How to Write a Novel: Keeping Track



So last time I gave you a template for outlining and an example of how to use it. Today we’re actually not going to talk about working from that outline, but rather how to keep track of things when you *do* use the outline (which I hope you will). Why? Because we you get into the longer novels as opposed to the short stories or novellas, it’s important to keep things straight. Why? Because you don’t want to have to always be going back and rereading everything, because you’ve forgotten half of what you wrote the last time you worked on this. I’ve had issues with this again and again, so I thought I’d throw a few tips out there to help y’all out.

Keeping Track

So you’ve got this outline, right? And you’re writing away, right? But you’ve noticed that you’ve now got about a *thousand* scenes and you’ve forgotten what happened in the first few because it’s been about a month since the last time you worked on this (because real life happens, you know?). You don’t want to waste precious writing time going back and rereading everything all over again every time you do this – what do you do?

Well, start by being proactive. While you’re writing, try these out:

  • Highlight what you’ve already written about in your outline. Highlighting preserves the outline content, but it lets you know that you’ve covered it and no longer need to worry about it. This helps you remember where you’ve ended and what comes next.
  • Use comments. If you use Microsoft Word (this is what I use, so I apologize, because I’m not familiar with other word processors, but would hope they have similar features), then there is a feature where you can add comments. This is really helpful when editing, but it’s also helpful when writing. For every chapter, add a comment to remind you of what that chapter is about, especially if maybe it differs slightly from your outline. (It happens.) Add in key details or important things to jog your memory. You can also do this if you want to go quickly to character descriptions, important scenes, or anything else in your novel that you need quick access to. These comments appear along the side of the page and you can quickly go to them as opposed to searching through the whole manuscript to find what you’re looking for.
  • Keep a “full” document. When I write, a lot of the time I use a new document for every new chapter or sometimes every new scene. This way I’m not dealing with a huge document. It’s more manageable. That being said, it helps to know how things fit together and where they belong. So in addition to these chapter documents, I also have a full document. This has all of my scenes put together in order in one single document. This tells me the wordcount, the order of scenes, and can let me know where I still need work. (I put in notes to myself like UNFINISHED SECTION or NEEDS MORE AT END.) Additionally, when I’ve *finished* a scene, I move it to a finished folder. That way I don’t keep trying to use it or edit it after I’ve already included it in my full manuscript.

All of this is useful if you haven’t started yet and had the forethought to do this in the beginning – but what if you didn’t? What if you dove in and now you have to go back and figure out what’s going on? Organizing suddenly gets a lot harder, right?

Well, there are still some things you can do.

  • For instance, if you know what you’re looking for you can search for it. Use the find feature (still in Word) and type in what you’re looking for. Just make sure it’s exact. This will take you to a list of all the locations where that particular word or phrase shows up. It is very specific, but can help if you know what specifically you’re looking for.
  • Use your outline. Even if you haven’t been highlighting what you’ve already used and what you haven’t, your outline can still help you out. Since the chapters are summarized, you can use them as quick reference and figure out what you did in each chapter. That helps you out since you won’t have to reread your whole manuscript just to figure out what’s going on. It also gives you a little guidance for if you need to find something in your manuscript but aren’t specific enough to search for it. Now you can look it up by chapter.
  • Beyond this, if you want, you can also use the track changes feature in your writing. This is more helpful for editing, I think, but sometimes it’s useful just when you’re adding in new things to a previous manuscript. Be warned though, if you use this too much it becomes less useful because it’s harder to look through all of your changes to find what you’re actually looking for and whether you like the change or the original. Like I said, I’d rather use this one for editing.

I know this was a short one guys, but I thought you might appreciate that! (I know I’m long winded.) And really, I just wanted to get to the bare bones of this one. Keep organized, keep track. Pay attention to where you are in your novel so that you can figure out things like plot holes or what is and isn’t working. I think a lot of the issues with novels today is that so many of authors skip ahead to “the good stuff”. They forget that editing is important. They forget that writing several drafts is important. They forget that you need to make sure your plot makes sense – and not just to you. They forget that in the end, a story is only as good as its execution. So put in some of the boring legwork now and save yourself some grief later.

I hope this post was helpful for some of you guys and sorry it was so Word focused. I don’t use Mac and Word has always been what I’ve been most familiar with. But if anyone has other processors and wants to include some tips, please feel free to add them below! I’d love to hear them.

Stay tuned next time for part seven in my How To series: Drafty Bastards! We’ll start using that outline of yours and I’ll give you some tips for the actual writing of the writing process.


E.C. Orr


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