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.

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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!

Happy tidy new year

If you’re like me, you’re sweeping up the pine needles and sweeping away the holiday decorations, and getting ready to get back to work. The holidays are so great, a time to re-connect with family and friends, to get together and remember and plan, to play silly games and give the baby raspberries, all while your mind is working on the flaws in your latest manuscript. With their flexible schedules, writers often find the holidays and other vacations as an opportunity for monkey wrenching. The relatives mix up the alone-time, even if you love every single second of it. (Tell me how that works, will ya?)

Then they go home or back to school. Time to get organized for the new year. First and foremost (because it bugs the hell out of my hubby) is that I will spend ten or fifteen minutes every day keeping my desk clean. Confession: I am a messy person. Usually I clean my desk and office when I finish a book. Also, I leave the mail on the kitchen island and catalogues all over the place. I take this messy persona as evidence that I am a creative person, and therefore don’t really care if you can’t find a paper clip or a receipt or the chair in my office.  I embrace my chaotic side but must hit it with a hammer: clean it up! File it! Throw it out! Box it up! Get it out of sight! (Maybe not exactly what my husband wants but it will suffice.)

My office is not always a mess. Here is evidence for a guest blog I recently wrote. Look at that gleaming wood! My downfall, I confess, is piles of stuff: printouts, files, notes, and other detritus. I resist putting things into file folders because I fear I will forget to do something. Hey, it’s happened. And keeping it all in your head is one of the things about being a novelist that makes you … different. You have to keep that entire story going in your head. Not word by word, but the trajectory, the back story, the goal. It’s not easy, and even with outlines, sticky notes, and bulletin boards (cue messy crap) you have to keep it all juggling. A glance at some research you printed out two months ago may trigger something that gives you a new perspective, a new idea for the project in motion. But not if you dutifully filed that printout. Hey, how many of you go through your files?

So happy tidy new year. But keep the chaos going because no matter what your spouse says, a certain amount of mess is what being a writer is all about.