April 23, 2012


Because my novel has interlocking storylines about the same family in three different time periods, part of the fun for the reader is learning more than the characters about what has happened or will happen. By "fun," I mean "horror and frustration," as in "I can't believe he thinks that's okay when it's going to screw up his son for life!" and "Sure, it's nice that they're finally opening up to each other, but they're still not telling each other the whole truth!"

This aspect of the story is certainly the most fun for me as a writer. And by "fun," I mean "fun, plus a huge pain in the ass." Every draft has introduced exponentially more connections and parallels and misunderstandings to make readers tear their hair out. That's a great thing, but it's been a lot of work to assemble and keep track of.

Last week Christopher Gronlund posted about outlines and why he doesn't use them. I've tried writing both with and without an outline and had some success with both strategies. For the first draft of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, I started out with very simple notes consisting of one line for each chapter that listed the main events. With each revision, my notes have become more complex.

To approach this draft, I created a color-coded paper chart in an attempt to visualize all the knowledge possessed by each character and the reader at different points in the story. I never quite succeeded in capturing all the information I wanted to, but in the course of developing the chart, I made some important realizations about improvements for the story, so the effort was worth it.

I eventually incorporated all of my notes into SuperNotecard, and I've continued to be happy with this software. The cards and decks I've set up in SuperNotecard serve as an outline of the plot, a chronicle of what the characters know and don't know, a record of research done and still needed, and more.

For me, an outline isn't something I create at the beginning and then follow to the letter. So many ideas emerge as I write that the story is constantly veering off in other directions, and often these new paths are better than the ones I'd mapped out in advance. But I still like having an outline that reflects the novel, especially for this book, where I frequently find it easier to reference my notes for the other storylines rather than hunting for things in the text.

So part of my revision process involves bookkeeping. Once or twice a chapter, I review what I've ended up writing and make the appropriate changes to my notes. It's a useful step, because in addition to giving me an accurate record, the bookkeeping tends to spark extra ideas for upcoming chapters. But it's tedious work, and I often dread doing it, especially if I've made major changes or haven't updated my notes in a while. On the other hand, the bookkeeping also serves as a not-quite-procrastination method that can ease me into writing when I'm not in the mood.

Sometimes I think I'd like to write a simpler novel next time. But what would be the fun in that?

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Betsy Morais reports for The Atlantic on the future of book covers in the age of ebooks: "A digital book has no cover. There's no paper to be bound up with a spine and protected inside a sturdy jacket. Browsers no longer roam around Borders scanning the shelves for the right title to pluck. Increasingly, instead, they scroll through Amazon's postage stamp-sized pictures, which don't actually cover anything..." (Thanks, Lilly Tao!)


Christopher Gronlund said...

I like the bookkeeping way of looking at it. In a roundabout way, I've done something similar. I've printed manuscripts, color coded chapters with a Post-It flag, and then laid all the chapters out on the floor so I can see if one character is getting too much attention...things like that. Then I did a quick physical note card for each chapter once I arranged things the way it worked best. On the note card, I summarized the chapters. Then I worked from that during revisions as a loose outline after getting a draft done.

Since you mentioned SuperNotecard, I've been fascinated with it. I've tried outlining with it, but like you: the outline before and then sticking with it doesn't work. Changes are made along the way. But...just starting an outline helped on something I've fairly recently started, but still need to finish. I definitely plan to use SuperNotecard somewhere along the way. And I can TOTALLY see using it for series notes.

So thanks again for mentioning it last year, or whenever it was you first mentioned it!

Lisa Eckstein said...

Christopher: Novels are huge, so we have to come up with these strategies to get a sense of the entire story at once. I love hearing how other writers have dealt with this problem (and seeing photos of color-coded piles, cards, etc).

Even though I moved to all digital notes for this revision, I'm still expecting that when I finish this draft, I'll do another round of laying paper out on the floor. There's something about arranging physical objects that I find important to the creative process, and I can't duplicate it on a computer.

Anna Scott Graham said...

I've written a couple of novels with hefty outlines; part of the joy is mapping everything out. But I also know that sense of more work than I imagined, but not more than it's worth. I like the idea of bookkeeping to ease in the writing. :)))

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