October 29, 2020, 02:07:07 AM

Author Topic: Writing project overwhelm - looking for tips & ideas  (Read 1580 times)

Offline Magnus Hedén

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Writing project overwhelm - looking for tips & ideas
« on: May 28, 2020, 09:16:59 AM »
I keep hitting a wall with my big writing projects where I get overwhelmed by all the information, both what I have down on paper and what's in my head. I think mostly the problem is that I don't have a consistent process of consolidating all the information into something I can actually wrap my head around (and easily find the information I need). I've made progress with this over the years, and part of it is certainly just about putting in the work of constantly refining what I have, categorising etc. But I still have issues.

I'm guessing most writers experience this at some point, but I get the feeling I'm particularly susceptible because I've always had issues staying focused. Creativity is not a problem, but organising it into something useful is.

So I'd be happy to hear how any of the other writers out there deal with that. I know that I'll have to carve my own path; I can't transplant someone else's method wholesale. But I like to snatch up good ideas where I find them and incorporate into my process. So let me know any tips or tricks you have!

Offline Skip

Re: Writing project overwhelm - looking for tips & ideas
« Reply #1 on: May 28, 2020, 04:44:55 PM »
Can you elaborate? I'm trying to envision what "overwhelmed" means in a practical sense. Unable to write? Starting stories but not finishing them?

Similarly with "too much information." What sort of information? Plot ideas? Worldbuilding details? You don't get to say "all of it." Try being specific, as best you can. How much is "too much?" Or, to look at it differently, when is the information just enough, or not enough? Can you recall an example?

Finding the information I need is always a challenge. I have some organizational approaches I'm using on my current project, but with every novel I change. I *think* for the better.

By way of offering something practical instead of just asking questions, here's this: I start with story. Setting, characters, all the rest, that comes after. First is story. My first novel was incredibly messy as a project, but I had the story from the first: goblins invade the Roman Empire and nearly topple it. My second one was an orphan girl half-elf, half-human, discovers she is neither. The third was: a journey to the center of the earth finds a lost civilization that didn't want to be found.

I did not have so compact a summary in mind from the first. But I had the concepts listed above, less focused. Without the story, all I have is a collection of tidbits.

I'm pretty sure this comes from my academic background. I spent forty years teaching students the importance of a thesis statement in writing history. The story is the thesis statement. It's the filter for the information, the test by which I can decide if something is relevant or not, the principle around which the argument (the plot) is built.
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Offline Bender

Re: Writing project overwhelm - looking for tips & ideas
« Reply #2 on: May 28, 2020, 08:25:04 PM »
Haven't written anything but mind maps are a useful tool to order thoughts. Look it up though the various tools/methods online make it sound more complicated than it actually is (they need as they're selling products). Just get the scope of it and you can create your own.
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Offline Peat

Re: Writing project overwhelm - looking for tips & ideas
« Reply #3 on: May 28, 2020, 08:54:52 PM »
Not entirely sure I grasp what you're looking for, and knowing this mightn't be that helpful as you've probably considered it -

Can't you just press ahead and do it with what you've got? If something's forgotten, it's probably not that important. I know there's probably a good reason but I figure I might as well ask the obvious.

If you do need a way to collate it all together, why not a Series Bible? I do mine on Scrivener with each part different documents but word doc or even an online wiki would work just as well.
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Re: Writing project overwhelm - looking for tips & ideas
« Reply #4 on: May 29, 2020, 01:33:15 AM »
I had a big shift in process when I had a kid, because suddenly the amount of the story that I could actively keep in my head when WAY down - the child pushed everything else out, and stuff I could previously rely on myself to remember was just GONE.

I dealt with - and am still dealing with - this with a combination of things. I started writing down a lot more - in notebooks, and then consolidating in note files or even a private wiki for the project. I also started committing a lot more to my outline - noting not just what happens, but how, and why, and what my goals with the scene are in terms of theme and pace and character points and... just everything I think of. And I started relying a lot more on the outline. When I sat down to write, I didn't need to worry about where I was in the story, I just looked at the outline for the point I was up to, and did what it said to do for this scene.

Now, this meant that the draft wasn't as smooth as it could be, and that was the other half of my Dealing With This: I stared not caring about getting things wrong. My first drafts have a lot of contradictions, or tonal shifts, or parts where I've explained the same thing three times (each time slightly differently). But my first drafts get done which is a big step up from when I was spending all my writing time trying to find whether I'd explained this already. And once I have a draft, it's much easier to identify the problems and fix them.

Offline Magnus Hedén

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Re: Writing project overwhelm - looking for tips & ideas
« Reply #5 on: May 29, 2020, 08:37:18 AM »
Let my try to express my problem better: I recently went over all the notes for a sci-fi novel project and consolidated and revised them into historical information, an encyclopedia, character backgrounds and info, and I made a folder for potential scenes and started writing scene cards for the stronger ones that include plot and emotional development (all of this in a massive folder tree in Scrivener). I've started building a routine of transferring all my notes (from hand-written) to "incoming" documents for each section and transferring that to the appropriate place regularly.

It's 35k words, none of it actual draft. And I have a pretty good idea in my head of what the world is like, who the characters are emotionally and where they might be heading, etc. But it's so much information and it all relates to itself in maddening patterns. I can't 'picture' the whole anymore (this may relate to my overactive visual imagination, mentioned in the aphantasia thread: I like to 'see' everything in my head, including timelines, character relationships, etc. and I guess I can't here, and that puts me out of my comfort zone).

I guess first and foremost I'm looking for tips and tricks about how to organise and access large amounts of information.

Part of the problem is that when this information starts interacting with itself the potential implications boggle the mind. I realise I can never get a full picture of all that, but I need to update the way I store and process it all (perhaps mentally as well as physically) so that I can more easily grasp the things I need. Anyway, I hope this didn't confuse you more.

My current thought is to use keywords to build information flow based on characters, concepts, events, etc. (when you click a keyword you get all related documents). That could be something because I need to access the information in different ways depending on what I'm looking for. But any tricks you use to more easily organise and access your information are welcome.

Oh and I've tried mindmaps; that was a complete dud for me. Just more information on top of the information. It's not how I see things at all so it just confused me more (and I'm not sure I can explain how I actually see things, but perhaps that something I should work on). Outlines murder my creativity; with the story I like to know where I'm heading, but more in a road-sign kind of way, not in "x happens in scene y" kind of way, which kills all my joy in writing.

Sorry for a wall of text. I'm just trying to process what the hell my problem actually is, so if nothing else this has made me approach the problem from a new angle.  8)
« Last Edit: May 29, 2020, 08:39:22 AM by Magnus Hedén »

Offline Peat

Re: Writing project overwhelm - looking for tips & ideas
« Reply #6 on: May 29, 2020, 06:01:39 PM »
Welp. That's a fascinating problem, and one I've honestly never encountered in a writer before.

For what it's worth, I think your proposed solution sounds good. I never had to use it for writing, but I did once have to organise a list of websites as a healthcare resource and I did something that sounds similar - every site (in your case idea/discrete piece of setting info) gets its own page, then there's Keyword lists so someone could search under the relevant keyword and see all the good stuff for that particularly keyword.

So keyword lists like

Characters
Worlds
Cultures
Tech

etc.etc.

Then under Characters you have the sub-list of characters

MC Dumbbutstrong
Smuggles Da Larfs
Invincible Kung Fu Princess

So you'd click on MC Dumbbutstrong, and you get the links to the pages for his bio, his favourite blaster, his world of birth, the world he trained on, one to his love interest maybe etc.etc.

Does that sound like what you were thinking?

Offline Skip

Re: Writing project overwhelm - looking for tips & ideas
« Reply #7 on: May 29, 2020, 07:33:39 PM »
That was a helpful reply, Magnus. I feel your pain, as I've struggled with it myself.  I have a system, but the real question is how long does it take me to find a particular piece of information while I'm plotting, while I'm writing, while I'm editing. The answer is, my system works better than no system. I know this because I've tried the no system route, too.

So. I use Scrivener, but the approach would be similar with other tools.

I have top-level folders for Plot, Character, Setting, Theme, Manuscript, and Research. Manuscript is the actual work-in-progress. That's where scenes and chapters go, and I also have a folder called Scraps, which is where I write scenes and fragments as they occur to me. The organizing rule here is, if it's actual writing, it goes into Manuscript. No notes, thoughts, questions, etc. go here.

Plot, Character, Setting, and Theme all hold similar stuff, organizationally. They hold questions, thoughts, preliminary sketches, but also anything finalized. For example:

I'l have questions about theme(s), but also statements of theme. These are a kind of audition.
Under character I'll have descriptive stuff but also little essays that's just me discussing the character with myself. I'll have Friends of X, Enemies of X, and any other notes about character relationships. Also character arc. All MCs and secondary characters get a page. I make ones for tertiary characters, but these are often very sketchy. But at least if I am wondering about a character, dream up a new character, or just have a stray thought, I know where to put it, which means I know where to find it.

Similarly with Setting. And of course the Plot folder holds not only the plot (organized as scenes) but also various branches. This folder also holds my plot summary, which is important for me to maintain a sense of story direction. The rule there is: must fit on one page, no cheating with font size. This forces me to maintain the same level of focus. Other documents can contain more or less detail, but the summary must be one page.

Research is all over the place. It's my grab bag masquerading as Research. I don't put pictures in here (I have a separate folder, outside of Scrivener, for that), but my historical research goes here, along with notes about setting. Because I do alt-history, it's important to have the historical events in one place so I can make changes over in another place.

OK, that's organization. What about retrieval?

Scrivener is a cut above on this count. Because everything is in the same project, I can search at the project level and Scrivener returns every document in which that search string appears. You could do something like this if you put all your Word documents in one folder tree and use Explorer (or a third-party tool) to do the search. I've done that. Scrivener does it better. My weak point is the pictures. It's really hard to search on "that image that had that cool castle on a hill." *grimace*.  So I do waste a bit of time clicking through images for the fifteenth time. I do collect them into sub-folders, usually by location (because my settings are mostly real-world).

The major weakness of Scrivener? Everything's in one window. I want to be able to spawn multiple instances of the same Scrivener project and hotkey my way around them. Then I could have a Manuscript document open, another for Plot, another for a Character I looked up, another for Setting, and maybe another just as a scratch pad. As it is, Scrivener lets me have a grand total of two documents open within a project, at the cost of splitting the screen. I grumble about that often, while sitting in my grumble cave.

Anyway, that's the organization and retrieval side. I want to reiterate, though, the importance of knowing your story. If you don't have the story clearly in mind--envisioned, in your case--then you will accumulate a good deal of irrelevant material. Clutter. Do you have your story clearly in mind? Can you summarize it in a paragraph?

I hope some of this resonates, and maybe is even useful!

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Re: Writing project overwhelm - looking for tips & ideas
« Reply #8 on: May 30, 2020, 12:30:47 AM »
My thoughts were along the same lines as Skip and Peat - Scrivener is a handy tool with a lot of options that can be used for organisation. There are colour tags and labels that you can switch to whatever system you need (so they might be useful for keyword highlighting). Remember that you can makes links within Scrivener - including in the notes on a document. But the search function is also VERY HANDY and the primary thing I use for finding what I've said about Thing X before (the key here is to make sure you always use the same terms, or remember what words you used).

The other option that leaps to mind here is a personal wiki, which easily enables the tagging / grouping / keywording and also the inter-linking that might be useful for you. I dabbled with this, but I honestly don't worldbuild to that great an extent, I mostly prefer to do it on the fly. (So I don't have any information documents in my Scrivener files, but I do have the entire text of two previous drafts of my current project...) But I think I used SlimWiki when I was dabbling, and it was really easy to build and inter-relate. This also solves Skip's "not enough documents open at once in Scriv" problem. (Using any other sort of secondary note-keeping tool, like Evernote, would also work here.)

Offline Magnus Hedén

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Re: Writing project overwhelm - looking for tips & ideas
« Reply #9 on: May 30, 2020, 09:13:52 AM »
Thanks for comments and thoughts so far!

I use Scrivener and I organise my project in a similar way to Skip, and the search function and ability to add keywords (tags) is awesome. Overhauling my basic folder structure and tagging everything seems to be the next step for me. I'll keep working on it, and even though it feels like treading water, it should save me a lot of time and headaches in the future (and not just on this project).

That's the 'physical' part of it. As for my mental approach, the thread on aphantasia has really had me thinking about how I process information. Like I said, I believe I rely a lot more on visual imagery than might be 'normal', which can be powerful but also has downsides. I feel it's like my working memory gets full faster because I fill up with images instead of 'raw data'. There's no simple way to get around it, but the awareness of it may help construct my information flow around the fact.

Anyway, if anyone has more thoughts or ideas, keep them coming. I'll be working on this for a while.  :o

Offline ScarletBea

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Re: Writing project overwhelm - looking for tips & ideas
« Reply #10 on: May 30, 2020, 09:23:10 AM »
I believe I rely a lot more on visual imagery than might be 'normal', which can be powerful but also has downsides. I feel it's like my working memory gets full faster because I fill up with images instead of 'raw data'.
I also remember data better visually than on plain words and for this I use lots of font colours, lists, schematics/arrows, etc.
I'm not sure if Scrivener has these options, but could you organise your data like this? A type written in blue, another in red, something else organised in bullet points, etc.
At work I use OneNote for my meeting minutes/notes plus project ideas, and the different coloured tabs and the possibility of taking screenshots and using graphs and tables with information are really helpful.
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Offline Skip

Re: Writing project overwhelm - looking for tips & ideas
« Reply #11 on: May 30, 2020, 08:59:20 PM »
Magnus, I just tried an exericise you might consider. I sat down with pen and paper, closed out Scrivener, and wrote out my story. One paragraph per scene. It was instructive.

I found exactly which scenes I had clearly in mind and which were just placeholders. It also became clear where I could see the arc and where it was more just a list of events.

I believe I won't have the story until I can write that outline, one paragraph per scene, from beginning to end, without aids. For me, that's pretty far along in the process. Maybe you're expecting too much clarity too early?
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Offline Magnus Hedén

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Re: Writing project overwhelm - looking for tips & ideas
« Reply #12 on: May 30, 2020, 10:19:11 PM »
@Skip You may have a point. When I write short stories I write the scenes as they come to me, then start putting them together in a way that makes sense. Then I build what background I need, then basically just reiterate that process until I have something that ticks.

I may be spending too much energy on building the foundation here and losing sight of the actual story, which tends to come alive as I write it. I still need to organise my thoughts, however, for when the time comes to refer to all the information so that things are consistent and make sense. And the reason I'm moving more carefully now is that I was just steaming ahead and ended up with tens of thousands of words of completely unstructured notes and drafts that took a very long time to sort through.

@ScarletBea I use lots of symbols and markers in my notes and in my draft to draw attention to various parts. I mostly prefer symbols to colours, though I can't say why. I tried colour-coding stuff based on how much I had edited it (as I tend to edit as I go and wanted to keep track of roughly how much I had worked on each segment of the text), but I found the colours confused me more than helped. I'll use highlights but only for urgent stuff that I intend to fix quite quickly.

Offline Skip

Re: Writing project overwhelm - looking for tips & ideas
« Reply #13 on: May 30, 2020, 11:13:33 PM »
FWIW, my current novel, which is admittedly my most ambitious, has about 40k of manuscript and about 85k of notes, outlines, etc.
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Offline Caith

Re: Writing project overwhelm - looking for tips & ideas
« Reply #14 on: June 03, 2020, 11:37:39 PM »
Hi Magnus,

Your post above ("I may be spending too much energy on building the foundation...") suggests that perhaps the solution is not to have a better means of organising a mass of information but just to have less information to deal with?

Applying Pareto's 80/20 rule (which is remarkably accurate) might be something to consider. It would imply 20% of your foundation information provides your story with 80% of what it needs. Hence, most of your information is not that relevant  (I'd stress here, to the reader) and doesn't need stressing about and close management.

I understand only too well the problem of things having to make sense to the author. I'm working a novel that involves moving between different worlds and I found myself getting caught up in complexities like differences in language, gravity, nutrition, air composition and the like, between worlds. Then I thought that most readers probably never think about these unless the author raises them. Same as its not important that characters take bathroom breaks. Its just not central to the story and unless its driving the story forward, it doesn't have a place in the story.

Hope thats of some help.