Creating an information guide for your novel

What is an information guide?

An information guide is a much like a style guide. A style guide is a set of rules and guidelines for a publication. Typical style guides focus on issues such as grammar, usage, spelling and capitalization. When creating a guide for a novel, however, there many additional things to keep track of such as character names, character histories, plot points, place names and descriptions. This is why I prefer to think of the guide for a novel as more of an informational guide than a style guide. It is a collection of all the key information in your novel.

Why should I keep an information guide?

Keeping track of a novel length work is a difficult task. Novels feature multiple characters and places, plot developments that can change relationships between characters, and in many cases (especially science fiction, fantasy or historical pieces) complex rules for how people interact or for the equipment they use. If you have a place where you can keep track of these things, it will prevent inconsistencies within the novel, which will help keep your story believable.

How should I format my information guide?

Different systems work for different people. If you like to work with pen and paper, it is perfectly fine to create a notebook and write things down as you read. Spreadsheet programs and word processors are also perfectly workable solutions. For my project, I am using Microsoft OneNote, which I have discussed before.

Whatever medium you choose, you will want to create a series of headings and subheadings for the different categories that you want to keep track of. General categories include spelling and usage, relationships, characters, locations and plot. If you have been taking notes as you read and edited your novel, this is a way that you can now organize those notes into a useful document.

How do I use the information guide?

Once the information is created, you should consult it whenever you have any questions. You should also use it in future edits to revise for consistency. You should also be prepared to make changes as you move along. As long as you are still making changes to your novel, you shouldn’t consider your information guide complete. It is a living document that sets the rules for your novel, but is also flexible enough to be revised when you make changes to your novel.

Editing your novel as you read it

This is the more traditional approach that people think of when they think about editing a novel. The process is relatively simple.

  1. Consult the notes that you’ve been assembling and think about what you want to accomplish. You might want to reorder your notes so they fit the chronology of the novel.
  2. Begin at the beginning. Start reading and editing the novel from page one, working your way through to the end.
  3. Take more notes as you read. Think about what could be added, changed or eliminated.
  4. Edit and rewrite within reason. At this stage in the game, if you want to add a new paragraph here or there, go ahead. If you want to rewrite a scene, you can do it. Don’t go overboard though. A wholesale rewrite of your novel should not be your goal. Your goal should be to make what you currently have work better.

That is it for the process, but I do also have a few tips:

  • Don’t obsess over the beginning. Many writers get bogged down because they think that they need to rewrite the beginning over and over until they get it right. At this stage in the game, that is probably not possible. Settle for good.
  • It is acceptable to leave some or all scene rewrites and new scenes for later. We have a whole step just for new scenes. If you need to bridge a gap in the plot but you aren’t ready to write the scene, write a quick summary of what you think will happen in the bridging scene, then move on.
  • Save your earlier versions of the book. Hard drive space is cheap and plentiful. Take advantage of it. You may also want to save copies onto CDs or DVDs in case you run into computer problems. I usually send a copy of my work to my online email account so that I can access it from anywhere.
  • Don’t expect to solve every problem in the first run-through. If you don’t have a solution, make a note of the problem and move on.

Creating a chronology for your novel

Some people might have written their novel in chronological order, from start to finish in a straight line. If you were lucky (or good) enough to do this, then you might be able to skip this step. However, even a novel written in chronological order should at least be examined for opportunities. In your original draft, you may have meant for your protagonist to discover a sack of money shortly after he had a major argument with his girlfriend, but in revision you might want to consider how that same argument would read once he found the money.

Chronology can be an interesting challenge for writers. For example, in the novel I am working on, there are several major characters that at different points become the focus of the story. Not all of their issues and experiences are directly related to those of the other characters in the story. My character Chelsea has several scenes that don’t include any of the other major characters. Taken on their own, her scenes have a definite chronology, but within the novel as a whole, they can easily take place before or after certain other character’s experiences within the narrative. Finding the right spot for them, thematically, will be one of my challenges.

In another instance, I have two scenes that concern the same two principal characters, Henry and Anne. I wrote the scenes in order, which is fine for my initial draft. However, if I leave the two scenes together, it will feel as if no time passed between the two events. Plot-wise, this is possible and it may even be desirable. If I break up the scenes by switching to another character for a while, it will seem as if more time has passed. That may be better, or it may not. I can only figure this out by playing with the order and seeing which combination of scenes works best.

How to work through the chronology of your novel

  1. Prepare a list of your scenes. The list should have enough identifiers for you to glace at the description and know exactly what scene it is. A good way to do this is to write down a sentence or two about that happens, being sure to name which characters are in the scene. You might want to give the scene a brief title, so that you can know it by glancing at it. The list should be easy to shuffle and reorder. I recommend using 3×5 cards, or if you are more technically motivated, Microsoft OneNote (my current tool of choice).
  2. Create an initial order. Don’t do a read-through yet; just shuffle the scenes until you find an order that feels like a good start. Take as much or as little time as you need, but realize that you aren’t committed to this order, it is just a starting place.
  3. Move the actual scenes in your novel so that they reflect your initial order.
  4. Read through the novel. Make note of any obvious continuity problems created by your order. You don’t necessarily want to make changes yet though, because the order is still not firm. Take notes about your concerns, any ideas for new scenes and any other thoughts about the chronology that you have.
  5. Go back to your list and reorder it again from scratch. This is one point in which 3×5 cards have an advantage over most other tools because you can shuffle them like a deck of playing cards and just start over, which makes it easier to embrace wholesale changes rather than minor tweaking.
  6. Move the actual scenes in your novel so that they reflect your new order.
  7. Go back to step four and repeat the process until you feel you have an order you can move forward with.

There are still many steps to the revision process. You will be revising existing scenes and adding new scenes as you go along. You should feel free to return to the chronology step as often as you need to.

Performing a light edit on your novel

The initial step in turning your first draft into a novel was to read your novel. The goal of this reading was to absorb what you had written and get some ideas for moving forward. The general rule was that you were to limit yourself to simply reading and taking notes, resisting the urge to edit even the grammar and the misspellings. Resisting the urge to edit can be very difficult for some people. That is why a light edit should be your second step.

A light edit consists of proofreading and correcting errors in grammar and spelling, as well as making other minor adjustments in readability. A light edit is NOT an in-depth revision or rewrite. You should not be spending your time rewriting the existing text or changing the direction of your story. You can, however, eliminate portions of the text that you are sure you won’t want to use. I suggest that you take these eliminated portions and put them into a separate word-processor file. Do this just in case you decide at some point that you want to put a scene back into the novel or that you want to reread your earlier attempt with fresh eyes.

Steps to a light edit

  1. Save your first draft as a separate file. That way, if worst comes to worst, you can always start again. You may want to reread it down the road too, just to see how far you’ve come.
  2. Use the spell-check tool in your word processor to correct all of the obvious spelling errors. I like to do this first because it allows me to eliminate a huge chunk of errors quickly. Some people find it to be too repetitive. If this is the case, feel free move on to the fourth step.
  3. If your word processor has a grammar checking tool, use it to go through all of the sentences and phrases that have been flagged. Again, it is nice to go through the obvious errors first, which is why I like to take advantage of this tool before I move to the next step. Other people may find it too repetitive. Remember, grammar checkers are NOT always correct. Use your own judgment.
  4. Start at the beginning and go through your novel line-by-line. You’ll find plenty of misspelled words and grammar errors that your word-processor failed to identify for various reasons. You’ll also find plenty of sentences that, while not technically incorrect, can be improved.
  5. Go through the novel a second time. This time, read your novel aloud so that you can hear how your story sounds. Reading your novel aloud helps you to catch errors and weak writing that you won’t notice just by looking at the words.

General advice

Proofreading and editing can be a long and tedious process. Try not to get bogged down. If you find yourself spending more than a minute or two on a sentence, highlight it (I usually put it in bold text) and move on. You can always come back to those problem sentences in the next session, when you can look at them with fresh eyes.

People’s tolerance for editing varies. I can do it for about two hours before it starts to give me a headache and I lose focus. Don’t be afraid to break this process up into multiple sessions or to take breaks.

If you feel the overwhelming urge to write a new scene, don’t pass it up just because you are in the middle of a light edit. Just remember that your focus now is on editing, so when you finish that scene, go back to your editing.

Don’t expect to fix every error. You’ll be reading through you novel many more times in this process, and chances are that you will find new errors every time. Even then, when somebody else reads it, they’ll spot things you’ve missed.

Light editing DOs

  • DO save your original draft.
  • DO correct spelling errors.
  • DO correct grammar errors.
  • DO rewrite sentences for readability.
  • DO eliminate portions of the text that you are sure you want to eliminate.
  • DO keep all discarded portions of your novel in a separate file – just in case.
  • DO write down any ideas that you have for future changes.
  • DO take breaks.

Light editing DON’Ts

  • DON’T rewrite entire portions of your novel.
  • DON’T delete portions of your text without a way to retrieve them.
  • DON’T worry about story structure.
  • DON’T get obsessed with continuity, although it is OK to make minor, obvious corrections.
  • DON’T follow the rules at the expense of a good idea.

Reading through your draft

You’ve written the first draft of a novel. You may have done this as part of NaNoWriMo, or you may have done it on your own over months or years. You may have finished it yesterday or five years ago. Whatever the case, you are now looking for a way to make it better. You want to turn that first draft into something great, or at least something publishable. This series of posts, is designed to take you through the editing process.

The first step is to read what you have written. This can be a strange and frightening experience. Your first draft can be pretty rough. You may have ideas that didn’t work, prose that’s too purple, characters that are as flat as cardboard or so complex that even you can’t figure them out. That’s OK. If you were expecting perfection, now is the time to revise those expectations. You’ve created something from scratch, and no matter how good or bad it is, it can be better.

Three keys to an initial reading

  • Resist the urge to edit. Editing at this point is a waste of time. Why fix the spelling and grammar of something you may later decide to cut out entirely.
  • Take plenty of notes. Write down your thoughts as you go. Keep track of what you like, what you hate, what you want to change and what you want to add.
  • Stay focused on the big picture. Your goal is to think of ways to make the novel work better as a whole.

What to think about as you read

  • How does this draft compare to my initial vision? Should I change the story to meet the vision or the vision to meet the story?
  • Does the plot progress the way it should? Are there gaps that need to be filled in? Will a reader be able to follow what is happening?
  • Who are my characters? Are they interesting? Are they complete?
  • Are there any glaring inconsistencies? Do I call characters by the wrong name? Do any events or statements conflict with other events or statements?
  • What should I cut? What should I keep?

Beyond that, everyone thinks differently and everyone has problems unique to their work. Write down whatever comes to mind as you read.

Once you’ve read through your novel, read through your notes. Spend some time thinking about the draft and where you want to go. You may want to come up with your own battle plan at this point. You may decide to write some new scenes or rewrite old ones. That’s fine. Feel free to go your own way.