Keeping (on) Track

If you’re a regular visitor to these pages, you’ll have noticed that I tend to roam across different genres and different worlds. How do I choose what I’m going to do next? Well, that depends.

Sometimes, I’ll have a particular brief in mind – I’m crafting a story for an anthology, or my good friends at Grimdark magazine, for example. At others, it’ll be a story that’s been bubbling up and down for a days, weeks or months, and I’m finally in a good place to pursue it. On very rare occasions, it’ll arise from a spark of inspiration, and gather momentum all by itself, even queue-jumping concepts that have waited (and are still waiting) for their moment of glory.

If this sounds a bit chaotic, that’s because… well, it is. But that’s part of the fun. I think most authors’ll tell you that half the initial momentum comes from your own excitement and passion for the topic at hand. We all know there’ll be a slog to come (normally in the last third of the book, when the beginning seems ludicrously far back in the past, and the end is at the end of a very, very dark tunnel). Given the choice, I’ll always start a sparsely-planned project that I’m enthused for over one I’ve planned meticulously but whose spark I’ve temporarily mislaid.

Sometimes that can mean writing a prologue before a sequel, or scribbling in a different world altogether. It also means that I end up keeping and refining a whole boat of notes as I go. Characters (sometimes just a name I like). Bits of back story. Bits of world-building. Segments of plot. The back half of a synopsis looking for something to kick it off. One half of an investigative team in need of a partner. A god in search of a nemesis.

Most of the time, I think, my hard drive looks like the literary equivalent of Victor Frankenstein’s lab. The only difference is that my components are of virtual pen and ink, rather than abnormal brains and body parts, and that coffee – rather than lightning – fuels them coming to life. I even have an Igor. Sort of. I’m talking about my tabby cat, Marko. You’ve probably seen him butt his way into the odd photo. He’s curled up in the bed on my desk as I type, doubtless waiting to spring into action the moment he judges my concentration apt for breaking.

But anyway, cat aside, how do I keep track of it all? The main rule is New Project: New Folder. There’s a line in Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honour: ‘If you don’t write it down, it never happened’. Words to live by.

It’s not just that I want to remember the really good ideas for when their time comes, it’s so that I don’t spend ages trying to reconstruct an idea, only to discover it was actually pretty bad. Experience has taught me that an idea I only half-recall is neither bad nor good – Shrodinger’s idea, if you will. So I write everything down, file it somewhere I can easily find it, and revisit those ideas whenever I need to. Yes, the character works, but the story doesn’t. I like the name, but not the setting.

Names generally come last. Most projects get a working title, rather than a real name. Sometimes this is just close enough to being the right name to be dangerous (Queen of Eventide was City of Twilight for a long time). More often, it’ll just be a word. I’ve had books start as Project: Grey and Project: Ghost. I currently have a Project: Silver folder demanding my attention. My favourite, though was probably Project: Womble. No, it contained no wombles of any kind, but it did hide an excruciating pun. Don’t judge me. I find my amusement where I can when I’m two-thirds of a way through a draft.

What’s always reassuring, however, is sliding projects into place; being able to tick off a new stage. This one has a pitch. That one has a synopsis. This one’s finished. That one’s out in the world. It lends a sense of achievement, and as I mentioned a little while ago, that’s always a useful goad.

So what does that look like? Well, right now, it looks something like this…

Yes, there’s a lot of blurred out stuff on there (allow me a little privacy for some WIP names), but it paints a picture. Plenty down, and plenty more to go. You’ll also notice that this isn’t just for full-length novels either – there are short stories and novellas present, too. Each one represents a piece clicking into place, maybe introducing a new character, or fleshing out an existing one.

If you want to see something a little more involved, you should see the one that deals with characters, settings and wotnot. It’s not even up to date…

So, do you have to do this? Absolutely not. This is my process for keeping track of what I’m up to. Yours will almost certainly (should almost certainly) be different. These are tools, nothing more. They’re not the goal, but something that helps me stay on track for the goal. If you don’t need stuff like this, then don’t do it. But remember: you don’t have to keep it all in your head.

If nothing else, what you should take away from this is that there’s plenty more yet to come…

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