Five tools for novel continuity

Here is a blog I recently did as a guest post, but updated. It is also the subject of a chat I did with Savvy Authors last month.

Read on if you’re having trouble keeping your novel on track; if you experience continuity lapses; and if you’re wondering how to keep track of revisions in a 300-400 page manuscript. (And for those of you who tuned in to my chat, at the end of this post are some new tips that I didn’t have time for in the chat.)

I admit it, I write complicated books. This is a summary of how I keep from going crazy with all the details, and how I remember, in technical terms, what the hell is going on with my story.

Project notebook

Before I write even a page, I work in a large notebook to discover and develop my story. I muse on concepts, characters, armature (theme) and milieu. I take a stab at a trial plot chart with a three act structure.

I like a physical notebook because, unlike using a computer keyboard/screen, I don’t feel strange doing nothing but thinking. I like the archeological benefit too: without a delete function I can–even months later–review how my planning evolved. Sometimes I go back to those early ideas. When I’m writing the novel, I use this notebook to storyboard the next scenes. (Tip: always date your entries. It will show you how long it took to write your novel, something you think you will never forget, but you will. After 5-10 novels, you will forget it all, trust me.)

If the scene is particularly difficult, I list the “beats” of the scene, casting on possible action segments. This is a magic technique that can get you through the most daunting scenes where a lot has to happen, clues given, character revealed and awesomeness created!

Your project notebook is something that future scholars of your work will fight over. (OK, let’s dream about it, anyway . . .) They will see the very moment when you discovered your true theme. There will be a great big STAR by it. Also several exclamation points!!!

The scene list

At the end of the writing day I briefly summarize what happened in the scenes I completed: clues dropped, foreshadowing, new characters introduced and whether they are second cousins once removed. The scene list is my main method for keeping track of where I am; it also allows me to pencil in the margins–next to the right scenes–notes for changes that become necessary as the story evolves. (No, not a half brother, second cousin once removed!!)

If you are rereading and rereading your last few chapters to get a run-up on your next scene, stop this now. Rereading causes revision blindness later, since you will be too familiar with the material. Read your scene list instead. That tells you exactly what you wrote yesterday and the day before. Every now and then the scene list gets so messy that I edit it and print a fresh version to muck up. To be picky (let’s) – the scene blurb should state POV and page number. thus: p. 73 (POV Titus).

For more on this nifty tool, including how it saves you from what I call revision blindness, see my post The Essential Scene List.

Style sheet

Here is where I record every character name, place, piece of technology, special terms and odd spelling. For my series, this file is quite large. If you don’t begin files like the style sheet and scene list within the first few chapters of your manuscript you will hate yourself. Keep the style sheet file open and faithfully update it as you write. It is an ugly task to go back and create it when you are deep into your novel.

A three ring binder

For especially complicated projects like alternate history or big-milieu fantasy or science fiction:

The binder should have tabs for culture, language (phrases, insults, sayings, oaths), history, religion, technology, flora/fauna, publications/books, politics, dress, military terms, and rules of magic or science research points.

A great big box

Seriously. All the loose leaf things like newspaper articles, notes from conferences, letters from experts, style sheet, project notebook, scene list, plot chart (always 17 inches long, so it doesn’t fit in the notebook), everything that I use everyday goes in the (specially purchased) box. (If you can keep all your planning materials in a manila file folder, you are a minimalist, and I think I envy you.) At the end of workday, I sweep everything into the box. Clean office! When transferring my work station outside, a full cup of coffee goes in as well. Beware: your cat will want to sleep in the box because it is usually near you, has cozy walls and will annoy you.

Is it worth it?

It takes a bit of work to set up these tracking and organizational devices, but oh, the frustration saved! How is the pacing? Is enough happening? (Check out your scene list.) Where have I dropped clues on Meena’s true identity? (Scene list.) Where is Meena from? Islamabad. (Style sheet.) What again is my theme? (Notebook with big STAR by it.) How do you swear in Victorian England? (Three ring binder.) Where is my coffee cup? (Great big box.)

More organizing tips

1. Do not keep all versions of your novels, even as files. I’m as paranoid as the next person, but you really don’t need to keep old versions to prove you wrote the story or because you may need some discarded scenes. Extra versions of your last ten novels will cause problems down the road. And you will never look at them again. Honestly.

2. If I  think a passage has to go but is so good, I cut and paste it into a file called “Cuts.” This is a psychological help for those of us who hate to let go of a good metaphor. (But should.) I don’t think I’ve ever reinserted a cut, but the file gives me permission

3. Use bookmarks. As you write, you may want to keep very close track of clues, a mystery set-up, gradually unveiling of character, salting in the backstory. Use Word’s bookmark function right in your manuscript for this. You find this function in “Insert” in the main menu and “Bookmarks.” Give each book mark a separate name without spaces like: “backstory1,” “backstory2.”

You may also want to use bookmarks to keep track of phrases or paragraphs that need improvement or expanding, but that need to wait for later. Just highlight the phrase, and go to “bookmarks” give it a name, and exit. You can see all your bookmarks at Insert–Bookmarks. Hit “go to” on a selected one, and you’re right there.

As I look over this list of tools and tips, I am reminded that novels are a vocation for people with very deep reserves of patience and a frightening attention to  detail. All good!








9 Responses

  1. WHM says:

    Yes, thank you. This comes at just the right time for me.

    I’m not tackling a novel yet, but I am working on a couple of novelettes and while I have decent outlines (that are, essentially, scene lists) and good first drafts and even notes on what needs to be fixed in the rewrite, I’m finding that the rewriting is going slow because I haven’t updated my scene lists to match what I’ve actually written (rather than what I outlined). And my notes on what to fix are all over the place — what’s missing is a map to the overall structure of the story. Up until now I’ve mainly written 6k or under short stories where I could fit almost everything in my head. Even the small bump up to 10-14k novelettes is enough for me to not be able to do that.

  2. I’ve evolved a system very much like yours, although I don’t do scene lists; for my style of writing, that would dissipate too much of the creative drive behind the story. Occasionally, I will list the next few scenes or scenes in the next few chapters, but I can’t work further ahead than that. If I’ve sold the book on proposal, I’ll paste what I think will be covered in any given chapter at the top … and of course I’m usually off, but it keeps me on track. Until I hare off wildly in another direction.

    I keep two notebooks: a spiral one for doodling and problem solving, and a hardbound for more permanent material. I find that writing out a problem and all the possible solutions is incredibly helpful. The hardbound – one of those lovely artist’s sketchbooks – contains maps, geneaologies, charts, things that I want to find more readily and am likely to need for reference. I don’t like 3 ring binders, so this works better for me. I love the texture of good paper, so there’s a tactile element as well.

    I start a Style Sheet with the first page, and find them essential. My copy editors are overwhelmed with joy when I send them – makes their jobs so much easier. Style sheets include character and place names, with a few tags like eye color, family relationships, what country this place is in, and also lists of made-up or unusual words.

    If it’s a big project like a multi-volume work, I may change things as I go along, so I’ll label the file “Style1,” “Style2” to keep them straight. The temptation of having a Style sheet is that it becomes fixed in stone, but it’s only a bookkeeping tool, at the service of the story and not the other way around.

  3. Kay says:

    William: For me, there is an essential difference between the outline and the scene list. The outline will not end up being accurate, but congrats for doing that planning work. The scene list is a running notation on what is in each scene, as written. The notes for what to improve are penciled into the hard copy, with strike outs for points deleted. It looks messy. But it is your rewrite guide. Once a few weeks have passed, and I’m not changing the scenes Again, I edit the scene list file and reprint it. (Use bookmarks in the ms. for line editing notes, but put big needed changes on the scene list. That document is your major planning tool, IMHO)

    The other “overview” I have–that I didn’t mention–is a chart shown as a rising incline to dramatic climax and fall off for denoument. Across the top I show Act 1, 2, 3. Key scenes are shown in their logical place, summarized as “death of Hugo,” “Crossing the bridge,” etc. I especially like this for a sense of pacing. About how much more material until I reach the big midpoint scene? Is the inciting incident occurring at about the right place? I took this idea from Robert Ray whose “Weekend Novelist” book is an industry classic.

  4. Kay says:

    Just to clarify, though: I suggest using scene lists for what one has already written, not for what you Will write. Then, as you get significant rewrite ideas, you pencil them onto your scene list. This allows you to see your revision ideas at a glance, and also saves you from rereading ms. or using search function to find mentions of important details. you know where the those mentions are–if they are major–because your scene list tells you covered this here, and here and again here (all scenes with page numbers shown.)

  5. WHM says:

    The mistake I have been making is continuing to use the scene-list style outline I start out with as a full on scene list rather than going to the work of making a true scene list while I write. This leaves me with an out-of-sync scene list so that when I go to rewrite I either have to fix it all beforehand (which requires reading through) or ignore it (which means I end up fixing too much sentence-level stuff instead of focusing on the structural issues that should be dealt with first).

    I really like the idea of an overview chart.

  6. […] starting a project, Kara Kenyon recommends 5 tools for continuity sanity; Kara Lennox asks: Is your conflict strong enough?; and if you are a habitual 1st person […]

  7. Maddy says:

    I’ve just come over to check out your website design [Brad] – looks fantastic.

    I really like the idea of a ‘really big box’ and somewhere to deposit those carefully crafted but unnecessary cuts.

  8. Or you could just use Scrivener. It does all that and lets you search for key words through every part of your manuscript. I’m obsessed with it. However, I do drag a slim notebook around everywhere I go for quick notes and scenes on the fly.

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