Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Marg Gilks
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Brigette rises on a cloudy fall morning and, holding her long blonde tresses away from her face, she leans over to slip her feet into slippers. The floor is cold, hinting at frost and cold weather just around the corner...Twenty pages later, on that same fall day,
Bridget has plaited her long dark hair and donned a sun dress; she's enjoying the warmth of sunlight on her bare shoulders as she cuts fresh daffodils in her garden...
Okay, I've exaggerated. But this does illustrate how easily you can forget details you may have introduced weeks or months prior, when working on a long writing project.
Tired of leafing through 200-odd manuscript pages, or trying to remember the chapter in which I first mentioned a detail in order to do a computer search, or -- worse! -- tired of rummaging through scraps of paper in search of a certain scribbled note, I finally adapted a system used by editors to make it easy to keep track of details during the months-long process of writing a novel.
Style Sheets and Index Cards
Copyeditors keep "style sheets" when working on a project. A style sheet consists of several sheets of paper, each marked off into about eight squares. Each square is labeled with a letter of the alphabet, and other squares bear labels such as "Dates & Numbers", "Abbreviations & Acronyms" and "Miscellaneous Notes." When an editor notices an unusual detail or makes a decision concerning some aspect of the manuscript's style, a note is made in the appropriate box on the style sheet. Thus, the chosen spelling of "Brigette" would be noted in the "B" box; a notation that numbers from one to one hundred should be spelled out is made in the "Dates & Numbers" box. The style sheet is passed from copyeditor to typesetter to proofreader, each making their notations, so that they or others can quickly find out what decisions of style have already been made and implemented.
I needed a similar system, only one capable of tracking even more comprehensive details. The system also had to be portable and convenient enough to use that I would actually use it (attempts to keep track using a computer file and a binder had both proved too awkward), no matter where I chose to work.
This is the system I developed:
First, some background. I am in the habit of leaving the pages I've written in one day to be read over just prior to my commencement of work the next day. This serves three purposes. It breaks the ongoing chore of self-editing down into manageable chunks, it serves as a refresher and launching point for my new day of writing, and it's when I track details.
So, when I read over what I've written, I have a box of 5" X 8" index cards beside me. These cards are divided into categories separated by tabbed index cards bearing such titles as "Places", "Things", "Main Characters" and "Bit Players." Within each category are individual cards, made up as needed, that bear titles such as "System of Government", "Money", "George Benson (Protag.)" and so on. On each card I've written any preliminary details I've decided upon prior to starting the novel ("George is overweight and has short brown hair") as well as any details I create or discover while writing the story. For instance, I discover while rereading that George, by his actions, is left-handed. Out comes George's card, and on it I write "G is left-handed (see ch.10, pg. 210)."
By doing this, I have a record of every relevant detail that I may need to know later on. Later on, rather than searching through scraps of paper or rifling through manuscript pages, I simply pull out the appropriate card.
I start a new box of index cards for every novel I write. Since I often create detailed timelines, expansive settings and employ large casts of characters, I've developed other tricks to keep track of details. All are either transcribed onto index cards or sheets of paper are folded and placed in the appropriate section in the file box. If it's something I've done entirely on computer, I copy the file to disk, label it, and place it in its appropriate place in the file box, too.
What else gets tucked into my file box?
For a battle scene in a novel, I had to determine hour-by-hour what events transpired. I spent an entire day creating a detailed timeline for that one scene. When I had it all figured out, I took the time to transcribe my results and calculations neatly onto a piece of paper, which I folded and tucked behind the card labeled "Calysta" in my file box. Calysta was the place in my novel where the battle took place. This simple bit of forethought prevented hours of desperate attempts at recollection a year later, when I rewrote the novel.
This can apply to chronologies, as well. You mention the birthdate of one character in chapter three, the current year in chapter six, the date of an important event in chapter two and a historical event in chapter twenty. Take note of these dates, and then take the time to list them all in chronological order, with brief descriptions, in a computer file (which can be easily altered in order to add or shift dates). Timelines and chronologies can prevent "two places at once" errors, or catch discrepancies between a character's stated age and the passage of time.
You've drawn one or more thumbnail maps while sorting out events or building a world for your novel's setting. Make a neat labeled copy and stick it in your file box under "Places."
When revising, if I decide to cut a scene, I don't simply delete it. I've been known to change my mind later, and retyping is a drag. If I cut a segment or a scene, I dump it into a computer file called "[Novel name] Spares." If I decide to use the scene or segment in the present novel -- or in another project altogether -- I simply do a search on a remembered key word, and then cut and paste the segment from "Spares" into its new home.
Whether you outline prior to writing your book or while creating your synopsis, keep a copy of your outline in your file box. As you've discovered, it's easy to forget details over time. That outline can help pull all the individual cards in your file box into context, if you decide to rewrite or dust off and market that novel a few years later.
Keep all your details at your fingertips in a card file box, and you'll soon consider it your treasure box.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Marg Gilks' short stories, poetry, and articles have been appearing in newspapers, newsletters, magazines, and e-zines since 1977. She considers writing fiction, especially sf/f, the ultimate form of escapism -- in what other field can you create your own universe? Contact her with feedback and queries through Scripta Word Services, her freelance editing business: http://www.scripta-word-services.com/.