As always, I have my own opinions and my own way of doing things. I also have one major piece of advice: no matter what you do, make sure you have a strategy using multiple layers. What one layer doesn't catch, the next layer might. It's the same reason a parachutist has a backup chute. Never depend upon just one method.
No matter what you do, you will need to pick and chose a few methods that work for you, and you will need some paper-based methods as well as computer-based. There will be times when you will not be at your computer and you will get the most brilliant idea...
So what do I and other writers do?
- Almost everyone who talked about their strategies mentioned that they always have a pad of paper handy, wherever they go. This ranged from small, spiral notebooks to yellow sticky pads, to index cards.
- Some writers prefer to have a small recorder (iPod, tape recorder, digital recorder, smart phone, whatever) they can dictate to when they get a brilliant idea.
- Some people (me included) email things to themselves.
- When a new concept for a novel strikes, some writers use a file folder to hold all their notes, articles clipped from various sources, pictures, and whatever else inspires them. Several authors I know write a big "W" inside the file folder and plot out the novel right there on the folder using the "W" method. (Think: highs-lows of the plot or building to the black moment and then resolution and you'll understand how the "W" relates visually to the traditional 3-Act story.)
- Some buy those composition notebooks to hold their ideas or begin a new novel.
- A couple of us use a 3-ring binder. I go one step further and try to buy colored 3-ring binders because my books often seem to associate themselves with a particular color as the story evolves. One author even went further than I did and said she also buys color-coordinated neon paper to match the binder, and she writes notes on the paper of the appropriate color, as ideas occur to her.
- Binder users also have the advantage of being able to purchase plastic sleeves in which to insert articles, pictures, notes, and what-have-you, to hold things securely together in the binder.
- When I've finished the 2nd draft of a n0vel, I also print it out on pre-punched paper, printing it double-sided (to use less paper) and put that into the binder so I can read it in a form similar to a book. You'd be amazed at what mistakes you can catch when you see it "down on paper."
- Some authors prefer those plastic accordian files with lots of pockets to hold material for their novels.
- I also use a FAX paper scroll as I write, as my continuity sheet. I write down what is going on in each scene, what people are wearing, where/when the action is taking place, etc, so I can visualize it and see it "all at once" on one, long sheet. It has the advantage that I CAN see it, all rolled out, if I want to, versus a spreadsheet which limits you to what your screen can display at any one time. It is also more portable than my desktop computer and it's more fun to scribble on. :-)
- I use OneNote to keep track of some ideas, blurbs, and things I need to do such as contacting my agent.
- I use the Access database to track submissions.
- I recently purchased Writer's Cafe which has two components: Writer's Cafe for keeping track of ideas, web sites, etc, and StoryLine for actually plotting out your story. I think the programmer made a bit of a mistake in creating the product, since you can't link the ideas you've developed in Writer's Cafe with the story you plot in StoryLine, so I don't use Writer's Cafe. I refuse to enter the same information twice. However, it is one way to do things, and might be good for you.
- There are always word processing documents and spreadsheets. Bob Mayer uses a lot of spreadsheets, particularly when plotting out a novel, since you can use the rows for your multiple plotlines, and the cells to contain your plot points and other critical information such as dates/times, etc.
- I use a spreadsheet to track how many pages I write each day.
- I also have the following folder structure for each manuscript I write. The top folder is the main folder, named after the working title of the manuscript. Then I have the various sub-folders as show below:
Manuscript Title (as the main folder title)
Manuscript.doc (the manuscript itself is in this folder)
- I have this "framework" of folders set up, along with a "blank" manuscript.doc file that has the formatting styles I use for manuscripts defined, so when I start a new manuscript, I just copy the entire structure and paste it under My Documents. Then I rename the top folder to be the working title of my new manuscript, I rename the manuscript.doc file to use the real title, and I'm ready to go! I also tend to save a shortcut to my current manuscript on my "desktop" so I can just double-click on it whenever I want to write.
- The Manuscript.doc file, in addition to have the styles I use defined, also has the title page set up with my agent's information, and a header defined. In addition, I have "pre-done" chapter titles and section breaks between the chapters, so I just have to write. It has twenty chapters already set up, although I frequently end up adding more chapters. The point is to make it as easy as possible to write and stop focusing on the silly formatting details which only contests really care about, anyway.
- One final trick: in my Manuscript.doc file, I change the header to be "different" on page one (the title page) so that it does not show up on the title page, and then I tell it to start at page 0. That way, the title page is page 0 (with no header printed), and page 1 starts where it should start, with Chapter One, page 1.
- I also use an AlphaSmart when I'm in writing mode, since it is great for writing, but keeps you from wasting your time futzing around and editing when you should really be writing.
That's a fairly comprehensive list of all the tricks I've heard other writers say they use, and that I use, myself. None are perfect, which is why a layered approach is so necessary. You will probably need both computer and paper methods to make sure nothing slips through your fingers.
Good luck and let me know if you find some other method that works well for you!