I learned this lesson the hard way. Writing along on pure inspiration, I trusted my memory implicitly. Why would I forget the name of my character halfway through the book? Impossible! So I didn’t keep any notes on him and guess what... yes, it happened. My character started the book as Keith, and ended the book as Kevin. Oops.
Now most of the time, editing is going to catch these small flubs. But when you forget a vital piece of information—like the fact that the character actually found the secret decoder ring in Chapter Two that could solve the entire plot in Chapter Eight—editing afterward won’t help. You will have to chop off the end of the book and completely re-write part of it, which just wastes your time and generates frustration.
Remember, writing a story takes weeks, months, or years, but reading it can take mere hours. What you wrote six months ago and have totally forgotten about, your reader will skim over in minutes, and everything will be fresh in their minds. If details that existed in the beginning of the story vanish by the end, your reader will instantly label the book as ‘amateur.’
Keeping yourself organized is a must, not only so that you make fewer mistakes, but so that you can find exactly what you need while the inspiration is hot, and you don’t have to waste hours (and all of your patience) fixing messes you didn’t have to make in the first place!
Back when I first started writing, my old method of keeping notes was simple: I just turned back to the page I had written the description on and read it again to remind myself. This became very impractical however when my stories started getting longer, and soon I was writing over 150 thousand word novels with up to 40 characters. How do you remember what Jeffrey’s eyecolor was when he is one of several dozen characters you are dealing with? How do you remember what page he was described on?
Thus, I began to keep a page of notes next to my computer, and later as a document on my computer, at all times. This simple device cleared up a lot of frustration and wasted time for me. I would simply make four categories, one on the top of each page: Characters, Lingo, Places, and Items. Every time I invented something new, I would write the name of the thing down, and jot a short description of it next to the name.
DO NOT TRUST YOUR MEMORY. You may think it’s perfect, you may remember most details, but get in the habit now of keeping all details of your story on a Notes page or in a notebook. And don’t lose it! I was watching a special on J.K. Rowling on television one day, and I was both amused and horrified to watch her enter her writing den looking for a notebook. She had piles of notebooks everywhere, of every size, from little pocket-sized pads to large spirals, with notes jotted down randomly on pages next to her shopping lists! Notebooks were hidden under old laundry, dishes, even under piles of trash to be taken out!
As she was digging around in this mess for the notebook she wanted, she happened to discover a forgotten bit of notes she had written down about how the Wall of Bricks that served as the entrance to Diagon Alley worked. She laughed and said, “Oops, I forgot about this, oh well, we did it different in the movies. I guess it’s that way now.” And she tossed the notebook back into the pile.
This explained a lot of things to me, like why the history of Tom Riddle changed halfway through the series, and why various details kept shifting around randomly. She was relying on her memory, and she was totally disorganized.
Do not make the same mistake. Especially in Fiction, readers can only suspend their disbelief and enter a feeling of reality with your story if your facts remain rock-solid and NEVER CHANGE. You will lose credibility with your readers if fact in your story is based on your whims, rather than on an established list of rules that feel as sure as the laws of physics. And you can only keep all the rules, descriptions, language, culture, customs, and other bits of make-believe straight if you write them down and constantly refer to them.
I do two things: First, I make a loose-leaf binder for each major story, and I keep everything in that. When I make up an outline for the plot, I print it and put it into the binder. Photographs and illustrations that inspire me go into the binder. Family trees of the characters, maps of the story area, sketches of artifacts important to the story, even poems and magazine clippings go into the binder. Any random scribbles having to do with the story go into the binder, and I try to keep it organized into sections that make sense, like “World,” “Characters,” “Lingo,” and that kind of thing.
The physical binder of notes is good for times when you are not on your computer, and you want to look over story-related material, brainstorm, contemplate your Plot outline, and work without staring at a screen. They are also useful for taking with you to the family reunion so you can sneak off by yourself and have something fun to do while everyone else is having the same old boring conversations. Also, unless you have a scanner, not everything can be kept on your computer.
Second, I make a new folder for every single story on my computer. Inside that Story Folder, I keep all of my notes documents in a folder called “Notes” as well as the story document itself. Whenever I open the story document to work on my writing, I automatically open my General Notes document as well, so I can quickly click from one to the other. And whenever I write about the color of a character’s eyes, or a detail about their history, I always by habit click over to the Notes document just to double-check. And yes, I have caught myself about to make a mistake several times! For some reason I have a tendency to mix up blue and green eye-colors, so if I don’t constantly look back at my Character Notes, a blue-eyed character might suddenly develop green eyes halfway through the story, then go back to blue later!
Whenever you make up a new detail for a character, write it down immediately! Don’t be tempted to keep writing, thinking you will write it down later, or you probably never will. Just stop the story right there, switch to your Notes document, and write it all down—or copy and paste the descriptive section into the Notes document. This keeps all of your information about your characters, cities, customs, unique local wildlife, or whathaveyou in one place that is easy to look up. Think of your Notes document as your Wikipedia, and leave NOTHING out, no matter how insignificant. If you invent a new kind of bug just for one cool scene, write that bug down! It may come in useful later.
Always remember to write down your character’s possessions! In the first story I ever wrote, I kept giving my character cool new doodads, only to realize to my horror 700 pages in that my character now owned so much junk and was carrying it all around with her at all times, that she couldn’t possibly walk! (Not only a sword plus a staff, but a cloak, armor, a jacket, and three different pets, among lists of other things!) And yet, of course, she had been walking around just fine. Where did this stuff go? Did it vanish into thin air when she wasn’t using it? Did she reach down her shirt like Buggs Bunny and pull out whatever she needed from a magical infinitely large pocket?
You may laugh, but if you have ever played a Role-Playing-Game, you know how easy it is to accumulate items and end up with too many. In fact, playing RPG’s myself introduced me to the useful tool called the Character Sheet. This is another option for organizing your notes. You can make a new document for each Character or important Place, and on that page write down everything about them before you even begin writing your story. Things like height, weight, shoe size, and name of first pet might never come into it, but a lot of detailed information about a person will make them seem more whole and real later on.
Collections of maps, drawings, notes, lists of languages, and other paraphernalia will also come in handy should your book ever become famous. J.R.R. Tolkien’s foundation published the Middle Earth Almanac among other volumes which was basically just a compilation of the Author’s notes. Because Mr. Tolkien was so thorough and meticulous, and spent some good time working things out and drawing maps, family trees, language charts, histories and other goodies, his notes made good reading material themselves!