Monday, 19 September 2011

Snippets

 
As well as the writing that goes into major, 'proper' projects (novels, short stories, articles), writers tend to store many fragmentary word scraps. The thought hastily scribbled while on the bus; the overheard scrap of conversation; the dream written out in the morning once the darkness has faded and we can face our subconscious fears; the funny place name seen on holiday; the magazine article that caught our imagination etc. I refer to these fragments as snippets.



In the past I kept all those fragments in various foolscap document wallets but I am increasingly going paperless (and even physical-less, in some cases). I have already digitised my CD collection and photo albums, and have almost completed my project to digitise all my paper-based snippets so that everything resides on my PC. By structuring these snippets in a logical folder system I can easily store, organise, and - more importantly - find things.

The folders I use for snippets on my PC
The image above shows the main snippets folders I use, which mostly include my own descriptions, but occasionally magazine and newspaper articles scanned in because they inspire me in some way.

Characters: a catch all for short descriptions. There are specific subfolders for some topics.
- Appearances: handy for those word-sketches that you do in cafes and on trains.
- Jobs: let's face it, it gets boring when all your protagonists are novelists and librarians. This is where I keep details of other careers, whether from articles or from people I have interviewed. So it includes details and anecdotes of careers as varied as dental nurses, Morrison's till assistants, greetings card illustrators and gangsters.
- Conversations: some of them overheard; some are fictional conversations I was compelled to write down despite not yet having a context for them.
- Speech patterns: specific information and examples of speech patterns from different parts of the UK/globe.

Descriptions of things: one of the goals when writing is to find original yet apt ways of describing things so that they are brought vividly to the reader's mind. This folder is for those specific fragments.

Settings: the sights and sounds of different places, and at different times of the year. For example when dog walking I often record audio files of what I see, smell and experience: what plants are in flower, what the weather is like and so on. Also particular potential settings for scenes go in here, such as from a visit to a solicitor, or my impressions of Edinburgh, or the rave scene in Wales.

Story ideas: self-explanatory. Some of these are single-sentence premises ('What if a spider zombie impregnated a washing machine - would it then be web-enabled?'); others are almost-finished stories that just need a bit more care and attention.

Odds: Everything else. This is the largest folder!

Those folders aren't prescriptive of the best way to organise things. They grew organically out of the kind of things I was recording, so would be very different for another writer. They also change over time, so that if I start creating lots of 'odds' files on similar topics they will gain their own folder; if I incorporate the content of a folder into some work, then it can be deleted.

Why is this useful? To me it is like a puzzle when I come to write something new. I draft out my premise, and ideas for the plot structure and characters. Then I go through my snippets folders to see which pieces work well with others, and how I can fit them into the shape I am aiming for. A real example is when I started writing Soft Collisions. The novel contains lots of witty insults: many were in snippets folders as I'd overheard them over the years, I then pulled out the ones that suited the characters in my novel and assigned them where they fitted. This is never a case of bashing a square peg into a round hole - you only use snippets when they really fit.

Another use is for times which I have set aside for writing, but when no inspiration has come. I then turn to these files - tidying, improving, adding new ones. It is still being creative, and sometimes just reading through them can spark ideas and start you off on a new piece. It isn't procrastination, honest!

A big advantage of doing this over paper folders and notepads is that you can search the content. Suppose that you know you saved a file which included the most witty description of a tube of toothpaste ever, but now can't find it. Just do a search and your OS will pull it up for you in seconds (and remind you where the file is). You can search the contents of files as well as the names  - the latter is useful for pulling up scans, photos, audio files etc. too.

Do any of you keep snippet files in this way? Do you have other ways of organising information?

TIP: Bear in mind the importance of a good back-up procedure when so many important things reside on a PC! I back up weekly to an external hard-drive which is kept in someone else's house, using synchronisation software (Synchronize It!) which means the process is quick and painless, since only files which have changed or are new need to be copied over. If I am working on an important project for which I couldn't stand to lose even a day's work then I back those documents up to a networked location until I do the next physical backup.
Share:

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for suggesting on my blog to use this idea for organizing. I'm primarily a pen and paper person, but I use a Mac to revise. I can't afford to buy or use a smartphone or netbook, so I need to devise my own hybrid strategies. Yours is definitely helpful and it's worth a shot. I still haven't figured out how to organize the writing notebooks satisfactorily, though. Maybe it's an existential dilemma.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I still do a lot of the note writing on paper - I usually have a small pad and a pen in most of my bags and coat pockets, just in case! I then set aside an afternoon when there is a lot of it, and type things up then and organise them into appropriate files and folders. It works for me but what I love is that everyone has their own systems and ideas, it is always interesting to hear what other people do.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Ay, we're both idea magpies, Karl. I keep my file cards for ideas in no fewer than three pockets: jacket, trousers and back pocket. Plus a pen in each pocket. Is that a symptom of OCD? No. The agony of being a writer. James Joyce did the same, I believe. (Critics have suggested that he might, uh, have edited his notes a little before publishing them in Ulysses.

    ReplyDelete