Tools for Organizing Your Story

Are you a plotter or a pantser when you write?

If you’re unfamiliar with those terms, allow me to explain. A “plotter” is a writer who plans and outlines their story ahead of time. Conversely, a pantser writes “by the seat of their pants”, with no strict plan to begin with. They simply go where the story takes them.

It seems to me that most authors are somewhere in the middle, which is certainly true for me. When I was writing Grigory’s Gadget, I would say I was pretty much 50% plotter and 50% pantser. I’d set out a plan, run with it until I hit a road block, then step back and plan some more. It seemed to work pretty well for me…for book 1. Book 2 has become another story (well, both literally and figuratively!).

Due to the fact that I made the (frustrating) decision to set Book 2 at the same time as Book 1 (just following different characters), I have much less freedom. There are certain events, and even some characters, which cross over and therefore need to line up correctly with Book 1. That limits just how much pantsing I can get away with. It’s also forced me to become a lot more gung-ho about organizing my story.

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, organization is necessary! It just might come in later for a pantser, when you go in to revise and edit.

Organizational Tools for Plotters

Plotters love organization, so some of these tips and tools might be no-brainers. As plotters, we typically begin a story by outlining it. This can be hand-written in a notebook or on note cards, or created in word processing software. I personally tend to begin with a bulleted list of the plot points, beginning with the most important and vivid and then connecting those dots.

There are two other pieces of software that I’m a huge fan of as well: Scrivener and Aeon Timeline. Scrivener is like a word processor but with many more capabilities. For the purposes of outlining and planning, Scrivener has an Outline view and a Cork Board view where you can set up your story beats and scenes. These beats can then be made into scenes or chapters (or however else you want to organize your story; for Grigory’s Gadget and Serafima’s Stone, I created a folder for each day to help me keep track of the passage of time) which are organized as individual documents or folders. Documents can be placed inside folders, and everything can be moved around as you will it. (Did you write scenes X, Y, and Z, then decided that scene Z needs to come first? No problem, just drag and drop it!) You can also create documents and folders that are not a part of your manuscript, where you can save research, character summaries, etc. Scrivener’s software typically costs $40; however, if you participate or win National Novel Writing Month, Scrivener is often a sponsor offering discounts on their software.

Aeon Timeline is a visual timeline software. It allows you to essentially create Gantt charts of your story (or your writing time frame!). You can create dots and lines indicating plot points, which can be color-coded and given meta data such as the characters involved, the setting, and more. You can also connect events visually to indicate the one event is directly linked to the next. This software is especially handy if you have multiple characters who are not all in the same place at the same time, or who are traveling for an extended period. Aeon Timeline typically costs $50, but like Scrivener is often a sponsor of National Novel Writing Month, offering discounts to participants and winners. It also can sync with Scrivener!

Organizational Tools for Pantsers

A lot of the tips and tools mentioned above for plotters also apply to pantsers. The main difference is that pantsers normally use these tools after the first draft is complete. Organizing your first draft will help you find inconsistencies, plot holes, and plot seeds you totally forgot your planted (this happens to me all the time!).

This is the stage when I start using more of Scrivener’s capabilities. The first tool that comes in handy is Annotations. Annotations allow you to write notes in your text, the way you’d mark up a physical draft with a red pen. The other tool I use a lot is the ability to add meta data to a document. Specifically, I add keywords to my scenes to indicate which characters are involved, and any other handy keywords that may be useful to me. This is a big help to check the consistency and completeness of different characters’ storylines. I can simply do a keyword search and pull up every seen a specific character is in.

Those are my biggest tips for organizing your story. What tips and tools have worked for you in your writing?

Battling Aggressive Writer’s Block

Apologies for being silent on my blog lately! I meant to post this on Friday *oops*. I’ll be resuming my schedule of posting every Friday again starting this week!

Recently I’ve been fighting a new breed of writer’s block that I hadn’t really experienced before. Usually, when writer’s block hits, it’s more passive. It’s a lack of inspiration, or a lack of motivation. Lately, however, the writer’s block has been more aggressive. It’s been an active force insisting my writing isn’t good enough, that my plot doesn’t make sense, that my characters are horrible and not relatable.

I’ve determined that this now comes with the territory when writing as a published author.

Before I published Grigory’s Gadget, writing was purely a hobby. I did it for myself to exercise creativity. It was fun and amusing. I couldn’t have cared less if the plot would make sense to anyone else, or if the characters were well-written. That wasn’t the point, before.

Now that I published a book, however, those things do matter. As I write the first draft of Serafima’s Stone, I’m acutely aware that my goal is to publish it, and that the book therefore has to be worthy of publication. When I wrote the first draft of Grigory’s Gadget in 2010, I didn’t care if it was good. I allowed it to be bad. And allowing it to be bad meant that I allowed myself to keep writing. Fixing the bad parts comes with editing and rewrites. The first draft shouldn’t have to be good. The first draft won’t be good. It just won’t.

So here I am, struggling to believe the statements I just typed. I need to allow the first draft of Serafima’s Stone to be bad. That’s the only way I’ll finish the first draft. The only solution to this breed of writer’s block is to just keep writing, in spite of the critical voices in your head. Keep writing, even if you don’t particularly like what you’re writing. It can be fixed later.

The Importance of Copyrighting Your Work

Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.

United States Copyright Office

Copyright is very important for authors. It’s what protects us from having our work stolen. In the United States, all work is “under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device” (US Copyright Office).

This, however, has gotten quite a few authors into some trouble.

Lately, I’ve read a good number of “horror stories” about authors who’ve had their works removed from Amazon and other retailers because they – the authors – were accused of copyright infringement of their own work. Someone – a former publisher, a rival, a scammer – flagged their work as copyright infringement, and because of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), Amazon has to respond by removing that work. The author is contacted and prompted to supply proof that they are the copyright holder.

But how the heck do you do that?

I read about authors sending Amazon their original, date-stamped manuscript, screen shots of the upload process, confirmation of their email address, their identity, etc.

But the best way to prove you hold the copyright to your own work is to register that copyright with the Copyright Office.

Why should I register my work if copyright protection is automatic?

Registration is recommended for a number of reasons. Many choose to register their works because they wish to have the facts of their copyright on the public record and have a certificate of registration. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees in successful litigation. Finally, if registration occurs within five years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence in a court of law.

-United States Copyright Office

If you’re an author with a traditional publishing company, the publisher usually deals with the copyright registration. However, if you’re a self-published author, you need to register yourself. The process is relatively simple. You fill out a form with the details of your book, pay $35, and send a copy (physical or digital) to the Copyright Office.

That $35 fee is annoying, but it is worth it. Self-published authors are more often the target of DMCA attacks like those described above. The reason for that is so many self-published authors have not registered their copyright, and therefore lack the solid legal standing to fight back. Sure, you can hire a lawyer to fight your case, and maybe you’ll win, but that lawyer will cost a whole lot more than $35.

So, please, writer friends, copyright your work!

The Benefits of Taking a Break From Your Project

We’ve all been there. You start a passion project – you’re so excited! – and you make progress and make progress and – hit a wall. Your passion disappears and your project becomes a chore. You lose your vision and your motivation.

I have to keep going, you tell yourself. If I stop working on this project, it will never get done!

Sometimes that’s true. But sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes taking a break is warranted, and beneficial.

I participated in NaNoWriMo in November, working on Serafima’s Stone. By the end of November, I was sick of my story. I didn’t like my characters, I didn’t know where my plot was going, I hated my writing style. I felt boxed-in: I wrote Grigory’s Gadget with the intention of having this sequel. I have to write this sequel! But I hate this sequel and have no idea what I’m doing!

So, during the entire month of December, I didn’t touch my story. I didn’t open Scrivener once for the entire month. I didn’t force myself to ponder the story, to try to figure it out. I just left it sitting patiently on my hard drive.

And do you know what happened?

During the month of December I was inundated with ideas and inspiration. I’d be listening to music (namely, the Westworld soundtrack) while working on a report in the office when – BOOM – I’d get an idea! Yes – that’s what motivates that character! Yes – that’s what will happen next! Yes – I need to work that detail in! I have a chain of emails I sent to myself in December, jotting down the ideas so I wouldn’t forget them.

When January 1st rolled around, I was itching to get back to writing my story. I like my characters again. My plot has a direction, and even a discernible  ending! I’m still critical of my writing style, but so is every author ever. At least now it’s not in a self-defeating way.

So if you’re working on a project – a story, artwork, etc. – and you’re getting stuck in a rut like I was, know that it is okay to take a break. Give yourself a time limit that works for you – take off a day, a week, a month, or even a year (sorry, a year is probably too long, I just got the F.R.I.E.N.D.S. theme song stuck in my head…) – and then jump back into your project.

And I’ll be there for yooouuu….

…sorry…

NaNoWriMo 2016 Summary

Well, November has come and gone, and National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has come to an end.

I did not reach the goal of 50,000 words, but I still made a good effort and ended with 40,176 words.

nano2016

I got hit with pretty severe writers block right as Thanksgiving arrived. Between traveling, spending time with family and friends, and binge-watching Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, I didn’t have time to properly work around that block. I was able to recover a bit at a local write-in that word-sprinted to midnight on the 30th, but still fell short of 50k.

That doesn’t mean my NaNoWriMo journey this year wasn’t a success. I feel much more confident about my story than I had on November 1st. Characters have become better-developed, the plot is more filled-in, and I’m actually excited about the sequel to Grigory’s Gadget now. (For a while there, I berated myself for setting up a sequel. Why did I do that to myself? WHY?)

So now I’m neatening-up what I did write during November, and will be posting the new scenes on Wattpad shortly.

Plotting vs. Pantsing

Well, another Camp NaNoWriMo has come and gone. I did a slightly better job this time, but still failed to meet my word count. Rather than feel discouraged, this forced me to step back and analyze what I, and my story, really need right now. The answer: stop pantsing and start plotting.

For those unfamiliar with the terms, “pantsing” refers to a style of writing where the author writes “by the seat of their pants”. That is, they don’t plan what they’re going to write. They just write, and see where the story takes them. This method lends itself well to events like NaNoWriMo, where the core purpose is simply to get words on paper.

The other method of writing is plotting. This method involves planning a story ahead of time by outlining beats and story arcs. This is where stories can get nice and complex. Plotting lends itself to stories that involve a lot of world building, mystery/intrigue, etc.

In my own writing life, I find pantsing to be a lot of fun. It gives a sense of freedom and takes away the pressures of a complicated story. I can set my characters free to get into all sorts of trouble. It’s an exceedingly helpful method to break writers block.

However, when it comes to actually creating a cohesive story, I need to plot. I need to have a sense of where I’m going so that I can reel my characters back in and push them in the right direction. Plotting is what gives my characters their drives and purposes, and it ties together all the foreshadowing, easter eggs, histories, connections…

Especially considering my current project, Serafima’s Stone, runs concurrent to Grigory’s Gadget, I can’t have my characters cutting loose and running rampant. Some events are already set in stone. They’re like fixed points in time a la Doctor Who. I can’t change them, and I certainly can’t ignore them. I need to incorporate them, and the best way I know how is to outline, outline, OUTLINE!

And so, now that July has come to an end, I have opened up my Scrivener file and begun getting those characters in line!

Indie Author Day!

I recently heard about a new event coming up this fall: Indie Author Day. From their website:

During the Inaugural Indie Author Day on October 8, 2016, libraries from all across North America will host their own local author events with the support of the Indie Author Day team. In addition to these local programs, each library’s indie community will come together for an hour-long digital gathering at 2 pm Eastern featuring Q&A with writers, agents and other industry leaders. Don’t miss out on this fantastic opportunity for libraries and authors to connect on both local and global levels!

I think this is a fantastic idea! I love the idea of indie authors and libraries boosting each other up. The book industry can be a pretty crazy place, and we all need to support each other.

I’m hoping to help organize a local event here in Buffalo. Curious to see if your library is hosting an event? You can find the list of participating libraries on the website. You can also reach out to the event organizers to try to get your library involved if you don’t already see it on the list.