A Guest Post by Kay Kenyon: How to Keep Track of a Novel

If you read science fiction and fantasy, chances are you’ve heard of Kay Kenyon.  If you’re a writer on the lookout for great writing conferences, her name may ring familiar there, as well, since she runs one of the best around.

If not, you’ll probably remember her name (and hopefully check out her work — all ten novels) after reading this enlightening piece.  Twice.

You thought I was left-brained about the right-brained task of writing a novel?  Good to know there’s someone else out there with a story engineering hat on.   Enjoy.

How To Keep Track of a Novel

Or how I wrote an epic four-book sci-fantasy saga over five years and still had the brain power left to write grocery lists.

by Kay Kenyon

I admit it, I write complicated books.

I’m going to tell you how I keep from going crazy with all the details, and how I remember, in technical terms, what the hell is going on with my story. You may not need everything that I use, but if you are writing an ambitious book I highly recommend these methods (I’ve been using them for a decade.)

Here are my methods, the high and the low.

Project notebook.

Before I write even a page, I work in a large notebook to discover and develop my story. I muse on concepts, characters, armature (theme) and milieu. I take a stab at a trial plot chart with a three act structure.

I like a physical notebook because, unlike using a computer keyboard/screen, I do not feel strange doing nothing but thinking. I like the archeological benefit too: without a delete function I can–even months later–review how my planning evolved. Sometimes I go back to those early ideas. When I’m writing the novel, I use this notebook to storyboard the next scenes. (Tip: always date your entries. It will show you how long it took to write your novel, something you think you will never forget, but you will. After 5-10 novels, you will forget it all, trust me.)

If the scene is particularly difficult, I list the “beats” of the scene, casting on possible action segments. This is a magic technique that can get you through the most daunting scenes where a lot has to happen, clues given, character revealed and awesomeness created!

Your project notebook is something that future scholars of your work will fight over. (OK, let’s dream about it, anyway . . .) They will see the very moment when you discovered your true theme. There will be a great big STAR by it. Also several exclamation points!!!

Scene list.

At the end of the writing day I briefly summarize what happened in the scenes I completed: clues dropped, foreshadowing, new characters introduced and whether they are second cousins once removed. The scene list is my main method for keeping track of where I am; it also allows me to pencil in the margins — next to the right scenes — notes for changes that become necessary as the story evolves. (No, not a half brother, second cousin once removed!!)

If you are rereading and rereading your last few chapters to get a run-up on your next scene, stop this now. Rereading causes revision blindness later, since you will be too familiar with the material. Read your scene list instead. That tells you exactly what you wrote yesterday and the day before. Every now and then the scene list gets so messy that I edit it and print a fresh version to muck up. To be picky (let’s) — the scene blurb should state POV and page number.  Thus: p. 73 (POV Titus).

Style sheet.

Here is where I record every character name, place, piece of technology, special terms and odd spelling. For my series, this file is quite large. If you don’t begin files like the style sheet and scene list within the first few chapters of your manuscript you will hate yourself. Keep the style sheet file open and faithfully update it as you write. It is an ugly task to go back and create it when you are deep into your novel.

A great big box.

Seriously. All the loose leaf things like newspaper articles, notes from conferences, letters from experts, style sheet, project notebook, scene list, plot chart (always 17 inches long, so it doesn’t fit in the notebook), everything that I use everyday goes in the (specially purchased) box. (If you can keep all your planning materials in a manila file folder, you are a minimalist, and I think I envy you.) At the end of workday, I sweep everything into the box. Clean office! When transferring my work station outside, a full cup of coffee goes in as well.

For especially complicated projects like altnernate history or big milieu fantasy or science fiction…

 … use a three ring binder.

The binder should have tabs for culture, language (phrases, insults, sayings, oaths), history, religion, technology, flora/fauna, publications/books, politics, dress, military terms, and rules of magic or science research points.

Is it worth it?

If you feel a teensy bit daunted, I dont blame you.

It takes a bit of work to set up these tracking and organizational devices, but oh, the frustration saved! How is the pacing? Is enough happening? (Check out your scene list.) Where have I dropped clues on Meena’s true identity? (Scene list.) Where is Meena from? Islamabad. (Style sheet.) What again is my theme? (Notebook with big STAR by it.) How do you swear in Victorian England? (Three ring binder.) Where is my coffee cup? (Great big box.)

There you have it, your organizational tools for writing the novel. They will keep you on track, calm your nerves and save your ass. Now all you need to do is . . . listen to Larry Brooks. And write, write, write.

Kay Kenyon’s latest work is a science fiction series with a fantasy feel. The lead title, Bright of the Sky, was one of Publishers Weekly’s top books of 2007. The series has twice been shortlisted for the American Library Association Reading List awards. Rounding out the quartet are A World Too Near, City Without End and Prince of Storms. They are available in trade paper, Audible.com and Kindle editions. At her website, Writing the World, she regularly blogs on writing fiction.

20 Comments

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20 Responses to A Guest Post by Kay Kenyon: How to Keep Track of a Novel

  1. This is fantastic. I don’t think I would have ever considered organizing my information in this way. Thank you.

    I just finished proofreading a very complicated book and in the end, created a style guide for the author for the future series of books they are planning on writing. It makes perfect sense to do this in the beginning and during the process, rather than waiting until the end.

  2. “If you are rereading and rereading your last few chapters to get a run-up on your next scene, stop this now. Rereading causes revision blindness later, since you will be too familiar with the material.”
    Kay, it’s like you’re a fly on my wall. I’m ashamed to say I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve done this. Not only that, but I’m such a perfectionist (working on that) that I have a terrible habit of editing when I do reread those last chapters, something we all know is a Big Sin in the world of writing a novel.

    You have given us such a wealth of information in this post. Thank you so much!

  3. 10 books? I’ll do WHATEVER you say! 😉

    Seriously, to write that many books, you must be doing something right, and besides that, it just makes so much sense to do what you’ve advised.

    Regards,
    Shane

  4. These ideas can be integrated right into your Craft. When you’re actually ready to put pen to paper or keystrokes into the editor, you’re able to let your artistic talent free without wondering if you’re “doing it right.”

    Ever drive in a dense fog? Straining to see where you’re going? Surprised at every little bend in the road? Now compare that to a clear day where you can see and know where you’re going. That fork in the road? You don’t have to “think” about it — you already know which fork or perhaps it will be a side road, a trip through the woods or perhaps dig a tunnel. You don’t have to “think”, you can let your artistic talent run full throttle.

    Now go write something.

  5. The Great Big Box! My workspace overflows with guitar tuners, USB strings, a Dark Side of the Moon cover, and a pair of big glasses from the ’80’s. Not any more.

    Better the Kay Way than what I’m looking at.

    Act One: sort pile

    Act Two: pitch pile

    Act Three: organize in Great Big Box, the Seventh Competency.

    Thanks Kay,

    Dave

  6. Martha Miller

    Oh, but how this appeals to the neatly organized part of my brain. And how it conflicts with my real nature: spread-it-out-on-the-desk-and-dive-in-and-try-to-find-it-later.
    I am inspired. I am going once again to Get Organized.
    Thank you, Kay — and Larry too, for inviting Kay to share her methods.

  7. Dear Kay (and Larry), Thank you for this post. I’m three chapters into revising my first novel, and I’m feeling quite overwhelmed by all the details. I think the notebook and the big box approach will be very useful, and I’ll start using them today.

    Like Deanna, I also revise when I re-read and that is going to stop today. Adding the details to the notebook will take some extra time, but I think the payoff is well worth it.

    Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom, it’s going to be a huge help! ~ Olivia

  8. I try to pretend I’m organized, but I’m not. I have used journals and 3 ring binders in an effort to get my work organized, but it never came together. Not in this way, anyhow — and it makes SUCH sense! Especially the idea of the Style sheet. I have all this information buried in the rest of the research right now, and never thought of pulling it out and actually making it easy to find. (d’uh!)

    Also, I LOVE the idea of using a box for all the research etc. (Pretty and transportable! Excellent!) I’m all over this! Thank you very much for these ideas.

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  10. I love posts like this, where I get to peep into other writers’ studies to see how they organize themselves (or don’t!).

    I write with a notebook beside my computer, because as I write things occur to me that would otherwise stop my writing while I sit, conflicted about whether to pay attention to the new thought, or push it aside (at the risk of forgetting it) and carry on writing. With a notebook beside me I can scribble the thought down and keep going.

    My version of the three ring binder is to open a document in Word, choose Notebook Layout from the View menu, and label the tabs in the document that appears. It’s wonderful!

  11. wow.. I did this to some extent, but didn’t know anyone else who did it! I was worried I was too anal, and afraid I would get sidetracked too easily, as I’m “want” to do. But now, I’ve got permission! How cool is that! Thanks Kay!

  12. @Bruce — I LOVED the fog analogy. Thanks, as usual, for a great contribution. L.

  13. Hey, thanks for the comments, everyone! Um, did the word “anal” come up? 🙂

  14. Jeff Trapp

    I just set my computer at work with two monitors. What a difference. I’m able to have two documents open at once and not worrying about what is on top. This would work great with a style sheet or any kind of notes you want to access. Now it’s getting the same setup at home. The cost of the monitor and new graphics card is a little over $200.00. Cheap for the increase in productivity.

  15. I came across your blog on Problogger, I am glad I did you have a great blog here.

    Thanks,

    Brian M. Connole
    i-Blogger

  16. I’m currently reading Braided World and watching closely for her set-ups. She’s so sneaky and so good at them that they really don’t stand out. One of these days, I’m gonna have to take lessons from her!

  17. ken

    I already have 3 ring binder w/ page for each scene. I’ll have to add more pages today, thanks for the great post.

  18. Thanks for the great advice; my favorite is the Great Big Box. I’ve always wanted a clean desk at the end of the day, and never knew it could be so easy. Finding stuff in the morning might be another story, so to speak.

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