Sorting It All Out Dept.

I've mentioned in the past that I use a wiki application, TiddlyWiki (I think the name is silly, too), to organize notes for creative projects. How I ended up using it was twofold: just writing stuff down in a linear fashion wasn't scaling, and the existing creative-organization apps out there didn't cut it. Version 5 of TiddlyWiki made major changes to the way things worked under the hood, but the net effect is the same: it's a tool that conforms to your expectations of how the tool is supposed to work, assuming you have such expectations in the first place.

(Note: Some of this post may be redundant with another post I made some time ago on the same subject, but I'm reiterating a lot of the points in question both for newer readers, and for the sake of seeing what new insights might be had on the subject. It's also kinda long. Read for flavor.)

One of the best definitions of a computer I've heard to date is that it is a device for amplifying human thought. The computer isn't a glorified typewriter, although we do treat it like one. We take things that are familiar to us from other realms and we move them to the computer, without always taking note of how doing so radically changes the substance and meaning of what we're doing in the first place. Writing on a computer is far less inhibiting than writing on a typewriter or writing longhand, but such freedom has downsides. For one, the creativity that comes from imposed restraints tends to be replaced with undisciplined indulgence. It's not just that it becomes easier to produce, but that there's all the less reason to be selective.

The other thing that happens, and the thing that's the crux of this post, is that you aren't automatically liberated from the expectations imposed on you by the way you work. A lot of this is about how you approach it, though; even a program like Microsoft Word has more malleability than people give it credit for, but you have to know the malleability is there, and know how to make use of it. That's why I suspect a lot of people reared on apps like Word stall somewhat when confronted with something like TiddlyWiki. If you're not used to the idea of a program that can conform automatically to the way you use it, you won't have any idea how to use it.

Most of the organizational apps I've seen for writers work like this. They present you with a fill-in-the-blank template of sorts, one where the design of the template is more or less dictated by the program's creators. Scrivener, in particular, had that kind of approach, and it drove me crazy — not least of all because ideally you also wrote the story in Scrivener itself, and that drove me up a wall. An attempt to write in Word and keep the notes in Scrivener also failed, because again, the actual process of keeping notes in Scrivener was heavily closed-ended. I suspect many people benefit from having that kind of guidance; I just wasn't one of them.

With TiddlyWiki, the learning curve was much higher. Not only did I have to learn how to use the program in a basic functional way — how to make notes in it, how to link things and mark them up, etc. — I also had to devise a way to use it that complemented my creative needs. In the end, that meant devising a set of templates all my own, ones that reflected how I thought about the story, characters, setting, etc. The hard part wasn't coming up with some organizational scheme, but understanding the rationale, the criteria, used to arrive at them.

Here's an example. One of the pages in the wiki template I created was the "goodie file", a lift of a concept discussed in The Illusion of Life, that massive bible detailing the creative process within Walt Disney Studios. The idea was that in the hallway outside the animators' offices, there would be a cork board where people could pin things that looked interesting or aesthetically appealing, but weren't otherwise being used. By allowing other people to see them when they walked by, the plan was to allow cross-fertilization of ideas ("the stone the builders rejected..."). In the same spirit, I created a page into which I could dump any number of things that didn't really work — rejected lines of dialogue, or suggestions for scenes — but where I could still keep them handy and allow them to stimulate other lines of thought. So it amounted to a way to make sure good but unused ideas didn't go completely to waste.

Another thing I settled on over time was the "next draft instructions" page. If, in the middle of writing any particular draft of a story — even the outline! — I realized something needed to have attention called to it, I would make a note of it in the NDI page so that it could be worked back into the manuscript when I was specifically giving myself time to deal with such things. It was a way to ensure that I could circle back to things I knew were important, without breaking my stride. It helped to be able ask hard questions about the work and manage the discussion generated from such a thing.

The list goes on, but you get the idea. What mattered what not which things I settled on, but why I settled on them — what purpose they served in helping me put the story together. It made sense to have pages for each character, and for a general beat-by-beat rundown of the plot, but there were many other things that needed a freeform format to accommodate. You could, I guess, duplicate some of these things in Word or Scrivener, but at the cost of them not being tightly interlinked (a wiki provides that automatically), and at the even less desirable cost of either shoehorning the information into a format where it wasn't comfortable or spreading it out across multiple, exponentially difficult-to-manage-files. TiddlyWiki was just better suited to that kind of job than anything else I'd come across, even if it was also that much tougher to get settled in with.

Next time I'll talk about some of the other top-level insights I mined out of all this.

Tags: Scrivener software TiddlyWiki writers writing

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar in the category Uncategorized / General, published on March 7, 2016 8:00 PM.

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