Tools for Writers: Fix-it Notes and the Fix-it Sheet

Tools for writers fix it notes and fix it sheetFixing Fiction Writing Mistakes

I make a lot of mistakes while I’m writing. No, I mean, like, a lot. I’m not talking about little grammar and spelling mistakes – those are just part of the landscape. I’m talking about big, ridiculous mistakes: plot holes you could fly a 747 through, characters who act so inconsistently they might be diagnosed with multiple personality disorder, settings that have tall blue trees in one scene and scrubby orange bushes in the next.

As I’ve been writing my way through novel number one, some of these errors have jumped out at me almost immediately, biting me in the face like angry wolverines. Others have lurked in the text like hungry alligators just below the surface of a pond, waiting until I started working on the rewrite before closing their noissome jaws around my head.

Fix-it Tools

On the one hand, I’m fortunate to have found these errors. It’s so easy to toddle along creating your fiction while remaining completely oblivious of any problems your creation might have. On the other hand, all those stupid mistakes are a pain in my tender portions. They’ve got to be fixed, the little buggers. The trouble is, if I fix the writing mistakes immediately, the pace of my writing goes from slow to sub-glacial and I lose track not only of pace but of where I exactly I was going, beat sheet or not. If I wait to fix them until later, I just flat forget about whatever egregious error it was.

To deal with all these imperfections, I’ve discovered a couple of tools. One is a trick from a science fiction writer whose name I can’t remember, because I picked it up so long ago. The other is something I just started doing out of the desperate need to remember all the stuff that was going wrong with my novel.

Fix-it Notes

The first technique is very simple: brackets. Whenever I am writing along and notice something that will need fixing later, I make a note right there in the text, as I write; for example, “Jackie pulled her pistol and leveled it at the badger. [Jackie never had a pistol. Be sure she gets one earlier.] ‘Don’t shoot!’ cried the badger.” By using the brackets, I can make a quick note of my flub and move on without losing momentum. This works pretty well for smaller mistakes.

Fix-it Sheet

For bigger mistakes, such as plot holes, I maintain a fix-it sheet. This is just a separate document in which I have written down things that need fixing, hence the name. Here’s a breakdown of the contents:

  • I’m having some issues with character development in novel number one, so in my fix-it sheet I’ve noted things like “Need emotional investment in Colin from the start,” “Colin always needs a goal in mind, at whatever stage his character is,” “Ensure Colin’s quest for the Bough is clear… clear start, reason, etc.”
  • Because I’m an organizer (regardless of what my family might tell you), my fix-it sheet is arranged according to sections of the novel. There’s also a separate section for suggestions from my writing group (Thanks, gang!).
  • I also have a section titled “Look at during mss work,” which contains things to review each chapter for as I go through the rewrite, things like “Colin’s internal dialog: Try to make it out loud along, in dialog with a character, or skip it,” and “Check for character growth in every scene.”

You can organize your fix-it sheet any way you want, according to your needs and temperament. (Like you needed my permission, right?)

Now that I’ve started my second draft, I’m using these tools in earnest. I am using the bracketed notes as I work with the manuscript itself, tidying up the smaller errors as I go along. I have used the notes from the fix-it sheet to fill out a detailed beat sheet for the second draft, which ensures I work all the big fixes into the correct spots. That’s working well so far. I am also checking every chapter for the look-at-during-mss-work stuff. That’s slow, but it makes me slow down and comb through each chapter, which is what I wanted to do for the second draft.

So, there you have them: the fix-it notes and the fix-it sheet. Use them like crazy! Unless your writing is always defect-free, in which case, go away, I don’t want to hear about it.

If you’ve got a cool way of dealing with mistakes in your fiction, please share it in a comment.

Thanks for reading!

Tools for Writers: A Pace Sheet for Your Novel

Pace chart for writing a novelKeeping up with the pace

I don’t know about you, but when I’m down in the weeds of writing my novel, it’s hard to figure out if the pace is right or not. I have to pull my head out of my, um, fiction and see if the story is bouncing along as it should, speed-wise.

That’s what pace is – the speed at which your novel clips along.

Elements of pace

There are a lot of different aspects to pace:

  • The amount of action in each scene. The more action in a scene, the faster its pace.
  • The length of the scenes. Shorter scenes strung together tend to quicken the pace.
  • The number of action-poor scenes in relation to the number of action-rich scenes. The more action-rich scenes you have, the faster the pace.
  • The length of the paragraphs. Shorter paragraphs create a sense of urgency, which quickens the pace.
  • The length of the sentences. Shorter sentences also create a sense of urgency, like shorter paragraphs.
  • The words used. Using plainer, more terse words quickens the pace; for example, “pusillanimous” will slow you down compared to “chicken.”

Okay, fine. There’s pace, more or less, but a definition of pace is not really what I’m after here. I mean, it’s great to know what it is, but how do you know when it’s right? You’re sitting there with fifty or seventy or a hundred scenes and the trouble is, how do you hold them all in your head so you can step back, look at the pattern they make and see whether or not they combine to produce the pace you want for your novel?

Well, you can’t. I can’t, anyway. Maybe you’re some kind of memory genius who can envision all that material at once, but not me. My brain is just too tiny. So, what’s a writer to do? Figure out a tool, that’s what.

Making a pace sheet

Enter the Pace Sheet (insert imaginary triumphant trumpet fanfare here). I use this device to help me visualize the pace of my novel. Here’s what you can do:

  • Have a novel planning matrix, beat sheet or outline. If you’re not clear on that, check out <planning matrix post> or some other worthy source.
  • Rate each scene on your matrix for Pace, scoring them as 5 = very fast, 4 = fast, 3 = medium, 2 = slow, 1 = very slow. Use the factors of pacing, along with your gut, to make your judgment.
  • Using a spreadsheet program, create a spreadsheet with one column labeled “Scene” and one labeled “Pace.” Enter the scene numbers and their corresponding pace scores in the rows as needed. Here’s what I mean:

    Spreadsheet columns for a pace sheet for your novel
    Pace sheet columns. Click to enlarge.
  • Highlight the data and create a chart with it. I ended up using a bubble chart, and here’s what I got for one of my drafts:
    Bubble-chart pace sheet for a novel
    Pace sheet bubble chart. Click to enlarge.

    As you can see, my novel is pretty fast-paced, which is what I wanted. I’ve got plenty of 4s and 5s with enough lower scores to balance things out. Notice at the tail end I’ve got a load of 5s crammed together; that way I know my ending has the excitement I want.

    So, there you have it, a simple tool for pulling back from your novel and checking the pace.

    One last note: If you want to do this with pencil and paper, you certainly can. Graph paper would work well, I think, with five pace rows on the left and a column for each scene. You’d just mark the intersection of pace score and scene number with a dot, then connect the dots with a line or make bubbles around each dot.

    If you’ve got a spiffy definition of pace, or a clever way of judging the pace of your fiction, please let the rest of us in on it with a comment, okay?

    Happy fictioneering!

For Novelists: A Planning and Re-planning Tool

A matrix of numbers unlike the novel planning matrix.
No, not this one.

A Novel Planning Matrix

Thanks to Some Fine Writers

To kick this post off, I want to thank one of my favorite writers of the last several years, J. K. Rowling. It is from her that I swiped the novel planning matrix I’m going to describe. I’ve taken this writing tool and tweaked it to suit my own style, and right now I’m using it to plan the structure for the second draft of my first novel. I also want to thank Roz Morris, author of Nail Your Novel, who really clued me in to using a beat sheet, of which the matrix is a fancified example.

Columns in the Novel Planning Matrix

This bad boy has six columns. Here’s what they are:

  1. ID: The number and name of the scene. I like setting up the matrix so the ID number changes automatically when I move a row, and because the numbers can change I like having a name to identify the scene as well. ID is useful for keeping track of what the heck you’re doing.

  2. Time: When I get around to it, I’m going to put the timing of the scene here. Working out the timing of it all will be a post, I think! Time is useful for making sure things happen in logical sequence and for building towards a satisfying climax.

  3. Main Character: The character from whose point of view we see the scene. Main Character is good for being sure your fiction isn’t populated by empty furniture.

  4. Purpose: The purpose the scene plays in the novel, what it’s supposed to show or make happen. Filling in purpose helps you figure out what’s more or less important and what should be ditched altogether.

  5. Action: Here’s where I put a brief description of what happens in the scene. Sometimes the events are in sequential order, sometimes they’re in the order I thought of them. I also put notes about things to fix, rethink or foreshadow here, in a different color.

  6. Conflict, Pace, etc.: This is a catch-all column I use to hold information about the scene that isn’t action. Conflict, of course, records what the point-of-view character is up against; there could be more than one thing. For Pace, I use number, 1 for very slow, 5 for very fast. I suppose 1 could translate into “not much drama or action, maybe some reflection or preparation,” while 5 could “high drama and more action than a barrel of blood-sucking, tap-dancing, mutant killer monkeys.” I’ve been having some issues with theme as I rewrite, so I’ve been using a note for “Theme” in this column, too, recording how each scene supports (or should support, at least) the theme.

A Picture of the Novel Planning Matrix

Okay, so here’s what it looks like. This is the matrix I’m using to re-plan my novel for its second draft, so it’s full of notes in red-brown. Try to resist the temptation to steal my brilliant ideas… yeah, right. Anyway

It’s Easy!

The matrix is pretty easy to whip up in the word processor of your choice, as long as it has a tables function. You could also use a spreadsheet program, although I find those a little lame for heavy text applications like this.

I love devices like this because you can tweak them all you want and make them your own, which I hope you’ll do if you like this. If you don’t like it, maybe it will inspire to come up with something that better suits your style.

Got any cool tips or tricks for planning or re-planning your novel? How about giving us all a break and sharing them in a comment?

See you next time!