My father had a lot of 5-year plans, one of which was to build a rock garden in the front yard by the driveway, an area that was occupied by—well, a rock. He went out on weekends for an hour or two at time with a screw driver, a giant spoon and a children’s sand sifter and chiseled away at that rock, excavating small piles of dirt and sifting it to remove pieces that prevented anything from growing. I have to admit, after five years, he did have a little garden growing there, but shit, aren’t there better ways to spend your time—and still get a garden?
Recently I have discovered (to my utter consternation) that I am apparently a chip off the old rock sifter. After spending nearly five years collecting pieces of a novel, I then wrote the first complete draft in four months, the second in another three months and submitted it to agents. It got me representation, but the book still needed work—a lot of work.
So here I am, six months later, chiseling away at this stupid rock of a book with a tiny little screw driver. Actually, I’m using a fairly new Mac Airbook and Microsoft Word, but it feels like I’m pouring a thousand pounds of dirt through a plastic sieve, one spoonful at a time.
I have been using Word ever since I switched from an IBM Selectric in the early 90s (no comments needed)–and it has served me well. In the beginning of this process, it was easy: just open a new Word doc and start typing—anything at all. It was all draft stuff anyway, so it didn’t matter. Over the last five years of writing this novel, I collected nearly forty documents with file names like, ‘the girls,‘ and ‘the cat.’ Unfortunately, I don’t recall what these subtitles mean anymore. I end up opening the files to read them again–and I don’t get much writing done.
So, this was my process (see below). If you are writing anything longer than a few pages, or you write a lot of different things and you are still doing it this way, you can easily see that it’s time to make a change!
When I assembled the first draft last year, I did chapter files and kept a tracking sheet. Then I put the chapter files together into a single draft document and did the first revision, naming them “master document” and “Master2”.
To prepare for agent submissions, I had to create sample files of the first 100 pages, the first 5 pages, the first 2 chapters and the first 3 chapters, all of which went in a sample folder. Along the way, every time I read something, I changed it, basically corrupting the integrity of the other files.
Next I did submission letters and created a submission tracker in Excel. It’s very handy, but let’s face it, I’m spending a ton of time as my own secretary, instead of writing.
And that’s just the beginning.
Then I began a major revision for submission to publishers. First, I divided the book into four parts to make it more manageable. The problem was, it wasn’t manageable. I keep forgetting what happened in previous chapters and when it happened, I was losing track of plot points, and felt a need sketch plot diagrams on napkins like an imprisoned lunatic. I have lots of napkins, but none of them really make sense.
And then, about two-thirds of the way through the book, I got stuck. I had a huge time loop that wrapped around itself like a pretzel in a novel that did not involve time travel. I was ready to revert to 19th century thinking–handwriting the plot points of the WHOLE BOOK on note cards. Even in my deranged state, I could see this was a 3-month project that might not even get me back on track.
I knew it was time for something drastic–yes, a change in my perfected writing rituals. If you write at all, you know we are a superstitious lot. Many writers insist on writing only on a typewriter. Many will use a word processor (like Word), creating their own archaic system of tracking versions, changes, submissions, notes, ideas, and mental breakdowns. Many of us still hand-write our first drafts on yellow legal pads, because the writing flows more naturally that way. Many of us are idiots. (Not you, of course, the other idiot).
I am here to say, I have been reborn, and it is a wonderful thing. I will not enslave my brain anymore to trying to figure out how to create a sequenced outline from a mess I started years ago (my next book has some notes that go back even further). This is the twenty-first century! People monitor their heart rates on little wristbands and play games with the people sitting next to them via satellite. We must certainly have developed some kind of organizational software for the throngs of us ambitious enough to attempt our version of Harry Potter or Carrie. (Neither Rowling nor King used special software for these books, and they may not now, but if they read this post, they too will be converted). We do. Some very clever people have already thought it through and come up with some very inexpensive ways to save your brain for your story.
So I did a little research on novel writing and plotting software and here’s what I’ve learned:
1) Most programs are cheaper than you would think (ranging from $19.95 – $100.00 US)
2) They offer many of the tools I have been developing inadequately on my own, including character notes files, plotting devices and timelines, submission trackers, and revision tools to help you keep the various versions organized.
3) There are important differences among them, and you may want to use more than one
4) Many of them don’t come in Mac versions
5) The time it has taken me to research the software and write this post is a mere drop in the sand sifter compared to the days and weeks I have been wasting on documenting and managing the plot twists and character development through the many rewrites.
BTW – I can spend my time reviewing software for you, but others have already done it better:
Thanks to one of these programs, I did finish the submission draft, which goes out this week. As soon as the new revision of the book–still called Of Yin and Yang–goes out, I’ll share what it took (a lot) to train my brain to adapt to this new process, which I’m already enthralled by.
…But that’s a story for another day.
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