Hope for the Disorganized

By Bob McCrillis

As you may have gathered from some of my earlier posts, I am organization-impaired. I’m sure that must be a recognized affliction since there appear to be so many sufferers in the world.

Symptoms include spending an hour searching for the yellow piece of paper with the title and premise for the story about the Grizzly bear who learned sign language, or the certainty that you’ve already re-written the scene you’re working on, and drawing a complete blank when you try to remember the clever password you came up with for Writers’ Market.

I’m convinced that, somewhere in the compost heap of information on my desk, there’s a best seller. All I have to do is dig it out, then try to read my handwriting.

The computer – marvelous tool though it may be – is an enabler of my illness. It is so, so very digital, with menus and file structures and protocols that just scream organization. Of course, it’s all a lie. The clever file structure I established when I began the novel is now twisted and bent into a capricious, nearly incomprehensible system, which defies me to find Scene 27.

Okay, I’m a slob. But I have found a few things that help me control the worst of my slovenliness and limit the amount of time I spend looking for things. My first high tech tool is a notebook.

As you can see, I note pretty much everything down in my little notebook. First of all, it gets rid of the millions of scraps of paper that many of us store. Yes, I know that the back side of your rough draft can be re-purposed as note paper – don’t do it!

As surely as the day is long, that critical note will enter the pile with the front side up. The likelihood that you’ll remember that you wrote your great idea on the back of the scene in which Hildegarde first meets Rolando is vanishingly small. That probably is diminished further if you use the back of the letter from your insurance agent for the second page of your idea. Paper is cheap, children. Forget about what Mom said about the Depression.

Since my handwriting is awful, I like 9 ½” X 6” spiral-bound books. It’s a little less convenient to carry than something smaller, but trying to cramp my handwriting frustrates me and I throw the dinky little note book out. Also note that it’s spiral-bound – you can’t lose a page. Of course, that means that an idea might be interrupted by a grocery list or notes from your book club. In my opinion, that is a minor drawback. Which leads me to my next tool.

Yup, the grammar school three-ring binder. A four-inch binder will hold your novel’s entire manuscript. I usually seem to end up with a hodgepodge of scenes, chapters, vignettes haphazardly divided into separate subfolders on my computer. Some might be five or six thousand words, others as little as nine hundred. As I complete one, I number it, print it, put it in  my trusty binder. I discovered that office supply stores sell dividers number one through fifty so keeping the printed copies in order is a snap.

When it’s time to make a book out of my wandering draft, I can go through the binder and put a rough outline together (yes, I did say outline). With an idea of how the story will flow, pulling out a section to edit is easy. Since I’ve cleverly added the section’s computer file name to the footer each section’s pages. I can quickly find the Word file that matches my paper file.

In the early stages of the work, I prefer to whip out my Ticonderoga Number 2 pencil and scribble on the paper copy until I have a clear idea of what needs to be done.

Once I have a direction, then I start working on the computer file. I don’t use the track changes option until I feel like I’m getting closer to a finished manuscript – all those colors distract me and the product is hard to read. However, that is a terrific option when you’re polishing.

My last suggestion for this week is to use the header-and-footer feature of your word processor. I like to have the working title of the work and a word count in the header. If you’re working on a novel, maybe you would want the scene or chapter description.

Page numbers are critical, especially if you’re working with a writing partner or editor (page numbers also help you recover after dropping the section and it’s all over the kitchen floor).

As I mentioned before, putting the file name in the footer when you’re searching among half-a-dozen similarly-named files. Don’t just type it – use the automatic “file name” field, that way you’re sure the paper matches the electronic version.

Next week we’ll explore the pros and cons of using paper clips.

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