etc. And I also query my client authors about details that make me stop and think / wonder / question, such as whether a certain character is maybe acting out of character, considering his/her previous actions, attitudes and opinions.

  4. LJ has the best idea, and the great thing about using Excel is that if you wish to add another category of 'whatever' later on, just add a column, and fill in the blanks. You can also easily search for a detail "Now which character was it that is alergic to sushi?" And sortable. It's really pretty quick to learn, and the online tutorials are pretty decent.

  5. I, too use an Excel spreadsheet, especially for character names. (I had 3 characters named Hank in one book before I started using it, and the editor never noticed!)

    I also use a tracking board to follow my plot points.

    And I'll have a Word document with notes about characters as I discover them.

    I keep saying someday I'll put them all in a "bible" but I haven't done that yet.

    You can see my tracking system on my website under "Plotting for Non Plotters."

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  6. By the way, the latest Writers Digest magazine (Jan. 2012) has an excellent article with diagrams on mapping out your story (navigating your novel), which can be done at any stage of the writing and added to or revised as you go along.

  7. I used to use a Word table, but I now use software called Character Writer which is excellent for both development of character traits and for recording them. There are other types of software that do this, but Character Writer is simple to use, provides a checklist approach to physical and personality traits, background etc, and includes psychological profiling through Enneagram and mental disorder diagnosis.

  8. Thanks for all of your suggestions.

    I think I'm going to have to get Excel for Dummies (I'm sure there is such a thing, there are Dummies books for everything else), and work through that learning curve.

    Also, I"ll play around with my Research feature in Scrivener.


    Thank goodness for editors.

  9. I keep a timeline and a "Family Tree" list on a paper tablet so I can look them up and I don't have to switch and back and forth between computer documents/files.

  10. I don't keep files, spreadsheets, character studies, outlines, or any other structured device for writing. I keep everything in my head where I know I can access it easily. I guess that makes me one of those "pantsers" I do make notes about loose ends, but those go at the very top of my manuscript where I can refer to them easily.

    The best method is the one that works best for you, and like LJ said, it will get easier.

  11. Warren, I like your table idea. I'm just not sure it would give me everything I need when I need it.

    But Drew, I'm absolutely sure I couldn't keep everything in my head. I'm tempted to comment about all of your available space, but I won't, 'cause you're my buddy and I love you.

    If other people can learn how to do this, I can too.

    I know I can, I know I can, I know I can.

  12. Hi, Peg.

    I've tried all the Excel and electronic things, and I can't keep up with them. What helps me is what I call the "Big Book of Jared." I have tabbed dividers, one for Jared, one for recurring supporting characters, one for recurring settings, and one for each book (timelines, suspects, etc.). Periodically, I go through the current manuscript and add or change information as needed. A most useful tome.

  13. If you have Scrivener, you should definitely use that. It will handle all of your organizational needs and help you keep your writing on track.

    It has a huge learning curve, but is well worth the effort, especially if you're going to have to learn Excel. From organizing your research, including adding PDFs, links to web pages, photos, and more to reorganizing the parts of your writing with the index cards and outlining features, you can't beat it.

    I'm still learning how to use Scrivener, but the software is nothing short of amazing and it's a writing tool, unlike Excel.


  14. Thanks for your ideas. I'm leaning toward a notebook like Jaden's or working through a new Scrivener learning curve. I've purchased a couple of "manuals" for Scrivener . . . guess it might be time to read them.

    Have a fabulous week!

  15. In Scrivener - you can use notes, keywords, comments or custom meta-data for character data - depending on how organized you want to be. You can find them in the right panel at the bottom. You search on any or all of the fields so if you have notes with Character, Relationship, etc. in a fairly regular structure, you could easily find them later....

    For major characters, I keep them in a Characters directory (just like references or locations which I also have) with a backstory and any chapter references or story points I want to have in an easy to reach place.


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