Keeping Track of Your Plot: How To Make A Novel “Bible”

After my NaNoWriMo Survival Kit post on Friday, a few of you told me how much you liked my Novel Bible idea (also known as The Only Possible Way I Can Keep Track of The Needlessly Complicated Plots I Write Myself Into) and so today I’m going to go into it in more detail.

My “don’t forget to put this in!” notes from Novel No.1 – and this was with only a chapter or two to go!

The reason I did this for Novel No.2 is the mess I made without it on Novel No.1. I get most of my ideas while writing, so I could be in the middle of Chapter 3 and thinking of things I want to put in Chapters 11, 21 and 34. I scribbled them down so I wouldn’t forget them when I actually got to Chapters 11, 21 and 34, but as I just kept adding to the same list it quickly got out of control. Starting a new chapter, I’d have to trawl through the list and pick out what I needed and then, once I’d finished it, go back and cross off what I’d put in. (And add the new ones… You can see how this turned into a nightmare.) I was also frequently re-reading the start of the book to remind myself of what I’d done which as this excellent post by Kay Kenyon on points out can lead to editing blindness. And so I took Kay’s idea of a scene list, added enough paper to satisfy my love of making notes and a cute clip to satisfy my need to peruse stationery catalogues for hours on end, combined it with the idea of a “building a novel in a folder” that I’d read about in Wannabe a Writer? and hey presto, my novel bible was born.

So here’s how to make your own.

You will need:

  • A4 paper
  • A large clip (like a bulldog clip)
  • Your synopsis and notes printed on A4 paper
  • A desire to procrastinate while appearing to work.

1. Decide how many chapters your novel is going to have. (You could also do scenes if you prefer and – of course – the novel isn’t written yet so this is all approximate.) Count out enough pages of A4 paper so that you have one sheet for each chapter. Write or print the corresponding chapter number at the top of each one and draw a horizontal line about a third of the way down the page.

2. My novel is divided further into five or six parts or sections, so the next thing I’ll do is take a page for each part and insert them in between the chapters where I think they’ll appear in the book. (I use my beat sheet to determine where there’ll be, although this could – and probably will – change.) If you want to be fancy about it, you could print out these as title pages and use a different colored paper so you can easily find the section splits when the document is put together.

3. I have a one-page beat sheet showing all the major points in my plot; that goes at the front. Then between that and our blank chapter pages I’ll put any notes I have/Wikipedia entries I copy and pasted. (Joking about the Wikipedia entries. Well… kinda.)

4. Make a cover. By law, this cover has to include the words “A Novel by” so that you’ll start thinking of what you’ll have once you’ve finished (OR it’ll heap tons of pressure on you, so much so that you throw your novel bible on the barbecue and go cry under your duvet). If you’re not ready to start writing yet, you can always waste a day or so mocking up a cover. At the very least, use some clip art.

5. Secure everything together with a clip. (A bulldog clip is what I’m calling it, but that’s not exactly the kind of clip I use, which is the one pictured above.) This way you can flick through it like a book, but add to or subtract from it whenever you want.

How to use your novel bible:

I wrote my first novel section by section, in that I planned out the first section meticulously, wrote it and then started planning the second one, and so on and so on. So let’s say it’s the first day of NaNoWriMo (oh wait – it IS the first day of NaNoWriMo!) and I’m about to start writing Chapter 1, Section 1. I figure out (with my beat sheet) what needs to happen in the ten chapters that make up Part I, and then I divide up the action between each of the chapters. Remember that horizontal line we drew on our chapter pages? Well now we’re going to write a couple of sentences or a few bullet points above that line that’ll remind us what needs to happen in that particular chapter.

This is the one I’m using now for the Dreaded Second Novel. I’m a bit weird about telling anyone else titles until the thing is written, so I’ve blurred that out. But I DID use clip art.

Let’s skip ahead to, say, Friday of this week when if my impossible-to-keep-to-schedule works out, I’ll be starting Chapter 5 or 6. As I’ve been writing all the chapters leading up to it, I’ve been scribbling notes down about things that need to go in future chapters on those chapters’ corresponding pages. So now I can flick to the page titled Chapter 6, read my summary of what needs to happen (e.g. “The unemployed Irish girl trying to make it as a writer runs into a rich, gorgeous musician with a US passport in the security line at the airport and he falls madly in love with her.”) and my own reminders to put in some of the smaller details (e.g. things like “In Chapter 2, Irish girl says she loves pancakes. In the security line, the musician should have to dump a packet of pancakes he’s carrying. This is their conversation opener!” and “Don’t forget it’s not lunchtime yet” and “BUBBLES! LOTS OF BUBBLES!”)

[I’m obviously making these up, but maybe there’s a novel in there….)

Now if you’d like a big gold star stuck on your forehead, you can take this one step further. Every time you finish a chapter, replace its scribbly, messy page in the bible with a neatly typed fresh one showing a short summary of the scene in the top third of the page. And can you guess what we’ll do with this? We’ll use it when we do our second draft, of course!

NB: This is entirely separate to the manuscript, which I don’t print out until I’ve finished a draft.

5 thoughts on “Keeping Track of Your Plot: How To Make A Novel “Bible”

  1. Lindsay Edmunds says:

    Does the book bible ever start to grow wild? I believe in doing one — didn’t do one with the first and what a mistake that was. But for me the issue is too many ideas that don’t want to lie down and behave.
    Good luck with NaNoWriMo!

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Not really – this is the way I avoid the wildness of just making a list. I find that once I’ve written down the idea I can forget about it, I know it’ll be there later. That’s the only way I can work, because it would be impossible to try and hold it all in my head.

      And thanks! 🙂

  2. Gina says:

    I love it. I started using a similar concept when a fantastic idea came flashing through my head that seemed to have a bit of a story line following behind it. I just started scribbling down notes, ideas and song lyrics – whatever seemed relevant (or not), and then put them all under a chapter heading in some sort of chronological order… Before I knew it, I had 13 chapters of a book happening.
    Of course, then I got sidetracked with the garden……

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