Hey, Pamie: “I’m Uncomfortable with My Huge Doc.”

This week’s Weekly Procrastination came via Twitter DM, so forgive the format.

I have a stupid question, if you have a moment. I promise it has nothing to do with Darlene Hunt.


When you wrote your novels, did you keep them as just one giant doc, or did you have separate docs for chapters, sections?

One doc, but another one for outline, another for clipped words/stuff to add later/research.

It’s a terrifyingly large doc. Don’t know why it makes me more nervous than a screenplay doc, but it does.

Make lots of backups to google docs. But also, break it up if it gives up anxiety. Don’t stress it.

Of course all of that makes perfect sense. Thanks for answering my dumb question.

Don’t be afraid to brag about your large doc to the ladies. I hear they eat that shit up.

Noted. I can’t wait to print out all the chapters, staple them, and throw them in the air to decide the order.

I suppose you could have one folder that has all your chapters in different files, but that hurts my brain. Unless you’re writing non-fiction. Then it makes sense to me, where you can stick your research for each chapter in each file inside a bigger folder inside a bigger folder. That made me excited in my nerdy parts.

If I do split my novel’s document into sections, it’s in order to keep myself from ever again touching the first thirty pages until I’ve gotten to the last thirty. I find a midway point or an act break and I start a new document. I’ve had to do that when I’m sending early pages to an editor or agent while I’m in the middle of writing the manuscript. Early pages are renamed (something like “pages sent to ###” so I don’t forget who has seen it and there’s a time stamp), and I can merge later, careful not to overwrite any newer versions with older ones.

I’d be nervous about that, about having too many documents and accidentally merging something on top of something newer/cleaner/etc.

I generally have three documents open on my desktop when I’m working on a manuscript. One is the document I’m writing, one contains my outline I’m working from and one is there for cutting and pasting, for sticking stuff I don’t know what to do with, lines of dialogue that are stuck in my head but have no place, notes to myself, things to look up online later so I don’t stop my flow. It’s like my little junk drawer for my book. I do this with scripts, too. It’s not novel-specific.

Sometimes I write in the outline. Well, a copy of the outline, anyway, not the original. I’ll have the paragraph that tells me the upcoming scene or chapter, and after I write it I go back to make sure I addressed everything and hit all of the emotional beats and plot points, and then I delete that outline paragraph and move on to the next one. (Yes, it feels very satisfying.) I don’t do this often, and I usually do it more when I’m either in very early or very late stages of a manuscript. I will write the notes to myself in all-caps so that I don’t accidentally leave any behind the scenes work in the final document.

And when I do send that large, final manuscript to editors and agents, it’s one big document. They’re used to it. They’re the ones who ask for it that way. When I’m asking friends to read it, I upload it somewhere and give them private access and a warning, so they don’t want to stab me in the eye when they accidentally download my manuscript to their iPhones.

Okay, I just went to see how many documents I had for my latest manuscript, and the real answer is much more complicated, because you’re dealing with the process. It usually takes me a couple of runs at the first hundred pages before I’ve truly got a grasp of my characters and how I want to get into the story. And sometimes those early pages need a second opinion of a friend or agent.

Here’s a screen shot of my folder for my new novel YOU TAKE IT FROM HERE. You can see how long I was working on it, how many times I started over, how long it took to get an outline finished, and then how long from outline to manuscript, how many drafts I’ve made and when I took breaks from it (which means somebody like an agent or editor had it on their desk for a few weeks).

I’m not sure if any of that helps, but I wanted to show you that it can be messy and that’s okay. Nobody’s seeing inside your drawer.

I use HateTheDrake’s question as this week’s writerly advice because I think it’s an amazing example of what we will do to stop ourselves from forward momentum. “What if I’m writing this novel the wrong way?” “What if everybody else is doing this better/cooler/faster/righter?”

You will develop your own process for keeping all the words in your head while you’re trying to get words out of your fingertips. And sometimes the documents will be large. But hopefully you live in a world where your machine can handle it, your internet connection can handle it, and the people who are going to handle your huge doc know what to do with it.

My father never finished a novel, though he was constantly working on one. (I wrote a little about this in my essay for Kevin Smokler’s BOOKMARK NOW, which I encourage you to pick up if you’re looking for additional procrastination.) Dad would write five pages, then spend months and months doing “research,” only to decide to tackle a different subject. He’d write a short story as a “starting point” and then spend months working on that short story, editing it and submitting it places until he decided nobody was interested in that and then he’d start thinking about something else. Then his computer was the wrong computer to write his novel because the newer computers were better able to handle the size of the document he was sure he was going to write, which meant getting all new software and floppy disks (ask your parents) and then formatting those disks and then labeling those disks so he was sure that he knew exactly where that novel was going to be someday.

Don’t spend more time making room for your novel than writing your novel. Don’t think about it; do it. Don’t worry about it or plan for it or fret about it; get to it. Soon this thing will consume you and it will take up all the space it wants and needs and when you’re really killing it, when you’re in that place where the words are coming, you will know exactly where you want your huge doc. You want that huge doc up in your face!

How do you handle your big projects? Do you like to break stuff down into small pieces and then tape them together, or do you like one big document so it’s all in one manageable, searchable place?

[If you have a question about writing or television or any of these places where I write words and other people read them, send an email to pamie at pamie dot com with the subject line: YOUR WEEKLY PROCRASTINATION.]

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  1. Julie

    Right now, I’m keeping separate docs for each chapter–I have some critique partners, so this lets me send it to them in pieces, and it also restrains me from going back to mess with things rather than moving forward. Eventually I’ll put it all into one, but not till it’s just about ready to send out to agents.

  2. andrea.

    I’ve recently started using a piece of software called Scrivener, and I LOVE IT. (I swear I don’t work for them, I’m just a recent convert.)

    I basically make each scene a different file, and then I can actually drag and drop them into a different order. You also get an ‘index card view’, where you can make notes about what you want in that scene, and there’s a research section where you can add background material, photos, etc.

    My FAVOURITE thing is that it has a ‘compose’ mode, which blackens out the rest of your screen, leaving only the narrow white of your page. Much better for distraction-free writing.

    I still back everything up in google docs, just to be safe, but I really like Scrivener a lot so far.

  3. Wendy

    Individual chapters can be good when you’re working, but please, for the love of God, paste them into bigger documents when you send them to your editor.

    I once worked with an author who would send me dozens of individual chapter documents at a time, all titled Chapter I, Chapter II, etc. It was so cute! Especially because my computer doesn’t know how to list files in Roman numeral order! Ha ha!

    It also worried me because it seemed like he was skipping a crucial step, the one where you put everything together and see how it flows from chapter to chapter. When you feel ready to do that is up to you, as long as you do it before you send it off, for Christ’s sake.

  4. Melissa

    Oh, Pamie…I love how you are as obsessively organized and anal as I am!

    1. pamie

      Really? I think I’m messy, except I know where everything is in the mess.

  5. Heather

    OK, I’ve been working in tech so long that I was imaging large files as “over 10 MB.”

    Your friends will be fine with the file sizes. =D And if not, that’s why You Send It is awesome.

    Thanks, Pam, for the insight into the process!

  6. Nick

    I’ve only written one large-scale thing in my life, and it was my dissertation: 50,000 words, 435 equations, 47 figures, 6 tables. The computers and Word versions of the era (2001) would tend to bog down when presented with big documents full of graphics, so I used a file for each chapter. This proved very useful when it came to backups: Since online backups weren’t a thing then and I didn’t have easy access to a CD burner, my backup medium of choice was the 1.44 MB floppy; my dissertation finally clocked in at 3.32 MB in total, so it wouldn’t have fit in one piece. (The whole issue of backups started to make me kind of comically paranoid as the document got longer and longer; by the end, I had copies on the hard drives of three computers in the lab and floppy copies in my apartment, my car, and my briefcase.)

  7. Kelly Dear

    Hmm… I like the “redo” idea. I keep going “I EFFING HATE THIS PART” then deleting. Then wishing I still had that part for later. Thanks for this post!

    You’d think it would take less than reading your blog for me to figure it out, but I guess I’m not that smart.

    P.S. I had to put a website on here to be able to comment, but the blog I attached sucks. Don’t read it, I’ll be embarrassed.

  8. Neele

    Thanks Pamie,
    actually very helpful for my PhD thesis, too. I have it in one document per chapter but then the outline is in the same document and I fill it in. I like the idea of having it separately and having the ‘everything I still need to look up’ list separately, too.

  9. James

    If you are using Word, you can set it up as a Master Document with separate sub-documents, like for every chapter or whatever. You can either edit in the Master document, or the sub-documents, and it is reflected in both. We set this up for a critical, huge file at work that was organized by month for backup purposes.

    Just thought I’d pass that on!

  10. AJ

    What Andrea said.

    I feel like I’m a walking Scrivener commercial ever since I downloaded the software. I love, love, love it. Love. It. Loveit. I can break things up into as many pieces as I want and then, presto change-o, hit Compile and get my one huge doc, bam. Plus there are places for those lovely outlines and random sentence files, to be researched flags/notes, all that good stuff. I’m still figuring it out (thank god people who love Scrivener also love blogging about it!), but it’s my new fave.

    Sorry. I’ll shut up now.

  11. Garry Evens

    I keep it all up in here [points to head] as one large, indecipherable doc.