I have been working on the first draft of a novel for the last couple of months. If I really push, I'm pretty sure I can finish by the end of September. There is really only the final conflict to resolve and some subplots to tie up and a last image to leave in the mind's eye of the reader. I figure maybe 20,000 more words or a bit less even than that. This all means that I have written the bulk of the book, and I have the story down on paper and I can refer back to it whenever I want and that the ending should be pretty straightforward to write. Except that I can't, or I won't.
One of my rules for writing a first draft is that I don't read any of what I've written once it's written. That is to say, I just keep plowing forward through the story and don't stop to go back over what's already on the page if it's earlier in the story than the chapter I'm currently writing. Sometimes I allow myself to go back and look up factual data like a date or a place name or how to spell "Corambis" or whatever, but that's all. The primary purpose behind this self-imposed exile from the written parts of the story is to keep me from endlessly fussing and revising and not finishing the first draft at all because I'm spending all my time revising Chapter One.
Something I've always wanted as a tool for writing has been a sort of way to map out the whole novel, a chart or a map showing the entire story arc and all the plotlines that I can refer back to when necessary. Nabokov used notecards to outline and keep track of his story, and I am experimenting with notecards for the final part of my current novel, but you can't really lay 150 or more notecards out end-to-end and see what's going on in a book. I have been building this big structure by hand and I will never be able to see the whole of it all at once, because of course the only true and accurate map of a novel is the novel itself, and I don't have one of those minds that can hold the whole novel all at the same time. I can only "see" bits of my own novel, which is a baffling and frustrating and fascinating thing. Possibly that's tied to complexity, and if I were writing a more straightforward tale, I'd be able to imagine the whole story simultaneously. I don't know.
So here I am, writing the last 20,000 words of a novel when I don't remember the first 20,000 very well. I feel like I'm a man who has walked along a very long mural and I can only see about five feet of it in either direction and the bulk of it is hidden by fog or in shadows and my memory of it is inexact. Certainly I'll have to do some work in revisions to make sure that the story is consistent all the way through, and there is one scene that I think I'll cut entirely because I never developed that particular subplot so what happens there makes no sense at all.
How do you go about "visualizing" the whole of the story? How abstractly do you think about the main story arc? How do you keep track of where you are? Does anyone have a really cool system for charting the entire story (I am looking for a visual/graphic system where it's all displayed together, sort of like a Microsoft Project(tm) graph or a Venn diagram or a flowchart or something)? How do you keep notes, I guess, is what I'm asking.