How to Navigate Your Novel


There’s a ton of great material out there on how to revise the plot, style, characters and voice of your novel, but you know what no one ever talks about?  How to actually wrangle the sheer massiveness of your behemoth of a novel manuscript.  Which, as you’ve probably already discovered, is a much tougher task than it sounds.

A novel is physically (digitally?) a ton of material.  You just wrote the manuscript a few months ago, but, well, that’s a lot of words, and already you’d be surprised how much you just don’t remember or can’t find.  It’s a challenge when you’re writing, but even more so when you come back to a manuscript later on.  Here are 9 strategies for navigating the realm of your novel and how to stay sane while doing it.

1.  Work in multiple shorter files rather than keeping your entire manuscript in one document.  

It’s easier to deal with smaller documents, and, especially if you’re working on character development or backstory, you might not necessarily always know the chronology of scenes right away anyway.  So start multiple files at once.  When you’re happy with each section on its own, start knitting those together and figuring out their order and how to transition between them, and then those'll morph into bigger and bigger sections until finally everything flows as one whole document.   

When you’re revising, same story!  Think of it like lifting objects to the light for a closer look: you’re transferring them to a new, brighter place.  Take each scene you work on and copy-paste it into a new document as you go.  It’s easier to nitpick a document that’s two pages instead of two hundred, and you’ll save your wrist some carpal tunnel by scrolling less.  A tip: take the text in the original document smaller or a different font so you can visually see where you poached from, and make a note to yourself with the filename where you’re working on the revision.  

2.  Use [brackets] liberally as a way of marking something you’ll come back to later.  

Like, [insert dialogue here], or [check date], or [explosive argument will go here!!].  Then you can command-F to hit all the brackets later on without worrying about missing or forgetting anything.  This is really helpful for not getting hung up during both the writing and editing process--if something's just not happening one day, you’re freed to move on.  You’ll insert that awesome plot twist tomorrow.

3.  Never delete anything.  

You’ve probably heard the advice to “kill your darlings,” but really a kinder method would be to send your darlings on an extended vacation.  Whenever you’re writing, keep a document called "deletions" open and rather than straight-up deleting something, cut and paste it into the deletions document.  It lessens that "what if I need this later after all?" fear, and plus, it’s kind of cool at the end of the process to see how many words you’ve written for your novel in total (especially compared to how many made it into the final draft).

4.  Make an outline for your novel after you’ve already written a draft.

When you hit revision mode, read through your novel and keep a synopsis of what’s happening in each chapter.  This will let you see the arc of your story, the pacing, and where plot holes might be lurking.  It also serves as a master blueprint that means you don’t have to keep scrolling through several hundred pages of text; you’ll always have a good idea of where everything is.

5. Use symbols as a legend to your manuscript.

To easily track and follow a specific arc or a minor character or a plot point through the story as you’re editing, mark each occurrence with some kind of symbol: *, &, % or something else that wouldn't actually come up in the story.  (Actually, you should probably use $, because everyone knows writing = $$$$$$$$$$$.)  Then keep a legend for yourself at the top of my document.  So it might look something like this:

$ - Stolen necklace

> - Mathilda

+ - Lawyer

* - high priority fixes

Then say you want a quick look at every time the character Mathilda appears.  You can really easily command-F throughout all your > symbols, and you can see chronologically every time Mathilda makes an appearance.  This makes it really easy to spot things like a conversation happening out of order, or a character knowing something she shouldn't have realized yet, or subtler things like: is her intimacy with Roald growing over the interactions?  Do they seem to know each other better after the third conversation as opposed to the first?  This is super useful for continuity and also for isolating and tracking the arc of something without getting distracted by everything surrounding.

6.  Use color.

If you’re going through a major overhaul, use color.  If you’ve revised a section make all that text teal, so you can easily scroll over pages and pages at a time and get a visual sense of what still needs to be done.  You can categorize by color, too: if you’re stitching together a bunch of smaller sections, you can initially make them different colors so it's easier to track where you’ve put things.

7. Keep notes.

Keep a document that's just idea/revision notes/crazed 3 a.m. babbling to yourself--that way, you don’t have the notes cluttering up your manuscript, and you always know where to find them.  Put a strikethrough through the notes you’ve completed and move them to the bottom of the list, so it's easy to scroll through and see what else you might still want to do.  It's helpful to have one central receptacle for all those things.  (Also, kind of fun later to look back and wonder what on earth you were thinking.)

8.  Back up, back up, back up.

Don’t just make backup files, because if something happens to your computer you’re hosed.  You can use Google Drive, but it gets difficult with big files.  The best strategy is to email your work to yourself (both as an attachment and copy-pasted, if you’re extra paranoid).  Back your work up obsessively.

9.  Be fearless

Take risks when you edit.  Follow rabbit-holes, let your midnight logic take over, take your story places you never thought it would go: you can always delete, you can always fix whatever new issues might come up, and you aren’t committing to anything just because it’s on the page.  There’s always your backups, and there’s always tomorrow.