6 Tips for Staying Organized While Writing a Series

com.DreamFactory.ebook_.ASongofIceandFire_1Writing a series is not as simple as just writing several books in a row. Nor is it as easy as taking one long story and breaking it into several parts. There are a lot of nuances to writing a series that many writers just do not think about until they’re smack in the middle of it, and by that time its either too late OR you’ve just created a mountain of work for yourself that you might have avoided.

 Maybe, just maybe, I can help you avoid some of that work.

 There’s a number of ways a series can get disorganized.  Perhaps you’ve planned out the main story but didn’t document and track some of the smaller details or story threads. Maybe you haven’t outlined beyond the first story, and are taking things as you go. Or you could be like me and maybe you didn’t even KNOW the book was going to turn into a series, and then you really have an organizational mess on your hands.

 If you follow my blog, you’ve likely heard the story of how my single book turned into series: St. Charles at Dusk was meant to be a standalone book, but anytime I sat down to write something new, the Deschanels and Sullivans were still at the front of my mind. They had more stories to tell, and all authors know who wears the pants in the author/character relationship.

 With each story I wrote, the greater world of these families grew significantly in complexity. I added different elements (such as the “Deschanel Curse” and the special abilities some members have), as well as connections between the families and rich histories. All fantastic things, of course…but all things that also caused me some grief around consistency. Although I’ve shored up a lot of it (it helped that I dragged my feet a bit on publishing book 2, which gave me some time to go back and grandfather in some of the changes), it’s been no small task at all. 

 Not knowing some of these things ahead of time has also limited me on how I can use them, and how I can use characters that have already been published.  As an example: The idea of the Deschanel abilities came after Dusk was published. Since Adrienne and her family had no mentioned abilities in Dusk, I had to make it so that her branch of the family doesn’t have them at all. Had I figured this all out ahead of time, maybe Adrienne could have levitated some shit across the room or something. Who knows.

 Through all this meandering and blundering, I’ve discovered a few tips that have helped my organization going quite a bit. Some of these are things I should have done on day one, but even employing them mid-series has provided me with some great assistance.

 

 6 Organizational Tips

 

Timelines- Create a timeline of anything important that happens, even if you onlytimeline-chart-in-excel have four items on it to start. Seriously. I would add things beyond just the events in your book, as well. I would add birthdates and things of that nature. You might need to match up character ages from ten years ago, or reference a past event that needs to make sense in the context of time and space. Creating timelines will also be a tremendous help if you jump around at all in your story. There are a number of tools you can use to create your timeline. Excel has some templates, or sometimes even a simple list format in Word/Notepad is sufficient. You can also use MS Project if you’re familiar with it.

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Character Bios- Pantsers are cringing right now, so let me quickly caveat this one: I am not suggesting you write full bios on each character. One or two sentences might suffice. Mostly you just need to make sure it covers anything critical about them and anything you’ve mentioned in the story (so you can keep your story straight!). As you create more characters, its so easy for the smaller ones to get away from you. I’ve accidentally used multiple names for the same characters a few times.

 

Relationship Matrix– You might think you know exactly how every character in your books feel about every other character in your books. But you’d likely bmatrix3e wrong. Relationships expand beyond just a love affair…friendships, partnerships, familial ties, and other things need to be considered. Even brief notes like “Sam used to hate Lisa, but they became friends after Lisa helped him out of a situation,” will make life simpler down the road. It also serves as “change control” for big events, so you can track the history of how people have interacted with each other.

 

316369_448085878565844_1732064220_nFamily Trees- This isn’t just for family sagas. Family trees can also be used to represent other kinds of relationships. They can also track your bios and relevant dates and facts, if you want to keep it all in one place. The one I use is a website (rather than an installed app) called familyecho.com. I like it because it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that a lot of the apps have (which are mostly useless to you in a fictional world).

 

Outlines– Another four-letter word for pantsers. I’m not necessarily talki6862.ScreenplayBookTemplatePost(May2011)ng about full-blown chapter-by-chapter outlines here. Even something as simple as a sequence of events will be useful to you. That said…once something IS written, you SHOULD go back and do a formal outline of what you’ve written, so you can easily reference it in short form when you’re writing further in the series.

 

Encyclopedia (A to Z)– Keep a list of every single character, place, street, animal, event, etc that occurs in your book so you can easily reference it. Can’tList-of-Common-Diseases-and-Conditions-From-A-to-Z-507x272 remember the name of the street Jack lives on? Don’t recall Lynn’s dog’s name? Where Vanessa goes drinking? Or, in the case of my series, many of the Deschanels each have a unique ability and sometimes I forget exactly who has what. Well, now its as simple as looking at a list, rather than poring back through the text.

 

 

There are many other topics around writing a series- such as how and when to recap earlier books, how open-ended your endings should or shouldn’t be, etc- but the first step is getting organized and making sure that the details are easy for you to reference so you can focus on the writing.

 Any other tips for staying organized while writing a series?

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71 thoughts on “6 Tips for Staying Organized While Writing a Series

  1. Those are great suggestions, especially about keeping a reference guide for your world. I’ve recently had this problem with some short stories I’m writing in the same world. I had to go searching through other manuscripts to fill in a a minor detail, which took up a lot of time and derailed the writing train.

    1. Definitely! It’s amazing how much time you can waste just keeping yourself honest. It was hard for me when I created a fictional town and then I had to remember little piddly details like the mayor’s name, or whether the post office was east or west of the vet’s office. Mapping it out really makes a difference.

    1. Thanks Bradley! I wish I had known some of these even around the time I started book 2. But having them now will help me going forward…and hopefully help some of the readers too 🙂

  2. Great post! I am part-way through my second book in an unintended series. Fortunately, Holly Lisle’s course; ‘How to Think Sideways,’ pointed out the wisdom of creating relationship and event charts so I didn’t fall flat on my face, but adding in long (long) term story arcs has been a challenge, especially after I closed many of the story threads at the end of the first book..
    I love your phrase ‘to grandfather in some of the changes.’ 🙂

    1. The “grandfather” term is, unfortunately, something from my corporate life that seeped into the creative side 😛

      The long term story arcs are quite challenging. Even once you’ve decided that you are going to write a series, that’s still difficult because you have to have enough foresight to know how things should end up for a character(s). And some decisions are obviously irreversible, unless you’re writing fantasy/supernatural. Unfortunately, I don’t know if there are any easy ways to solve to our inability to see far into our writing future 🙂

      1. I always say that the only limits are our own imagination. 🙂
        Your notion of introducing new lines of family is a good way to bring in new characters and abilities – as well as to uncover sinister skeletons (perhaps literally!) in heretofore undiscovered closets.

      2. I agree! I discovered all kinds of sinister and scandalous things in their past, once I started digging 😛

        And if our only limits are our own imagination…well mine is pretty over-the-top so I guess its going to get pretty wild!!

  3. Great suggestions. I used to have an encyclopedia, but I put all of my stories into it and that made a mess. Though, I was doing it more because I found a few Tolkien-based encyclopedias and thought I should do it too. Monkey see, should not always monkey do.

    Also, the Timeline and Family Tree can be a big help if you’re working in a single world with multiple series.

    1. I have one of the Tolkien encyclopedias that is supposed to be the best, and I am constantly pointing out errors in it. This is why I will never publish mine. Its for me only 🙂 And I can definitely see how that list could get away from you. Although- if you have any database experience, maybe creating it as a DB instead of a spreadsheet might actually work quite nicely. You could also tie in your relationship matrices that way. Maybe.

      Yeah, the family tree I think could be especially helpful in a fantasy world. I love the one I use because it allows for non-legal relationships so I can throw in friendships and things like that as well. Although, visually I’ve never found anything that’s simple enough to just glance at.

      1. So far the family relations and friendships are easy to keep track of. Never thought of a DB though. That could be a future project.

        I’ve wondered about the Tolkien encyclopedias being partially opinion. Without a living author, you can’t know for sure if it’s what he meant or what the other guy thinks he meant.

      2. No, I mean actually inaccurate! Like directly contradictory to published canon. It’s also missing things that I think are pretty big, like an entry on the entwives or the black breath.

      3. Well, that’s just sloppy then. I think I only have the Bestiary as far as encyclopedias go. I have that ‘Tolkien’s Ring’ book too, but that’s more analysis than fact.

  4. What a timely post … for me at least! The two novels I wrote this year are part of a series and I had even conceptualized the series when writing novel #1. That’s as far as I got, though. Since both novels were written during writing challenges, I didn’t take the time to outline or do a family tree or write bios about the characters; hence, i know I have lots of inconsistencies between the two novels. In short, I probably have more editing ahead of me than I would if I had been more thoughtful (i.e., planned) in the process. This post is definitely one I will print and tape to my wall (and reblog :))

    1. You bring up such a good point about the editing…I think that’s what prompted this post for me. Not having all these details well organized ahead of time DOUBLED (maybe tripled) my editing efforts. Hindsight is always 20/20, but I’m all about making things easier if possible. Good luck with your series 🙂

  5. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    Are you writing a fictional series? Are you lost in a sea of characters and events that are increasingly difficult to manage? Then read Sarah Cradit’s post on how to get your series in order.

  6. Wonderful ideas here! I only focused on the outline aspect of planning my series but now I think I’ll try a timeline as well. I love doing character bios; my Scrivener project is crowded with them. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Good point about Scrivener there…I use it as well and it has simplified my character bios (or at least improved my organization of them) considerably. Good luck with your projects 🙂

    1. Thanks for reblogging 🙂 I think of all these, the timeline kept me on track the most. And the best part is, there are so many different ways to represent it visually to make it easier on yourself. Good luck!

    1. I always get so excited when authors include them in books 🙂 I post mine here on the site, but I can’t find an easy way to make it small enough to include in the books. The one I use makes them smaller than some of the more complex programs, but I don’t know if I possess the skills to draw a simple stick diagram 🙂

  7. I’d definitely recommend keeping a timeline, even if you’re only writing a standalone novel. If nothing else, it helps a great deal to remember how much time has past in the story and what time of year you’re writing in at any time.

  8. What a great, informative post! Nicely done! lol i know i’m not really contributing to the conversation but i couldn’t simply scroll by without saying how impressive this is. LOOOOVE it.

      1. Hey, BTW – I found your meme on not writing the greatest book of all time and just writing the best you can. Is it all right that I post it on my blog? It’s very true and poignant.

  9. Great advice Sarah. I do the first two on your list in great detail. I created a timeline in excel and input the dob of all characters so I know how old they are at any given point in time. I love your idea on using a family tree, going to have to implement that one.

    1. Oh yes, I do a very similar sort of timeline with all the years and ages…I had to with my first book because the time jumps around by about 10 years and the ages in the story matter. Once I did that, my world got so much easier.

      You’ll enjoy Family Echo, if you use it…so easy to use and was exactly what I needed.

      1. That’s what betas are for later 🙂 Just write the story you want to write, and don’t worry about whether its too complex or not, or whether you can pull it off. You’ll fine tune it through editing and the beta process.

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