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….


Indie Author Day Update!

Next Saturday, October 8th, is the inaugural Indie Author Day! During the Inaugural Indie Author Day, 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.

I will be vending at the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library Downtown Central Location that day from 10am to 3pm. In addition, I’ll be giving a presentation on the self-publishing process titled “Taking Publishing Into Your Own Hands”!

If you’re in the Buffalo area, come by and say hi! If you’re anywhere else, find out if your local library is holding their own Indie Author Day event! Go forth and support your local library and authors!

Music That Influenced My Novel: Grigory’s Gadget

Music has a place in pretty much every aspect of my life. I listen to music in the car, I often listen to music at work, I’m a dancer…even if I’m not actively listening to music, I’m probably singing along to something-or-other in my head. I also frequently experience musical frisson – that rush of chills you get when music gets AWESOME.

So, of course, music has a place in my writing as well.

I touched on this topic a bit back in December, but that was before Grigory’s Gadget was published, so I wanted to revisit it.

The music I listen to while actively writing is often instrumental. If there are words to a song, I’ll just wind up listening to those words instead of my story’s. Usually this music consists of soundtracks. While writing Grigory’s Gadget, I tended to listen to the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtracks, along with a little Lord of the Rings,Game of Thrones, and Lindsey Stirling.

Along the way, I also discovered a new favorite genre of music: electro-swing! This genre takes jazz and swing songs and remixes them. This blend of old and new fits wonderfully with steampunk! My favorite album was Jazz Goes Steampunk! Electro Swing Invasion. It does break my rule about instrumental-only music while writing, but it didn’t seem to be too much of a problem. Now, if we want to be technical, the fact that most of these songs are from the 1930s would suggest they’re more appropriate for dieselpunk, not steampunk. Grigory’s Gadget already blurs those lines, what with all the communist and fascist dystopian undertones, so I still consider it appropriate!

SPOILERS AHEAD! You’ve been warned!

Grigory’s Gadget was also influenced by music when I wasn’t actively writing. Songs I hear on the radio often influence plot or characterization. For example, the song “From Finner” by Of Monsters and Men helped set the tone of the story. The chorus of the song –

We are far, far from home, but we’re so happy;
Far from home, all alone, but we’re so happy

– became a sort of mantra for my characters. The juxtaposition of the forboding sound of the song with the smattering of hopeful lyrics set the tone as well.

The song “Gangway” by Guster influenced Anya’s characterization: she’s energized by being at sea, and quickly took a liking to being a pirate.

If I could make a wish, if I could right a wrong,
If I could plot a twist we wouldn’t be here long,
I’d lean in to each turn, seeking evermotion.
Soon, the walls, the house, the sky starts shaking,
The clouds, the land, the sea,

By far the most influential song I listened to while writing Grigory’s Gadget was “Hero” by Family of the Year. This song actually caused me to make some characterization adjustments and major changes to the climax of the story. Namely, this is the song that led to Demyan being killed.

Let me go
I don’t wanna be your hero
I don’t wanna be a big man
Just wanna fight with everyone else

This song actually led to my discovery of foreshadowing I hadn’t realized I had planted. At the beginning of the story, the friends play a card game called Durak (Russian translation: fool) and Demyan loses. Throughout the story, Demyan is the one who is the least adaptable to their situation (getting seasick, getting frustrated by their situation, etc.). He also lacks the rebellious streak of his friends, preferring to keep his head down and do as he’s told. He doesn’t want to be a hero.

The original ending of Grigory’s Gadget saw Demyan live, and he felt like a dead weight (pun intended, sorry). I couldn’t put my finger on what the problem was until I heard “Hero”. That song resonated with Demyan’s character so much. Then it clicked: I had been foreshadowing Demyan’s death this entire time! And of course, his death was an act of bravery and heroism: he helped Zoya start to come back to herself at the cost of his own life. He wasn’t a dead weight character anymore. He had done something; he saved the woman he loves and their friends.

Moral of the story – don’t underestimate the power of music! It can be lethal…

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!

How to Tackle Writer’s Block

Writer’s Block is something most writers deal with, in one form or another, and it’s something that’s been plaguing me these past couple months. It can take on many forms, from a lack of motivation or time to paralyzing indecision with regard to where you want your story to go.

The first step to defeating writer’s block? Deciding that you HAVE to write SOMETHING, regardless of the block. The next step, of course, is figuring out how.

I’ve gone over some of my anti-block techniques in my post about winning NaNoWriMo. Here’s what works best for me:

  • Don’t Stop at a “Good Stopping Point” – this is more a technique for preventing writer’s block before it happens. If you stop writing at a “good stopping point” then the next day you have to come up with a new scene or a new direction from scratch. Instead, stop yourself in the middle of a scene, in the middle of action, so that the next day you can start with that momentum.
  • Write Only What You Feel Like Writing – so you’ve stopped writing in the middle of an action scene, and it’s time to pick up writing again today. But maybe you’re just not in the mood for action? Maybe you just want your characters to chat over a cup of tea. Maybe you want to describe the scenery in incredible detail. Maybe you want a character to go on a wild rant about dragons or krakens or medieval politics. DO IT! If you’re stuck on what you think you *need* to write that day, move on to something else. That action scene will still be there later, and that conversation over tea might turn into a central plot point.
  • Don’t Be Afraid to Write Multiple Versions – if you’re at a crossroads and not sure which direction your story should take, feel free to experiment. Just choose a direction and go. Maybe you’ll wind up at a dead-end. Who cares? Discovering what doesn’t work for your story can be just as valuable as figuring out what does. Give yourself permission to make mistakes and backtrack until your story feels right.
  • Unleash A Little Chaos – sometimes it’s easy to get caught-up in the outline of our story (if you’re a planner) and we end up feeling caged-in. The creative juices just stop flowing. In this case, throw in something crazy that your characters have to react to. Trap them in a horrible storm, attack them in a dark alley, have someone fall horribly ill. I know, authors can be real monsters sometimes.
  • Alternatively, Outline Your Story – if you’re a pantser, sometimes it may help to make an outline for a change. Know you don’t have to stick to that outline, but it can help organize your thoughts so you can figure out where you want your story to go.

What tactics do you use to beat writer’s block?

Struggling With Fantasy Names

Genres like Fantasy and Science Fiction are notorious for having unusual names. Character and place names help set the tone and the setting of a story. The Lord of the Rings would read a little differently if it told a tale about Bob and Rick rather than Frodo and Samwise.

So we speculative fiction authors do (and should, in my opinion) use or create names the readers may not hear in their every day lives. But how do you know if a fantasy name is too complicated?

I generally don’t struggle with fantasy names, and as a result have a hard time figuring out when a name might be difficult for a reader. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Watervliet (pronounced WAH-ter-vuh-LEET) in New York, near other places with Dutch and Haudenosaunee names like Rensselaer (depending on who you ask, pronounced either RENS-slur or REN-suh-LEER), Schenectady (ska-NEK-tah-dee), and Niskayuna (NIH-skah-YOO-nah); or perhaps it’s because throughout my life I’ve known people with non-Western names.

So, how can a writer determine if a reader will be able (or at least willing to try) to pronounce a character or place name? One place to start is to use (or create) names that follow the conventions of the language you’re writing in. If that language is English, for example, readers may have trouble with Gaelic names. While both languages technically use the same alphabet, they read letters and letter combinations very differently. Therefore, an English-speaking reader may see the name Caoimhe and try to pronounce it as “Cow-EE-meh” or some variant, when the actual pronunciation is “KWEE-vah”.

Beta readers are a valuable resource for this issue as well. If your betas all come back complaining about the same name, it may be worth reexamining that name to see if it could or should be tweaked.

In my Gaslight Frontier Series, I’ve given my characters Russian or other Slavic names, and based place names on Russian words. Russian uses a different alphabet than English, so some trouble lies with transliteration. For example, the name Alexi could also be written as Alexei, Aleksi, Aleksei, etc. I chose to spell it as Alexi because it was the simplest transliteration.

Some names, though, still give some of my readers trouble. As the author, you have to decide if that will be something you accept or something you change. Only you can make that final determination.