Thursday, July 24, 2008

Organizing Chaos by Beth White

Elizabeth White writes inspirational romance (sometimes with a comedic twist, sometimes on the suspenseful edge, and sometimes in a historic mode) for Zondervan and Steeple Hill. She lives in the Deep South—so deep that if you drove a few more miles you’d fall into the Gulf of Mexico, which she doesn’t recommend. Her two children are now young adults and pretty much stay out of her hair, and her husband is an executive pastor at a big ole Baptist church, where Beth teaches second-graders in Sunday school and plays flute in the orchestra.

Beth’s latest book, Controlling Interest, is a detective caper in the great literary tradition of “Moonlighting.” Come on, it was fun!
Beth's website is


If my husband were to see the title of this post, he would fall down laughing. “You’ve got the chaos part down to a science, but ORGANIZED?” Not so much. Well, I sniff, I have managed to write and publish fourteen novels in the last ten years. How do you suppose that happened? Sheer dumb luck is not on the table.

Of course the providence of God has a lot to do with it. But I’m also a firm believer in investing talents for maximum growth (see Matthew 25: 14-30). Oh yeah, I know, the parable Jesus told isn’t overtly about abilities, it’s about money. But the principle holds. So let’s invest our talent in some organizational strategies.

Let’s say you’ve got the storytelling gene. Ideas won’t leave you alone. Imaginary people are way more fun than real ones. And other people seem to actually enjoy reading what you make up. I submit that this type of creative personality is often the out-of-control unfocused Tasmanian Devil of the literary world. Is anybody raising a hand with me?

In fact, it took me a week to start writing this article because every morning I would look at my friend Cara’s email (which reminded me that I’d told her three weeks ago I would write it) and think, “Boy, I should totally do that.” “That looks like hard work.” “I don’t have the first idea what to say.” “Maybe I should be working on my revisions.” “Oh! Look at that spider web over there—Raid!!”Um…you see what my husband means?

So here I am trying to figure out how to help other Tasmanian Devils (TDs) conquer their ADD (which, by the way, is the current psychobabble term for us easily distracted creative sorts). My personal type of TD is a very quiet, subversive one. The kind where you can be sitting in a room full of people and completely zone out into your own interior world—and forget you’re at your future daughter-in-law’s bridal shower. The kind where you get on the Internet to look something up and you keep clicking on links—until three hours have gone by and you can’t remember what the original question was. The kind where you suddenly remember your 18th Century Novels final was yesterday.


Since I choose not to pursue medication, I’ve learned the fine arts of calendaring, filing, and sticky-notes. And today I declare myself, not cured, but under relative control and capable of completing large, complicated projects like novel-writing.Unfortunately, I’ll have to confess that I did not come to this in a blinding flash of revelation or even learn it in a seminar. It started with my husband literally begging me to try a Daytimer system: “The odds of you actually remembering something are astronomically higher if you write it down.” Grumble grumble. So I bought one of those black leather notebooks with a monthly calendar and a daily calendar.

Lo and behold, I started remembering most if not all of my appointments and deadlines (once I got in a habit of looking at the thing every day). Now it’s almost an obsession, keeping to-do lists and checking them off. And now that we’re in the 21st Century I keep all that on my iCalendar on my Mac—but I still carry that notebook around everywhere I go.

The second thing that revolutionized my writing life was a filing system. For every book I start, I set up a file with nine subfiles:

  • Business
  • Chapters
  • Characters
  • Cover
  • Drafts
  • Fan Mail
  • Outlines
  • Research
  • Reviews

Most of those are self-explanatory, but I’ll elaborate on outlines a bit.

When I’m planning a book, I usually run the story through a Hero’s Journey (a la Christopher Vogler), a GMC chart (see Deb Dixon’s book), and a snowflake (see Randy Ingermanson’s excellent article on his website). Ideally all of those should match, but they help me come at the story in several different ways in order to write a coherent and complete synopsis. Then, as I write the first draft of the manuscript, I fill in an Excel worksheet with each chapter vertically subdivided into scenes and analyzed horizontally for POV character, date and time, location, event, and approximate word count.

Any time I look up something related to that book I put it in a Word document and stick it in the Research file. Any correspondence is saved to the appropriate file. All information pertinent to characters as they develop are noted—which seems like it would take too much time but ultimately saves huge amounts of time—because it keeps me from having to search through an entire manuscript to find out, for example, what did I name the next-door neighbor’s dog and what breed was it?

Now I’m starting to actually sound organized, am I not? Hah! Take that, Scott White! Trust me, I learned all this the HARD way.

Third helpful tool is the Sticky Note feature on my computer desktop. Let’s say I’m writing along and I need to know what year the stethoscope was invented (true story). Instead of getting on the Internet (at the risk of losing three hours to the history of gall bladder surgery—true story), I fill a sticky note with all the things I need to look up while I’m watching Psych later that night. They’re also useful for making notes during revisions. That way I don’t forget to change the heroine’s hoodie from University of South Alabama to Ole Miss (for example).

Wow. This is probably way more information than anybody wanted. But it’s real, and it makes my chaos manageable. You naturally organized people are probably laughing your socks off. But for the rest of us Tasmanian Devils…every little bit of help…


Janet Dean said...

Hi Beth! Welcome to Seekerville! Congrats on fourteen novels. I loved your humorous, but savvy post on how to organize the writing process.

I live by the To Do list so don’t miss appointments, but somehow those lists and Post-it notes multiply and I end up with several cluttering my desk and the kitchen island. Some items are duplicated, others not, so I write a more comprehensive list. Anyone know a better way?

I'll examine your strategies at my leisure. Well, with getting ready for RWA and promoting Courting Miss Adelaide, I'll cram in some time figuring how I can use your suggestions to up my productivity by keeping track of the book. Is your filing system with nine subfiles electronic?

Help yourself to a cup of coffee and a cranberry muffin fresh from the oven. Unlike Ruthy, I use a mix, but they're yummy.


Tina M. Russo said...

Beth I am very frightened. I really got hooked into your strategies.

I am going to print this up asap.

Hey, can you give us a web site where we can stalk you?

And thanks for visiting Seekerville.

Julie Lessman said...

Welcome, Beth -- and thank you for your very practical (and fun) post!

Boy, have you struck a chord with me! Of course, it took until the third book in my Daughters of Boston series (which features starring roles for about 8-11 characters) before I even THOUGHT about creating an age chart, I'm embarrassed to say. Uh, not a real good thing for a continuing historical series, I guess. So, like you, I am learning the hard way to get organized, and your column today definitely helps -- thank you!


Beth White said...

Hi, Janet--

Yes, the filing system is electronic, but I also keep a paper file folder for articles and other hard-copy research. Thanks for the muffin. Yum!

Tina, yes, it might be a good idea to give you my website address. The Zondervan marketing people would be appalled. Maybe Cara could edit the post and add it?

Please come visit me. I have a newsletter sign-up on the front page.

And I tell you what--everybody who comments here for the next three days will be entered in a drawing for a copy of Controlling Interest (or Under Cover of Darkness--your choice). I meant to do that anyway. Just leave me a way to get in touch with you.


Beth White said...

Hi, Julie--

Congrats on the historical series. I assume it's Revolutionary War stuff? I'm writing a screenplay based on Elswyth Thane's Williamsburg series from the 1940's. Have you read that? It's magnificent.

I know what you mean about the age chart. Once you start building a body of work, it pays to have a way to keep track of character names, too. I recycle characters, weaving them in from book to book, and it can get really confusing. You wouldn't think you'd forget your own creations, but it happens!

Pamela S Thibodeaux said...


I am not overly organized but have my own quirks....I can't stand a messy desk everything has to be in its place and the desktop clean.

At work anyway, home is a different story.

My desk stays pretty clean, at least where the keyboard is. However shelves overflow, papers are stacked on the printer, my hubby keeps a portable radio with earphones on the desk for when he's playing poker and wants to listen to music.


But I DO have a "week-at-a-glance" calendar that I faithfully write things on (promo events, appts, showers, etc) and I've created spreadsheets to list the numerous groups, sites, etc with the User ID & Password for each as well as which email account I used when registering. I have another that lists all of my NF articles, where they are posted and where they need to be posted.

I have a "to do" list that gets revised regularly (scratch one off, add two more) LOL!

On occasion I chuck it all and clean, clean, clean - especially when I'm facing a difficult scene/chapter. Clearing away the clutter helps me clear my thoughts. Crazy I know, but it works..unless I'm using that as an excuse not to write, then I just have to buckle down and get it done. :-)

I've yet to tackle organizing a book like you do - I'm 100% SOTP writer, but do jot notes when necessary and keep a file for them.

One other thing I do when editing is to make a file of scenes cut just in case I can resue them in another spot or work them into the revisions.


Cheryl Wyatt said...


I LOVE THIS POST! I'm a "To-Do" lister BIG TIME. And since I'm very OCD and married a guy who is ADD, life is interesting as far as keeping our home offices organized.

Thanks so much for these fabulous tips and the funny way you brought them across. LOL!

Great to have you in Seekerville today.

Janet...the coffee is GOOD! Did you make the pot?



Beth White said...

Thanks, Pam. Nice to hear from you. Musical poker? I've had to learn to tune out golf on TV. Snore.

Missy Tippens said...

Hey, Beth, from a fellow TD!! :)

I loved your post. I could so relate. It also reminded me to pull out my leatherette calendar and check for today! LOL

I'm about to write up a proposal on a book that will be the same town and a few characters as the book that recenly sold, so I've been keeping a "bible" of the series. I have a sticky note on my laptop right now that says "Lindsay's grandma's house has 4 front steps." LOL I'm trying so hard to keep all the info organized. I like your filing system idea.

I'm learning the hard way, too. But I'll get it right eventually. :)

Thanks so much for visiting today, Beth! Y'all need to be sure to sign up for her newsletter she mentioned. It's great!


Ruth Logan Herne said...

Beth, welcome to Seekerville! What a wonderful way to start the day, to see those tips on story organization stated so clearly and succinctly.

And what was that web address again? Oh, yes,

Got it.


Janet, coffee's great, muffins are wonderful. And hey, I don't knock a good mix, kiddo. Duncan Hines created a great cake mix so Logan Herne wouldn't have to.

Beth, like Julie, time charts were my original nemesis, graphing or logging in ages, names, etc. And I still find myself changing or repeating names on first drafts, even after I've written them down.

Of course, referencing the file more often would help that, right?

Thank you SO MUCH for your good tips and your selfless sense of humor. Wonderful talent. And I'm copying this one off and posting it where I can see it...

Once I clear a spot.


Katie Hart - Freelance Writer said...

Great post! I'm a P in Myers-Briggs and a "piler" - you should see my work desk right now. Thanks for the tips!

Glad to meet a fellow Psych fan - I'm addicted! Though I don't get on TV, I watch it online whenever I can and the season on DVD when it comes out.

Mary Connealy said...

I'm a little dizzy from reading your post but it's all ME, Beth.

I know that if I was growing up today they'd load me up with Ritalin and shoo me under my school desk.

I can hear the teacher saying, "Please, I swear I'll give you good grades if you'll just stay under there."
Then she'd throw me food.

I believe my learning disability is an inability to switch memory from short term to long term.

Someone will ask me to do something (husband) at noon. He'll come home at suppertime and say, "Did you remember to...."

I can actually almost physically feel the moment something transitions to long term memory.
At some point I'll realize I've got two things planned for this Saturday. Inevitably one thing I want to do and one I HAVE to do.

If i'm really lucky that will come together for me by say...Wednesday, giving me time to wildly start switching plans around.

So I have coping devices.

TD-ADD. Someday EVERYONE will call it that.

Or I'll be riding along in the car daydreaming, I call it free association, my head jumping from one thing to the next until you're so far from the original point it makes NO SENSE TO ANYONE.
I'll gasp or laugh or flinch based on my thoughts and my husband will ask, "What are you thinking about?"

I'll just shake my head and say, "You wouldn't believe it."

Susan Anne Mason said...

Hi Beth,

Wonderful topic. I'm one of those late bloomer ADD's. Maybe it has something to do with the onset of menopause and losing my memory! But I can totally relate to losing huge chunks of time on the internet - surfing from one site to the other and forgetting where you started!

Any chance you'd share your excel spreadsheet with us? It sounds great! And I love the folder idea. Will start that today!

Thanks again for your helpful suggestions.


Beth White said...

Speaking of Psych and Moonlighting (both of which were inspirations for Controlling Interest), Cybill Shepherd was on the last episode. She didn't show much of her trademark snarky sense of humor though. I was kind of disappointed. I think the writers got confused. Don't you love trying to analyze what's going on in the scriptwriter's head when you're watching a TV show?

The rest of you who haven't seen Psych should check it out on DVD or online. It's got a cute romance thread being slowly developed.

Mary Connealy said...

I'm kind of nervous today. I blame Beth.

Can anyone make some decaf coffee, laced with maybe Xanax?

Ruthy? You're cooking today, right?

Beth White said...

Let's see. Excel spreadsheet. About the only way I can think of to do that would be for you to email me so I can email back with an attachment of a sample. I color-code POV characters to help me keep a balance in pacing. Okay, so email me at bethsquill at if you'd like to see it.

Beth White said...

mary connealy said...
I'm kind of nervous today. I blame Beth.>>

Nervous? What did I do? LOL!

Mary Connealy said...

I can't remember what you did, but nonetheless, I'm sure it's your fault.

I should have written it down. :)

Mary Connealy said...

No! Wait! I did jot something down here.

Oh yes, it's RUTHY'S fault.

Joanne Sher said...

Oh, this is wonderfully fun and helpful! I sometimes consider myself organized, but nobody else does ;) This advice will DEFINITELY be helpful. Thanks so much, Beth!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Oh, thank you so much, Beth, for dumbing it down for me!!! I am SOOOOO not organized! It's really terrible. I look things up, find a great website with the exact facts or photos I need, then am never able to find them again. And my Word files are a sea of disorganization.

I do have two calendars, the paper kind, one magnetized to my refrigerator (I know, tacky, but I'm not much of a decorator anyway) for all my and my hubby and kids' appointments, and one beside my computer for writing-related stuff. Also, when I write, I have a calendar that I write all the major events of my plot as I go so I keep up with what month/season it is, and I'm really proud of that. It almost seems organized, doesn't it?

This post really helps. I think I might be able to do this.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Oh, and I live in Alabama, too, at the north end!

Cara Slaughter said...

Beth, thanks for joining us today. I certainly needed a lesson in organization since the more I write, the more scattered I become. I can use many of your tips since I have a bad habit (among others) of forgetting small details about my characters and where I can find the answers I need within 250 plus pages. A lot of my time is spent searching, not enough writing. End of true confession.

Jessica said...

Oh my goodness, my brain is on fire. Yes I keep files and zone out when I shouldn't!!! So glad to know there are others like me. But when it comes to all your plotting stuff, whew, I thought my brain would explode. But of course, I think that's what has made you so successful.:-)
Thank you for sharing your experiences/tips with us!

Patty Wysong said...

Wow! Another GREAT post! Thank you SO much!! I'll be spending time organizing NOW so it will save me time later.

You ladies are ALL fabulous!

Janet Dean said...

Jessica, are you the Jessica who commented on Shirley Jump's post yesterday? If so, I drew your name for her book! Please e-mail me at with your snail mail address.

I made the coffee, Cheryl. I've had a headache all day so I was tanking up. It didn't help.

Ruthy uses mixes!!!! Duncan Hines is my favorite, too! Sometimes I doctor them. Yummy.

Beth, please don't be hurt that you've made Mary nervous. We all do. Today she's nervous because I'm cooking. But she forgot that and blamed it on Ruthy. I may have to start a file to keep all this straight.


Beth White said...

You all are certainly a chatty bunch. It's been fun to hang out with you today. I'll check in again in a couple of days to see who gets a FREE BOOK!

I'm glad I could help somebody. Some days I feel so useless, you know what I mean? Don't forget to email me if you want so see the Excel worksheet.

bethsquill at

sarah w said...

beth white, i really enjoyed "controlling interests". infact, i enjoyed all of your books. i hope that you have more books that for us fans to read in the near future. your writing is a job well done. may God bless.

Anita Mae said...

Hey Beth, I wasn't interested in reading suspense until I read your Texas Gatekeepers series. I loved them.

Considering that I write historical romances, I know I'm going to love your historicals. Can't wait!

I read the post about the Excel Spreadsheet and will ship an email off to you for a peek at one.

I'm also curious about your 'post-it note' program.

Have a God day!

LindaM said...

Hi Beth, very helpful. I am still in the stage of swinging madly from total chaos and paranoid list things one step at a time. at the moment I cope better with the total chaos as the one step at a time shows that I haven't a clue what I'm doing. can you tell I've just started my first novel? However I think after reading your article my diary and my desktop calender are going to be working overtime. Thanks for helping me to shift into the I can Manage my time well zone.

ForstRose said...

Hello all.


I must confess to being one of those "organized" people. However I have been caught in a few memory lapses and have enough friends who are less organized than I sometimes to realize that laughing at their predicaments doesn't help either of us. I just point them in the right direction if they ever ask - if I have any idea where the culprit is anyway.

I agree with the writing it down although I am notorious for writing out lists and losing them or writing new ones that duplicate part of the original then either throwing something away I'm not really done with or going on a cleaning spree a few months down the road and finding lists that expired ages ago. The recycling company that collects paper around here must love my clean up days LOL

I've even been known to suggest lists and calendars to friends on occasion. I have found though that sometimes just the act of writing is sufficient to jog my memory so the random multiple lists and recycling carnage piles that result from my list fetish later on are a small price to pay for actually remembering something even when I can't find the piece of paper.