What do you see in the photo below? A series of interconnected pathways? An artery-like roadmap? A peeling away of layers? Artistic interpretation? Boring brittle plant remains?
This is actually a fun glimpse at the insides of prickly pear cactus pads – known as nopalitos, or nopales.
When I came across this withered desert plant during a hike this summer, I knew it was going to become a future blog post. After all, seeing things in different ways has become a bit of a mantra for me over this past year.
I confess, though … I had no idea that an x-ray view of a prickly pear cactus might reveal this artistic, skeletal pattern beneath. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? Just like human skin, the cactus skin protects an intricate series of veins and arteries – the lifeblood of the plant. When torn away, the pad that was once 90 percent water shrivels, and the innards die, exposing elaborate pathways and connections.
For Writers: This photo immediately brought to mind the complicated “innards” of a novel. When you think about all the elements that must come together to form a cohesive, spellbinding novel, it can become a bit intimidating.
You have to remember not only what color Aunt Edna’s hair is in chapter one, but also her back-story, previous comments, and future hopes/dreams. You also must keep track of the physical seasons of a novel, internal character complications, external plot lines, timelines, acts I, II & III, subplots … If you’re not careful, the “connections” that are so natural in the prickly pear pad can quickly become disconnected in your novel.
How do you connect the dots so that your plot flows, your characters grow, and your seasons show? What devices do you use to keep track of story elements and to keep all of the details organized in your mind?
The most helpful tools I use:
- Giant white-board: I am a visual person, so a big white board is essential. On it, I borrow from the Hero’s Journey to loosely map out my plot points, acts, and story arc (on a giant circle divided in fourths). I even have a smaller white board on which I transfer actual chapter descriptions after I’ve written them so that I can visually see what happens from chapter to chapter and how well they fit within the story arc.
- Character profiles: I know I’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth mentioning again. This is where I have every detail about my character: her motivation, her hopes, dreams, physical descriptions, dialogue tags, plot ideas for future scenes. It is an indispensable reference and a great way to keep track of essential details (each character profile is in a binder for easy reference).
- Chapter lists: As I’m writing, I keep a chapter-by-chapter description of the action in each scene. This proved quite helpful during the editing stages of my first novel, as I could quickly see which scenes I could cut and/or edit. Besides, it’s also truly motivational to see this document grow. It’s also helpful for synopsis writing.
What organizational tools do you use? Do you find the magnitude of writing a 200-plus-page novel daunting? I have often said that writing a novel has been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done professionally. And, like the prickly pads of napalitos, I’m “sticking” to my story. It is still the most difficult – but rewarding – thing I’ve ever done.