Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Organization from the Anal Retentive

Quote: “Organizing is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it is not all mixed up.” – A. A. Milne

Quote: “One person’s mess is merely another person’s filing system.” – Margo Kaufman

When it comes down to organizing my notes, files and anything writing related (which, by my definition, is most of my home) = I MUST control.

Perhaps that little kink of mine is because most of my life has been out of control – left to the gods-that-be who think large blocks of pain and suffering are good for the soul, it builds character, and all that other rubbish.

So, blame it on my OCD or my manic bouts of bi-polar energy, but I have to have everything organized. A place for everything and everything in it’s place.

The thing is, nobody understands my thoughts on organization. And, even I have to admit, sometimes I have to stop and think. It all boils down to what ‘mood’ I was in when I’m organizing. How I file when I’m in the middle of a manic depressive episode is quite different from my manic energy episodes, which is quite different than my manic bouts with anger. Throw in my compulsive disorder and the way the chemicals in my brain decide to mix and mingle like a bad Molotov cocktail and you’ll see my dilemma.

I’m so well organized, I can’t find things exactly when I want them.

Oxy-moron you say? Well, welcome to my world. Heavy emphasis on the ‘moron.’

But, being the master of my organized writing world would be nothing without the tools that make it so. I would be lost without:

  1. my external hard drive (called J-drive on my computer).
  2. my filing cabinets (two tall, industrial size, one short and squat).
  3. my bookcases.
  4. a 24 hole mail slot case-rack-thing I have no idea the name of.
  5. Rubbermaid containers (various sizes and colors), magazine holders and trays.
  6. file folders – flat and accordion, in an array of colors – some with handles/locks.
  7. hard, three ring notebooks of various sizes.
  8. pocket folders (paper and plastic), report covers, and tabbed indexed dividers.
  9. my trusty Dymo label maker.

WRITING LESSONS: I usually attend three week-long internet writing workshops a year. I also try to take 1-2 writing classes per month on the internet, as well. This information gets placed in files on my external hard drive (that way, my internal drives stay clog-free and I can hook my external hard-drive to any computer I work on and have access to my information). All writing information is found under WRITING. From there I have four sections: all things writing, research, classroom lessons, and MY original works.

Research and classroom lessons are self-explanatory and have LOTS of sub-folders in them.

All things writing is just that: all things pertaining to the craft of writing. Things like plot, beginnings/middles/endings, dialogue, structure, setting, description, scene, conflict, voice, style, atmosphere, tone, pacing, arcs, etc. I also have files on editing, grammar, master worksheets for outlines, characters, and plot, a section pertaining to the rules of certain genres, etc.

My original works consists of all my WIPs, a section of blog ideas, a section of blog ideas already written and published, published shorts, contests entries, etc.

As much as I have embraced the computer world, I have to admit my favorite way to keep everything -- EXCEPT my actual WIP – is on good old-fashioned handwritten hardcopy.

NOTES: Usually found on things like post-it-notes, half torn ‘legal pad’ yellow sheets, colorful lined index cards and bar napkins. These are thrown in a wire mesh tray, and sorted through once every three months. The items get placed in the appropriate file folders, marked by subject, organized by color code and sectioned in the first three drawers of the army green filing cabinet.

OTHER IDEAS: Things like newspaper clippings, torn-out magazine pictures, mini-cassette recordings from interviews or dictation, transcribed notes, computer printouts, souvenirs, post cards, and old photographs found at estate sales and flea markets – are placed in a black, two-tier tray (one tray for flat items, one for bulk) and sorted through once every four months. The items get placed in the appropriate file folders or small rubber maid containers, marked by subject, organized by color code and sectioned in the first three drawers of the steel-grey filing cabinet.

So, whenever I need one of the three “I’s” (inspiration, ideas or information) it is just a drawer and a glance away (unless I’ve placed it in another holding tray – this time, a maple wood tray on the third shelf of my blonde bookcase). This usually happens if I think I’ll be using the item soon, or if I have no idea how to file it. I go through this tray once every six months and if I haven’t used it/filed it/figured out what to do with it, I throw it out.

SPROUTS: These are stories that have gone beyond the note stage, germinated into some fleshed out ideas, have pictures, partial outlines, and brief character sketches. However, they are too small, too immature, to be classified as an ‘official’ WIP. I have placed these gems in very colorful vinyl file folders, marked by an identifying title and placed in the first section, top drawer in my army green filing cabinet.

I try to go through these when ever I have the ‘urge’ to work on something new, but don’t want to take energies away from my current ‘darlings.’

WIPs: All works in progress that have outgrown their ‘Sprout’ file folders are placed in what I call a “bible.”  I do this by going to my stockpile of hard-backed ringed notebook binders (twenty-five cents, used, at Salvation Army and found in my huge cedar rubber maid container), my stockpile of poly indexed tabbed dividers (stored in a bamboo magazine holder on my white bookshelf) and my stockpile of pocket folders (stored in a blue plastic magazine holder on my white bookshelf, as well.)

I assemble the notebook, dividing the sections up by plot, character info sheets, a drawn map of the town, sketches of interiors mentioned, story outline, etc. The pocket folders are added to hold pictures, clippings, and any information pulled from the “notes” files mentioned above. The result is a one-stop ‘bible’ of everything pertinent to what I am working on. When not in use, I place them on my dark wood bookcase.

HOT WIPs: Stories that I am currently ‘hot’ on get special treatment. Not only do they have their own ‘bible’ that sits prominently on my desk, but anything I edit, I print and place in a covered report folder and let it sit. Then, when I have the time, I can go through and read it – make notes, adjustments, what-nots, let it sit some more, and go back through it again. These ‘hot’ things set in my red tray on my writing table, along with the file folder of submissions.

RETIRED WIPs: My retired works in progress (whether because they are done or I no longer have an interest in them) are taken out of the three-ringed notebook. Any information (photos, maps, brochures, clippings) that can be re-used is placed in another tray (painted purple) to await me to re-file them (usually every two months). Anything immediately related to the story (character sheets, outline, sketches, etc) get placed in an accordion file, along with a printout of the story thus far. A CD of the story is burned as well, and placed in a small rubber maid container and stored in my filing cabinet with the rust at the bottom. Another copy of the story is archived on my external hard drive.

So, this is how I do my organization for novels, ideas and notes. I find that, although it sounds like a lot of work, there isn’t much effort once the initial stage is set. This does not include all my other organization of writing supplies, computer programs used for writing, and all the other stuff a writer brings to the office.

In retrospect, for me:

  • An organized office – free from clutter - keeps my distractions down and my OCD at bay.
  • An organized writing life keeps my brain from sweating the small, insignificant stuff and I feel I can focus more on writing than on searching. 
  • The ‘organizing’ and ‘cleaning’ aspects to my writing life are a way for me to take the ‘unbridled’ destructive energy that plagues bi-polar people and twist it into something useful for my career.

Are you organized? Does it make you feel good to control this aspect of your life?  Or do you prefer the organization of clutter?

PS - sorry this was late - I was having trouble with blogger and I kept getting an error for most of the morning.


  1. Greg, I'll be honest, that was painful for me to read. I kept imagining the time and energy it would require for me to be anywhere NEAR as organized as you. Color coded filing cabinets? Um, no, thank you.

    Then again, I'm still knew to the writing world. I can see myself somewhere down the road, after 3 or 5 books, needing to figure out a better method of organization - but I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.

    My mom and little sister also have OCD. My sister also has anxiety and freaks out when something interrupts her routine. The gene, or what ever it is, totally skipped me. Of course, this means I'm the odd one. They don't understand how I can be so "lazy" and just go with flow - as they say. But it works for me. Why rock the boat? :-)

  2. George,
    I'm with JD. I'm tired just reading all this. But I see for you part of the art is in setting the stage, like getting ready for a great party. You fuss over all the details being just so so the party comes off well. Some of this I need to do, I'll be honest. But no way could I come close to what you do.
    Another reason to worship your writing prowess, my friend.

  3. Hi George,
    I don't qulify as OCD but come close as a Virgo!
    Your system is very elaborate and clearly works for you. Mine is on a much smaller scale with file cabinets, 3-ring binders of research and mss, 3x5 cards to track submissions, record bibliography, etc. Then there are the manila folders at the desk for quick reference, usually for contests, events, WIP, social networking and other promo ideas. Recently I sorted thru dozens of post-its and wanted to swear off using them. I was looking for all the accumulated notes on agents who accept historical fiction. Whew....
    While I like the idea of color coding, I'd need to keep a listing nearby to help me remember what color is what!
    Heaven help us if we have to move anytime soon!
    Thanks for pushing me to organize....again.

  4. Okay, so previewing doesn't always work. The word is QUALIFY.....