Monday, December 10, 2012

Organizing a Novel

Moving from line editing a complete novel to drafting a new one feels weird. Very weird. But not at first.

At first, drafting new material is what it is. I'd sit down and have an idea for a scene and just start typing away. During the course of writing, a new idea, wonderful turns of phrases, and lyrical language would come seemingly out of nowhere. (It's not nowhere, but the steady practice of writing on a regular basis that hones the work. But that's a subject for another time.) I was able to do this unimpeded for about 20,000 words into this new novel. And then the thing got unwieldy.

The more I wrote, the more I sensed that organization was needed. I had a think for several days about the structure, decided I wanted to have two main character POVs with both present and past tense narratives and some other material providing information for my reader. That got me through the next 10,000 words. But at 30,000 words drafted, I knew I couldn't put it off any more- I'd have to actually have some organizing scheme.

In the past, I've tried two different ways- outlining and note cards. Outlining works well for straight forward linear single POV narratives. At least, it did for me. But once two time frames are added or more than one POV, things can get confusing. I'm also not a linear thinker. My mind doesn't work that way; I'm a whole picture kind of person. It's one main reason I'm a novelist at heart. Most, if not all, of a novel comes to me in a short amount of time. I'm not one to have an initial idea and write my way through it to the end. Three-quarters to a whole novel come to me while I'm drafting the first quarter of a novel and then I have to write the various pieces together until they fit right. It's one reason I rely on note cards. I can write scenes in my non-linear thinking way and then rearrange them until I build appropriate plot tension. Perhaps not the most efficient way to work, but it's how my mind and narrative inclination operates.

For my current work-in-progress novel, I decided to go back to the note cards. This time, however, I was going to be ultra organized about it. With two main POVs, two time frames, and that third narrative factor, I need more information at a single glance than I ever needed before. So I devised a template:

As you can see, the upper right is the point-of-view. Here I simply put in the first name initial of one of my two main characters.

On the opposite side the tense- past or present.

In the middle, I leave myself room to write the gist of the scene at hand.

Down on the bottom, I have a place for the date. Mind you, this is mainly for my benefit. I don't intend to label each and every scene with a date for my readers. As long as I know the date, the month, the season, etc. and I make sure that I write in narrative time markers/transitions, my reader will get a sense of the novel's time without having to be banged over the head with an actual date or time. They don't need to know Scene A occurs on August 4th at 11:52 PM in that way.

"Location" on the bottom right is also mainly for my benefit. One of my main characters takes a long journey on foot and I need to know how far he will walk on any given day. As I added this to my template card, I thought of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. Jude always seemed to be walking and I wonder if Hardy, like me, took out maps to visualize and mark his character's treks.

The bottom center contains other relevant information to help me keep my novel straight. Again, the distance thing is related to how far one of my main characters has ventured from his starting point.

As I continue to add scenes to this narrative and my word count rises by thousands of words, I know I might add other information to my cards. But not too much, the only spaces left on the cards are the right and left centers, so whatever organizing factors I might need as I continue drafting will have to stay at one or two markers.

With the narrative unfolding with each word I type, I know I'll eventually take out my note cards and fiddle with the order. I may simply stack them and go through them over and over to see if it feels right. Once I think I've got the sense of it, I'll lay them out first to last and see if my gut has any objections.

Novel writing's a messy business, but with some organizing tools such as note cards, it eventually cleans up and comes together.

Do you use an organizing scheme with your novel? A binder, an outline, note cards, a flow chart? Have you tried some and find they didn't fit? What tried and true methods have worked for you?

Photo by Curt Richter
Sabra Wineteer grew up in Moss Bluff, Louisiana. She has since lived in England, New Zealand, Germany, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, and currently lives in rural Pennsylvania with her husband and their three tweens. Her work has appeared in TWINS Magazine, storySouth, The Rumpus, 7X20, and the anthology 140 And Counting. She has workshopped her fiction with Antonya Nelson, Charles D'Ambrosio, and Margaret Atwood. She is the 2012 Joyce Horton Johnson Fiction Award recipient and founder of Talking Shop, an upcoming online literary community. She's shopping a social realism novel and drafting her next- a speculative dystopian literary novel.