OMG. I am finished plotting East of Yesterday. It has all the tragedy I envisioned, with an unexpected secret society, and conclaves that last an entire year. Lots of fun criss-crossing of time. Now, to write. I have no excuses now. New goal: finish first draft by the end of February. That is 10,000 words a month. I can do this.
I’ve always been more of a panster than a plotter. I just thought I was stuck with that mode in my brain. And it has caused me quite a bit of grief–I have thousands and thousands of words worth of broken plots, stories that went nowhere, and plot twists that have spun into convoluted knots.
I should have known that visual plotting would be my breakthrough.
I decided to try to sort out all the time-traveling in my story by laying the whole thing out in a Visio diagram. I am a business analyst, so flowcharts come quite naturally to me.
Check it out. Click to enbiggen.
This is only a portion of a Visio that is now four pages wide. Four portrait-style pages, because I need the vertical length. Each swimline–the vertical boxes–represents a decade. The bubbles are laid out in chronological order, as they would occur in real time. The lines going every which-way represents four groups of time-travelers as they criss-cross the decades (and each other).
With this plotting style, I have come up with two of the three plotlines that I need to finish up for this book, and I am working on finishing up the third.
Now I just need to quit drawing lines and resume writing some words. 60,000 words down, 40,000 words to go!
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone write about this, but I thought I’d post about part of my manuscript clean-up process, where I go over the manuscript for visual appeal.
I mentioned this a while back in a post on my Manuscript Clean-Up Process. Here’s the relevant entry:
Skim for pacing. Page through the story by scrolling it with your mouse wheel. If one scene requires notably more srolls than the others, take a closer look. Same goes for short scenes. You might even want to zoom way out on your MS so you can just take in the scene lengths without getting distracted by the words. (Set your zoom to 10% and you’ll see what I mean.)
For this post, I thought I’d go into a bit more detail. Because not only do I skim for pacing as I write, I am actually trying to make the document physically attractive. Why? Because attractive documents are easier to read.
I had to explain this to a co-worker this week in my job as a business analyst. The best documents are easy to read not only because of good grammar and style, but because of an attractive layout. This is extremely important in nonfiction, and is often overlooked–and even scorned.
But it is important in fiction as well. Let me show you what I mean. Here is an example of an attractive document, zoomed far out so you won’t be distracted by the words.
But what about passages of description and introspection? Here’s one such page:
I could have written this out as one long paragraph, but I didn’t. I am trying to prevent my reader from becoming daunted by long paragraph after long paragraph. Check out some of the newer books on your bookshelf and you’ll probably find a mix of paragraph lengths, like the above. But look for something that was published a while ago–in the 80s or so. You’ll see they look very different.
I noticed this when I was trying to get my daughter into reading The Princess Bride. If you’ve only seen the movie, you should read the book because it is also a treat, with lots of stuff (lots and lots) that didn’t make it into the movie.
The author tended to go off on wild tangents for line after line after line. Thank God my daughter already read Anne of Green Gables, and was therefore used to dialog where one character essentially rambles a speech at another. Because there is an awful lot of rambling in The Princess Bride. I honestly question whether in today’s world, it would have found a publisher, or if the author would have been forced to either revise, or self-publish.
In fact, I was doing what the grandfather did in the movie. I was showing her where to find the good parts. Basically, she needs to look for the wavy parts, and skip the blocks.
Go even further back in history, and you’ll find some of the classics had immensely long paragraphs. Dickens seemed to love long paragraphs, but not Jane Austen. I don’t remember the paragraph lengths in The Three Musketeers, so they must not have been excessive, but I recall one chapter in The Hunchback of Notre Dame that went on for pages and pages. It was the chapter that described the city of Paris, and I think it took 35 pages altogether, without very many paragraph breaks.
Ugh. That was a slog.
Some of that may have been printing decisions to save space. We don’t have that need nowadays, and anyway, we usually can’t get away with it.
Check out some of your favorite books and look at them from a distance. Are they wavy or blocky? If you’re a writer, how about your own manuscript? Or do you think we should even care?
I belong to the First Coast Romance Writers. Nominally. I am a terrible member. I go to meetings maybe twice a year, plus the annual Christmas party. I don’t run for any offices, and I never volunteer for anything. I was once participating in the online group, but I’ll have to reintroduce myself over there because it’s been so long since I’ve even read one post.
This is a top-notch group. We have a SLEW of published authors, and we regularly fly in speakers from all over the place. We have at least seven Golden Heart winners. Just take a look at the list of published authors. My non-participation is my own fault.
(I have similarly neglected HereBeMagic, RomVets, the Carina Press group and the RWA PRO group. I have not visited ANY of them all summer, even though they are all active and interesting groups.)
To participate in my own small way, I agreed to be a contest judge for their Unpublished Beacon contest. And it inspired me write about a little-understood and widely-abused part of speech: the gerund, and why writers should shun them.
Why did it inspire me? Because I saw an excessive amount of gerunds in almost all of the entries I read.
First, a definition: according to the OWL:
- A gerund is “a verbal that ends in -ing and functions as a noun”. I call it a verb that has been demoted to a noun.
They are not to be confused with present-tense verb forms, like “I am running.”
Why are they bad? Well, they aren’t bad. But they are passive. You are taking a perfectly good verb and destroying it. As writers, we need to be active. Consider the following gerund-loaded paragraph.
Fighting always made Hrogar feel inadequate. What he did best was singing. His father was always shouting at him for practicing his scales. But the last thing he wanted to do was sword slinging.
Sorry it was such a convoluted example. I don’t usually write this way.
So what is wrong with the above paragraph? It is bland. There is no life in it. No one is doing anything.
How would I normally write it? Completely different, like this:
Hrogar hated the feel of a sword in his hand. He could never quite grip it properly. He wished his father could accept that all he really wanted to do was sing. After all, even Vikings needed skalds.
When you make yourself avoid gerunds (and passive voice, participles, adverbs and adjectives) all that is left are verbs. It forces you to rethink your sentences, and what is left is so much stronger.
I challenge you to take a chapter of your work and make it gerund-free. Let us know how you did!
As I write this, the clouds are gathering for another Florida afternoon thundershower. When I was a girl, this was a common thing and we drove our parents crazy all summer long while the five us us were cooped up in the house. My father called it afternoon thundershower season. Those afternoons would last f o r e v e r.
For the last few years, we didn’t have thundershowers like this one. But now they are back, and back, and back again.
The benefit is they keep the atmosphere cooler. This summer, we have had very few days above 95 degrees. Or at least it seems that way because by the time the late afternoon comes around, it is 85 degrees and the humidity from the thundershower is blowing away. Our grass is the greenest it has ever been. Our shrubs are perfect.
Inside the house, it is dark, and the fans are blowing. we hear a faint rumble from time to time because the heart of the thunderstorm is rarely overhead.
Now that I have the Jeep, I just want to be outdoors. And the weather refuses to cooperate.
I just finished Brandon Sanderson’s The Alloy of Law. I’ll try to review it next week; this week I’ll be taking a few days off so my mom does not have to be alone while she recovers from hip replacement surgery. Fortunately, there are a lot of us, and most of us are able to pitch in a vacation day or two. My turn is at the end of the week.
Writing update! Kind of.
I am currently in thinking mode about how to best rewrite a scene toward the end of Magic by Starlight. It is one of those scenes that I need to remove and replace, while keeping some critical outcomes. In the meantime, I have some other things I could be working on, including East of Yesterday, an Accidental Enchantments story, a Petroleum Sunset story, or one of my backburnered projects. But I confess, I am not.
Instead, I’ve been playing Skyrim.
Bad writer. Bad!
But Skyrim is so fun! My character is 16th level now, and I am now able to fight a dragon without passing the remote over to my husband. I like the idea of being able to earn Thaneships and having houses in every city. (Of course in Morrowind, I had houses in every city as well, but that was because I took over the houses after killing the evil occupant as part of some quest. They closed that loophole in Skyrim.) I’m not so keen on the idea of taking a side in a civil war that my character has no real stake in. So far, I’ve avoided doing so.
But it’s a dreadful time-suck, and I have tried not to let it take up too much of my time. I have not played it today. (But I did watch my husband play.) As soon as I finish this post, I’ll fire up the manuscript and see if I can get in a few hundred words. I promise.
After all, the weather isn’t much good for anything else today.
For many years now, I have used Word’s Navigation Pane, once known as the Document Map, as a plotting tool. You can use it to create an outline of your story’s structure, like this:
Once you have all your scenes set up this way, then writing the book is just like filling in the blanks! Well…it is almost that easy.
What is the Navigation Pane? It is a map of your document. You can bring up the Navigation Pane up by clicking the View ribbon across the top of the Word window, and in the second group from the left (called “Show”), click Navigation Pane.
I previously wrote about this subject in a post on my old writing blog called The Magical Document Map. If you still use Word 2003, follow those instructions instead.
To set this up, you first have to get to know Word Styles. And to do so, you need to check out the Styles section of the Home ribbon. This is the way it looks by default.
Therefore, right-click “Heading 1”.
- Name: Chapter (or whatever you want for your top-level style)
- Style based on: Normal
- Style for following paragraph: Normal
- Font: Times New Roman
- Size: 12
- Unclick bold
If you want your chapter headings centered, be sure to select that option as well.
The bottom half is a bit more involved.
For standard manuscript format, select all the options above. The only thing I had to change was Spacing Before to 0 and Line Spacing to Double. I still find it easier to read double-spaced manuscripts, but change to Single if preferred.
Take note of the Outline Level. You’ll be changing these for your other styles below.
Click OK and that’s it. You’ve done the hard part. The other styles are just variations on this one. Here they are:
Scene – each chapter is made of one or more scenes, so this should be your next level. It is very helpful to name your scenes even if you don’t keep them in your final copy. I almost never do. Sometimes, I keep chapter names, as I did for The Sevenfold Spell. In that case, the chapter name was at the second level.
- Style Based On: Heading 1
- Paragraph Style | Outline Level: 2
POV – If your book has multiple points-of-view, this is most useful under Scene. This is because POV breaks are more likely to occur within scenes.
- Style Based On: Heading 2
- Paragraph Style | Outline Level: 3
ToDo – these can be anywhere, so I have them at the lowest outline level. It is perfectly OK if it appears directly under a chapter, or any other heading.
- Style Based On: Heading 2
- Font Style: Italics (or whatever you want to make them stand out)
- Paragraph Style | Outline Level: 3
I also find it helpful to set up a style for Centered text, and a First Line style for the first line after a chapter break. To create one of these, create a style, click the Paragraph button on the dropdown at the bottom of the Style form, and in the Paragraph form, look for Indentation.
And that’s it. I then get rid of all the other styles by right-clicking them, and then clicking “Remove from Quick Style gallery.” When I’m done, only my special styles appear in the Styles box on the ribbon. Very convenient.
What books have I written this way? Well, almost all of them. I’ve been using some variation of this technique for over ten years, now. Only my very first novel, the trunk novel that pre-dated the existence of the Document Map in Word, was written without it. Back then, going back through the manuscript to look for a scene that needed to change was unbelievably laborious and time-consuming. Using Word styles in this way has been tremendously helpful.
What do you think? Want to give it a try? If you have any questions, just leave them in the comments, or email me at tia (at) tianevitt (dot) com.
I am sprinting to the finish line for my Austenpunk fantasy, Magic by Starlight. As I tie up plot threads, I am also working on my query. In addition to sending this out to agents, I want to put it on this site in a “Forthcoming” section, so I need to be sure it is as good as possible.
This is just over 200 words.
Tory joins the Intelligence Ministry intending to put to legitimate use the starcasting powers that make her an excellent burglar. When she is expected to work as a femme instead, she thinks someone in authority is in need of spectacles. However, Cecil, bastard son of a lord and the Ministry’s most disreputable spy, thinks that one of the Ministry directors has it in for the lovely Miss Lawrence. And after eavesdropping on speaking tubes and listening at air vents, he knows he is right.
Tory does not realize that an old family indiscretion has made her vulnerable to mischief. When enemies spies try to steal a package that she is entrusted to deliver, she is grateful when Cecil materializes out of the darkness to help. They manage to retain the package, but when they trace the spies back to the Ministry itself, they learn that Tory has been framed for its theft. And the family secret only makes her look guiltier.
The parcel contains a component for a suncasting device that can increase the power of any starcaster a thousandfold. Now, spies both foreign and domestic want the component and Tory is dodging villains like ladies evade louts at a ball. Equipped with a black powder pistol, lockpicks, and a few quick disguises, Tory must decide whom she can trust–and the wrong decision could end with her and Cecil dangling from matching gibbets.
… With as Little Downstory Impact as Possible
When I say I am a business analyst, people think is the most boring job ever. Probably the antithesis to being a writer, they imagine, is the unimaginative, dull position of business analyst. Not true. It requires a great deal of out-of the-box thinking, and problem and solution analysis.
I caught myself doing this type of analysis when I was rewriting some major scenes in Magic by Starlight over the last few weeks. I took notes on my process so I could share them with you. I used this technique on at least three major scenes in Magic by Starlight, and I have one more to go.
Step 1 – Write a Problem Statement.
A problem statement is one brief sentence that, in software development, is worth millions of dollars.
It is just as crucial for your story.
You have to find the moment that the scene goes wrong before you can think of your solution. You have to find your problem. This is known as problem analysis. Discovering the problem is often a challenge. Sometimes you think you know what the problem is, but you really don’t. In software development, it is crucial to develop the right solution to the right problem. Otherwise you waste a shocking amount of money.
Here’s my problem statement:
Problem: Tory being left alone so she can be kidnapped by Ozelle is a TSTL moment that exists only for author convenience.
The dreaded Too Stupid to Live moment. It had to be eradicated.
To find the root problem, keep asking why?! until the answer produces no more whys. This technique is called the Five Whys, although there does not have to be five. The result can be brutal, as mine is, so prepare yourself. I’ll try to recreate my line of thinking.
- Hmm. I don’t like the way Julian and Tory look, leaving Tory alone like that. They both knew Ozelle was in the area.
- Question: Why does Julian leave Tory alone?
- Response: Because he has to take the mysterious missive to the Silver Corps to be decrypted.
- Question: Does he really have to leave her alone in order to do that?
- Response: Yes.
- Why? Because I needed him to do so in order for Ozelle to kidnap Tory.
- But why did Julian have to leave?
- Because it was convenient to the author. (Ouch!)
And the answers to your five whys many lead you to a problem you didn’t expect.
Step Two – Identify the outcomes you need to keep.
This was a major scene upon which a great many subsequent scenes depended. Therefore, I had to find all the outcomes that I needed to preserve in order to not have to rewrite the entire book from this point forward.
Therefore I reread the scene previous to this one, then this scene, and then the followup scenes. Next, I did a little analysis in order to strip the scene down to only the outcomes I needed. These were my desired outcomes:
- Intercept and retrieve missive, preferably delivered by Miss Henry so subsequent scenes with her make sense
- Ozelle trying to steal missive from Miss Henry; Julian and Tory stopping him
- List of people coming and going from The Foxhunter’s Rest, compiled by Crowley
- Tory grabbed by Ozelle
Step Three – Identify the outcomes you’d like to add.
- Strengthen or replace weak scene remnant
- Grow Tory and Crowley’s relationship (a goal for every scene in which they appear together)
- Opportunity to make Ozelle more menacing
Step Four – Identify the outcomes you like to get rid of.
I really only had one.
- Tory kidnapped because TSTL
Step Five – Brainstorm a replacement scene.
You now need to write a scene that has all of your desired outcomes and none of your negatives. When I brainstormed this scene, I used a simple outline. I used the KISS principle and I thought a lot about the scene during several commutes until I knew how I wanted the scene to go. Then I wrote it. It went quite well.
Were there mistakes made by the characters? Yes. But they are small mistakes that add up to one big one. Not one big groaner that will leave the reader slapping their forehead and possibly casting my book aside in disgust.
Step Six – Adjust subsequent scenes.
You cannot remove and replace an entire scene without some kind of adjustment to the subsequent scenes. While the new scene is fresh in your mind, read the scenes that are most impacted by the replaced scene, and make any necessary adjustments.
When I wrote my Six Paragraph Synopsis Method, someone left a comment saying that they recognized it as basic business analysis, so this job has come in handy to my writer self more than once!
Step Seven – Final Polish
Do yourself a favor. Do all of the above for each troublesome scene before you start your final polish. You do not want to be rewriting major scenes without a final polish to capture any inconsistencies. So plan any scene rewrites before you get to this step in your manuscript clean-up process.
You may or may not know that I was in the Air Force, way back in the day. As evidence, here is a picture of me and my jet. I was a Crew Chief, which meant I took care of all the maintenance for this particular jet. Click to enlarge.
Crew Chiefs were also known as grease-monkeys and tire-kickers. And yes, I could use a grease gun. But kicking tires was not of much use. Kicking chocks out of the way of tires–well, I did that all the time. Maybe that action is where that nickname came from.
I have not written many stories that leverage my military background, although I have started quite a few. Most of them are science-fictiony, including one that takes place on an orbital flightdeck. Like most of my early stories, it suffered from a lack of plot.
But Magic by Starlight ended up drawing from my military background more than I expected. The ways are subtle, but they are there. Here are a few teasers
The Chain of Command
Woe be unto the airman (or soldier, or marine, or seaman) who frivolously violates the chain of command. The same sort of structure is in place in civilian jobs as well, but it has a special authority all its own in the military. If you attempt to go outside your chain of command, have a damned good reason. If there is a legitimate problem, it should be taken care of quickly.
I did exercise my chain of command rights once while in the Air Force, when my reporting official asked me out in front of the entire flight. And I turned him down in front of the entire flight with a flat no. I was furious. As soon as he went out the door, undoubtedly humiliated, I went straight to the master sergeant’s office and told him what happened. I had a new reporting official the next day.
I have never exercised my chain of command rights as a civilian. Why? I do not feel as well-protected. So while the chain of command has a fearsome reputation in the military, in my case, it worked well and I trusted it.
Tory trusts her own chain of command, but her case is not as straightforward as mine was. She has to gather evidence before she is ready to Face the Man.
The military loves chits. A chit is a disk of brass stamped with some bit of information. We used chits to check out tools. You would have a set of chits that belonged to you, each inscribed with a number. When you checked out a tool from the tool crib, you left one of your chits. You got the chit back when you returned the tool. I had a little snap-ring with 20 chits dangling from my uniform at all times while on the flightline.
In Magic by Starlight, there are two kinds of chits, identity chits and requisition chits.
Identity chits are dog tags. Since this is a pre-photography era, I made them big enough to put in a slide projector, and there is the bearer’s silhouette punched out of the middle of it. All around the silhouette is the bearer’s name, government agency, height, weight, hair and eye color, and identifying marks. All government agents have one, including police, intelligence, and the military.
Requisition chits are given to trusted agents, who, in turn, give them to trusted contacts who have been helpful and are owed some recompense. It identifies the bearer as someone who is owed a favor. Needless to say, they are rarely given out, and highly prized when they are, until redeemed.
Click to enlarge. This is the job board from my old military flight shack. You can’t see all the details, and most of them are irrelevant here. But in the messages area, we would scrawl where we were with a grease pencil, if we had to leave the flight shack.
In Magic by Starlight, there is a location board with everyone’s name (as the job board has here), with checkmarks for places like “home”, other agency headquarters, and a fill-in-the-blank area.
Although my spies wear civilian garb, they are in kind of a military culture. They address each other by their last name, which Regency men did anyway, but Regency women certainly did not. Social titles are rare. There is a casual intimacy between men and women that has nothing to do with sex — more like a band of brothers sort of thing that is hard to explain. There is competition between different agencies. And there are books or regulations with green cloth covers.
I would not classify this novel as military fantasy by any means, but I certainly had a lot of fun drawing little details out of my prior military life and weaving them into the story.
I have been heads-down in some very intense revisions on Magic by Starlight, and so I seem to be reverting to a once-a-week blog schedule. I love blogging, but demands on my time have been very intense lately, and the time I do have to myself is not entirely to myself, so during the time I have left, I work on my revisions.
Piece of advice: be very careful about brushing off a work you wrote long ago.
The quality of my writing has changed since then. I would rush through scenes, and it wasn’t always clear that I had a goal for such scenes. The discards file is of epic length. And now I am considering converting the entire thing to third person in order to give two male characters a point-of-view. And I know myself. When I am considering doing something like this, I usually end up doing it.
If it weren’t for the fact that I loved this story, and that it had rave reviews by my beta partners, I would be working on East of Yesterday. Heck, I probably should be working on East of Yesterday. But much as I love East of Yesterday, my heart is in fantasy and I would like to find success there first.
This is a fantasy with romantic elements that I am trying to keep light. Most fantasies have romantic subplots, and I think they are enhanced when they do. However, some romantic elements are barely there, and some are more romance than fantasy. It depends on whether you would characterize the romantic plot as on equal billing or greater as the main plot.
For Magic by Starlight, I would characterize it as the prominent subplot, but it is definitely not on equal billing as the main plot. I am reading a romance right now in order to figure out where my story stands, and I definitely do not have my characters practically buzz and thrum in each other’s presences, so I think I am safely in the romantic elements category.
With that, I’d better get ready to go to work. I have two reviews I am working on, and when I get a good draft of my query together, I’ll post it for your feedback. So I have a few posts brewing, but they are on a low simmer.
What have you been up to? Got anything exciting going on?