As you will no doubt have noticed, novels are big. I mean, a
commercial novel is likely to have 90-100,000 words and within that you’ll have
multiple chapters, scenes, characters, plots, sub-plots, and back story. As you get further into your
first draft (or attempt to wrestle your second draft into a coherent whole) how
on earth do you keep track of everything that’s going on in your head?
The short answer is that you don’t. Not unless you’re a
genius at any rate (and if you are, kindly keep it to yourself as it’ll make
the rest of us feel bad).
There are many different ways of keeping track of both the
details of your book (such as the eye and hair colour of your characters) and
the action. Here are a few…
1. Character sheets. Even if you don’t believe in these for
character creation, keeping a list of your characters with a few salient
details will help you to both keep track of them (Raymond Chandler, when asked
what happened to the chauffeur in The Big Sleep apparently replied, ‘I forgot
all about him’), and help you keep them consistent so that their eye colour
doesn’t change halfway through the book.
2. A spreadsheet. I know, stop groaning in the back; a
spreadsheet in which you list all the scenes in your book can be incredibly
helpful. Again, this is something I do during revisions, but if you’re more of
an outliner, I’m sure you could use it earlier in the process. Open a simple template and list your scenes.
Use a simple title (it’s just for your eyes, remember) such as ‘Jake meets Lucy’ and then add a line of description
in the next cell. I like to note whose POV the scene is in (and I use a snazzy
colour for this, too, so that I can see at a glance whether my POVs are
balanced) , and the day on which the scene takes place (this helps with
checking the time line later on, and ensures you don’t end up with three Sundays
in a row).
3. If you don’t fancy a spreadsheet, I know some writers use
a giant whiteboard to list their scenes instead. This (like a spreadsheet) has
the advantage of being easily changed and you can use different coloured pens
for different characters, POVs, plot lines and so on.
4. Novelist Emma Darwin prints out a grid and fills it in using pens/pencils. Each row represents a chapter and the columns describe the detail. She describes her system fully here, and provides a free download of the grid template.
5. Index cards. Write your scene descriptions onto index
cards which can be shuffled around into any order you desire and used for quick
6. Use dedicated novel-writing software such as the
wonderful Scrivener to help you organise scenes and chapters, see the structure at a glance, and keep
research notes and images in one place.