Timelines

Insert usual apologies about not updating blog more frequently…

I received a question from a reader regarding how I constructed my timelines – any special software?

When setting out to write The West Wind, I knew I was going to need something to create timelines.  I had never written something so big and complex but knew that I needed something to organize the multiple story lines.  I am also a very visual person – I often find myself drawing a picture to help describe some point I am trying to make.  Notebooks are fine, but I really needed something a bit more specific.  There were several features that, at the time, I thought I needed:

  1. The ability to capture a short description – these ultimately became my writing prompts for scenes
  2. Some way of tagging or creating meta data
  3. A way of showing relationships

I looked at the writing apps that had timelines built in, e.g. yWriter and even basic notecards.  They covered most of my requirements, but ultimately lacked a fourth item that I discovered along the way: flexibility!  Notecards, I need to point out, was a horrible experience.  I didn’t have enough space for all the cards, couldn’t keep the relationships, and most importantly, couldn’t read my handwriting.! My romantic notion of  a writer staring at a cork board plastered with notecards was quickly dashed on the rocks of practicality.

Then I started using Visio.  I use it in my professional life and in the design of boardgames, the other often referenced hobby of mine on which I will blame my lack of writing…   I put together timelines for each of my characters, a timeline for the world, and connected them all together with the dynamic connectors.  I found the flexibility I needed to move things around without losing anything and had control over cutting and reconnecting the relationships.  I also found I didn’t need to use any tagging, like an action vs reflective scene, instead I used colors.  Worked just fine…

Until I found out how much I was missing using the Windows Beta of Scrivener and, as luck would have it, demands of my professional life gave me a great excuse to invest in a MacAir.  Darn.

I finished writing The West Wind in Scrivener on my new Mac but then found myself wanting to re-arrange my timelines.  No, nothing really easy or cheap for importing Visio documents into Mac drawing programs that I could find.  I also didn’t want to go back and forth between platforms.  I wound up re-building the timelines in OpenOffice.org Draw which, as it turned out, was needed anyway due to the amount of drift from the original story timelines over the year that I wrote the story.  Re-building the timelines got me back in touch with the story and allowed me to implement an idea I had for telling much of Rachel’s backstory through a couple of key flashbacks.

To give some context, here is about the first third of The West Wind timeline as it was orginally in Visio:

First third of the West Wind timeline in Visio.

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New Writers Resources

Finally, a topic about which I am almost qualified to dispense advice. Being still a new writer and all.

Slight detour…

I just returned with my family from Great Lakes Games, a four day annual invitational event for about 100 friends and family to get together and play boardgames. Boardgames and board game design is another of my frequently exercised hobbies (see “Other Publishing Credits”). This was the ninth year and we have attended all but the first. The timing is such that several of the folks in attendance have just returned from the Spiel in Essen… meaning lots of shiny new games unavailable yet here in the US. It also means getting together a number of game designer friends who are regulars. Exciting and notable this year was the placement of Hawaii by Greg Daigle on the FairPlay Essen scouting report – one of the more reliable predictors for commercial success of a game and pretty remarkable for an American designer. I am extremely happy for Greg – he has worked very hard at his craft and deserves the success and recognition for his work.

So what does this have to do with writing? Well not a whole lot really, but over the weekend I had a number of folks asking whether I had any games in the works. I always have games in the works, like stacks of half finished designs, however this time around they have all taken a back seat to this new writing thing. Several folks were surprised, several others shared their interests or desire to also write. The next question was how did I get myself up and going…

1) Preparation – I attended Michael Stackpole’s “21 Days to a Novel” seminar at Gen Con 2010. In an hour, he was able to explain in simple terms a number of writing exercises that would help prepare and construct a novel. Subsequently I found “The Secrets” podcast available at Stackpole’s site and iTunes. I listened to and enjoyed these podcasts. A portion of this podcast covers the 21 days process with examples. There is also an eBook available at his site and on Amazon.

2) Technique – Hands down the best source of information is the Writing Excuses podcast. Short, fun, and very educational. This should be recommended listening for anyone learning to write! Start at the beginning because they are that good.

3) Technology – I spent a great deal of time trying different writing applications. YWriter was the best application I found for the Windows platform. But hands down the program I prefer is Scrivener. I suffered through the Beta version of the application on Windows long enough to discover its true potential. Finally broke down and bought a Mac, the native platform for Scrivener. Haven’t looked back.

4) Encouragement – Wherever you get it, however you get it, it comes in handy. Give NaNoWriMo a try (adequate preparation is necessary to succeed), take a couple of Continuing Education classes at nearby community college, find a writer’s group, enlist your friends and family.

Enjoy! And best of luck.

Revision & Editing… Part 4

I have all the timelines worked out, the arrows all going the right way, etc.  If you have no idea what I mean… you probably missed the first three parts.

Step 8: Make it make sense.  This part is hard to describe.  I worked my way up and down the timelines making sure that the scenes flowed well.  I moved a whole chapter because it made more sense earlier in the book.  I also started making notes on some of the scenes suggesting additional content to rationalize action in another location.  I identified long strings of POV scenes without interaction with other POV characters (not sure how I feel about that yet… I suspect a lot of it will get cut maybe to re-appear as a short story…).  Finally, I highlighted the scenes that I wanted to insert as flashbacks.

Step 9: Put it all together.  Having all of the scenes and dependencies helped with the next steep: numbering the scenes in sequential order.  Using those numbers, I created a collection in Scrivener and added scenes to it in the newly assigned order.  Finally, I switched over to the outline view in Scrivener where I could see the scenes and word counts to try grouping them into chapters.  I ran into a bit of a problem here.  I had no idea how to create chapters in a collection and after banging my head against the wall way too long I did what I should have done sooner – gave up and just rearranged the scenes in the binder *Then* I could create my chapters.  With a few exceptions, I was able to group the scenes meaningfully and keep the word count around the 3,000 word mark.  Why 3,000?  Back to Stackpole for the answer – it is short enough to make you want to read “just one more chapter” before I put it down.

I should probably have named this string of posts “preparing for revision and editing” because now I am ready for the real work… the actual revision and editing part.  That’s all for this series of posts.  Thank for following along and please feel free to add your comments.

 

Revision & Editing… Part 3

Now that I have all my synopsis copied into timelines… and I made each a different color by POV because, well, because I could.

5. Conquer the world.  Going back to Stackpole’s “21 Days to a Novel,” at least what I remember of it, I started to add back in my fourth character: The World.  I put arrows from the scene to a world event that the action in the scene caused, then connected with arrows the world event to the other scenes that would have been affected by the world event.  Heavy paraphrasing here.  If you want to know more I would recommend “The Secrets” podcast and the “21 Days to a Novel.”  Better yet, go see him at a con.  Then I just worked on making all of the arrows flow in the right direction.  There, at least one set of dependencies taken care of.

6. Who did what to whom?  For all of the other dependencies that don’t involve some world event, I went through and put in more connecting arrows from causes to effects.  For the more geeky crowd: use layers to turn on and off the arrows to keep down the confusion.  If layers are beyond your capabilities, not surprising because it took me forever to figure them out, just use different colors or styles. The exercise here is much the same, make all of the arrows go the right way.

Being the visually oriented type, all these pretty pictures make me feel like I have brought order to chaos.  But have I?  Yep, more to come….

Revision & Editing… My Approach (Part 2)

Picking up where I left off in the prior post on my approach for content editing (or is it revision…somebody give me a shout so I don’t continue to insult the real professionals that know what they are doing!).

3.  Update my scene synopsis.  I went through all of the scenes in Scrivener and updated the synopsis.  If you haven’t figured out by now that I am a bit of a Scrivener fanboy!  Sorry.  As I was saying, the early chapters were dead on, the later… well, they needed more help.  The goal was to be able to find a way to print them out, or transfer them to something, where I can fiddle around with their order.  Syncing with Index Card on the iPad via AirDrop was a possibility, but I thought that may not give me the tools I need.  Focusing on the synopsis though, I found some of them really needed work – they were either too vague to be useful or too long and detailed to be of any use regardless of what I chose to do.

4a.  Re-build my timelines.  I started the story with timelines I developed at the recommendation of Stackpole’s “21 Days to a Novel.”  I am certain I took it farther than was ever suggested, but that is just the way I clack.  My original timelines, as I mentioned earlier, were completely out of whack the closer I got to the end of the story.  That, and I switched over to a Mac to use the official released version of Scrivener resulting in the obsolescence of the Visio diagrams on my PC.  It was easy enough to rebuild in OpenOffice Draw and I now have a template for next time.  I have three POV characters and each chapter I wrote had three scenes mimicking a short story format – I thought of each chapter as a short story.  The time line became three boxes for the first character followed by three more boxes offset and below for the second, and finally three boxes offset and below for the third POV character.  I added a few more boxes at the top for my “world” character and cut loose with copy/paste to generate all 26 chapters of three scenes in rotating character POV (whew!)

4b. Put all of the Synopsis in the timeline.  Scrivener has a compile function for notecards (only took me an hour to find it…).  It was a snap to generate an OpenOffice document containing only synopsis and associated chapter/scene headings.  More copy/paste later and I had my updated timeline.  Did I mention that I was a bit of a Scrivener fan boy?

So by now you probably have gotten the sense that I am a bit of an over analytical nerd…now what?  (more to come)

Revision & Editing – My Approach

After noodling it around a bit I think I at least have a plan of attack, an approach, a Strategy if you will, for going about this whole revision and editing thing.  I fell into a process for writing that seemed to work quite well.  That was pre-blog so you will just have to trust me on it.  Hopefully, the same will happen for the revision and editing.  I am putting it out there for comment, criticism, and for fear that if I don’t write it down, I will not remember it the next time.

The problems I need to address, or that I am hoping this approach will solve, are from the first draft taking over almost a full year to complete.  And from not entirely knowing what I was doing.  The things that could have been avoided by being a *little* more diligent in keeping a “bible” we not avoided… character descriptions morphing, locations being renamed, multiple feints at backstory, etc.  FWIW: I blame NaNoWriMo for that!  The plot also went off in its own direction as well, the whole second half was quite a ways away from what I originally envisioned.  I blame my writing instructor for that – she suggested I write the ending before writing the last half of the book.  It was an excellent suggestion that I *strongly* recommend to others!  Had I not done that, I would probably still be writing the first draft.  There were also things that happened out of order so that they would fit into the self imposed chapter and scene structure.  There is also way too much backstory at the beginning that I would like to move to flashbacks.  All-in-all mostly content issues.   Add to that three POV characters with intertwined storylines and over 120k words which I have no one to else to blame but myself.

Here’s what I am doing:

1. Do nothing.  Yeah, I have heard this quite a bit.  Don’t start editing until you are done writing (check) (though it escapes me why this is not self evident).  More importantly, lock the first draft away for a month or two to distance yourself from it.  Considering it took me a year to write, there are some parts that are more distant than others!  For someone who barely remembers what he had for lunch yesterday I think two months might have been a bit excessive.  My plan of getting caught up on reading during this time fizzled and I found myself writing and editing a short story.

2. Keywords (aka Tagging).  I am using Scrivener that as a really nice tagging capability.  Essentially you can create any keyword (or keyword hierarchy for the overly detail oriented types) and assign those keywords to scenes.  Clicking on the keyword in the “keyword browser” brings up all of the scenes that have been tagged with the keyword.  Really cool.  I created keywords for all of the locations, POV characters, minor characters, extras, means of transportation, etc.  A few more I might add would include character description, character backstory, gadget, etc.  The idea being that I can update a particular detail and have the tool to keep it consistent across all of the occurrences.  So the next time you find your character’s appearance changing and it is not related to the plot – try out the keywords.

… and because I can never say anything in a few words where many will suffice… more to come…

Ready to Edit… now what…

I finished writing and editing a short story.  It was good exercise for editing, particularly since I was working on getting the total word count down below a fixed amount.

I did content editing first, making  sure that the story hung together and made sense.  I rewrote the ending to make it more exciting, deleted sections that really didn’t move the story forward, etc.

Then moved on to line editing.  Deleting all those pesky “had” or “has been” words that didn’t do anything useful other than increase my word count.  I do need to keep an eye on the language because of the steampunk style which should be a bit more flowery prose.

So all that was good practice.  But now looking at a whole novel to edit and I feel more than just a little intimidated.  I stalled it a little by updating synopsis and tagging the scenes, but I have run out of excuses and need to wade in.  I have no idea what to do that…