Spring cleaning, writer-style

Run AWAY quoteSpringtime!? It’s almost here. In my office it’s a time to regroup, plan, and finish up projects. As I wrap up The Girl in the Empty Dress and before I start my next novel I want to share a little of my writing process for other writers.

This book took me less time to write than most of my other novels in recent memory. (I have written a good handful that have never seen the light of day, including that one where I tried to write ten pages a day. What a mess that one was.) Anyway, I got organized this time. Experience with the process is a big help of course. Every time I write a novel I learn a little more about what works and what doesn’t. I can more swiftly recognize when I’m off track or something is just plain boring. More often I write something off-base that is GORGEOUS and HEARTWRENCHING. That doesn’t mean it makes the cut. Usually the opposite.

This time I uScreen Shot 2014-03-28 at 10.13.53 AMsed two tricks. The first is a software program called Scrivener. You may have heard of it or used it yourself. I know I’ve tried to use it before. It looks like this, an on-screen bulletin board with index cards for chapters, files for characters and settings on the left, and so on. So far, so good, right? I’m pretty visual and looking at it on the computer screen, being able to quickly shift back and forth between outline and manuscript is helpful.

I admit, I am a pantser. In the past I have written rough outlines of novels and mostly knew how they were going to start and how they were going to end. The middle? The dark, murky unknown. But guess what? It’s harder that way. One of the problems that comes up is the sudden appearance of a new character, small or large. What is their name? What do they look like? What is their agenda? (Every character has an agenda.) Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 10.19.06 AM

Scrivener helps you by getting you to think about these characters, name them ahead of time, or at the very least describe them. Here is a sheet I did called “Bad Guys and Secondaries.”

Okay, so I’m getting organized, thinking about all the possible characters, how they interact, what they want. But how is this helping with the plot? In a crime novel especially the plot matters. It matters as much as the characters. Well, almost as much. In some thrillers the plot matters more than the characters. Plotting and structure is the first big hurdle for most beginning writers.

My second trick: using a Scrivener template. Yes, they are out there, templates that use the program but overlay it with story structures based on certain authors or genres. My template is from one of my favorite writing books, Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering. His website, StoryFix.com, is also a wealth of information.

Someone else has developed a Scrivener template based on his Beat Sheet. (Here are a number of useful Scrivener Templates.) I do recommend reading the book first but in case you want to jump in with both hands on the keyboard, here’s the short version. Beats are where the story changes, similar to plot points. There are small beats and large beats. The basic structure is shown in the first screen shot: Set up, Response, Attack, Resolution.

Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 10.18.11 AM

Seems simple, right? Well, structure looks simple from the outside but putting it into practice, making your story work the most effective way it can, is both simple and incredibly nuanced. And, just like the old plot outlining you may have done, things go awry. Those chapters you stuck in for part three because you really had no idea how things were going to go? They get changed. Many scenes changed and clarified for me as I went along. That’s called creative writing. But because I knew how much time I had until the next Story Beat, what needed to happen before that Beat, I stayed on track. That’s what these tools do for you. They don’t tell you how to write your book, they make it easier to see your goals, what your story needs to do and when it needs to do it.

Here’s how my Attack section, part three, looked when I finished. The Attack section, a reaction to the problems set forth in the first two sections, is full of short, punchy chapters, lots of action, comings and goings. The board reflects this with all 14 cards full. In other sections I didn’t have 14 chapters that Scrivener gives you (you can add more.)

There are all sorts of writing tools that help you outline and organize. Finding one that works for you can be a struggle. But after using Scrivener and the template this time, I think I’ve found a winner. But who knows. Maybe I’ll reinvent myself for the next book. (Oof. What a thought!) No, I think I’ve got a system now. Time to get going on the next book!

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