Writing Prompt: 05/31/10

"Your phone rings. When you answer it, you make a startling discovery: the person on the other end is dead. What does he/she say and why are they calling you?"

Write for 15-30 minutes. My response will be posted 6/02/10.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Essay: Organizational Software For Writers

Something I find critical to the writing process is a good organizational method. When I wrote my first two non-fiction books, I wrote them as an already recognized expert in the field I was taking on. It was easy to break the books into chapters and write each chapter as an essay with an introduction, lengthy body of explanation, and a final wrap up.

Fiction, especially good fiction, is a wholly different breed of animal. Writing good fiction means making copious and thorough notes and having a good memory. Errors of continuity jar the reader out of his suspension of disbelief, and that suspension is the foundation of the storytelling process.

Here are a couple of examples where authors have botched the job. Consider the Star Wars trilogy by George Lucas. After thirty years of fan belief in the Force as an all-powerful, mystical connection of energy, Lucas turns this on its head in Episode I by creating "midichlorians" microscopic organisms that live in all things and give a Jedi his power.

I wasn't the only lifetime Star Wars fan sitting in a theater in May of 1999 to yell, "What the fuck?" In fact, two people in front of me got up and walked out during that scene, muttering loudly.

To make matters worse, later in the series (Episode II) Lucas has a character explain that "Bail Antilles of Alderaan" is stepping into an office in the Galactic Senate.

The problem here, for the fans who have followed the series even peripherally, is that Princess Leia's adopted father, a senator from Alderaan, is named Bail Organa. Antilles is a surname of Luke's wingman in the first assault on the Death Star in Episode IV. His first name is Wedge, and he goes on to be a squadron leader and wingman to Lando Calrissian in the assault on the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi (Episode VI). Lucas had to issue a statement saying that the two Antilles were not related.

My opinion, for what it's worth, is that no author should ever have to retconn or explain his work. If it doesn't stand on its own then it doesn't stand. The only acceptable reply to a criticism or comment on your writing is Thank you.

These blunders of continuity are inexcusable in any author, but particularly so when the author knows he has literally millions of fans, hundreds of thousands of which are so devoted that they annually attend conventions and dress up as the most minor characters. For thirty years, authors such as Michael Stackpole and Timothy Zahn have developed rich and thorough storylines in the Star Wars universe. They took the time to do the research to keep things consistent, why couldn't Lucas? (Admittedly, Lucas also authorized the development of Kevin J. Anderson's Jedi Academy Trilogy, which has to be the worst piece of Star Wars fiction I've ever seen on paper, potentially the worst fiction. They remain the only books I have ever actually thrown away after reading.)

I could easily make this essay entirely about the blunders of authors. One of the most famous errors in all fiction occurs in Robinson Crusoe, when the title character strips naked to swim out to the half-sunken shipwreck, and once there immediately descends on the galley and stuffs his pockets with biscuits-- which must have hurt, given that he was still naked at the time.

However, while these examples serve to show the need for effective notes and story development, they aren't really helping you get the job done. All writers know to avoid continuity errors--and you hardly need me to tell you this. The trick is making it happen.

Enter two pieces of software I recommend for you. Both are either open source or freeware. Both are effective means for constructing what is essentially a database of notes about your stories. (Unfortunately both are also for the Windows platform, which I have recently returned to for my writing, despite doing most of my computing on a MacIntosh. For Mac users, I recommend the commercial software Scrivener.)

yWriter is a free software that was developed by a fiction author. I tend to gravitate towards software of this type for the simple reason that an author knows what an author needs. I think it's foolish to buy a wrench designed by a professional rice picker. I'll stick with one created by a mechanic, who knows what he's trying to do and is looking for the most efficient tool to get the job done. I got plenty of the other type of tool in the military, where our equipment was continually designed by civilians with no idea what the task required, and approved by officers who were political appointees and had also never been at ground level trying to get the job done.

yWriter allows you, the author, to perform several tasks with ease. First, there is character development. While it's fine to simply write dialogue and see where the characters take you (I am continually surprised at the stuff that comes out of Tad's mouth in Crossed Swords.), as an author you must have an instinctive understanding of your character's motivation and goals. This, in fact, becomes even more crucial when you are writing from the first person point of view, where the audience can only see and become aware of the points and observations that your narrator personally makes.

I, as the author, know why each character chose the character archtypes they did. Why did Mark choose to become a ninja-like fighter? Because the real-life Mark Ferrier is a martial arts instructor and MMA fighter in Washington State. That's easy, and it's explained in the book when the characters are selecting their classes, but why did his brother, Steve, become a mage? And of the mages, why choose sage, the least powerful in combat?

Because I write using Dave's voice, I can tell you why he chose wood walker, but I have to show you why Tad decided to be a minstrel. This would be impossible without some kind of notes and documentation on his character, and these points are not particularly subtle aspects of their characters. In fact, they are the most obvious and salient characteristics of each person.

The problem comes when you are trying to demonstrate subtle motivations for complex actions. Unless you know each of your characters thoroughly, odds are you're not going to really explain their actions, and even if your plot is consistent, your characters won't be.

yWriter also gives you the ability to make similar notes about your Macguffins. In XS, the heroes are trying desperately to find the fourth and final piece of the Lionjade before the servants of the evil god can do so. The problem with a Macguffin is that it's easy to lose track of where you put the damn thing. After all, this fourth piece of the crystal has been missing for 4,000 years already, so remembering where I put it is a bit of a chore. So far I've moved it three times... because I lost my original notes in a move in 2002.

Further, yWriter also allows for you to write chapter summaries, to break chapters into scenes, and list what characters appear in what scenes of what chapters. These can become really important if you're trying to check on facts and items you've laid out as foreshadowing. For example, I sometimes use elements from Dungeons and Dragons to aid me in my writing (an essay on that, later). I developed a "random encounter" as a means of blooding my characters, and then after the fact decided to make it less random. I felt it added a nice plot element to the story-- the idea that Sjjarr had not only discovered the heroes, but deemed them so unworthy of his time to destroy that he sent a ragtag group of bandits to wipe them out.

The problem is, I had to search through several chapters in order to find the specific point where I wanted to insert Sjjarr's contact. It would have saved me more than an hour of writing time if I could have simply looked briefly at a chapter summary list and moved on from there.

yWriter was originally written as a standalone story editor, so it offers all of the tools you need to write your novel or story right there in the program if you choose. On the yWriter website, K.M. Weiland published a very nice basic tutorial video that covers the foundation of yWriter, although she points out that she uses MS Word as her editor, and only uses yWriter to keep notes. (I use it the same way.) K.M. Weiland, by the way, is a very successful author who maintains an excellent blog on writing (You can find her in my blog list to the right.)

A second piece of software that I recommend is the open source Storybook. Unfortunately for me, I got used to using yWriter because I discovered it before Storybook, but I have to admit that some of the Storybook features have me considering a change.

Storybook offers a number of different views, including the all-important timeline view. As a linear thinker, I tend to consider things chronologically. Because I also use the "connect the dots" writing technique I detailed last week, this makes it easy for me to screw up my timeline if I'm not paying close attention. yWriter offers a timeline, but not a timeline view, and it doesn't help me to note that Scene A took place at 3pm on a Wednesday when we're discussing a quest across months and possibly years of travel. It makes more sense to be able to lay out the timeline and say, "Scene A took place before Scene B, but the plot elements in Scene C should probably come before Scene A." This allows for a much more freeform editing manner.

Because I don't actually use Storybook (yet!) I recommend that you check out their BASIC FEATURES.

Note that there doesn't seem to be a place for "items" such as MacGuffins or other types of 'props' you might need to use. In thinking about seriously using this software, it occurs to me that a properly developed MacGuffin, like the statue in the Maltese Falcon, may be thought of as a character in its own right, for all that it doesn't move a bit under its own power.

Interestingly enough, Storyboard also includes a character Gantt chart. This interesting chart, usually used in project management to denote completion timelines, actually shows you your characters' life cycles. This is a great tool if you're going to be doing some basic character assassination as you move along. You can tell at a glance where a character was involved in the timeline, and for sweeping epics (think of Simon Green's 1.4 million word Deathstalker series that covers some 250 years of galactic history) it's critical to remember who was where, when.

There are other charts that Storyboard offers, but there were two specific ones that leapt out at me. (By the way, I prefer the archaic word "leapt" which is more onomatopoetic than the modern "leaped." It's how I roll.)

The first of these two charts is the "Appearance of characters by scene," which shows which characters are used in which scenes.

But my favorite chart, and the reason I may eventually move from yWriter to Storyboard, is the "Who, Where, When?" chart, that shows characters in a strand-date grid. It's the answer to questions like: "Was Homer at the Atomic Power Plant on March 17?"

This is critical when you're trying to remember who was in the dining room when Doctor Matheson told everyone he was going back to India. Remember that a lot of the time we have characters interacting as virtual scenery-- Eriond, one of David Eddings's characters, goes more than 75 pages in the Mallorean without saying a word, and when he finally does, it's to point out something that no one else can remember. That's an example of perfect continuity.

If you're one of those people that covers a desk with post its and keeps your notes there, then these two pieces of software probably won't help you. However, if you're like me, and I know I am, odds are you're always trying to look for ways that your computer can help you. You've got more computing power sitting in front of you than man used to put an astronaut on the moon. With the right software, it can help you cut through what I consider the 'busywork' of writing so that you can concentrate on what you need to get done: telling the story.

Write on!

Christopher Rivan

Virgins Slain, Dragons Rescued.
Reasonable rates for all budgets!




  1. My problem is ... I LOVE to organize and I get so wrapped up in these 'gadgets' I use them as an excues NOT to write - though I suppose, arranging everything is bound to reveal errors I never noticed or considered, which will in turn GET me writing ... yes? See, I've just convinced myself to waste more time. My question for you is: do you REALLY think this helps more than say a looseleaf binder where pages = scenes and can be moved around etc.? Or will all those graphs get obnoxious? I am ready to jump at this with only a recommendation but ... I tried another program once and it was in truth no more helpful than my method of creating folders for characters, timelines, scenes, background info etc. within folders for individual stories.
    Gonna have to check out that site I guess.
    BTW: I prefer leapt as well

  2. I think I can't promise that this software would change your life. Every person does things differently. When I worked on a major project in the military I had a supervisor that insisted that everything he did (he didn't require it of us) was done in an analog manner: on paper, on the whiteboard, drawn out where he could see it.

    The rest of us wanted Gantt charts and program development reports. He just thought differently.

    I like gadgets, too, but the most important "gadget" I think I've used in my life is a good database. We call it the "internet." Really, the internet would be useless without search engines. All this software REALLY does is database your story facts for easier reference. It's a google for your private novel.

    But will it make your life easier? I can't say for sure. It's helped me, and continues to do so, but I can't say it'll revolutionize writing for everyone. A lot of fiction got written and continues to be written in spiral notebooks. The first 175 pages of XS are in that medium, and it took me years to train myself to write and type simultaneously.