Folder Structure for Novelists

A bunch of people have asked me about how I keep track of ongoing novel projects. I can pick up a project after months away and tell you exactly what stage it’s in and what I need to do next. I know exactly where to find every file or piece of information from any stage in the process, which is incredibly useful because novel projects are complicated.

For these parts of novel project management, the key is folder structure.

It’s the basis for how I organize all my notes, drafts, and anything else related to the process of writing, editing, and sending out a novel: where to store files, what to save, what to name them, all of that.

I applied this method to my writing projects out of necessity/rage after one project that spanned several years for which I’d create a new system of organization every time I picked it back up. Nothing was standardized. I was always unable to find what I needed to work on particular parts but knew that work existed somewhere. It was a mess, and it made a project that was already unpleasant for other reasons maddening.

I also worked as a project manager for a while, and I swear this is one of the easiest, stupidest, most useful things I learned.

So here’s how I do this.

The first stupid trick is to number your folders. This keeps the folders, and the progress of your work, in chronological order. Eventually, the project folder looks like this:

But you don’t set all the folders up right away; you create folders as you progress to each subsequent step, which helps track where you are in the process.

So start with 0, which I inventively call “BG” for background. Every one of my background folders has been organized differently depending on the needs of the project, but this folder is for general information you may need to refer to at any stage in the process. This is where my world-building notes go, for instance, since I’ll need them during drafting and editing. (It’s also where information goes before I’m at later stages but already have, say, notes on potential beta readers or agents to query.)

When you’re ready to start writing, the next folder is for your first draft (“1 First Draft”). This is where material you’re using and/or changing while working on your initial draft goes. If you’re using an outline from the background folder, copy it in here; that way you can make changes to it while you draft, but you’ll still have the original in your 0 folder if you mess it up.

The only file that has to be in this folder is the manuscript draft file you’re currently editing. Title your manuscript file something basic, even if it’s not the actual title, and STICK WITH IT, because it helps with the next stupid trick:

Numbering versions. It seems obvious. But it can also be easy to think, “Oh, I’ll definitely remember this is the most recent one.” DON’T FALL FOR IT. NUMBER YOUR VERSIONS. Know which is the most recent version, and still keep your previous ones so you can go back to them if needed.

(Please do not comment about how superior you think Scrivener is for doing this for you. Thanks in advance.)

After my first draft, I create a new folder for the initial clean-up pass for general grammar/spelling and anything I already know needs to be fixed, copying the last draft from the first draft folder and the ongoing notes I’ve inevitably made for myself of things I already know to fix.

Why not just do this in the first draft folder? Because this isn’t initial drafting. This is editing, and I want a record of when changes occurred and why. If I decide not to make changes I thought I needed during the first draft, I note that; if I later decide I had it right the first time, or I need to reconsider, I still have that text.

My next step is to solicit feedback from beta readers. You copy your cleaned-up draft into this folder and, if the file name didn’t already include the actual title and your name, rename it. You also want a new folder for this step to copy in other files, like the list of beta readers to contact and what in particular, if anything, I’ve asked them to focus on.

(I may do another post on this later, but those questions can include things like, ‘Is the romance between these two characters working?’ or ‘Were you confused about any of the world-building?’ Down the road, I’ve found it useful to see what I was worried about in earlier drafts.)

And this is the final, important, stupid folder structure tip, which is: save everything in your folder structure. Everything.

If you get feedback from a beta reader, don’t just save the file with track changes they sent you, save the additional comments they wrote in their emailed response. Keep everything in one place. Yes, your email probably saves it, and we can talk about email folder structure another time. But the less searching and clicking around you have to do, the fewer barriers (including lack of internet connectivity) there are to your workflow, and the easier it is to keep track of everything.

I start my feedback folder by making a folder for each reader who’s confirmed they’ll get back to me, and it progresses something like this.

Do you see how this works? Just glancing at the folder I know exactly who to follow up with if I haven’t heard back from them by the requested deadline. (The 0s in front of the Canceled and Received folders keep them easy to visually separate, rather than mixed among the alphabetical list of names.)

Incidentally, if you need recommendations for awesome female characters from SFF novels published in 2017 to nominate for awards, I’ve got you covered. =D

I’m not going to keep going through folder by folder; you get the idea. To review, the basic principles are:

  • Number folders (and versions) in chronological order.
  • Internal consistency is your friend.
  • Create a separate folder for each new stage in the process.
  • Save and document everything in your folder structure.

Have questions? Let me know in the comments!

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