JWAM reader request no. 26: Bringing it altogether

Kim says:

How do you organize all the jumbles of idea generating, plot generating, character generating, and so on, in order to see what you have, so you can then take it and put it all together somehow? In my example, I have a 100 page document focused on one story (one novel) only. It has snippets of scenes, plot ideas, potential background for characters, what ifs and opposing what ifs, outlines and ideas for character’s backgrounds, and so on and so forth. Again, it’s specifically focused on one novel and one story idea, but it also includes multiple options for that novel and story idea etc. I’m finding that I can’t move forward with structuring this story without knowing what I even have, i.e. being able to SEE it so that I can make CHOICES about all of the above. I have never quite seen this problem addressed anywhere. I’ve seen info. on generating plot and characters, generating ideas, how to outline, how to write a synopsis etc., but no one tells you what to do with the disorganized mess you create when you’ve done all of the above. How do YOU do it? And have you heard of genius ways others have done it? How do you take your idea-generating mess and turn it into something cohesive to work from?

Eep. Wow, what a question. I suspect I’m not the right person to answer this because I don’t write this way and never have. If there are any writers who do, please speak up in the comments. I would love to hear different takes on this question and I’m sure Kim would too.

With that in mind, Kim, and taking everything that follows with a truckload of salt, my first thought was Scrivener, which is a software package for writers that allows you to bring all your novel materials together so you can see them all and get on with your writing. Here’s my post on Scrivener and why I find it so useful.1

WARNING: Scrivener is only for Macs, but there is similar software for PCs. (If you go here and scroll down you’ll find a list of such software.)

You’re drowning in too much stuff, what this software will allow you to do is immediately separate out your background material from the actual matter of your novel. I would put everything that isn’t actual scenes into research or some other folder. You need to get all your meta-material cleared away from your actual book. You especially need to clear away anything that isn’t directly related to the book your writing.

The important thing is that you find some way to get an overview of your novel so that you’re able to see the forest and not get lost looking at the trees, or worse, the bark and the leaves, or, worse still, the veins of the leaves, and the insects living under the bark, and the parasites dwelling in those insectes and, well, you get the idea. You need a global view too!

I used to advocate the use of a spreadsheet. But no longer use it because of Scrivener.

Sherwood Smith, who is a wonderful writer and very thoughtful and smart about it also has a response to your question over on her blog. Several of her readers have chimed in.

I hope some other writers will chime in here with helpful suggestions.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. Note for Mitch Wagner: I will write more about how Scrivener changed my writing, but as it’s so tied up with how I wrote the liar novel, I thought I’d save it for closer to that book’s release date. []


  1. Maria Lima on #

    Putting in my .02 on Scrivener – it’s a godsend! I wrote my last 2 books on it.

    I keep tons of reference files, snippets, notes, etc. SO easy to keep track of in Scrivener.

    Justine, I’ve been enjoying the posts!

  2. London on #

    Hmm… What about printing it all out and putting it in a tabbed three-ring binder? (A very big one.) Yasmine Galenorn wrote a great post about this method on either her blog or on Fangs, Fur, & Fey, although for the life of me I can’t find it now. :/ You can divide up the document in your binder, by scene/snippets, character, plot, world, etc.

    We lawyer types often make “trial notebooks” which include loads of evidence on different aspects of the case, print-outs of the law and precedent, our own notes, our ideas for speeches, and so on, all tabbed and whatnot, much like that. I have been meaning to create a trial notebook for my novel as well, because I am much like you, Kim, in this respect. Although I’m not even smart enough to put it all in the same word document. I have zillions of different .docs and handwritten scraps of paper and doodles and other such things, usually mixed in with my homework or my old bills… sigh.

    Anyway, just a thought. 🙂

  3. Stephanie Leary on #

    Another plug for Scrivener! I adore it. Each project you create starts out with Draft and Research folders, and you can create more (I like outlines and notes). Only the stuff in Draft gets included in word counts and exports. Scrivener autosaves AND keeps copies of your revisions. It’s so stinking great I know at least two people who’ve switched to Macs just to use it.

    Steven Johnson wrote up a great how-to with Devonthink on BoingBoing last week.

  4. Mitch Wagner on #

    *patiently awaiting write-up on Scrivener*

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