Thursday, February 11, 2010


By the time I started this blog I was well into the process of the novel, though not the actual writing. And while it was intended to follow my activities I seem to be continuously drawn into the past, to describe elements and background information and how they found a place in this particular project. I’m not quite ready to leave that yet. But by way of update, let me just say that over these months of blogging I have made good progress. I am currently working on Chapter 12 of Current Events, with several other scenes and partial chapters written but not yet slotted into place.

Back in the summer I had two first chapters - pick one. Both were written as submissions for grants. When the first application was unsuccessful, I considered the comments – and I do mean that seriously. I consider every comment seriously. Well, nearly. We’ll get into that at another time. And, rather than rewrite it for the next round, I wrote and submitted something new for the next application. The second submission was successful, not only financially. It got me motivated; it wanted to be continued. So I shelved the first attempt and tentatively continued with the second first chapter to see where it would take me. As it turns out, that was a good decision.

At the time of writing each of these, I thought I was writing Chapter 1. The first Chapter 1 as it turns out – and as is usually the case – was really back story. It’s a common mistake for a writer – often picked up by an editor or a workshop buddy – someone who can be subjective. It was about Carole and Joel, how they met, how their relationship began to fall apart when Carole was torn between supporting her gay brother or her religious husband. There was quite a lot of background about the Jehovah’s Witnesses included, because I had decided some time ago that Joel would be one. I didn’t realize until several chapters in that it may well remain as back story. We’ll see.

When the second first chapter was in the mail along with the grant application, I went through the project file again. I had already organized my notes according to character and situation. At this point I opened four new computer files, Character, Outline, Notes and Timeline and began entering the handwritten notes in the relevant files as follows:
    Character: This is a bullet-format list of all characters, including the most incidental characters, even those mentioned only once. Each of the main cast includes a list of personality traits, relationships, lines of dialogue she might say, her thoughts about a certain subject, ideas for scenes that can show some aspect of her character, and also my own thoughts on the development of the character - in other words, anything at all relating to the character, whether or not it relates to the plot. If there is a single entry here that takes more than a small paragraph, I move it to a file of its own, or the Notes file.

    Notes: This file contains sections of dialogue or narrative that can be copied directly into the work or developed into a scene on its own; larger paragraphs about the characters when it is likely to be worked into the novel; and notes, thoughts, ideas, anything else relevant to anything about the project. Sometimes I include sections here that have been removed from a chapter or scene that I expect to include elsewhere. I sometimes keep a separate notes file on any subject or relationship if the amount of notes in the regular notes file warrants it. As I begin the editing process, I also keep one on any bits deleted if there’s even a remote possibility of using it elsewhere – even in another project.

    Outline: This is not a planning outline. I write this after the fact, basically to keep a brief synopsis of what I have written so far – chapter by chapter, scene by scene. I make note here of key turns of the plot, important revelations of character, etc. This method allows me to quickly identify where a scene might be needed, e.g., for continuity or to provide needed information at a critical point. I record it in the appropriate place in the outline as Scene Needed, and use a different coloured text to make it stand out. You’d think the author would remember everything about what she is writing. Not so. Working to 300 pages plus, I lose track very easily – not so much of the plot, but the sequence of telling. For example, I might have a choice of revealing something in sequence in the narrative or letting a character remember it or tell someone else later in the novel. Cut-and-pasting, which I do a lot, is both a blessing and a curse. It’s so effortless I do it without thinking and sometimes I’m not sure whether I’ve already included a scene in the main text, or in a separate scene file, or if I’ve duplicated it somewhere. By keeping an ongoing outline of the work, I only have to check it and not read through a half-dozen files where it might or might not be.

    Timeline: I keep track of absolutely everything relating to dates – births, deaths, marriages, graduation, plants in bloom. (No kidding. I just finished reading an Iris Murdoch novel where she had lilacs and roses blooming at the same time. Things can't be that different in England.) Also historical references, if it’s relevant to the story. In the Dairy Novel, for example, I had to know whether the reference to the debate in the House of Commons on conscription during WWII was timely to something in the novel. I have two sections in the Timeline file: one for back story, which generally increments by years. The other, for the actual plot, is in more detail, month by month, or week by week, or even day by day, depending on the time frame of the novel. For example, it is very helpful to keep an ongoing calculation of the ages of the main characters (from their dates of birth), so I know at a glance how old everyone is at any given time. This timeline does not follow the sequence of the plot page by page. A character in 1998 might be remembering something that happened in 1980, but in the timeline everything will appear chronologically regardless of the order in which it appears in the narrative.

I use a spreadsheet format for the timeline, and my usual word processing software for the others. I prefer WordPerfect. It has certain features that others don’t have – or maybe they do, but I certainly can’t find them. Yes, I do know there is software for writers to keep track of projects. I haven’t checked for some time, but when I did look into it, they weren’t worth the expense, and most seemed more trouble than they were worth. I will look into it at some point. But I’m used to what I’ve got. Old cat, new tricks. Don’t correct me; I know the adage. But a female dog is a bitch, whereas a female cat is a queen. Which would you rather be?