Besides writing, there are lots of other things involved with writing…
OK. So you have the world’s greatest idea for a story. Now what do you do?
Most people start writing. That gives you a base to work with. Then you fill in the details. But how do you keep track of the details?
All stories consist of the same basic components:
I’ll be getting into these components in detail later – each will have its own chapter. But to understand why you need to keep track of the details, I’m going to have to give you simple examples of the problems that can hit you, if you don’t keep track of the details.
So you set your story in New York City, and there’s a chase up the stairs of the C. N. Tower. Problem is the C. N. Tower is in Toronto. Unless you are borrowing the blue police box from Doctor Who, or a transporter from Star Trek, your characters are going to have a long drive ahead of them.
Yes, this is a silly example. But I’ve seen things like this happen in lots of books. Take part 2 of Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers. With the way Tolkien described the chase of the orcs into Rohan, I had the impression that the party was heading away from Mordor.
A look at the map cleared up the confusion. Are you including a map with your book?
For that matter, are you writing the book with a map beside you? Terry Pratchett told a friend of his that Ankh-Morpork wasn’t mappable. His friend set out to prove Terry wrong, and did. Maybe Terry had the city mapped subconsciously. Even he doesn’t know.
So you need to keep a record of your setting. This is fairly simple if you are writing in a contemporary setting, can use Google Maps, and know the culture. It gets far more difficult if you are writing in a different era (Historical), or are writing Fantasy, or Science Fiction.
I’m working on a Fantasy trilogy set in a vaguely Roman setting. For that, I have a map of classical Rome, and a map of the country which I drew myself. I also have a ton of notes on the culture, like the fact that women leave one breast bare, and which one is bare tells you something about the woman in question. It also tells you something about the protagonist… No, I won’t tell you what 🙂
Technology also has a huge impact on setting. For this I strongly recommend finding Larry Niven’s The Theory and Practice of Teleportation (included in the short story collection All the Myriad Ways), where Larry discusses the impact of low cost Teleportation (equivalent to the Star Trek transporter system) on a society.
For something that happened really recently in our own society, consider the impact of the iPod, and Apple’s iTunes Store. The two combined have nearly killed the Compact Disc as a music distribution system, and have killed the record store.
You need to have notes on all of this, because if you don’t, you just might write in something which doesn’t make any sense. Like a secretary. No one uses a secretary to type up letters anymore. Oh, secretaries still exist. But the job has changed wildly, due to technology.
So you need notes on your setting.
For now we’ll ignore the entire Plotter vs Pantser argument, and just consider the basics. If you wrote in Chapter One that the volcano exploded, and in Chapter Three your characters are climbing an unexploded volcano, you’ve got a problem. Your readers will notice, and you are going to get lots of nasty emails asking you if you’ve lost your mind.
The above may sound a bit exaggerated, but in Philip Jose Farmer’s book The Lavalite World, the author got two characters mixed up. This got by his beta readers, the editors at Ace, and into the printed book. How do I know it was a mix up? Because in one chapter, three characters are running, and they meet up with a couple of other characters. The viewpoint switches to the other characters in the next chapter, and at the end of that chapter, they meet the three characters from the chapter before. That’s what was supposed to happen, but one of the characters is different…
This sort of thing tends to happen a lot in movies and television. There are entire websites devoted to finding screw ups, like the episode in M.A.S.H. where one of the nurses was reading JAWS by Peter Benchley, a book published twenty years after the Korean War ended.
So, yes, you really need to keep track of your plot. Yes, I know it’s all in the manuscript, but you can’t go back through three hundred pages every time you need to look up something. All major plot points should be kept track of separately.
Well, I’ve already mentioned the issue with Phil Farmer’s The Lavalite World above. That’s a rather noticeable problem. What if your character went to Harvard Law School, and dropped out in their senior year? Then they run into a legal problem, and act like they know nothing about Law?
This sort of thing happens. A lot. One writer I know was fighting with a manuscript, when all of a sudden he realized that he was trying to write two characters as one. He went back through, split the characters, and now the story worked.
Or how about the story Judith Merril used to tell about a novel she was co-writing. They were having problems with it, and discussing what to do, when she and her co-writer realized that they had one character whose only reason for existence was to be talked to, and then repeat what they’d heard to another character. So they wrote him out, and the problems they had with the story disappeared.
Yes, you need to keep track of characters.
A lot of people think that Conflict and Plot are the same thing. They aren’t. Conflict is what drives the characters, plot is what they do.
Take Frodo in Lord of the Rings. He’s stuck with the One Ring. Only he can take it to Mount Doom. It horrifies him and terrifies him, but he can’t throw it away. The Conflict between what Frodo wants to do (live peacefully in The Shire), and what he has to do because he holds the Ring, drives the entire book.
Conflict does partly depend on character. If Boromir had been the Ring Bearer, the story would have worked our far differently.
Again, you need to have notes on the various conflict drivers.
Again, using Lord of the Rings, it’s Good against Evil. Simple, right? Not so. It’s also peace against war, and the endless living elves against change caused by the short lived other races.
Most books have two or more themes. There’s the major, driving theme, and the smaller themes, some of which may only affect single characters.
Let’s take Harry Potter. Each of the four houses of Hogwarts has it’s own theme. Many people think of Slytherin as bad/evil, but it isn’t. In fact Harry, would have done well in Slytherin house, which values ambition, cunning, leadership, and resourcefulness. Harry scored really highly on all those traits, didn’t he?
You may not know what the themes your book will cover, when you start to write. But when you do know, you need to make note of them, and their implications for your characters, plot, and your setting (you just might change the world, like Frodo did in Lord of the Rings).
How do you keep track of things like this?
However works for you. Note the image of the quill pen and ink bottle? The old ways (cork board, pins, and index cards) still work fine.
Myself, I prefer using software. In the previous section we covered Specialist Writing Software, and some of those packages have built in note and tracking capabilities. However the integrated packages tend to be somewhat limited in what they can do.
Another option is to use a Wiki, like what runs Wikipedia. If you understand Wiki markup language, this can be really useful – if you can get the WikiMedia software installed on your computer. Note that I said if.
There are a variety of other Wiki software packages available, including Personal Wiki software. Another option is Mind Mapping software. Another option is to use the search function in your Word Processor, and keep everything in one huge document.
Storyboarding is another option. Last but not least, there’s the good old spreadsheet. It is amazing how you can bend, staple, and mutilate a spreadsheet, and it will still keep your data where you can find it.
What I’ve been doing, is keeping all of my notes for the Fantasy Trilogy in a Pages document. It isn’t the best option, but since the first book is nearly done, and I don’t feel like wasting an entire day to move it into something better, that’s where it’s staying.
So I’ve got two documents, one the novel, and the second my notes. My notes include all of my research, which includes lists of Time Team episodes, books, links, character information, cultural information, how magic works, how religion works, what technologies are in use…
Yes, it’s as long as the novel. But it works!
One last point. We’ve discussed a wide range of software packages. What I didn’t cover, is the problems you can have when switching from one to another.
My Father-in-Law bought a new computer. It came with Lotus Smart Suite, an integrated package much like OpenOffice, LibreOffice, or Microsoft Office. He wrote some documents using it, and then decided he liked Word Perfect better.
After Dad died, I ended up with his computer, which wasn’t working all that well. I managed to transfer all his documents off it, which included over 6,000 of Mom’s poems. My Mother-in-Law is the Poet Laureate of Cobalt Ontario. I had a bunch of documents I couldn’t open, because they were written using Lotus SmartSuite, and it uses a non-standard file format.
Yes, I got them back, but it cost me two days worth of messing around.
If you switch software packages, go back to your old software, and make sure that you’ve exported everything into one of the standard formats. If you aren’t sure what formats to use, ask. There are writer’s groups on Facebook and LinkedIn where you can find help.
Monday May 19, 2014