Tools of the trade

Tools of the trade

With NaNoWriMo now thoroughly on my mind, I'm reviewing my past techniques and making some decisions about whether or not to employ them.

For the past three years (including last year, I did get through a fair amount of free writing, somehow) I have used the Notecard approach.  It's a system I first learned of through Holly Lisle, and SBWC's Abe Polsky (sorry, no anchors on that page) advocates a similar approach.  The idea is that you use one oversized notecard per scene.  As the scenes come to you (you know how they do — maybe it's just an image, or a snippet of dialogue, but they come) you write down everything you can think of about that scene.  In one corner you put When it's happening, in another corner you put Where it's happening, and across the top you write very succinctly What is happening and Who it's happening to.  So it looks something like this:

Thanksgiving dinner                      Mary confronts John about his affair                     Dinner table at John's mother's house

Details of the scene go in the main body of the card — who is there, what it feels like, what it smells like, what she says.  You may not know all of that at the time, maybe all you have are the headings, but you've got a card for it.  The card then goes on your corkboard.  

You can move scenes around this way, find holes in your narrative, see imbalances between characters.  My office in the old house and my kitchen in this one have been dominated by such corkboards.  Abe suggests spending a quiet ten or fifteen minutes every day with your cork board — with your story —  going over it in your mind, moving things around, finding the gaps.  When the cards stop moving, he says, you're ready to write.                  

I've never quite got to the point where it stops moving, because I'm usually doing this for NaNo, and we just don't have the time.  But it's definitely been helpful in getting myself organized.  Using the cards as tasks at writing time has been useful.  Sitting down and telling myself “Okay, I'm writing cards 15 and 16 tonight” is much more managable than not having a target to hit, and I get a greater sense of accomplishment than I do with targeting a word count.  1000 words feels good, but if I didn't get through the scene then I don't feel any closer to done.  

I have a couple of problems with the notecards, though.  I'm pretty tied to technology now, and I type *so* much faster than I can write.  When I sit down with a pen in hand I actually forget what I'm trying to write, it's such a laborious process.  I lose a lot.  It's much more effective for me to type.  I definitely like the tangible aspect of the notecards, but I'm not sure that's enough to keep me coming back.  Also my handwriting is so atrocious that I get distracted by (I know this is completely insane) the lack of uniformity and I find myself wanting to copy my cards over so they look nicer.  That kind of neurosis does not get a novel written.

I was considering using TiddlyWiki  this year.  It's great for brain-storming.  Wikis have become so useful and prevalent in my life that the idea of a 'stub'  — a subject in one article that becomes a heading for its own article, but does not yet have content — has entered my vocabulary for general use.  I've been using it at work to document my 'tips and tricks,' and it's good as far as it goes, but I'm not sure it's what I want for novel writing.

Patrick just pointed me to Google Notebook, and I'm playing with it today to see if it might be a good substitute.  Early reviews are positive.  It allows me to create the equivalent of notecards, and I can move them around, which is perfect.  The only thing missing is the Big Picture that the corkboard gives me.  I'll have to think about that.  

What's your approach?  What tools do you use? 

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