Save Me

In a comment after my last post I was asked how I organize my work to keep from losing drafts as I go along. This is how I do it. There are probably a hundred other ways.

This is an important topic. Your storytelling is you. The way you tell and revise a story is as much you as the way you chew your food or walk or laugh, and your storytelling can last; the rest is fleeting.

I write exclusively on the computer, so I have no longhand drafts. When I begin a new project, I name a folder for it based on what I think the book is going to be about. For example, I just finished a book in the Disney Fairies series. The folder is called Mother Dove, although the story turned out not to be about her. I should rename it, but I haven’t and probably never will, which will mean that a few years from now, I’ll waste time hunting for it. So if you name your folder and the name stops applying, change it. Don’t be like me.

Before I write a book, I write notes. I keep a separate file (or document) of notes for each book. Be like me that way. Don’t let your notes for one book run into your notes for another. The notes file goes in the folder for the book. I’ve posted about my notes, so I’ll say here only that sometimes I copy a few sentences or a paragraph that I’m not happy with from my manuscript itself into my notes. Then I copy that section over and over, improving as I go. When I’m satisfied, I copy the revised version into my manuscript and overwrite the original, which is gone from my manuscript but preserved in my notes. Even better, the evolution is preserved, step by step. This will simplify the work of my and your future biographers. And it’s gratifying to have a record of what I went through.

When I start the manuscript itself, it becomes a file in the folder too. I name it and follow the name with a version number, obviously 1 initially. (The file name has nothing to do with the book’s title.) Whenever I change the direction of the story, I save the old version with its old version number and then save it again with a subsequent number. I wouldn’t have to do this if I were just going to keep writing forward, but I’m probably going to go back and revise some of what I’ve already written to support the new direction. If I don’t save the old version, I’ll lose it, and what if my new path turns out to be a dead end? When I make a really radical departure, like shifting POV, I rename the file entirely and number it 1 again, although I keep it in the same folder. The reason for the new name is for me to be able to spot where I took such a different tack.

The result is that I have many truncated versions of all my books. Fairest was a ridiculously hard book to write. A minute ago I counted, just to see: eighty-nine versions and five names before I finished the first draft.

After I’ve sent the manuscript to my editor and have gotten back her edits and her astonishingly long editorial letter (eighteen single-spaced pages for Fairest), I rename the file again. I usually call it edit at that point, edit1. I’m revising now for my editor, but also for me, so I may still veer off into unexplored territory.

Even with this elaborate method, I lose small revisions, but I don’t care about those. Nothing important is lost.

On the downside, gems from an earlier version that I want to use later can be hard to find. So I have another file called extra. When I delete something I like, I copy it into my extra file. The bit I like doesn’t have to be a whole scene, although it can be. It can also be a neat phrase, or anything I think I might need at some point. My extra file is shorter than a whole version, more manageable. Usually I remember a phrase or key word from the bit I want that I can search on. My extra file gives me a huge sense of security.

And speaking of security, you do back everything up, right? (Kids, if you don’t know what it means to “back up,” ask your parents.) Because there’s no point to an elaborate version system if you’re going to lose your precious work anyway. So save what you write!

  1. Very helpful! I use a similar approach, but seeing other approaches can help so much. I do keep hoping that something as good as Scrivener will be made for the PC.

    I looked back at your post on notes and I was interested to see that the Two Princesses of Barmarre was one of the hardest to write; it was one of my favorites!

  2. Nature,
    The whole filing and notes system can sound a bit overwhelming at first. I'm not published yet, but I've been working at it for a few years now. I used to panic when I heard about all the folders and elaborate filing systems writers had. It sounded like a lot or work!:) Now I have an elaborate system myself both on paper and one the computer, hobbled together from different methods I heard about. It grew with my writing.

    It sounds like you might want to have one folder of just "ideas" either on the computer or for paper. I use expandable file folders, and ideas that are just that – ideas to go back to one day – all might to in one slot or one document or one folder, while ideas that I've thought about a bit more each have their own slot, document or folder because I have more pages or documents.

    A whole book that I'm working on has its own virtual and/or real folder, or two. Like I said, the filing system will grow with you and different things work for different writers, Gail might have different advice!:)

  3. I agree with Erin that we all come up with out own systems and that you might try one folder for ideas. That's what I have. My ideas that grow into books are the ones that generate more ideas. I don't suggest you wait for a good idea to hit you. Write down possible ideas. Write about what could be an idea.

    As for actual stories, I think you should make a folder for each one.

  4. Mrs.Levine,
    I really love your books! I think they are sooooooooooooo good and I enjoy reading them! I have read, Fairest,The two princesses of Bamarre,The fairy's return,Fairy dust an the quest for the egg, The fairy's mistake, the princess test,princess sonora and the long sleep,Cinderellis and the glass hill,and For biddles sake.Right now I am reading ever.
    Please keep up the good work!
    Meg T.

  5. Thanks for posting this in response to my question last week. I'm doing Laurie Halse Anderson's WFMAD this month to help me get back into a writing routine (difficult with three kids). I started a "Notes" file for my WIP and it's been helpful. I'm able to write a scene I need to insert into the story without worrying about it getting lost in the chapters I've already written as well as odd-ball ideas I might use further along.

  6. I, like Meghan, Have read a number of your books. I beleive the only ones I have not read are Ever, Betsy who cried wolf, and Dave at night. I am trying to figure out if Dave at night is my type of book. Is it fantasy?

  7. To Dancing Pen–
    What a great name!
    I'm sorry! I look at the stories only of the kids in the creative writing workshop that I talk about in WRITING MAGIC, but I think it's wonderful that you're writing your way through the book. Best of luck!

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