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?

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…

General Update 11/11/2016

A lot has happened in the past week.

Now, I’m not going to go into specific politics here. I’m sure if you spend any time at all on the internet, you’ve seen more than you can stomach, regardless of your political beliefs. I know I have.

I couldn’t muster the focus this week to pick a cohesive topic to blog about. So, this will just be a general update.

As many of you know, I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), the annual challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Right now, I’m on track, and by the end of today should have at least 18,333 words written. Those words are split between two projects. The primary project is Serafima’s Stone – Book 2 of the Gaslight Frontier Series, the sequel to Grigory’s Gadget. The secondary project is my Chapter 1 submission for the Collaborative Writing Challenge Steampunk Project.

NaNoWriMo has been going very well so far this year. I’ve connected with some great local writers by attending “write-ins” at a local Escape Room (seriously, one of the coolest places I could imagine writing in!).

I want to leave you all with something positive and optimistic this week, so I’ve compiled a list of books (and some movies or shows) that emphasize the goodness of humanity and that look to a bright future (or that are simply fluffy and funny).

Books

  • The Harry Potter series
  • The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer
  • Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
  • I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
  • Wings of Renewal: A Solarpunk Dragon Anthology by Claudie Arseneault and Brenda J. Pierson
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

Movies/Shows

  • Basically any Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli movie
  • The Fundamentals of Caring (2016)
  • Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
  • Life in a Day (2011)
  • The Mindy Project
  • How I Met Your Mother (series finale not encouraged 😉 )
  • Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
  • Parks and Recreation

Happy Halloween!

Well, okay, today isn’t Halloween, but since actual Halloween is on a Monday, a lot of people are celebrating today and tomorrow. I’ll be attending a Halloween party tonight with the dance troupe I’m in. We’re dressing up as elves from The Lord of the Rings!

I’ve got some exciting things happening in the next couple of months. First, I’ve revamped (haha, pun intended) my website. It now has a store where you can buy signed copies of Grigory’s Gadget, candles, teas, and Steamship Pirate t-shirts!

I’ve also got some things up my sleeve for the holiday season – sign up for my newsletter to be the first to hear about them! You won’t want to miss out!

In November, I’ve decided to commit to doing National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I actually wrote the first draft of Grigory’s Gadget for NaNoWriMo 2010, and overhauled that draft for NaNoWriMo 2014. Now, I’m going to utilize NaNoWriMo to churn out my first draft of it’s sequel, Serafima’s Stone. I’ll be doing short live videos on my Facebook page every day in November with updates on my progress!

Finally, beginning in December, I’ll be participating in the Collaborative Writing Challenge – Project 7: Steampunk! This challenge will produce a unique steampunk novel written by up to 30 different authors! Each week, four or five writers will submit a chapter of roughly 2000 words, and one will be selected as part of the story, until we get to 30 chapters. I’m very excited to participate in this project!

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!

Camp NaNoWriMo July 2016

So far, so good. As of today, July 8th, I’ve met my word count goal every single day this month!

*loud cheering*

Granted, I made July MUCH easier than I had made April. My daily word count goal is a meager 500 words per day, for a total of 15,500 words by the end of the month. It’s enough writing to keep my story moving forward, and to get me into a solid habit of writing every day. But it’s also far less intimidating than the typical NaNoWriMo goal of 1,667 words per day in November.

If say, you forget about NaNoWriMo until 10pm one night, and then find out that PokemonGO has been released in the US, you can still fit in 500 words before bed! 500 words, a bulbasaur, an eevee, and a weedle.

This is serving as a lesson for me to be realistic about my expectations. Summer is busy – like, REALLY busy. I may not be writing as much as I’d *like* to, but at least I’m writing consistently.

Good luck to any other Campers out there!

Why “Writing” a Book Should Be Called “Editing” a Book

I’ve taken a step back to look at my writing process for Grigory’s Gadget and made a realization: most of the process was not, in fact, pure unadulterated “writing”. Most of the process was editing.

I wrote the first draft of Grigory’s Gadget in 30 days, in November 2010 as my National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) story. I then determined I hated-HATED-it, and didn’t touch it again for 4 years. In November 2014, I overhauled the story into a second draft in another 30 days (NaNoWriMo again).

Depending on how you slice it, that’s between 1 to 2 months of pure, unadulterated writing. The second month is less unadulterated, however, since I was using the first draft as a guide for the second.

In January 2015, I started editing my draft. I edited from January through June 2015 (six months), then sent my manuscript to beta readers for feedback. I received that feedback in late September, and edited again through mid-November (two months). I then sent my manuscript to my professional editor. After receiving that feedback, I’ll finalize my manuscript over the course of approximately one month before moving onto interior and cover design. That’s a total editing time of nine months.

In total, that means I spent approximately 15% of my “writing” time actually writing, and 85% of my time editing.

This is a point I want to highlight, not to scare anyone away from writing, but to actually boost any fellow writers’ confidence. I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to have an amazing, marvelous story from the start. Then we start to find plot holes, inconsistent characters, weak sentences, etc. and we start to doubt ourselves. But that first draft, that rough draft, is not the end product. Through editing, we’re able to reacquaint ourselves with our characters, further explore our world, and polish our story into something great.

I think it’s perfectly normal, even expected, for a writer to hate their story with a burning passion at least once during the writing/editing process. We’re often our own worst critics, but we can use that energy to look at our writing objectively, and to improve upon it.