How to Organize Your Manuscript Project

Congratulations! You’ve come up with a topic for a book, and now you’re ready to write! The hardest part of writing a book is deciding what you will write about: will it be suspense or romance; adult or young adult; horror or fantasy; male characters or female. Once you’ve gotten all of that out of the way, you jump straight into the fun part.

But where to begin? Should you open with dialogue? Where will the first scene take place? What background information does your reader need to know?

If a bunch of questions pop into your head when you sit down at your word processor, it means that you haven’t gotten yourself organized yet. Leaping into the writing of your first paragraph without planning is like jumping out of a plane with no parachute; the end result is going to be a big SPLAT!

How much preparation you need will depend on the kind of writer you are. Some novelists need pages and pages of notes and outlines before they even begin to write the prose. Others require only a short plot description and a few pages of jotted informaion and they can leap right into the next part. The more you write, the more comfortable you will become with your writing style.

Personally, I don’t like to have an entire outline before I begin to write. It takes away from the spontaneity of the characters and the multiple directions of the plot. I like to leave myself a little leeway with my writing so that I’m free to explore new avenues as they appear before me while I write. Sometimes, I’ll end up writing a scene, having no idea where it came from. That is the beauty of writing – you’re in charge, and you can go wherever you choose with your characters.

I’m not a very accomplished writer – I write articles for Associated Content, short stories for anthologies, research articles for various freelance agencies and my first novel will be published in June of this year. Compared to writers who put out four novels a year, I have very little experience, but I do know what works for me. I’m going to outline how I organized Saving Grace, and you can feel free to take what works for you. I will also detail what some writer friends of mine do differently so that you can get a feel for different tastes.

Your Folder

Every project that you begin should have its own folder where you can keep information pertaining to writing and research. If you don’t do this, you’ll end up with papers scattered everywhere and no way to find what you need, and when inspiration strikes, you might need those materials in a hurry! So do yourself a favor and keep everything in one place; that way, it will be available when you need it.

Depending on the amount of research and planning you expect to do, you will need an appropriate size folder. I keep a folder for each of my projects that holds payment information, correspondence with my agent, and letters from my publisher. I also keep FedEx receipts from the mailing of my manuscript, as I’ve had to send it again every time I make a requested revision. I keep my folders in a standard filing cabinet along with all of my other work files.

For the writing project itself, I keep a 2″ three-ring binder, which serves not only as a place to hold notes and outlines, but also as a concordance. Each time a new character or setting enters my story, I put it in the concordance and cross-reference it with all of the other characters and settings. This might seem like a lot of extra work, but it helps when I need to check facts (more about the concordance later).

The binder has ten tabs, each color-coded and clearly marked. Before I start a project, I put several sheets of paper between each tab so that I don’t have to go digging for notebook paper.

TAB 1. Data

This tab holds all of the pertinent data relative to my project. If you don’t want to keep this section, it isn’t necessary, but I use it to track my progress and to set goals.

The first sheet contains the following information:

A. Working Title (even if you aren’t sure, have a working title of your project)
B. Date Started (the date I began the actual writing)
C. Date Finished (this won’t be answered until you have finished the final draft)
D. Expected Chapters (how many chapters I think it will have)
E. Expected Word Count (a vague estimation of prospective word count)

This section helps keep me focused, and the Date Started and Date Finished categories let me know exactly how long it takes me to finish my work. If you are published, then people will probably ask.

The second and subsequent sheets are journals for my daily output. I used to never think that I would be this anal-retentive about my work, but I like knowing how much I accomplish each day. If I get stuck and only write 500 words one day, then I’m more motivated to well the following day.

TAB 2. Characters

This section is where I list all of my characters in order of appearance in the manuscript. I have half a page for each character because I also include their height, weight, eye color, hair color, complexion, distinguishing marks, personality notes, and anything else to which I might want to refer later in the writing. This way, if I get to chapter twelve and need to know what color eyes Marcie has, I can flip to my Characters tab rather than searching through the entire manuscript for the page where I gave that information. This also prevents you from guessing in the interest of time and momentum, and then forgetting to fact check later.

TAB 3. Settings

A novel is usually rife with different settings, from someone’s house to the coffee shop on Fourth to the Carnival downtown. Keeping track of the addresses and scenery surrounding a specific place can be difficult, so I keep it recorded right here.

NOTE: Even if you don’t ever mention the address of a setting in your novel, it’s good to know for your own benefit. You might want to use it later, and it’s helpful to know whether the coffee shop is east or west of the Carnival, in case you want to mention it later.

TAB 4. Plot

Like I said before, I don’t keep detailed plot outlines; in fact, I rarely know the endings to my stories until I arrive at the last scene. However, I do want to keep on track, so I provide myself with a brief plot description (no more than two pages or so) for easy reference.

I have friends who write detailed outlines of every chapter, page, and verse, which is completely up to you. They find it easier to write if they know exactly what will happen next.

TAB 5. Visuals

Even if you aren’t a good artist, visual images can help when you’re writing a story or novel. For example, if you’re writing about a small town in Maryland, draw a map of that town. Include the street names, bodies of water, neighborhoods, and major settings in your story. This will give you a three-dimensional view of your main location, and make writing about it easier. You will also avoid slipping up and saying that Lake Emerson is on the western border of town, when earlier you claimed that it was in the northeast corner.

I keep diagrams here, as well as pictures that I cut from other sources that might help me with my writing. If I’m working on a short story about animals, for instance, then I clip articles from magazines and paste them on the pages of this tab.

TAB 6. Research

The most fun part, right? This is where I keep notes about things that I needed to research before I began writing. Many times, I take notes on whatever I have handy at the moment, so the pages are usually covered with pasted-on tablet sheets, but it keeps everything together. My Research sections are never very organized, but if you thrive on order, you can make smaller divisions within the Tab to keep things separated.

TAB 7. Words & Phrases

Have you ever heard a nifty saying, and thought that it might make for excellent characterization? This is where those little phrases go. When I hear someone say something that I’d like to use in a book, I jot it down and add it to this section of whatever project I’m working on. Unused phrases go into the next project binder. This helps you not forget things that might slip your mind as time goes on.

TAB 8. Fact Check

Sometimes, I’ll want to use a philosophy or an area of study about which I am not excessively familiar. So that I don’t stop the momentum of my writing, I jot those things down in this section to be researched later at length. When I’ve performed the research, I simply cross the item off the list.

TAB 9. Concordance

This is that pesky references section that I mentioned earlier. It sounds difficult, but it really isn’t. In this section, I have thirteen smaller sections for every two letters of the alphabet (e.g. AB, CD, EF, etc.) Here, I put every single character, setting, and event, and how they relate to other characters, no matter how insignificant the entry. For example, let’s say that I introduce my main character’s sister, whose name is Lucy. The main character’s name is Alex, their parents’ names are Fred and Debra, and they both go to the same school. Lucy’s entry would look something like this:

Lucy Benson
Sister of Alex Benson
Daughter of Fred and Debra Benson
Attends Mill Valley High School with Alex

Of course, depending on Lucy’s role in the story, there will probably be numerous other cross-references under her name, but you get the picture.

TAB 10. Extra

This Tab really has nothing to do with the current project, but is an idea forum for my next project. Inspiration strikes at random times, and usually when you are in the middle of writing another story. Rather than lose the idea or drop the current one, I jot down the basics in my Extra Tab. That way, I can go back to it when I have completed my current project.

That is the description of my binder. How you set yours up – or whether you even want to use a binder – is up to you.

In addition to my folder and binder, I also keep a running card file that I use for character ideas. Every time I meet an interesting person whose personality profile I might want to use as a character, I slip that information into my card file. I come up with a name for the person, a physical description, and a brief personality profile, complete with possible idiosyncracies and mannerisms. This makes starting a new project easy, because if I need a character idea, I just go to this index. When I use a card, I throw it away.

Those are the steps I take when organizing a book. I hope that it helps you as you’re setting up the files and binders and indexes for your next big project, and that you are able to effectively organize your information for better use. Organization is a great way to kick off your new book because it sets you up for success. How can you fail when everything is right in front of you? Just don’t get too caught up in structuring your project; it is equally important to let spontaneity run its course and to allow your imagination to flow. Great books come from a simple idea that eventually was expanded into a full-fledged novel. Use your organization as a tool to propel you forward into the writing stage.

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