OMG, did you check out her encyclopedia?!

My first novel attempt was just a trainwreck, like most of them are. I changed so many things that I finally gave up and never finished. The second one was marginally better. The third one? Oh, I tracked that thing to death. I tracked details so well I burned out on details, and decided to do the next one without outline, plotting or, well, anything.

And oh dear god, is it a mess. A disaster. A calamity. I won’t be trying to edit it, I’ll have to chop it up and pretty much rewrite it. And you know what’s really sad? I wrote it that way because the strict plotting and notation of the PREVIOUS novel had me all tied up in knots. But, two years later, I can pick up on INHERENT (the third attempt) at any time. HAVEN? Not so much. And it’s all due to one particular little file.

What am I talking about? My own personal encyclopedia, of course. My Bible. My best friend. My saving grace.

Why? Because it contains my created world, and everything in it. People, places, enchanted swords, critters, the obscure sort of trouser worn by the special forces of the desert kingdom (you think I’m kidding? zar). It’s all in there, and right at your fingertips. Instead of having to skim through the entire novel, it just takes a quick glance through the encyclopedia. It is a lot of work initially, but when the deadlines are bearing down like a herd of angry elephants, the encyclopedia starts looking pretty nice.

How? It’s easy to make one of these, even if you’re already halfway through your project. The maintenance is the tedious part. I set up a system: before starting the day’s writing, I’d read the previous day’s work, note everything in the Encyclopedia, and then I’d be refreshed, caught up, and ready to go.

Everyone will have a different system or organizational pattern, but here’s how I go about mine.

STEP 1

First things first: while I’m plotting a new project, I build two databases. These can be made in Scrivener, Excel, Access, or just a Word document. Why two? Because one is like a rough draft: anything I think of as a potential inclusion will go in there. Did I have an idea for lizard-people? I’ll note that in the Dumps. Cool sparky weapons? Dumps. Nothing goes into the official Encyclopedia until I start writing and actually putting things into the story.

For example:

SHARDS

Tokyo, Alternate Future #5: Ruled by the Imperial Dragon and his kin.

The Wild West

An alien world with six suns and 2 moons (how would moons and suns be attached to a Shard?)

COOL THINGS:

Dinosaur mounts!

The Upside Down Mountain

Silver Sisters

Tea Singers

This gives me somewhere to pull an idea out of if I’m stuck. If I’m having a particularly bad case of writer’s block, I’ll work in the Dumps for a while. That usually sparks something! It’s also a place to put bits of writing exorcised from the official text for whatever reason. (I totally deny that I have about 10 pages of alternate endings for my first attempt at a novel…)

Step 2

When I’m about ready to start writing, I build the framework for the Encyclopedia itself. Categories include: People, Places, Things, World, Language, etc. From there, I break it down into even smaller categories. For example, PEOPLE gets broken into regions, which get broken into: Main Characters, secondary characters, religion, historical people, etc. I’ll also include a reference chart of rulers and other important figures as a subcategory. Basically, anything that can trip me up later on, break continuity, or possibly be a weird artifact will go in here.

Confusing? Yeah. So here’s the visual, based off of the SHARD world:

SHARD: Tokyo, January 2030, Alternate Future #5

Characters

Imperial Dragon: monarch of the Golden Kingdom (pg. 32)

Mei Ling: antiques dealer with ties to the Green Chrysanthemum Syndicate (pg. 21)

Jade Dragon: monk in the Imperial Dragon’s service, keeper of the Archives (pg. 79)

Places

White Lotus Temple: the Imperial retreat. (pg. 42)

Miscellaneous

Sun Dogs: sacred guardians of the Imperial Dragon (pg. 42)

Silver Sisters: ghosts of the Imperial Dragon’s mates. (pg. 3)

SHARD: Unknown, primeval, empty of sentient life

Characters: none
Creatures: none

Places

Bird’s Head: A rocky outcropping over a lake. Azaya drops her heart here.

The Lake: the entry point for this Shard. Brutally cold, fed by a spring from the other side of the Shard, which is arctic.

Anything in a description that has an entry elsewhere will be linked to that actual entry. Every time I add new info for the character or place, it goes into the entry. So a main character might have several pages of back-story, minor interests and other info. This also helps me avoid info dumps that stem from me trying to figure a character out.

As you can see, some of the stuff from the Dumps made it into the official story. Not all of it, for now at least, but maybe it will at a future point. If I use something, and then take it out later, it will go back into the Dumps for possible later use. I’ll also go through and organize each subcategory alphabetically once in a while, just to keep things sorted. Chronologically is probably a better idea, but I don’t work well that way!

(Ok, so the above is off the top of my head, from a Shard I probably won’t use. But I’ve got it all there if I want it.)

Maintenance!

The big thing is to not let it build up endlessly. As I’m writing, I’ll mark anything that needs to go into the Encyclopedia simply by putting it in bold or highlighting it. It’s also a good way to keep track of things that need to be researched more fully, later on.

I once heard a good tip: don’t take time out of writing to research. Mark what needs to be researched, and keep writing. This is especially useful if one is a compulsive Wiki-browser. Likewise, if you can’t come up with the perfect name, use a place-holder, mark it, and keep writing. It’s easy enough to come back and change it later.

It’s a lot of work, a lot of detail, and a lot of upkeep. But for a complicated work, it is absolutely priceless. And trust me, except for those few strange folks who *like* editing (and what is WRONG WITH YOU?!), This will save you a lot of time, effort, tears and chocolate.

Wait, why am I suggesting saving chocolate? Screw that, eat the chocolate while you’re working on the Encyclopedia!

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  • Christie Yant

    Great post! I’m working entirely in Dumps right now, and this has convinced me I need to start a new notebook to act as an encyclopedia!

    Glad to have you on board here. 🙂

  • Erika Holt

    Really interesting! I’m going to have to try this–thanks!

  • Great post, Jaym. 🙂 I usually keep a bible of sorts for my worldbuilding, too. I use Voodoo Pad, but there are a lot of options out there for online & offline wikis.

    • I love VoodooPad for this (a kind of personal wiki application for the Mac).

      For any of the worlds I’ve written more than one short story in, I keep some kind of bible to keep track of notes and facts in. Most TV shows keep a bible, too (or should). I think it’s great practice, since worldbuilding, to me, is such a critical part of storytelling because if you get it right, the reader shouldn’t notice but if you screw it up its the first thing I’ll gripe about.

      Great first post, Jaym! As if there were any doubts.

    • I tried using a Wiki program a while back, but just found out that I preferred simplicity. Might not be a bad idea to have a collection of links to various wikis, however!

  • Fabulous post, thanks!

    I’m a pen/pencil and notebook kinda gal for novels. Not that I’m an expert or anything!!! My first novel I trunked, the second is still a WIP..but I love my scribbled notes, character sketches, plot arch drawings etc. I also use Storybook for characters, outlining and info, so far I’ve found that to be quite useful, but maybe I should get a better system going. I always seem to go back to my physical notebook to write in and refer to.

    (Welcome to the Inkpunks!)

  • Great ideas.

    I do something similar, though not nearly so thorough (yet). I keep most of my ideas organized in Scrivener, and then use Dropbox to keep it all synced through text files – this saves out files into a specific Dropbox folder which then ties into apps on the iPhone or iPad. This allows me to have those notes at my finger tips at all times – in a digital format – and I can review or add whenever and wherever.

    Also thanks for the “smack upside the head” on marking ideas that need research and doing that later. I find I lose a lot of time going out to research little things, and interrupting my flow. Obviously your way is much better.