Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Map of the World

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.


  1. I typically write the first draft without much of an outline, and like you, make sure I storm through to the end before thinking of going back and revising. Then I tend to write a sort of contents page/synopsis - a list of chapters, with a few lines detailing the major plot/character points in each. That way, I can see the basic shape of the story, all in one page (or two).

  2. I think I should try your way. I keep rereading and I can't finish. I like the idea of just writing and writing and not looking back until the end.

  3. I'm not far enough ahead in my first draft to have the problem of keeping track - but my favorite writing software is Scrivener (mac only). It sort of supports non-linear writing and also allows you to have multiple folders for each chapter/portion/act. Then when you click that particular folder- you can see all the files at a glance (with a synopsis for each)..I usually have a different file for each scene- since my writing is pretty non linear at the moment..
    [I have even used this software for drafting academic paper/dissertation proposals etc- and it works pretty well]

    'Story Lines' (another software) also allows you see multiple storylines at a glance- You can see a picture of how that might look here:
    I haven't used this tool much but it seems pretty useful for plotting and keeping track of a story arc (especially ones with multiple story lines)


  4. I can't do anything organized when it comes to writing. Things come to me in all sorts of ways, completely out of order, "Oh this should *so* go there", then "Oh my gosh that will go perfect six chapters later..." and so on. So I'm all over the place. If I don't read what I've done, I'm lost. It sure would be easier to do it the way you described, and would save me a whole lot of time. But that's not the way my brain works, sadly.

  5. Most of the time I compile a scene outline, and I edit / adjust it as I go through the first draft. The scene outline is a simple numbered list with ~10 words describing the main plot points, and which character's POV it is shown from (if applicable).

    I try to use the KISS method (keep it simple stupid). That's for the outline, not necessarily for the story.

  6. I'm a non-visual person so I usually use a sketchy chapter outline. I have in the past had some success with a stick figure storyboard drawn on a dry erase surface, however.

  7. Not being able to hold the entire book in my head is one of the most frustrating things about writing a novel. After writing a few early drafts, I outline, usually making charts with series of boxes that hold all the significant scenes or changes. The boxes kind of wrap around the page and branch off depending on how different storylines connect. Once I tried note cards and big poster boards. That was also really helpful, but I've never tried it a second time.

  8. My outline process changes all the time. For the last novel I wrote, I had a list of chapter titles, split into three acts. It was pretty much all I needed and I didn't add much to that outline in the way of notes. For the current WIP, I have hundreds of loose papers, notecards, emails to myself and bits and bobs of stuff, all unorganized and all scattered in different places. Every few weeks I have gone through most of it and thrown a lot out as unused or just dumb ideas.

  9. I do the same thing - I edit a little of the last scene just to get back into the story, but no reading back after something's drafted until the end. A NaNo habit holdover for me.

    I use yWriter - which is what I draft all my stories in too. It was created by a writer for writers, and all writing is done in scenes, which are organized into chapters. Makes it easy to drag and drop scenes into different chapters when necessary. It's free too, which is very cool. :-)

    The nice thing though is that there's a place to keep track of whatever you need. Character traits, locations, even static items. So as I'm writing (my outlines are very loose lists of scenes), when I decide on hair or eye color, I quickly jump into the character's tab and fill out that attribute. Or if I mention an item that *must* be important later, I put that in the "items" tab. So when I get farther out in the story, I merely have to click into those tabs from whatever scene I'm working on, and get the info without having to dig through the ms to find it.

    Very handy - I actually get lost if I try to draft with just a blank word processing page now. LOL

  10. You mean like this?


    I've charted my book by a bunch of different measures. Check out that post to see them.

  11. Andrew: Those charts all appeal to my inner geek. But what do you use while you're working on the first draft?

  12. I just outline using story structure etc.
    Hero's Journey, 3 Act, 5 Act, whatever.
    I found those "writing programs" limiting and it seemed they wanted to shoehorn me into some kind of structure of their design.
    So what I do is just use wordcount targets. By 20K I need the first turning point, by 60K I need to be headed towards the climax etc, so I don't write endless scenes that will have to be cut later.
    I'm going to have some posts up about it in the next couple weeks as I head into NaNoWriMo.

  13. Andrew: Yeah, that's pretty much what I do from a big-picture point of view. I don't have wordcount targets so much as I have % of MS, which is maybe the same thing. I keep a running tally of chapter lengths and total wordcount, and I've noticed that the longest two chapters are always at the end of the 1st and 2nd acts (or 1st and 4th acts in my current WIP). Which is interesting. But then I make lots of other lists and charts, and I find myself making a list of each chapter's needs as I begin them, a sort of "to do" list for the chapter. All of it's provisional and since I do all of it on paper, it gets messy pretty quickly.

    I also feel boxed in by writing software, so I just avoid it entirely. I tried eStory or something a few years ago and it just didn't work for me; it was very paint-by-numbers, I thought.

  14. i wish i had something romantic, ala faulkner posting stuff on the walls. nor do i have something technologically advanced or remotely cool. i just have a crude outline as i go along to remind me of my progress.

    to be honest, every time i try sketching out the arc of a plot, it inhibits my imagination. so my rule is i know where i'm going--the eventual end--just i have no idea how i'm going to get there.

    of course, i get lost quite a bit along the way.

  15. Over the past few years writing has become something entirely different for me. My husband took a script analysis class at school - 2 classes worth, and those classes have literally changed the way he acts and the way I write. (It's the ice cream cone thing...)

    This strategy is really impossible to explain online without seeing face-to-face and having a real discussion. I think I tried to show you and Davin once, but it probably came off as just confusing and unimpressive.

    In a nutshell, I don't use that whole strategy as I'm writing a first draft, but all the theory behind it helps me write the first draft - the way stories are structured and unfold, etc.

    I also am the type to go back and reread everything over and over and over. I can't write any other way. I think if I didn't go back and reread I'd have about 20 different novels in one novel. I have a terrible memory. Reading back through what I've written is the only way to get it all in my head. It may be inefficient, but it works for me right now. I've also discovered that my stories are less about WHAT happens and more about character roles than anything else.

  16. I have the same sort of problem. Except that I have written about twenty thousand words of a hundred thousand word manuscript.

    The thing is a beast bourn out of my inability to control my ambition and lunace. I have at least two story lines going at any time that I have to keep driving forward while trying to remember all the loose ends I left for later exploration. I have to keep my characters' voices destinct to prevent the reader's confusion. The list of things I have to do goes on and on.

    I also never read what I have written while I am writing. But when I am not, I am free to do so, as long as I have nothing at hand to correct what I have written. Permissible reasons for me to go back and read include writer's blocks, getting stuck because I forgot part of a story and know it and getting stuck because my mind won't release an idea of what takes place in the distant future.

    I have tried visual aids to prevent my re-reads and... they don't work. There's just too much going on. My mind keeps much better track of the story if I see it as a reader would.

    So I'm afraid that this is my best suggestion: Reread your book as if you didn't write it, but read knowing that the book is still raw and will get refined later. Right now all you're looking for are story details.

    I do, however make lists of character names along with their role in the story and how they look. And I record all place names, their locations and brief descriptions. Those I find to be the most important, since it will be very awkward to find that I wrote half the story with the wrong character name, or with the character or place suddenly looking different. ..

  17. I don't do anything so fancy as mirosoft project, but in my current WIP, I used a graphical plot point representation, that show roughly where each plot point started and the resolution of that point. Gosh, that's hard to explain, but think of a number line with gloried curved lines (one end indicating the beginning of the point and the other end indicating the end of the plot point.)

  18. I have a three leaf binder, with blank pages in it. I take a bunch of multi-colored post-it notes. Each PoV character has a color. Each page represents a chapter. I jot down a one line summary of the scene on each note, and put on the page of the chapter where it appears, in order of appearance.

    I tend to alternate my PoVs. So I when I flip through the pages in the binder, I can see I have three Dindi scenes in chapter one, five Kavio scenes in chapter two, etc. In the Dindi book, I interweave three main plotlines, with six major characters, so it's very important for me to keep track.

    I like your idea of not re-reading the beginning, but I'm not sure I could do it. I re-read the previous day's scene to get me back into the groove for today's scene.

  19. I try not to reread while completing a first draft, but I tend to write in chunks from all over the story. So some days I'll be working on the beginning, some days on the end, and some days getting bogged in the middle... I like your image of being surrounded by fog and shadows :-)

  20. Crimey: I make graphs sort of like that, too. An arrow pointing from left to right is the story progressing from beginning to end, and above and below it are lines that arc from one point in the story to another. I can see how they all overlap and interconnect. I also sometimes draw vertical lines through the main arrow to show big plot points and sections of the narrative. I didn't do that with the book I'm working on now, though I have something like it in mind for all of my stories.


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