Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Organized chaos

A bit more of what I've learned going through the self-publication process...

I've talked about the mechanics of setting up as a business and getting a book through the publication process. There's a lot involved and, as I discovered early on, documents start accumulating like they're breeding on the hard drive.

I already had the actual novel contents and working notes - characters, setting, timelines etc. - sorted out long ago, but I now found lots of new stuff cluttering the place that didn't quite belong anywhere: research on various business and publication topics, business records, correspondence, and to-do lists up to the eyeballs.

Luckily, this bears a lot of similarities to documentation issues facing IT projects and systems support, so I recognized the symptoms early on and took draconian action. What I came up with may sound heavy-handed and regimented, but it helps me keep things straight, and I've learned the hard way that if you wait until you realize you need a filing system, you are already in a pile of trouble!

There's a lot to talk about here, so I'm going to break this into two posts. Today I'll look at some high level concepts of separating documents into different kinds - designing a taxonomy for your filing system. Next time I'll show some actual filing techniques for keeping the hard drive tidy.

The big picture - choose your themes

Picture your kitchen. Whatever the size, whether you have ample storage or feel cramped, you probably at least have a home for everything. And you probably have some organizing principles at work - whether you thought things through or whether things organized themselves organically over time. Plates and bowls here, pots and pans there, cutlery in that drawer, cans and jars in the larder shelf by shelf.

Or maybe you have things for everyday use together, and the good china somewhere else. Different factors are important to different people, but the key thing is that they make sense to you.

The same holds true for documents. Birds of a feather flock together - but what constitutes "like" and "unlike" in the document world?

Here are a few things I bear in mind when designing a filing system:
  • Scope: Does this apply to a narrow scope - just one novel, for example, or one step in the publication process - or does it speak in more general terms?
  • Lifespan: Is this a temporary working note, for the duration of a project, or something longer lasting?
  • Purpose: Manuscript, character or setting notes, research, correspondence, etc.

As a rule of thumb, things that are most similar most likely belong together but this is not a rule to be slavishly followed. I find it better to start by putting together things that appear to make sense, then ask myself the above questions to see if I'm mixing dissimilar things together. That is not necessarily a problem, but it is something to be aware of and revisit if you find yourself having trouble with your system.

The biggest thing to remember is that there is no single right answer. Anything you come up with will be a compromise, so don't agonize over unattainable logical perfection, just set up something that works for you - and use it!

What I ended up with

Here's a snapshot of the top level of my writing folder.
Most of the folders I already had and are related to particular works or ongoing activities - novels, online groups, blog and website etc. These are my working areas - where I actually produce words - and they were working well enough so I didn't see a need to change anything there.

The new additions are related to feeding the end results into a publishing business: "Writing business" and "Writing planning".

"Writing business" is where I choose to keep my persistent business records - things like accounts, ISBN log, log of distribution outlets and other organizations I have set up accounts with. Here I also keep the final published versions of manuscripts. Pulling these out from the working areas means there is no question of which version did I put out there.

"Writing planning" is where I keep two different kinds of files: Planning notes relating to particular projects (e.g. publish Ghosts of Innocence), and results of research into various topics (such as what are the different elements that go into front and back matter). Note that here I am choosing to combine documents that differ in scope, lifespan, and purpose, but it works for me at the moment because a lot of my project activities both generate and use research results, so it's handy to have them together. The is something I might revisit at some point in future.

The last folder, "Writing resources", is a hangover from previous days. It holds notes and references that I am gradually migrating to a proper home in one of the other folders. This might yet get reincarnated if I decide to split projects from research/resources in future.

But remember

I am not advocating this as a scheme everyone should use. I'm just using it to illustrate some of the taxonomy principles I mentioned earlier.

The important thing is to decide on a system that works and makes sense to you.

It also helps to decide that you need a filing system in the first place!


  1. I think you're spot on about realising that you need a filing system is an indication it's already to late. The good news is you can still sort a system, it will just take a serious investment of time.

    I'm quite anal when it comes to filing, mainly because I don't want to lose anything. I also make nearly all my notes via the computer, as I have awful handwriting. So, it's vitally important for everything to have a place and be saved.

    Great post. Can't wait to read the next one!

  2. Wow, I feel so disorganized right now. I think at the least, I need a file for blog posts.

  3. I have a similar system in place for all my writing and submissions. Without it, it would be a mess trying to figure out what versions of novels are current or where all the notes are for each one. The pile of short stories are even more organized into various folders as to where they are in the writing/editing/submission process. And then there are the submission logs themselves. Ah yes, organization is important!

  4. Ellie, most of my notes for novels are on computer too. That part of the system was already well-established.

    Alex, surely you must at least have a folder for blog posts separate from your novels? If so, that's a start :)

    Jean, with your prolific output of short stories I'm not surprised. That is why I don't try to recommend a specific solution - everyone's needs are different.

  5. Whew! You're way more organized than me. I've got a folder system for each and every book, including a promotional subfolder, then I've got a calendar JUST for writing stuff where all my deadlines end up, then I've got bookmarked resources through my web browsers, then there are notes all over my desktop that constitute my revisions or "MUST DO NOW" projects. We all have our own system that works, eh?

  6. Crystal, sounds like you are already well on top of it. I hope there might be a tip or two in following posts that you might find interesting...

  7. All good stuff. I have folders and subfolders, but I'm definitely going to integrate some of your ideas for names. You know, I'm so good about consistency at work (40+ outside the home) I'll have to get busy at home. :-) Thanks, Ian.


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