Organizing a Novel When You're Right-Brained

Vision 64

Organizing a Novel

When You're Right-Brained


Linda Adams

Copyright © 2011, Linda Adams, All Rights Reserved


If you're right-brained, you know what a challenge organizing a novel can be. Most of the techniques available are for a left-brained world, and even how it's taught is in often in a left-brained way, inside to outside. If I try a novel notebook, it ends up gathering dust bunnies with only a few sheets of paper inside. If I was lucky, I actually got tabs into the book. I probably didn't label them.


I've come to understand this isn't a flaw, but how I organize, and that how I organize isn't the way it's taught. Unfortunately, there's not much information available for people like me, and the only advice I've really seen is, "You're on your own!" So it's been a process of trying different things and seeing what works and what doesn't.


Tracking Details

Right-brained thinkers are very good with understanding the big picture. We can see the whole story, but we're also likely to have problems with details. Details, for a right-brained thinker, are anything that's not part of the big picture. That tends to cover a huge amount of territory, so there can be a disconnect when you talk "details" and someone else talks "details." They're thinking hair color and what time the character drinks coffee every morning. You're thinking world-building, back story, and even the inciting incident. They talk about tracking the details on a spreadsheet, and you feel overwhelmed by trying to figure out what even should go on the spreadsheet and then give up on it after a handful of entries.


The book The Checklist Manifesto gave me some insight into a method that works better. The book is by a surgeon who developed a checklist for surgery for the World Health Organization. One of the things he learned on the journey through the process was that a checklist should be for things you're likely to forget.


During the first draft of my novel, I had a terrible time remembering how to spell the one of the character names. So what I did I start out with? A character list that included all the names, including ones that weren't a problem. The result was suddenly a list I had to maintain. If I added a new character, he went on the list. If I changed the name of the character, I had to go back to the list to change the name (I had over thirty characters, and one character changed names three times). The result? I stopped using the list in frustration and scrolled through the novel for the name I needed. When I got frustrated with that, I'd try for a "different" list with the same results, and I ended up with about four or five lists.


But a list isn't the only way. After seeing the book on checklists, I decided on a simple process: Index cards. I write only what I can't remember on the card. It sits on my desk. I grab it when I need it and toss it back on the pile, out of the way, when I'm done. If the card wanders, that's okay because it may be a sign that it's not needed any more. If the card is no longer needed, it can be thrown out. Right now, I have only three cards. One is a name, and the other are two words I consistently have trouble spelling. The idea for putting those two words down came from Streetwise Time Management, which suggested an idiot's list (the author's description, not mine) for things we always get wrong.


This method is entirely customizable and flexible to what you need. You can color code the index cards, or if you don't like index cards, you can try Post-Its or even write it on a white board.


Use Only What You Need

Another thing to think about is exactly what you need to help you. If you read typical organizing advice for your writing, the assumption is the more, the better. Character worksheets, character timelines, character family trees, photos, setting worksheets, research notes, world building notes. There are people who do find these helpful and even necessary in keeping oversight of a novel.


But, as a big picture thinker, you may not need that much and certainly not the same things, because you're able to connect the parts together into a whole in your head. So you may have twenty settings in your book, but you may only need a worksheet for one setting to help you work out the details for several important scenes. Listen to that. It's easy to get mired in how everyone says you're 'supposed' to do and not what you need to do for yourself.



One of the great things about being right-brained is that we can take huge leaps and connect something that seems completely unrelated to what we're trying to do. But it makes sense to us. These are some tools to give you ideas.


Use color to associate with the story. This gives you a lot of areas to play with. The color might be a folder in the file cabinet, a basket, a clear plastic pocket folder, paper to show the draft version or notes -- pretty much anything. It also doesn't need to be the same color each time. It just needs to be what's going to help you associate with the story.


Use anti-lists. Right-brainers can have difficulty with lists because they're sequential, and also filled with details. An anti-list is whatever you make of it. When I was getting ready to start on my revision, there were notes for things I wanted to make sure got into the book and wasn't sure I could remember. So I wrote them in no particular order on the page. Some were at an angle, some were sideways, some were squished up against the edge of the page. I drew pictures and diagrams and doodles. And, of course, color-coded it. To someone else, it looks messy and unorganized, but it's perfectly organized for me.


Use graphics organizers. A graphics organizer is a visual way of organizing information. This is a tool some schools are using now to help with the learning process for kids. You might see a drawing of a hamburger with the layers of bun, cheese, pickles, meat, and bun to organize a paper. Graphics organizers can be found by searching the internet, but will get you started. I also use mind maps to organize research material using keywords and branches connecting everything together. If you're interested in this, start with the source: The Mind Map Book.


Explore the office supply stores. Or, for that matter, any place that sells office supplies. It used to be that we had few choices in physical tools. Now we can get clear hanging folders, folders with pockets on the outside, and even notebooks with designs on the paper itself. I often purchase magnet pads from the Dollar Store and use these for quick notes.


Use unusual resources. If you're drawn to it, try it, even if other people tell you not to bother. When I started digging more into the organizing side, I was drawn to business and productivity books. I was told by other writers this would not help me because they weren't writing related. To them, it looked like a time waster because it's not actual writing. There are certainly some activities that writers do use to procrastinate, such as making the clothes the characters wear. But the right-brained world sometimes needs to approach a problem from a different direction than everyone else. If business books help, try it. If recipe books help, try it.


A last note: Keep it as simple as possible. Most organizing solutions, even the writing ones, require a lot of work to make the system work, which is why right-brainers end up losing interest in them fast.

You'll have to work a bit to figure out the best solutions for you, but once you have a foundation in place, it stops becoming a battle and instead, a step in the process.



The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, by Atul Gawande. Picador. ISBN-10: 0312430000

Streetwise Time Management, by Marshall Cook. Adams Media. ISBN-10: 1580621317.

The Mind Map Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain's Untapped Potential, by Tony Buzan and Barry Buzan. Plume. ISBN-10: 9780452273221.