Authors tend to be creative people, and creativity tends to be messy. Everyone has different ways of bringing order to that chaos, and finding the way that suits you is an endeavor well worth the effort. In “The Wand and the Word,” Leonard Marcus interviews various fantasy authors revealing their path to success, and their methods. The most fascinating thing about these interviews is how incredibly varied their responses are. There is no hard and fast rule about how to successfully organize information, but there are a few main categories that encompass different personalities and styles of organization.
Brandon Sanderson has mentioned in his podcast, Writing Excuses, that he organizes everything from characters and their motivations and network of connections to world-building details in spreadsheets. He finds it a useful way to track and cross-reference those crucial story points. I am a very visual person, and that is so not for me. I can say this with confidence because I tried it, and it was miserable. For me it took so much effort to think about how to arrange things in an unfamiliar terrain, and I didn’t have enough room to see what was in each box. For people who love organizing things so they are neat and tidy and put away, it may be right up your alley. If you are more familiar with spreadsheets, I am sure there are many ways to layer and search information efficiently in that format. If you like to see the big picture, or flip from one idea to the next quickly, it might not be the best fit.
Graphic novelists, designers and cartoonists (for obvious reasons) tend to gravitate toward storyboarding, where the story is told on a large horizontal space with images and text together showing what the story is to evolve into. Some authors use sticky notes to create a timeline for their work, which can easily be moved around and experimented with before the actual writing begins. Mind mapping is a highly visual way of showing connection, cause and effect, and the underlying moving forces in a piece. It is one way I have enjoyed organizing information for a smaller project, such as an article. It can also be a useful way of showing character connections and motivations, or even a useful way of revealing those less-obvious connections in a non-fiction piece. Many times I’ve had a revelation as I surround the nucleus of an idea with its many outgrowths and discover truths I hadn’t seen before. XMind is an excellent digital way to record an extensive mind-map.
Notebooks are a huge part of cultivating a healthy writing habit. Writing every day is essential! It’s also a place to capture the genius that visits in the night, or the moment that would otherwise be lost. The problem is: how the heck do you find anything useful in there? It’s as good as lost if you never revisit those words. Enter the card file idea. This was a method suggested to me for organizing research papers back in the day, but never have I found it more useful than when I have the seeds of several good stories, but need time to flesh out the details and characters more fully. On my countertop I keep an old school card file box. I know. So retro. But it’s in the center of my home where I work, and right at my fingertips so I can jot down snippets while passing by. I have color coded notecards for each of the stories I have in progress at the moment, with headers on each card noting what the card relates to; anything from character name lists, plot twists, or map sketches. They are then chronologically ordered in relevance to the story. You could do the same thing in Evernote as Josh recommended a couple of posts ago, which would make it available across platforms, making your ideas that much more accessible and searchable, which is hugely helpful as a project grows.
Don’t be afraid to try out something new on your next project… but also trust yourself. Just because Jack Kerouac typed it all out on a typewriter, or Brian Jaques hand wrote his work nearly flawlessly in beautiful flowing script doesn’t mean you need to follow suit. Same goes for these organization ideas. Do what works for you, and keep writing!