Monday, September 8, 2014

Getting Organized to Write or Edit

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

The first week of August brought happy newsmy agent had read the first few chapters of my new book and loved my new idea! She wanted to see more! Hooray!

Except ... I didn't have more. Not of the pretty, polished stuff anyway. So I told her I was working on edits and would get the rest of the book to her as soon as I could.

Fast-forward to the last week of August, and I was one stressed out writer. I'd barely managed to edit three chapters all month long.! With only one kid being back in school, and with Connor saying, "Thanks but no thanks" to most his naps, I was desperate to get edits done but simply had no blocks of time to make progress. On the one day of the week when grandparents whisked Connor away to play, I struggled to edit even a page.

For a while I would stare at the scene. Wait, what's going on again? What just happened?

Once I was reoriented, I inevitably ran into something that required research. I would then spend precious editing time trying to answer questions like what were school lunches like in the 20s, where was the closest train station to Lake Shore Drive and Irving Street, and when were Oreo's invented?

My crawl through edits deeply discouraged me. Especially because I usually enjoy edits. What was wrong with me? After a little wallowing, I looked at my calendar, my office, and the scene I was struggling through, and I identified problems:

1. Time. I simply didn't have sufficient time to blog, edit, keep up with email, and be a good little marketer on social media. But I knew that once my son started school after Labor Day, this problem would fix itself.

2. My messy office. My desk was covered in rumpled story notes for two different books, writing receipts, and a number of other to-do/to-file/to-throw-away stacks ... that had all merged. I needed organization. Serious organization.

3. I didn't understand a few key characters. That's why this scene was reading flat to me. I didn't know this character. And I didn't understand my villain yet either.

Since I knew the time thing would sort itself out in another week, I decided to focus on items two and three so that I'd feel ready to edit as soon as I had more time. Enter my week of getting organized:




The first thing I did was clear everything off my desk, the ledge beside my desk, and my giant bulletin board. This left me with a big messy pile that I could sort ... and a beautiful empty space to put it all!

I started with my bulletin board. I had four different kinds of notes, a smattering of maps, and a bunch of research books. A lot of my story notes had been compiled into my synopsis, so I recycled what I could. Then I decided to use folders so that I could access what I needed easily. The result was this:



I need the maps handy while I do my edits, so I put those lower. That way I can glance at them or reach them easily. Then I found all my research books and put them in one easy-to-grab location.

It was a good start to getting my head clear enough to edit, but I still had that whole not-understanding-several-vital-characters issue holding me back. This spawned another burst of organization.

I printed off Jill's character worksheet and used it a few times before I needed to make my own. (When I'm brainstorming, it works best for me to write by hand, so I needed more space.) For a few days, I was carrying around a mass of papers, notes, and articles about personality types. I was dragging a mess everywhere I went, until I had the thought, "Wouldn't it be so much easier if I organized all the tools I use when I'm brainstorming?"

Enter a 3-ring binder:



I made a section for the worksheets that I use during the writing and editing process.


I have a few of each printed out and put into sleeves so that I can easily grab them as I'm working. This is the handwriting-friendly version of Jill's character worksheet that I made:


Here are some blank calendars that I often use to track my dates in a story:



I also have editing worksheets and story brainstorming questions in there.

When I work on my characters or plot brainstorming, I typically do it away from my computer. This meant there were several articles and lists that I needed to print out so I could have with me. I made a section for articles on personality types, a section for archetypes, and a few others. (Jill and I have made a bunch of this stuff available to you here.)

Now if I'm leaving my office to do some brainstorming, I can grab my 3-ring binder and know that I have everything I need!


As frustrating as it was to pause progress just to organize, edits have gone much smoother since I did!

45 comments:

  1. Congrats on the new book! And thanks for the post. I needed it!

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    1. BTW, your wall of corkboard is pure awesomeness. :) We just had a Hobby Lobby open in our town and I can't wait to go and hunt down writerly things amongst its shelves.

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  2. How did you make a bulletin board wall? We tried a few years ago, and the only thing we could find was shred-happy quarter-inch thin foam.

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    1. You can buy big rolls of it in hobby stores or Walmart: http://www.walmart.com/ip/The-Board-Dudes-Cork-Roll-48-x-24/20753740 I'll have to ask my husband, but I think they glued mine to the wall and then screwed it in just to be sure it wouldn't go anywhere. I've also seen cork tiles at places like Walmart or Target.

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  3. Ah, so beautiful and organized. :)

    I've had this idea for a while but i've never had the opportunity to suggest it. You have different sections at the top of the page; why not have one for worksheets? So, instead of running around the blog to find Jill's character worksheet, you can just go to the Worksheet section and click on the link.
    Just an idea. :)

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    1. It's a great idea, Krissy. Blogger doesn't make it an option to have files, so we have to use our personal sites, which both use Wordpress. We need to work a few logistics, but if nothing else we should be able to create a tab that has links to all our worksheets and stuff.

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  4. I keep all my editing notes ON the computer. Like I totally rewrite the book just by telling, working out bugs and problems with my best friend/ writing partner and writing out each scene in synopsis complete with italicized notes as to what I want the reader to feel like. Then i go through and write each scene out again *from scratch* this flushes away the stuff that might end up leftover if I were to just go through and edit. then once I've done a total rewrite I go through and do line by line paragraph by paragraph style editing.

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    1. I've always thought that rewriting each scene from scratch when I edit might help my writing, but I've never met someone who actually did that before! Now I'm going to have to try it on my next manuscript. :)

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  5. What a great idea! My notes and snippets of ideas are always floating around and I end up spending more time looking for them than doing the actual writing. I love the idea of the blank calendars to keep track of time in stories. (-: Thanks for yet another awesome post!
    ~Elizabeth

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    1. Those blank calendars REALLY help. You can just Google blank monthly calendar and find loads of options.

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  6. I love the idea of making a calendar to keep track of time! I'm also losing where I am and having to add up the days all over again!

    I usually hand-write all my story notes in a journal. I have fun picking out a journal for each story, then I turn it into my "little black book" for the story I'm working on. It is nice to have all my notes in one place, especially since I usually write fantasy and I have a lot of world-building to remember.

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    1. And one of these days when you're famous, those journals will be on display somewhere :)

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    2. Oh my goodness, I think about after I'm famous (If that ever happens XD) that either my journals that they'll be on display somewhere. Or they'll get sold for like $50,000. Hey, I like to dream big XD

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  7. Your writing space looks so tidy and organized! I wish I had my own writing place. (My writing place is pretty much wherever I happen to be sitting with my laptop, LOL.)

    I love the idea of having everything organized in folders and a three-ring-binder--I'm going to have to buy some stuff to keep my story notes organized! I'm about to start work on draft three of my novel, and I'm starting to confuse subplots, characters, and events, so getting organized will definitely help.

    Thanks for the post!

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    1. I've seen writers who have "portable offices." Especially moms who try to snag time while their kid is at ballet or something. They keep all their writing stuff in a bag and just cart it around with them. That might work for you?

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  8. I have a three-ring binder where I keep scene ideas, various articles, and information on characters. Pretty handy, though sometimes it gets a little confusing. I wish I had a writing area- I pretty much write wherever. XD Congrats on your book! Is this the historical one (I think) you said something about a while back? Or am I just dreaming about that...(that's highly plausible XD)

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    1. Yep, this is the historical. Which is the most notes-intensive book I've ever written, hence the need for organization!

      There are definite perks to keeping a writing office portable like yours :) See my above comment about portable offices.

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  9. Your office is awesome :) My writing space is sitting on an old ez-boy chair covered in pillows and blankets by my family's living room windows, not nearly as awesome as yours.

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    1. I had to wait a while for mine :) It was the most boring birthday gift list for my family, but I loved opening all the fixin's for my office!

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  10. That cork board is awesome! I have a whiteboard I brainstorm on, but it's not nearly that big. Now I want one. ;)

    I'm going to make a calender for my WIP when I get to editing...it's nearly impossible to remember how much time has gone by in the story, so hopefully that will help. And I've found that making a notebook with notes about characters helps when I need motivation to write, but I've never made a notebook with anything besides little details and pictures of what the characters look like.

    Great post!

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    1. The corkboard is super handy. I used to take the framed posters off my wall and put sticky notes on them when I was brainstorming, but this works much better!

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  11. I can't wait until the historical book comes out! Historical fiction is my favorite genre! Your writing area looks so neat and organized. Unfortunately, I don't really have a space specifically designated towards writing. I have more of a multipurpose desk that I use for everything. It works, but it would be cool to have something just geared towards writing. I've never revised or edited a novel (about four more weeks until I can do that), but I do a lot of plotting with some of the worksheets that you mentioned in a notebook that I have. I copy down the worksheets into my notebook so that I can brainstorm and outline my novel.

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    1. High five for Historical Fiction!! :D

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    2. Yay for historical fiction!

      Sometimes multi-purpose desks are necessary. Mine used to be slathered in homework and secretary work stuff as well as story ideas :)

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  12. Great post! Ooh, so organized! *drools*
    I use Scrivener, but my first draft was still a disorganized mess. For my rewrite, though, I have a synopsis for each scene on a document index card, which are all in folders for their specific chapters, which also has a synopsis and an index card, and you can color code and label and give everything a status. I love the neat feeling, but it's a bit time-consuming....is there such a thing as being too thorough in plotting and organization? XD

    So, I'm almost completely redrafting. How do you treat a redraft? Is it the "write now, polish later" mentality or "edit as you go"? If I let my inner editor out, I can hardly get even half a scene done, but I don't want to end up with another irredeemable draft.

    And (lots of questions, sorry) when should you give up on a story? Even cutting all the fluff my novel is still going to be long, and I'm worried my story is too mature/complex for my MC's MG deep POV. I just have this little voice that says I'm beating a dead horse and could move onto another idea (I have loads waiting) that has clearer goals and structure and so forth. How do you tell if it's irresponsibly giving up and never finishing anything and when it's reasonably giving up? I've read that people who throw in the towel on a particular book have at least polished it and probably queried it a thousand times, but I haven't even started draft 2. *sighs* I don't want to be a quitter.

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    1. Hi Miri!

      I'll let Mrs. Morrill answer your questions more thoroughly, but since your last question is, like, the exact title of a few posts I remembered...here are the links:

      http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2012/11/when-to-give-up-on-story.html
      http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2012/03/when-should-you-give-up-on-story.html

      Hope these help :) Also, I know how you feel. Sometimes I twist my mind up into knots trying to decide "Am i just giving up because I'm lazy or because I really need to?" or "Where's the line between X and Y?" and so on and on. It's frustrating, isn't it? :( Usually I have to ask other people to straighten myself out, but first I take a break from struggling to sort it all out. That usually helps some, too. :)

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    2. Thanks, Amanda! Those posts were good food for thought. Part of my problem is that I love sound of the premise but not the book I have on my hard drive. Which leaves me to either rewrite until I love it or sob, eat chocolate, and start something new...Maybe this is normal for a first novel?
      For once I'm appreciating math. Someone can tell you whether you took the right steps or not.

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    3. Oh, so I'm not the only one who thinks like this sometimes? About how math might just have something going for it after all, because it's always so cut-and-dry. Other it's the right answer or it isn't; either you did it right or you didn't. No guesswork. No constantly doubting yourself. Here's a hug for you! *hugs*

      I understand, about the premise thing. Happens to me all the time. "Wait...it sounded so cool as an idea, but then I started writing it and...it's not anymore." As far as I know, that's completely normal. It's called ideas-don't-translate-like-you-thought. As for it being normal specifically for a first novel, I'd venture to say yes, it is that too. First novels are...well, to put things frankly, a disastrous roller coaster ride. Because while you're writing your first novel you're trying to figure out how to put into practice everything you've been learning--or diving in with gusto, not having learned much of anything at all. Either way, they're a mess and hard and painful and editing them is killer, and so, so many times throughout the whole process you'll be tempted to forget the whole thing. Take up toilet cleaning or driveway scrubbing or something fun like that. But that's because the first time you try to do anything it's painful and difficult and ridiculously hard! Unfortunately, novels take a long time to do the first time, unlike a push up or something. I just finished my own first novel in February, and you know when I started writing it? September 2012. That's over a year and a half. I had to throw out the entire thing once and completely rework the whole idea, write a (measly) first draft, let it sit for months because I was terrified to start editing, actually start editing and nearly drop it right away because of how overwhelming and disastrous the thing was, come up with a whole new plot, write in scenes upon scenes and cut others and bash my head against the tabletop countless times. By the time I finished it I never wanted to see it again, basically...and when some of my friends were reading it and made some comment about "I loved such-and-such scene" I'd be like, "Wait...where in the book was that?" or "What, I kept that scene?" because my brain was so scrambled up by the editing process that I had no clue.

      All this to say, I'm pretty sure with a first novel anything is "normal" except having it be easy, quick, painless, or even very good.

      So you may have just read through that whole thing I just wrote and started thinking, "So why do I even bother writing this thing if it's going to be a mess no matter what I do?" Well, that's simple: because there's no way to write a second novel without writing a first. I know, annoying how it works like that, huh? ;) This isn't to say that a first novel can't be good, just that for most of us it isn't. But the important thing it is that you learn from it. You know, looking back on that first novel of mine I finished just months ago, I know I can already write better. But that's okay. It was a good product of the skills I had then. So basically? I can't tell you whether to rewrite the whole story or to leave it. Maybe you decide to just leave it for now and restart with the premise another time. That's okay. Maybe you decide to rewrite it now, or to just forget the whole thing altogether and start another one. That's okay too. I wrote lots of "books" before I actually finished a first novel. But they taught me stuff too. Make it your goal to learn something from every project you write, even if you never finish them. Okay? :) I promise you, there's nothing wrong with this not being your first completed novel. Just so long as you finish one. And then write another. And another. :)

      If you need anything else or if you want someone to look at it for you, let me know and I'll give you my email. :) Hope this made some sense...you can do it!!

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    4. And oh my goodness, do I get the record for longest comment? LOL

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    5. I'll jump in, though you girls certainly don't need me!

      To answer your original questions, Miri, yes I definitely think too much time can be devoted to plotting and organizing. Sometimes we do those things because it's easier than writing. But as you move along in your journey, you'll find the right balance for you.

      Second drafts. Honestly, they can be a real bear. I like third drafts much better :) I'm working on the second draft of my historical right now, and it's very common for me to take 30 minutes per page. I'm scrapping scenes, I'm adding scenes, and basically every sentence is altered somehow. So don't feel like because edits are intense, you're somehow messing up. My book is an absolute mess right now, and even now as I think about it, I feel this panic of, "I'm not sure I can pull this off!" Sometimes you just have to push through.

      But not always. In previous conversations, you've shared some concerns that you have about the book. Those are big things. And maybe the best thing really is to set the book aside and wait to get it out again until you want to. I've shared on her before that I did that multiple times with Skylar. I had to completely scrap the story the first and time and rewrite it - and that's hard to do if you JUST spent all that time completing the first draft. It requires time and space to do that.

      So maybe you'll decide to just rewrite the whole thing using all your new knowledge. Or maybe you'll find that you're just ready to move on to new stories. Regardless, it's okay to quit stuff. Like Seth Godin says, "Winners quit all the time. They just quit the right stuff and the right time."

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    6. *return's Amanda's hug* Wow! That was quite the comment, though maybe not the longest. I wrote a bear the week before last on the logline post, though mercifully Jill deleted it for me. Thanks again! (Goodness, I sound like my mom on the telephone...) Congratulations on finishing your novel, even in a year and a half. My first draft took, like, eight months.

      Like you said, Stephanie, that's probably why this is hard. I feel kind of silly plowing away at the same story for coming up on a year now and then still not having anything to show my friends and family. But hey, it's not their novel, so it's not really their call. Still...

      I'd gathered that you did a lot of work on Skylar Hoyt rewrites - like adding the date rape thing - but I hadn't realized you completely scrapped it! That's almost inspiring, that a novel can need so much and turn out so good.

      I think with mine I'm going to rewrite the beginning chapters I have planned and see how it feels, and if that fails than set it aside until I'm better at writing lean and organizing my subplots.

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    7. The first time I wrote that book, Skylar was in 8th grade. So, yeah. I scrapped the whole thing and started over. But it only worked because I had put it away for a long time and wasn't quite as attached.

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  13. Ahhhh, organization! I adore the feeling of being organized. All my documents on the computer are neatly arranged into folders inside folders inside folders and such, but unfortunately my "hard copy" stuff is much more of a mess. Probably because using it means actually taking it out of its neat, orderly place and...often neglecting to put it back. I still love folders and color-coded stuff and neat desks, but it's extra frustrating because I can't seem to keep it that way.

    The binder is a cool idea. I usually just have one of those poly folder things for each story, and drag all my papers around in that, but it only has two sides. So, the binder, or at the very least a folder with prongs, might be better.

    Also, funny thing--in your fashion folder, the copy on top looks like a page from a book my sister used about two years ago when she was doing a historical "fashion show" from 1900-1960, I think it was. LOL, it's probably the same book...I think it was a whole series. Funny the random things I remember for two years. :)

    Oh yeah, and can't wait to read that book! ;)

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    1. Oh, that's so funny! Those are actually notes that Roseanna sent me from a 20s book she worked on years ago. They were so useful!

      The only thing that rivals my love of writing is my love of organizing my writing... :)

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  14. This was great, Mrs. Morrill! I absolutely love your writing desk and everything you have for writing. :D So awesome! And that corkboard idea is great, but I especially love the binder. :) I just might have to do that! I have papers floating about all over the place, and the binder - something I could haul about that has everything I need - is just so tempting. Your writing place is awesome, and I love how organized it is! Thank you so much for sharing!

    One question: for Historical fiction, what type of blank calendar would you use? Just wondering. :)

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    1. That's a great question! So I have the blank calendars that I just found online from Googling something like "blank monthly calendars." But I also have a yearly calendar for 1924 that tells me the holidays and all that good stuff. So I keep that for reference and use the blank calendars for my story details.

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  15. I am in awe, Stephanie! Seriously. Come do my office now!

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    1. You know, I AM going to be out that way in October :)

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  16. That is a sweet writing setup! I want to renovate my bedroom now!

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  17. I just joined! I have a book I need to finish planning out and start writing and am excited to see how far I will get on it with this challenge. ;)

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  18. I'm trying to write a book, right now, and have so many ideas in my head that I can't go ahead without lose a lot of precious time - like you! So, I stopped here and you, with this beautiful post, helped me so much. Thanks!

    ps: I'm from Brazil and I have no idea how I get here.

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  19. This post speaks to my organization craziness on a soul-level. Thank you.

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