Phillip Thompson: Staying Organized

I use a variety of methods to stay mentally  and physically focused while I’m trying to write a novel, and this is important to me because I don’t spend all day writing. I may go days without being able to sit down with the characters, and I need to be able to jump right back in whenever I do. So, one of the big challenges for me during the writing of Outside the Law was staying organized for the long haul.  Both physically and mentally.

Physically, writing a 60,000+ novel can get cumbersome, depending on how you’re going about it. I’m like several writer friends I know — I start a Word document and just start banging words out. Which sounds like a great idea until you’re deep into the story, and you need to refer back to an earlier scene or timeline. Then you have to go back and search through pages and pages until you find it. That eats up a lot of time.

So, my preferred method of the actual writing is to do it by chapter, with each chapter being a separate file on my laptop (this is done after I longhand the chapter/scene/thought in a notebook I keep readily available). I also keep one “master” document that is the entire manuscript, and as I finish a chapter, I copy and paste it into the master. This helps if I want to read the whole thing for some reason, plus it lets me see where I am as far as word count or page numbers go. I don’t write to a word count, but that’s a useful rudder when you’re well into the story.

About two years ago, I decided I wanted to try something different as far as “manuscript management” (as I call it). I downloaded a trial version of Scriveners, a powerful multi-function program that allows a writer to accomplish a multitude of tasks: notes, rewrites, cross-reference, etc.

It took some getting used to — you have to learn how to use the system, after all — and in the end I found myself spending more time “getting organized” than I did actually writing. So I went back to my old-fashioned way: my notebook and laptop, a white board and (my nod to “modern times”) and “mind mapping” software that I love because it is my second white board.

And I do love a white board. That’s where I throw timelines, questions, character sketches, whatever brainstorm comes to mind. I’m a visual person, so seeing an idea is much more helpful to me than a spreadsheet or an index card. The software I use does the same thing. I use Mind Node for two simple reasons: it’s free and it’s easy. And because it’s on my laptop, I have a white board  with me everywhere I go — and that comes in handy.

That’s where the ideas usually start. For Outside the Law, I wrote the names of the characters on the board.  At the top of board, I wrote “Redemption vs. Justice.” Then, as ideas I came to me I filled in the blank, then fleshed out more ideas on Mind Node (where there no physical limitations like the size of the board). The more I did this, the more the story shaped up and pretty soon I was writing it out in my notebook, a chapter or a scene at a time.

(Not to get ahead of myself, but once I finished Outside the Law, I started thinking about ideas for the next Colt Harper book. I wrote three things on the white board: 1. A briefcase full of money; 2. a cemetery; 3. a severed foot.)