Pinterest: A Worthy Writer’s Tool?

Pinterest_FaviconRecently I mentioned that adding too much too soon to your story can cause it to collapse–as mine is in danger of doing. If you see this happening, it’s a good opportunity to step back, take stock, and find out what you really need to write. Roz Morris excellent blog post on how to correct this problem was an eye-opener for me, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the last week. One of the ideas she suggests is to use Pinterest…so I thought we’d look at that briefly today.

If you’re not aware of Pinterest–and admittedly, though I’ve heard of it I never really looked into it until now–here it is in a nutshell: you find pictures you like on the internet, and “pin” them to a virtual corkboard. Once pinned, others can find you and re-pin what you’ve pinned, and you can pin their pins. The result is a board filled with images that are shared and shared again. When I first heard of it, I thought it sounded like most social media–useless to anyone who didn’t know how to use it properly. Further, what good would it be to an artist who works in words, not pictures? I never really bothered to explore it further than that.

But Pinterest does have one very important thing to offer writers: inspiration.

This is why Roz recommended it. You can start a Pinterest board and fill it with images related to the story of book you’re writing. Then, when you get stuck or go off track, you can go back to your board to see what inspired you about the story in the first place. It’s like a visual notebook where you can jot down ideas, feelings, and themes. For those of us who are visual learners–that’s me–this can be a great boon. Imagining a book in your head is one thing, but I’ve already found that compiling images that reflect that imagery can be inspiring.

Another way I can imagine Pinterest being helpful is in World Building, especially for speculative fiction. In fantasy, you need to create a comprehensive setting that is exciting and makes sense, and it can be challenging to keep things straight. This is one issue I keep having: I lay down a “rule” for my world (such as that the Elements produce magic), but keep tweaking it until it loses the effect I meant it to have. Or I describe an area as being a desert wasteland without considering how the relatively close major river seems incongruous. Finding pictures of the setting you want to convey can give you real-world analogues to keep your setting believable.
One thing I want to develop in a more concrete way is the varying species of dragons in my world. As the Elements create magic, so too do they infer magical beings, so I want each species of dragon to not only correspond with, but represent their Element. This has already been beneficial for me; in searching for pictures of salamanders, I found one (pinned to my board) of a spotted salamander that, if it were the size of a man, would make a formidable dragon. A salamander is a creature of fire–thus, a fire dragon.

One thing to be aware of, I think, is the difference between Inspiration and plain Stealing an Idea. This can be a dangerous line to walk on Pinterest, where it’s easy to just click “pin” on anything that catches your fancy across the internet, without caring where it came from. If a certain picture serves too well as the basis of some creative idea in your story, it’s not really yours. If I take the picture of the spotted salamander and use it as my cover image, I’m stealing it. If someone draws a picture of a water dragon and I describe it too closely in my book, I’m stealing someone’s idea. I think you’d have to be careful about where you draw the line.

Using Pinterest is easy. You set up an account through Facebook or Twitter, then start new boards for whatever topics you like. My first board is four The Courts–the four stories that make up Phase One of my Tapestry Project. I may divide them into four separate boards, one for each story, but this serves for now.
Then just go searching. You can search Pinterest for whatever you like, and each picture that comes up has a Pin button on it. Pin it and it’s in your board, where others can see it as well. You can also pin images from anywhere on the Internet–there’s an option to add a “Pin It” button to your browser. I put it on the toolbar right below the address bar on Firefox, so it’s right there.Any time you pin an image, you can choose which board it goes to, and add a caption.

Like any social media service, people can also follow you, so they can see all your boards as they’re updated. For some baffling reason, I got 50 followers within an hour of setting up my account. I can’t say I know how this works, or how I can turn it back on my writing–but the point is that you can create a community. And that community can help build your author platform.

There are a lot of writers out there who swear by Pinterest. Here’s a few articles about it for further reading–and it’s just the tip of the iceberg!

So, is Pinterest worth it for writers? Truth be told, I’m not sure yet. I’m still experimenting with it, but so far it’s been…interesting. I think the biggest challenge for a writer is, as Roz points out in her article, using it. It can be tempting to just browse for pictures–I got lost in this yesterday–and forget why you started this in the first place. But if you’re diligent and this kind of “imaging” is something you enjoy/get use out of, then by all means, check it out. You might be pleasantly surprised.

At the very least, you’ll gleefully waste an afternoon looking at pictures of food and crafts.

What do you think about Pinterest for Writers? Is it useful, or just a distraction? Do you have a Pinterest board? I want to hear your comments and see your links!

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Roll a D20 for Inspiration

d20 by Janetgalore, c/o Flikr

Last week, I talked about how I like to draw on roleplaying games for inspiration in creating characters, so I thought it would be fun to follow up this week with the other end of things–the Game Master.

For those of you who haven’t played an RPG, the Game Master (or Dungeon Master in D&D parlance) is the one who runs the adventure for the players. Their job is to build encounters with enemies to fight, scatter treasure for the players to find, and develop a plot for them to follow. You can see where this is going: the GM is, essentially, a storyteller weaving a compelling story for the players to play through. You can see why this is appealing for a writer.

This past weekend, I had the chance to sit down with a group I used to play D&D with. I haven’t had a lot of time to play with them lately, but had a free evening on Saturday, so I dropped in. The GM whipped up a One Shot so I could play without disrupting the overall arc of their story, came up with a nice plot hook for my character to be thrown into the action, and we were off.

The story was quite clever: my character Arranis was frantically wandering through the forest trying to collect herbs for a potion that would help heal a young boy. I ran into the other adventurers, who came back with me to the village, where we discovered that the boy–Timothy–was ill because their family couldn’t afford proper medical care. The town they were living in was controlled by a tyranical man who was taxing them to death, and cared for nothing but himself. When we tried to confront him, we were intercepted by a ghost in heavy chains who told us our villain–Abanezer–would be visited by three spirits hoping to convince him to change his ways; our job was to make sure the good spirits could do their job without interference, and we spent the evening fighting off foes who wanted Abanezer to stay as evil as he was.

Sound familiar?

This is what I enjoy so much about role playing. Even a well known story can provide a fun backdrop for adventure. Some of you may have seen the recent episode of The Big Bang Theory or read the Penny Arcade comics of the past weeks, and it’s the same idea. Take a story, spin it into an adventure, and hack/slash away. Our GM was able to lead us through a compelling plot, and we, as players, were able to affect the story through our actions.

Game Mastering is a particular skill, but it’s closely related to writing. You want to have Plot Hooks for your characters, motivations for them to want to move the plot forward, tension and action to keep them interested, and–most importantly–a backup plan in case your characters go widely off the path you’ve set out. Most of you know all too well what happens when a character or plot gets out of control and you need to write yourself out of a corner. Usually, it leads the plot into wonderful territory you never considered, and (for me anyway) that’s part of the magic of writing.

I once ran a solo game for someone who wanted to learn the World of Darkness system. It’s a game that focuses on horror and supernatural elements in a “real world” setting, so it has a much more tangible feel to it. We had a great time playing what amounted to a short piece of fiction–effectively, we were living out the story, I as the narrator, and he as the protagonist. This specific game is actually part of what got me back into writing after a (too) long hiatus, and (with the player’s permission) I’ve started work on it as a novella called The Road to Hell. Look for it to be released sometime in 2013.

I can’t say that I’m an experienced Game Master–I’ve really only dipped my toe–but the games I ran did make me a better writer. And, I like to think, vice versa. It’s all about weaving a story, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that a lot of writers would be good at running an RPG–or that GMs or players would find they’re good at writing. The people I played with last weekend are a great example–one of the players (who was actually the first DM I played with) had a successful turn at NaNoWriMo this year, in fact.

RPGs certainly aren’t for everyone. For some people they seem downright silly. But if you’re a writer, I’d urge you to at least give it a shot–you might be surprised with what you find. And if you’re a DM who stumbled upon this post and have never written a word–try it. You never know.

I could talk at length about RPGs…and might do more posts on the topic as related to writing. In the meantime, I’ll let others speak for me. Here’s a few links for you:

  • Critical Hit: A terrific podcast by the folks at Major Spoilers. It’s an ongoing game that started as a great tutorial for one player, and got even more awesome from there. Really, go listen–you can find them on iTunes.
  • Dragon’s Temple: Julio Nicolini is a writer and fellow player from Myth Weavers who has his own blog. He talks about RPGs and writing, and often posts excerpts of his work.
  • Penny Arcade: These guys talk about video games, comics, RPGs and all things GeekTheir comic often deals with Dungeons and Dragons, and the crew gets together with Wizards of the Coast once a year to play a game with the indomitable Wil Wheton–which you can also find on iTunes.
  • Myth Weavers: This is a “Play by Post” site where you can play a variety of RPGs online. It’s a great community, and very friendly to newcomers.
  • Wizards of the Coast:Makers of Dungeons and Dragons and other games.
  • White Wolf Publishing: Makers of the World of Darkness game, and others–including Vampire, Werewolf and Mage.

Thanks everyone for reading along these past few months. With the holiday season fast upon us, I won’t be posting here again until January–next week will be a bit busy. So Happy Holidays and New Year!

How to Make the Time

Time goes by so fast by JanetR3, c/o Flikr

A while back, I posted about how we give ourselves permission to procrastinate, and that the excuse of “I don’t have enough time” is a thin one. The moral: you won’t have the time until you make the time. So I thought it would be nice to follow up today with how you can do just that.

I used to be a House Manager at a live theatre company–essentially, my job was to make sure our patrons were safe and comfortable before the show and during intermission. A large part of it was customer service–but really, the job was all about time management. It was important to learn how to manage my time so that less important things–like making sure the doors are unlocked–don’t take away from time spent on issues like getting change to the bar, resolving seating issues, and heaven forbid, medical emergencies.

Time Management isn’t just about hitting your deadlines or making sure you have time to complete projects. It’s about making the most use out of the time you have, identifying what you don’t have time for, and knowing what’s most important to get done right now.

And all of this relates to writing just as well as it does House Management, or any other job. Let’s address it in a few simple points:

Prioritization

This is the big one. If you’re focusing on the little things, you’ll never get good at time management. It’s as simple as not knowing where your energies need to go–if you spend all your time on something that doesn’t matter in the larger picture, you’ll find yourself running out of time to complete the big projects. It sounds pretty straight forward, but I’ve found that it takes practice. Most of the time, it’s easy to tell what should get your attention first–but sometimes, it’ll surprise you.

For example, you might think that designing a cover for that book you just started is a long ways off. You still have edits, revisions, formatting. The book cover is the last detail you want to think about when you’re in the middle of your first draft. But really, it’s a crucial thing to think about early on, maybe even before you start writing. The cover is how people are going to find your book, especially when they’re shopping online. You also need to think about branding; your books should all have a similar ‘feel’ to them, so it’s easy for readers to make the connection between your works. If not, it’s easy for them to pass your other books by.

Allocation

Prioritization is how you order your task list; Allocation is how divide that time between tasks. Another common mistake in time management is allocating too much time to a relatively unimportant project, and too much time to something else. I’m really bad at this when it comes to a specific example: research. I love researching things, to the point where I’ll research a topic just for the fun of it with no end result in mind. But when I have a particular story to write, I can get tied up in research enough that I use up time I could have otherwise spent writing–and that’s when I start missing deadlines.

Case in point: I thought it would be interesting for the system of magic in my Tapestry Project to make use of foci. A Mage uses magic by manipulating one of the four elements, but if he has a focus attuned to that element, the magic is more potent. I want to use particular gemstones as foci, and started doing some research into it–and wasted all the time I’d set aside for a couple days. All for a nice bit of “flavour” that ultimately doesn’t have a large impact on the plot. I could have stopped my research short and gone back to it later, and it wouldn’t have made a difference.

The fallacy of allocation is that every part of your project is important–it’s just that some things are more important than others. Research is crucial for a good book, but you need to make time for other things too. Finding that balance can take practice as well, but ultimately, the most important thing is that you write. That should always be your priority, and the majority of your time and effort  should be spent on it.

Organization

This one seems like a no-brainer, but it’s really very important. If you’re not organized, you’ll have trouble getting out of the gate. Fortunately, it’s simple to get on the right track–just utilize your resources and play to your strengths.

I’m a “project” guy. I work best when I have a clear goal in mind, and I’m able to set out specific tasks that lead toward that goal. Checklists work wonders for me; as I complete tasks and mark them off my list, I have a real sense of accomplishment which propels me forward. Others may prefer to have a vague outline of what their end game looks like, and work toward it in an organic way. There’s no right answer here, as long as you’re organized. There’s a lot of software out there for this, everything from email clients and electronic calendars to synchronization software and memo pads. Much of it is free. Investigate what you think will work best, try it out, and use it.

Goals and Intent

Again, it might go without saying, but if you don’t have an idea of where you’re going to end up, you won’t have much luck getting there in any timely fashion.  You have to start somewhere, but you have to have a destination in mind as well.

The trick here, I find, is to have several very specific goals instead of one vague one. “I want to publish a novel” isn’t going to help you, because there’s so much work that goes into it. “I want to write X number of words each day” is a much better goal because it’s attainable, and it’s measurable. Also–and this is important–it’s something you can change day to day. Having a goal is great, but having a flexible goal is better. Sometimes life happens, and you can’t reach your destination when you thought you could–but that doesn’t mean it can’t change tomorrow.

Intent is also very important. You want to be clear about what you want to achieve; not just what your goal are, but why your goals are as they are. You want to write 5000 words by the end of the week? Fine. Why 5000 words? Why a week? What will you do when you get there, whether you can meet that goal or not? Being clear on the intent behind your goals will help you work towards them because it’s no longer arbitrary, it’s tangible.

 

Time Management is a big subject, and I won’t pretend to have covered it all here. I’d like to elaborate on this post eventually, with some tips about managing your time–but in all honestly, I’m out of it for this week! We’ll see you Wednesday!

Characters and Gaming

copyright Wizards of the CoastOne of the most important things about writing a decent story, of course, is finding compelling characters. There’s tons of information on the internet about how to write good characters, create interesting arcs, how to use characters to drive conflict, and so on. We’ll get into those some day–I’d like to do a series on characters eventually–but today, we’re going to step back and do something fun.

I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons a couple years ago, when I was invited to play in a weekly game. I had no idea how it worked, and I’d never played a pen and paper RPG before, but I loved it instantly. The thing that struck me most about the game is the way it encouraged creativity. In my first session, our group was being chased by a bunch of enemies we didn’t want to fight; our Dungeon Master (the person leading the game for the players) clearly wanted to set us up for a battle, but we weren’t hearing of it. We tried to hide in a cave while they passed us by–the DM countered by telling us it contained a monster of a higher level than us, hinting that the foes behind would be the easier fight. Instead, we lured our pursuers into the cave, blocked the entrance, and let the monsters take care of themselves. Problem solved.

This is what I enjoy so much about roleplaying games: they’re designed to be open ended, and the only limits are your imagination. Being a rather imaginative person, it’s a natural fit for me. As a storyteller, the draw is even more evident; even while you’re in an encounter and rolling dice to see if you hit and how much damage you dole out, you have the opportunity to flesh out the narrative. A miss turns into an unexpected parry by your enemy, who then dodges out of your way and thumbs his nose at you. An attack that just barely hits turns into a harrowing tension filled moment where both of you lock swords and stare each other down–while you slowly draw a dagger to thrust into their side.

You can see why this is fun for a writer. What does it have to do with characters?

In Dungeons and Dragons (I’m talking about 4th edition if anyone’s interested), you first choose the kind of character you want to play by selecting a class. This is what you do. Then you choose a race, which gives you some characteristics and determines how well you do your thing. Finally, you flesh out the character with specific attacks, weapons and items, feats (special abilities), and so on. It’s simple, and the publishers of the game (Wizards of the Coast) have lots of flavourful options for you to choose from.

But the most fun way to build a character is to start with a concept, and try to make it work mechanically. This is where you get some great ideas for characterization, which you can then bring into your writing. For example, DnD has a race called Warforged, which is basically a magic robot. Couple that with a class called Swordmage, which likes to use magic through their blade, and multiclass into Psion, which has various telekinetic powers. You end up with a character that’s part mechanical, uses a sword, and can move things around with their mind.

Like Darth Vader.

DnD gives you a great place to start by providing flavour and information on the classes, races and so on. And that’s just it: a start. This information can serve as a springboard to help create colourful and fun characters. Of course, all of it is copyrighted by WotC–and aggressively protected. So I wouldn’t go about creating a character with their sources and publishing it in your novel–but it helps get the creative juices flowing. I’ll often build character after character with no intention of using them in a game–I do it just because it’s fun, and it’s interesting to try odd combinations, then trying to explain them with a story. Like a dwarf who desecrates nature and is punished by the spirits of the forest by being locked into the form of a bear (Shaman class with a power called Beast Form). Or a monk who practices lucid dreaming, accidentally bringing into existence a manifestation of his “dream self,” which then breaks free in an effort to explore its own identity (a race called Kalashtar with the Psion class). Or an escaped gladiatorial slave who has developed a unique fighting style, using her long braided hair to ensnare her foes (arena fighter with the whip training feat).

You get the idea.

At any rate, if you’ve never tried roleplaying, I’d suggest you give it a go. DnD 4th edition uses a character builder which is completely online, and you have to subscribe to them in order to use it; they used to have a downloadable program (which is what I use) but I don’t know that it’s widely available.
There’s a website online called Myth Weavers, where you can play by posting in a forum. You can find me there occasionally, and they cater to all sorts of different games. Or visit the Dungeons and Dragons website to get more information about their games. Also check out another of my favourite games, World of Darkness–a sort of supernatural noir “storytelling system” that relies heavily on story and not so much on dice.

And have fun with it!

Tom’s Diner, Evocative Writing, and an Update

Have you even heard the term “earworm?” If not, you’ve experienced it: a song that wriggles its way into your head and makes a home there, unwilling to leave. Like Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega:

It’s one of those songs that just won’t let go. It’s catchy, pithy, and expressive. But what does it have to do with writing?

I was listening to this song the other day, and it struck me that it’s the perfect example of evocative description. I won’t reprint the lyrics here, but you can find them online. I can’t even think of a worthy sample to give here, because anything taken out of the context of the whole is meaningless. Take a look, I’ll wait.

The song seems nonsensical: just a person narrating their (rather dull) day. Until you get to the end of the song, and you realize that she’s sitting in a diner alone because she’s no longer with her significant other. There’s no indication why they broke up, who left who, if infidelity or death  was involved–just that she’s lonely, and misses him. Then the rest of the song makes sense: she hasn’t been narrating her boring day as much as setting the scene for how she’s feeling. Despite not being very long or eventful, the song is enormously effective.

This works because Vega gives you no indication of the plot until the last verses–and even then, there are so many open questions. The whole song is made up of little details that seem so inconsequential it’s easy to gloss over them. But in looking back on them, they set the tone beautifully, and in a better way than simply telling the listener what’s happening.

When writing fiction, evocative description is the way to go. It’s so much more effective than telling the reader point blank that your character is feeling sad or happy or hungry. It’s economical too: Vega’s character has a complex emotional state that’s expressed in just over 200 words. Even better, she does this without having the character speak, or even really do anything beyond putting cream into her coffee. As a writer, you want to make sure you pull the reader into your story, to make them sympathize with your characters. You can do this by handing it to the reader on a silver platter–but that’s boring, and it’s not respectful to a reader who’s able to figure things out for themselves.

Instead, by placing little details in seemingly innocuous places, you create an emotional tapestry that pulls the reader in without them even realizing it. The continuous rain, the woman who doesn’t know she’s being watched as she hikes her skirt, the man behind the counter who doesn’t pay attention to his customer–these are all external indications of how Vega’s character is feeling. They’re metaphors, and very effective ones. And all without the character so much as lifting a finger.

The added benefit here is that you get to create your world in relation to the characters. Vega’s world seems damp, murky, and unfriendly–a perfect compliment to her character’s emotional state. But the same world, as described, can be used to reflect other characters. Maybe the woman hitching her skirt is meeting a lover for a romantic kiss in the rain. Maybe the man behind the counter is inattentive because he’s secretly in love with the woman with the umbrella. When other characters react differently to the world you’re creating, you’re telling the reader even more about them. Again, without those characters doing much of anything.

Here’s an example from the opening of my upcoming release, Court of Sand:

Lamplight flickered, and shadows danced on the wall. Verdant silence filled the halls, and the only movement was the opening of the door to the Empress’s chambers. A dark form slipped out and closed the door behind him with a soft click; Alkut stopped for a moment, listening. Content that he was alone, he sneaked quietly away. He did not notice her son, Ohmel, General  of the Court, watching him.

I think the passage needs some tightening up, but you see what I’ve done here. I could have written bluntly that Alkut was sneaking out of the Empress’ chambers while Ohmel looked on, perhaps even having Ohmel whispering his intent to punish Alkut for the transgression. I could have gone into great detail about how Alkut is having an affair with the newly widowed Empress, that there’s already an underlying tension between him and Ohmel, and that the Empress is an unwitting pawn in a larger plan. But all of that boils down to exposition, and it’s dull. The few lines above tell much the same story, with (I think) a bit more flare. Evocative writing gives a whole new dimension to your work and your characters.

And, frankly, it’s more fun for the writer too.

Scrivener Templates

Scrivener Templates: making creating easier.

I don’t have a whole lot of time today to post, but in the interest of keeping my schedule, I promised myself I’d write something. So I’ve got a quick idea I’ve wanted to talk about for a while, but never found the right space for it: Scrivener Templates.

If you’re not using Scrivener for your writing, check it out. It’s amazing. It’s basically a more powerful version of your word processor–not only can you write in it, it will help you organize your thoughts, plot out your story, and convert everything into a manuscript or eBook at the end. It’s an extremely versatile program.

One of the things I like most about Scrivener is the way it helps you organize your work. Whether you’re writing a short story or a trilogy of novels, Scrivener can help you keep everything in one place. Along the left side of the program is the Binder, a collection of collapsible folders which is the backbone of your project. You have your manuscript (divided into scenes), notes for characters and places, and all your research.

 

Binder Closeup

What I want to touch on today is the Templates. At the bottom of your binder is a folder that has some templates. You can right click to duplicate one, and save it as a character or place. Then, just fill in the details and you have a succinct sketch of your characters and places. Easy.

I used to write as I went–by which I mean I let my characters develop as I wrote, without having decided ahead of time too much about them. This still works for me to a point–I love being surprised when my characters do something I didn’t plan for–but for the most part, you want to have all of that laid out in front of you when you’re starting a new project. It’s fine to have a general idea, but the deeper your characters are when you start writing, the easier you’ll find it to create three dimensional characters. And, to use an old writer’s cliche, places should be characters in your stories too–so treat them the same way.

Here I’ve filled out the template with the basics for Ahbinzur, one of my main characters. She’s a complex one, so I definitely wanted to have something down before I wrote too much of her. As you can see, the template is pretty straight forward: give the name, a physical description, personality traits, and so on. Something I found really helpful was an entry on Internal and External conflicts, one of the most important ways to make a fully fleshed out character. The things the template asks you to think about seem redundant–why should I have to write down what she looks like? I already know that–but they’re also easy to miss.

Doing a Place template is much the same. Far beyond what the setting looks like, you’ll think about what the sights, sounds and smells are, any special features you want to include, an so on. Getting it all out on paper makes inventing a living, breathing setting so much simpler.

Well, there you are. It’s a simple tool–really, it’s nothing more than a form you’re filling out–but oh so important. Something like this should go without saying, but missing these details will squash your book flatter than pancake–so hy not take advantage of it? As usual, Scrivener is taking the guesswork out of your project for you–all you have to do is hammer out the details, then sit back and write.

 

Three Pillars of Fiction, and ROW80 Update

image by troismarteaux c/o Flikr

This has been a wonderfully productive week. This time last week, I was stumbling around trying to figure out why my characters were misbehaving–now I’ve got a clear(er) vision of what they’re up to, and I’ve set aside the scaffolding behind the book to settle on the actual writing. I’m pleased to say that I’ve managed 2242 words in total since Sunday’s update. This means I’ve finished the re-write of my Knight of Sand scene (with a new character!) and have half finished Queen of Rain, the first scene in the second story. With luck, I’ll have that finished by tomorrow and will be well on the way toward finishing Court of Rain by the end of next week.

All this work last week on the structure of my book got me to thinking about how fiction is, well, structured. So I thought I’d share something today that I’ve long thought at the core of a good novel or story: the Three Pillars of Fiction.

These aren’t by any means the be-all and end-all of writing fiction, but I think they’re a pretty well distilled group. I don’t think you can write a story without them–and if anyone knows of an example, I’d love to read it! I think all three are necessary, too–you can’t have one without the other. They’re like a tripod holding a brazier: knock one leg down and the others will topple, spilling embers and setting fire to the whole temple.

Anyway, in no particular order:

Description

This is the meat of your story, and has always been my favourite part to write. One of the most quoted adages of writing is “show, don’t tell,” and that’s what description is all about. This can be done well, or very poorly, and how it’s handled will give the reader a very strong image of the book as a whole either way. If you have some great descriptions, it can bring a reader into the World of your book like no other way can–but if your descriptions are tepid, cliched, or dull, they’ll just want to put it down.

This, I think, is where the book really comes alive. In a way, description is where you as an author get to whisper in your reader’s ear. You set up the tone and the feel of the story for them, lead them through it. When I’m writing description, I often think of my background in the theatre–it’s like directing a play. You have a particular image you want to portray, and it’s up to you to decide how you’re going to show it to your reader. The best part is that, done right, this pillar isn’t all that difficult–the secret is in allowing the reader some leeway with their own imagination. They’ll fill in more detail than you could ever conceivably put down into words, and make your descriptions stand out with as much vibrancy as they like.

Exposition

Anyone can have a character tell the backstory, but doing so in a compelling and informative way is not easy at all. The trap here is falling into a lecture. The last thing a reader wants is a five page history lesson about the background of your main character–even if it’s crucial to the plot. Exposition should be used like salt: a little dash here and there.

There’s an excellent article about this here. Roz Morris says it as succinctly as anyone could: “The only sin of exposition is that it is unnatural.” Exposition–as required as it is in some form–just seems jarring when it’s not done well. Would you enjoy a movie where the main character took ten minutes of screen time speaking directly to the audience trying to explain the story? No. In fact, having a character take the time to explicitly explain the story is a tell-tale sign that you’re not trusting your reader. You don’t have to beat them over the head with it, they’ll figure it out. And if they don’t, maybe your writing is too obscure in the first place.

On the other hand, exposition is very important for any story. Any reader is going to ask “why should I care?” when they first pick up a book. What drives them to want to read it? What’s it’s about? You have to get that across somehow. The trick is doing it subtly enough that your reader doesn’t realize it’s happening. Morris shows a great example from Orwell’s 1984 in the link above. To use another theatre analogy, one of the best ways to inexpensively build a set is to use Indicative Props: items you put on stage to hint that you’re in a particular place. A couple trees shows you’re in a forest, a scarecrow and sheaf of corn shows you’re in a field–you don’t need a whole painted backdrop. Writing is the same: sprinkle hints here and there, and you’ll get some nice “Indicative Exposition” to coin a phrase.

Another of my favourite techniques (though I’m not too good at it myself) is The Watson. This is a character who exists to ask the same questions the readers need to ask to get involved in the story. The Watson might be a major character or a narrator, and have other reasons for being there–but part of their purpose is to get the reader to identify with them. Effectively, the reader experiences the exposition vicariously through the Watson’s eyes.

Dialogue

This, for many people, is the big one. Honestly, I hate dialogue–I don’t think I’m very good at it, which is precisely the reason I don’t write stage plays. Dialogue has a lot of small factors you need to get right before it sounds real: accent, colloquialisms, tone, phrasing. And so on. It’s like maintaining a large machine without knowing how all the individual parts fit together.

For me, the hard part about dialogue is getting characters to sound different from one another. I’m not expert, but I think the trick in this case is to do character sketches. The way a character talks should reflect their character as a person. Someone who’s been brought up with a silver spoon in their mouth probably won’t swear as much as the dock worker who needs to bust his hump ten hours a day to feed his family. If you have a well fleshed out character, dialogue is a bit easier to write.

I think the most important thing to consider about dialogue is how it reads. That might sound redundant, so let’s rephrase it: you should hear how it sounds out loud. Read your dialogue as if you were reading a script. Have a friend read the other part, and have an actual conversation. If it sounds stilted or forced, re-do it. If it doesn’t sound like people talking, it’s not good enough. Dialogue that sounds unnatural sticks out on the page like a sore thumb, and it’s another easy turn off for a reader. On the other hand, if it reads like people talk, it’s easy for the reader to follow along–and more importantly, to connect with the characters.

 

Well, there we have it. Three Pillars of Fiction–do you have more to suggest? I’d love to hear your comments below!

Scrivener on the Go

Scrivener

Scrivener: A great program just got better!

Last week, I mentioned that I was learning to use OneNote, and trying to find a convenient way to sync between computers. I’ll tell what I found below, but first, I want to talk about a happy accident I had along the way.

I discovered you can run Scrivener off a USB drive.

Now, I work a regular 9-5 job, and between that and family life,my typical writing time is usually Saturday and Sunday mornings. But I also get to work about an hour before my workday starts, so I’ve taken to writing or researching in the morning. This is great, except that I don’t have access to Scrivener at my work computer and doubt I could convince IT it’s a necessary program for my job.

So I’ve been using a combination of Sugarsync and/or Google Drive, both of which I’ve used in the past with great effect. But it’s an extra step: when I get home, I have to copy and paste my work into Scrivener. And when things get really busy at work, I sometimes forget to do this and end up with contrasting versions on both machines. Not efficient.

So in researching how to update OneNote conveniently, I found out that you can run Scrivener from a flash drive. You can actually install the program onto the drive, though the Literature and Latte folks (creators of the program) don’t recommend it because flash drives are generally slower than PCs. Instead, they suggest installing to your computer as normal, then copying your files over to the USB through explorer. Though I don’t use a Mac, I’m sure there’s a similar procedure.

Once you do this, you can open your Scrivener files on another machine through the USB stick. Voila: I can now use Scrivener on my off time at work!

A caveat: when you plug your USB into another computer and start the program, you’ll be asked to enter a registration number or use the trial version, even if you’ve already purchased it. This is only because Scrivener verifies your license through the ‘net, and the new computer won’t be registered.

Fortunately, the Scrivener license allows you to use the program on up to 10 machines (as stated on their Technical Support page), so all you need to do is input your registration number again and you’re good to go. If you don’t have your number (it’s not accessible through the program), you can go here to have it retrieved for you.

I’ve raved about Scrivener before–if you’re a serious writer, it’s one program you shouldn’t do without–but I really have to say that it keeps impressing me. This is an excellent tool for writers, and with this revelation, it just got a whole lot better.

OneNote

Now to OneNote. This is less of an issue for me now–the reason I was using it for gathering research was because I couldn’t use Scrivener on my computer at work. Now that’s moot–but it’s still a useful program.

OneNote 2010–which I have on my home computer–has a nifty feature where you can synchronize your workbook to Microsoft Skydrive, which will then synchronize it to your other computers. As long as they also have OneNote 2010.

At work, I have 2007, so this isn’t an option. I’ve had trouble syncing the notebook between the two computers, and it’s getting a bit cumbersome. It’s a tad disappointing that the 2010 file can’t open in 2007, and can’t convert without additional software–after all, Word 2010 can be opened in an earlier version. The best I can seem to do is save my pages individually in 2007 format (I can’t seem to save the whole notebook in 2007), then open them on my work PC from there. It’s not nearly as streamlined as it really should be for a program whose whole purpose is to make and share notes, but maybe I’m missing something. If anyone has any tips to share, please leave them in the comments!

Ultimately, as I’ve said, this is now moot. If I can use Scrivener to compile my research from both machines, it’s simpler than using two different programs. OneNote still has its benefits, but I’m not sure I’ll continue using it for my projects. Sorry Microsoft–another case of a Mac product winning out!

Back in the Saddle–plus, New Schedule and ROW80 Update

Around of Words in 80 Days

A Round of Words in 80 Days

Well, after more than a week of writer’s block and general lassitude, I’ve been able to jump back into it and actually write. Research, plotting and organization is important, mind you, but I feel like I haven’t accomplished much tangible work in the last while. But I’m happy to say that in the last few days I managed to hammer out 1,153 words.

Okay, so it doesn’t sound like much spread over the three days since Wednesday’s update–but it’s a start. And a good one, considering that each of the scenes in my project–of which there are sixteen in total–are supposed to be around 2000 words. So, half done one new scene = not too bad. The unfortunate thing is that this is a new scene I’m writing to replace on that wasn’t working, so in a sense, it’s backtracking. But, it’s better for the overall story, so there you go. Perhaps I can salvage some of the replaced scene for something else.

I also have some news to share. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I originally set out to write a new post for every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. And you also know that for the past couple weeks, I haven’t managed a Friday post. This is a combination of work ramping up, trying to focus on writing my story rather than blog posts, and generally not having a topic to write about.

But on the advice of Duolit, I’ve decided to concentrate my efforts for this blog into certain areas. This will help me keep to a more regular schedule, and also help me figure out what exactly I want to say on this blog.Which, in turn, I hope will make it more interesting for you guys! So, I’ve come up with a new schedule:

  • On Mondays, I’ll blog about publishing. This may include articles about cover creation, how Kobo/Amazon works, formatting, or general indie publishing topics. This is the bare bones of self-publishing.
  • On Wednesdays I have an update with ROW80, so it’s a good time to do an article on Writing. This will be the meat of what we do; topics will cover things like character arcs, plotting, world building, and what makes good fiction.
  • On Fridays I’ll feature other indie authors with two semi-regular features: Indie Reviews and Indie Interviews. This won’t happen every week, but I’ll offer them as often as I can. This gives me some flexibility in my schedule while doing something that gives back to the indie community at large–showcasing other people’s work. There’s a lot of it out there, so there’s plenty of potential in this feature. I’m going to aim for at least two of these posts a month.
  • And on Sunday I have another ROW80 check-in. These posts won’t be very long, and will be more for keeping me accountable to my schedule. On Sundays I may also post news about this blog, or important topics that come up outside the topics listed above. Lie Fridays, this may not happen every week, but with a smaller post it shouldn’t be a problem.

So there we have it–a new schedule, and some concrete topics to look forward to each week. Enjoy–and as always, feedback is appreciated!

Organization Woes, OneNote, and ROW80

I’m a writer of short stories. This is something that’s starting to become apparent as I work my way through my Tapestry Project–writing an extended series is a much different thing. It will be, effectively, an epic length novel by the time it’s finished–and a novel has very different considerations than a group of short stories.

We won’t get into that today–I want to share, as part of my ROW80 update, what has helped me get back on track. As I mentioned Monday, I’ve been having trouble with some of the basic plotting of my project, in particular what the characters will be doing. So I sat down and did some careful organization–and I used a new (to me) Writer’s Tool called OneNote.

OneNote is a Microsoft product bundled with their Office Suite. It’s basically note taking software; you can make notes,add images, sound or video, organize it into separate workbooks, and generally keep everything tidy. It’s a one stop shop for all your notes and research.

Now, I know I’ve talked about Scrivener and it’s organizational qualities, and they’re great–but OneNote is something I’ve wanted to try for a while, and now that I have, I’m loving it. It’s easy to use and does exactly what I need it to do. The only trouble I’m having is synchronizing it between computers–but I’m troubleshooting that.

Anyway, this program has helped me get back on track. My update on Monday showed I haven’t moved very far in the project, and I’m afdraid I can’t extend that progress–at least not in word count. But, I’ve been able to set down what I want, and some deadlines as to how I’ll get there.

OneNote 2

Deadlines

As you can see (click on the image to enlarge), this is a very long term project. I based these timelines on the ROW80 schedule; this first round I’m participating in will encompass Phase One; I’ll tackle Phase Two over the next couple rounds, and Phase Three will probably take two rounds in itself. All in all, I don’t expect to finish the project by at least 2014.

That seems like a long time away, but I like giving myself the extra time. Realistically, I may be able to write parts of it much faster–but keeping a schedule like this will keep me on track, and allow me to see when i’m dropping behind. It should be interesting to see how I keep up with it.

(Incidentally, you’ll see I was also doodling on this tab in OneNote; the program has a drawing toolbar like Word, though I had to use a paint program to fill in the lines and dots and such. I’ll get into this symbol another time; suffice it to say it’s an Occult Glyph that the Hierophantic Caste uses, and that its meaning will be explored across the project as a whole. Meanwhile, I’ll promise a free copy of the entire project to the first person who can decode it in the comments below…if you can!)

OneNote is great for all sorts of things. The ability to insert check boxes made drawing up that schedule pretty easy. The big thing I like about this program, though, is that you can write anywhere on the page–just point your cursor and start typing, and it’ll put your text into a separate box. You can then pull this box around the page, fitting it wherever you like. That proved helpful in the page you see to the right.

OneNote 1

My plotting of Phase One

This is a Plotting Diagram for Phase One. As I’ve explained, Phase One will contain four stories of four scenes each; putting each story into it’s own block allows me to move them around

as I decide which will come first. My original order was Court of Sand, Court of Rain, Court of Sylphs, and Court of Tinder; comparing all of these together makes me wonder if I should switch Rain with Sylphs.

I’m a very visual person when it comes to organizing, so being able to basically shuffle index cards and move them around was very helpful for me. And I use that metaphor intentionally; one of the highlights of Scrivener is the use of Index Cards on the corkboard, which would can move around as you please. The difference is that in Scrivener you can only change the order–you can’t place a card wherever you want. In OneNote, you can put one card on top of another, move it off to the side, or move it completely off the page (as I did with my scene by scene synopsis in the picture here; I didn’t want to give you any spoilers!)

So this is how I’ve spent the last few days working on my Tapestry project. No, I don’t have a word count to offer for ROW80 this week–I wanted to, but didn’t make the time. However, all of this planning and finagling has helped me achieve something very valuable: I know have a very concrete idea of where I want this story to do, how my characters should act, and how long it will take me. I feel like I’ve painted lines on the road and am ready to barrel down the highway–remembering of course that in writing, it’s occasionally encouraged to go off the rails.

Lastly, you’ll notice a change in the theme I’m using for this blog. I got tired of the ragged page looking one, and wanted a bit of colour. I haven’t settled on this theme, and migth play with a few others over the next while–tell me what you think in the comments!

~J