Thursday, January 29, 2009

Organize your story information

Wow, there is nothing better than receiving a story contract! Until you have to fill out the forms, and can’t remember what description you’d written for the hero and heroine of this particular story. Or the key elements. Or even the setting, because now you’re ten stories past when you’d written this story, and your cast of characters are all milling around the great cavern of your imagination, in no particular order, and are not in an obliging mood to come rushing back when you call them. Yes, they’re worse than children sometimes.
This is what happened to me yesterday. I had to reread my own story to re-learn all of the above, to immerse myself in it again to get a feel for it so I could write a decent blurb. Not that I’m complaining. I like this story a lot, so it was like revisiting old friends.
Still – I’m a bit pressed for time these days, and it was time I should not have had to spend re-doing what I should have already done. I’ve learned since that story to be a little better organized. Now when I write a story, I keep a Spec Sheet. Specifications, just like a contractor or architect (although I like what I build better).
You might find it helpful, too, so I’ll share my list of items here. Depending on the story, you might need more or less than these.
1. Setting: If set in an actual place and definite time, note that; if not, describe the invented setting. Also include the season and year, if relevant.
2. Heroine: List her age, detailed physical description (hair color, length and texture, height and build, typical attire), a line or two of background. Beneath, list her family members and the relation of each to her. Sometimes, I have a definite actress in mind and simply jot her name.
3. Hero: Same as above.
4. Minor characters: Same as above, but group by setting and relevance (if s/he only appears in a certain place, note that beside his/her name) and list in order of importance. Best friends of a hero/ine rank higher than someone who appears only a few times.
5. Special objects: Any item, including animals, mentioned repeatedly or which play a special role in your story.
6. Other: To repeat what I said above, for some stories, much more detailed information is needed to guide you. For instance, the historical romance I’m *almost* finished writing required a great deal of research, and I had to organize it somehow. I have a map of the city and listed key streets, and what businesses or residences were located on each. A hurricane had wiped out part of the city several years earlier, so I noted that. Newspapers figured into the story, so I listed the newspapers available at that time. Any specific information I used about the setting, I made note of so I could refer back to it.
7. Blurb: The text describing the story at a high level, not detailed description. (Think of the blurbs that appear on book jackets.) Blurbs can be more difficult to write than the dreaded synopsis, but best to do it now while the story’s vivid in your head. Usually limited to about 200 words or less.
8. Excerpt: Select a few paragraphs, usually 200-350 words, that exemplify the theme, if possible, or at least provide a glimpse into a telling scene.
9. Cover art ideas: Think positive. Your story’s about to be published. What do you want the cover to portray?
A Spec Sheet might sound like a simple idea, but believe me, it comes in handy when you need it. The Spec Sheet is different than the Background document, into which I cut and paste articles and information found during research. Keeping a separate folder on your PC with all relevant information in each folder per story is a huge timesaver.


Susan Macatee said...

Great advice, Cate!
I use a folder for each book and short story I write. Pocket folders for the full-lengths and regular file folders for the shorts. I keep all pertinent info on a story, both while I'm writing the outline and first draft, through revisions and edits, in their separate folders and, once the story's sold, I include the contract and any other important info I may need. Keeps me sane and organzied.

Cate Masters said...

Thanks, Susan! I need to start keeping hard copies, too. I rely too much on electronic versions, though I do back up to both floppy and zip disks just in case. It'd kill me to lose all that work!

Mary Ricksen said...

I have to get more organized. Your suggestions will be a big help for me.
Really good advise.

Emma Lai said...

I keep a diary of story ideas and story information. I also write the query and blurb as soon as I've finished it. The two things that I never gave any thought to was cover art or an excerpt. Those requests threw me for a while and I had to go back and do a reread. Thanks for the suggestions, Cate!

Rebecca J. Clark said...

Will you guys come over and organize my office for me? Pretty please? I am SO unorganized. I have notes here, there and everywhere about each project, even though I have a binder for each.

Cate--how long is your average spec sheet? I really like this idea.

thanks for the great post!


Cate Masters said...

My longest spec sheet is three pages - for the historical novel I'm writing. The others are each about one page. I use the spec sheet as a quick reference, and the Background document to keep longer descriptions, etc. Those usually run past 25 pages, even for shorter stories sometimes.

Helen Hardt said...

This is great advice, Cate. I was working on a story yesterday that I hadn't touched in a while, and I couldn't remember the color of the heroine's hair! I'm not kidding. Sometimes there are so many characters floating around in my head I can't keep them all straight.

Thank you for visiting the Vixens' blog this week. I agree with you -- why should we choose between Highlanders and Cowboys? ;)


Debra St. John said...

This is a great idea. I try to be organized like that, but I never seem to get there. But I did the same thing (needed to reread part of my story to get vital info!) for my last contract info sheet. This is a great time saver. Information at my fingertips.