Tools for Organizing Your Story

Are you a plotter or a pantser when you write?

If you’re unfamiliar with those terms, allow me to explain. A “plotter” is a writer who plans and outlines their story ahead of time. Conversely, a pantser writes “by the seat of their pants”, with no strict plan to begin with. They simply go where the story takes them.

It seems to me that most authors are somewhere in the middle, which is certainly true for me. When I was writing Grigory’s Gadget, I would say I was pretty much 50% plotter and 50% pantser. I’d set out a plan, run with it until I hit a road block, then step back and plan some more. It seemed to work pretty well for me…for book 1. Book 2 has become another story (well, both literally and figuratively!).

Due to the fact that I made the (frustrating) decision to set Book 2 at the same time as Book 1 (just following different characters), I have much less freedom. There are certain events, and even some characters, which cross over and therefore need to line up correctly with Book 1. That limits just how much pantsing I can get away with. It’s also forced me to become a lot more gung-ho about organizing my story.

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, organization is necessary! It just might come in later for a pantser, when you go in to revise and edit.

Organizational Tools for Plotters

Plotters love organization, so some of these tips and tools might be no-brainers. As plotters, we typically begin a story by outlining it. This can be hand-written in a notebook or on note cards, or created in word processing software. I personally tend to begin with a bulleted list of the plot points, beginning with the most important and vivid and then connecting those dots.

There are two other pieces of software that I’m a huge fan of as well: Scrivener and Aeon Timeline. Scrivener is like a word processor but with many more capabilities. For the purposes of outlining and planning, Scrivener has an Outline view and a Cork Board view where you can set up your story beats and scenes. These beats can then be made into scenes or chapters (or however else you want to organize your story; for Grigory’s Gadget and Serafima’s Stone, I created a folder for each day to help me keep track of the passage of time) which are organized as individual documents or folders. Documents can be placed inside folders, and everything can be moved around as you will it. (Did you write scenes X, Y, and Z, then decided that scene Z needs to come first? No problem, just drag and drop it!) You can also create documents and folders that are not a part of your manuscript, where you can save research, character summaries, etc. Scrivener’s software typically costs $40; however, if you participate or win National Novel Writing Month, Scrivener is often a sponsor offering discounts on their software.

Aeon Timeline is a visual timeline software. It allows you to essentially create Gantt charts of your story (or your writing time frame!). You can create dots and lines indicating plot points, which can be color-coded and given meta data such as the characters involved, the setting, and more. You can also connect events visually to indicate the one event is directly linked to the next. This software is especially handy if you have multiple characters who are not all in the same place at the same time, or who are traveling for an extended period. Aeon Timeline typically costs $50, but like Scrivener is often a sponsor of National Novel Writing Month, offering discounts to participants and winners. It also can sync with Scrivener!

Organizational Tools for Pantsers

A lot of the tips and tools mentioned above for plotters also apply to pantsers. The main difference is that pantsers normally use these tools after the first draft is complete. Organizing your first draft will help you find inconsistencies, plot holes, and plot seeds you totally forgot your planted (this happens to me all the time!).

This is the stage when I start using more of Scrivener’s capabilities. The first tool that comes in handy is Annotations. Annotations allow you to write notes in your text, the way you’d mark up a physical draft with a red pen. The other tool I use a lot is the ability to add meta data to a document. Specifically, I add keywords to my scenes to indicate which characters are involved, and any other handy keywords that may be useful to me. This is a big help to check the consistency and completeness of different characters’ storylines. I can simply do a keyword search and pull up every seen a specific character is in.

Those are my biggest tips for organizing your story. What tips and tools have worked for you in your writing?

World-Building: Creating a Universe From Scratch

I’m currently putting the finishing touches on my map for Grigory’s Gadget (which will then be beautified by the wonderful artists at Deranged Doctor Design), so world-building has been on my mind.  World-building can be a rough ride. Where do you start when you place a story in a fictional place? How much detail should you include, and where, and how? Here’s some advice I have from creating my own fictional world for Grigory’s Gadget and the Gaslight Frontier Series.

  1. Chicken or the Egg? Which comes first, establishing your fictional world, or establishing your story? For me, this is an iterative process. The world informs the plot, and the plot informs the world. Are your characters traveling by ship? Great, that means there’s an ocean. How big is that ocean, how far are they traveling? What type of ships exist in your world, and what does that mean for speed and the feasible length of the trip? Plot and setting ask and answer questions back and forth like this, likely throughout the entirety of your story.
  2. Real-world inspiration: All fictional worlds take pieces from the real world, in one manner or another. Architecture, social structure, religion, climate – there are a myriad of inspirations throughout the world and throughout history. What makes your world unique is how you combine these elements, and give them your own spin. In the case of Grigory’s Gadget, I took inspiration from the Russian language and from Russian history, particularly from the first half of the 20th century.  I also took inspiration from the “Golden Age of Pirates” that occurred in the 1700s. I tied these bits of inspiration together with steampunk and a sprinkling of dieselpunk.
  3. Keeping track: Building your own world is a big endeavor. How are you supposed to keep track of all this? There are a lot of specific answers, but one general one: keep note of EVERY. LITTLE. DETAIL. Details slip through the cracks very easily, especially if it’s a detail you decide on the fly to include in a brief conversation in the middle of your novel. As far as how to keep track of those details, here are some of the things I do. The big one, of course, is the map. That map determined a lot of the plot of my book, because it determined how long my characters would be at sea between points A and B. It also determined how quickly the climate would change as they headed south. Another tool I found very helpful is the software Aeon Timeline. I used this software to keep track of the various goings-on in my world, from weather events to political events to the more minor details of my plot. It’s a nice way to see how those different elements overlap, and will definitely come in handy as I work on the sequel, which runs concurrent to Grigory’s Gadget. The other tool I use is Scrivener. This software is amazing for keeping your writing organized, and that includes all of your research and world details as well. I have a folder in Scrivener for my world, which includes reference photos, relevant Wikipedia articles, and a Glossary of terms for my world. That Glossary is to help me keep track of what I named places, objects, etc, and what they mean.

So that’s my advice on world-building! Let me know in the comments if you have any questions. Happy writing!