Monday, June 25, 2012

Notes, Flags and Scribbles

Whenever I saw my grandfather, he’d ask, “Have you asked any good questions today?” I’d think about his question and usually found that I could reply “yes,” which I knew was the answer he wanted to hear. If I asked good questions, I was learning something. Why didn’t he ask me what I had learned in school? I think he was more concerned that I possessed an active mind than passively absorbing knowledge without engaging in the educational process. His insight has served me well as a writer since we ask questions continuously.

Before reading my rough draft through, I composed three questions that I attached via Post-it Note on the arm of my chair (and perhaps that initial act was my downfall).

      ·         Does it hang?

I use the term “hang” to describe logic, chronological order and truth. Have my main characters deduced reasonable conclusions from the facts I’ve presented. Have I revealed information too soon or not soon enough? I’ve completed my research at this stage of my novel, but as I read—I asked myself if I presented the best case. Could other evidence produce a stronger case? If I changed that evidence now, how much of the current story would I have to revise, and would I make the case stronger to the detraction of another aspect of the story? Would additional research help?

·         Are the characters real?

What can I do to increase the appeal of my characters? Would a secondary character be more memorable if I gave them a distinctive trait, or would the trait seem an unnecessary artifice? Given the background and traits that I’ve given each character, do they act and think in a congruent manner?

·       Does the reading lag anywhere?

During the critique process, my group worked in twenty page intervals making pacing evaluation impossible, but it is important. I’m thinking of combining and condensing two chapters that fall at about page 120. What could I do to propel the story forward?

 I’m unsatisfied with the results of my review, not because of the conclusions I’ve drawn, but because of the form in which I’ve chosen to document them. My manuscript is full of Post-it flags and scribbles. Outside of the manuscript, I have four pads of Post-it note pads, some of which are four or five pages deep with my notes. Then there is my little note pad that is about 4” x 6” with my notes on what a new chapter must contain. The flags and scribbles on individual pages describe specific changes that I want to make on that page. The note pads are full of general changes and observations I’ll use to tweak the book throughout.

What are the priority questions you ask yourself when you read your rough draft for the first time? Does anyone have a better method for documenting changes than Post-it notes?


  1. On the first read through I focus on characters, time frame, and sometimes setting. I also make notes of any glaring errors. I have Post-it notes everywhere and hope that someone has a better solution. They tend to fall off or stick to another page which is confusing and I waste time sorting it all out.

  2. I tend to correct as I go along on the first read through. I have a list of characters, a time line and variable amounts of plot points on another page. I know there are computer programs that let you work on chapters or sections individually but I don't know how to use them.

  3. I have no idea what I do? I just do it. I know that's not a satisfying answer, but it's the way I've written all my books. I always know where I want to go, and half the fun of writing is getting there. For me, characters come first. If a book doesn't have engaging characters, whether I'm reading or writing, the book won't hold together for me. That goes for the bad guys as well as my H/h. So that comes first. I'm a very visual person, so I see the scenes as if I'm watching a movie. That helps with dialogue and setting. If I'm bored writing a scene, I can assume a reader will be bored reading it. My two wonderful critique partners let me know when I'm off track. Our books are our children, and often times we're blind to their faults.

  4. I bought a colorful hardback, spiral notebook for the first 'serious' review of my latest novel. I am going through it in 50 page blocks and I make notes on each chapter including: day, time, POV character, D-data (descriptions of people, places, clues), MD-missing data (data that I now realize should have been included), Q-questions 'asked' in the chapter, A-questions answered. There are lots of scribbles on these pages but at least they aren't walking away on the cat's tail or blowing off the desk when I turn up the fan!

  5. I focus on plot first, Kara. I'm surprised that characters and setting are your first priorities, although timing is an element of plot, so I understand that point. I hope that someone has a better method than Post-It notes.

  6. I'm always afraid that if I'd use a computer program, my book would turned into a predictable formula book, so I refuse to use them, Warren.

  7. You're lucky to have such wonderful critique partners, Polly. I have good critique partners too, which is my next step. I printed out all of their comments chapter by chapter. The editing I'll wait on until I'm finished revising, but I'll go through their comments about each chapter now.

  8. You bring up a good point, Karen. I too jot down questions or points for my MC to follow up on and then go through to make sure she did. Nothing like showing your character to be incompetent when the writer is the problem. Unless, of course, you like stupid MCs!

    Maybe I'll try a notebook the next time. I'm afraid that if I don't keep the comments physically on the manuscript, I'll forget about them, and then, if I do revise, the page numbers may change so cross referencing them in a notebook wouldn't match. But--I may try it--or maybe an Excel type product.

  9. I have the plot in my mind before I start, however much of the details of how to get from A to Z is worked out as I go along. I may not know exactly what is going to happen in each chapter except for a general idea when I sit down to write, but once I put pen to paper, it seems to write itself.

    For each chapter I keep a chart with three columns. In the first column I write day of the week and time of day and page numbers. In the next, much larger column, I write a brief synopsis of what happened in this chapter. In the last column I write the characters who appear in this chapter. This way I can look back and see how the story is progressing and what character, who may be the villain or a suspect needs to be brought back. Also, if I want to refresh my memory of what went down in which chapter or if I'm repeating something brought up earlier, I can refer to this record.

    I print out a hard copy of each chapter when I finish it and write the comments and suggestions my two critique partners make - Ann's in red, Mary's in blue. Then I go back and make any needed changes right then. When it's finished, I wait a month or so before going back to reread and edit. While I'm waiting, I'm usually working on something new.

    Yes, I keep post-in notes, too. Thoughts that come up for the WIP or a future book. In my last book, Tony, a young police officer is pushing for a police dog so I made a note for him to do the same in the book I just finished last month.

    I agree characters are very important, especially in a series. My problem is that I keep adding new characters to the old that I like so much that except for the victims and the murderer, many of them come back to some extent. My little fictious town of Portage Falls is getting quite crowded. :-)

  10. All these answers made me think of two things I've done, though not in all my books. The first is to keep track of a timeline. And since I often have more than one storyline going on at the same time and multiple POV's, I keep a chart of the chapters and whose POV it's in. I like to break them up so no secondary plot or character takes away from the main story. I usually color code the POV. That gives me a better visual. See? I need things to be visual.

  11. Coming in while on the road, EB.

    I have a notebook that I keep beside my printed manuscript as I'm doing first run-through (though I've recently taken to using my laptop with a word doc instead of a notebook). As I read, I make note of questions to answer or deal with--is this scene too slow? What's the motivation for that character's action? What happened to the rope and flares? Do I engage enough senses in this scene? I keep this read-through at the macro, structural level. I don't want to get tangled up in grammar, style, typo stuff at this point.

    Also in the notebook (or documents on laptop), I make a scene-by-scene outline and run a chronology timeline along with it. I also make additions to the series bible--New character A has blue eyes, etc.

    I go through reading and just noting with page number. Then, I start with the biggest issues and work on them, moving to the medium-range issues, then finally down to logistics (what happened to the flares/backpack?) When I'm all finished, I print it out again and read through looking for any new structural problems my other fixes created and reading for narrative pace and style.

    I don't give it to anyone else to read until I've taken it as far as I can myself. Then, I turn to my professional-editor husband and my critique group to see things I'm too close to catch.

  12. I print out my chapters also, Gloria, along with my 3 critique partners' pages. I bought the biggest 3-ring notebook to contain all of them. But the pages out-grew the notebook, leaving me with a mound on my desk. I'm not looking forward to paging through all of them, but I will.

  13. When I change characters, I use the same color flag at the beginning of the chapter for each character. Some characters have a bigger role, but I also want to make sure I've kept the story going from each POV and check my flags and their colors for pacing. If my MC has gone on for 40 pages, its more than time enough to switch to another character's POV. So I think we both use colors, Polly.

  14. You bring up an interesting point, Linda. I started my rough draft with a critique group, and I think that was too soon. The reason I did was that I got stuck. I thought that the critique group would force me to produce a solution, which it did. But this novel has taken twice as long to write than my other two scripts. I think it has made it stronger, but I think it has been two long.

    Thanks everyone for giving me insight into how everyone else works.