Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Managing complex plots – nuts and bolts.

Years after I left overhead projectors behind and switched to Powerpoint as my corporate narcoleptic of choice, I've returned to transparent plastic and marker pens for a wholly different purpose.

I'm currently writing two storylines that can best be described as Byzantine in their complexity regarding who's who, who knows what, when they knew it, what mistaken assumptions they make and then act upon, and what their personalities drive them to do; the comic series THE FALL OF G.I. JOE, and the sequel novel to GOING GREY, which is BLACK RUN. (Which will now be on sale in late January.) Thrillers in any medium depend more heavily on small detail and not falling into plot holes, and managing the ins and outs of that isn't something you can always entrust to your memory.

Whether you're working out plots, character arcs, or just trying to keep a grip on canon, there are as many methods as there are writers. Despite being a technical girl, I've opted for non-digital methods to manage G.I. JOE and BLACK RUN. There's a lot of software out there to help you manage stuff like that, and it's an integral part of the excellent Scrivener app. But I'll share these analogue methods with you because I know they'll suit some of you better than doing everything on a screen.

1. Whiteboard. Old school, and a lot of writers use them. You can slap everything on a single sheet and get an overview that can identify those oh-no-I-missed-that plot holes, timelines that don't work, and so on. Magic Whiteboard, plastic film on a roll that will stick to any smooth surface by static alone, is my personal fave because you can cut it to any size and literally slap it up anywhere, in your eyeline or out of it.

2. Sticky labels. Beloved of many. (I use the translucent Stalogy variety.) You can move them around on any surface or stick them in a master notebook, colour code them, file them anywhere, and take them with you if you want to work on plots and outlines when you're in the coffee shop. (Because sticking a whiteboard/ Magic Whiteboard up in your local Starbucks is even more Lame Poser than conspicuously typing your latest opus there. Unless you know the other customers well enough to invite them to brainstorm with you, of course.)

You can also use card systems – 3 x 5 filing cards, those handy little flashcards on a ring, or whatever you find easiest. Display is the issue; if you're comfortable flicking back and forth between leaves, fine, but if you want to be able to see it on one surface like a D-Day chart table, then you're going to need a puzzle mat or slotted stands.

3. My current method, as pimped in the intro: OHP sheets. Yep, transparent plastic. The kind you use on overhead projectors. One page per character, then assemble them so that you see one flow chart linking who does what, colour-coded as you prefer. It requires a bit of discipline to write in the right place so that it's not a jumble of overlaid text when you lay one sheet on top of the next, but you can ink in columns or a grid on a master sheet using a permanent marker. I use Staedtler markers, the Lumocolor Permanent for the grid guide and Lumocolor Non-Permanent for the character sheets. (It wipes off with a damp cloth but it's resistant to wearing off.)

OHP sheets can be trimmed and punched to fit whatever loose leaf system you use, too. I now have a B5 26-hole master ring binder for BLACK RUN that holds all the OHP sheets, notes-on-the-go/ summary notes on Maruman B7 mini sheets, and regular B5 paper. It's a Kokuyo Smart Ring Binder and those are slim and compact enough to assign one per project and carry several with you.

This all sounds bleedin' obvious but I'm still experimenting with the best ways to manage fiction projects after ten years. Your needs will vary, you'll change as a writer, and one size doesn't fit all. So try stuff out and see what works for you.