Back when I began work on Flight of the Vajra, it didn't take long to realize I was going to need a good organizational system for the book's notes. I settled on TiddlyWiki, a tool I've written about before and stuck with despite the occasional stupid issues I have with it. (For writing, I stick with Microsoft Word; until someone comes up with something genuinely better and not just conceptually better, I'm staying put. Sorry, gang, LaTeX files and diffs are not an improvement from where I sit.)
The main thing I came to like about TW is how it didn't impose a particular structure on me; I could create my own organizational system for each work. What I quickly discovered was how having too much freedom can be just as bad as too little, and so I set about trying to come up with a general template for a writing project.
Problem was, I'd always resisted using other peoples' templates for such things, and so didn't have much of a model to draw on.
I hated, and still hate, the idea of templating creativity. A character was not just a set of attributes ("I am not a number. I am a person"), and so I resented the idea of treating something that was supposed to be organic as if it were a writeup for a tabletop RPG. Every time I tried to treat my characters that way, with little boxes to fill out for what they wore, or what their favorite food was, or their childhood traumas,they ended up becoming flattened-out — a laundry list of attributes and behaviors, not a human being.
Well, as I plodded along with my TW experiment, a funny thing happened. I ended up creating one of the very sorts of templates that I despised. But there were two things about it that made all the difference to me:
- It was my template, not someone else's, and it evolved out of direct contact with the way I wrote my work.
- The stuff in the outline / summary / character sheets shouldn't drive what's going into the story; it should reflect what's going into the story. (I found one of the better ways to do this was to use specific in-story examples of many of the common attributes that went into a character sheet, so that it felt more like I was putting together the sheet as a synopsis of what was already in the story.)
Random example. Two of the attributes I have in my character pages are "Outer Conflict" and "Inner Conflict." I despise these headings, because they reek of all those horrible, cheesy Save the Cat!-style character-and-story algorithms that have turned storytelling into a write-by-numbers process. I don't like using them as a way to talk about the people in my story, lest those categories begin dictating back to the story how it should be put together. Stories don't work because they are assembled according to some algebra; they live or die based on an inner rhythm that only they can manifest. That pulse of life can't be reduced to the rhythms of a click track or a drum machine.
But here I am, using those same headings in the new character pages anyway. Maybe it's because I've wised up about what such things are for, and know better than to let their alleged purpose infect the story and alter its DNA. They're there for the same reason the pages themselves in the wiki are there — as a bucket with a particular label to hold something. Such labels exists only because no better ones have been devised yet. In essence, they're a critique of the story, not merely a description of it. They're not about telling the story what to do; they're for talking about why the story is what it is.
This is a tough enough distinction for even me to grasp that I'm not surprised I'm still leery of using such devices at all. It also throws plenty of harsh light on why many people pick up on templating tools for storytelling — beat structures, n-act structures, what have you — and end up doing little more than playing creative fill-in-the-blank. The creators of such things emphasize over and over again that they're just providing a skeleton, that you have to put the meat on the bones yourself, but such warnings go unheard. Too many people want so badly to be writers without ever knowing what that actually amounts to, it's no small surprise they will grasp at anything that looks like a shortcut, anything that tells them, "See? It actually isn't that hard." I knew full well that was a lie: it's not only that hard, it's far harder besides, so quit kidding yourselves.
That ought to clue you in to why, up until I started writing Vajra, I didn't put together anything to help me track a story — no plot outline, no character sheets, none of it.
See, I had this romantic delusion that if I couldn't hold the whole story in my head at once and report back on it, I had no business writing it. Call it a romanticism that grew out of my sense that the story should be a living thing inside you; if it couldn't all live in there at once, it didn't belong there at all. Some of this was shattered, thank goodness, when I learned of the detailed notes Dostoevsky created for his works: if someone of his caliber did it, what shame was there in doing it on my orders-of-magnitude more modest end?
Now I'm preparing to write a new work (Welcome to the Fold) using this system, which will be one measure of how well it stands up as a process. So far, I'm not very far into the process for the new book, but it's a promising sign that the new wiki has not yet collapsed under its own weight. It does need to be tidied up after every burst of new creativity, but that's right in line with the sort of housekeeping that goes with any large-scale creative project.
And while I still hate Outer Conflict and Inner Conflict with a frothing passion, I'm still using them. But only until I find something better.