When I was a kid, my idea of organization was about the same as any other kid’s: throw everything into the closet and worry about it later. Or throw everything into the rollout bins under my bunkbed, and dig them out only after a centimeter-thick patina of dust had grown on them. I forgot assignments, mislaid money, lost library books. In the latter case, one of the volumes that went missing for the better part of a year was a skinny little thing that ended up sandwiched between the pages of a much larger book that I rarely opened. I’d used it as a bookmark in a moment of haste.
I’m a lot better now, not just thanks to computers (Outlook’s to-do feature is a godsend), but thanks to my own willingness to develop the right habits. Write things down. Keep things sorted. Create action items and takeaways. Learn to separate forest- and tree-level details. (“Do my taxes” is not a task; “sort out my expenses for the year” is.)
Most people are able to get some semblance of organization into their own personal lives. It isn’t hard for most of us to stay on top of our bills, our phone calls, our social obligations, and what’s playing in the theater. But the idea of creating a whole world, or a whole universe, and staying on top of that—it sounds like a tailor-made way to intimidate yourself. If heads of state and chroniclers of history can’t stay on top of their own respective nations’ narratives and policies, how is li’l ol’ me supposed to do that?
And what’s more, how do you get into something like that if you’re not the most organized person to begin with? How do you organize something as massive as a world—or a universe, depending on your ambitions—without either a) dying of old age from trying to tabulate all that detail or b) going batfruit insane from same?
The first step is the part everyone hates: getting organized. Or, for you Taxi Driver fans whose eyes lit up when you read the title: getting organiz-ized.
Far more systematic and diligent people than I have written books about the virtues of organization. Most of what they agree on, as far as it applies to what we’re doing here, can be distilled down to a few basic points:
1. Record-keeping and metadata.
Make maps, keep lists, write things down. But most importantly, find a way—your way—to make all this stuff searchable and accessible. You’re reading this on a computer (I presume); don’t use old-school technology when you’ve got the new-school variety staring you in the face. If you don’t know how, I’ll talk more about that in a future installment.
If you’re not in the habit of writing stuff down, get in the habit. Easier said than done, to be sure, but this is where having someone else to bounce your ideas off comes in handy. They can help remind you to commit all those wonderful spur-of-the-moment insights or involved digressions to something more reliable than your own memory. That way less and less slips through the bottom of your mind, and more and more of it ends up recorded somewhere. And you also need to get into the habit of mopping up after yourself, which brings us to …
If you throw everything into your closet for long enough, eventually you end up with a Fibber McGee Avalanche when the door is opened. If your note-taking and record-keeping isn’t cleaned up and systematized over time, it turns into a big ball of mud—an unmaintainable pile of stuff that has no particular organization or intent. Maps may need to be redrawn, not just to add new information but because the old ones are a mess of fold lines and scribbled annotations. Character summaries need to be rewritten to accommodate new aspects of the story. Plotline summaries almost certainly will need constant touching-up. The point isn’t to do all this stuff at once, but to commit to a regular rolling schedule of doing so. Clean your closet.
Each of these three things involves you and the work in different ways. The first involves the work itself; the second involves mainly you; the third involves your handling of the work.
Next time I’ll start going into detail about the exact organizational methodology I adopted for my own work, and how you’re not obliged to do the same.