As you will no doubt have noticed, novels are big. I mean, a commercial novel is likely to have 90-100,000 words and within that you’ll have multiple chapters, scenes, characters, plots, sub-plots, and back story. As you get further into your first draft (or attempt to wrestle your second draft into a coherent whole) how on earth do you keep track of everything that’s going on in your head?
The short answer is that you don’t. Not unless you’re a genius at any rate (and if you are, kindly keep it to yourself as it’ll make the rest of us feel bad).
There are many different ways of keeping track of both the details of your book (such as the eye and hair colour of your characters) and the action. Here are a few…
1. Character sheets. Even if you don’t believe in these for character creation, keeping a list of your characters with a few salient details will help you to both keep track of them (Raymond Chandler, when asked what happened to the chauffeur in The Big Sleep apparently replied, ‘I forgot all about him’), and help you keep them consistent so that their eye colour doesn’t change halfway through the book.
2. A spreadsheet. I know, stop groaning in the back; a spreadsheet in which you list all the scenes in your book can be incredibly helpful. Again, this is something I do during revisions, but if you’re more of an outliner, I’m sure you could use it earlier in the process. Open a simple template and list your scenes. Use a simple title (it’s just for your eyes, remember) such as ‘Jake meets Lucy’ and then add a line of description in the next cell. I like to note whose POV the scene is in (and I use a snazzy colour for this, too, so that I can see at a glance whether my POVs are balanced) , and the day on which the scene takes place (this helps with checking the time line later on, and ensures you don’t end up with three Sundays in a row).
3. If you don’t fancy a spreadsheet, I know some writers use a giant whiteboard to list their scenes instead. This (like a spreadsheet) has the advantage of being easily changed and you can use different coloured pens for different characters, POVs, plot lines and so on.
4. Novelist Emma Darwin prints out a grid and fills it in using pens/pencils. Each row represents a chapter and the columns describe the detail. She describes her system fully here, and provides a free download of the grid template.
5. Index cards. Write your scene descriptions onto index cards which can be shuffled around into any order you desire and used for quick reference.
6. Use dedicated novel-writing software such as the wonderful Scrivener to help you organise scenes and chapters, see the structure at a glance, and keep research notes and images in one place.