Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


BORING PRACTICALITIES, or a Few Tips on File Organization for Writers

Back when I worked in information technology, a co-worker used to like to play a trick on me. He’d sneak into my cubicle when I was out and move one of the countless, neatly stacked project piles. He’d only move it about 10 degrees left or right, then watch from his own cube to see how long it would take me to notice. Invariably, I would walk in and, even before sitting down, unconsciously straighten the pile.

I have always been compulsively organized, but I’ve never resented my OCD. In fact, it’s a huge benefit for a writer. How many of us have bemoaned the challenge of keeping track of revisions? Or discovered that the really good version was the LAST version that you accidentally overwrote? Or that you’d lost an entire story when the computer crashed? Being a little obsessive about how and where you store your hard-earned work can save a lot of heartache and time.

Here are a few tips I learned from working in I.T.:

    If you are old enough to recall having a metal filing cabinet in your office, you know why those little icons on your desktop are shaped like manila folders. Instead of dumping everything into “My Documents”, you can set up your computer filing system the same way, using sub-folders to keep things where you can find them.

    Here’s a snapshot of the filing system I’m using for my current novel:

    I have a folder called “Novels” in which there are several projects (most of them on hold for now). “Eurasian Nomads” is the folder where my manuscript lives. Inside that folder are folders for Draft 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and eventually draft 762! I keep “Old Versions” in a separate sub-folder, though there are actually “Old Versions” folders inside each “Draft #” folder. “Research Materials” are stored separately – an especially vital location for anyone writing historical fiction, non-fiction, etc. Generally, I can find the location of my files for any project in a couple of clicks, but then, which file do I choose?

    Come up with a simple way to name your files and then name them consistently. I started my naming with “Eurasia3_01”. “Eurasia” is the project name. “3” is the draft number. I used an underscore to make it easier to read. Then “01” is the chapter number. I use double-digits for the chapter number so I can click on the “Name” bar and sort the files in order. (Perhaps I should’ve used double-digits for the draft numbers, too?) I can also sort by date, but since I sometimes backtrack when I revise, it’s not the most reliable way to find the most recent version.

    When I get ready for submission, I get fancy and replace “Eurasia3” with “Lindbergh_Judith_Pasture_of_Heaven_”. That way my name and book title are clearly associated with my manuscript before the reader even opens the file. But for simplicity while drafting, stick with “ProjectName_Dr##_Ch##”. Then you can find, sort and open them easily.

    Note that I keep all my chapters in separate documents. NEVER put everything into one document until you’re done with the draft. What if the file got corrupted?!?!?!

    OK, here’s where the anxiety starts to build. When I was learning HTML (Yes, I can still write the code by hand!), I discovered that the smallest type-o could destroy the entire document. So I learned to keep versions. These days, I add “_New” or “_v1” or “_A”, “_B”, “_C” at the end of my latest draft. I sometimes end up with twenty copies of the same chapter, but at least I can tell which one came first. Then, since I’m always worried that something wonderful might be hidden in one of those old drafts, I drag them into my “Old Versions” folder where, generally, I never look at them again.

    Most of you already know that I back up obsessively. Last year, I carried my USB-key everywhere – in my pocketbook to the grocery store, in my jacket when I was hiking. I even slept with it on my nightstand. I was worried about more than my computer crashing. I mean, what if someone broke into my house and stole my computer? What if the house burned down? When my family planned its escape route in an emergency, I already knew my priorities. Grab the USB-key first, then get the boys.

    Thankfully I’ve discovered the wonder of free online storage. I’m currently enamored with Dropbox.com. They give you 2GB of storage for free. More costs a small fee each month, but if you refer your friends (and yes, this will happen if you sign up using my link, PLEASE), you get 250MB of bonus space. It’s not enough to back up all your family photos, but for your valuable Word documents, it’s priceless. Your documents are secure, private and accessible from anywhere. Just beware that the initial setup MOVES your files to Dropbox. It doesn’t copy them. The paranoid author here suggests you copy/paste, so you’ll have your files on your hard drive and in your Dropbox. (Did I mention I also have a backup external hard drive?)

    After all those technical tidbits, here are a couple tips for managing your work within your manuscript.

    This is basically a table of contents with a quick paragraph summarizing what happens in each chapter. I keep it in a single document that I can refer to quickly and usually find the scene I’m looking for in a minute or two.

    I make a hard page break [CTRL+ENTER in Word] at the bottom of my documents and put all the gorgeous darlings I’ve killed there on a page entitled “CUTS”. I do the same with “HOLDS” though they usually end up as “CUTS”, too. That way I can hang onto my beloved useless writing and return to it if inspiration allows. It’s emotional as well as practical. But I warn, this can be depressing. Most times, the number of pages I have in “CUTS” is longer than the finished chapter.

    Is that a good or a bad thing ? I cannot tell. But I promise, thinking it though and creating a file system and a few extra organizational documents will make it much easier to manage your writing, especially when you’re working on a big, unwieldy project like a novel.

    OK, I hope you’ll all pipe up with more suggestions. As with writing, there’s no right way, only what works. So feel free to comment and share your wisdom.


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    Taming the Wilderness

    All of us struggle with revision. It is undoubtedly the most anguished part of the writer’s craft. Earlier this week, one of our Circle bemoaned the challenge. “I wrote the entire manuscript in a few months. Now it’s taking me weeks just to revise a single chapter.”

    Believe me, I understand. I’ve felt the same frustration. But I’ve come to realize that revision is as much about another draft as it is untangling the emotional ties we have to our existing creation.

    Writers make much of the daunting blank page. But I say first drafts are incredibly freeing. You can do anything you want, write anything that comes. If you can shut down that nagging inner critic for a bit, trust me, your words will flow and you will undoubtedly think they are wonderful.

    But also trust me, first drafts are always – repeat ALWAYS – terrible.

    It’s a childish conviction that art is “a matter of instinct—that the artist’s first impulse is most authentic,” as Allegra Goodman writes in her recent Wall Street Journal article, Inspiration Revised. The more mature recognition is that only through revision can we hone our raw instincts into something that vaguely approaches passable, never mind art.

    “Even the great ones work for greatness,” Goodman writes, referring to her own youthful realization after studying Keats’ path to poetic god-hood. “What we write instinctively—the story that seems most immediate and personal—is often the most conventional.”

    Yes, conventional in form, execution, language, character, pacing, and tone. But in those first impulses are the kernels of something better. The trick is to step back far enough to recognize inspiration’s flaws. From a safe emotional and creative distance, we can begin to consider dispassionately what is wrong and weigh the infinite options for improvement.

    Revision is a tricky thing, though. We run the risk of strangling our best impulses and creating something wooden and flat in our effort to remake what inspiration spawned. It’s a careful balancing act to know what to change and how, who to listen to, how far to go, and when to say, “Stop, no. That really is the way I want it.”

    Revision is the work of making the words flow naturally when they are anything but. But you don’t have to transform your rocky wilderness into a formal garden. We’re not trying to turn tribal dance into grand ballet. We are aiming for a place that is somewhere in between, where we finally accomplish the vision we were aiming for all along, taming the vista we had originally discovered, but leaving it still unique and perhaps just a little bit wild.

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    Digital Treasures for Pay or Free

    It’s amazing, but also scary, what you can find on the web. With a little skillful searching, you can turn up treasures – whole digital libraries you can read online, video interviews and audio clips of some of the greatest thinkers and writers of our time.

    Just this past week, I discovered two fantastic offerings: most of The Best American Essays of 2010, online and for free, and an honest, witty and wise video interview with British writer and actor, Stephen Fry: What I Wish I Had Known When I Was 18. All this, plus the opening of The Paris Review interview archives that I mentioned a while back just scratches the surface. And believe me, I barely have time to review half the cool stuff that comes in through my RSS feeds every day.

    One really worth mentioning is Open Culture, a tremendous resource for all things fascinating. In the last couple of weeks, they’ve posted links to iTunes versions of the complete works of William Shakespeare, a Halloween tale by Virginia Woolf, free online courses, a talk by the Dalai Lama and a documentary on fractals narrated by science-fiction icon Arthur C. Clarke. Whether you’re doing research or just plain curious, as most writers are, it’s a treasure trove of inspiration – and distraction.

    At the same time, I worry about what I’m seeing. So much of this material is, was or should be protected by copyright. So many of us are posting work for which, once upon a time, we might have been paid. I don’t mind giving away what I put on this blog. I see it as an extension of my teaching. But in the current marketplace, both the number of outlets for a writer’s work and what we are offered for our carpal-tunnel angst are dwindling at an alarming rate.

    Meanwhile, I’m seeing interesting movement toward a new pay-model for both digital content and print-on-demand. Michael Hirschhorn summed up the shift in his aptly titled article in The Atlantic, The Closing of the Digital Frontier. Pay walls are going up almost as fast as one did in Berlin back in 1961. And some authors, even on their own, are taking advantage of the new paradigm.

    Take science fiction writer Cory Doctorow. His self-publishing platform for a new short story collection, “With A Little Help”, is multi-directional and social network driven. He’s a tech-savvy guy who clearly believes his efforts will pay off. “I’m thinking $70,000 to $80,000 net,” he says in a recent NPR interview. That’s more than most authors ever see even with a contract from a big publishing house. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Doctorow already has a pretty impressive following.

    Meanwhile, author Stephen Elliott has made a fine go at distributing his memoir, The Adderall Diaries, via an iPad/iPhone app. Dennis Johnson of Melville House Publishing, said in a recent New York Times article about Elliott’s technological solution, “If you publish work that is hard to sell in the American market, say literary fiction in translation, this is another format to hardcover, paperback and e-book. A fourth line of revenue.”

    As much as the web is amazing and free, it has also gobbled up desperately needed income from many a struggling writer (or musician, or artist, or whatever). Now the digital landscape is offering new income options, if we are wise enough to figure out how to take advantage. Granted, most of us won’t make lots of money this way. But in a media culture that is already so fragmented that it’s nearly impossible to get traction, it’s better to stretch palms and spread fingers as wide as we can so that our works may touch just a few more spirits and minds.