Three Great Apps for Writers

20130911-161151.jpgNot too long ago, by beloved Blackberry went bust. I was a die-hard BB fanboy for years, but had been getting disillusioned; the OS always felt sluggish, the included browser was painfully slow, and the app store was vacant because developers preferred the much more lucrative Android and iPhone markets. So when my phone died, I didn’t go back–I joined the pack and got an iPhone.

And I discovered something: I was using my Blackberry for very particular purposes, but I was missing out on a lot of innovative apps that would help my writing and my work. Now, I don’t intend to stay with the iPhone–I love my Android based Kobo Arc, so it makes sense to go with an Android phone–but these apps run on both systems. And I’ve found them indespensible:

Any.do

I’m a fan of checklists, and every time I upgrade a device, I search for a good list app. I’ve found the ultimate in Any.Do. It’s intuitive, robust, and it syncronises across my phone, Kobo and even an extension in my Chrome browser.
It couldn’t be simpler. When you launch the app you’ll see a list of your to-do items. You can add an item by pressing the + symbol, and the iPhone and Android devices accept voice input. You can then organise by due date (even pushing items to “someday”) or create folders. I have folders for Work, Personal and based on different projects with related tasks. When you complete a task, you can swipe to strike it off the list and–the fun part–shaking your phone will clear finished items.
Any.Do has also introduced a “Plan Your Day” feature, which will walk you through items that don’t have a due date so you can set priorities. Ask Any.Do to remind you in an hour, set it for tomorrow, or push it to next week. This is an excellent app, and I have it up on my work computer constantly through the day. If you want to keep track of progress and tend to forget the little details, get this now.

Any.Do has also built a Calendar app. I’m just getting used to it, but I like it a lot better than the native Iphone calendar. It’s clean, fresh, and simple–plus it lists your to-dos from Any.Do, and you can set it up to cycle through different images in the background. They’re also working on mail and notes apps, which I’m eager to try. Check them out!

Springpad

Which leads me to Springpad. A note taking app is essential for me, as I tend to have ideas in the most inconvenient places. If I don’t write it down right away, I’ll forget it–so having a note app on my phone is great. I don’t much like the native apps because they’re not that helpful, beyond writing stuff down. So I’m always on the look for a better one.20130911-161251.jpg
I settled on an app called Catch, which was simple to use, organised things into folders, and had a web plugin. Unfortunately, they’re gone now and no longer support the app.
Instead, I’m trying Springpad, and so far I really like it. You can organize notes into books as well, and it’s very easy to navigate between notebooks. The best part is the web plugin–set the shortcut on your toolbar and all of your notes are accessible from the browser. This is a godsend for writers; you get an idea on the bus, jot it down on your phone, and by the time you’re home you can launch Chrome and the notes are there, ready for you to put into your word processor.
Springpad also has a really nice interface. It’s not unlike Pinterest, and captures your notes in a series of tiles you can share. Springpad also has a Search feature, which lets you find other people’s notes, share ideas, and collaborate on projects. You could set up an account at work, and give each employee access–everyone adds their ideas and it’s all put down in one place. My wife and I use it for shopping: you can create a checklist, which we use for groceries, and both of us can access it at any time to add items we need.
This is note-taking meets social media, and it’s a really nice combo. After using it for only a couple weeks, I’m a convert.

I should also mention the note taking heavyweight, Evernote. Many people swear by it, and it’s got its good points. Personally though, I never liked it; I’ve found the interface dull and counterintuitive, and it just never seemed helpful to me. To each their own.

Pocket

This is the one app I’m really excited about these days. I never really got into RSS readers, as they seemed to be pretty redundant; why download an article to read offline when the device you’re using is constantly online? The one application I can see is turing off your wifi or being in a location that doesn’t have access; not wanting to use your airtime is a good reason to use this app, but when wifi is so ubiquitous nowadays, it seems pointless. So I never bothered.

Until Pocket. I’ve been playing with this app for only a few days, but I’m hooked. I’m seeing the appeal of reading a headline or wanting to look something up, but not having the time to delve into it–Pocket lets you save that webpage or article and puts it in a queue for later reading. Again, simple as pie, but powerful if you use it right.
This app has solved a problem I didn’t realize I had. Although I don’t tweet much myself, I read twitter very often, and love getting interesting articles or hearing about releases from fellow Indies. When I come across a link I like, I tend to forward it to my email so I can check it out on a PC–many webpages just don’t display well on a phone browser.

Pocket allows me to get around that with no fuss. Just send it to the app, and it’s there when I’m ready. The best part is that Pocket has a web extension–I’m a fan of that integration, you can tell! If I come across a website I want to look at when I have more time, I can send that to pocket too. I’ve already got a nice list of things to catch up on.
Pocket also has some nice integration with other apps. I have yet to play with all the features, but you can send links to Pocket through Twitter, email, Digg, GReader, and more–over 300 apps and counting.

And here’s the really great news: Kobo recently announced that Pocket will be integrated in all its readers. You’ll be able to open your Reading Life to access all your Pocket pages. This brings e-reading to a new level; effectively it’s an electronic newspaper curates to your exact specifications. The feature is set to launch on September 13–I can’t wait to use it!

That’s it for today, but keep an eye on the blog for an upcoming interview with David A Hayden, and a review of Sarvet’s Wanderyar, by J. M. Ney Grimm!

 

 

Mind Maps Done Right–Scapple for Windows is Here!

I didn’t intend to do a post today, but got an exciting announcement via Twitter this week–Scapple for Windows is in a free open beta!

Those of you who’ve followed this blog know I’m a fan of Literature and Latte’s word processing program Scrivener–most Indie writers use it, or have at least tried it. But, it’s a MAC OS program, and took a while to come to Windows. The ‘port is extremely useful, though it lacks a few of the features of the MAC version. If you haven’t already, you can check it out here.

Scapple is the much-touted companion program to Scrivener. It’s mind-mapping software–you can jot your ideas down on the virtual page, connect them, move them around, and generally brainstorm to your heart’s content. I’ve been using Microsoft OneNote for this, and it works fine…but it’s lacking. It doesn’t integrate with Scrivener, I’ve had issues synchronizing files across computers, and using it alongside Scrivener is counter-intuitive.
Scapple does integrate with Scrivener (well, sort of…keep reading), and being made by the same company, the two programs are designed to work in concert. But Windows users have had to wait patiently while MAC users reap the benefits of this robust program.

Until now. If you’re a Windows user, you can go here to download the open beta, and try it for yourself.

My first impression of this product is that it’s…impressive. There’s a unique simplicity to it–there’s zero pretense. It’s brainstorming software, and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Some people may not like that it doesn’t have a billion features, but I rather prefer it–it’s like an extension of Scrivener, and that’s all it needs to be.

Here’s what you do: double click anywhere in the program window, type your note. Double click elsewhere to type another note–then drag that to the first one to create a connection. (Press the Alt key as you do this to create an arrow). Do it again to remove the connection.

And apart from a few tricks, that’s it. But really, it’s all that’s needed. Very nice. Here’s a screenshot after I fiddled with it for a few minutes:

Simple!

Simple!

Now, keep in mind that this is a beta. I noticed that the spellcheck doesn’t work correctly (it would insert the correct spelling into the middle of a word, creating an extra-wrong spelling). More importantly, the Scrivener integration doesn’t seem to have been added yet.* You can export your Scapple file and insert it into Scrivener, but the Drag and Drop feature doesn’t work–probably because it requires you to use Scrivener’s “Free Form Corkboard” feature, which isn’t available in Windows.

*Marta posted a workaround in the comments below. Simply create a Scapple file then add it as a Project Reference in Scrivener. Whenever you open Scrivener, you cal right click on the project reference and open in the default editor–bingo! It’s not exactly imported into Scrivener, but it’s as good as. I’ve tried it and it works like a charm. Thanks for the tip, Marta!

Still, it’s an excellent tool to complement an already excellent tool. Definitely recommended! I’m going to continue playing with it, and will probably post about it again soon–in the meantime, try it for yourself, and tell me what you think!

Scapple is available in open beta until September 15 2013. Once version 1.0 is ready, it will go on sale, probably for the same price as the MAC version at $14.99. Here’s a features page–but keep in mind it’s for the MAC version.

Chekov’s Neglected Gun

by ToastyKen c/o Flikr

Anton Chekov is the bane of many a theatre arts student. His plays are long, tedious, and famous for having little (apparent) movement in the plot. He relied less on overt conflict and more on what he termed a “theatre of mood,” resulting in little action with tons of subtext. It’s tough to wade through and analyse, but it’s thoroughly brilliant work.

But the thing I remember most of my studies of Chekov is his shotgun. To paraphrase, he urged writers to remove everything irrelevant from a story–if you have a shotgun on the wall in act one, someone better fire it in act three.

It’s a simple concept, and seems quite obvious–why introduce a character or MacGuffin if you don’t intend to use it?–but it’s shocking how often it’s ignored. Not intentionally, I’m sure, but literature, TV and film is rife with examples of neglected firearms. A lot of the time, they show themselves as plot holes and hanging threads–things the author fully intended to resolve, but for some reason didn’t. (I suspect that it sometimes comes with editing–changing a certain scene without realising that the change has repercussions elsewhere.)

I think this is one of the cardinal sins of writing, and it’s an easy trap to fall into. I’ve been guilty of it myself. Sometimes in describing a scene or setting a mood, I’ll introduce elements that I have no intention of revisiting, because mood or description is their only purpose. To an extent, that’s okay, but it’s a slippery slope. Adding a brief mention of some exotic fruit that only exists on a single island can create a sense of wonder or alienness…but spend too much time describing it to the reader, and they’ll assume it’s an important plot point.

The big risk, in my opinion, comes with World Building. When you’re building a world for you characters to play in, it’s crucial to have a lot of detail: everything from social customs to geography to how that world works. When a writer does that much work on a story, it’s easy to want to reveal it to the reader–and the more little things you reveal, the more complete your world appears. But there’s a fine line here, as your readers will expect you to follow up on those small details.

Lost was a horrible example of this. It was obvious from the pilot that the writers wanted to instil a sense of mystery about the show, and I’m sure there were things they never intended to disclose. On the one hand, it worked–while it was running, fans had a rabid passion for developing theories explaining what the writers left unexplained, creating a wake of obsessed viewers(myself among them). On the other hand, the finale was a letdown because of all the loose ends–that sense of mystery was created, but it backfired, leaving many viewers frustrated (myself among them).

But it’s not always this simple. There are ways in which leaving that gun on the wall can actually work pretty well. One great example is the film Midnight in Paris, about a writer disillusioned about his present, longing to live in a bygone era. What could have turned out to be a relatively mundane exploration of wistfulness was made a terrific movie with a simple conceit: at midnight, he always finds a car that transports him to 1920s Paris where he can hobnob his literary heroes. The time travel angle is very important to the story, but it’s never explained–it’s hardly acknowledged. Beyond a couple mentions here and there, it’s simply accepted and left there, hanging on the wall.

But it works. It doesn’t need to be explained, because it’s nothing more than a conceit. The time travel itself doesn’t matter at all of the story, except as a plot device–the story is really about learning to appreciate your present and stop looking backward. It’s a shotgun, but we don’t care that it’s not used because doing so would almost contradict the very theme of the film–or, at the least, it would greatly reduce the impact. And here we come full circle to Chekov–the film uses this conceit not to move the plot forward, but to create a mood that suits the film.

Still, this isn’t an easy thing to pull off. It’s much easier to take that shotgun off the wall, load it, and fire. Or cut it entirely.

What are your favourite (or most frustrating) shotguns? I’d love to hear your comments!

A True Indie Success

Well, I’m back.

I won’t bore my readers with lengthy explanations as to why I’ve been silent on this blog, or ruminate on how to make the time, and how that’s easier said than done.  Much easier said than done, as I’ve learned in the last few weeks. Instead, I’ll doff my cap, humbly apologize, and move right along. You can’t get back on the horse without putting your foot in the stirrup…or something like that.

So, right to it. In my time “away,” I had lots of time to miss reading. Especially reading Indie work.  In such a lapse as this, it would have been easy for me to step back from the Indie Writer’s world completely, and let it run along as it does. In fact, I was so deep into my work that I didn’t read anything, let alone write. I’ve built a habit of reading and reviewing Indie work in the last several months, but like any habit, if you let it lapse long enough, it can fade away. You lose the routine.
Fortunately, in the midst of my busyness, I had a wonderful reminder of why we do this. Ryan Casey’s debut novel What We Saw came in the mail.

What we SawSome time ago, Ryan started a crowd sourcing initiative on Pozible, to raise money to have his book printed in paperback. It was very successful–his goal was reached in twelve hours, and he ended up raising close to double his goal in the end. He said it was an experiment, and it’s one we can all learn from–know what you want, find out how to get it, and just do it. It was also a wonderful example of how well the Indie Writer’s community works together. You don’t find this kind of collaboration in the Traditional Publishing Industry.

I contributed a modest sum to his campaign, and the reward was a copy of his paperback. Living overseas from him, I didn’t receive it until recently–such is the way of snail mail. But really, it couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ve been doubting myself lately in terms of my writing–never making the time, at a loss for ideas, spinning my wheels on ideas I have developed. I recognise all of this as part of a cycle I’ve been a part of for years–it means I’m winding down, and will soon put down the writing for years, until I get the urge to try again. Or, that’s been the pattern.

Receiving Ryan’s book reminded me of two points: that achieving your dreams can be as simple as pursuing them with abandon, and–this is the important one–it’s not impossible to achieve them. Not even close to impossible. Here was the physical proof: a genuine professional grade paperback novel, written by a young guy in between his studies at University. And this isn’t vanity press; he’s made some real money off this venture. It’s an excellent book. It’s got legs. And all because Ryan had an idea, a dream, and a plan to go out and grab it.

When I was Ryan’s age, I was at University, writing my never ending novel on a Palm Pilot with a fold out keyboard, whiling away the hours at coffee shops and pubs, completely lost in this fantasy world I’d created. I see part of myself in Ryan’s creative energy–the difference is that he went further than I ever did, and he grabbed the golden ring. I used to regret that I never finished my book, but now, I just see it as unfinished…for now. Seeing this kind of tangible result is a great motivator. It’s a reminder to keep looking out for your dreams, to keep moving forward. But mostly, I see it as a held out hand. This is a fellow writer saying “come with me, we’re going the same way.”

Now, of course, Ryan isn’t the only one who’s achieved some measure of success, and he’s not the only Indie I find inspiring. J. M. Ney-Grimm, Lindsey Buroker, David A. Hayden, Brian Rathbone, and so many others whose books I’ve been reviewing on this blog–all of these people are hallmarks of what makes this community great. Look them up on twitter, find their blogs, read their stories; you’ll find that each and every one of them is just like you. And if you’re not a writer, do all those things anyway. There’s a greater lesson to be learned here besides how to publish your work online. Personally, I think it’s one of the greatest lessons you can learn in life, and all of these people are living embodiments of it. I can sum it up in the words of non-profit guru Dan Pallotta: “You can have all the things you want, or all the reasons you can’t have them.”

And it’s really as simple as that.

I’ve got lots of work to do, and lots coming up on Speaking to the Eyes. Bear with me as I get back into the swing of things, but watch this page for upcoming reviews of J.M Ney-Grimm’s Troll Magic, news about a great contest by Indie juggernaut J.F. Penn, and of course, the ruminations of a writer/reviewer trying to learn his way through the world of Self Publishing!

Build the House Before the Rooms: a Case Study in Framing

Recently I mentioned a series of four short stories I’m trying to write to get back into my deadlocked project. The main idea is to have all four stories in the same release, using a frame story to link them together. It’s a great convention, and can bring seemingly isolated stories together into a cohesive book–but like any writing technique, it’s easy to do it poorly.
I’ve never tried a frame story before, so I thought I’d do some practical research and look at some examples. Here are three of note:

Shades of GrayStar Trek: The Next Generation

We’ll start with the bad. This episode of Star Trek is often pointed to as one of the worst in any of the series, because it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. It also points to a larger problem in television: the clip show. I’ve always thought of a clip show as little more than a marketing tool–it’s a way for producers to reel in potential new viewers by showing them the “best” clips of a series–but most of them are, in fact, frame stories.

The episode starts with Commander Riker getting injured on an away mission. He slips into a coma, and has a series of dreams–which, of course, are shown to the audience as clips from previous episodes. The premise is so on the nose that the writers might as well have grabbed the camera and shouted: “Do you remember this one? Huh? Do you??” I admit that Star Trek has some lousy episodes, but this one is plain ridiculous.

/Vitrol. Anyway, the thing with clip shows is that it’s difficult to introduce a plot while cramming in all those clips from past episodes. And that’s the issue here; the writers concocted a interesting problem for the characters to overcome, but neglected it in favour of showing clips. Riker’s illness could have made a good episode if they concentrated on it, but it’s pushed to the side. The point of this episode from a production standpoint was that they didn’t have the budget to do a big show, and were forced to recycle. Because of that, much more focus is put on the clips than the central problem the frame story introduces, and the episode as a whole suffers for it.

As a frame story, this fails because the frame does nothing to really connect the clips. There’s an excuse that Riker’s illness forces him to relive painful moments, and this is supposed to provide a thread for the episode to follow–but it really doesn’t hold up. The whole episode feels disconnected and thrown together, and as a result is largely forgettable.

The lesson here is that when using a frame story…use the frame story. Don’t introduce a convention then leave it behind, you’ll just confuse your audience.

The Illustrated Man–Ray Bradbury

Bradbury is an unquestioned master of science fiction, and this is probably one of the best introductions to his work. It’s a series of short stories (all but one previously published in periodicals), which, like most great science fiction, deal with the human condition. The stories are often dark, but they all put across some great questions. It’s a really nice collection, and a seminal work for sci-fi enthusiasts.
The frame store here is about a man who comes across a vagrant covered in tattoos–tattoos that move. The vagrant explains that a woman from the future inked them, and that they each tell a story. As the man gazes into the animated tattoos, we transition into one of the eighteen short stories in the book. It’s simple, effective (to a point), and intriguing. But it doesn’t entirely work.

Again, we have a disconnect between the frame story and the short stories written around it. The stories include some of Bradbury’s great classics–The Veldt, Marionettes Inc., and a personal favourite, The Rocket–but they don’t all have a clear connection to one another. The ‘human condition’ theme is vague enough that it covers almost all of science fiction, so it doesn’t really serve to string these stories together.
“But,” you say, “that’s what the frame story is for!” And you’d be right–the purpose of a frame is to create some sort of cohesive narrative. But it’s difficult to do that with such disparate stories; it’s like building a house with rooms that all have different heights. Your ceilings won’t match up, and your roof will end up a jagged mess. Of course, I wouldn’t say this collection is a mess–Bradbury is an excellent writer, and he makes it work. But for those of us who don’t have dozens of classics under our belts, this book can serve as an example: put some careful thought into how things are linked together.

I, Robot–Issac Asimov

And here we come to the shining example of how to do a frame story right. In my opinion, anyway–I have to admit I’m partial to Asimov, so I’m a bit biased. It also features one of my favourite characters in science fiction, robot psychologist Susan Calvin. This book is such a great example of a frame story that it doesn’t seem like a frame at all. It’s more like reading different chapters of the same book.
In fact, that’s kind of what it is. It’s a collection of Asimov’s robot stories, of course, but the collection as a whole is set up as a sort of history of robotics. Dr. Calvin is being interviewed by a reporter looking for the “human angle” in robotics, and she tells him a series of stories in loosely chronological order. The robots are the real characters in this book, and because we sympathize with them, we see how “human” they really are; this in turn tells us important things about ourselves. Which, as I’ve said before, is exactly what science fiction is about.

That’s all well and good, but why does the frame story work so well? Calvin is a peculiar character; she’s cold and generally emotionless, but is excitable in a certain way when she talks about or works with robots. She’s like them–she understands them. And because she’s the one telling the stories, we understand them better too. Her intent in telling these stories to the reporter is to give him a more accurate view of robots, rather than treating them like literal machines, and each of the stories in this collection dance around a similar issue. The frame story is carefully interwoven with the rest, so well that you wouldn’t think that it was written apart from them.

And that, I think, is the secret to writing a great frame story. You build the house so the rooms fit inside it, so to speak, not the other way around. The reader has to care about the frame as much as they do about the surrounding stories. It’s not just a convention, a tool for writers–it should be an integral part of the narrative as a whole.

But, that’s just my opinion. Like I said, I’ve never actually written a frame story before. I want to hear your ideas: what works (or doesn’t work) for you in a frame story?

Weaving a Tapestry: a Creative Experiment

I’ve talked before about my Tapestry project–a series of stories and novels, each based on a different facet of the Tarot. I’ve also spoken at length of how it’s fallen apart. For a while I considered abandoning the project (a fate that this story has suffered many times in the past decade), but I kept on it, mostly thanks to this blog (which keeps me accountable) and the Indie Writer’s Community (which inspires me to no end). But the fact remains that the project, sadly, has ground to a halt.

So I decided to try something radical to inject some much needed life into the project, something I’ve never done before: a pre-determined plot.

But not like you’d think. I didn’t want to just take a tired trope or formula and churn out a “well made story;” I still wanted something creative and true to the structure of the greater Tapestry project. So I went back to the Tarot.

Tarot is a wonderful tool for a writer (whether you believe in it or not) because essentially, all it does is tell stories. You draw cards randomly and arrange them in a pattern, then read them in a certain order while relating the disparate meanings of each card. The simplest spread is done in three cards: past, present, future. Or, in terms of storytelling, beginning, middle and end.

A simple three card spread

A simple three card spread

I’ll give an overview of this reading as an example. The Priestess represents spiritual growth and intuition, a “lifting of the veil” to find something innate; the Knight of Wands is direct, full of forward momentum, and has a tendency to burn out for all that energy; the Ten of Wands is a symbol of a great project that’s been very successful–almost too much so, as it’s now become so large it can only be sustained through immense effort. If this were the plot of a story, it would be of a protagonist who has great ambitions but ignores their intuition in favour of quick (even reckless) action. The result is that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. There’s a further layer in Tarot; in this spread, the Knight is clearly turning away from the Priestess, but the figure in the last card is working his way toward her, with the Knight “standing guard” in his way. He knows the project is too large, and wants to get back to the “core” of things–but his exuberance and demand for results is preventing any real progress.

It’s the beginning of a fascinating story, which brings me to my point. I wanted to kick start my creativity, so I decided to write four short stories (each based on a different element, the backbone of the “world” of my stories). I drew five Tarot spreads, one more than I needed so I had some leeway. Each spread is intended to be a vague outline of a story, which I’d explore from there.

I was excited to try this; after all, the rest of the project is steeped in Tarot symbolism, and one part of it will follow the “Fool’s Journey” laid out in the Major Arcana–why not try to develop a story from a spread of cards? It appeals to me because each spread is random–unique–and because it would be a challenge to fit my world and themes into whatever came up.

But–there’s the rub.

Has this experiment worked? Yes and no. It’s certainly got me to thinking about my world and characters again, which is great. On the other hand, I find I’m trying to shoehorn that world and its characters into the spreads that come up. To a certain extent, it feels inauthentic. Part of that can be explained with last week’s post about plot vs concept. I’m not sure much will come out of it in terms of actual writing. If I can develop these plots into concepts and further into fully fledged stories, this will have worked. But only then.

In the meantime, it’s an interesting project. I want to continue toying with them; the spreads I came up with all have their own personalities and stories, as Tarot spreads always do. The thing I love most about Tarot is that it makes so much sense when you string everything together. These cards are based on archetypes that exist for a reason–they’re buried in our collective unconscious, as Jung would say–and the interplay of various archetypes is what writing and storytelling is all about. You don’t even need to believe in divination to get some benefit from this–just enjoy the art and the tales the cards tell.

But–for those of you who, like myself, believe that Tarot can enunciate things you couldn’t (or wouldn’t) have otherwise, this spread in particular spoke to me. It’s a clear allegory of what I’ve been going through with my Tapestry project as a whole: I have a great idea that speaks to me, burst out of the gate with dozens of ideas I wanted to implement immediately–then watched as it fell under its own weight. Of course, it’s only one in the five I drew. It’s quite an interesting coincidence, I’d say–though there are those who don’t believe in coincidence…

For those that are interested, the deck I used here is the Gilded Tarot by Barbara Moore with art by Ciro Marchetti, which is available at Amazon and many other vendors. It’s become my “go-to” deck because it’s based on the Rider-Waite (the ‘seminal’ Tarot deck) but with much better artwork. If you’re interested in Tarot, this is a good deck to start with, though I’d recommend getting a separate book to help you learn the cards; the one included with the deck is helpful, but not as thorough as others.

How to Bake a Cake–or a Story

Choc-o-late Cake Please, by Darwin Bell c/o Flikr

It’s no secret that I’ve been in a bit of a creative slump lately. I’ve got lots of great ideas, and was charging full speed ahead with them in an ambitious project–but it’s since fallen flat. There are many reasons for this, some of which I’ve talked about here, but reasons aren’t solutions. In that respect, I’m spinning my tires somewhat. You can’t correct a problem until you know why you failed in the first place, so I’ve put my mind to why I’ve stalled.

Writing a story is like baking. You have to have the right ingredients, throw them in at the right times and in the right quantities. Sometimes you even need to let it “rise” a while before you start fine tuning it. And if you bake it too long (i.e. work it to death), it’ll end up as a burnt lump of gross. The thing is, every writer has their own recipe–and most writers are convinced that their recipe is the best. Many of them are right–it works for them–but there are lots of writers out there who haven’t figured out their recipe yet. Finding it is just part of the writing process.

Fortunately, it’s gotten easier. With the advent of Indie Publishing, we have an amazing community of like-minded people who (instead of competing with each other for reader’s dollars) are happy to help each other find their way. I came across one such person recently, after reading a fantastic article on his blog: Beware the Under-Cooked Story Concept by Larry Brooks over at Storyfix.com.

Go read the post–it’s an important thing for writers to read. It was a revelation for my own Tapestry Project; it crumbled under its own weight, although I can’t figure out exactly why (except that I’ve crammed too many ideas in there). This post made me take a second look at what I’ve written–and lo and behold, I found a major issue. I don’t have a concept.

This is like baking a cake without a recipe. If you’re not a great baker, you’re going to get hopelessly lost as you try to find your way.

Brooks boils it down to one thing: if your story doesn’t have a concept, it’s not going to work. It seems unilateral, but that’s because having a concept is such a crucial part of any story. And, importantly, a concept is different from an idea, which, incidentally, was all I had with Tapestry. As he says in the article, an idea is a place to start, but “not until it transcends the simplicity of a singular arena or theme or character, and moves toward the unspooling of conflict-driven dramatic tension” does it become a concept. What does this mean?

Your story isn’t just a narrative, a collection of “stuff that happens.” And if it is, it won’t be very engaging. Brooks has a clear description for this kind of writing: episodic. TV shows and serials get away with this because it’s the nature of their format–they’re supposed to wrap up a simple dramatic question each week, then move on to the next. An episode has a plot and a theme, but not necessarily a concept.

A concept addresses the dramatic tension that arises from plot and theme. If the theme the why the story should matter to the reader, the concept is how that gets across. If the plot is the path the reader follows, your concept are signposts along the way. Without a unifying concept, your story ends up as a jumble of details and thing that sounded better in your mind than they are on paper.

I won’t reiterate the article, where Brooks nails down a concept much more clearly than I could, and tells you how to develop one from a neat idea. But I do want to touch on one really important point he makes: at the root of your concept are three crucial questions. If you can’t answer these concisely, you probably need to do some thinking before you put words to paper:

  1. What is your hero’s core goal?
    If your main character doesn’t have anything to do, why are you bothering to write about it? Even Anton Chekov–who was famous for writing plays in which nothing really happens–had a goal for his characters. This is your hero’s journey, the quest–the plot.
  2. What opposes that goal, and why?
    Of course, every story needs an antagonist. Whether it’s the hero’s nemesis, the environment, or himself, the core conflict of the story is arguably more important than the hero’s attempt to overcome it.
  3. What’s at stake?
    I talk a lot about stakes. They’re crucial. Last week I mentioned that Harry Potter’s climactic battle didn’t have high stakes because Harry was never at any conceivable (literary) risk. The conflict was there, but I didn’t think the stakes were. The result was a long series of really great books that, to me, ended with a whimper.

Okay, so that all sounds like writing 101, and you’re probably well familiar with these points. But I bring them up because answering them will give you your concept. Separately, they’re essential elements of a story, but I don’t know how often people look at the interplay between them–I know I’ve failed to do that until now. They’re just ingredients; you still need a decent recipe to make the final product palatable. Looking forward, these are the three questions I’m going to ask myself before I start writing.

One more thing: Brooks keeps a blog, as linked above, but he also works as a sort of literary consultant. His blog is called Storyfix for a reason: he helps people overcome the deficiencies and problems in their work in the hopes of ending up with a more solid final product. I was lucky enough to get a look at his $100 questionnaire (there’s also a $35 version), and it’s very detailed. He’s looking at each core component of your story–some of which you may not even have considered–and guiding you to a cohesive environment for those components to live in. but, I’ll let him put it in his own words: you can find out more here. You can also find him on twitter.

Tune in next week for another Indie Review, and a new experiment I’m trying to breathe new life into my writing!

What’s in a Name?

by Alan O’Rourke, c/o Flikr

Holden Caulfield. Romeo, Desdemona and Falstaff. James Tiberius Kirk. There are certain names in fiction that just stand out. They become more than just a name; they share an identity with the character, add an air of personality of mystery, or even imply a metaphor that evokes a deeper meaning to the character. They’re crucial in good fiction–a good character name might computer a reader’s attention, but a great name will capture their imagination.

I was thinking this week about fellow Indie Writers, and the names they use for their characters. There are tons of great examples.
Ryan Casey’s main character in What We Saw is named Liam, a common enough name for its English setting. To a Canadian like myself, it was just different enough from what I’m used to that it stood out, even above the other very English characters. Liam is familiar, but sufficiently unique to be set apart from the others in the book–just as it should be for a main character.
Lindsay Buroker has a litany of great character names; Sicarius, Maldynado, Amaranthe and Basilard are really colourful names that each evoke their separate personalities. When you read the Emperor’s Edge books and first come across these characters, you get the impression that they couldn’t be named anything else.
In Brian Rathbone’s Call of the Herald, we come across Catrin Volker. It’s a name that seems common and ordinary–but there’s an almost thrumming power beneath it, and it’s just different enough from ‘Catherine’ that it sounds exotic; fitting for a fantasy novel set in a world like ours, but only just.
David Alastair Hayden’s Chains of a Dark Goddess has some wonderfully exotic names that have a very Latin feel. There’s no doubt that the world of Pawan Kor is a fantastical one, but giving the names a Roman theme gives the book a firm military feel. In a way, the names are as much a part of the World Building than his description of how magic works.
Some of my favourite character names come from J.M. Ney-Grimm. Her books have a mythic Norse feel to them, and the names are evocative of that. Just like Hayden, her names are a part of the World Building. When you come across names like Sarvet, Elspeth, and Gefnen, you know what you’re getting into.

But why do these names work? I think the prime point is choosing a name that describes your character, to a point. Buroker’s Sicarius is a case in the point: Sicarius is Latin for Assassin, his role in the story. Yet that’s something that most readers wouldn’t know, or wouldn’t think to look up; it stands as a great name because even when a reader does figure it out, it only adds to the character. Caitrin is another good example–you can almost parse out her name and use it as a rough character sketch. She’s a common girl who’s rather suddenly (and unexpectedly) granted enormous power; Catrin is an unassuming name, but Volker sounds important, almost virile.

When I try to think of character names, I often start with a character sketch, and pick one or two words that sum up their personality, or their role in the story. One of my first major characters was Sojo (the “j” pronounced as a soft “y”). He was a nomad, never settling in one place–a sojourner. I think it’s a bit obvious now and have put him aside in favour of a new protagonist, Tobias Osir. Tobias is a character taken from the Apocryphal Book of Tobit, where we walks with the Archangel Raphael in a spiritual journey–much like Osir will in Tapestry. Alkut (my main protagonist) and Ahbinzur (another protagonist) are taken from the Kabbalah; Malkuth is the Kingdom of Earth, the beginning of the spiritual journey where one is concerned more with worldly things than enlightenment. Binah is Understanding, or a special kind of insight. As represented by the Queen of Swords in the Tarot, Ahbinzur fits that bill pretty well.

But having a name that means something isn’t enough. It has to be catchy, memorable, and most of all, easy to pronounce. J. M. Ney-Grimm makes a good point:

It’s a good thing to keep in mind: if your reader can’t pronounce the name after seeing it a few times, chances are they’ll give up and gloss over it from then on–and this can cause them to distance from the character. Or, at the least, not to get as invested as they could have been. Even worse, a dedicated reader might stop and figure out how to pronounce it whenever they come across it; until they get it, they’re taking themselves out of the world of the book, and that’s a bane for a writer.

Most of the examples here are fantasy books, and there’s more leeway as mentioned above. But you don’t want to make them too exotic. Once again, if a reader can’t relate to the characters’ name, they’re not going to relate with the character–that goes for place names as well. A name should always be something at least vaguely recognizable, so there’s an inherent connection to the reader. George R. R. Martin is a master at this; almost all of his character names are subtle variations of names we’re familiar with–recognizable, but just different enough that we know he’s not writing in our world.

So where do you find names?

Scrivener has a name app built into the program; you give it a certain number of parameters, and it’ll cough out a bunch of names. As much as I love the program, I’ve personally never found this feature useful–but then, I like names that mean something, so Scrivener isn’t going to give me anything I’ll like anyway. J. M. Ney-Grimm suggests looking up lists of foreign names, and this can work well too. You’ll likely come up with something your reader isn’t familiar with, and that’s a name that will stick out. Just keep in mind that those names may be foreign to you, but they won’t be foreign to all readers.
I also like to use Google Translate and the Anagram Server at Wordsmith.org. If you want a certain cultural feel, Translate is great; pick a few choice words, punch them through to a different language, and play with the results. The Anagram Server is a bit less useful, as it will only give you real words–still, it can spur your creative juices. That’s where I came up with Ahbinzur (the “zur” is a suffix given to mages of a certain caste in my World).
Another great source, of course, are baby name books. There are scores of websites that give baby name lists, so I won’t even begin to list them here. For the same reasons noted above, this isn’t my favourite source, but it’s useful.

But in the end, there’s one overwhelming reason to choose one name over another, especially for your main characters: they have to be simple. They have to roll off the tongue, stick in your reader’s memory. You want a name, like those at the beginning of this article–not only memorable, but evocative of your story as a whole. If your character’s name can’t be separated from the story, your readers won’t forget either.

Next week, look for another Indie Writer Review–this time of David Alastair Hayden’s Who Walks in Flame!

A Different Tapestry: The Kobo Arc

A little over a year ago, I bought myself a Kobo Touch e-reader. I’ve been using it, on average, close to two hours a day since then–it’s easily one of the most useful electronic devices I’ve ever invested in. Which is why it was so disappointing when it crashed last week.

I was sending emails back and forth to Kobo Customer Care for the better part of the week, trying all sorts of tricks to get it working again–but sadly, it had run its course. With the amount of use it’s gotten, I can’t say I’m surprised! Kobo was very helpful, although in the end, nothing could be done–and unfortunately, I had just gone over warranty.

So on Saturday, I decided to bite the bullet and replace my Kobo. While I was at it, I took the opportunity to upgrade to the Kobo Arc. And I couldn’t be more pleased with the choice.

The Kobo Arc, while still primarily an e-reader, is really a tablet with a reading focus. It’s stock Android, but Kobo had given it a custom UI called Tapestries (the irony is not lost on me!). Essentially, these amount to folders in which you can organize your apps and media–in practise, it’s an excellent tool for the Indie Writer.

It works something like Pinterest. You can ‘pin’ almost anything to a Tapestry–apps, webpages, pictures, books, you name it. You can pin something to multiple Tapestries, and even nest them within one another. They appear on your home screen with an image of the last item you used–so for example, if I was just in the Kobo store and go back to the main screen, I’ll see the icon for the store at the front of my Reading Tapestry. The Kobo learns which apps you use most, and pushes them to the top, where they’re easy to find.

But it goes deeper than that. As with all Kobos, you can highlight passages in a book and make annotations. This is a feature I used often on my Touch, as it’s a great help to research. I often found myself comparing annotations; I’d make a note in one book, then open another and compare passages to get a more rounded view of whatever topic I was studying. But it was cumbersome. You needed to close the book you were working on, then open another and sift through the annotations until you found the one you wanted. A lot more convenient than paging through actual books, but still not exactly simple.
So the really awesome bit about the Kobo Arc is that you can pin these highlighted passages. I’ve created a Tapestry called Research which sits in my Reading folder; when I open it, I have all of my annotations in one spot. Each shows as a small snippet of text, and tapping on it opens the book to that page of the book. It couldn’t be easier.

Even better, you can still pin images and other items into that Tapestry–which means I can also pin images from my Pinterest boards. This makes Tapestries a robust feature for writers–I’m only beginning to scratch the surface of how useful this can be.

Because the Arc runs on Android, there are thousands of useful apps you can download, many of which are free. The Arc comes pre-loaded with Pinterest, which I’ve already found useful. It also has Twitter, which will make it easy to follow fellow Indie Writers–and much easier to follow the links they post than using my phone (and, incidentally, I can pin their blog posts or tweets to Tapestries as well). There’s a Goodreads app, and I’ve found a neat RSS reader called Pulse with which I can follow Indie blogs. There’s a score of Memo apps, some of which can be dictated to; Evernote is a popular choice for writers, though I’ve personally never found it useful. I found a few word processors too, though I can’t imagine they’d be useful for the Arc unless I were to get a separate keyboard–at which point I might as well use my computer.
There are also  WordPress and Wikipedia apps, though apparently they’re not compatible with the Arc.

The Arc is also great for browsing the internet. It comes with the stock Android browser and with Chrome–but Firefox is available too. And of course, any pages or images you bring up can be pinned to Tapestries as well. I’m very happy with this feature, as my phone–a Blackberry Torch–shows dismal performance when opening webpages, and I’m not always at a computer when I want to look something up. The Kobo Touch had a browser as well, but it was eternally stuck in Beta, and it was pretty slow. My focus for the Arc isn’t surfing the ‘net, but as a writer’s tool, bringing up webpages for research or shopping for books is going to be dead simple.

And that brings us to the reason I bought this device in the first place–the Reading Experience. We’ll get into details on Wednesday, so stay tuned for that!

And, as promised, I’ll be writing a weekly Indie Review starting next Monday with Lorne Oliver’s Red Island. He’s posted the first chapter on his website, so go give it a look!

Pinning Him Down–Pinterest and Character Development

Frankenstein’s Monster, by DerrickT c/o Flikr

Today I thought I’d continue my exploration of Pinterest with a post about Character Development. I’ve wanted to talk about characters in writing for a while, and eventually plan to do a series–so this seemed like a good place to start.

My first impression of Pinterest after a couple day’s use is that it’s best for…well, impressions. As writers, we’re in the business of creation, and that means we’re always keeping an eye out for inspiration which can come from anywhere. It’s tempting to use too much of something that inspires you–but that’s a topic for another post.

The way to get around this–in my opinion, anyway–is to cast a wider net, as it were. Use Pinterest to gather images from a large range; don’t collect a bunch of pictures and videos that are too alike, and don’t be afraid to spread out beyond the subject of the board. What you want is something like a Scatter Plot. You’ll have a certain number of images that relate to one another, but you’ll have enough on either side of the range that it can develop into your own unique idea.

Anyway, back to impressions. I think this sort of strategy is going to be most useful in two areas: developing a setting, and developing a character. Neither should have real-world counterparts (unless your story is set in a detailed real setting), so you want to have a wide-ranging impression. I think this can be most effective with characters, because the best characters are the ones that are multifaceted. You want to have a character that would look like a scatter plot if they were graphed out.

To that end, I’ve started two boards which I’ll use to develop two of my main characters: Alkut and Ahbinzur. Take a look.

Alkut

Alkut is the main villain in my Tapestry Project. He’s is a Page to the court of the Emperor Tauri, recently deceased. The Yziman Empire wishes to establish a trade agreement with their rivals, the Toral–an initiative planned by Tauri. The Emperor’s heir is no statesman, and so much of the negotiations fall to Alkut.

He’s a remarkably handsome man and very charismatic. His equivalent in the Tarot is the King of Wands; he knows how to take action, has a fierce temper and will, and tends to consume what he touches. I’ve included several different versions of the King of Wands, each with subtly different iconography that help me round out his character.
His defining characteristic is his yellow eyes. Most of the Ozym are pale and have little natural colour. There are a few Ozym who have yellow eyes, but they’re washed out or indicate sickness. Alkut’s eyes, on the other hand, shine with an otherworldly vibrancy. A lot of my board so far consists of different yellow eyes, and I’ve even deleted several pictures I thought didn’t work. I like one in particular: a picture of a young boy with bright yellow eyes. There’s an innocence and peace to the face that offsets his eyes nicely–he looks older and wiser than he is, and his gaze is hypnotic.
Because he’s a villain, I wanted some pictures that reflect his personality. He’s evil, through and through (though I’m brainstorming some redeeming qualities so he’s not flat). I chose a few pictures of frightening or spooky figures; these won’t be used to describe him, but they give me something to look at as I’m thinking of his mannerisms. In this sense, they truly are pictures of impression.
Finally, I included a picture of a spotted salamander. That creature is the Elemental of Fire, and in my story a mage working with a particular element will often have such a creature as a familiar. Alkut’s familiar, however, is a dragon, and I want it to have a slamander-esque form. So I’ve also found some neat pictures of Hypsognathus and Eryops, early dinosaurs with that kind of structure. The Hypsognathus Skull is particularly evocative.

Ahbinzur

In Tapestry, the Toral are ruled by a Queen, who is in turn advised by the Hierophantic Caste. The Caste is ruled by the Stewards, four mages who each look after their element. Ahbinzur has been newly elected to be the Steward of the Aether, but immediately notices the decadence and hypocrisy latent in the Caste. She wants to strike a blow for True Faith, and though her actions may be devastating, they’re for the greater good. As such, she correlates nicely to the Queen of Swords, who looks out for Justice and Truth at all costs.
I’ve included several images of the Queen of Swords in her board, each with different iconography. I particularly like the Crowley version–this is a deck I work with often. That image is the Biblical Judith, who seduced Holofernes, then killed him in order to free her people. She went to great lengths and suffered much for the Greater Good–and so does Ahbinzur.
Her element being Air, I wanted to find images that have a flowing, sort of ethereal quality to them. The meditating maiden is particularly nice. I also included an image that evokes her namesake, Binah–the third Sephirot on the Tree of Life–which represents knowledge and understanding. She has a clarity of vision that most of her Order lack, which is exactly why she’s taken it upon herself to reform her Order. Yet there’s a certain innocence about her. She’s young and inexperienced, and there’s a hint of doubt in her. The image of a fairy by the pond evokes this; there’s mischief there, but more so, there is uncertainty.
The Elemental of Air is a Sylph. This is a creature normally appearing something like a fairy, which doesn’t really fit into my world–so I’ve been trying to find something analagous. In searching Pinterest for Sylphs, I came across several beautiful birds. The Long Tailed Sylph, fittingly, is a real hummingbird native to South America. While my world is a fantasy one, I’m not going crazy with imaginary creatures, so it was an epiphany to find an actual creature I could use here. Ahbinzur’s familiar is a retinue of Sylphs, which she can communicate with and who follow her instructions.
There’s a dragon for each element, and the Aether is no exception. When thinking of what form this creature should take, I looked at pictures of Chinese Dragons, and learned of the Azure Dragon, a Chinese contellation. This fits perfectly, as the dragon lives in the sky, flows with the currents of air, and has a sinuous appearance. I imagine the Aetherdrake being born of smoke, striking fast, and floating away on the breeze before it can be struck in kind.

So there we have it. These “character sketches” can help flesh out my characters in a grand way–and I’m learning new things about them as I browse. So far I think it’s a great way to build characters–you should give it a try!