Building a Novel Demands Organization

If you’re at work on a novel or have worked at writing one, you have probably realized it can be an organizational nightmare.

Once you come up with a good idea for a novel that you think will work as a plot, organization enters the picture. Or at least it should.

Once you have developed your fiction-writing skills, preparing to write a  novel can be, roughly say, 50% invention, and 50% organization of what you come up with.

There’s always a lot to keep track of.  After all you’re building a whole world, even if you draw heavily from the world you know and do not invent an entirely new one on a different planet. And it’s a lot of work.

It’s sort of like writing a doctoral thesis, mountains of research you need to fit into just the right places–only worse. You need specialized writing craft for fiction.

But since it is a lot of work, I like to keep that work to a minimum.  I don’t skimp on editing and rewrites, but I like to cut down on work I make for myself.   Like being able to find ideas and pieces of research, bits of dialogue or character details when I need them. Like not forgetting to include plants and to followup with those plants later on.

4 Basic Strategies

So I work at 4 basic strategies: (1) a cross-referenced filing system; (2) a beat sheet; (3) a timeline; and (4) character work sheets.

1.  A filing system for filing and locating all that information.

It’s very frustrating to me when I’m in the zone, and the writing is going well,  to have to stop to find a piece of information or a note on setting, for example, when I need it. Especially when it takes a half hour or hour to find it, if I find it at all.

So when I get the initial idea for a story, I create a file folder in my word-processor and start indexing it right away.  Each new idea gets a number and a category.  Is it a bit of dialogue that occurred to me? A detail on the setting? A plot twist or surprise?  Each gets a label, a key word, which I use over and over again so that I can collect similar items when I want to.

And I cross-reference every idea I can, using the helpful functions of my word processor to the limits of my skills.

Of course this is a good way to go about writing anything, except perhaps for really short pieces. Such efforts can also help with putting together short stories,  magazine articles, blog posts.

I find, too, that recording and filing my notes often helps me generate new ideas.

2.  I start to build a “Beat Sheet” as early as I can.

A beat sheet, for any of you that may be unfamiliar with the term, is a chronological list of the scenes in the story (it can be a list of chapters, but most fiction writers find the scene the best segment to list).

This list is handy for linking your notes to.  It is also helpful when you need to have a quick look at what is happening at each point in your story.  Hence novelists often keep the description of the scene brief, like a sentence or two to describe each.

And of course, such a list of scenes can be an essential help in developing that all important structure of your story.

3.  Avoid embarrassing mistakes with a timeline.

Even when you have one basic plot line and events unfold in a neat, chronological series, you can easily make mistakes about what happens when.

With subplots, and most novels have a least one, probably more. those story lines  will connect up with the action of the main plot line.  It gets more complicated to keep the timing straight.

To do this, you can create a timeline.  Either an independent file, say in a spreadsheet or your word processors, or just include it via small notes in your beat sheet.

4.  Keep your characters straight with character sheets.

If you have a sizable number of characters in your novel, it can be challenging to keep their traits and aspects straight.  This can be particularly true with minor characters, often much less developed and less in the spotlight than your major story-people.

I keep two lists.  One contains brief notes on each character–eye color, hair color, basic physical descriptions, major/minor traits.  These serve as reminders when needed.

I have additional sheets for each important character that go into more detail, for example backstory, weaknesses and strengths, and the all important character arcs for each–the range of growth seen in the character throughout the story.

Coordination is Key.

Done well, these organizational efforts make for productive writing. You have the information you need handy as you write because  you have put in the effort to coordinate it all. It  can also help you avoid some major re-write tasks.

You can keep track to what you need to remember at each stage, or scene, you are writing.  What was it about the setting, that detail, that can contribute to the mood of the story at this p0int?  What was the color of the minor characters eyes?  It’s the halfway point in the novel, so where is my protagonist in her character arc now?  Do I need to foreshadow the major crisis here?

 There’s more  you can do.

Like planning each scene like you would a short story.  On that, see my previous posts–this one: and this one:

Try these strategies and draw from them to add to your own system for compiling, recorfding all your ideas and research and keeping it findable. It can make that long road to a publishable novel a shorter one.

Additional resources:

 First Draft in 30 Days by Karen Wiesner

Character & Viewpoint, The Elements of Fiction Writing, by Orson Scott Card

How to Write a Damn Good Mystery by James N. Frey (Chapter 9)





2 thoughts on “Building a Novel Demands Organization

  1. Amy Deardon

    Bill, this is such helpful advice! Another thing I want to remember is to make sure I’m telling a STORY and not a PREMISE. The story has a goal, stakes, and obstacles, whereas the premise is only a cool idea for a character or plot twist. The Beat Sheet should be able to help you determine if you’re writing a story, since if you’re not, you quickly run out of ideas. Thank you for your thoughts with this 🙂

    1. admin Post author

      Thanks Amy,
      Your comments always mean a lot to me. And I’m so glad you found my advice helpful. You know these aspects of writing are so valid to us, but it is rewarding when others seem their value too.
      By the way, I have read your novel A lever Long Enough–it was a delight to read. Powerful suspense and a compelling story. Such vital information too. You went after the heart of what needs to be said and understood. There exists such potentially convincing evidence of the truth of Christianity and the Bible. I pray for the day when our scientist friends, those who see faith as a problem, will be more open. Which reminds me. Your story is indeed science fiction, under-girded with solid science and technology, including the intriguing theoretical aspects. This made it even more enjoyable to read.


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