Writing Without Confusing Yourself (Or Your Readers)
Writing is a very personal, individual undertaking. Everybody approaches the activity a bit differently from the next guy. Some people can come up with concept, plot, characters, and everything else and just sit down and write. Others need to take time to figure out what's going on; what's going to happen in the story, and how it all fits together. Others still will find themselves getting stuck somewhere along the middle, losing track of everything or changing an idea mid-way through, or never know how to end. These are the people for whom this has been put together. Those of you who can barrel through a story overnight are still welcome to look, though.
There are different ways in which a writer can and will get stuck on any given piece. Motivation, immediate environment, too few (or too many) ideas available, lack of organisation; the list goes on, but life is short and I am lazy. The sticking point that we're going to focus on here are the ideas. Too many or too few ideas, and no way to piece them together.
When I first started writing, I'd get an idea, figure out where I wanted to go, map it out, decide on the characters, come up with the ending, and try to keep all that in my head. In the process, I lost a lot of points that I'd originally intended on putting in, forgot a lot of one-liners that I'd wanted to include somewhere, and eventually would just lose interest in the story and go on to something else. On one hand, I learned how to tell an entire story in under 5000 words; something which I'd struggled with my entire life, and could never do up until a little more than a year ago. On the other hand, a lot of really good ideas went unwritten, because they were just too big for a one-shot.
Late last spring, I got it into my head to buy a brand new spiral notebook and a pack of Sharpies. And then I started sacrificing some note cards that were meant for another project, and almost immediately, my writing seemed to smooth out and become more concise. I employ this mainly for what I already know will be multi-chapter fics, but occasionally my one-shots get this treatment, as well.
Edit (31 July 2013): I originally posted this essay thing in 2009, after having been using this system of pre-writing for roughly six months. It's still what I use, and has become slightly more organised since then as I've grown more comfortable with the idea of extensive pre-writing.
[Image 1] For a start, I keep everything. This notebook currently houses about a year's worth of notes, research, and drafts for a project I've been working on. The two folders on top are part of the project: the yellow one is for side-tangents that I want to include, but just haven't found a place to make them fit. The green folder is for the current part I'm working on. The smaller book is one I take with me when I go places, so I can write down anything that may pop into my head at any given time. As soon as I finish whichever bit I've got in the green folder, I move it to the notebook and take out any notes and research relevant to the next bit.
[Image 2] The first thing I do is write down as many details and points as I can think of. This isn't necessarily done all at once. I'm constantly adding and changing the notes on this project as I think of better things to do. This particular page details different sorts of magic done by different races. But anything I could think of that may possibly be relevant at one point in the narrative, I write down. It doesn't matter if you think a character's favourite colour might be chartreuse and you think he may like to eat spam and pickled eggs for breakfast. If you have an idea, put it down. It might come in useful down the road.
[Image 3] The pages don't have to be specific to one topic or character either, since your ideas probably won't be. What you choose to write down is up to you. It could be anything, from a witty one-liner, to plot points, to just vague images you may have in your head. It's your story, and what happens is all entirely up to you. Your notes can be as messy as they need to be, because you won't actually be referring to these pages down the line. I often wind up with pages and pages of brief snippets of conversation with little or no exposition or character acting. Often, these are character development, or else important plot points that are going to be delivered under the guise of character development.
[Image 4] The story that these notes belong to is a lot of high-fantasy, urban-fantasy, occasionally a period-piece jumble of genres. Almost nothing from my first round of notes got kept. Some of the basic ideas stayed, but the more I fiddled with the premise and worked on the world-building, the more I realised that what I'd originally intended just wouldn't work. My timeline kept getting jumbled, or I had too many ideas that just couldn't all fit together. A large part of the notes in my notebook are scenes I've written out that will never wind up in the final project, but which I'm holding onto regardless, because they might wind up in something else.
There are also pages like this that I almost wound up keeping. A lot of the basic ideas are there, but the story didn't wind up really going like this at all. But even though I'm not using them, the first round of notes wound up being immensely useful. They helped me get to know the world and flesh out character motivations, which helped the characters seem much more natural by the time I finally got to that stage.
[Image 5] This is a page I've re-written about three times. It's the most-referenced page of any of my notes so far, because it lists basically everybody, their rank, and the command structure of the regiment. It's changed a few times, as I've shuffled characters in and out, but the sheer volume of information on it makes it almost more important than anything else in my green folder right now. Each multi-chapter story has at least one page like this, which is constantly referenced and re-written because I keep accidentally tearing out the page holes.
[Image 6] Another sort of note page I have are the research notes. Research has varying degrees of importance, depending on what you're writing. Some stories hardly require any at all. And sometimes you write about space Vikings during WWII. In those cases, the research is paramount. There will always be someone in your audience who knows more about the subject than you do, so getting as many details right as possible is crucial. Even if you never actually use them, they'll often show up behind the scenes, forming your world and your characters.
The second half of the page is something rather different. At some point, I'm going to be adding alternate universes into the mix, so I started working out how alternate the universes are going to be. Technically, I'm writing the alternate universe to the main continuity, so working out where I'm going differently helps me know how things are going to appear when the 'proper' universe shows up.
[Image 7] This page is "incomplete" when looked at next to some of the other pages, and even seems to be repeating some previous ideas. These notes are actually from a series of novel-length stories, and this was the very first page I'd done for one of the individual stories. Mostly, I was going through, trying to work out what the end-game should have been and what I wanted to do with this section of the overall storyarc. There are a lot of pages like this in my notebook, but I keep them because they all seem to have something that the others don't.
So, you've filled up half of a spiral notebook with notes about everything you can think of. Now it's time to turn those notes into something useful. Really, this is easier than you might think. I promise.
[Image 8] Once I'm done with the brainstorming, I go over all of my notes, and decide what I can cut, what's not needed, and what I want to include in the story. What you put on the cards doesn't have to be uniform between them. There's no minimum or maximum length, and they don't all have to be plot points. These cards are pulling double-duty. While they're detailing all of the plot points of the story, they're also reconciling the calendars from two different worlds. The numbers on the upper left corner are the years from the alien world, and those on the upper right are the years on Earth. I needed to do this because my main character is from the alien world, but he's spending most of his time on Earth, and I needed to make sure that I was ageing him correctly and consistently.
This one has a lot of note cards. 30, if I counted correctly. But the brainstorm for this was at least fifty pages, all told (and this is just one story in the series). Not even close to everything made it this far, because as I went back, I realised that a lot of it was either un-needed, or just saying the same thing as a previous note, but with different words. Some of my note cards still do this in some projects, but it doesn't matter. It'll be taken care of in the next step.
Organising your Thoughts:
[Image 9] While not particularly necessary, I like to go this one extra step, just in case. It's perfectly possible to just organise your note cards into a specific order and just refer back to them, but I dislike this. Mainly, because I'm an uncoordinated klutz, and will drop them and lose them a dozen times over before I've finished my story. So, I organise them, figuring out in which order I want the events to happen, and put them to dot points. This bit is from a different part of the project that the note cards were, which is why they don't match up at all.
In moving things to the outline, I assimilated a few note cards, and tossed a few more still, until I got something streamlined and efficient, which I keep at the front of my green folder so I can easily refer back to it when needed. By having the entire story in front of me in concise dot points, it makes it easier to know where I'm going, and how to tie the scenes together.
Without question, the brainstorming step is the most tedious. But even writing down your ideas before you start puts you at a tremendous advantage. By getting your research out of the way, it allows you to write more freely. However, the last thing you want to do is let your outline hold you back, though. Sometimes, mid way through your story, you'll get an idea that's new, and never showed up in your notes anywhere. In this case, save your work, and run with it. If it works, you can always modify your outline (the one above is a modified outline. A character weaselled his way into my story without my permission, and wound up adding about 10k words all on his own) and work your new idea into your work. This is why I type my outlines, rather than hand-write them; it's easier to add and subtract things after you've finished.
This process doesn't work for everybody, but I personally find it immensely helpful. I suggest trying it out, and if it doesn't work, find something else. This is just my way of doing it; there's no right or wrong way to go about it.