Thursday, August 6, 2015

Organizing Chaos.

Some authors don't go out and make tons of notes and plans for their books. The NaNoWriMo community lovingly calls them 'pantsers' ie writing by the seat of your pants. Then there are writers like myself who are referred to as 'plotters'. We make outlines and notes of all the details of what we want our book to look like. Some of us only do a rough outline. Others are meticulous and almost look like their final work is a matter of rearranging notes into the correct tense and doing a little window dressing.

I've written works as a 'pantser' and it was an interesting experience. Honestly, I can't say I hated the process but it was very frustrating. I'm still editing that work and finding 'bugs' in it. Two months of writing, in this case, has equaled approximately two years in editing, thus far. Like I said, it was frustrating and the effects still are somewhat frustrating. It was a thrill on the days that work flowed freely from my fingertips to the keyboard. I can understand the allure of that form of "no net, high wire" writing. When it is good, it is a high like nothing else. The bad days, however, were horrific for me because I literally found myself staring at the screen with nothing to write for an hour (which was the longest I could endure it, to be honest). I'm not going to do that to myself again.

I am happiest as a 'plotter' because my work before I write the first draft helps me to get a picture of where I want the story to go, get a feel for the settings, and flesh out characters before I start to play around with them. I previously used notebooks for my plotting. My first attempt at plotting a novel was writing an outline, just as if I was writing an academic paper. I was in high school. It felt like the right thing to do. I still have that outline and the manuscript that went with it. It was all of 6 pages in 12 point Courier New font. I looked at my end product and decided that my outline was too bare.

That was when I grabbed my first notebook and started writing backstory. Today, almost 20 years later, I still go back to that notebook and use details from it in what I'm writing now. My story has evolved considerably. I have a stack of notebooks that is approximately a full foot worth of paper that I used to develop the world I'm writing in. Characters that were created in those notebooks are featured in my work today. Some of the things that I thought were side tangents at the time have turned into core parts of the mythos of the world of Evandar. And things that I thought were fixed and never change have turned into secondary or tertiary elements of the major story arc behind the series, if not dropped to the side all together.

I've a new way to approach character development from those bare bones outlines of years passed. I have written up character profiles that read like miniature dossiers that describe everything from physical appearance to major life events and motivations. I am now using a note card system that condenses these profiles to a few lines. On a 3x5 index card, I note the following:

Given name/nickname the character is referenced to most. Apparent age and actual age. Gender. Their full name and aliases. Their likes, dislikes, and interests. The one to three word summary of their strengths and weaknesses. A quote that is their most frequent or defining statement. And their nemesis with the reason why.

I have also moved to using 3x5 cards to work up rough descriptions of settings and props. The 3x5 card thing is new, but the concept of giving a concise description of the relevant details is one that I had been doing for years. It was less organized, however, and finding my notes was not easy or pleasant. With the note card system, however, I can just flip through a few cards in a given section of my box and pick out what I need. It makes it possible to use characters in a consistent fashion through out the work by way of referencing the major details of who they are off my cards.

It also makes keeping my settings organized a lot easier. I can group geographic features together and organize them by region. It helps me to make sure that I describe the same place the same way each time it is encountered in the story. Sure, there will be minor variations to the descriptions because there will always be new little things to notice about a place when you go there. It happens in the real world all the time. Weather changes, plants grow and die, and buildings are erected or torn down on a regular (and surprisingly rapid) basis in our world. It makes very little sense not to reflect that in the setting of your story within a realistic fashion.

My prop cards are an idea that I stole from a LARP I participated in years ago. They had prop cards for player characters, because we didn't carry around things like mock high explosives, mock weapons, or 5 lb boxes of $100 bills. (It was a fun LARP that got a bit crazy at times. Some of that craziness... ok, a fairly large chunk of it was of my making. Mischief is my middle name, after all.)  I thought the prop card was a pretty genius thing. As I looked at it and thought about it, I realized that I could take that concise description of the item, what it does, and how it works and use it in my writing efforts. Now, whenever I need a prop that is exotic or special, I can just check my list and see if I have something suited for the purpose. And if I don't, I create one and a card for it. Then, every time that prop shows up, it has a consistent set of rules for how it works so that we don't have strange things happening at a spooky distance for no apparent reason. (Because sometimes strange things happen at a spooky distance for plot related reasons that are revealed eventually, so you can't completely cut that out.)

I have just started a new set of cards. They are my ritual cards and my conflict/consequences cards. The ritual cards help me keep track of magic stuff in my fantasy setting. My conflict/consequences cards serve to jumpstart ideas for how to have characters interact with each other, themselves, and the environment. While I could just pants the conflict things, I like having rules to work within and for my conflicts to possess some minimum measure of logic. It has always annoyed me when I encounter a conflict that fails to serve any purpose in a story, be it for the over all plot of the story or character development. Because I suspect that my readers would be upset with the same things for the same reasons, I developed this set of cards to prevent that from happening.

Amusingly, with all of this effort to organize my ideas, my workspace is chaos. I have piles of notebooks at hand on the desk and on the small table at my side. I have my box of note cards and some random sticky notes on the notebooks. Loose papers that relate to various projects (and stuff from my kids) are mixed with things like the stubs from bills I paid last week. And, then there is my stack of four tarot decks and two rune sets that hang out on the corner of my desk. Sometimes, when I am really stuck on something, I will do a little divination. Nine times out of ten, it works to get me out of the creative blocks I find myself in. And all this is how my desk looks right now.

For different projects, different notebooks come out and, when I need them, reference books will be out as well. (Yes, I am that author who will make sure that their 12th Century CE character has the correct language and clothes. I will have the stack of history and language books at my side to ensure it.) There is a lot of chaos in my creative workspace. (We won't talk about my fiber arts stuff except to only to say that there is a whole room dedicated to it and walking through there is challenging at times.) But through my notebooks, notes, and cards, I have a thread of order that ties everything together. It may only be in my mind, but it is there.

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