Halfway through draft 2!

Milestones help me write and one goal I’d set for myself was to post at the 50% point in draft 2 of my current project. Monday I was tooling along, wondering why the halfway point seemed so far away so I counted my chapters again and… I was already past it ūüôā Turns out in addition to counting chapters I had counted a layer of hierarchy I had added above chapters (it’s a non-printing layer but tracks turning points). So a good oops, since I was farther along than I thought.

Scrivener (software)
Scrivener (software) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As part of the half-way pause, I’d thought I’d share my own-going adventures with Scrivener. That makes it sound negative but actually, I love the tool. They came out a few months ago with an update that added some of the features missing from the windows version (hurrah for outline export!) I’ve also gotten used to the Scrivener way and come to enjoy it but most importantly, the level of abstraction it provides has proved to be just right for me.

While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this for those on a tight deadline, for me, being able to manage the novel as a series of scenes has been a big win. While I plot at the turning point (or pier) level and structure things at the chapter level, when it comes to massaging a novel, I found being able move scenes and, just as important, add scene placeholders a huge win. For this draft, I took a MS Word version and converted it to Scrivener. Converting it by chapter is trivial and takes just a few minutes but I wanted to try the scene level organization with appropriate tags. That took me about a month, although I did some re-writing as I worked along.

What I really like about the scene level is that I can attach notes at¬†a natural level of granularity. In my MS Word¬†days, I’d have to either keep a separate list of notes or mark up the copy (paper or electronic). The problem with the latter was that I’d have to hunt for the right spot to place the note when all I really needed in most cases was a way to say “when I’m explaining the childhood of this dragon, be sure to mention he ate all his siblings.” That sort of note isn’t really a comment for a specific sentence but when marking up copies, I’d typically have to find some sentence to stick this onto. Now, with Scrivener and¬†my manuscript organized by scenes, I can just use the handy note field of each scene and stick it there.¬†As I get to each scene, I check the notes. Before marking the scene as “final draft”, I make sure I’ve addressed all the notes. With this level of abstraction, instead of looking for a page or sentence where I append the note, I look for one of a hundred or so scenes: much more manageable. Another benefit for me of the scene structuring is that it is easy to check scene and chapter length for balance.

In-line annotation and comments are also available but I find those of limited use for the most part, just a way to mark where I stopped editing, for instance.

If you start your story in Scrivener with scenes in mind, it isn’t a big one month hit like it was for me but it isn’t for free either. Managing a story¬† in this way probably will add noticeably to the project time, especially if you make use of keywords (so you can easily find an object, person, place, theme, magic effect, whatever you want to make a tag for). But for me, being able to look at the story at different levels of abstraction, from the level of a few turning points to chapters all the way down to scenes is a huge boon.

Color me more excited about Scrivener than my earlier posts indicated.

To keep this somewhat balanced, Scrivener is not without its nuisances. As far as I can tell, you can’t get chapter numbers and total chapter count without compiling (thus my earlier¬†miscount). And it is a lot less portable than MS Word or one of the cloud word processors. The Scrivener license does allow multiple copies but so far it’s something I haven’t installed on my work laptop because I don’t like adding personal¬†software to a work machine. That means, no¬†Scrivener on business trips ūüė¶

The Denouement

A Sorceress Enjoying a Good Read. By M.Q. Allen
What a sorceress would really do with her magic. Hopefully, that’s my story she’s reading.

It’s done. The first draft is finished. As with “The King is Dead! Long live the King!” the ending of a first draft is just the beginning of a lot more work but, for me anyway, it marks a significant change in the nature of the effort. Now it shifts from capture to refinement, although in this case, I need to expand one POV and add another so there is still a fair amount of capture to do. Even so, the book now has a solid skeleton: sculpting flesh isn’t the same as laying out the basic form. Both are fun, daunting though each are at the start.

This time I ended on a very short denouement, just 800 words. This is partly because as a first draft, I expect the tone to shift some as I refine the book¬†and what the denouement¬†needs to accomplish will have to shift accordingly, so why kill myself writing it, especially when I wasn’t that keen to write it. But both from writer’s resources and from critiquers, I’ve got the message to keep it short: too much after the climax can be a burden and an irritant for readers. My last book had an epilogue that some readers balked at. I’m still working on that book but the epilogue will either become an appendix or be omitted. This book, I think the ending will remain short and crisp.

As a last thought on this ending of the beginning (of the project), the FreeDictionary has the following etymology for denouement:

French dénouement, from Old French desnouement, an untying, from desnouer, to undo : des-, de- + nouer, to tie (from Latin ndre, from ndus, knot; see ned- in Indo-European roots).]

Makes me chuckle because I think of a denouement as a tying up of loss ends. But maybe the original French sense was “a release from the story” or “release from story tensions.”

Happy writing.

Writing and the False Summit

English: A fairly convincing false summit
English: A fairly convincing false summit. Hopefully you can create similarly convincing ones in your writing. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’ve ever hiked a mountain, you probably know what a false summit is: it’s the rise up¬†ahead of you on the trail that looks like the top of the mountain… but isn’t. Unless you are hiking a perfect pyramid or climbing some weird concave face, you can almost can never see the true summit until you’re almost at it. False summits aren’t as bad as you might think. If you’re a novice hiker, panting for breath at 13,500 feet wondering if you can push on for that last little bit, the lure of a tantalizingly close goal, ersatz as it may be, can help you go a little further. Even a seasoned hiker can appreciate the false summit: you know it isn’t the end of the hike but it’s a nice milestone you can focus on, ignoring the effort beyond it.

In the realm of fiction, false summits (or in this case, false climaxes) are a bit more complicated. For the reader, they can be great: you think you’re done: but wait, there’s more! There’s¬† much more that had never occurred¬†to you. And so you read on, flipping pages so fast you almost rip them from the book (or smash a hole in the screen of your e-reader, these days). For the reader, false summits are generally a wonderful thing: the book you have come to enjoy, hopefully come to love, has still more to dazzle you with. Certainly, you can over-do it as a writer but some of the best plot twists could be classified as a false summit.

Trekking in the Lebanon Mountains, Lebanon
Perhaps not a false summit bu dreamy enough for any fantasy writer: Trekking in the Lebanon Mountains, Lebanon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But false summits don’t stop there when you’re writing. We authors can find them in our on drafts. Here, they are a bit trickier. As with hiking, an ending to your book that proves to be pre-mature but helps you get that much farther in your draft isn’t bad. You may have planned at stopping at point X only to find the story isn’t really done there. However, by focusing on that point, the task of completing your first draft didn’t seem quite so daunting so you wrote that much faster and got finished that much sooner. No harm done. In fact, that’s just an example of one of the many self-delusions we writers use to goad us along (this will be the best fantasy novel ever, honest!).

Sometimes, it is a little harder to recognize the false summit. I wrote the synopsis for my first draft with an ending at a deus ex machina.¬†It wasn’t unintentional; that’s a key part of the book. But as I got into the story I quickly realized that¬†such an ending would be a cheat for the readers. Not the god swooping down from the heavens bit; that’s actually quite germane to the novel and with a lot of work, I was confident I could make that work. No, the real problem was that the book as I wrote it came to be less about this god-fellow and more about the two characters vying for his inheritance. The whole story was about the conflict between the two and I couldn’t end the story with that resolved by some long-sleeping Archon waking and setting things aright. The two had to have it out and so they have– now. Now the deus ex machine, while it still takes some effort to make it feel right for the reader, isn’t the end. I can still try to make it look like the end to the reader but the story continues to a (hopefully) satisfying resolution with the real foe. And now that,¬†the book doesn’t end with¬†a divine (-ish) intervention, it doesn’t have to be so precisely set up.

So, there’s an example of a false summit where, as a writer, I realized that the story needs more. It wasn’t right to end it there.

Fortunately, I saw that very early on but even as I wrote the climatic chapter I encountered another false summit: yesterday I told my wife I had reached the climax, only denouement to write now. Woohoo!¬†But overnight, I realized, that, too, would be a cheat. My story ends with the hero holding back a vicious dragon as his shield buckles under her assault. Then the sorceress he has been helping drops a protective magic screen in front of him, having solved a puzzle set by said earlier-mentioned Archon. As I left it yesterday, the barrier simply appears. But the sorceress is also a POV character and her struggles to solve the last puzzle couldn’t be glossed over. So today, I re-wrote it to switch to her POV before coming back to the hero at the last moment. We’ll see if it works, it is just a first draft but it feels close enough that¬†it’s off to the denouement now. I kind of knew even as I finished up yesterday that I wasn’t really at the end but it was nice little fiction to see me through the day.¬†And, of course, now this really is the best fantasy novel ever written (humor me, I still have the closing chapter to write :))

Plot Structure: Three-Acts or Pier & Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco, CA a...
The Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco, CA at sunset taken from the Marin Headlands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When you’re driving along a big bridge, ever find yourself automatically registering the bridge piers? “There’s the first pier, I’m driving to it. Now there’s the second one, driving to that. Now it’s just the last bit before the end.” If you do, you may find “Pier and Bridge” a useful mental image for your writing.

When it comes to writing, structure helps. The question is, how can a writer create structure in a¬†useful manner. For me, it’s helpful to have an understanding of plot theory and in particular, I find the three-act structure very effective for me. That said, when I’m actually writing, ideas of act structure are too nebulous for me. They don’t help me go from scene to scene. So what to do? My solution is not to toss out the concept of the three-act structure, it’s to add another representation of the plot, something more concise, something I can use as I write: pier and bridge.

Why care about structure?¬† Structure is what keeps your story building to a satisfying conclusion. Lack of it is what makes the middle sag. It’s often the ghost lurking behind writer’s block: when you aren’t sure what comes next it may be due to a lack of structure. Much good theory exists from the world of novels, plays and movies around a three act structure (a decent overview is here at wikipedia¬†but there is a lot out there if you want to google.)

Freytag's pyramid
Freytag’s pyramid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The three-act structure is not the only way to craft a story but it offers a good foundation. In it, your first act is about setting up the characters and the world they live in. It ends with an “inciting event”, something big enough and important enough to the protagonist that he needs to deal with it (“will he get the girl?”, “will he save his king?”). Act two is the “rising action”, a series of events where the protagonist finds the situation worsening despite his best efforts. Here he may meet the other characters and acquire the knowledge necessary to ultimately succeed. It typically ends with an epiphany: “Now I know what to do!” In act three, the protagonist resolves the main story and any subplots; this contains the climax. While the acts divide your story¬†into three, typically the middle act is twice as long as the first and third acts. Thinking of it as quarters, act I is the first quarter, act II is the second and third, and the final act is the fourth quarter.

A lot more can be said about the three-act structure and I’ll include a few links below but this is a tried and proven method for creating a good story arc so worth a look if you aren’t familiar with it.

So where do piers and bridges come into this? It’s another way to visualize your book. And for me, a way that is more visceral and, therefore, more useful for when I’m actually typing away. Think about the civil engineer for a moment who has to put a bridge over a river. For a narrow river, he might do a single span: foundation at each end and one arch. In plot terms, this might be your typical short story: opening scene, a middle or two scenes and a climax. No need for sub-plots or elaborate structure. For a wide river, if you try to bridge that long gap without some supports in the middle, the bridge will sag, probably¬†fall down. In story terms, the middle will be flabby, the readers will lose interest and your book will fail.

How do piers help? For a bridge, it’s simple: you sub-divide the span. For long spans, you don’t create an overaching¬†road-deck which is either very expensive or impossible. Instead, you break it up. Think Golden Gate bridge. That middle span is still big (in the three act structure, it is still half your book) but now you have a pier, a support getting you to the middle and another one getting you to the end. In book terms, you have something big that ends act one, the “inciting event”, the thing the protagonist must deal with. And at the end of the middle act, you have the epiphany, the thing the protagonists needs to be successful. Applying the bridge model to writing, you write to the piers: at the start, I need to get to the inciting event. The rest will matter, but not now. After the end of act I, great that pier is complete, now I work on the middle: I have to drive the story to the epiphany point. That’s the next pier, the next mile post. What comes after the post is nothing to worry about now. Once you’ve ended act II, now your pier, your mile post, is the climax.

I don’t mean to suggest that you shouldn’t know what the climax and intermediate piers are. It’s that once you have created these piers (in an outline, a synopsis¬†or just in your head), you can focus on writing to the immediate pier. There’s no need to worry about detail after the next pier, your task is to build a wonderful span to that next milepost. More on this in a later post, but for me knowing the three piers (the end of each act) is all I really need to do to start writing. Once I start working on the immediate¬†scene, I do like to sketch out more detail and here I may outline parts of the act as I work towards that pier. I may also do a synopsis that sketches out the other acts but I also know that¬†it will probably change a lot by the time I get to the end of each pier. It’s the piers that matter, the end of scenes. The rest I work out as the story evolves.

There are many types of writers but if you find yourself wanting some structure, liking the three-act structure, but still struggling for direction, don’t throw away the three-acts but consider visualizing it as three piers, three mile posts that you are going to write to. You may find that by focusing just on that next pier, you build a better structure since you’ll be focused on making it the best pier that you can and the “what comes later” stuff won’t distract you. For me, piers and sagging spans is a great visualization. For you it may be something else but regardless, consider structure!

Next: outline, structure: creating and using these three piers. Tipping my hand a bit, at present while the outline remains in my toolkit, it has been demoted to something used for near-term planning. In civil engineering terms, it is the scaffolding I may use to create the span to the next pier but it is just light falsework, something used only as needed and readily discarded.

Plot versus Character

Warning: Spoiler about Stephen King’s It below.

“The Myth of the Plot-Driven Story” by Allison Brennan in the May¬†RWR (Romance Writers Report)¬†has been on my mind. First off, it’s very well written and the advice is quite good. And I¬†don’t have any specific¬†objection to¬†it yet the piece rubs me wrong. It’s not that I don’t agree a novel rests on characters, it does. I don’t just believe the thing about characters¬†causally (as in “periods are good at the end of sentences now let’s get to the important stuff”), characters really matter to me and I can’t start a writing project until they feel right. But, thing is, I can’t start until setting and plot feel right either.

Allison is multi-published and teaches many seminars so I’m sure she knows her stuff. My suspicion is that she sees a lot more writers getting tripped up over plot when they should be focusing on characters. It’s very easy as a starting writer to focus more on the plot than you¬†should because, after all¬†“that’s the stuff that happens”. And you’ll be pitching plot when it comes time to sell (characters, too, of course but word association,¬†“pitch” –> “plot”). Reviews often focus on plot, especially reader reviews which often pick apart a plot. Your first thought at project start may be to¬†start creating that plot outline. So, very easy to overdo plot to the detriment of characters.

Yet, to call plot-driven stories a myth bothers me. It may be true¬†that writers tend to obsess on plot but you can overdo characters at the expense of plot as well. For that let’s turn to Stephen King, whom Allison quotes in the article:

In On Writing, Stephen King says, “Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest… I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character driven.”

Knowing full well I’m putting a gun to my head to criticize such a successful writer, I’m going to do it anyway. And caveat, I haven’t read his more recent works. But this quote¬†is coming from the guy who brought us It. Now, that’s a very good book: I’ve read it three times and enjoyed each read. And honestly, it’s clearly the characters that draw me to this story. Stop here if you don’t a spoiler because here it comes: this wonderful, engaging book with¬†characters that¬†suck me in ends with: a Space Spider as in “I can’t think of anything else but it’s time to end this book, spiders are creepy, let’s go with that.” It was an ending completely unsupported by the narrative to that point.¬†It’s the most slap-in-the-face ending I’ve ever read.

Even knowing the ending, the book pulls me back because the first 800 pages are so fun but this is clearly the work of someone who thinks¬†CHARACTERS and lets plot go where it will. And where it went was, well, stupid. It’s hard to argue with his wild success but imagine what a book like this could have been with the characterization and¬†a better plot? It could have been a classic. This post¬†isn’t about King so just a little more on him before moving on. I think his earlier, much more concise works did have a better character-plot balance and his wild success was based on that. By the mid-80s¬†some of¬† the meandering and bloat in¬†his works was due to the lack of a good plot infrastructure (and yes, he had serious personal issues at the time, too, which he successfully worked through. I like the man personally.)

As a writer, you absolutely should not get hung up on plot. One of the worst things you can do is to let an outline cripple you, both the daunting task of writing one and writing to it once it exists. But readers want plot AND character, too. Your story isn’t just about the well-drawn characters, it’s about what happens to them. Shrek the movie wouldn’t be Shrek without the ogre, princess¬†and donkey but it wouldn’t be Shrek without¬†the structure of¬†a great plot either. If a plot-driven story is a myth, so is a character-driven one. If you don’t believe me, think back to your favorite books and movies. Now imagine a “Space spider” kind of plot to it. Do you think you would have really enjoyed it as much?

Granted the exact balance point between plot and character is very much a matter of personal aesthetic, and granted there are very successful writers who go light on plot, but unless you know you’re one of them don’t forget the plot. And you won’t really know until you’re a published writer with a good following.

In case you can’t tell, I’m not a pantser but I’ve also learned that outlines don’t work for me. It was quite liberating to throw them away (mostly, I do use them sometimes when I’m just about to write a specific scene or or chapter). More on that in a following post.

There’s a lot of other viewpoints out there. Here’s a few.