Monday, May 14, 2012

How to Stay Organized while Writing Your Novel

It's impossible.

The end. Have a great day, guys!

Okay, no, I do have stuff to say. It' just not what I want to say. I really, really want to pass on to you guys some beautiful spreadsheet or something that will help you track everything your little writer's heart might desire. Characters! Chapter length! Where you dropped those backstory breadcrumbs!

As a girl who likes life organized, whose heart beats fast while perusing The Container Store catalog, it actually bothers me that I cannot serve you all in this way. I love organization! Why am I not a more organized writer???

The answer finally occurred to me as I was writing this last book. It's because I love writing more

Like many of you - whom I know are juggling school, sports, or have to share their computer with siblings - my writing time is crunched. With these precious people in my life:

Yes - this is a shameless excuse to post a cute picture of my kids

and when I factor in marketing, blogging, and networking, the time I actually get to write is precious, sacred, and needs to be guarded. And one of the things I have to guard it from is my drive to be perfect.

This is why the concept of writing a "bad first draft" was one that was so tough for me because I so wanted my story to be perfect. But writing-without-pausing-to-edit (known among writers as "bad first drafts")  helped me become a more productive writer and freed me up to see the "forest" of my story rather than getting so preoccupied with each little "tree."

I've tried a couple times to keep extremely detailed spreadsheets about what goes on in each chapter. They're handy for editors (or so my editors told me when they asked for them) and can be useful for me as well. Then I wouldn't have things happen like minor characters winding up with two different names or three different eye colors.

But you know what happens to me? If I've blocked off 30 minutes to finish up my chapter, I spend my 30 minutes WRITING. I don't want to spend 25 minutes writing and 5 minutes jotting down the date, the weather, what happens, etc. If I have an extra 5 minutes when I'm done with that chapter ... then I want to use it to start on the next chapter.

So I have found for me that the first draft isn't an organized time for me. It's just not. It's kinda like when you have a baby or even a toddler  in the house. It just doesn't make sense to spend time organizing their cute little outfits. Because while you're taking your shower, they're inevitably going to pull all the clothes out of their dresser. With my first draft, I'm still exploring the storyworld. I don't know yet what will be cut or added, so I've given up on organizing it.

I still have spreadsheets (one for characters and one for scenes) and a pinboard for my novel-in-progress but I find I like the old fashion Post-It note just fine. I keep a pad of them by my desk. I use them to write down:
  • Pieces of dialogue for later scenes
  • Stuff to research
  • Plot ideas
  • A question about my storyworld or character (Sometimes I take this with me and stick them on my bathroom mirror. For a long time we had one up there that said Nudity?)
By the end of a first draft, my bulletin board looks like this:

My critique partner, Roseanna M. White, made that "Anomaly" sign for me. So sweet.

This is to provide some perspective of how big the bulletin board is. It's big. And so, so beautiful.

I finished the first draft for this one last week (thanks to those who cheered me on after last Thursday's post!) I keep books and articles I want to read stacked there on the shelf. They and all the notes I jotted during the process wait patiently for me to finish the first draft, and then I turn my attention to them and slowly begin to organize all my extra material.

Now that I'm done with my first draft, I plan on taking some time to check out the ywriter software Rachelle has been raving about and see if we can make an organized-first-draft-writer out of me yet.

How do you stay organized during your first draft? Or do you not?

The Go Teen Writers monthly(ish) newsletter will get sent out this evening, so if you're not yet a subscriber, now's a good time to see what it's all about. This issue has a spotlight on young writer Jenna Blake Morris, a review of Making a Literary Life, and a fun checklist for developing your story idea.

And here are the top 20 (in alpha order) from last round's writing contest. We had 67 entries last time. The winners will likely be announced later this week:

Lindsey Bradford
Kayla Anne CP
Laurie J. Curtis
P.R. Golden
Lydia Hart
Rebekah Hart
Abigail Hassett
Skye Hoffert
Rayna Huffman
Rachel K.
Emii Krivan
Sian Marshall
Jenna Blake Morris
Sarah O.
MacKenzie Pauline
Rachelle Rea
Jessi Roberts
Jessica Staricka
Karina Vieyra
Jessica Zelli
Have a great day everyone!


  1. Your Kids are adorable! They look like they're having a blast! I wonder if they'll be writers too one day? Yeah my first drafts are never organized. All I have is a folder for the actual story, one for random snipets, and one for research. It's an organized(to me) mess. Oh I'll look out for the news letter. Im exited to see it; I haven't gotten one before. Congrats to the winners! I should have entered but I will next time! Thanks Miss Stephanie!

  2. Ohhh, a checklist to delevop your idea, I like that! Thanks!

    I find the best way for me to stay organized during a first draft is to write in order. Every time I switch it up and try and write out of order, the story becomes a mess and I lose track of where I am....

  3. Thanks for sharing! It has helped me a lot to expect a bad (very bad) irst draft and just to keep writing. I am able to accomplish a lot mor if I let my first draft be horrible, knowing I can fix it later.

    Thank you!

  4. Your kids are so cute! And I love your bulletin board!! I struggle with the "bad first draft" thing a lot (I'm a perfectionist). As far as organization goes, I have a computer file full of various chapter versions and character/story notes that I do NOT look forward to sifting through when I do finish my rough draft. However, I attended a writing seminar a few weeks ago, and the lady who taught it had two really great tips for this: She makes a Microsoft Word calendar for her story to keep dates/weather straight, and she has a Master Character file where she copies-and-pastes any description she writes for her characters, so that she doesn't have to go sifting through everything she's already written to find something.

  5. Oh, yeah, and when can we expect feedback on our entries? And what email address will it be from? (I deleted emails from unknown people, especially if they land in my spam folder.)

    1. It'll come today! From Stephanie(at) or Stephanie(at)

  6. I have a question - I've been entering as 'Sarah O.' - but I have't that me up there? Is there another Sarah? The frustration of having common name! ha ha ha

    Great post, btw! I really need to stop my perfectionism from leaking into my first draft.

    1. If you've been entering as Sarah O. then that's you, girl! Congratulations on making the top 20!

    2. Wow! I'm excited to see the winners for this month's contest, I absolutely love reading the winning entries. They are always so creative! ;)

  7. I want Kirsten's shirt :)
    For the first time I think I've found a schedule that is working for me!! except this past week it has.
    I'm working hard to get over wanting a perfect first draft, sometimes itsnreally hard to let go of & I have to repeat it to myself and remember to take deep breaths, lol. I haven't read any of my WIP since 5k. I'm just writing,
    Oh i also am a loose plotter, I like tonlet the story go where it will but when I get stuck I like to look and say "oh yeah, I can go here next!"

  8. Jessica StarickaMay 14, 2012 at 3:45 PM

    (Ooh, it's spooky see a bulletin board with the same title as my WIP, "Anomaly." :D) I am struggling a little with my first draft right now, because I'm focusing so much on plotting. I always consider starting over, cleaning things up, making choices of what to cut and what to keep...but you're right. At this point, I don't know what this story needs to have and not have, and I won't know until my rough draft is finished. My plan for the second draft is to look at and rewrite each individual scene. Because then, I'll know what I want to keep and what I don't want to keep. Or at least have a better idea of it, I hope. :) As long as I can just force myself to sit down and power through this rough draft...

    Also: Yay! I made the top 20! :D

  9. A big thanks to Stephanie and the judges for making this all possible, it really means a lot that you care about teen writers. Great job everyone!

  10. Whenever I have a note of some kind, I just write it at the end of my document, because I'm guaranteed to see it there. :)

    1. Really? I make footnotes (I write using Microsoft Word). I have a lot of footnotes...

  11. Lydia Grace HartMay 14, 2012 at 6:01 PM

    I have folders and sub-folders of 'the good stuff' that I actually might use, and am otherwise a mess, having no current official WIP... more like 50 PIIP (Possible Ideas In Progress). There are notebooks, stray papers, and random thoughts all over my room - oy vey. I made it? Whew! I had like 5 options to send in, and killed myself trying to pick which one to send, so I am glad it was at least good enough for the Top 20, to prevent banging my head against the wall saying "I should've sent the other one! I should've sent the other one!" lol

  12. I'm a point. Then I just write :)

  13. My first draft tends to be a massive mess. It's got some good lines but the plot line? Practically non-existent. It does help me get to know the characters, though, and figure out what they're doing here, why they're alive.

    I love your bulletin board. (Do you guys call them cork boards or is that just us?)
    Hey, that's my name. It's been months! Congrats to everyone. :)

    1. Some people come them cork boards too. That actually might be more correct...

  14. Random note: Every time I see the word "Anomaly," I think of Ky and Cassia. Anybody else counting down the days until November 13?

    1. I KNEW I'd seen that word somewhere! And I'll assume you're a fellow Matched fan? :D
      I knew Reached was coming out in November, but not exactly when. Thanks!

  15. Okay, random and odd question. Is that a mason jar cup? I love drinking cold tea out of those :)

    1. That's exactly what it is, Rebekah! We use them for our all-the-time glasses, and I love them. Especially because if one breaks, I can run to the nearest hardware store and buy another dozen for $11. Can't beat that!

  16. Good grief, your kiddos are too cute.

    And my mouth is watering over your office space. I'm in the market for a desk at the moment and want to "renovate" a corner of my bedroom to be more compatible for writing, so, yeah, yours makes me jealous! :)

    1. Ooh, fun, Rachelle! You'll have to show us pictures :)

  17. Wow, I LOVE your bulletin board! It's AWESOME! And I can totally see how it would be useful; if only I had the space, I'd love to have one of my own to jot down notes on my own writing and inspiration. ;) Such a great idea!

    Congrats to the top twenty!

  18. A tool that I've been using that's really helped me is OneNote. It's downloadable on windows computers, I believe. Basically it's like a notebook that can be rearranged and have pages added. So if you were J. K. Rowling and you were organizing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, you'd name the file: Harry Potter Book 1. Then there'd be individual tabs, like Characters, Plot, Settings, and other things you might have, like Excerpts and whatnot. Then in each of these tabs, you can add other things. So in characters, you'd have a separate page for Harry, Hermione, Ron, and so on. I really love the bulletin board idea, and I think I might have to invest in one. Thanks!