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.
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!!!
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).
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.