In a previous post I wrote about how I use a book guide as an integral part of the process for each novel I write. Now I’m going to give you a more detailed description of what that guide is like.
The first section, called ‘Preliminary Notes’, is where I jot down every idea related to a potential story that pops into my head, from the first kernel of the premise to everything that comes after – clues about the characters, sketches of the setting, and even snatches of dialogue – until I’m ready to start pulling the idea together as a whole. Some of those notes will not be used, but at this stage of the process, I don’t know enough to sift the good bits from the bad. So I write down everything to keep for later.
Then, when I’m ready to sit down and find out what the basic idea for the ‘right’ story should be, I create a second section called ‘Story Structure’. I take the pile of pieces from my preliminary notes and start trying to fit them together until I see the shape of the story emerging, while new notions arise to link some of those pieces and help create a cohesive whole. This doesn’t provide the details of how the story will unfold, but it does give me the defining promise that tells me where I need to start and helps guide me along the way until I reach a satisfying end.
The third section is ‘Working Chapter Summaries’ for making notes about the story as I’m discovery writing the first draft. As the ‘working’ part implies, these notes evolve as I write. Before I begin a particular chapter, I may know only whose perspective it will be, or I may have an idea of the specific story problems it needs to address. As I write, though, I always grow in understanding of that chapter’s place in the narrative, and I continue to makes notes about it as needed. Until I’ve finished and moved on to the next chapter.
At the same time, I also start a fourth section – ‘Rewrite Notes’ – which is basically just a list of things that occur to me to change about chapters I’ve already written as I press on with the new material. But once I’ve finished that first draft, I review what I’ve learned and try to put it all together in a fifth section, my ‘Rewrite Guide’. There I describe the broader changes I need to make to the story as well as organize the specific fixes I have to make, chapter by chapter.
And that’s it. Nothing goes into the guide when it comes to the final polish, when all I’m doing is tweaking the prose to try to get the flow and pacing just right, or the proofing process, where I rely on a couple of helpers to help me find typos and other errors to be corrected. At this point the guide becomes a historical document, but that doesn’t mean it stops being useful.