August 27th, 2011 by Ken Scholes
Organizing Your Writing:  Three Author Pals Share Their Approaches (with Guest Bloggers Jay Lake and J.A. Pitts), Part 1

Howdy folks!  Happy Saturday!

I’ve been recovering from Worldcon and co-hosting the Hugo awards ceremony — tons of fun!  And I’ve also been thinking about my upcoming posts here on Writing Characters that Feel Real…I’m not sure yet if it’ll be a two-parter or a three-parter.

Meanwhile, a great question came in last week and I thought I’d open it up a bit and get you not only my thoughts but also those of my two best pals, J.A. Pitts and Jay Lake.  We’ll look at the question, get an under-the-hood view of Lake and Pitt’s organization process this week, then a look at mine next week with some follow-up thoughts.

So…first, the question, from John:

Hello, I’m curently delving into the world of writing. I happened by Genreality and love what I read there. However, one subject I’ve never really seen was about how you guys stay organized when you write. From drafting, plotting and even revisions… do you keep everything –

I was hoping you might be able to shed a little light on that. Either via email or on the blog….. do you use a writing program?  Such as Liquid Story Binder, or just simply Microsoft Works? How do you keep up with notes and plotting?  Just curious, I like to keep everything neatly organized and I’m torn about which direction to proceed. I hope to hear from you on this.

Great question, John.  First up, let’s get Jay Lake’s take on this.  Jay’s written two trilogies, hundreds of short stories and a handful of other books in addition to his kajillion words of blogging.

What say you, Mr. Lake?

I don’t use a special software tool or anything, though people do keep
recommending Scrivener to me. I’ve been using Microsoft Word since the late 1980s, and have never overcome my inertia to branch out to
another solution.

For short fiction, the story lives entirely inside my head. Characters, plot, setting, continuity, the whole ball of wax flows from backbrain to fingertips and then back to eyeballs in a particularly inefficient circuit that seems to produce story. I simply write by following the headlights and seeing where the story goes. I am often surprised by the ending, and sometimes don’t understand them until years after the story has been published.

This idea of holding an entire piece of fiction in my head is called
“span of control”. I’ve blogged about it before, for example. When I first
began writing at a professional level, my span of control was a few
thousand words. That progressed with time and practice, until I can
now hold about 200,000 words of story in my head. That’s a first draft
of a substantial novel.

When I am working on novels, even with span of control in play I have
to use an outline. My outlines are synoptic rather than structural,
simply telling the story in a very condensed fashion in reading order.
Prior to my current project (Sunspin), my novel outlines
ranged from five paragraphs to about 15 or 20 pages. I would write
them, refer back to them as I was drafting, and use them as maps to
the story. Still, it flows from my backbrain to my fingertips, et

I’ve had to significantly modify my process for <em>Sunspin</em>,
however. That’s a space opera trilogy that will probably run about
600,000 words in first draft. This significantly exceeds even my
substantial span of control. The outline for <em>Sunspin</em> is about
140 pages long, and continues to grow as I work on the book and find I
need to add things. That’s about 100 pages of worldbuilding, character
lists and whatnot, and about 40 pages of synoptic outline of the three
volumes. (You’ll note that my ratio of synoptic pages to finished
prose hasn’t changed much, it’s the need for all the supporting
material that bloats the Sunspin outline.)

In order to handle all this, and keep a phenomenal number of balls
moving in the air, I’ve decomposed the outline into the three volumes
of 180,000-200,000 words each in target length, and each volume into
three sections of 60,000-70,000 words each in target length. Each
section then decomposes into a subsection of 18,000-25,000 words in
target length. In effect, I’ve taken the three-act structure and
driven it down fractally three layers.

That allows me to tackle the project in novella-sized chunks of
18,000-25,000 words, manage each chunk within my span of control, and use my outline to coordinate continuity issues and larger plot and
character arc consideration.

Even so, I’m never really working from the kind of structural outline
or detailed notes that many writers use. My <em>Sunspin</em> process is an adaptation of the same basic organic writing process I use for short fiction, scaled up to the massive requirements of the project.

I hope this helps!

Good stuff, sir!  Thanks for weighing in.  Next up, J.A. Pitts, who’s written three novels in his Sarah Beauhall series and a gaggle of short stories.  What say you, Mr. Pitts?

My process has evolved over time.  The first novel I wrote I just ran by the seat of my pants.  Honestly it read like it — meandering far and wide.  Only when I got to my second draft did I realize how far and how wide.

With novel two I decided to outline.  This has proven to be the best thing for me.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t do the type of outlining they taught us in elementary school.  None of that 1, a), i, A. stuff.  I open a Microsoft Word document, insert a two column table and put an auto-number in the first column.  I shrink that column over narrow enough to only show the number, then I start adding words to the right-hand column.

I’ve done this for three novels now and I find it comforting.  I start filling in the table with sentences and paragraphs describing scenes in the novel.  I move stuff around, add in new rows, color code text, etc. until I have what I consider to be the full story of the novel.

This is by no means finished and definitely not locked in stone.  I let this sit for a few days and come back to it, read through and make adjustments as the storyline merits.

Remember, this is a narrative thread.  Every scene should flow organically from the previous one.  Every scene should further the plot, lead the characters into rising or falling action, improve their lot, or ruin it.  I should have hooks for setting and characterization in every single scene.  If not, I add all this and tweak the outline until I feel like it tells a coherent story.

At this point it still lacks the heart of things — the full prose.  It’s more like a skeleton of a novel.  Sometimes I get so excited by a scene I’ll write several paragraphs, even down to dialog on occasion.  But it is all, 100%, open to change.

The next part comes from my background in both database design and finance (day job stuff).

I take an Excel spreadsheet and run a row of numbers across the top for each scene.  Then I list the major and minor plot lines down the first few rows.  Next I go a couple of lines down, and start listing every single character (grouped by association) in the next set of rows.  I’ll have Movie people, and Blacksmithing folk — bad guys of various factions, and other support cast.

Finally, I go through the outline and add an “X” in every intersection of scene number and plot line, so I can see if I’m touching one or more threads in every scene.

Then I drop to the characters and check status.  If the character has the POV for that scene, they get a “P” and I color code that cell blue.  Everyone else gets an “X” in the intersection of their row, and the scene number if they are present, or an “m” if they are only mentioned.

This allows me to see the ebb and flow of characters that run through my book.  Handy for learning that your antagonist vanishes for seven straight chapters, or that super cool side-kick doesn’t show up until scene thirty-eight.

As I write my novel, I never have muddle in the middle.  At least not yet.  What I know is all I have to do is finish the scene I’m on and I can look at my outline to see what to do next.  It’s a road-map.

Three novels in it provides me with enough structure to keep moving, and enough leeway to make course corrections.

So there are two approaches, John.  I’ll jump in next week with my own (an interesting blend of these guys) and talk a bit more on how to find the best approach that works for you.

Until then, Trailer Boy out!

Three Author Pals

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8 comments to “Organizing Your Writing: Three Author Pals Share Their Approaches (with Guest Bloggers Jay Lake and J.A. Pitts), Part 1”

  1. John Young
     · August 27th, 2011 at 3:28 pm · Link

    Its amazing how diversified everyone’s approach is and I thank you for sharing this. I look forward to the next part! 😀

  2. Allison Knight
     · August 27th, 2011 at 6:48 pm · Link

    Glad to hear, L.A.Pitts, you outline. I’ve found with a series to go to a spread sheet to keep all the characters in mind and in which book the first appear. I do have the characters appearing in each of the other books so appearance and attitude, speech patterns, etc. become important. I didn’t think about combining the outline with the spreadsheet. Thanks. I’ll give that a try with the next book in the series.

  3. Rebecca Stefoff
     · August 28th, 2011 at 12:57 pm · Link

    Thanks for sharing this information about how you organize your fiction, Jay and J.A. (and thanks to Ken for arranging it). Interesting and useful.

  4. Bruce Talmas
     · August 29th, 2011 at 11:19 am · Link

    Very interesting topic! Thanks for sharing. The first novel I tried to write incubated for ten years, so by the time I sat down to do it I found that the whole thing was so internalized that it all fell in my “span of control.”

    Newer ideas, not so much. I start fumbling plot and character elements at about 30,000 words. I’ve since started a basic outline for all my stories. It’s not as much fun (a bit more classical than jazz improv), but it gets the job done.

    Looking forward to hearing your method, Ken.

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