The Big "O" for Writers—Organization: The Writer's Toolbox #3

This is Ruth Harris's third installment in her Writer's Toolbox series. You can read Writer's Toolbox #2 here and Writers Toolbox #1 here

Today she's talking about tools for organizing your research and ideas: very timely for me this week. 

I've been working on and off for months on researching my next Camilla mystery, which takes Camilla back to the English Midlands (where she may or may not find out whether Peter Sherwood survived that yacht disaster).

I had the bright idea of creating a subplot involving Richard III, since his remains were recently discovered under a parking lot a few miles from the Midlands town I call Swynsby-on-Trent. (And who better to meet up with the ghost of the last Plantagenet king than Camilla's best friend, Plantagenet Smith?) 

And ever since, I've been lost down a rabbit hole of research. 

Do you have any idea how many books have been written on the subject of Richard III? Then there are the archives of the Richard III Society, the Society of Friends of King Richard III, the Richard III Foundation, Inc.and myriad social media pages and websites. I could spend a lifetime reading Ricardian lore and never write my book at all. 

There is, indeed such a thing as Too Much Information. So I'm going to get to work with some of these tools (just downloaded Evernote!) Now I'll see if it will help me tame the wild ideas in my head into a well-behaved plot. ...Anne

Writer’s Toolbox #3: Organize Up. Clutter Down. A cyber-Container Store for writers with lots of FREE stuff.
by Ruth Harris

Ideas come helter-skelter. Plot points arrive unbidden and in no coherent order. Characters can be stubborn and do what they what—not what the author wants. Dialog arrives in disjointed bits and pieces. The “perfect” sassy/ominous/devastating come-back might take a week (or more!) to marinate and then create.

Research all by itself can be chaotic mess. Take my novel ZURI for example:

  • Rhino ophthalmology? Check.
  • Safety protocols at zoos? Yep.
  • Endangered species? Basic.
  • Poachers and poaching? Can’t write the book without.
  • Illicit wildlife trading stats? Need-to-know.
  • How elephants communicate? But of course.
  • Career paths for veterinarians? Certainly.
  • Good goats and bad goats? Definitely.
  • What, exactly, does an expert in animal communication do? Gotta find out for sure.

In order to write Zuri there was all this plus plenty more but no way was I the only writer slogging through an Everest of info. Writers of historicals, techno thrillers, fantasy and multi-book series must also keep track of voluminous amounts of data and information.

In all books timelines need to be pinned down and adhered to. Can’t have a snowy Christmas scene in which a character in shorts and a t-shirt admires the blooming geraniums on the terrace.

Conflicts must escalate in pulse-pounding ways which means scenes must fall in just the right sequence. Can’t have a violent shootout in a gleaming office tower come before what seems a laid-off employee’s boozed-up threat against the boss s/he hates.

Characters need to be believable and consistent. Can’t have a blond, blue-eyed Alpha hero turn into the shy, poetic type. At least not without a damn good reason.

The overwhelmed writer must find a way to pummel, massage and mold the whole mess into a book that will delight readers.

It’s a huge, often frustrating task but here are some handy or even indispensable helpers, some I’ve mentioned before, others new (at least to me), lots of them FREE or available at modest cost.

Evernote, a FREE download, is well known and widely used. Evernote’s slogan is "Remember Everything", and this powerful app does exactly that. Evernote can save images, web pages, videos, audio files (great for phone interviews) and comes with a handy reminder function. Evernote will take dictation, you can email research to and from, the web clipper does its job perfectly and it’s hard to imagine a writer whose life won’t be made easier—and more organized!—thanks to Evernote.

Here are some research how-tos and tips from author and blogger Alexandra Samuel to help you get even more from Evernote. Thanks to Alexandra, I found out that notebooks can be set offline so you can access your information even when you’re away from an internet connection.

Scrivener, a powerful writing tool which comes in both Mac and PC versions, is an effortless organizer. My Mom used to say “a place for everything and everything in its place” and Keith Blount, Scrivener’s creator, must have been listening.

Scrivener provides places for your manuscript, your research including web links, images, audio files and videos. There are easily accessible cork board and outline functions and, because of Scrivener’s “binder” concept, moving scenes around is quick and easy. There is a generous trial and, if you decide Scrivener is for you, the purchase price is $45.

At The Organized Writer, Annie Neugebauer makes the excellent point that organization is just a framework for creativity. Hover your cursor over the Organized Writer on this page and you will find a useful drop down list of templates for everything from a writer’s bio to plot sheets, agent queries and character charts. All FREE.

A post there by Stacey Crew has a number of suggestions for coping with the messy business of writing. One I particularly like is using your smart phone to dictate ideas that occur to you when you’re away from your desk doing errands or walking in the park. Your phone will convert your words to text so you can email yourself your brilliant ideas and save having to retype them.

At Adventures in YA Publishing, Martina Boone and co. offer detailed instructions plus pix about how to create a plot board. The plot board (called a storyboard when used in pre-production on movies and tv) uses ordinary office supplies and allows a writer to visualize his or her book scene by scene or in overview.

Alexandra Sokoloff, screenwriter and teacher, uses an index card method for keep track of plot and story structure. She goes into detail about the three-act structure, the how-tos of her system and explains how her screenwriting techniques also apply to novels. Alexandra even includes a part-and-page breakdown for fiction writers.

Bestselling novelist Diane Chamberlain also uses the index card method and shows via pix the difference between the neat and organized final book and the chaotic and messy WIP stage.

Cindy R. Wilson at the Writers Alley talks about needing a direction (as opposed to a plot) when she starts to write. Cindy uses a combination of folders, notebooks and lists to keep herself organized and lays out the details here.

Author of medieval romance, Blythe Gifford, uses a spreadsheet to rein in the chaos. With her trusty Excel spreadsheet, Blythe has developed a way to keep track of everything from timelines to backstory, from a character’s first kiss to big picture stuff like war, peace, pestilence, famine and crashing meteors.

At Harlequin, Shelly Jump tells how she developed a simple way to keep track of myriad details that comprise a writer's life. She uses inexpensive stationery store items like colored folders, archive boxes, notebooks and highlighters to help tame the onslaught.

The staff writers at Open Education Database have pulled together 150 FREE online resources covering everything from help with research and statistics to basics like grammar, spelling and definitions. This invaluable list also includes assistance with business and legal matters, organizational tools, genre guides ranging from technical writing to fantasy, word counters and professional organizations.

We may never achieve the perfect big O (not that one; get your mind out of the gutter!), but these hints and tips will definitely help you contain the clutter.

How about you, scriveners? Do you find it tough to assemble all the data in your head into a coherent story? Do you use index cards or storyboards? How about Evernote or Scrivener? Or do you just jot stuff down in separate .docs and throw it in a big old Word folder the way Anne does? 

Opportunity Alerts

The Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award from the Mid-American Review. $10 entry fee for a story up to 6000 words. First Prize: $1,000 and publication. Four Finalists: Notation, possible publication. You may submit online or snail mail. Details at website. Deadline is November 1, 2013.

J.F. POWER PRIZE FOR SHORT FICTION NO ENTRY FEE. The winner will receive $500. The winning story will be announced in February, 2014 and published in Dappled Things, along with nine honorable mentions. The word limit is 8,000 words. Deadline is November 29, 2013.

MYSTERY AUTHORS! The Poisoned Pen Press, one of the most prestigious small presses, is open for submissions for one month. They open for submissions twice yearly, once during the month of October, and once during the spring. During October, they will accept submissions for regular publication. During the spring submissions period they open for the Discover Mystery first book contest. Please note their entire submissions process is electronic via the online submissions manager, Submittable. Mailed or e-mailed submissions will not be read. They will be accepting regular submissions during the period between October 1 and October 31.

The Lascaux Prize for Short Fiction: Stories may be previously published or unpublished. Length up to 10,000 words. Entry fee is $5, and authors may enter more than once.The editors will select a winner and nineteen additional finalists. The winner will receive $500 and publication in The Lascaux Review. Both winner and finalists will earn the privilege of displaying a virtual medallion on blogs and websites. Deadline December 31, 2013.

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