Tuesday, 16 June 2015

How to organise your HUGE fantasy novel

This is a lonnnnng post!

Here's the TL;DR version:

Separate your notes from your actual writing. Create folders for each of your characters and locations, and break your story notes into separate files (one per scene).

And here's the long version:

I've been working on a fantasy novel for more than fifteen years. I don't mean continually of course. I've been writing it and planning it at the same time as all the normal stuff (education, work, life). It started as a minor hobby but now I'm taking it seriously!

When I started out, I wrote almost everything long-hand. Eventually I realised my efforts had resulted in nothing but a massive pile of notes. Here's what that pile looked like:

A terrifyingly huge pile of notebooks

The notes consisted of all the usual novel-planning stuff: scene ideas, character histories, NaNoWriMo attempts etc. Some of it had been typed but various screw-ups meant I didn't have the files any more. The whole thing was completely out of control and I desperately needed to type it all up. Or burn it.

Step One: Type up your notes! (Don't burn them!)

It took me six months to type everything. Six months. Ouch.

Things I nearly did but didn't:
  • Using a typing service. I decided against this because I was having more ideas while typing. Just reading my notes would spark off new ideas - it was great! Yes, it meant more typing, but it also meant I generated some useful stuff. I tried dictation software too, but that didn't work as well as plain old-fashioned typing (too many typos, and fewer new ideas).
  • Organising the notes as I went along. This was an insane idea and I abandoned it pretty quickly. It took far too long to read a line of my scrawly handwriting, then to hunt for the correct place to put that line. Much quicker to just type it all into a single file.

I typed everything up in a file called "Misc.doc". When "Misc.doc" got too big, I created "Misc2.doc" and carried on. Then came "Misc3.doc" and... well, you get the picture. When everything was typed, I ended up with several massive files.

I ran a word count and discovered I had over a million words.

A million words.

I couldn't believe it. The scale of the project was terrifying. It wasn't a single book -- it was a whole shelf! I put my head in a bucket of melancholy marmalade and cried for a while.

'Sad Orange' by leoveanul

After a few days of weeping, it was on to the next step.

Step Two: Organise your notes!

This is what worked for me, and I'm blogging about it just in case anyone else is buried in their notes and is in the nightmare situation where they don't know where to begin. I hope you find something useful here.

I needed to sort the contents of all the "Misc.doc" files into some sort of order. After a lot of false starts, I found the best way to organise my thoughts was to group everything in separate Word docs. It took ages but I eventually managed to organise all my notes into separate files. That took a lot of cut-and-pasting! It was essential to the writing, though. Until the notes were organised, they were all bouncing around my head and I found it impossible to just sit down and write a scene.

Here's the structure I ended up with:

I made a folder called "Novel" and created these subfolders:
  • Archive
  • Characters
  • Concepts
  • Creatures
  • Feedback
  • Places
  • Plan
  • Things to decide on
  • To use somewhere
  • Useful

In "Novel", I also added the "Misc.doc" files (my unsorted notes), along with lots of Word docs full of useful information such as writing techniques, characterisation ideas, and editing tips. There's also a file for inspirational quotes (these have come in very useful over the years... mainly when I'm feeling demoralised!)

By the way, if you install DropBox and put "Novel" in the DropBox folder, then every change you make will automagically get backed up almost as soon as you hit save. Then, when your computer dies a horrible death in a ghastly blancmange accident, your beautiful novel plan will be safe.

Explanation of subfolders:


After all that typing, I refuse to throw anything away! Anything I want to delete is unceremoniously chucked into this folder. Sometimes I look through and find something useful, but mostly this folder just gets ignored.


In "Characters" I've created a separate subfolder for each of my characters. For example, one of my main characters is called Calvin, so I've created a subfolder called "Calvin", in which I have a single Word doc called "_Calvin.doc" (I use the underscore because it keeps the file at the top of the file list). There are a few images in there as well (pictures I've found on the web that remind me of what Calvin looks like).

In the "_Calvin.doc" file I have a long bulleted list containing all the notes about Calvin himself. Examples of this are:
  • Age 12
  • Slightly dopey but well meaning and good natured.
  • Brave to the point of being foolhardy.

It's surprising how much information can build up. Over the years, "_Calvin.doc" has grown to be twelve pages long. As well as the notes, the file also contains a monologue where the character talks in first person as if he's being interviewed (I find these types of monologue can be really useful for getting to know a character well).

I like to think that one day I'll organise the contents of all the character files. But, until then, they'll just stay as long, unorganised bulleted lists. It works fine for me -- I just scan through the file whenever I need a quick reminder of a particular character's personality/description.


In "Concepts" I've created a separate subfolder for each of the different abstract concepts that are being used in my story. Examples are:
  • "The Dragon Knights" (an order of knights who hunt demons)
  • "Human Magic" (a list of all the properties and limitations of human magical ability)
  • "Demon Magic" (a list of all the properties and limitations of demon magical ability)


In "Creatures" I've created a separate subfolder for each of the fantastical creatures that inhabit my world. Examples are:
  • "Demons" (Demons are the baddies in my world - they cause all manner of mess!)
  • "Dragons" (Dragons hunt the demons and frazzle them to cinders)
  • "Luddites" (Luddites in my world are weird fat slug-like creatures who ooze copious amounts of slime)

Just like the structure of "Characters", I have pictures in each folder, along with a single Word doc file of semi-organised notes.


I'm getting braver with my writing and have been sending it out to friends and family. Sometimes people are kind enough to send me files with comments and/or corrections. Thank you to all those people -- you are awesome! :-)

I put all these files in "Feedback". Usually I rename the file to reflect the name of the person who sent it. It's really useful to keep a record of this sort of stuff, because you can look back at it and think "hey, I write better than that now!" -- and that's always good for a confidence boost!


In "Places" I've created a separate subfolder for each of the different locations used in my story. These can be entire countries, or buildings, or even just a room. Examples are:
  • "Matterhorn-Sutter" (a country)
  • "King's Square" (a place in a big city that Calvin visits in Book Two)
  • "The Hospital" (a room in which Calvin unfortunately spends a lot of his time!)

Again, each subfolder will contain an appropriately named Word doc (e.g. "_Matterhorn-Sutter.doc") and a bunch of photos to remind me what the place looks like. If the picture collection gets to be huge then I recommend moving them out of DropBox (you only get a certain amount of space for free) and store them elsewhere, e.g. on Pinterest boards.

It's really helpful to draw a map of each location. You'll always be able to check if a character takes the correct amount of time to walk from one place to another! Maps also help with catching other inconsistencies (e.g. making sure a door always leads to the same room, rather than accidentally saying it leads to the bathroom in chapter one, and the living room in chapter ten).

The map is just a reference guide, so doesn't have to be a work of art -- after all, it's only you who's going to see it, and you're meant to be writing, not sketching! I scribble mine using a simple drawing tool (e.g. Windows Paint) and store the jpg file in the appropriate "Places" subfolder.


In "Plan" I've created a separate Word doc for every single scene. Over the years, this folder has grown to be HUGE! There are about 250 files in there, and most of them are about 30 pages long. It terrifies me to think about all those words... but then I remember that all I need to do is write a scene at a time, and I feel much better! If you break your novel into scenes then it won't seem quite such a scary task.

Each Word doc in "Plan" is named in such a way that Windows organises them in the correct order. I use this structure for the file name:

            "Scene <scene number> - <scene name>.doc"

Examples are:
  • "Scene 000100 - The Dark Forest.doc"
  • "Scene 000200 - Climbing Temple Hill.doc"
  • "Scene 000300 - Visiting the temple.doc"

The scene number, e.g. "000100", is there purely to ensure Windows keeps the files in the correct order. I've used 100 instead of 1 because this way I can easily insert a new scene in right place, e.g. by calling the file something like "Scene 000150 - After the Dark Forest.doc". The extra zeroes at the start of the number are there just in case things get completely mad and I end up needing thousands of scenes!

In the scene files, I put all the notes about what happens in each particular scene. Sometimes these are full scenes that need editing, and sometimes they're just single lines like "Remember the demon needs to eat a turnip".

The scene files also contain all the different drafts I've written of that particular scene. As an example, I had a lot of trouble with the "Dark Forest" scene, and so I've have nineteen different drafts in this one file. The file has ended up very big (65 pages long, 32,569 words) but it was all worth it because rewriting it over and over again helped me come up with a narrative voice.

I once sorted the files in "Plan" into subfolders called "Book 1", "Book 2" etc. This was a very bad idea because I didn't know how many words I'd need for each scene... and that means I didn't know how many scenes I could fit into 80-90,000 words (which is, I'm told, the ideal word count for a debut novel). I eventually realised the "Book 1" folder actually contains material for several books. Oops!

In "Plan" I also have folder called "Before" and "After". In "Before" I've put notes about things that happened before the novel begins (e.g. the dragons are very old so they've been up to all manner of shenanigans before the start of Book One). Similarly, in "After" I've put notes of anything that might happen after the main story ends (which means I have plenty of material for sequels if the series is successful!)

"Things to decide on"

In "Things to decide on" I've put all the stuff that I'm still trying to work out. Examples are:
  • "Money.doc" (I'm still trying to decide on the currency to use in my fantastical world, so this file contains all the ideas I've had so far on currency)
  • "Key - how does it work.doc" (At some point, Calvin is given a magical key and I'm still trying to pinpoint its properties)

"To use somewhere"

In "To use somewhere" I've put all the notes about stuff I think I'll probably use at some point, but at the moment am not sure where they belong in the plan. Examples are:
  • "Calvin’s confusions, calamities and clumsiness.doc" (Excuse the silly filename, but it seemed appropriate. In here I put notes about all the daft things Calvin might do at random points throughout the book)
  • "Weapons practice and training.doc" (In here I put notes about all the stuff I've read about training with medieval weaponry)


In "Useful" I store random files and notes that might be helpful at some point while writing the story. Sometimes these are tips on writing, but usually they're weird things like links to sites about dragons, or lists of flowers that purportedly have magical properties.

Step Three: Write your amazing novel!

Okay, so you've now sorted all your notes into "Plan" and "Characters" etc. Your plan is organised, and you know your characters pretty well. It's time to write your epic!

In the "Novel" folder, create a file called "Novel.doc". Herein goes your masterpiece!

Write a single scene at a time, and don't try to make it perfect otherwise you'll spend the rest of your life editing a single scene to perfection while the rest of your wonderful plan gets ignored. Ideally you need to keep writing scenes until you reach the end of your novel, then go back and edit to improve the text. That's the quickest way to write!

As you write, you'll have new ideas which might change your plan. That's great -- it shows your brain is working! :-) Make the changes as you go, and your plan will just keep getting better and better. Just rearrange your scenes (by changing their scene number), insert new scenes, or chuck old ones away into the "Archive" folder... keep honing it to perfection!

Personally, I try to keep "Novel.doc" reasonably tidy. Sometimes I add "to do" notes, but usually I find my confidence improves if the file actually looks good, with nice formatting and no messy notes.

The "sort me" file

Also in "Novel", create a file called "zzz - SORT ME.doc" (the "zzz" ensures Windows keeps it at the end of the file list, which is useful for when you want to find it quickly). Keep this file open while you're writing - it's a great place to note down all your random thoughts (you can sort them via cut-and-paste later). Also, you will probably have lots of ideas that will never quite fit into your novel. This file's a good place for them to sleep.

The "sort me" file is essential because while you're writing one scene, your brain will inevitably produce random ideas about other scenes... it'll go something like this:

ME: La, la, la, I'm writing that scene about the dark forest. Calvin walks along a path and--
BRAIN: Hey, you remember that weird scene with the pigs in Book Seven? Wouldn't it be great if all the pigs sat down at a dining table and had breakfast together?
ME: Shush, Brain. I'm trying to write about the dark forest.
BRAIN: But the pigs! The pigs! You need to think about the pigs!
ME: All right Brain. Hang on. I'll make a note. Okay, so I need to open the "Novel" folder... and then open "Plan"... and then find the scene about the pigs. Um, sorry Brain, I've forgotten what you said.
BRAIN: I can't remember now. You took too long to open the file.
ME: It was only a couple of seconds.
BRAIN: Yes, but that's all the time I need to forget. Hmm, I think it was something about pigs.
ME: Yes, I know that. But what did you say? Oh, hang on, you mentioned a dining table, didn't you?
BRAIN: Er, yeah, I think so.
ME: Okay, I've made a note and closed the file. Right, I was writing about the dark forest. Um, where was I?
BRAIN: I don't know.
ME: Great, now I've lost the flow. Sod it, let's look at Facebook.

Here's how that same interaction goes when you have your handy "sort me" file open and ready:

ME: La, la, la, I'm writing that scene about the dark forest. Calvin walks along a path and--
BRAIN: Hey, you remember that weird scene with the pigs in Book Seven? Wouldn't it be great if all the pigs sat down at a dining table and--
ME: And had breakfast together? Great idea! I love it! Okay Brain, I switched to my "sort me" file, made a note, and switched straight back to my novel. Calvin's halfway along the path when he bumps into a peacock.
BRAIN: Peacocks are awesome.

Okay, time to stop. This blog post is nearly as long as the novel. (Can you see how I ended up with a million words?) I hope it's been useful, and I hope you manage to organise your thoughts enough to allow you to begin writing your story. Personally, I found it very hard to write anything fun until I'd done the planning.

Best of luck with your book!


  1. I've been struggling with how to organise my notes for quite a while now. This blog is amazingly helpful - and fun and encouraging. My notes aren't quite as long as yours (only 100,000 words) but I definitely know what you mean about despairing for a while after typing them all up. But now I'm ready to organise them thanks to your brilliant post. Thank you, and best of luck with your writing.

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