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.

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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)

Boardgame Design and Novel Writing

I ran into a number of my gaming colleagues at Gen Con (designers, publishers, industry pundits, etc.) with whom I had become acquainted when SDRGames put out Bootleggers– see Other Publish Credits page.  I also attended another Stackpole seminar where he stressed the importance of character development – a common thread through his 21 Days to a Novel and Secrets Podcast.

It got me thinking that game design and writing share a common thread.

Gaming has two acknowledged major schools of design – European and American.  I don’t want to start a debate or go into a dissertation on the details of both, but suffice it to say that the major differences are in their views of conflict and luck.  European eschews direct conflict and mechanics involving a lot of luck.  Their focus is primarily on strategy and indirect conflict.  The American school of design, by contrast, prefers direct conflict and has greater amounts of luck.  A hybrid, which is what we intended to create with Bootleggers, has elements of both.  To drive the point home, think of Risk: I am attacking your country and rolling dice to win.  I “attack” another country in a Euro game by outbidding them for cheaper resources thus making it more expense for them to improve their armies– that’s indirect and no luck.

Its that indirect conflict that I find similar to the Stackpole character development process.  In Euro game design, there is usually some objective that is required to win, e.g. the most victory points, the most money, longest road, etc.  Each player develops a strategy and plays that strategy to achieve the objective.  It is in the process of playing that strategy that the player’s actions will disrupt other players’ attempts to achieve the objective.  The disruption, or “player interaction” in a game is really important in the design – the preference being greater interaction.  No interaction between players and the game earns the negative “multi-player solitaire” reputation.

So what does this have to do with writing?

Consider each character a unique player in the game and, unlike a vast majority of the games, each has a very unique goal they wish to achieve.  It is in the attempt to achieve these goals they will be faced with obstacles that they must overcome.  Just like game design, it is best if these obstacles are put in place by the other players.  The more one character’s actions to reach their goal disrupt the other character’s ability to achieve their goal, the more engaging the story should be.  The conflict arises between the characters going about achieving their goals.  Sometime this conflict is direct – Sally is going to stab Drake because he has been cheating on her in an attempt to find happiness, or more of the indirect kind – Sally has locked the house and gone looking for her cheating husband Drake.  Drake returns to find the house locked and is forced to spend the night in a cheap flea infested hotel where he is forced to confront his definition of happiness.

Some random musings there for the folks that have an interest in board game design and writing.  Probably a bigger group than the intersection of NASCAR fans who are also opera season ticket holders… but that is another story.

More on the 21 Days and other helpful podcasts

I started sifting through iTunes and the interweb for podcasts about writing. I was driving an hour each way to work and figured it would be a good way to work on my writing while I really couldn’t work on my writing.

I found the audio version of Stackpole’s “21 Days to a Novel” among other advice he offers here on his website (also available on iTunes):

Secrets Podcast

The other source of writing instruction, probably the best most comprehensive that I have found, is Writing Excuses (also available on iTunes):

Writing Excuses

Writing Excuses is the singular best source of writing instruction that I have found in podcast form. On top of being a great source of information, the hosts are interesting and personable. I cannot recommend this podcast enough. Start at the beginning and listen to them all – you will not be disappointed.

My first 21 Days

Armed with the knowledge, and some pretty good notes, from Gen Con Indy 2010 seminar “21 Days to a Novel” I gave it a go.

My first major investment was a couple of back-to-school spiral bounds and a box of my favorite pens from Staples.  Total cost < $5.

What I liked about Stackpole’s approach was the focus on the character.  The opinion that readers like to read because they enjoy getting to know a character, feeling the conflicts of the character, identifying with the character.  In short, the advice given by Stackpole, and several others I have read or heard via podcast, focus on the character and write character driven stories.  Character driven stories sell.

I religiously started following the 21 days methodology.