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.
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.
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?)
The Upside Down Mountain
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…)
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
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)
White Lotus Temple: the Imperial retreat. (pg. 42)
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
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.)
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!