Constant Readers (all two of them) will remember (assuming they have had their coffee) how some time back I posted a primer on how I develop my ideas into a story. Right now I'm at stage 1 with Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, bordering on stage 2. I have The Idea, and now I'm moving into The Rehearsal.
About half the Rehearsal process happens in my head; the other half — the half that is the most transformative and important — happens on paper. Or, rather, in a newly inaugurated TiddlyWiki. Right now all sorts of blue-skying is happening in there: plot possibilities, character considerations, throughlines, endpoints, kick-offs, touchdowns, and fumbles.
It's a mess.
It's supposed to be a mess. If it wasn't a mess, nothing interesting would happen there.
The first books I wrote were nothing like this. They emerged as if they had been delivered whole from the factory, and I just transcribed them as I went. Not a good approach, because so much of the toss-and-test that's vital to a story achieving full potential got lost in the process, and I ended up with glorified first drafts.
By the time I got to Flight of the Vajra, I'd wised up. That was, not coincidentally, the first project where I used some kind of actual project tracking system, a wiki, apart from the manuscript itself. Some of that was a practical consideration: with earlier, shorter works, I was able to keep everything "on the page" and not have to dig very hard to look something up. With a whole universe of details to keep track of, it no longer made sense to hold myself to a standard that would only cripple me. That way, I'd end up with ... well, a mess, and not a positive sort of mess.
Once I got into the habit of documenting everything via a wiki, I also got into the habit of using the wiki as a laboratory, an experimental space. It made sense: the wiki was itself a freeform format, so where better to perform the kind of freeform play that a creative work demanded, than in a space designed to accommodate that kind of play? What I liked about a wiki as opposed to a simple Word document (or for that matter a sheet of paper) was how I could be as freeform as I liked, up until the moment I no longer needed it to be freeform. Then I could impose structure upon it, and that structure would be as permanent or as temporary as I needed. It wouldn't be a structure dictated by any particular document layout or physical organization.
In other words, it can be a mess, until I no longer need for it to be a mess. The best kind of mess.
Side note: Another thing about a wiki is that it automatically journals and tracks revisions. Or, rather, the previous version of the wiki I use did; the current version doesn't automatically have that ability unless I do some tinkering. But the ability is there. It's possible to dig back and see what an earlier incarnation of an idea looked like, or even view a whole snapshot of the project at a given moment in time. (Again, I wonder what Dostoevsky would have given for such a notebook.)
Next: the ingredients for this particular mess.