Tuesday, May 19, 2009

5 Ways to Stay Organized While Writing a Novel

Some lessons I'm learning along the writing path:

1. Create a Master Plan Document: This is a living, breathing, evolving document. It contains a Daily Writing Log, plus my plot outline, key pivot points, and a brief summary of each chapter.

2. Keep a Daily Writing Log: For the sake of simplicity, I put it at the top of the Master Plan. The log documents each writing session by date and time. Nothing elaborate here, just a few quick notes of what I hope to accomplish and how my thinking/writing is evolving. It's a narrative history of how the book is being created. I can easily find my place because in all caps and in big, bold, bright red lettering I put the words, THIS IS WHERE I AM NOW. I just scroll down until I see red (so to speak) and then add the next entry.

3. Keep Track of Changes: As the story unfolds, the chapters in my Master Plan change, but rather than obliterating the old, I merely add the new information along with the date I made the change. By doing this, I'm creating and preserving the history of how the story evolved.

4. Create a New Folder for Each Draft: "Fast Track," my first novel, had 14 Draft Folders. My new book, "Bluff," to be released later this year, contains 8 Draft Folders. For my current novel - still untitled - I'm only on Draft #1.

5. Give Each Chapter a Name: Each Draft Folder contains the individual chapters - a separate file for each chapter. Numbering them keeps them in their proper order (1.1, 2.1 etc. For the second draft, the numbering sequence is 1.2, 2.2 etc.) But just as important as numbering, is giving your chapters titles. I don't mean a title that will ever see the light of day in your book - it's merely a memory prod so you know at a glance what's contained in the chapter. This way, you don't have to keep opening files later to find what you're looking for. (NOTE: Chapter numbers and titles may change from draft to draft because you'll probably be making lots of alterations, including reordering the sequence of things and breaking big chapters into several smaller ones.)

Final Thoughts:

I find that it's more efficient to write the novel straight through rather than continuing to loop back to make each sentence perfect. Why? Because it gives me a sense of accomplishment -- a realization that I can actually do it. It's purely psychological, the thinking being, "if I've already 'finished' the book, then the rest of my time is spent merely tweaking it."

Knowing up front that the first draft will suck takes the pressure off. The first draft serves mainly as exploration. As I write my third novel, I'm discovering that while my Master Outline has given me the story's scaffolding - the big picture - by writing individual chapters I'm, in effect, zooming in for a close-up in which new, and often unexpected, characters sashay on stage.

Some of the chapters consist almost entirely of dialogue - almost no tags, no action, no description. That will come in subsequent drafts. For now, I'm just writing as fast as I can what I see in my head.

My way of staying organized is certainly NOT the only way, so I think we'd all benefit to hear what works (and doesn't work) for you.



Monday, May 18, 2009

Writing for the Ear; Writing for the Eye

Recently, I spoke to the Colorado Independent Publishers Association (CIPA) in Denver. They bombarded me with great questions about the creative process, but one question stands out: What are the differences and similarities between writing for television and writing a novel?

As many of you know, my day job is a copy editor on CNN's "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer." And I've been a broadcast journalist for 40 years. (I hear those wisecracks about old age. Stop it!!) About 15 years ago, I added fiction to my writing repertoire. (I hear you media-basher cynics and your snarky remarks about fiction and journalism. You stop it, too!!)

Anyway..... the woman's question got me thinking that there are really more similarities than differences between writing for the ear (broadcast copy) and writing for the eye (print).

Broadcast copy has to be simple and lean because the listener only gets one chance to hear and understand. Unless you have TiVo, you can't tap on the TV screen and tell the anchor, "What did you say? I missed what you said. Could you repeat it, please?" The copy has to be clearly understandable the first time.

Print copy, obviously, can contain more nuance, details, and complexity. But the more I think about it, I see that a lot of my fiction writing closely parallels the broadcast style. For example, I'm writing the first draft of my third novel now. I'm finding that for most scenes, I write the dialogue first -- no action, no description, just two people talking -- a staccato, back-and-forth hot potato of word play. It's just like writing broadcast copy for an anchor because the anchor's copy is meant to be conversational, the way real people talk to each other.

It's only after I lay down my dialogue bed that I loop back and add action, description, and narrative. Yet even then, I apply the same principles that I've used over the years in broadcasting: keep it simple and keep it tight.

Some literary authors are great at writing lush, emotive descriptions. I wish I could do that, but I know my limitations. And I think I know that many readers these days don't want to get bogged down by convoluted sentences.

So.....perhaps novel writing isn't as different from broadcast writing as one might think. Your thoughts?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Plan a Little; Write a Little

Writing a novel is a little like journaling. At least it is for me because my novels are written in the first person -- and so are my journal entries.

For the past few weeks, I've been plotting book three in my Lark Chadwick mystery-suspense series. I know what I want to happen at all the main pivot points and I know how it will end; I've given a lot of thought to the sequence of events and the characters; I've met the killer, the red herrings, and the love interest(s).

But there's so much about the story I still don't know. Again, it's just like journaling: I have desires and plans for the future, but life can only be lived one day at a time.

Yesterday, I couldn't wait any longer for all the details of the novel to take shape in my mind -- I felt compelled to begin the first draft. I've written two chapters so far. To be honest, they suck. But that's okay. I can loop back and touch things up later. Right now, I NEED to get something concrete written down.

The interesting thing I've discovered is that the act of writing helped crystallize my thinking -- just like when I tackle a vexing problem in my journal. The idea for how to end each chapter came to my conscious mind mere seconds before I wrote it, just as the answer to a vexing problem in life sometimes comes to me during the act of writing down the details.

Perhaps this happens because when we merely ruminate on things, our minds flit willy-nilly, but the act of writing takes all those amorphous thoughts and laser-focuses them to the tip of the ballpoint as it glides across the paper or the tips of our fingers as they tap (or, in my case, pound) the keyboard keys. Writing forces the mind to slow down and zoom in for a close-up. Writing allows thoughts that had been lurking just below the surface of our consciousness to materialize.

So, maybe writing is like living: Plan a little; write a little -- plan a little; LIVE a little. Maybe. We shall see.

Your thoughts?