Tools for Fiction Writers: Index Cards. Yes, Index Cards.

Index Cards in several colors

Index Cards for Invention

Howdy folks. Did you miss me? My apologies for being so long between posts. I’ve been focused on the fiction and on a writing conference I recently attended, at which I’m happy to say I was not marked as a complete loser who should never write fiction again. So, yay for that. Okay, enough about me and on to the main event:

note Cards in a BoxNote Cards!

I know, you’re falling over with excitement, right? Well, I am, because these cards, the plain old, paper, 3 x 5 or 4 x 6 index cards, are a thrilling new fiction writing tool for me.

Here’s the deal. I love my electronics. My laptops, large and small are particularly dear to me. My 7” and 10” tablets, my phone and even my small music player from that fruit company keep me going in a pleasant daily swirl of media.

I also love using my electronics for writing novels. Word processing changed my life. I used to type, people, on a manual, portable Smith-Corona typewriter (Google that word if you’re not familiar). So, when word processing came along, with its lack of white correction fluid and its ability to just make text bold with your having to backspace a hundred times and type over the same word ten times, I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven.

I use the well-known suite of corporate software from a giant software company and I use Scrivener for Windows, the latter for my second novel (just starting) and the former for my first (gradually finishing).These are fine tools, but the sticking point I find with them both is:

inventingInvention

In the corporate world we sometimes call this step “ideation.” In the fiction realm, some of us call this “dreaming stuff up,” which process lends its name to this blog. This is the pre-planning stage, where you’re just spewing up ideas from the inner recesses of your twisted mind like lumps of mud from a seldom-used well pump.

What you want during this process is for your mind to run free. You (meaning “I” – your mileage may vary) don’t want anything imposing order on these ideas or on your mind. You just want to generate, generate, generate. It’s brainstorming at its finest. At least, you hope it is.

I find the trouble when I do this brainstorming and record the notes on a computer, in any form, that I can’t curb the impulse to impose order on them. A word-processing or spreadsheet program puts the ideas into lines, which I then must rearrange into some order. Scrivener has its soft note cards, which I am compelled to start arranging into a story as I put ideas on them.

The result is that my dreaming-up process gets short-circuiting by the planning process, which doesn’t need to be happening at this stage. My recently discovered solution to this is:

funCardBoxA Box and Some Paper Cards!

I have an idea. I jot it on the index card. I stick the index card into a box. Now the card is hidden. I do this with several more index cards. Now I have several ideas, all hidden, arranged in no particular order. The ideas are not sitting there in front of me, begging to be arranged. When I think I have enough ideas, which is just an instinct, I pull out the cards and start arranging. Not until I have them in some rough order to I put the ideas into electronic format.

I tried this with the planning of novel number two and it worked really well. I am still a slow planner, but the index cards made the invention process a lot faster and a lot more fun. And fun is what this fiction writing deal is all about for me, at least until I get that $2,000,000 contract.

If your invention process is buggy, try the index card thing. It might work for you. And if not, I’m sure something else will. Heck, Faulkner used a wall for “The Sound and the Fury” (I think that was it). I’ve seen said wall. So find your cards, or your wall, or your clay tablet and go for it! I wish you happy writing.

Writing the Synopsis of a Novel

writers-block Man resting his head on his laptopWhen I write my next novel, I’m going to write the synopsis first. For one thing, my research tells me writing the thing first helps you frame up your novel and I’m certainly all over that. For another thing, I have recently discovered the writing the synopsis after the fact is a giant, festering pain in the wazoo.

This coming May, I’ll be attending the Atlanta Writer’s Conference, where I will submitting not one, but two types of synopses in hopes of receiving useful pointers from the learned minds of real live editors and agents. The first is the short one in my query letter, the initial pitch one sends to an agent or editor. The second is the long one that stands on its own, the one you send when said agent or editor invites you to do so.

To start off with, I read a book about writing query letters and synopses, The Sell Your Novel Toolkit by Elizabeth Lyons. It’s especially strong on the long synopses, in my opinion, and isn’t bad with queries. My best advice on query letters came from agentquery.com, specifically, the page titled “How to Write a Query Letter.” It has solid, succinct advice and a link to many queries that have actually won their authors agent representation or requests from publishers.

I can be pretty slow, sometimes (some would say all the time), so even after reading these resources, I had a hard time producing the materials. I took a precious vacation day, spent nine hours working just on the query letter, wrote three versions, and they all stunk. Before this, I had spent many hours working on the long synopsis and produced a five-page document that was only slightly more exciting than the phone book. (Non-old people, see the definition of “phone book” here.)

It was slow. It was painful. I was discouraged.

But then something wonderful happened.

The Saturday after that awful vacation day, I sat down and wrote another short, query-letter synopsis. It just poured out, natural as you please, and the result wasn’t bad at all. The Sunday after that, I wrote a long synopsis that came almost as easily, was two pages shorter than the previous five-page monster, and read like I had written it, instead of some robot.

There’s plenty of polishing left to do, but the bones are there, and a lot of the meat, too. (And that, Virginia, is what we call a mixed metaphor.)

One interesting thing (about time, right?): When I complained to my wife about wasting that vacation day, she demurred, pointing out that the frustrating work of that Friday had been necessary to get my brain to the point of producing Saturday and Sunday’s good results.

So, one thing I’ve learned: If you are writing them after your novel is done, throw the synopses onto the page as best you can, then walk away for a while and let them marinate in your subconscious. When you come back for another try, you may find that they roll right out.

I’ll probably have more to say about synopses in my next post, but for now, I am sick of writing anything and I’m going to stop. See you next time.

Tools for Novel Writers: Multiple Editing Passes

old wooden fence post

Get it? It’s an old post!

Not too long ago I published a post entitled “Tools for Novel Writers: The Editing Checklist.” It’s about using a through-going list as a guide for making multiple passes through each scene of your novel, checking for things like overuse of simile and metaphor, grammar blunders and the like.

I’m still using the checklist and it’s still working out very well, thank you very much. My first rewrite is looking good, if you ask my writing group (you can trust them—I pay them handsomely).

After spending even more hours with the checklist, I’ve discovered an added benefit that was staring me in the face the whole time. It was just so big and obvious, I couldn’t see it. It was the forest, I guess, and I was down in the trees, as the age-old metaphor goes.

pass imageUsing the checklist forces you to make multiple passes through the same material over a period of days. In my case, that’s 19 mandatory passes and 14 optional ones. Granted, some of the mandatory items, like “Adrasteia as priestess – Perhaps make her Artemis priestess from the start” require just a quick “N/A” or a scan and then a little work putting in something about her priestess-hood, if it’s necessary.

Still, a quick scan is still a scan, and I do catch things when I’m doing these, as well as when I’m tackling one of the heftier items, like checking for telling versus showing. I’ll catch continuity errors, things that don’t make sense unless they get foreshadowed earlier, things that need splitting up or rearranging, and things that just plain stink (I often find those while working the “read aloud” item).

the word discovery under a magnifying glassOne of my favorite discoveries recently is the realization that I could flip-flop the roles of a couple of characters to increase the surprise later in the novel. Basically, the one who seems good at first turns out to be bad, and vice-versa. (Thank you, J. K. Rowling!) I was looking at the beat sheet to see if I had any changes to make noted there (that’s one of the checkpoints) and there was the change, begging to be made. If I hadn’t been making multiple passes through the sections, I probably wouldn’t have seen it.

Maybe you’re a checklist kind of person, or maybe you’re the laissez-faire type, or something in between. Whatever your bent, I’ll bet you a nickel your writing could benefit from your making pass after pass at it. Sometimes it’s painful, sometimes it’s dreary, but sometimes it’s fun, too and, besides, there’s gold in them there passes. Give it a shot.

The Unexpected Moment in Novel Writing

privetHedgeThe Privet Hedge of Writing Semi-Doom

Many times, when you’re writing or rewriting your novel, you’ll hit a brick wall. Well, maybe not a brick wall; more like a tall, thick privet hedge. You can’t seem to climb over it or dig under it and the sucker extends from horizon to horizon. It’s not exactly writer’s block, this condition. With writer’s block, you’re standing in front of that hedge and you’re certain there’s nothing on the other side and there’s never going to be (at least that’s the way I think of it, and it’s my blog, so there). This is more like writer’s blah. You’re pretty sure there’s something on the other side, but you have no idea what it is or how you’re going to get there.

A Real-Life Examplereallifelogo

Now that I’ve whiled away a little of your time with an analogy, let me give you a concrete example. (Yeah, yeah, I know… about time.) I’m currently in the process of planning my second novel, based on the assumption that I’m going to finish my first one before I shuffle off to the eternal Buffalo. (So I’m an optimist. Sue me.) I had a dandy start for the thing all drafted up in full prose, with shooting, blood, crazy characters and a briefcase full of shrunken heads. Unfortunately, upon doing further planning, I discovered that none of it worked, except that case of heads. Damned if I was going to let go of that. Trouble was, I didn’t know how to get the case into the hands of the hero, which was a problem, because I was pretty sure the whole plot revolved on that one circumstance.

I tried all my usual tricks. I stared at the ceiling. I wrote a few outlines. I did some free writing. I prayed. I cast the bones and threw the stones. I banged my forehead on the laptop.

All this availed me nothing.

Let-GoLet it Go (Not the Song, for Once)

Finally, I just walked away from it. After all, it’s novel number two and I’m just in the planning stages—there’s no hurry. A few days later, that beginning started nibbling at the corner of my brain again. I was doing something more or less mindless—driving, gardening, playing with a loaded handgun, something like that—and I decided to give that matter some play in the old brain, just on a casual basis.

And, boom! A new beginning presented itself. I don’t know if it’s the be-all, end-all new beginning, but it’s something to work with for the moment, at least. What a relief!

unexpectedMomentThe Unexpected Moment

It was an unexpected solution at an unexpected moment. I think it worked because:

  1. I had let the matter rest a while.
  2. When I thought about it again, I wasn’t trying so hard, I was just casual about it.

Maybe this is a sure-fire tool for me, maybe it’s not, but it worked once, so I’m going to try it again. Maybe it could work for you, too.

Keep writing and good luck reaching “The End.”

Rewriting Your Novel: Cutting the Fat to Improve the Story

movie extrasThe Coolest Cuts of All

The Extras

Not too long ago, my niece and nephew got roles as extras in The Hunger Games, a lot of which was shot in our city. Under normal circumstances, these two are as handsome a pair of humans as you could want, but the movie studio decided that their slender builds and pale complexions made them perfect for District 9. Put them in ragged clothes, smear some dirt on them and, voilà, half-starved, oppressed young coal-country yokels.

Family and friends were all a-quiver with excitement. Discussions of what scenes they might appear in and where they might be spotted ruled dinner tables across the land.

Then we found out that most of their scenes got cut. The land was filled with sighs of disappointment.

Man cutting down a treeCuts Most Cruel

So, why, oh why, were my relations deleted? While poor judgment on the part of the filmmakers remains a possibility, the real reason is probably that their scenes didn’t contribute enough to the film to make them worth keeping. After all, when you’ve got just two to three hours to tell a complex story, you’ve got to get pretty picky about what stays in and equally ruthless about what comes out, if not more so.

I’ve run across similar issues during the rewrite of novel #1. (Yeah, still working on it, and thinking of changing the title from “Thin Spots” to “The Neverending Story,” copyrights be damned. Anyway…) Some lovely bits have gone the way of the niece and nephew’s movie scenes, excised from the work to lie on the cutting-room floor.

girl with a chainsawThe Joy of Cutting

Alas and alackaday? Well, not really. With every scene I’ve cut, the novel has become a more sinewy thing, more lithe, not weighted down by a lot of literary belly fat.

It’s not so hard to tell when a scene can go. All you have to do is ask yourself if it’s moving the story forward. Is new information conveyed? Does a character change? If you took the thing out, would anybody know the difference or detect a hole in the story? If not, out it goes.

This rule applies even to scenes you really love. (Also to characters, sub-plots, everything.)

I have a scene I really like, where damned souls are playing baseball, the ball itself is the former dictator of a small island nation and a soul who can’t hit gets hung from a lamp post by the loin cloth. It’s so much fun! I loved writing it. But it doesn’t do a blessed thing to further the plot, so… yank.

I do save these cuttings. Some of them may make their way into future novels, but they won’t be in this one.

Go thou and do likewise.

Tools for Novel Writers: The Editing Checklist

guy marking off a checklistEditing Your Novel with a Checklist

A rare and wonderful thing happened to me the other night. I was at my writers’ group meeting, getting a critique of my rewrite’s first 30 pages. Everybody said it worked—and believe me, they would say if it didn’t, bless them—and, best of all, one person called the submission “flawless.”

Let’s just take that in for a minute…

Flawless.

Ahhh…

The Checklist Works

Okay, time to snap out of it. Praise great, but I always keep in mind it’s important to keep it in perspective and continue to be your own strictest judge of your work (inasmuch as you can do that without making yourself crazy). Still, it seems that in this case I did something right. This being a relatively rare occurrence, I thought I’d step back and try to figure out what it was, this thing of rightness.

After some consideration, I came up with this: After researching best practices, I came up with a rewriting checklist and started using it to grind through my first draft.

The best practices come from a variety of sources: My sainted wife, my writing group buddies and books like Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne, The Essential Guide to Writing a Novel, by James Thayer and others.

My personal list is set up in Microsoft Project, because it’s great for tracking a sequence of tasks. I got a sweet price deal on it (thanks, day job!) and know how to use it (thanks again, day job!), so that works for me. For most people, a spreadsheet or a plain old word processor list would probably serve just as well. You could even go old-school and use some kind of paper setup.

The main thing is to have a list, regardless of how it’s physically constructed. I’m going to share mine, leaving out most of the the checkpoints specific to my particular story, except for examples.

To use the  checklist, I edit one section/scene at a time, grinding through one task at a time until I’m ready to move on to the next. It’s not as much fun as writing the first draft, but it’s not as bad as it sounds, either. And yes, I am so retentive my checklist has sections. Don’t hate me because I’m over-organized; hate me because I’m beautiful.

Section 1: Make beat sheet changes.

This section doesn’t have any sub-headings. As part of the rewrite, I revised my beat sheet so the story elements are cleaner and hang together better. The first thing I want to do is make those changes.

Section 2: Writing checks.

This is the big kahuna. If I can fix these, I can be pretty sure that my prose isn’t garbage. It might be a day away from going sour, yes, but garbage, no. The checkpoints are:

Show/Tell: Is there anywhere I’m telling instead of showing, at least too much?

Watch for info dumps: Am I laying information on the reader and not trusting her to figure stuff out from context?

Minimize interior monologue. First-person italics best, but still minimize. In my novel, the lead character is alone a lot, so I use italicized interior monologue to show his thoughts. It’s easy to go overboard with that, so I try to pare it back.

Beats (bits of business) – balanced use: A beat, or bit of business, is something a character does during conversation or when you want to remind the reader that they’re there when perhaps they are just standing to one side. This is stuff like scratching, or unwrapping a stick of gum, or engaging in a nervous tic. Too much of this makes dialogue too busy, too little makes it drab and unrealistic, so you have to find a balance. Have fun.

Watch overuse of metaphor and simile. I love metaphor and simile like I love beer and chocolate! They are the shoals upon which the raft of my craft often runs aground… because I use them too damned much. Here is where I cut and weep, cut and weep.

POV clearly of the character, consistent, focused. Make sure the point of view is consistent and that it belongs to the character it’s supposed to. It’s easier that you think to whaz this up.

Section 3: Character checks

This section is mostly specific to the needs of my novel, but there are couple of ideas more than one person could find useful.

Characters arcs (especially lead): I got a big clue from my writer’s group that, in the first draft, the lead character hadn’t changed much by the end of the novel. So now, in every scene, I check to see how, or if, the POV character is developing at all, even a little bit. I pay special attention when the POV character is the lead. If there’s no character development at all, I have to ask if the scene needs revision or even if it needs to take the USS Scissors to Cuttingroomflooristan. Just last week I zapped an entire section because, despite its cool action sequences, it didn’t do squat to advance the characters… or the story.

Character-specific checks: This is a list to remind me to work on certain aspects of characters when they appear. For example, one of mine is “Adrasteia and Colin: build the love story.” Since the love story is new for the rewrite, I need to keep a watchful eye on it. Yours could be anything you like, from “Remember Fred has a nervous tic” to “Zelda sometimes has three legs, but not always.”

Section 4: Scene checks

I use this section to look at scene structure.

Action scene; goal, conflict, setback: Does the scene meet these criteria? Is it supposed to be an action scene?

Reaction scene; reaction, dilemma, decision: Does the scene meet these criteria? Is it supposed to be a reaction scene?

If the scene doesn’t match one structure or the other, what is it? A big blob of wordy goo clogging up your story, or a hidden gem that needs cleaning and polish?

Is the POV character the one with the most to lose in the scene: Be sure the scene centers on the right person. Not long ago I struggled with a section for days before realizing it wasn’t working because the character I was using as the POV wasn’t the one with the most to lose. Once I fixed that, the section worked.

Section 5: Novel structure checks

Here I have a list of the generic names for the main points in the novel, like “plot point one.” My list conforms, more or less, to the dramatic structure laid out by Larry Brooks in Story Engineering. You can use whichever structure you want, say, just Acts 1, 2, and 3. Brooks works for me.

Section 6: Specific scene/story checks

This is another list of reminders, like “more foreshadowing of the revolution,” and “Library Angel – pick him up later.” These are things I want to develop in the revision or make sure I come back around to. Pretty straightforward stuff, methinks.

Section 7: Read aloud

No subheadings or lists here, just the one thing: “read aloud.” Reading your stuff out loud is, I believe the primo way of catching your goofs and improving your writing. Reading aloud slows you down, making it easier to catch the missing commas and whatnot. It also makes it very clear when your prose is a malodorous pile. If you do nothing else, do this!

That’s it! Yes, it’s long, yes, it’s tedious, yes, working your way through it for each section is a festival of rump pain, but it seems to be working, at least for me. I expected writing a novel to include a lot of just plain, slogging hard work and I was right.

Yeah, I know… For once I’m right and it turns out to be that.

It’s a long road we’re on, fellow part-time novelists. I hope this helps. Good luck.

Set the Rules for Your Fantasy World

Fantasy portrait with Egyptian statue and human figures - akashic record by new 1lluminati on flickr.comRules for your Fantasy World

I recognize that different techniques work for different people, but I find that, when it comes to fantasy-world-building, the answer-a-long-list-of-questions method doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried it and it was an interesting exercise, but I prefer to let the world take shape as I move with the characters through the plot. But I’m starting to discover the limitations of my little process and to think that perhaps there are some things you should decide about your world in advance.

Like the rules. Some of them, anyway.

Let’s Talk About Me! …and my Mistakes

Let me talk about myself and my novel-in-progress for a minute. The body of the lead, Colin, is in a coma on Earth as we know it. Colin’s soul, meanwhile, is in Hell, by mistake, whereas it is supposed to be in Limbo. Here’s what happened to me.

In an early chapter, one of the characters explains the way a coma works: “Human being has terrible accident, human goes into coma, human soul goes to Limbo to wait for the body to live or die according to the grand design.”

Fine and dandy so far, but I ran into trouble when I started thinking about old Colin again. Colin’s mission requires him to return to his body under his own steam, not according to some plan. So his mission contradicts the previously stated rule.

Arg!

Writing my Way Out of Trouble

I have to write my way around this one way or another. What I think I’m going to do is re-tool a scene so Colin can declare he’s not going to leave his fate up to some plan, he’s going to do his damnedest to reunite with this body in hopes that will restore his life. That’s serendipitous, because it gives the mission an existential bite and adds a bit of uncertainty, since we don’t know what will happen if the soul jumps into the comatose body.

I lucked out. Things fell into place, but not before I had put in a couple of hours of frustrated noodling and a couple more sitting in a beach chair, staring at the clouds, thinking it through. Of course, I still have to see if my plan really works.

I wish I had set up the rules for how my world works before I started writing. I hope you’ll profit from my experience.