Monday, January 28, 2008

The importance of taking notes

I have, in previous posts, stressed the importance not of being Ernest but of writing every day. Last week I was reminded of something else very important when you're writing a novel: taking notes.

See, if you spend all your time writing and you're immersed in it every day several hours a day, every detail is immediate and alive for you. The reality, however, is that life interferes, just as with my buying/selling a house saga.

Which means that I forget. My new story happens on a planet way off the beaten path and it not only has a different climate and geography it also has a different flora and fauna, a dialect close to scandinavian, different names, etc.

Then there are details of what my characters look like, said at certain points in their journey, decided, wanted to do, have done, when and where.

When did the lawyerly man visit Nor'Winds? Was it the second or third day of Sarena's arrival at the ranch? What as the name of her tranek again? What's the name of that root they use to make cloth? What is the color of Alysisa's eyes?

Going back into the story to remind yourself can be a big waste of your writing time. A bigger waste of time than jotting down as you go along the decisions, big and small, you make.

Aha, you'll say, but if you'd written and outline and sketched out your characters before you started writing, you wouldn't have to take those notes.

Possibly. On the other hand, an outline is exactly that: a preliminary draft or plan. It is subject to change, and probably will change considerably, as you begin to write your story. I may have thought my main character would behave in such a way or make that decision but suddenly it doesn't make sense. He's taking his own life in hand and goes... that way. Or I may decide that I don't like the glacial age I placed my story into and change it to the desert. Or my main characters now hate each other instead of falling in love.

Worse, halfway into writing the first draft I may decide that my protagonist couldn't have made that particular decision so I change the outcome. I can't afford, however, going back to that specific decision and edit it because if I do that, I'll enter editing instead of writing mode (more on that) and won't finish the story.

How's a girl to remember all these changes and shifts in direction? Throughout the years, I've developed some loosely structured categories. I fill them up as I go along. I'll also often make a sketch of the house or place where my character(s) live so I can refer to it. Here are some of the categories I use during my first draft:
  1. Characters: Every person that enters and exits my story goes in there. I'll enter as much detail as possible on them, and not only physical characteristics but who they work for or what they do, what their nickname is, what the relationship with my main characters is, etc.
  2. Features of the story: From the name of the flowers that bloom for one day on Samhain to the number of legs a tranek has, to the orientation of the protagonist's house or the street it is on, any detail that I may have to remember later on and reuse.
  3. Scenes/details to remember: whether my protagonist is contemplating his second sunrise on his new home planet while he's making a life-changing decision or whether one of my secondary characters decides to go into Charlie's for a pint, if these scenes will have a sequel later on, I jot them down.
  4. Changes: I don't like my main characters hair color, or I've decided that she would never act a certain way, I'll jot it down. It'll get changed in the second pass.
So there you have it. Taking notes will not only save you time, but will help you on those subsequent drafts you'll be writing.

What, you thought only one kick at the can was enough? Think again. More on that in a future post.

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