By Kellie Larson Murphy
Organization: it’s a challenge for fiction and non-fiction writers alike. This month, JRW tackled the topic with “Novel Ways to Organize Your Research,” drawing a large and curious audience. The knowledgeable and delightful panel included veteran authors, a writing software representative, and an academic librarian.
Bert Ashe is the author of Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles, which explores issues of black male identity, black vernacular culture, and black hair by narrating the journey of locking his hair while also exploring the history and cultural resonances of the dreadlock hairstyle in America. He teaches and writes about contemporary American culture.
Jennifer Hughes provides QA, customer tech support, and other odds and ends for Literature & Latte, developer of the popular writing software Scrivener and Scapple. She was the technical editor for Pearson’s Scrivener Absolute Beginner’s Guide and contributed to editing Wiley’s Scrivener for Dummies. Outside of work, she uses Scrivener for everything from writing novels to organizing recipes.
Harrison Candelaria Fletcher is the author of the award winning Descanso For My Father: Fragments of a Life. His work has appeared in many journals and anthologies including The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. A native New Mexican, he teaches nonfiction in the Virginia Commonwealth University MFA in Writing Program.
Moderator, J.T. Glover, has published short fiction in The Children of Old Leech, Fungi, Underground Voices, and Handsome Devil: Stories of Sin and Seduction, among other venues. He is a member of the board of directors of James River Writers. By day, he is an academic research librarian.
J.T. jumped right in by asking each of the panelists about their organizational methods and how those methods shaped their lives.
Bert manages his work in Microsoft Word. He keeps one main file and brings in annotations and quotations. If necessary, he creates separate files and moves them into the main text if/when they fit.
For her writing, Jennifer is a fan of Scrivener (naturally!). She makes notes and stores projects using the software because it’s all there in one place for her when she’s ready to write. Scrivener is useful to her as her writing time is limited by her job and homeschooling her two children. By using writing software, she also feels she can just pick up right where she left off at any time.
In contrast, Harrison uses old-fashioned paper to write (audience applauds!). He compares his writing/organization process to grocery shopping. The first phase is shopping, the second is seeing what he came home with, and the third is putting it all together into a meal. He intuits his way through his work—no recipe. He describes his process in four stages: gathering, categorization, putting together, presentation.
Since each of the panelists uses very different methods and writing is inherently a creative process, J.T. asked, “Is organization bad for writers?”
Harrison, a fan of “old-school” methods, believes it can be. He feels a writer shouldn’t worry about where something will fit. Instead, he recommends “trusting your curiosity” before you start to put the project together. However, at the end of the process, organization becomes important.
Jennifer explained that while her bits and pieces are all filed away in Scrivener, it’s not necessarily “organized”. Scrivener gives her the ability to rearrange and move material/research. She likes that it’s digital and there when she needs it.
To Bert, if it’s art at the end of the day, whatever process works for the author is a success. There is no good or bad way. However, he is wary of focusing on organizing in lieu of creating.
To him, it’s most important how the research fits into the text. Still, if the organization method being used is impeding the writing task, he understands the need for a change.
J.T. turned the show over to Jennifer for a brief explanation of Scrivener. Since Jennifer writes science fiction, she showed screen shots of some of her files. These included everything from images, a planet map, binders, text, and timeline files. She said, “You can toss anything into the binder and it’s always there.”
J.T. asked Bert and Harrison if they would want to give Scrivener a try. Bert found the software fascinating but admitted he wasn’t sure he was willing to learn it. Harrison told the crowd he had the same type of organization—it just happened to be spread out all over the floor! He did admit Jennifer’s method probably allowed her to do some of her work faster. He writes longhand and only uses the computer for editing.
Turning to the audience, J.T asked how many currently used Scrivener software or something similar. Close to a third of the audience raised their hands! Acknowledging writers use a variety of tools, he asked Jennifer what she would say to those who might want to experiment. She advised if an author’s current process is working, then experimentation is probably not necessary. Scrivener does come with many bells and whistles, but these are not needed by everyone. (She did tell the audience a Free Trial of Scrivener is available online).
Harrison reminded everyone that an author’s needs may change based on the project. More (or less) organization depends on the manuscript.
J.T. asked “What if a writer is just getting started?”
Jennifer commented it depends on what they are writing. Harrison agreed. Essays need clarity. Newspaper reporting is different and is based on facts gathered. Bert told the audience he keeps a writing journal. In it, he talks about what he’s writing and going back to it has proved helpful to his final manuscript. Since blogging can be like a journal, J.T. wondered how Bert felt about using a public blog like a journal. Amusing the audience, Bert asked, “Me?” He shook his head. “No. I’m a private guy.”
The consensus among the panelists was there is no right or wrong way to organize. They agreed some writers add research later in the writing process. Harrison does as much research as possible at the beginning saying he “eats until full.” Then he writes and goes back to his research to sharpen the story. Bert added his research is not “hyper-organized.” Most importantly, each of the panelists encouraged the audience to use the research methods and tools that worked best for them, whether that was writing software or pen to paper.
During the second half of this month’s show, the full panel took questions from the audience on topics including specifics on using Scrivener, annotations and citations, and timed writing. It was a fun and informative night and many thanks to a strong panel and enthusiastic crowd. In August, JRW will present Writing Virginia into Your Fiction featuring authors Kathleen Grissom (The Kitchen House) and April Marcell along with Andy Edmunds of the Virginia Film Office. Looking forward to another great Writing Show!