Writing Process: The Project Bible – Building the Frame of the Story

Earlier this week I started talking about my writing process, and about the “Project Bible” in particular.  I thought there might be some interest in learning a little more about what, exactly, my Project Bible is.  One thing’s for sure: it’s a mixed metaphor.  It’s Holy Writ; it’s an Encyclopedia; it’s the Blueprint; it’s the Framework of the story.  It’s something I can check myself against, but it’s also a living document that I can change and modify over time.  It’s electronic, which makes it easily searchable.  It’s a personal Wikipedia for my book, which makes it easy to interlink.

Here’s what my Project Home Page looks like in the “Book of M” Project Bible:

I’ve got a short preamble about what is contained in the Project Bible, followed by a bulleted list.  Each bullet is a link to a main topic-area page, followed by a short description of what may be found on that page.  Each page in the Project Bible includes a link back to the project’s Home Page.  The bulleted list for “Book of M” includes:

  • Idea Journal, where I’ve transcribed handwritten notes from my writing journal that relate specifically to “The Book of M”.
  • Story, which is where I put notes about the plot of the book. 
  • Dramatis Personae, which has a list of characters that appear in “The Book of M”.
  • History, which has notes about the history and background of the world.
  • Mythology, which has notes about the myths and legends of the world.
  • Magic, which is where all the notes about how the magic system work will go.
  • Religions, where I write about the belief-systems of the different people.
  • Nations, Organizations, and Peoples, which tells about the different groups of people that inhabit this world, and how they’ve divided their society.
  • Languages, where I have notes about the languages these people speak.
  • Geography, which tells about the physical world and where things are located in relation to each other.
  • Glossary, where will go a list of terms unique to this world and their meanings.
  • Calendars & Time, where I’ll have notes about how time is reckoned on this world.
  • Philosophy & Theme, where I’ll write about “what it all means”, and the themes I’m trying to touch upon in this book.
  • Research, which is where any notes on sources of inspiration and research details go.

Right now, almost all of the pages are effectively blank, except “Idea Journal”, “Story”, “Dramatis Personae”, “History”, “Languages”, and “Geography” – and some of those have more than others.  “Story”, for instance, currently includes only a link to a page where I’ve transcribed my “30-Second Pitch” for the Book of M – what is basically the short-short-short form of the story outline, highlighting only the very interesting, salient points of the set-up.  In all, there are about 7,000 words of notes stored here, which is a small fraction of the total wordcount I expect the Project Bible eventually to consume.

Each of the pages linked from the Main Page also serves as a topic “Category” – and I can tag any new page I write as belonging to any given category, and a link will automagically appear on the corresponding page.  “Idea Journal”, for instance, has links to individual pages for each entry I’ve transcribed from my writing journal.  Typically, when I write an entry in my journal, I’m writing about once specific aspect of the book, some background history, for instance, or details about a character, so I can easily tag that entry with category marks for those relevant categories.  And it’s easy to crosslink to other pages.  For instance, if I mention a character’s name in one page, I include a link to the page for that character.

Most of what I’ve written, so far, is in the “Idea Journal” and “Dramatis Personae” sections.  For the “Idea Journal” section, I include what I’ve written in my Weekly Wordcount totals when I write it in the journal, but not when I transcribe it into the wiki, which can be days or weeks later.  The “Dramatis Personae” section has links to a number of characters, but only two of those character pages have content yet. One is for the main protagonist and one is for a support character and close relative of hers.

Those two character pages have a few things in common.  Each has another short preamble where I’ll include any notes about variations on the character’s name.  The main character, for instance, primarily goes by a shortened version of her name – and it is under this shortened version that her character page is filed.  Whenever I use the longer version of her name in my notes, it will link back here as well.  Following that, there is a short list of vital statistics: Age at the start of the story and physical characteristics like skin, hair, and eye color and approximate height and weight.  As the story progresses, at various points, these characteristics may change, so I’ll have to come back to this page and figure out a way to easily denote changes in each character’s appearance over the course of the story.  After that, I include a narrative of the character’s history up until the start of the story.  I intend later to write a first-person-point-of-view version of the narrative, to help me better get inside the character’s head – although I’ll likely only do this for characters with significant “screen”-time.  I’ll continue updating the pages for each major character with other notes about changes to the character over the course of the book.

Each of the topic areas will be heavily interlinked, in the end: a character may espouse a certain religious belief, for instance, and so will link to the relevant Religion page, or belong to a certain group, or live in a certain area.  This interlinking will allow me, as I write the actual draft, to double-check myself.  When a character ends up in some mysterious place populated by a mysterious people, I’ll have at my fingertips relevant notes about what the place looks like, who lives there, what those people believe, and so on.  At each point in the story I have access to a living outline that will tell me where I think I’m going and where I’ve been.

That’s what helps me keep things straight when writing a book.  It’s what I need to make it work.  There’s a lot to it – and I know it won’t be finished before I actually start writing the first draft of the book – it will change and update as I go along.  But I need at least the basic framework there before I start: some understanding of all the major characters, the history, and so on.   It’s taking me a little while to pin all of these details down, but I have to do it before I’ll have enough material to work with to actually write the story.  And that’s where I stand.

My goal would be, in about a month from now, to have enough material saved in my Project Bible to feel confident with writing the first actual words of “The Book of M”.

20 thoughts on “Writing Process: The Project Bible – Building the Frame of the Story

  1. This sounds fascinating.

    Even apart from the way you’re using the technology, which is impressive, the point about religion struck me particularly. I find this is often too vague.

    I think it’s important to know whether characters are religious or not, how they were raised, what effect it had on them, do they go to church/synagogue/temple/meeting or not, how do they raise their children, if they don’t believe are they atheistic or agnostic, etc.

    To make it clear, I’m not religious, but I try to be specific about these questions, including that my main character is quite a vocal atheist and how people react to that.

    • Yeah, I kind of take the position that religion – or lack thereof – is a big deal in the real world. So it ought to be a big deal in a fictional world as well. Whether you believe, what you believe, and what those around you believe, whether you agree or disagree, all of this is rife with dramatic potential, and can and should play a major role in defining who a character is.

      I mean, I suppose it’s possible to have a truly monolithic religious experience in a fictional world: everyone literally believing the same thing. But that strikes me as unrealistic. And since one of the things you want in a book is conflict, and since religion has been proven throughout our real history as a pretty big driver of conflict, ignoring it seems like ignoring one of the core drivers of dramatic potential in your story.

      For the record, I am a religious person… and that’s one of the things I bring to the table when I write about religion… Because I’ve been through the whole gamut of experience there: never questioning what I’ve been taught, later questioning it privately, converting, rejecting old beliefs, reaffirming beliefs, and so on. So this is an area that has potential not only for interpersonal conflict, but intrapersonal conflict, as well.

      • I should amend my previous comment to note the fact that a non-religious person can potentially write just as effectively about religious experience as a religious person. (See my entry, “Writing What You (don’t) Know” for my formal opinion on writing about experiences we haven’t had – which happens all the time in fiction.) So, in case it comes off the wrong way, I didn’t intend to imply in my last comment, for instance, that someone without religious experience or belief lacks qualification to write about religious belief or experience. I think that’s a bogus idea.

      • I took it the way you meant it, Stephen, though I can see that it could have been taken another way.

        I’ve been writing mystery stories and I have never committed or solved a murder, so I hope we can write about things we’ve never experienced. If not, there would be very few murder mysteries in the world. 🙂

        I agree about your points re: conflict, but it can be a bond, too. I have one character in a recent story who had an abortion (it’s just referred to, it’s not central to the story), but she really wants to talk to the narrator about this after the fact. They are friends, but the reason she specifically wants to talk to him is because they were both raised Irish Catholic and she knows he will understand how conflicted she feels about it. This is never stated, but I thnk it’s clear.

        In terms of your more general points, I did write a story that touched on some of this. It’s called (no surprise) The Church Mystery, and it’s here:

      • Yeah, I just wanted to make absolutely sure it wasn’t taken the wrong way, just in case. And you’re right – but there wouldn’t just be fewer murder mysteries… there’d be fewer fantasies and sci-fi and a whole lot of other genres of fiction as well. (Plus, writing a murder mystery might be admissable as evidence against the writer in a criminal prosecution.) 😉

        I’ll have to check out your “Church Mystery”.

      • It sounds like that movie that came out recently, about a guy who lives in a world where everybody tells the truth, and then he discovers how to lie. Thank goodness for imagination.

        “The Church Mystery” is a bit exposition-heavy at the beginning, but then it gets going. Even when I write short stories, I end up writing them as chapters in a novel. Like a runner, that’s the length I’m trained for (as I talked about here: http://u-town.com/collins/?p=213).

      • Yes indeed, thank goodness.

        I know how that feels, to have your experience dominated by a particular form, which can make it difficult to approach a different story form. But I feel like I’ve made great strides in improving my short story writing skills in the last couple years.

      • Well, as it talked about on my blog, it was only when I started writing mystery stories that I could write short stories at all. But even so, they tend to be longish, and they link themselves together into a longer narrative, which is fine. Everything I write is part of one big story, after all.

      • Sort of a like a big shared universe of your own design, eh? I’ve thought about something like that – linking together my stories… but I don’t see it working quite that way for me… One fantasy world is as disparate and distant from another as they can be, and it’s difficult to conceive of a way in which they could be linked except by virtue of being classified in the same genre. The mental gyrations I’d have to pull to make it work don’t currently appeal to me.

        It’s easier to do that, I suppose, if you write in a contemporary genre like Mystery, where everything usually already takes place in a world that is basically a mirror of the real world.

      • I think a shared universe can work, but only if it comes organically from the material. Otherwise, it’s better not to strain to make it happen. Roger Zelazny said that when writing To Die in Italbar he suddenly saw how it could tie in with his earlier novel Isle of the Dead, and it works very well, but that’s unusual. And, yes, it’s probably easier if you’re working in a somewhat-realistic world, as I am.

  2. This post was (just like the one before) interesting to read. I have never really thought about building a wiki to organize my writing stuff, but I think I might give it a try. Although I have to be cautious not to plan things too much because I know if that happens, I won’t write my book. But a wiki will be great to keep my characters’ profiles in one place, or to collect my ideas I might use in the future.

    Thank you, this post made me think about a lot of things. 🙂

    • You’re welcome. Yes, the main drawback of this approach – if you’re given to worldbuilder’s disease naturally – is enabling the worldbuilder’s addiction.

      The cure – or at least a potential innoculation – is to set a hard limit, to know before going in exactly what you need to achieve in order to write the book itself. Once you’ve achieved that, you quit tinkering (or quite spending a majority of your writing time tinkering) and focus on writing the actual book.

      Which isn’t to say you can’t come back to the wiki to update it over time. I’m keeping in mind that the wiki is a living document, and can change over time. That helps me stay focused on writing only what I need to write in it to support the narrative of my story, and allows me to know that in time I can finish fleshing it out to my heart’s content: after I’ve finished writing the book.

  3. This is such a detailed and organised way to write. I love it. But I know that there’s no way I can do this kind of work before I write my first draft. (Isn’t it great that we’re all different?) I like to make notes and so forth as I’m working on revising, though, to make sure that everything is consistent throughout. I may still your method for use post-first draft.

    • It’s true… there are as many ways to write successfully as there are writers. And there’s no reason, for sure, that you couldn’t put together a wiki like this after you’ve already written the first draft. One thing you’d be able to do then, as well, that you couldn’t do before-hand is include a sort of novel concordance or index with specific references to chapter and page numbers.

    • I think I do this on my blog. I have a page for each major character, for example.

      And then I have a second, private blog for drafts and notes, and I’m careful to save versions when I make big changes.

      • That’s cool. I wonder sometimes if I might want to go back after finishing my book to develop an index or concordance of some kind… I feel like it could have some value for me, if it’s not too difficult to assemble. I also expect that, at some point in the future, I’ll want to make some of this sort of info available to readers in some fashion… with character pages and other extras for the truly interested reader.

  4. So organized! I’m sure it’ll help things go smoothly when you start writing.

    I’m actually a bit more organized this timearound. I started my ‘novel bible’ spreadsheet, and will continue filling it out as I write the first draft instead of revision time. It’s far more basic than yours, with character names/place names, and general descriptions/ages of characters. I also drew a map! It’s hideous but now I know directions, yay! LOL

    • Hey, the map doesn’t have to be a work of art – at least not at this stage! Just so long as you, the author, can get around, that’s what matters.

      It remains to be seen whether this will work as planned, but I remain hopeful that this tool will help the writing go very smoothly.

  5. Pingback: Writing Progress: Week Ending July 30, 2011 « The Undiscovered Author

  6. Pingback: Writing Process: The Project Bible – Discovering My Process « The Undiscovered Author

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