A Necessary Evil: Keeping Track of the Writing Stuff

I’d like to eventually write fiction full time.  It means, among other things, that I have to write a lot, but I also have to get my act together with the organization side.  That’s not always been easy.  My typical research session was go to the library, scrawl some stuff on some notes I intended to put in a 3-ring binder, and then the pages wander off on their own.

Most of the methods everyone advocates are way too complicated, way too much work, and way too structured.  They’re also for a one book writer, not someone who has to keep track of multiple projects.  I guess the person with the goal of getting one or a few books published doesn’t have to think as much about being more — I wanted to put efficient here, but that’s a dangerous word that some companies use to pile more work on people.  So a more basic phrase: Able to easily find everything with minimal effort and work.

Because I want to write, not spend my time organizing everything.

I’ve been using Evernote, which is free.  My focus has been on paying attention to the tags.  It’s easy to mess those up.  One of my challenges is that sometimes I’ll come up with a different tag, but one that duplicates others.  Or I forget the tags entirely.

Bridging the Nerd Gap has some excellent tips.  One of the major ones that I have to pay attention to is curating (#24).  It’s very easy to see something interesting, toss it in, and never figure out how I’m supposed to find it again.  And I really have to make sure I do it on a regular basis because it is so easy for chaos to wander in.  Sometimes I use pictures to help me describe things, and I was just going through those.  Some were labeled with the file name or site name, which made no sense.  So I had to clean up titles.

One thing I do for the tags is try to group them, so all like tags are sorted together.  So my research for Hawaii is HI-Plants and Animals; HI-Culture; and so forth.  That way I’m not having to look for however I called it. The stories each have a number assigned to them (e.g., 13s-14), so that number gets assigned to correspondence, writing expenses, etc.  I use an asterisk on a month tag so I can mark when the stories are due.  Much better than writing it in a planner or saving the link somewhere and trying to remember!

It’s still a work in progress though.

Writing Tally

  • Short Story Submission: 1
  • Mystery Novel: 799 words

9 Organizing Tricks to Keep Creatives From Going Insane

Some people say having a messy desk means you’re disorganized.  I was certainly penalized enough by my Army squad leaders for that reason.  So I was shocked when a coworker commented on how organized I was.  I kept looking at my desk and thinking, “But you’ve seen my desk, right?”  It was an eye opening experience that maybe I hadn’t been disorganized all these years — just different.

But the perception remains that messiness = disorganized.A man seated at a desk with scattered papers on it and papers organized on the floor.

While I like the floor filing system in the picture, it looks like faked messiness and had a search word of “slacker.”  Messy does not mean slacking — no matter what left-brainers think.  If I get really messy, it’s because I’m in work mode.  Yet, most organizing tips I’ve found focus on cleaning up the messiness instead of letting creatives work with it.  So here is some fun ideas to try out:

  1. Play with the toys.  Maybe it’s Post Its, or magnetic pads, or stickers, but we find the toys fun.  My favorite is pens.  My niece was wide-eyed with wonder when she saw my drawer filled pens.  All different colors to play with.
  2. Taming the toys.  The reverse of playing with the toys is to not let them distract you from writing, or create chaos.  They should only add to “clutter” — not be a major source of the clutter.
  3. Keep it simple.  The more complex the system is, the more likely you won’t use it.  We shouldn’t have to think too hard about it.  After all, we’re creating!
  4. Put materials in the same location.  Creatives like patterns, and the same location is a pattern that will make it easy to find it again.
  5. Discipline yourself to do things.  Frankly, there are organizational challenges where there won’t be good answers.  Some things you’re will have to just do — but pick your battles.  It’s planners for me.
  6. Color code.  If you’re visually inclined, color coding will make it easy to grab a notebook or file folder for a current project or chapter.  Who needs pesky file labels anyway?
  7. Repurpose for functionality.  Take items and use them for something different.  Poster board could be turned into a Post-It corral.  The possibilities are endless, though it will probably give the left-brainers the heebie jeebies.
  8. Ignore the naysayers.  Our messiness gets a lot of flack.  Sometimes that’s hard and discouraging, and even humiliating.  One time, a sergeant promptly rearranged a cabinet drawer after I’d finished with it, implying I’d done it wrong.
  9. Make it fun!  Honestly, if organization can be such a chore to do, then making it fun will make it easier to do.  You can also make it do double duty and be inspiring, too.

I didn’t explain how to use these, because that’s part of the fun of being creative — discovering what works for us.

For you:  I’m sure I missed some ideas.  What did I leave off?  Any horror stories about dealing with left-brained people and organizing?  Post your comments below.

Vote for my flash fiction story The Librarian at the Writer Unboxed’s 7 Sizzling Sundays of Flash Fiction!  My story Sand Dollar Wishes took honorable mention.

Right Brain Organizing: Using Color

Being right-brained can make it difficult to organize a book — or for that matter, anything — because the process just doesn’t work the same way.  But one of the best tips I’ve run across is simple: Color code.  Right-brainers tend to be more visual, so color is ideal for instant recognition.  Instead of having to remember where I put something, I just go to the color.

My first introduction to this was when I ran across File Solutions from The Container Store.   I’ve gotten very picky about organizing solutions because so many of them have been a waste of money.  But this system was four color-coded categories on pre-printed labels.  I didn’t have to think about where I was putting papers because there were labels for it.  When I brought it home, I decided I’d just get the folders ready for the first colored section.  I ended up doing everything in one day, and it was amazing having places to put things where I could actually find them.  I’ve had the system for 4-5 years now, and when I need something I just look for the color.  Better still, I don’t lose things as often any more.

So for stories, color can also be a useful tool.  When I start a project, I assign it in a color in my head.  Miasma is Irwin Allen Yellow.  Masks (or whatever it’s going to end up being called) is Navy Blue.   Some general guidelines for using it:

  • One project = one color.  Keep it simple.  It’s easy to remember that a project is green.  It’s not so easy if there are three other colors involved.
  • Pick colors you like. They have to excite you and make you want to refer to it.  That’s part of the fun of using colors.
  • If you’re working on more than one project, make sure the colors contrast so they don’t get mixed up.  Even if the two spiral notebooks are diverse shades of blue, it’s very easy to grab the wrong one.
  • Pick colors you can easily find.  If you need to pick up a spiral notebook and then later file folders, you want to be able to find the same color again.
  • Always listen to yourself.  I really like patterns, so I tried getting spiral notebooks in patterns.  While I liked the patterns, it actually made it harder for me to instantly recognize the notebook in a pile of other stuff.

I’ve used this for composition notebooks, file folders, and even in Scrivener for Windows (you can color code the cards and turn it on for the icons).   A lot of this is going to be trial and error, but when color is involved, it’ll be a lot of fun!

Writing with Visual Aids

A nice post from the Kill Zone on Visual Writing tools.   Nancy Cohen says:

Many of us use visual tools when we write: collages about the main character or setting, plotting diagrams, charts, timelines, and photos.

I use the following:


I use this primarily for research notes, but also to track submissions.  I stay to keywords as much as possible, which was a hard thing to do at first.  I also try to draw pictures (not very well, I’m afraid) to represent subjects.  The different branches are color-coded.


Not the way Nancy describes it though.  During the revision, I use either a Gantt-style timeline or a climbing timeline to work out the order of my scenes.  It gives me an immediate, overall impression of the entire story.  The exception is the Desert Storm novel I also have in the works.  Because it’s based on historical events, I had to do one before I did anything else.  The story will have to fit in with those events.


I’m finding a map helps me to make sure I know where everything is.  It can also identify key plot points or motivations.  I did a map for Miasma by taking an outline of Rhonde Island and using PowerPoint’s free form tool to trace it.  Then I just altered some of the points (I did not spend that much time on it!) to adjust the shape.  Then a dot to mark the various places.  My maps generally need to be simple, so I can focus on what I need and not on all the other elements on it.


These have been apparently turning up in schools — wish I’d had them when I was in school.  They represent the information visually to help with recall.  I’ve been experimenting with them to help develop conflict and represent setting.

What do you use?

I had 664 words on Miasma last night.

Writing Strategies if You’re Not Good with Details

This week’s lesson addresses details, and it’s made me think of what kind of strategies might help in dealing with them.   Most of the advice assumes you’re reasonably good at dealing with them and are just forgotting what you said.  I remember one that said you should note things like if your character drank tea at 8:00 every morning.

For the purpose of this, I’m just dealing with the small details of the story.   To right-brained people who are good at seeing the big picture, there are other things that may be details to them but not the rest of the world.  But the small things can start interfering with the other details.

There are two types of small details:

Specific Details. You’re replacing one word with another.  So instead of saying the generic “dog,” you write the more specific “Golden Retriever.”

Added Details.  This is when you add the detail.  So instead of not mentioning the character’s eyes at all, you write “Her eyes were blue chips.”

When writing the first draft:

1.  Do let Specific Details come in naturally as you write.  However, don’t stop to do research to find a specific detail.  I’ve caught myself stopping to look up the name of a tree while I was creating.  Instead, see Item 3.

2. Omit the Added Details.  If you deal better with the big picture, it’s very hard to tell when you’ve done too much until after you do way too much.  It’s best not to let them get in there in the first place.  Otherwise, the Added Details will become a distraction during the revision.

3. If you have a place where you think you might need to add details or need to do research, put in a marker like [RESEARCH].  That’ll give you a chance during the revision to survey the entire story and see if anything should be added.

During the revision:

4. Read the whole novel first so you can get the big picture.  That way, you can judge the [RESEARCH] markers to see if they fit into the big picture of the story.  What may have looked like an important detail in that scene of the story may turn into something you don’t need at all.  And look how much time you just saved because you didn’t stop each time to look it up!

5.  Focus on any Added Details that you might need to insert.  Here, think in terms of what’s unusual, so you don’t end up adding color this or striped that just to get a description in.  Think about the reason for putting that detail in, like it might be highlighting something that’s going to be important in a later scene.

But how do you keep track of the details?  Obviously, it’s important because some details do get included in the story, and we want to make sure the story doesn’t suddenly have a character who goes from short to tall.  This is one I’ve had to think about because the traditional methods often play to the same weak areas that not being detail-oriented fall into.  We often get things like “make a list,” and that can be a challenge.  Mind you, the method below is for personal use, so you’re working with a strength instead of fighting a weakness.  If an agent or editor asks for a list, follow their guidelines.

Try color coding.  Think of a category, such as character descriptions.  We’ll assign it to green.  So you can either have a green sheet of paper or write it in green ink.  Doesn’t matter what order it’s in, only that’s green.  So instead of having to remember where you put the detail (a problem with lists), all you need to remember is that character description is green.  It also means that if you want to do a quick fact check, you just look for green rather than trying to search through a 20-page list.  You can put them any order you want, draw a box around important ones that you might repeat, draw pictures–whatever helps you associate anything with that detail.

What other methods of working with details have you come up with?

A Look at Scrivener for Windows

One of the problems I’ve always had in writing a novel that eventually the number of pages starts to be overwhelming.  Yet, if I break it up into smaller pieces, like individual files, I suddenly have a lot of moving parts that are easy to lose. Schivener for Windows is a new release in beta to help writers like me with workflow and organization.


I like to create the story in small chunks and hop around. I might work on several at once. Scrivener displays the individual files of a project in a sidebar called a binder so I can just click on the next one I want to work with.  Very easy to hop, and at the same time, I have the big picture of the story.  In Word, I’d have multiple documents open. Invariably, I’d accidently close one that I needed.   This limitation also made it difficult for me to see the whole picture.

Each story chunk also has several pads assigned to it. One is for notes. It’s better than writing down notes on Post-Its scattered around or typing them in the story itself. Another is for linking research to each section. My research is often compartmentalized–I might do research that affects only one chapter and not the entire book. In a previous story, I tagged passages with comments noting the research source.  In another, I was keeping it in different files and notebooks–things got lost very easily. But in Scrivener, I just link to it on the pad, and it’s always there.


Not everything is intuitive. Some of the features are not in logical places. For example, I had to turn off the spell checker. It wasn’t obvious that it was even possible, and I had to click around to find it (it’s under Edit>Tools). There also isn’t any way to run a spellcheck, though that may be a feature that comes later.

Spellcheck doesn’t work right. It flags parts of several words as being misspelled. The search and replace is very hard to see and doesn’t give cues saying anything has happened. Some people have been complaining about the lack of double-spacing–even that’s been hard for me because I’m so used to it. In this case, I’m ignoring it because it may be a benefit in the long-run. I’m trying not to focus on length in my rewrite, so single spacing takes away all the cues.

For screenshots and to download the software, visit the Literature and Latte site.

Disclaimer: The company didn’t give me anything for this review. I just did it because it fit into my topics this week!

Manage Character Names

When I wrote short stories, I used to laboriously go through baby name books for just the “right” name.  I’d search the entire alphabet for that gender, writing down names I liked until I had a list of about seven.  Then I’d go down the list and start crossing off names until I had the one I wanted.  But with the realties of writing a novel with a large cast, that method went quickly by the wayside.  It’d take too long!  And some of the characters just weren’t that important to spend that amount of time.  But coming up with so many names had its own minuses, and I had to learn how to manage all of them:

1. Keep a list of the names.  Especially during the first draft, I have a hard time remembering some of the names, or remembering how to spell some of them.  But I don’t work well with complex systems like character worksheets, notebooks, etc.  So I keep a very simple list–a spreadsheet with columns for last name, first name, and role.  The spreadsheet does double duty with another tab for place names and everything is color coded.

Why not just put all the names in one column instead of dividing them up by last name?  Splitting up the names allows me to sort the names different ways and makes it easier to catch similar names.

2. The main character doesn’t share. I always end up with some characters in the same letter family–it’s unavoidable with a cast of 30, given there are only 26 letters in the alphabet.  So I have a basic guideline that none of the characters will be in the same letter family as the main character.

3. Minor characters share. Since they don’t have a major role, minor characters can share the same letter family.  Though I try not to have them interact–and I stay away from anything that sounds alike, no matter the letter family.  Barry and Jerry–nope, one of them has got to change.

4. Never get too attached. I try not to get too attached to any of the names, except the main characters.  It’s likely I’ll discover I goofed in the naming and have to change it. Right now I’m having to change 99 percent of the names to create a consistent naming scheme.

One thing I don’t agree with is to avoid names ending in S, as Anne Marble on Writing World notes:

This tip sounds trivial, but it can save you a lot of trouble later. If you give a character a name that ends in the letter S, you will have an awkward time of it when you write the possessive form of that name.

I’ve spent my whole life dealing with a last name that ends in S, so this just isn’t that big of a deal.  Besides, it would eliminate a lot of perfectly good names!

What are some of your tips to managing character names?