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Writing Process: The Project Bible – Discovering My Process

June 29, 2011

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.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. June 29, 2011 1:21 pm

    You and Tiyana both make me feel ashamed of my disorganization! LOL looking forward to seeing more about this. I’m considering creating a wiki for the next book, but I don’t think I’ll do a good job of maintaining it. I have done it in the past though.

    • June 29, 2011 1:38 pm

      That’s why I began with the caveat about “no right way”… because a writer shouldn’t feel ashamed that they write one way or another… we each just have to do what works for us. I find this method allows me to feel more confident about the quality and direction of the story – and I’ll feel better prepared to write it. Without this, I’d fear I’d end up on a dead-end plot with nowhere to go but back to the beginning to start over again. I’ve already got the next post, with a deeper look at what goes on in my Project Bible, in the can for Friday. 🙂

    • June 29, 2011 2:01 pm

      Hey, Theresa, don’t be ashamed, be proud of your disorganization!

      (I was going to say, “Wear your panster hat proudly!” but that conjured up an image of a very weird piece of headgear. 🙂 )

      • June 29, 2011 2:03 pm

        Weird headgear, maybe, but you’re exactly right.

      • June 29, 2011 2:15 pm

        Hehe thanks Stephen and Anthony. So far I know what works for me, but I’m always interested in seeing how other people go about it. Maybe I’ll try it out and find that it works foe me one day (though I suspect not right now).

        And yes! What an image LOL

      • June 29, 2011 2:24 pm

        Yeah, that’s largely how I got where I am. Like I said in my post, even before I knew there was more than one way to do this, and before I knew the words for those different ways, I was a pantser. I figured out on my own that I wanted something more… something a little more rigid and structured than just making it up as I go along. But then again, if you’re this far along and haven’t found that to be the case for yourself, I’d think you’re probably pretty close, spatially, to the place that’s comfortable for you, as a writer.

      • June 29, 2011 2:26 pm

        We’ve been discussing the question of crafting characters (or not) over at my blog, and at Jo Eberhardt’s:
        http://u-town.com/collins/?p=2434
        http://thehappylogophile.wordpress.com/2011/06/24/crafting-characters-where-did-i-come-from/

      • June 29, 2011 2:51 pm

        I’ve been busy these past few days, but I may have to go and check it out.

      • June 29, 2011 4:49 pm

        I’m glad you stopped by.

        BTW, your “Bible” makes me think of the “bibles” that television shows and comic books have, so different writers can pick up and write without having to see every previous episode or read every previous issue.

        Perhaps because I don’t have a “bible,” there is one continuity glitch in my second novel (which is very long and complex). So far, nobody has spotted it. 🙂

      • June 29, 2011 4:52 pm

        Actually, that’s sort of where I got the term. I’ve seen it used a lot in writing circles, especially in cases where there is a shared world or where there are multiple writers. I figured, I was doing the same thing, only trying just to keep myself straight, nevermind anyone else. I figured a tool that helped me do that was similar to the tool that helped these other writers.

  2. June 29, 2011 1:39 pm

    So I guess that makes you super planner. lol. It sounds great, but I would wager that I’m the opposite. I like the “gardener” idea, that you let the story bring itself out. The story already exists, it just needs a little help to get here. That’s often how I feel when I’m writing my novel. Do I know the background? Yes. And I did a huge amount of research on my writing project, but I still let the characters drive the plot and if it takes a turn I wasn’t expecting, that’s fine.

    • June 29, 2011 1:43 pm

      See, though, what I’m doing – planning the book out in detail – doesn’t mean that I’m not letting the characters drive the plot. Rather, I’m growing and forming those characters in as much detail as I can before plotting the novel – and then I’ll use what I know about the characters to shape the plot. When I actually sit down to write the novel itself, I’ll know what happens next because I’ll know what the characters would do in each situation because I figured that out before I write it. I’m still focusing heavily on character, I’m just doing it differently by figuring it all out upfront. I’ll go into more detail about that process in my next post.

  3. June 29, 2011 7:26 pm

    Haha, Theresa. You know, I actually don’t think I’m that organized, lol! If you see my room I’ll have piles of unorganized things just lying around, though they’ll be arranged in somewhat tidy piles so that it looks like it’s organized. So I kind of feel the same about the worldbuilding information I keep.

    I think it’s chaos simply masked in organization. 😛

    I do like the idea of having a Story Bible, though. I feel I may have the beginnings of one that is already organized, but I’m not sure I’d want to put all of my background info into it, just some of the more important things. What happened was I opened a Photobucket account so I could store my sketches, logos and other creations on the web and share them easily. Eventually, though, I started adding captions. I guess now it does serve as a database of sorts, though it doesn’t include everything.

    So I guess I don’t think of this as my Story Bible because it’s not comprehensive and isn’t in a particularly reader-friendly format. (For one, on Photobucket you can’t add paragraph breaks to photo captions, which is annoying.) I’m sure there are better ways to do this, though for now it’s just there for easy web sharing and having links to images.

    Eventually, when all is said and done and I’m published :P, I’d actually like to have a site dedicated to the story’s background info–much like Kameron Hurley uses for her novel God’s War. (I have a friend who does web design and comes up with some amazing computer renderings of models he’s built (characters, environments and such), so maybe he could help me if things worked out that way, heh.)

    • June 29, 2011 10:01 pm

      Yeah, having a site dedicated to the story would be pretty cool. Back in the day, I had a site dedicated to Project SOA… I still own the domain name, though years ago the main page was hacked and now that page is an ad. (All the sub-pages are still intact, though what I’ve got there is old and out-of-date and no longer true.) It wasn’t until much, much later that I realized the folly of having a domain name that’s “My Book/Series Name.com” only instead of “My Author Name.com”. I’ve yet to rectify that little mistake.

      The Project Bible could even serve as a simple template for such a site, someday, as well. The program I use exports to HTML, for instance. In theory, all I’d have to do is apply some snazzy CSS to make it look swank. In reality, of course, I’d want a severely edited version to be what the public actually sees – as was discussed on my Pottermore post… and also I don’t have many/any images in my Project Bible, and it’s hard to have a nice-looking website without some images.

  4. July 5, 2011 1:43 pm

    I’ve heard a number of people recommend using wiki’s as Story Bibles. However, the concept of being able to retain the revision history sounds very nice; it allows you to mess with things at will and you can always go back.

    • July 5, 2011 2:58 pm

      Yep, that is a pretty useful and salient feature. Because… you know… sometimes writers change their minds. And sometimes they change them back.

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  1. Writing Process: The Project Bible – Building the Frame of the Story « The Undiscovered Author

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