Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Writing Software

On Sunday afternoon, I continued to struggle with endnotes and color-coordinated index cards with only moderate success after spending a week setting up and refining my system. Certainly another author had already solved the problem of how to step back from a book and see the big picture. I started surfing.

Enter Simon Haynes, an Australian science fiction writer (Published by Penguin Australia) who's day job is software programming. Haynes offers a free download called yWriter as a way to publicize his humorous sci fi books.

In Haynes's own words:

Despite the mystical arty aura surrounding the process of fiction writing, at the end of the day most books can be written in a similar fashion: Break each novel into chapters, break each chapter into one or more scenes, and give each scene a goal, some conflict and an outcome.

A scene is a pleasant chunk to work on - small and well-defined, you can slot them into your novel, dragging and dropping them from one chapter to another as you interleave strands from different viewpoint characters and work out the overall flow of your book. You can also drop a scene completely if you've written yourself into a dead end, without feeling you've ground to a complete halt.

I'm a programmer and a novelist, and yWriter is the result of 3 or 4 years of development. I really struggled over my first novel because I wrote whole slabs of text into a great big word processor file and tried to make sense of the whole thing at once. I then tried saving each chapter to individual files with great long descriptive filenames, but moving scenes around was a nuisance and I couldn't get an overview of the whole thing (or easily search for one word amongst 32 files) In the end I realised a dedicated program was the way to go, and yWriter is the result. It may look simple, but as the author of three books written with this tool I can guarantee it has everything needed to get a first draft together.

Was the Aussie reading my mind? I downloaded yWriter and sent him a donation via paypal as a thank you.

Sunday evening I spent getting the feel of the software by cutting and pasting scenes into it from my word processing program. I made a few errors in naming chapters (the whole process would have been a ton easier if I'd found yWriter at the beginning), but once I figured it out (Haynes actually responded to my email and explained my error), I fixed it and was able to move on. Yesterday I spent cutting and pasting the rest of the book into the program. It's pretty intuitive and since I'm writing a memoir, I use the "character viewpoint" functions as a way to track story themes.

If you're a can't see the trees for a forest writer, this might not help you. I'm a can't see the forest for the trees writer, good with the details, but easily lost in the big picture. The software helps me look at the document as a whole while working in tiny increments. yWriter includes these features:

  • Organise your novel using a 'project'.
  • Add files to the project, each containing a chapter.
  • Add a summary to each file, showing the scenes in each chapter.
  • Print out summary cards, showing the structure of your novel.
  • Display the word count for every file in the project, along with a total.
  • Saves a log file every day, showing words per file and the total. (Tracks your progress)
  • Saves automatic backups at user-specified intervals.
  • Allows multiple scenes within chapters
  • Viewpoint character, goal, conflict and outcome fields for each scene.
  • Storyboard view, a visual layout of your work.
  • Re-order scenes within chapters.
  • Move scenes from one chapter to another.
  • Automatic chapter renumbering.

Other manuscript software exits, but for now, yWriter is what I need.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Writing is a Team Sport

How often have we heard about the lonely life of the writer penning prose alone in a garret? The image stirs fantasies of finding the perfect cabin in the woods, our own little Walden necessary for us to write.

So now how about a dose of reality? If it weren't for my writing pals, I'd never get a word written. I need an army of others.

My husband reads every word of the essay for Write Now Newsletter before it goes out and looks over each of the articles and short stories I'm submitting for publication. He's read the first 80 pages of the memoir and he'll read the rest when I get around to finishing it.

I meet monthly with a group of writers to snack, gossip, and share writing strategies. Over the past six years, we've become a backbone of support for each other and I'm constantly amazed at the talent and wisdom I find among them.

I "meet" once a week to "write" over the phone with a friend who lives in Santa Fe. We pick a topic and a length of time, hang up, do "writing practice" (ala Natalie Goldberg) until the timer goes off. Then I call her back and we read our work aloud without comment.

Once a week I participate in a conference call with a group of writers each of whom is writing a memoir. These women are scattered across the globe. I met them while taking one of the Big Sky Writing Workshops with Sean Murphy and Tania Casselle. We get current on what each of us has done in the past week and present any challenges that have come up. We share ideas, solutions and laughs.

Periodically I exchange work with several other writers by email or snail mail. Here I'm looking for feedback, criticism, honest comments on how to make the work better.

And all the while I'm attending author readings and lectures.

So if you're out there alone trying to figure out how to make your writing life work, find a writing buddy. Take a class. Put up a sign in a coffeehouse. Attend one of the On-going Writing Groups listed on my website. Find some support. We can't do it alone.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Got a Writing Muse?

Meet Frederick, my muse. I discovered him in elementary school.

We read Leo Lionni's book of the same name about the poet field mouse who observed his world and stored his thoughts and sensations while the other mice were gathering food. His efforts helped his family endure the cold winter.

Everyday when I'm at my desk, Frederick is there helping me survive the cold winter of the writing life.

Who's your muse?

Friday, May 26, 2006

Someone Stop Me!

The endnote process has gotten entirely out of control. (see yesterday's post, "The Big Picture"). I have now written more than 300 endnotes and corresponding color coordinated index cards in five different colors.

Could the bumglue have gone to my head?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Big Picture

I spent yesterday in endnote-land. A few months ago a friend suggested I use the "endnote" function in my word processing program to create a sort of after-the-fact outline of each draft.

I wish I'd put endnotes in the very first draft, but alas, I didn't know about this secret until draft four. So I went through the document scene by scene and every time a new scene began or the time frame or subject matter changed, I thought of a subtitle for that section and inserted it in an endnote. Then I printed out the endnotes.

The notes will be meaningless to most folks. They read something like: 1. wilson road 2. drill in the freezer 3. my bra strap 4. a case of snicker's bars 5. trapped by bison, etc. But I can look at them and see the shape of the document. It's a way to step back, get the whole picture, and decide whether I've got the "drill in the freezer" scene in the right place or whether it would sound better after "trapped by bison."

Each time I revise the document, I print out the endnotes again. They renumber automatically as I move the scenes around giving me the shape of that particular draft.

Okay. Okay. I'm an OCD Virgo and I love this detail type work, but the endnotes are really helpful for long documents and mine is currently 100,000 plus words/272 pages. Without these endnotes, I can't see the chapters for the commas!

Back to the writing. Somebody hand me the bumglue.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Make a Scene

When I find myself "telling" the story instead of bringing the reader into the story and dramatizing it, I remind myself to slow down and make a scene. I have to bring the reader into real time - let the reader peer at the characters through the window and see what happens for herself.

A reader doesn't like to be told what to think and feel. If I do it too much, she'll find someone else to read - someone who respects her intelligence.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Shrink? I don't need no stinkin' shrink.

I'm writing a memoir about playing golf with my father the summer before he died. In order to write effectively about what happened that year, the book requires me to look deep within myself at my motives and intentions. Writing may not be therapy, but it certainly is therapeutic.

The folks at Goddard College have also discovered the healing power of the pen. They've created a Master's Degree program in Transformative Language Arts. "TLA students help to create and shape the field of social and personal transformation through the written, spoken and sung word," the Goddard website explains.

Warning: If my memoir doesn't sell or if I can't stand the critiquing process in MFA school (I start in July), maybe I'll become a writing therapist! Imagine my logo: A quill pen in an ink stand with the words, "Fight writer's block with writing!" emblazened on the top.

Then again, I'd better just get back to writing. Pass the bum glue.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Excessive Use of Force

While surfing around today I stumbled on a thread at Whitepapersource.com in which writers answered the question: How Do You Make Yourself Sit and Actually Write?

The most alarming response came from Michael A. Stelzner of Stelzner Consulting. He suggested getting up one hour earlier each day and devoting that time exclusively to writing.

Hmmm. Sleep? Write? Sleep? Write? As you can see, this concept pushed some buttons. I'll have to give it further thought. Think I'll sleep on it.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Feeling Lucky?

According to Richard Wiseman, a professor at Britain's University of Hertfordshire, You Make Your Own Luck.

Professor Wiseman, ". . . has conducted some experiments which indicate to him that we have a lot more influence on our own good fortune than we realize," an article posted on Damninteresting.com explains.

Wiseman lists four principles for "making" yourself lucky: 1. Act on opportunities that happen to you by "chance;" 2. Listen to your hunches; 3. Expect good fortune, and; 4. Learn effective coping skills. Bottom line according to Wiseman, outgoing optimists have more "luck."

But I'm an introverted, pessimistic writer, you say. How can I spin this straw into gold?

By just showing up. Show up to the page. Show up at a writer's group. Show up at a conference. If an agent or an editor calls, show up by simply answering the phone! If you're not there to push the pen or heed the call, someone else will be.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Try it On.

I just read an article about a company that allows you to "test-drive" your dream job. Check out Vocation Vacations.com.

While the list of available dream job vacations included food critic, song writer and car critic/writer, there was no option for novelist, magazine feature writer, short story writer, personal essayist, memoirist or even blogger. There was nothing available for writer wannabes at all.

Maybe I should apply to be a mentor for folks who want to know what the writing life is really like? I could get paid to let some bank exec follow me around for three or four days. Maybe I could get the mentee to do my filing?

Naw. There's not enough room in my office, or my head, for me let alone anyone else.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Back to Basics

I had an interesting conversation with some other writers yesterday about "Show, Don't Tell." One woman was concerned that the memoir she was writing would become too historical, too broad and diluted. She wanted to keep it personal. A second woman suggested, "Just tell us what you know, not what you think." We all agreed. It's amazing how we can stray from what we learned in Mrs. McCarty's eighth grade English class.

If we step too far back and opine about a topic or launch into an academic discussion, we'll lose the reader. But if we just take the reader by the hand and show, "this is what happened, and this and this," they'll be right there with us. The details we need to include will arise and the reader will make his or her own conclusions.

Of course, all this theory leads me back to the fact that we have to actually write. Even the basics don't work in the abstract.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Word Counts

Today, during the continuation of my current dry spell, I remembered, "When submitting a manuscript to a publisher use a 12-point, non-proportional font (Courier - YES; Times Roman - NO!)."

Also, the word count a publisher wants is not the word processor word count. Rather, take your final document and count the printed pages and then multiply the number of pages by 250 in order to get the word count.

For example, if you print your document in 12-point Courier and it is 372 pages, a publisher (my sources allege) would consider it to be 93,000 words (372 pages times 250 = 93,000). A publisher is actually interested in how much physical space the book will take up. The sentence, "Dad laughed." takes up an entire line, but it doesn't really matter that it's only two words. So the rule, "they" say is, Count Pages Not Words.

But I also remembered that these word count rules apply only to words that are actually written which brings me back to bum glue.

It really is the true secret of writing.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Good thing I'm not afraid of the dark

When you build a house, you start with a dream. Then you hire an architect to create a floor plan and the blueprints and you hire a contractor to hire a bunch of folks from the trades and you watch as your dream is erected.

With writing, you also start with a dream. But then someone blind folds you and sends you to a vacant lot. You have to hand-craft the materials from the very earth you're standing on (or pull it out of certain parts of your anatomy) and you have to guess as to whether you're putting the stuff you've made in the right places. Other people can shout at you and push you here and there, but you really just have to feel your way around. No one else can do it. You don't know what the thing is supposed to look like until after you're done building it, and as soon as you're done, someone will come along and tell you why it will never survive the first storm.

Um. Why do I do this? Someone remind me. Oh, right. It's fun. I forgot.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

I'm Not Worthy

Anne Tyler's new book is out! Digging to America. Must buy! Must buy in hardback!

Dear Muse: Please make me a writer worthy of someone purchasing my book in hardcover.

Monday, May 01, 2006


Does walking around the neighborhood thinking about how nice it would be to turn your neighbor's house into a studio so you could really get some work done count as writing?

Guess not.