Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Software and tools for planning a first draft: colored pencils, Scrivener, and more

Last week before NaNoWriMo begins. Everyone excited?

I wanted to run through some of my favorite tools for writing, in relation to planning for a first draft. Please share your favorites as well.

This year my planning has made the most use of Scrivener and Snowflake Pro, as well as the trusty ol' mix of pens, pencils, colored pencils, portable notebooks, lined paper and graph paper. I also enjoy using the timer of Write or Die 2, the word trackers from Svenja Gosen, and keeping notes and copies of documents on Google Drive and Evernote.

(1) Pens, Pencils, Portable Notebook, Lined and Graph Paper

This goes first, as it's the most important in my opinion. The screen is great and all but it can be draining. When I find myself gazing aimlessly, the screen can be part of the problem. So I stop, look away, take out pen and paper, and use that to write.

For my planning, I use a lot of graph paper to chart character and plot movements, and maps of locations, events, ideas, recurring elements, and so on. Colored pencils are great for this. I usually take 3-5 elements I'm interested in following in relation to a particular character or plot and chart them, before writing out summaries or further details that push my story into exciting territory.

I use lined paper and jot out the endless stream of ideas that is hard to record. If you're not getting a stream of ideas, try tapping into the areas of the story that excite you and explore those from different angles. Or try tapping into areas you don't think will excite you, and see if there's something you missed there - you never know. Tap in through freewriting, categorizing, visualizing while engaged in some physical activity, doodling, listing, interviewing, concrete poetry.

Another trick, take out several books you think might inspire you with the current project. Last night, I took out Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Alexievich's Voices From Chernobyl, Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Palahniuk's Invisible Monsters, Kiernan's Threshold, and Winterson's The Daylight Gate. Most of these are books in the 1st-person like the novel I'm about to start and with a theme or character background relevant to my current project. I then engrossed myself in a section from each. As I read, I marked passages I would need to revisit with sticky notes. I kept my handy black moleskin-style notebook nearby to jot out any ideas that came. And they came quickly. I had several pages of notes on character background, not copied from the books, but inspired by however the people in those books were discussing their problems. It can be one of the best ways to get inspiration. You just need to make sure you copy those notes to a relevant folder later on so that you can use those notes when needed. Or at the next opportunity, incorporate the notes directly into the file on whatever plot, place, character you were writing in relation to.

The portable notebook is a must. This allows me to continue writing, or at least gearing up to write, while out of the house, at work or wherever. If I could rid myself of the day job, I would, but it's important to not let a day job ruin what you really want to be working on, at least if you want to succeed, and by succeed, I mean continue writing deeper and to completion. So, take as many tiny breaks as you can to take note of useful ideas, to expand on planning, or to visualize scenes. Visualizing a scene is the perfect way to make your next writing session productive, and it's fine to do all the visualizing in your head without pen or paper, but I find it beneficial to take written on during or after visualization, as a lot can happen in life before you reach that writing session, and you don't want to lose that time spent visualizing.

(2) Scrivener. This is of course super popular, so I'll try to spare you too much praising. It allows me to keep everything together and easily found. It also makes it easy for me to line up my chapters and scenes with summaries and notes visible, then proceed to quickly reorganize them into a more suitable order. I usually spend a great deal of time planning with pen and pencil, lined paper and graph paper, jotting out notes on everything, making charts of the plot and character movements I forecast as most suitable to the story, making maps and free writes on world-building aspects. After that, I'll translate it all to Scrivener to make sure it's clear and easily found again.

So in my Scrivener this year, I have the manuscript folder with 4 Act folders divided into chapters based on character POVs, and each chapter folder is divided into 1-6 scene documents with quick descriptors and scene summaries. Below the manuscript folder, I have a daily targets folder with 30 documents set up with word goals for each day of November (currently it's 2000 per day on weekdays and 4000 per day on weekends - I'll start high and adjust it over the course of the month, if it's not working for me; if I miss a day, I'll make up for it by adjusting goals for future days, so no need to stress about it).

Next I have Characters and Places folders with one list of all of them for a quick look, then documents for each one with more detail. For my Places folder this year, I also included a signboards document, so that I can track the language used in a specific recurring element placed throughout the novel's story. It wouldn't be a bad idea to have a separate Objects folder to track such things. You can of course use keywords, tags, and whatnot, in Scrivener, which I have and will continue to use, but overall I prefer making a single document devoted to a specific type of elements and listing them all together for quick access. I spend enough time with search engines, that I'd prefer to minimize the time applying search engines to my own stories.

Following that, I have the Plotting folder with documents specific to beats that must happen, themes/mysteries to dig into, scene summaries, one-sentence story line, one-paragraph summary, one-page short synopsis, and an old story summaries for those ideas I dropped but might reuse in some way. I also have folder for Ideas (brainstorming), Change Log (anything I need to remember to go back and change after finishing the current draft), Older Drafts/Scenes (this makes it much smoother when cutting - you don't have to feel bad about losing that scene you love when it's still sitting in this folder), Related Readings (mostly to list readings that inspire the voice of specific characters in the story), Related Music, Research, Other, Templates, and Publishing.

(3) Snowflake Pro. You don't need this software. You honestly don't need any software. But it is worth using the snowflake method to some extent. I dig the approach of starting simple and building on it until you have your unique cold and gritty, refreshing and wet snowflake. As for the actual software, the lecture notes and examples are nice, the character charts to the point, and the functionality tying scene lists to the other character and plotting steps is a welcome touch. Still, you can do it all within Scrivener, so read up on the method and see if there's anything you can incorporate into your current writing approach.

(4) Write or Die 2. I definitely use this a lot, though not for every writing session. It was a godsend when I was writing all my scene summaries. I use the timer in reward mode, so I hear tibetan bowls when I hit 500 words. It's nice to have a writing area focused only on the specific thing you are writing. It's also nice to have a way to quickly adjust the word count goal and time limit of writing sessions. Perfect for  fitting in daily sessions in a life that's packed too full of other responsibilities. I do recommend getting a clear idea of what you will be writing before you start. If you're doing a random journal or freewrite, fine, but otherwise, no. You can write at quality and speed with no issue as long as you know what you'll be writing before you start. Keep that in mind and this is one of the best pieces of writing software out there.

(5) Svenja Gosen's NaNoWriMo Word Tracker Spreadsheets.
I love the work put into these. They include excellent word count and progress functionality and sections for character details and plot points. I just use it for the word tracking, as the rest I stick in my own custom folders in Scrivener, but it's not bad having those other bits in there. Not to mention, notes and examples are included if you need any jogging of the brain on particular elements.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Planned Novel for NaNoWriMo 2015

For NaNo this year, I'll be working on expanding one of my short stories into a novel, tentatively named Hum in the Highways. I've probably come up with my most promising outline for a story yet, so I'm rather excited to start the actual writing soon to see if it pans out. For now, I'm sharing the one-sentence storyline: an escaped convict battles lycanthropy with the aid of a manipulative cyborg poet.

The short story it's based on was a story I submitted to Writers of the Future at the end of September. The story was written in 2014 but set aside while I worked on other stuff - mostly the larger science-fiction novels that I'll be putting on hold. Then I expanded it into a full short story after joining the August writing prompt contest hosted by Eugene Writer's Anonymous. It was a high-tech fairy tale theme for that prompt, but my story insisted on remaining very noir in attitude and significantly post-apocalyptic in terms of tech.

It's definitely another case of me reveling in stories that cross-genres, which is no surprise since those are often the stories I enjoy as a reader. That being said, the story is being placed in the Horror/Supernatural genre as its touchstone. I certainly imagine most fans of this story will be fans of that particular genre. The main characters must repeatedly deal with a few horrific and supernatural elements in their attempts to be at peace with their mistakes and external pressures. Looking forward to sharing more in the future.

The other promising approach and change to writing I'm bringing to NaNo this time, is my writing schedule. I'm typically a night person, but that didn't seem to be entirely true anymore for whatever reasons (mostly likely culprits being having kids and starting a job at a kindergarten), so I decided to up and change my schedule. I now aim to get up at 4:30, start writing at 5 (or 5:30 at the very latest), and get in an hour to an hour half of writing every week day morning. My weekend mornings are similar: wake at 4:30, write from 5 or 5:30 until 9 or 10 am (aiming for about 3 hours). So far this schedule has been a great success and I seem to have a lot more energy than I did before. The word count goals for that schedule are 1500 words per day on weekdays, and 3000 words per day on weekends. And of course, challenges will come up, so I will remain flexible enough to carry on and adapt this as needs be.

That's all for now. Good luck to any other writers out there.


EDIT: sharing a few more details, in the form of a few Qs related to the storyline and a list of the major characters.

Storyline: An escaped convict battles lycanthropy with the aid of a manipulative cyborg poet.

Can they fend off the predators that lurk at the end of their careers? Can they avoid the agents that seek to shove them back in prison? Can they save their love from becoming a manipulative game between monsters?

Probably not.

Sum-up of Major Characters:

Atena Maverick is a leader who loves action and hates authority. She's also a hotel maid, a mechanic, a street fighter, and an ex-convict wanted for assault and murder. As she battles lycanthropy and the voices in her head, she's going to do everything in her power to prevent her relationship with Jewels from falling apart. That's the only good thing in her life after all.

Hervé Bijoux, known as Jewels to Atena, is a sexy, manipulative poet, who managed to crush cancer and stay alive thanks to the miracles of a new cyborg body. As a significant creative and social mover for the biggest corporation around, she does her best to balance caring for her bull-headed girlfriend and managing the on-demand rush of her career.

Madoc Rattigan, or Mute as his friends call him, is the sidekick, pervert, do-gooder, and general fuck-up. As an errand-boy and thief, he skates around the horrors of the city and the desert, barely a step away from another prison cell.

Ronald Weston is the manager of a center for juvenile delinquents and an insistent political power, who Atena despises and distrusts.

Cauthes Ganedin is a witch doctor for a gang roaming the barren deserts of the Highways, who Atena doesn't particularly like either.