Writing a Novel in the Cloud

If you’re starting a writing project, whether it be a novel or a short story, you’ll find book upon book that talks about character, setting, plot, subtext.  Most of these books though are written by successful writers who have been around for a while and have decided to add their thoughts to the list of  “how to write” manuals.  While some of these are helpful, they don’t talk about how to write using the cloud.

This novel (I’m loathe to even say that, because it seems like it has so much weight, so much baggage) started out as flash fiction pieces that I wrote based on two main characters.  My original intention was to have these small stories that stand on their own, but when put together tell a larger narrative.  There were some problems with that though.  Mainly, how to give enough information to a reader for each piece without getting repetitive.  One example is introducing the characters.  It could be open for debate, on how much that matters?  Can readers flip to a page and read a piece that doesn’t answer all their questions, or perhaps leaves them asking lots of questions?  That said, it seemed like the natural progression was to move this narrative to novel form.

Starting out, it seemed too big.  It was hard to visualize everything.  Part of writing a novel is being organized.  Initially, I turned to the Wire for help.  Inspired by the characters throwing everything up on a wall or bulletin board, I got to work.  Now I was a detective gathering bits of information, fitting things together, arranging events.  After a while though, I stopped.  The space I chose was above my drafting desk, away from my computer, and then months later I re-arranged my apartment, took down the wall, and packed up the scraps of paper.  The flow of writing slowed to a trickle, eventually stopping altogether.

What I learned in that process was the need for organization and ease of access.  I was again, and wanted to take a new approach.  This time though, I turned to Google Sites because using a wiki has been a helpful way to manage projects at work.  If it works for project management, why shouldn’t it work for the sprawling nature of a novel?  Wiki’s are great, because they’re easy to use, and they version so I can see older edits.  My initial layout looks like this:

I have pages for each character.  There are pages for settings with images linked from Flickr.  There’s a section for themes.  One thing that I wanted to do though was create a timeline of events.  Most narratives are events moving through time.  Tell a friend about what you did yesterday, and words like “after,” “and then,” and “later,” will crop up.

I did a search for sites where I could generate a timeline, or use a script.  That search brought me back to Google Docs.  I already had the flash fiction pieces stored in Google Docs to easily share them with friends, so it seemed like a good fit to continue using Google Docs.  By putting data into a spreadsheet, I could use the Visual Timeline Gadget, and look at my novel in a new way.

There are six fields that the timeline draws from.  These are: title, start, end, description, image, and link.  Since, I was using Google Docs for my texts, I was able to do even more.  For titles, I used the title of the short story, or section.  Start and end dates made me consider when events took place, and for how long.  Some sections happen in one moment of a day, so I gave them only a start date and the gadget created a point on my timeline.  Description was a helpful field to use, because it made me condense a section to a line or two of text.  I could sum up what happens in that exchange.  Using the link field, I was able to put in the Google Docs link for that piece of text.  Now, I’m able to click on a section from my timeline and go directly to that text.  The last field to use was image.  There could be all sorts of images to use.  I could have created thumbnails to visually organize sections based on setting or chapters.  Since, this was partially an experiment, I felt like I needed to use some kind of image.  Searching through Flickr, I found images that represented the sections for me, and put those links into the spreadsheet.  In the end, I now have a dynamic page that lays my writing out in a linear fashion and allows me to navigate to those points of the novel.

Another use for this timeline is that I can add in events which I have yet to write, but know will happen.  To further contextualize my novel, I can also add in real events, and link to articles about those events.

Writing is about evolution and experimentation.  I can write from any computer and visualize my writing in a new way.  For now, writing in the cloud has changed how I work.  How will it change the ways in which you work?

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