Saturday, October 10, 2009
Organisation for the disorganised
I am not what most people would consider organised. OK, that’s a hideous understatement. I am by nature a messy, scatterbrained individual who can barely keep track of what year and month it is let alone have any kind of grip on mundane or domestic concerns. Most mornings I stare vaguely into the contents of the dishwasher, wondering if I actually turned it on the previous night and whether the dishes therein are in fact clean or dirty. Most processes and routines of the neat and tidy astound me. I have heard of people whose domestic zealousness extends to ensuring that the pegs use to hang up any one garment are matching in colour. I consider myself to have done extraordinarily well if I remember that I did a load of washing before the sun sets or it starts raining. However, with writing, it’s a little different. I had considered that my slobbish, bewildered approach to life probably governed all my actions and that surely other writers had far more efficient and effective systems for their work. Then I started reading and listening to other writers talking about their processes, and I realised that I was actually more systematic than many others. I don’t think that I’m a model example of the structured approach by any means but my methods are probably closer to the organised end of the scale than the loose freeform. I’m still developing and refining my systems, and I’m finding that it’s an ongoing process of experimenting with what works and what doesn’t. Some methods have been developed as a practical solution to the limitations of memory (such as keeping a spreadsheet recording where and when I have sent off various stories and books, and the responses I get back. Helps keep track on response times and which query letters are getting positive responses), others to improve upon mistakes or difficulties I had in the past. One example the latter is what I call the ‘Fugelsday effect’. When I came to edit the first draft of my first novel, I discovered to my dismay that I had somehow inserted an extra day between Friday and Saturday. I had to re-read it again and make a timeline to be sure but there it was. A big, fat action-packed extra day at the end of the week. I wailed about this calamitous discovery to Matt who suggested that I simply add an extra day into the week called ‘Fugelsday’. Although it was sort of a fantasy novel, I doubted the validity of this suggestion. The calendar in all other respects was the same as ours and I suspected a random addition of an extra weekday would basically announce to the world that the writer had lost track of days in the book and was rather unconvincingly trying to cover up the fact. So I went back to the drawing board and thought up some ways to fix this problem. It took a rewrite of many chapters and a few other changes to fix but I got rid of Fugelsday. However, this took HOURS to fix and it was a rather harrowing experience. Finding Fugelsday made me feel like a stupid amateur writer who made silly mistakes. I didn’t want to feel like that again. So I resolved it was better to take the time out to document the timeline and events of each chapter whilst writing the book rather than leave it to ‘future editing Debbie’ to fix any dumb continuity errors or timing issues that ‘first draft writing Debbie’ made. This was how my chapter summaries came into existence. I had always been a fan of summarising major plotlines and subplots before I started writing. I’m slightly neurotic that I might forget something crucial, or maybe even the entire ending of the book so I need to have it safely written down somewhere before I get started. However, the chapter summaries were a different kind of safety net. They were living documents that changed as the novel progressed. If I inserted, changed or took out along the way, it was noted in the chapter summary. At first the chapter summaries were a rough skeleton. I had a sketchy idea of the story structure and how many chapters I thought it might be. When I started a novel, I might just write next to chapter 10 that that’s when the heroine will have the climactic fight with her nemesis. Usually the first few chapters have a sentence or two describing what happens but the later ones are left fairly open. As I progress, I fill in more and more information. I might realise that a certain scene is going to happen earlier or later or take longer than I thought and so I change the summaries accordingly. More importantly, I accurately summarise what has happened when I get to the end of each chapter. It only takes a couple of minutes to note down what happened, the day/time and any other important information. This is surprisingly useful too as it’s amazing how many times a forgetful person like me needs to check how many days ago it was when two characters met or something else happened. It’s easier to check over your chapter summaries than go searching for the information in the document itself. I also like to include chapter word counts so I can keep an eye on this as the novel progress – I like my chapters to have reasonably consistent lengths. I also like having a document on characters so I can check basic superficial information like surname, family members, hair and eye colour etc whenever I need it. One tip I came across on Justine Larbaleister‘s blog, is using a code to denote what type of scene(s) dominated each chapter. For example, was it heavy on dialogue, action, character introspection, etc. I’m keen to work out my own shorthand and try this out on my next novel. Hopefully, it will give me a nice overview of how the balancing of all the action is shaping up as I go. I don’t know if all these documents of planning and recording help me that much but I feel safer knowing they’re there. I’m sure lots of people write novels without such plans and summaries all over the place but I actually enjoy having all my spreadsheets and documents. It reminds me of doing school projects at primary school. I used to be one of those kids that put heaps of enthusiastic thought and effort into making pretty title pages with carefully selected fonts and colours. I did matching coloured borders on every page and always had to have a contents page on every assignment, no matter how short it was. I knew that it probably didn’t get me a higher grade or make the actual contents of the project better. The most important part of the project is always going to be the work itself and that’s about doing the research and hard work but for some reason, it always mattered to me that I had a fancy title page as well. I guess I am fussy about matching colours and fiddly presentation; it’s just about writing projects not pegs.