Last week I mentioned that I was planning to write about “background notes and research and my ‘Project Bible'”. This is the post to which I was referring.
I’ve been writing a lot lately (although, this week is looking a little slim on the wordcount front) – but when it comes to my current novel project, “The Book of M” I haven’t been writing quite so much of the actual book itself. Actually, I haven’t yet written a word of readable draft. So far, everything has been background notes, all of which ends up in my “Project Bible”. I thought, then, that there might be a little interest in what goes into my Project Bible, and what it looks like.
I wanted to start this discussion by pointing out – as is likely already known by most writers – that there’s no right or wrong way to go about writing a book. The classical and accepted wisdom is that writers fall somewhere on a spectrum between “Planners” and “Pantsers”, or between “Architects” and “Gardeners”. (It is my goal, one day, to add a second dimension to that schema, allowing future writers to peg themselves somewhere into one of four quadrants; first I’ll have to figure out what that second dimension might be. But that’s neither here nor there, is it?)
It’s taken me a long time to figure out what kind of writer I am, exactly. When I was younger, I didn’t even know there was more than one way to write. I just figured you start at the beginning and you write until you reach the end. And, you had to have some idea of what the ending would be or you wouldn’t know when you were done. As I grew older – and especially when I started college – my writing process began to change. That’s when I first started keeping an “Idea Journal”, which even then was filled almost exclusively with notes and ideas I’d come up with for my ever-unfinished writing project. After a few years, I started looking for ways to turn my handwritten notes into a searchable electronic format. (I’ve told this story before, in detail, on my blog, in my “Novel History” series of posts from the first days of my blog, here, here and here as well as in various posts about my writing journal here and here.)
Some several years after college I’d settled into a comfortable place for me, with regard to my writing process, and I think that this is the process that will carry me through any such potential professional writing career that I may yet have. (Enough qualifiers for you?) It’s not a monolithic writing process: it’s not one thing, but many possible things, depending on the nature of the project, with the primary variable being the length of the project and the output being the amount of detailed background work I do before writing it. For very short stories, for instance – say, flash length – I may not do any prep-work or write any background notes. I simply come up with an idea and a character and start writing. For slightly longer short stories, I might write up a few character briefs – short character histories that explain how the background of a character relates to the main plot of a story. Before setting off on writing my short story, “Story of G”, for example, I wrote probably about 1,500 words in short character bios – but I’ve operated without a formal story outline so far. “PFTETD”, on the other hand, I originally wrote without any background notes – but when I started on the rewrite I also wrote up a collection of longer and more detailed character bios. I still didn’t have a written outline, but I had a fairly clear outline in my head – one that I found needed adjusting during a later draft.
Novels, however, are a different animal altogether. There’s a lot going on in a novel. There are more characters. More intricate plots and more plots – including subplots. There’s the need for a richer and more detailed background world, because your reader will be spending more time in it. This can still be done by “pantsing” it, so-to-speak. But increasingly as I work on longer pieces of fiction I find myself wanting for some definitive source that I can turn to, some Holy Writ or Wikipedia against which I can check my facts and make sure I keep my story straight, and some place where I could stash all the ideas I’d had for a longer work and try to integrate it all together and synthesize something new.
Enter the Project Bible.
The Project Bible is more than just a notebook. It’s not even a physical object, for me, although most of what I do on the Project Bible can be done in a physical copy with a binder and colorful tags and whatnot. I’ve mentioned before on this blog, long past, that I use a relatively affordable program called ConnectedText as the base of my Project Bible, though you could replicate most of the same functionality with a free Desktop Wiki program. (Ultimately, I went with ConnectedText because I liked the interface. Someday, maybe I’ll write a more thorough review of the program and its features.) In my little desktop wiki, I have a handful of Home Pages – one for each major project. Right now, there are 3: one for “Project SOA”, one for “The Book of M”, and one for my Writing Journal. I ultimately transcribe all of my handwritten notes into the software – where it now goes into the Writing Journal project, and then when an idea becomes a major, active project, I copy the relevant notes from my writing journal over into a section of the new project, where I can interlink the journal entries with dedicated pages for any of several topics.
The Project Bible is – or will be – my Holy Writ, the place where I can turn, while I’m writing, to look up any detail I’ve decided on. What’s great about it, though, is that it’s not written in stone. It’s flexible, and it can grow with the story. The program I use stores a history of edits and changes to the documents I write, so nothing is ever lost – and if I change something, and later find it doesn’t work, I can change it back without too much trouble. So, more than a Holy Writ, it’s a road map, it’s a plan. I like to think of it as the framework of the story, or the blueprint. All the detail is there. Then, when I’m doing the work on the ground – when I’m writing the actual novel – I can always refer back to it to make sure things are going where they’re supposed to. But if I find that where I thought something should go doesn’t work, I can make the change in my Project Bible and worry myself no more.
In my next post, I’ll go into more detail about what, exactly, you might find if you opened my Project Bible.