Today we kick off the 2016 Dancing Monkey series, where I post a series of updates based upon requests from you, the loyal Man vs. Bear audience, about specific topics and themes to cover the fact that I have absconded to parts unknown and have no internet access.
We kick off with one of the last topics requested, because it turns out it was the easiest to answer: Elizabeth @ Earl Grey Editing asked me to talk about tracking stories, both finished and unfinished.This is one of those topics that will get split in two, because I have thoughts and opinions and a tendency to write a whole lot of words.
YOU NEED TO TRACK (AND FINISH) YOUR UNFINISHED WORK
If I’m honest, the system you use doesn’t matter. Notebooks. Excel spreadsheets. Lining up files in a folder on your computer, or a filing cabinet packed to the gills with drafts and finished folder. I’ll talk through my process towards the end of the post, but it comes with the caveat that any approach is going to be highly idiosyncratic and designed to suit my preferences and preferred writing tools.
What’s important is this:
The ability to quickly see the breadth of works you have in-progress, without having to wonder if they’re finished or not..
Odds are, this will be a lot of work. I have, at present count, over seventy unfinished stories on my hard drive. I have significantly more raw story ideas recorded in a notebook specifically dedicated to that task. My spreadsheet listing novella and novel-length projects could keep me busy for the next five years.
The reason you need to see the unfinished stuff at a glance is simple, and it relates to a Led Zepplin classic.
LET US TALK ABOUT STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN
There is a phenomenon I’ve observed among young men of a certain age, when they are in the presence of a guitar. Usually it goes something like this: a young dude will pick up the instruments, play the first few bars of something – Stairway to Heaven, perhaps, or Enter Sandman, or Nothing Else Matters.
“Oh,” someone says, “you can play guitar?”
“Just a little,” said dude will tell them. Then he’ll quietly put the guitar down, or hand it over to someone else, or start playing something that can be done with three basic chords. Eventually they will put the guitar down, and the next young dude will pick it up, and the process will start again. Over and over and over, right up until the guitar is handed to someone who can actually play, and the guitar tends not to move after that.
I first observed this phenomena when I was a young dude myself, and I was certainly part of the problem. I asked my guitar teacher about it one afternoon, and he had a simple explanation:
“People don’t practice entire songs,” he said. “When they’re learning, they play the first bar and make a mistake. And then they go back and start playing the song from the beginning. They keep going until they make another mistake, and then they start over. Most people play the first few bars over and over, but they never make it to the ending. Good musicians learn to keep going, despite the mistakes, so they learn the whole song”
Naturally, at the time, I was a stop-and-restarter. I could play the first few bars of Stairway to Heaven and Nothing Else Matters. I could manage the riff of Enter Sandman. The middle and endings of all those songs were a mystery to me – I’d never made it that far.
I resolved to fix that, but I didn’t.
You may notice, I do not play guitar. I’m not even sure I could fumble may way through the opening Stairway to Heaven anymore, although the basics are still locked away in the dark corners of my mind.
What I finished – a lot – was stories.
DO NOT WRITE LIKE A TEENAGE DUDE PRETENDING TO PLAY GUITAR
You track your projects because you need to finish your shit. They may be terrible – hell, they will be terrible. You will make mistakes. You will get things wrong. This is at is should be. Because getting to the end means more than writing a better beginning.
Write a dozen beginnings and you have learned nothing more than how to write a beginning – there is still a considerable amount of writing skill that needs to be deveped. Spend that same amount of effort finishing three stories, even if they’re mediocre, and you’re practicing the full range of skills involved in getting a story finish.
I will not go so far as to say you have to finish everything you start, but I would suggest that you earn the right to leave things unfinished. You finish things and keep finishing things and develop your skills as a writer, until you hit the point where you’re confident that when you step away from the story, it’s not because you’ve made a mistake or it’s gotten really hard, but because you genuinely have a chance to make a story better by coming back to it later.
My process involves a lot of putting things on hold. I tend to write three-quarters of a story, hit a point where I’m not entirely sure what happens next, then set it aside until I finish out the ending. I come back to it months later – or years later, in some cases – and the fresh eyes let me see what the ending should be and how I can get there.
But I didn’t start out doing that. I started out writing and finishing, over and over, until I started to see the shape of stories. Until I could recognise things that were a part of my process that meant it was time to step away.
It was also a technique that worked much better when I didn’t work, and I had lots and lots of time to write. These days, I tend to be a lot more focused.
And regardless of the work, I tracked stories and story ideas pretty faithfully because I do kinda live by the rule once you start it, see it through to the end.
MY TRACKING METHOD
These days, tracking first drafts is easy because it looks something like this:
First drafts get done in notebooks, notebooks go on the shelf when they’re filled. If there’s more than one thing in the notebook, I put together an index in the front that lists work included and page numbers.
At some point I will run out of shelf space, wheraupon I will have a “first draft box” shoved into my wardrobe. Going analogue streamlines this part of the process.
But the digital stuff? That’s trickier. Ninety percent of everything that happens once the digital side of work gets started happens in one of five folders:
The Current Work folder is where the files for any project that currently holds my attention is stored. At present, that would be the scrivener files for the Valiant rewrite, my initial notes on few short-story redrafts, and a handful of blog post drafts.
My rule for what goes in here is pretty simple: if I’m going to do anything more detailed than opening a file and correcting a typo, it gets moved into current work. This means there’s a really clean line between projects I should be advancing in a given week, and projects that are allowed to lie fallow.
The Drafft Archive is mostly unfinished short-stories, plus the scrivener files for any novel-length works that are still in progress. Using Word for shorter work and Scrivener for longer work makes it relatively easy to tell what kind of work is contained within a folder.If it contains .scriv, it’s a novel draft. If not, it’s a short story:
Anything in the Drafft folder is a “someday” project. I’ve done enough on the project that it now needs to be finished, but I don’t feel a strong need to do it immediately and I don’t want it cluttering up my current projects file and splitting my attention. As mentioned above, it contains seventy-odd projects that range from one or two sentences long, through to forty-thousand word chunks of novel.
Folder titles are usually a combination of key words and actual titles, so I don’t have to wonder what’s contained within. Occasionally I will forget, but I do a semi-regular sweep to see what’s in there, usually when I’m doing a quarterly plan and figuring out what will get written over the next three months.
One of my projects for 2016 is thinning out this folder a little and getting some of the older projects completed. And, one of these days, I really should really go in and fix the typo.
The Revise and Edit serves a similar purpose to the Drafft archive, storing completed drafts that are not yet ready for me to go in start revising them. Same protocol as above, when it comes to telling the difference between novels and short story projects. It behaves much like the drafts folder, but it contains stuff that are going into a different process and a closer to being ready to submit.
The Sold folder should be self-explanatory. It contains all the files associated with work that’s been published – drafts, contracts, promotional stuff – plus the excel document where I track the rights and income associated with the story sale.
Submission is basically for stuff that’s doing the rounds. Currently the least populated folder, but I’m working on changing that this year.
The only tracking I do outside of those folders is a spreadsheet on Google Drive that contains a list of the novels in progress. It lists there genre, current word-count, and rough state of completion, and a handful of notes about the project and what needs to happen next to progress the project.
This is purely because I am much worse at holding a novel/novella length work in my memory, compared to a short story draft, and it gives me data I can work with when it comes to figuring out what happens next.
YOU TRACK UNFINISHED DRAFTS TO MAKE THEM FINISHED DRAFTS
At the end of the day, tracking your unfinished works isn’t the most important thing you need to be doing as a writer. Basically, it’s a process for you – as long as you’re not losing story, your system is doing your job.
Unlike tracking where you’ve submitted your finished stories, which is a thing you do because it fills an important roll in keeping you from looking like an unprofessional numpty.
But that’s a topic for another day.