Writer = Organized? Yes, It Can Be Done!
By Shirley Jump

If you’re a writer, chances are, you’re not an organized writer, too. For some reason, those two things don’t always go together. Must have something to do with that left brain, right brain thing. Never the twain shall meet and all that. Writing is such an instinctive process, coming straight from the gut, while organizing those thoughts, ideas, submissions, etc., is more of a left-brained activity, requiring planning and forethought.

Geez. I can barely plan what I’m going to have for lunch, never mind where I’m going to put something. Or at least, I used to be that way, until I realized that organizing wasn’t all that bad. And, it could help me be a better writer.

Organization helping your writing? Yes, it’s true, and I’m sure you knew that, even as you fought the urge to conquer that mountain of paper on the corner of your desk. When you can find those scene notes or the information about the town you created, or better yet, the name of the editor you submitted a query letter to (who just left you a voice mail requesting the complete manuscript!), you can be a better writer.

When I started my first connected series for Silhouette (the last book of that series is The Marine’s Kiss, out in August 2005), I realized pretty fast that I needed a way to keep track of characters, places and the timeline. I had to develop a system to keep that series—and all the ones that have come since—straight. In addition, as I submitted more and more books, I needed to be able to know what was where, when I had sent it in and what its status was.

I didn’t want a system that was too complex because I knew I’d never keep up with it. I may be organized—but I’m not crazy.
Thus, I developed a simple way to keep track of the myriad of details that comprise a writer’s life. Below are my tips for making it work for you. Remember, adapt these as needed to fit your personality, abilities and office space:

Ideas: Idea files can get pretty cumbersome fast, especially if you’re like me and have a new idea a minute. Start by separating your idea files into types. I have files for the different kinds of books I write, each in a different color (so Silhouette Romance ideas are kept in a teal folder, much like the covers of the books).

Research: Oh, how we writers like to research. I group research by main category in big hanging folders that are arranged alphabetically: Animals, Buildings, Cars, Homes, etc. Then within those big folders, I put specific ones. For instance, under animals, I have a folder for “giant squid” (the animal my marine biologist hero is hunting in Her Frog Prince, December 2004). This way, I can find what I need fast and not have to remember where that note on fainting goats went.

Details: When I’m working on a series, however, I need to keep all the details at hand instead of in folders in the filing cabinet. For that, I use a three-ring binder. I divide this up into sections: Characters, Places, Events, etc. I add a timeline for the characters that’s usually two pages wide, then draw a map of the town and insert that, too. I pop in any relevant folders (e.g., the giant squid one) and keep everything in one place while I need it.

Submissions: Knowing what’s where and when it went there is a pretty easy thing, especially if you create a submissions chart. Excel is a wonderful program for this. You don’t have to be an Excel whiz, either or mess with those pesky formulas. All you need to do is fill in the boxes across the row: Title of the Submission, Where it Went, Who it Went To, Date it Was Sent and What Happened (rejected, accepted, revisions requested). I print out this submission status report on a periodic basis and tape it on my office wall so I know where all my current projects are and how long the wait has been. If you don’t want to use Excel, a lined paper can accomplish the same thing. The key is to update it the day you send something out and the day you hear back.

Along with those tips, I’ve found a few things that make my life easier:

1. Archive boxes: Also known as banker’s boxes, these are cheap (available at office supply stores) and hold lots of paper. I store old manuscripts in mine, labeling the box’s outside with a list of its contents.
2. Colored folders: Use different colors for different ages of a project. Red for me is always “hot,” as in important right now. I can grab it and go when I leave to work at a coffee shop or am about to sit down for a conversation with my editor.
3. Notepads: I have notepads everywhere. These spiral bound notebooks help me keep my ideas together, rather than having all those little scraps of paper floating around my purse. Everything is in one place, waiting until I have time to put the page in the proper folder.
4. Highlighters: When you tear out an article, highlight the tips you want to remember. That way, the things you need for later are already marked and ready to jog your memory.

By becoming a little bit more organized, you’ll find your writing will be strengthened and your writing time will be less stressful and more productive because everything you need will be right at your fingertips. It only takes a few minutes a day to stay organized, and once you develop a system that works for you, it’s easier to stick with it.

Who knows? You might even take to planning entire days, organizing closets and alphabetizing your spice rack. Okay, okay, I can hear you already. That’s crazy talk. Baby steps, oh right-brained writers. Baby steps…