Saturday, February 21, 2015

Writing Problems: Organizing Timelines, Character Histories, or Complicated Fight Scenes

When writers create their stories, they may or may not have an outline of what they are going to write. Typically, they start with an idea and the idea grows and grows until it turns into a story.  The problem comes when the story becomes too big or complicated to remember every little detail.  When writing a series that has a 12 book story arc, mistakes are easy to make and searching for previously written "facts" can be time consuming.  The worst thing that a writer can do is corrupt their timeline or mix up the histories of their characters.

Continuity problems are a way of life when writing complicated histories for characters that have lived for centuries and it is easy to lose sight of what was written in an earlier book.  I know that every writer uses some kind of tool to chronicle their facts whether it's hard notebooks or programs/apps.  I used to make notes and stack them on my desk, or worse, write random notes and save them in different sections of a future book so that I would remember them later.  I found this process to be completely maddening and decided that a physical notebook was a waste of my time.

Aside from using Microsoft Word to write my books, I use Excel, Powerpoint, and OneNote to try to simplify my data.  (I think I would have lost my mind if I hadn't accidentally opened OneNote and rejoiced in its beauty.)  I have created everything from maps of the Realms of Torture in Hell, to layouts for the rooms of my characters for the sake of continuity. Using different programs may seem overwhelming, but I found it to be immensely helpful.

Excel:  I am writing a 12 book series concurrently with no less than 212 characters or places across all of the books, and I'm not nowhere near done creating characters.  I made a list of all of the character's names, descriptions, titles (angels love titles), who they are loyal to, which books they are seen in, which books they are mentioned in, and if they died.  The information is in a giant grid so that I can quickly see which books the characters are in.  This is helpful, not only for timeline purposes, but I find that I don't duplicate character names or use too many characters with the same first letter.  It's easier to see all of the B characters so that I can avoid Brend and Brent.  It has saved me a few times.

I also have multiple timelines in Excel.  I have a history of human events, such as wars, because one set of characters will reference these events, and I have the history of the fallen angels who appear in the series. There have been many times when these timelines have saved me from making huge mistakes.  A character can't talk about their experiences in the 1500's if they weren't alive at the time.

Powerpoint:  I am a very visual person, and it helps if I can see a room, or a set of characters.  For every character I have, I Googled an actor or a model, or some random dude and associated a specific picture with that character.  It can be hard to find the right photo because I want it to express the emotion of the character, more than the physical features of that person.  Once I have my photo or photos, I write out descriptions for each characters, including their personality traits and quirks.  For example, one of my characters has a tattoo on his inner wrist and loves guns.  I have a random photo of the tattoo that I found and added photos of the specific guns he uses.  It tends to give me a better feel for the character and helps me remember what color eyes he has, since it can be hard to keep track of 20 sets of eyes! 

Creating fully furnished rooms with decorative windows is fun when you use the photo settings in Powerpoint.  I created a 3-D room using various photos from online catalogs.  One room has a bed with black satin sheets, a black Barcalounger, a carved wooden chest, a vanity with a water basin, a book shelf with handmade maps, and a stained glass window of a sunset sitting over a ledge with a red cushion.  I can remember all of this, because I have seen the room.  The odds of remember what this bedroom looks like once I get to Book 12 are slim, so I find that taking the time to construct this room will save me having to open up Book 2 and find where the room is and search through the text to remember what color the cushion was.

Aside from the character descriptions, or the room layouts, I also use Powerpoint for hierarchies.  When dealing with the Celestial Warriors or the Overseers of the Realms of Hell, it helps to know who out ranks who, since there are power struggles occasionally.  I used the "organizational chart" to map out my chain of command, which is great because it allows for thumbnail photos to be viewed next to the titles.   

The most complicated "slide" I have in Powerpoint is the map of Hell.  I used the drawing tools to create the Realms and color code them.  Then I added a thumbnail photo of the Overseers in each Realm or area, then used the "text box" to add descriptions.  It's definitely easier to remember the names of the Overseers and which Realm they are in charge of when I can see it at a glance.  In my ever expanding Hell, it helps to know which realms are near the Caves of Winds so that the character can take the correct path to the castle.  Without the map, even I'm lost.

OneNote:  I cannot say enough positive things about the program.  I was losing my mind one day working with Powerpoint because as much as I love it for certain things, it can be tedious when you are short on time.  I don't want to have to stop and create a text box every three seconds.  I knew that there had to be a better program to jot down notes and write down ideas aside from virtual sticky notes, so I went through all my Microsoft programs and found OneNote.  I had never heard of it before, so I opened it expecting to be disappointed, and instead it changed my life.

The screens in OneNote are a blank slate, just like Powerpoint, but you can click anywhere on the screen and make a note.  It blew my mind.  No more tabbing in Word, or inserting Powerpoint, or moving cells in Excel.  I could insert a photo and write all the notes I wanted and move them anywhere on the page.  I was in heaven. 

The fun part about OneNote is that I can "bookmark" any idea and see a synopsis on the side.  I can write notes anywhere on the screen, but I can tag them for later so that I can "remember" them, or "question" them, or "make a check list".  The possibilities are limitless. 

In OneNote, I have each Book in a Notebook, and inside each Notebook I have my ideas page where I list the things I have still have to deal with, like finishing out a plot line, or throw in a photo to remind me to deal with a specific character.  I have my chapter outlines where I can drop in photos so that I remember which characters interact in that chapter.  I also have my Continuity Notebook where I write down specific "facts" that carry across the series.  If the Angel of Death was once known as the Angel of Determination and it influences his character in some way, I had better remember that he was Determination.  I don't want him to be the Angel of Cautiousness in a flashback.

The best thing I have done so far is create an entire fight sequence.  I have 2 different settings where 20 possible Celestial Warriors are battling about 15-20 creatures, all of whom are named.  Since I have my photos of each character, I can build my battle scenes and move around the photos like a chess board.  I can see where each of the creatures dies and where a Warrior is hurt.  I no longer have to find the piece of paper where I sketched out stick figures to try to remember which Warrior killed which creature.  I now have a battle plan that I can refer to during the editing process.  There would be hell to pay if I forgot to kill off one of the creatures.  I find it easier to keep track of everyones movements when I can see each piece of the puzzle.

Writing a series is hard enough, but without the right tools to help organize my thoughts, my books would be a rambling mess of continuity problems.  I truly have no idea what I would do if I had to rely on being organized on lined paper and Post-It Notes.  I am the first one in line to try out a new program to see if it will help me streamline my writing process or help me remember which book someone died in.  I know that I wouldn't be able to accomplish such a large undertaking without some kind of digital assistant.  If you have a favorite program, let me know and I will try it out!

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