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I&E follow-along: Outlining

This week I’ve been off work, so despite the distractions of a convention I’ve managed to get most of HtTS Lesson 8′s exercises done. I still have a few gaps in my character planning, but I have the core of their story motivation so that will do for now. The rest required little or no work, since I’d already done the wordbuilding during my earlier brainstorming phase.

So, next up is the outline! I’ve decided I want to try outlining this book in detail, just to find out if I can make the method work for me—I have plenty of time this summer for experimenting. The idea is that if I can do it this way, I can storm through the first draft this autumn in a couple of months and end up with something that doesn’t need to be rewritten from scratch before I dare show it to my agent! Read more

I&E follow-along: Stage 4

With my initial brainstorming period complete, I can finally start planning the books—hurrah!

Stage 4: Creating the framework

A lot of writers go straight from idea-generation into outlining their novel scene-by-scene, but I’ve discovered that this doesn’t really work for me. There’s a big difference conceptually between the narrative—the stuff you actually show the reader on the page—and the plot, i.e. the objective sequence of what happens in the world of the story. I like to know what my plot is before I decide which parts of it I want to show the reader (and through whose eyes). Read more

Tech review: Story Skeleton

I started using virtual index cards back in 2006 when planning for my first NaNoWriMo, and I still find them a useful way of managing a big project like a novel. I like physical index cards as well, but they’re a pain to carry around with you – which is where an app like Story Skeleton comes in.

is an iPhone app that allows you create and export outlines in a variety of formats, including as a Scrivener .scriv project. It’s this that first interested me, and I used it for an initial outline of The Prince of Lies.

Overall it’s quite a nice little app. The design is a bit fussy in some respects – on a small screen, I prefer the controls to adhere more closely to Apple conventions – but not difficult to get the hang of. You can display cards fullscreen and swipe between them, or list them as thumbnails (see screenshot, right) and scroll up and down.

There’s no hierarchical structure, however. If you want to assign scenes to chapters or acts, a workaround is to set up “card types” (a customisable list of categories), but then of course you have to recategorise cards when you move them. It’s also iPhone-only – you can use it on an iPad but the whole interface gets resized to fit the large screen and is therefore rather blurry.

Another point against it from my point of view is that whilst it has import and export capabilities, it doesn’t actually sync with Scrivener as such – you can only import outlines previously created in StorySkeleton and exported in its custom format (e.g. as backup). As a result, I found it useful for quick’n’dirty outlining at the beginning of a project, but the limitations of both synchronisation and screen real-estate mean that it doesn’t really fit well into my workflow.

StorySkeleton is available from the iTunes App Store, currently priced at $2.99.

Prince of Lies, 2nd draft: re-outlining

This step has taken me rather longer than I had planned, partly because I did a research trip halfway through and was so exhausted the next day, I couldn’t even look at my index cards, and partly because I’ve had to juggle this work-in-progress with preparations for the launch of The Merchant of Dreams, including guest blog posts and interview questions that needed writing.

It doesn’t help that this is structurally a rather different novel, spanning around six years of story time rather than the six months or so of the previous two. Plus there’s the pressure of wanting to give readers what they’ve come to expect from a Night’s Masque novel whilst still wrapping up the story in a way that I find logical and satisfying. Somewhat inevitably, the story emphasis has moved away from the skraylings and onto the guisers, which will probably disappoint some readers. There’s also less opportunity for romance now that the PoV characters are a) all in settled relationships and b) having to deal with more pressing problems, like staying alive! On the plus side there’s plenty of action and intrigue, so hopefully no-one will stop turning the pages long enough to notice ;)

It’s going to need fairly intensive rewrites, though, so I’d better get cracking…

NaNoWriMo 2012

Way back in 2006 I was struggling to finish a novel—any novel—so I decided to do NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to push me past the opening chapters, which is where I always used to stall. It worked so well that I did it again in 2007, and those two drafts formed the basis for my first two novels, The Alchemist of Souls and The Merchant of Dreams. They had to be practically rewritten from scratch, but writing them had proved to me that I could indeed finish a novel-length manuscript in a short period of time.

Fast forward to 2012, and I’m trying to finish the first draft of The Prince of Lies, the final book in my Elizabethan trilogy. This is the first all-new book I’ve written since 2007, and I’m still finding the drafting process difficult. My first draft prose is better than it was six years ago (thankfully), but wrangling a novel-length plot doesn’t get any easier! And since the book is pencilled in to be published in November next year, I need to get my skates on!

I’m therefore doing what you might call an “unofficial” NaNoWriMo, in that I’m not starting a project from scratch (one of the “rules” insisted on by NaNo-purists), but I do hope to finish it by the November 30th deadline and it will take me approximately 50,000 words to do that. We have a large NaNoWriMo group here in Cambridge, and joining in with them always gives me a buzz (I’ve used NaNoWriMo in the intervening years to get me through revisions and editing).

Anyway, I probably won’t be online much for the next month (apart from weekly blog posts and occasional @MalCatlyn tweets, which I can schedule ahead of time), so I’ll see you all on the flip side!

PoL first draft, Days 20-24

Alas, despite my best intentions, progress has still been slow. In large part this was down to a combination of an exhausting (though enjoyable) day out in London followed by the hottest weekend of the year, none of which was terribly conducive to labouring over a hot laptop! It’s been frustrating, to say the least, because I’ve finally reached one of the exciting parts of the story that I’ve been looking forward to writing, but summoning up the energy has been really difficult. Apart from one good day, I’ve mostly missed my word count target by a country mile, which seriously sucks!

As a result, I found myself starting to panic somewhat about missing my deadlines, so I decided to spend this morning taking stock and replanning my writing schedule. I think I need to accept that I’m not one of those writers who can churn out words day after day like clockwork; I need downtime in which to assess my progress and plan the next section, or just chill out. So, I’m allowing myself one day a week (generally early in the week) to do just that, with the intention of writing at least 1500 words on my allotted writing days. I don’t know how this is going to work out, but unless I suffer a total blockage it can hardly be any worse than my previous method!

I’ve set myself a deadline of October 31st for this initial draft, which will give me time to do a thorough edit pass before I hand it in. So, here goes nothing…

Total word count: 25,443

Daily average: 1060

PoL first draft, Days 1-2

August is upon us, and so I have no choice but to set my nose to the grindstone and start writing the first draft of The Prince of Lies. (OK so I actually started a couple of days ago – don’t tell anyone, all right?)

The thing is, I really hate writing first drafts. Really, really hate it. That vast expanse of empty wordage stretching before me, waiting to be filled? Turns my innards to water. Worse still, I didn’t complete my outline; I have a few scenes planned in detail at the beginning and some chapter ideas for the first half of the book, but then the second half is summed up in a couple of sentences. Well, maybe three. As per usual, I have no idea how I’m going to get from the midpoint of the book to the ending I have in mind.

That’s OK, though, because I’ve been here before, and now I know it’s just a case of sitting down and pushing through the fog until I find the story. I’m therefore adopting a “car headlights” approach to this draft, in that I’m only going to plan each scene in detail just before I write it, because that’s the only point at which I have a good chance of knowing what needs to happen next. I have a pocket-sized Moleskine and I’m starting a new scene outline on each righthand page – I just hope I have enough pages!

The reason I want to plan each scene before I write it is because I’m also trying out all three of Rachel Aaron’s productivity boosters at once. One leg of that tripod is to know what you’re going to write before you sit down to write it. The others are to have fun (as mentioned in my last post) and to keep a spreadsheet of writing sessions to find out when and where you’re most productive.

That brings me onto the fact that this month is also Camp NaNoWriMo, the summer version of the famous writing extravaganza, so I’m using that to try and jumpstart my mojo. After all, the first two books were originally written for NaNoWriMo, and they turned out OK in the end! Also, if I’m tracking my daily word count anyway, it’s not much more work to do a full productivity spreadsheet.

So far it seems to be working – I exceeded my 1667-word target both days! Let’s see if I can keep that up for a whole month…

Total word count: 3,538 (2 days)

PoL – getting the balance right

It suddenly occurred to me this morning that one of the problems I’m having with The Prince of Lies is that it’s more serious in tone than the previous two books. This is somewhat inevitable, since all the conflicts are coming to a climax, but I’ve realised I don’t want to lose sight of the fun element that made me want to write about these characters in the first place. I’m therefore making a mental note to bear these conflicting needs in mind as I make one last effort to finish the outline before the end of the month!

Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more!

I’m in a Henry V mood at the moment, what with the excellent Hollow Crown (Richard II, Henry IV 1 & 2 and Henry V) running on BBC2, and of course I’m about to launch into my own trilogy finale.

As I blogged back in February, this is the first time in five years I’ve written a completely new book, so I’m trying to condense everything I’ve learned so far into a coherent process. In an effort to improve my outlining and productivity, I’m taking a few leaves out of Rachel Aaron’s book, specifically her blog article How I Plot a Novel in 5 Steps, but adapted to suit my own foibles. For the past nine months I’ve been gestating the story, noodling around Rachel’s Steps 0-2 in an effort to develop my ideas of how the story might play out. During this stage I’ve tried on a few different scenarios for size, and because this is a long drawn-out process, it’s best done in small chunks in-between more urgent stuff like writing and promoting previous books.

However with The Merchant of Dreams handed in, there’s nothing for it now but to knuckle down in earnest to writing The Prince of Lies.

In the absence of a version of Scrivener for the iPad (still in development), I’m using a combination of Scrivener, Notebooks, and StorySkeleton for my final planning. Character profiles and general plot notes go into Scrivener and get synced to Notebooks, then as I get ideas for specific scenes I’m putting them into StorySkeleton, which will eventually get imported into the Draft folder of my Scrivener project (fingers crossed!). I’m doing it this way because to me, the plot and the narrative are two very different beasts. Some plot events will never appear on the page, so I don’t want to create index cards for them, but others will require several scenes depending on how I structure the narrative.

So far it seems to be going well – I aim to push through Step 3 (Filling in the Holes) over the next week or so, then start writing the first draft by the end of the month. If I’m still a bit stuck on plot by then, I may well start writing at the beginning and plot as I go along. It’s still one big experiment…

Tech review: Aeon Timeline

One of the trickiest things to keep track of when writing a novel can be the passage of time, especially if you have two or more concurrent plotlines. Tolkien was apparently very good at this; I read somewhere that if you compare his published timeline to the text, you’ll find that not only does it all match up but that things like the phases of the moon are correct. Now, most of us writers are never going to have fans rabid enough to go into this level of detail, but I work on the principle that if I get it wrong, someone might just notice and lose their faith in my control over the story.

Of course you can plan your novel’s timeline on paper, and with Night’s Masque I’ve done some of that, particularly in the early stages, but software can make the task a bit easier and the results a lot neater. The best program I’ve found for Mac OSX, and the only one (as far as I know) written with fantasy and SF writers in mind, is Aeon Timeline from Scribblecode. I’ve been using this program since an early beta was posted on the Scrivener forums, but version 1 is now complete and available to buy (there’s a 30-day free trial as well).

On first startup the program looks rather intimidating, and I have to say that the video tutorial on the website isn’t much help – there’s no sound, and it runs too fast to really take in. However the user manual is fairly comprehensive and the program isn’t that complex once you get your head around it.

The core concepts are Events, Entities and Arcs. Events are pretty self-explanatory; they can be anything with a time duration, from the birth of a character to a war lasting many years. Entities are things that span multiple events; the default entity type is a person, but entities can also be places, objects, organisations, and so on.

Events and entities thus potentially intersect, and the program calculates the entity’s age at the intersection point. Note that you have to manually assign these intersection points; after all, not all events will affect all entities, and vice versa.

For example, my hero Mal Catlyn fought in the siege of Bergen-op-Zoom in 1588, so I added an intersection point for that (click on the screenshot to enlarge it, and look for the blue line across the middle of the screen). The program then worked out that he would have been 20 at the time. Ages are automatically recalculated if you move the starting point of an entity or the date of an event. You can also hide the ages if they’re not relevant to your usage or are cluttering up the display.

Spoiler-free screenshot of part of the Night's Masque alternate history timeline
Spoiler-free screenshot of part of the Night's Masque alternate history timeline

Sets of events can be further divided up into arcs for clarity. I use three arcs in this overall timeline: one to track the history of the Tudor dynasty (my main alternate history element), one for other historical events that impinge upon the characters’ lives, and one for the characters themselves and events within the books.

One of the most useful features from an SFF writer’s perspective is the ability to define custom calendars. For Night’s Masque I use a tweaked version of the standard calendar, because England was still using the old Julian calendar in the sixteenth century; if I were to use the modern Gregorian one, the days of the week wouldn’t be right for the dates. However you’re not limited to minor changes like this. You can create an entirely fictional calendar for a fantasy world or an alien planet, with as many hours in the day and days in the year as you please, and of course with custom names.

When you’ve completed your timeline, you can export it in a number of formats, including an HTML table (great for putting on your website!) and also synchronise the file with Scrivener. I haven’t tried out this latter feature yet, as I’m mainly using Aeon for a higher level view of my story world, but I can see how it might be useful.

Aeon Timeline has lots of other cool features that I’m just finding my way around, like the ability to label events (similar to the Label field in Scrivener) and then filter by that label; hide selected entities and arcs (which I did when creating my screenshot, to avoid spoilers); and lock events so that they can’t be accidentally altered. As this is the first full version, I expect new features to be added with time, but even in its current state it’s perfectly useable.

In conclusion, this is a hugely useful program for any writer planning a complex novel, and I strongly recommend you give it a try!