How on earth do you keep track?

Posted: August 4, 2013 in Writing
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I frequently get asked how I manage to keep track of all my ideas when I am writing.  I actually have quite a few strategies that seem to work well for me.  However, when you speak to other writers you quickly realise that are as many strategies for this as there are writers.

As a rule, writers seem to fall into two main categories, those who plan and those who don’t.  I am definitely a planner.  I take a long time to think about my story and to develop my characters in my head before I start to pound the keyboard.  I might write the first few chapters.  This gives me a feel for the story, but then I stop and start planning.  I begin with a character map.  I list every character, starting with the main ones and ending with the minor ones.  I include information about each one; names, ages, interests, eye colour and a physical description.  Some of this information never even makes it into the story but it is important for me to be able to see my characters clearly.  Finally, I like to draw lines to indicate how the characters are related to one another.  Essentially I group them and identify if any tensions between them exist.

It's a little hard to read (really an indication of its size) but it will give you an idea of what my character maps look like.  Lots of lines and characters clustered together in their little groups (or tribes).

It’s a little hard to read (really an indication of its size) but it will give you an idea of what my character maps look like. Lots of lines and characters clustered together in their little groups (or tribes).

The next thing I do is create a flow chart of the main events in the story.  I like to see how each event will evolve out of another.  At this point I like to visualise more clearly some of the key scenes.  A lot of this ground work takes place while I go about my day to day business and I make notes here and there as I think of them.  My children will tell you that I have been known to pull the car over when I’m driving so that I can send myself a quick voice message.  I also use the voice recorder on my phone to take notes.  The kids think this is hilarious since what I say never makes any sense to anyone else.

The last thing I create is a detailed summary for each chapter.  Each chapter summary starts out fairly short (one or two sentences), but I add to them once I start writing and as future chapters start to become clearer.  As I write I constantly refer back to my notes.  I find my character summaries especially invaluable for cross checking information.  Nothing is set in concrete and the document is constantly updated.

When I write I tend to write chapters in their correct order.  I like to write slowly, ensuring that they are mostly fluent and I am happy with them before I move on to the next.  Writers can vary a great deal in this too.  Some prefer to just let the words flow and they are happy to go back and spend lots of time slashing word count during the editing process.  My word count tends not to decrease with editing and revision.  Even though I am happy to cut out whole chapters I still seem to add to my story during editing and revision rather than take from it.

I’m a huge fan of chunking.  I really do believe that almost anything can be achieved in 20 minute increments.  It is easy to be overwhelmed with the scale of a large writing project.  I find it helps to think of writing as a series of steps and a matter of slowly chipping away.  It takes time but the outcome is worth it.  When I start to doubt my efforts I only need to go back and look at an early draft of my work to see how far I have come.

ideas for dresses

I like to find pictures that help me visualise important elements of the story. I found some images of dresses in a magazine. It was really useful when it came to writing about the dresses that some of the characters wore to their formal.


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