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Keeping Track of Your Plot

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Plotting and Planning

Catherine Ryan Howard

Keeping Track of Your Plot: How to Make a Novel “Bible”

I get most of my ideas while writing. While I thank my lucky stars I get any ideas at all, this can make my plot complicated; at the beginning the story can fit into a one-page synopsis but by the end it’s a sprawling mess spread over notebooks, Word documents, Post-Its and the far recesses of my addled brain. Every time I sit down to write a new scene or chapter I have to refer to all these scribbled notes, picking out what I needed to include. Afterwards I go through it again, crossing off the stuff I’ve managed to put in. (And add any new ones… You can see how this soon turns into a complete nightmare.)

I also frequently re-read the start of the book to remind myself of what I’ve done which as this excellent post by Kay Kenyon on Storyfix.com points out can lead to editing blindness. And so I take Kay’s idea of a scene list, added enough paper to satisfy my love of making notes and a cute clip to satisfy my need to peruse stationery catalogues for hours on end, combine it with the idea of a “building a novel in a folder” that I’ve read about in Wannabe a Writer? and hey presto, my novel bible is born.

Here’s how to make your own.

You will need:


•            A4 paper

•            A large clip (like a bulldog clip)

•            Your synopsis and notes printed on A4 paper

•            A desire to procrastinate while appearing to work.

1. Decide how many chapters your novel is going to have. (You could also do scenes if you prefer and – of course – the novel isn’t written yet so this is all approximate.) Count out enough pages of A4 paper so that you have one sheet for each chapter. Write or print the corresponding chapter number at the top of each one and draw a horizontal line about a third of the way down the page.

2. My novel is divided further into five or six parts or sections, so the next thing I did was to take a page for each part and insert them in between the chapters where I thought they’d appear in the book. (I use my beat sheet to determine where they would be, although this could – and probably will – change.) If you want to be fancy about it, you could print out these as title pages and use a different colored paper so you can easily find the section splits when the document is put together.

3. I have a one-page beat sheet showing all the major points in my plot; that goes at the front. Then between that and our blank chapter pages I put any notes I have/Wikipedia entries I have copied and pasted. (Joking about the Wikipedia entries. Well… kinda.)

4. Make a cover. By Catherine’s law, this cover has to include the words “A Novel by” so that you’ll start thinking of what you’ll have once you’ve finished (OR it’ll heap tons of pressure on you, so much so, that you throw your novel bible on the barbecue and go cry under your duvet). If you’re not ready to start writing yet, you can always waste a day or so mocking up a cover. At the very least, use some clip art.

5. Secure everything together with a clip. (A bulldog clip is what I’m calling it, but that’s not exactly the kind of clip I use. Any large paper clip that holds everything together while allowing you to open it like a book is fine.) This way you can flick through it, but add to or subtract from it whenever you want.


How to use your novel bible:

I wrote my first novel section by section – I planned out the first section meticulously, wrote it and then started planning the second one, and so on. So let’s say I’m about to start writing Chapter 1, Section 1. I figure out (with my beat sheet) what needs to happen in the ten chapters that make up Part I, and then I divide up the action between each of the chapters. Remember that horizontal line we drew on our chapter pages? Well now we’re going to write a couple of sentences or a few bullet points above that line that’llremind us what needs to happen in that particular chapter.

Let’s skip ahead to, say, when I’ll be starting Chapter 5 or 6. As I’ve been writing all the chapters leading up to it, I’ve been scribbling notes down about things that need to go in future chapters on those chapters’ corresponding pages. So now I can flick to the page titled Chapter 6, read my summary of what needs to happen (e.g. “The unemployed Irish girl trying to make it as a writer runs into a rich, gorgeous musician with a US passport in the security line at the airport and he falls madly in love with her.”) and my own reminders to put in some of the smaller details (e.g. things like “In Chapter 2, Irish girl says she loves pancakes. In the security line, the musician should have to dump a packet of pancakes he’s carrying. This is their conversation opener!” and “Don’t forget it’s not lunchtime yet” and “BUBBLES! LOTS OF BUBBLES!”)

(I’m obviously making these up, but you know, maybe there’s a novel in there….)

Now if you’d like a big gold star stuck on your forehead, you can take this one step further. Every time you finish a chapter, replace its scribbly, messy page in the bible with a neatly typed fresh one showing a short summary of the scene in the top third of the page. And can you guess what we’ll do with this?

We’ll use it when we do our second draft, of course!

NB: This is entirely separate to the manuscript, which I don’t print out until I’ve finished a draft.

About the author

©Catherine Ryan Howard 2010 

 Find out more about Catherine at www.catherineryanhoward.com (or here at Double Spaced!)

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