Story VS Technical Exercise

“Technical exercises have the power of breaking existing rules and in some cases can become so well known that they become an accepted style. They can come full circle to become a rule… ‘

If you are wanting to write speculative fiction and you happen to be researching advice on the best ways to go about doing it, you will start to notice a trend in much of the instruction you are consuming. You will hear a large group of people tell you that there are rules that must be followed and your work must contain certain structures, character arcs, and thematic elements. You will also hear people tell you to just follow your heart and write whatever you feel is best and that the story will come on its own without it needing to be on rails. Some folks may even tell you that rules were made to be broken. Others will tell you to never, ever, break the rules.

Here is something I have not heard anybody mention yet and I think it is a pretty crucial piece of the puzzle. Everything they are saying is correct but it is not always correct because it is not universally applicable. The mistake we make as writers who are wanting to learn is assuming that all of the people teaching us are talking about the same delicious story cake, when in truth half of them are talking about tasty story pie. If you have ever tried to make a cake using a pie recipe you quickly learned that they are not really interchangeable. You end up with a mess.

You can avoid a whole bunch of trouble and shenanigans by deciding what you are trying to do before you start drafting your work. What I mean by that, is a full commitment to one of the two camps and making creative decisions based on that knowledge. This realization I think would have saved many authors from failing in their goals.

But I don’t know which one I’m doing? How can a story not be a story? What nonsense are you speaking?”

You may be asking yourself these very questions right now, and fear not because I’m going to dive right in and answer them help you make sense of it.

First off, lets address an elephant in the room. That would be the notion that a technical exercise is not valid as a story or is in some way inferior to a traditional story. This is not true at all. A well done technical exercise can be amazing and some of the most interesting pieces of media (books, films, shows, games, etc) fall into this category. Technical exercises have the power of breaking existing rules and in some cases can become so well known that they become an accepted style. They can come full circle to become a rule.

How do you know if you are looking at a technical exercise or not? The answer is simple, especially if you like the product. Make up a friend and describe it to them right now (or if you have a real friend you can try that as well). What is the hook? What are the selling points that you would use to convince your imaginary (or real) friend to check out said media? That is your answer.

Lets look at the movie “The Sixth Sense” which is a great example of a technical exercise. When most people talk about this movie they are discussing the twist ending. They may talk about how when the re-watched the movie it changed the experience for them as they now saw events with the knowledge of the twist.

You know what they don’t talk about as much? Character arcs. Themes. You don’t hear about the level of empathy they felt for the protagonist. Everything cool about the story comes from the execution of the twist. Standard story elements had to be discarded if they would compromise the goal and betray the twist. When the creator had to make a creative choice it was to serve the ending over a traditional narrative.

I have had a previous career in music and love music. You can see the same sort of thing happen there as well. Lets look at a couple of my favorite artists and see this concept from another view. I am a huge Joe Satriani fan. I am also a massive Dream Theater fan. These are very, very different artists. Both have exceptional talent on their instruments, but they approach their creations in different ways. When I listen to Satriani, I am looking for a strong melody and an easy to catch groove that I can just vibe with in the background. Almost anyone can listen to his music without it being too abrasive. When I listen to Dream Theater, it feels more like an athletic event. When the ending of Metropolis Pt. 1 comes on I am still amazed that five human beings were able to pull it off together. Sometimes they hit a great melody and a cool groove, but that is not why I put on Dream Theater. The times they do hit those things its like a bonus. If I want to chill, I’m probably not going to jam a twenty minute Dream Theater track. I have to be in the right mood for that. Dream Theater is the musical version of a technical exercise. They are not any less valid than Satriani, they just provide a different experience.

If I were to explain the music to a friend I would be telling them how “If I Could Fly” by Satriani makes me feel hopeful and happy. I would tell them how “The Dance of Eternity” by Dream Theater is so insane that they won’t believe how many meter changes are involved. See (hear?) the difference.

Both are important and valid. But they are not the same. All of this talk was just to help you realize that there is nothing wrong in breaking rules, as long as you realize that you are now playing a different game. I would have a hard time getting a pop or country fan seriously interested in Dream Theater, and it is not because of the genre difference. It is because they are wanting something out of music that is harder to find in a technical exercise. They will probably appreciate the talent involved but they most likely won’t become a major fan.

Lets keep the music example going just a tad longer (yeah,yeah, I know you want to write. Trust me this will come full circle). Lets look at a traditional song structure. Like a country waltz. This style of music is done in 3/4 or 6/8 and it has to be so that the people at the country bar can dance to it. I know this for a fact because one time on a country gig I had to play Silver Wings for thirty minutes. It sucked. But the old folks danced and I got paid so whatever. Could you imagine how upset those people would have been if we added a beat and played it in 7/8? What about just good ol’ common 4/4 time. It would not work and it would be a mess. If I want to write a waltz I must make it in the proper feel or it will not be a waltz anymore. It might be cool but it won’t be right and people that want to dance a waltz will notice right away and not be pleased.

The same goes for writing stories. You can tell what you have cooking by what excites you about the story. Is it your cool main character, the world, or the magic system? Or is it how you have planned to completely subvert an expectation on an existing trope? Is it the deep theme you have a personal connection with? Or is it the surprise ending that no one will see coming? You need to know before you start or you are going to make a mess.

You might be thinking that you can do both, and maybe you can as long as you never have to choose. If you come to a point in the story where you must go one way or the other you will be forced to double down. Breaking standard storytelling rules insures that you are probably going to be strolling down to that fork in the road sooner or later. If you have not decided beforehand which way you are going you and the project are going to end up lost.

If you want to write a traditional story, there are rules that you absolutely should not break. If you come to a crossroads where you have to pick between doing something that you think is super cool and creative or keeping the narrative crisp and flowing you must chose the story first or things will be worse for it.

On the other hand, with a technical exercise you must always choose the “hook” even if it is over the story. You can’t have it both ways or you will have a sucky story and a sucky technical exercise. You have to commit.

What would a fiction technical exercise be like? What if you wanted to write an entire book but never use the word “the.” I would buy this right now just to see how you pulled it off. Even if the story and characters were just phoned in. Because the characters and the story would be secondary to the technique. I’m reading this to see how you got around using the word “the” not to find out if Bob-a-Louie the hero gets the Golden McGuffin. Can you imagine how tough that would be? You would have to do a lot of wordy workarounds. It’s interesting. Now, if you could do that AND have a killer story too. Well, that is the sort of thing that make careers. (NOTE: I have no plans to do this. Feel free to write a story without using the word “the” and tell me about it in the comments.)

Being able to do a technical exercise is tough because you need to have a good grasp of the rules of traditional story telling so that you can break one of them in an interesting way. If that is your goal, I would recommend cutting your teeth on a standard story first and then moving on to your dream project. But you do you.

If you are wanting to tell a standard story then I would recommend you not stray far off the rules for best results. Those things are there for a reason, and if you are not actively trying to break them you probably should pay attention to them.

Now some of you are probably thinking that following the rules limits your creative powers. To this I say hogwash. I will have post in the future where I discuss the powers of creating within parameters and how I feel that it unlocks more creative potential than just an empty space of freedom. But I will leave you with a last musical example to drive the point home. Lets look at that waltz again.

What if I wanted to write a waltz. But a crazy waltz. I can do this. I can use heavy distorted guitars and throw in a death metal drummer. I can hire Dani Filth from Cradle of Filth to sing (err..screech) the vocals. I could get a banjo player and then have a distorted clarinet in the band also. (This is a crazy example but I kinda want to hear this. Do you? Tell me in the comments). As long as I put the meter in 3/4 or 6/8 it will still be a waltz. Is it cookie cutter cut and paste. Not hardly. Is it fresh and creative? Yeah. Would anybody buy this? Probably not.

But I could still do it and it would still be a waltz.

So what are you guys working on? Traditional story or Technical Exercise? Let me know in the comments.

Front Loaded Fantasy Series

“It was like they took his baby, promised him to feed it, and then fed the baby into a wood chipper…”

Here is an interesting thought for all of you at home. Have you ever been invested in a story series (novels, T.V., or film) and found yourself wondering about some of the creative choices as it went on (looking at you Dexter). Sometimes they nail it and it is so amazing when they do (Breaking Bad or Marvel’s Infinity Saga come to mind). Other times it can feel like the creative minds lost their way somewhere (Star Wars: 7,8, and 9 or Dexter post season 4). While some of the parts of these later installments work, there are many things that sometimes feel out of place. People like to point fingers and say things like the creative team is out of touch, or hate the fans, or have an agenda or any combination of those. I don’t think that is probably the case. Why would someone who hates an I.P. spend a big chunk of time and money on it to purposely have it fail?

I think a major part of the problem is the uncomfortable reality that when the original parts of the story were created there was no way to know if it would be successful. If the first book, movie, or pilot show bombs there will not be more. This reality scares the creators away from playing a long game. And who can blame them. Why work so hard to set up something in the future when there is very large chance that the future will never come. Instead they focus on the here and now (the local story for a single book, episode of a show, or a movie). With a bit of a track record they may look a bit bigger (the regional story such as we see in a trilogy).

When a story became successful enough to justify exploring a larger world, the writers and teams behind these stories were now painted into various corners by what had come before and had to do their best with what they had to work with. This always came with mixed results for the final product, and the longer it went on the more challenging it would grow.

That was the way things used to be, but now the world is a different place and perhaps those of us that create stories for any medium are no longer bound by the same fears. You can self publish a 27 volume work about a cat with an elephant trunk for a tail that battles a two headed kangaroo named Jeffery for world domination. No one can stop you. Maybe no one will care (I actually might read that, so if you want to do it feel free to take the idea), but you can still do it. This opens up some possibilities.

What would happen if you treated the fantasy series like one story? More importantly, what would happen if you wrote the fantasy series like one story? But wait, you say, that sounds like a whole bunch of work. Of course it does. But if your goal was to write a fantasy series, and assuming that you pulled it off and found an audience, you would be doing it anyway. But you might find yourself facing some of the problems above.

I like the Harry Potter series. I thought it was inventive and unique and it was absolutely successful in capturing the minds of an entire generation of kids. One of the coolest parts for me was the concept of the Deathly Hallows. What a killer idea. But look where we first hear of it. It shows up in the last book, the very place we need it. This is not a slight on J.K. Rowling at all. This is just how it went down, not just for her but for lots of us. I have never spoke to her and I can’t say for a fact, but I suspect that she came up with this killer idea as she was working out the last entry. Of course she had to use it, it’s great.

But what if she had planned out the entire series as a single story prior to starting book one and knew exactly where it would end. The concept of the Deathly Hallows could have been introduced even if just in passing as early as the first book and the readers could have learned more as the series progressed. When it was finally revealed as a major player in the endgame of the story it would have been a huge payoff for seeds that had been planted years ago.

What if Dexter had worked all eight seasons (we would not have needed the ninth in this case) to function together. The Bay Harbor Butcher storyline could have been built up to towards the final season and things could have played out more like Clive Phillips original plans for the character. How would it have looked if the global narrative (the entire series run) was fed by the regional narrative (each season’s overall story) and both elevated by the local story (each episode). What a different and yet potentially more cohesive story it would have been.

I also loved Game of Thrones (books and first few seasons) and I feel like George R.R. Martin was a victim of his own success. When his story became large enough to make a massive T.V. series out of it, it was a moment of incredible success for him. The fact that the first several seasons of the show were outstanding was due to the fact they were faithfully derived from his work. But he had not finished his story yet, and the show had to go on. When others tried to take his baby and wrap it up for him after outrunning the source material the quality dropped and things did not go so well. It was like they took his baby, promised him to feed it, and then fed the baby into a wood chipper. This is not a slight on Martin either. This is just the way it went down.

But what if he had finished it prior to the first book coming out? What would that have looked like? Sadly, we will never know.

Consider for a moment the way that many people consume stories now. I love the marvel universe and I’m digging the shows as they come out on Disney+. You know what I hate though? Waiting. Waiting sucks. So what do I do? Yep, I wait until all the shows have dropped so I can binge them at my own pace. Sometimes I can even get Lily to watch them with me. I am not alone in this. Several people want to experience their stories in this way. Could we do the same with books? Why not? If an author front loaded an entire series couldn’t the publisher drop a book a month and keep the hype and momentum going? Please explain to me in the comments why they could not do this.

By front end loading your entire series you have absolute control over the global, regional, and local stories (each with their own structures) that make it up.

The first book in the series could drop and have a normal run in trying to build an audience, but as it found success the time table could reflect that. If you died before book six came out, no big deal. Your estate could release the rest and your readers would get to finish the story they invested in. Your publisher could rest easy because they would not have to wonder if you were capable of finishing the series, because it would already be done. Seems like a win win for the creator and the audience. This sounds like madness as I type it and the work load seems enormous, and yet I so badly want to do it.

Imagine having total control over the character arcs based on the entire series. Being able to foreshadow, set-up, and pay-off everything. Being able to make discoveries at the end and re-work the front end to make sure it all lines out because it has not been released. Being able to ensure that all your characters are staying true over the entire course.

It is easy to say that this would be a foolish waste of effort. Why? They will tell you the odds of success are so low that no one may ever publish it and if you self publish no one will read it. This may be true, but something I learned in other arts was that you needed to prepare yourself for not only failing in your goal, but also for getting a small amount of success and also for huge success. If you don’t think that your work can stand with the others, you need to keep working it.

There is no excuse to release halfway done art. If you are only going to put your best effort into your work after you are successful than you probably won’t be. If your story must be told, than it is your job, no your responsibility, to make it the best version of your art that it can be. If your goal is only to be published, you would not try this. But if your goal is to tell your story in the best way possible, and your story is a series, well…maybe this is not so crazy.

Anyway. I’m doing this.

Absolutely tell me you think I’m a moron in the comments if you think that. I will also accept any advice you may have. I am documenting my journey and the things I try and learn along the way. If this totally fails you can learn by my mistakes (oh yeah, that Millsap guy tried that and we all saw how that went…har har har).

But…but what if I’m right?

Good luck with your projects everyone.

Where Are You At Today?

“Are you planning, pantsing, revising, or siting back collecting those fat royalty checks…”

Are you writing a book or a series? If you are, at what point are you finding yourself right here, right now.

Everybody has a different process. Honestly, I think that the discovery of that process for yourself is quite a bit of the fun. It is absolutely needed for growth. Creating a novel is a lot of work. Even more so if you are making a series. I am trying to make a series. All at once (yeah, crazy I know).

I have split my series into four parts which I call chronicles. Each chronicle is made up of episodes. Each episode functions as a smaller story (the local story as I call it) that has its own protagonist and plot beats. The episodes feed into the narrative of the chronicle which also has its own plot beats (the regional story). The four chronicles feed into the main story of the series (the global story) and as you may have guessed by this point, it has its own plot beats as well.

Today I have been focusing on the first chronicle and trying out different arrangements of protagonists and plot beats to find the best arrangement for this portion of the series. This is a fun time as it includes a lot of discovery about my characters and the various factions that they are part of.

I’m using paper and pen and sitting outside jotting down ideas and smoking cigars as I brainstorm. This also involves pacing around my porch and talking to myself like a lunatic while I sort through my ideas. My neighbors probably think I am on some sort of strange drug. This is an important part of my process though (and why I prefer to do this alone, much to the annoyance of my son who wants to sit outside with me. But thanks to the magic of school being back in session I don’t have to shoo him back inside.)

Once I have some great ideas I come back to the computer and use Evernote to list down concepts or characters (see my thoughts on this free note taking software in this previous post:

When considering some of my ideas for story events I use Scapple (this is made by Literature & Latte, yep the Scrivener folks) to mind map out these interactions and move them around. Scapple is great for this and it only cost me $20 bucks several years ago. I have used this software often for not only this type of application but also in the corporate environment as well. I do have mind mapping capabilities in Aeon Timeline as well, but for very basic roughing out I prefer Scapple. It is simple and designed to do one thing. And it does it well.

I probably have a couple more days of this before I’m ready to move on. Thankfully I have already completed most of this work on the second and fourth chronicles which were the main servings of story grade meat and potatoes. So I am not as far in the early stages of this as it might appear.

Where are you guys at today? Tell me in the comments. Are you planning, pantsing, revising, or siting back collecting those fat royalty checks from the successful project you have already completed. I’d love to hear about it.

Good luck on your project.

State of the Story: Up to Aug 21, 2022

“Did you guys know that just because you work hard at something that it does not mean it is good?”

Time for the first update on the progress of this very large project.

One of the reasons I wanted to do this blog was to keep track of the progress on my story. I think that most of these should be short and sweet but not this first one as I need to give a solid history of how I got to this point (since there is no blog record prior to today). I’ll keep it brief. If you are a subscriber and looking for my thoughts, tips, or product reviews you may want to skip this one. If you are a writer yourself and want a view into how things are over here on my side of the fence go ahead and keep reading.

The premise and world for my story came into being around 2007 when my brother convinced me to play DnD for the first time. I had never tried a tabletop role playing game and told him I would do it as long as we could set it in our own world and I could DM the thing. And so we did. I’m not going to lie, the world and the adventures we had were absolutely silly and bonkers (It was set in the world of Middle Girth and featured ducks). There was something about the premise though that stayed with me (I like ducks, what can I say).

In 2016, many years after the end of the roleplaying game, the premise still bounced around the back of my head. One day I had a thought about what that world would look like if I took the premise and instead of being silly with it treated it with complete seriousness (Obviously the setting location changed). That altered things for me and I ended up with pages of questions. As I started answering them I realized that I did have a very unique start for a story.

I had never written a novel before, but I had done plenty of other work including short stories, poems, blog posts, magazine articles, interactive fiction games, and employee field guides and handbooks. In addition to that I had also spent quite a bit of time in music both composing and performing and had become comfortable with self editing and the need for revising ones art prior to release.

Without any guides I just opened up Word and started the prologue. Obviously my world was so unique and strange that I needed to give significant backstory so that a reader would not be lost. Right? 10,000 words later I was still in the prologue and I realized that this was not working out. I just could not put my finger on why.

I stopped writing the story for a moment and started learning. I wanted to traditionally publish for the same reason I wanted a real record deal when I was doing music. There is nothing wrong with self releasing an album or a book but there is a certain amount of validation that comes from putting enough work and effort into pulling it off the ol’ fashion way. I wanted that. I had done it with music and felt that if I worked hard enough I could do it with fiction also.

There are three large components of that goal. One is, of course, having a very tightly polished product that people will want to consume. Another is having a large knowledge base of how the industry you are wanting to integrate into works. The third, sadly, is luck.

I knew I could not do a whole lot to increase my luck so I needed to focus on the other two. Imagine for a moment that your goal was to play professional, high stakes, Hop Scotch. You would not be very successful if you did not really know the rules. What if, at the pro level, Hop Scotch had different rules than on the playground. Like they force players to chug scotch prior. This changes things. It would be foolish to try it without prior knowledge (and building up enough tolerance for Scotch to be able to chug it and then jump around without barfing). Expecting the powers that be to change the rules of pro Hop Scotch because you don’t like them or find them constraining is ludicrous. The odds of success for you if you tired would be lower and it would be your fault.

As I started learning the rules and expectations for writing fiction one of the first I learned was word counts. Did you guys know that, if you are a new and unpublished author, that there are word counts that your manuscript needs to stay within the margins of? I did not. These things matter because if you send your baby off to an agent and it is not in the margins it will probably be chunked into the “nope” pile and never be looked at. Are there exceptions to this? Of course. Are you or I one of them. Probably not. Do you want to hedge a bet on this? Long shots are not great shots (unless you pull it off, of course).

For fantasy or sci-fi works you are looking at 100,000-120,000 words. That means it better be longer than the former but you probably better not cross the later. If you want to be the exception all you need to do is get published and sell well, after that you can go longer without scaring the powers that be. This is why the first Harry Potter book was much shorter than the last one. Remember when I said my prologue was 10,000 words? Yeah, I had not even introduced a main character or premise yet. The story, while very interesting, was already doomed and I had not even warmed up yet.

I took my new found word count knowledge and tweaked my ideas and then took another crack at it. Thanks to NaNoWriMo 2018 I was able to wrap up my first draft on my story. It clocked in at 106,400 words. Heck yeah folks it was time to publish. (SPOILER ALERT: it was not.)

I had worked so hard and I was so proud of it. I sent it out to some beta readers and I waited for the praise and adoration that was without a doubt heading my way. Except that it didn’t. The readers were confused. There were too many characters. Nobody seemed to care.

Did you guys know that just because you work hard at something that it does not mean it is good? Let me know in the comments if you already know that because I did not and it came up and took a large bite out of my ego.

At first I was bummed, but then I took a look at it the same way I did musical composition. It was obviously in need of revision and then it would be perfect. I had always heard people talk about how important revision was, so this made sense to me. I felt better and got to work learning again.

I bought a ton of books and read them as well as everything I could find online. In the end the two that helped me the most were “Story Fix” and “Story Engineering” by Larry Brooks. I suddenly understood structure in a way that had eluded me before. When I looked at the major beats of my story (Inciting Incident, Plot Point 1, Mid Point Turn, Plot Point 2, and Climax) I was able to see that they were not in the right places and that was killing my pacing.

The other thing that saved my bacon and taught me so much about myself was Susan Dennard’s website info on revising. I did her index card and post-it note method for every scene in my book (this took about three months) and I found out another major problem I had. There was a lack of tension in most my scenes.

Do you guys know that if you have a book that is poorly paced and missing tension that it probably sucks? It does. Mine did. But the premise and characters were strong. I had a great idea. My execution was just lacking. A lot. Revision was not going to make my manuscript perfect. What it needed was to be burnt to a crisp and reworked from the ground up.

I took a year off and just let my brain mull over the premise and continued to learn. I studied, not writing, but story creation. I looked at how people that make movies and television shows worked. I looked at how different authors worked. I tried to apply the knowledge into something that would help me.

In early 2021, events beyond my control found me in Louisiana with some time on my hands and I knew it was the moment to get back into this and wrap this story up. I already knew I could write a book because I had done it already. But this time, this time I was determined to execute the story in the best way possible. So I began pre-planning the pre-planning planning.

I realized that this story will take more than one book and so now it is a series but I’m planning it like it is a single story. Because to me it is. And so I shall keep you updated on the progress. Will I do it? Will I give up? Will it still suck? Will I sell tens of copies and potentially become a hundrednaire? Stick around and find out folks. Leave your thoughts in the comments on how you think I’m on the right track? Leave some thoughts if you think I’m a moron? Absolutely leave any advice or warnings.

Good luck on your projects folks.

Forevernote: Pre-Story Bible Ooze Filter

“Oooo…wait, what if over time the fourth leg, of which they are now missing, got sucked up through their bodies and became the third jaw…”

If you are writing fantasy or sci-fi you have probably heard about the concept of a story bible. Other genres may use them as well, but if you are building a world from scratch that is much different from our own it is almost a requirement. There are lots of great videos and blogs out there that can help you come up with ideas for a story bible if you have not made one before but would like to try. Some folks make theirs the old fashioned way (lets go buy some notebooks, yay) and some use computers. I like to use World Anvil myself, though there are plenty of platforms to choose from.

This post is not about making a story bible, but all the stuff that comes before. The primordial ooze from which the first ideas for your world crawl out and evolve into the final product for your readers. What do you do with all of that material? Did you ever happen to see George Lucas’s first design for Han Solo? It was like a cross between Shrek and Voldemort. That absolutely did not make it into the story bible (or whatever he was using) because the concept changed in a drastic way (thank goodness) during the creation process.

When I first started using World Anvil (which I will dedicate an entire future post to at some point) I got distracted easily. It was so simple to just keep going down a rabbit hole. O.K. I made a page about the village of the three legged dog people. Wait, I can link another page about the strange thorny vegetation that only they can eat because they have developed three jaws inside their mouths. Oooo…I can list another page about how they evolved into having three jaws based on the movements of migratory beetles in their habitat. Oooo…wait, what if over time the fourth leg, of which they are now missing, got sucked up through their bodies and became the third jaw. This can go on and on and on. While this is fun and cool, the story bible ends up becoming a bigger project than the book. Especially when you realize that the three legged dog people are only mentioned in passing once in dialogue. None of this matters. The need to keep it streamlined is paramount. (NOTE: The above was an example only. My current project does not feature three jawed, three legged, dog people. Any similarity to any actual people or dogs (or migratory beetles) are purely coincidental.)(NOTE PART 2: If your story happens to include dog people with any number of legs or jaws (and/or migratory beetles) please tell me about it in the comments. I would be interested in reading it.)

I ended up having a whole bunch of notebooks and index cards with randomly written thoughts, ideas, cool names, and interesting concepts scrawled inside. I did this so I would not forget, but then when I needed something I had no idea where to find it.

Recently I started using a program called Evernote. It is free (always a plus). They do have paid subscription plans but I don’t think you need it for pre-pre planning. The great thing about it is the structure uses a thing called notebooks. I made a notebook for names. Inside the notebook I started notes for people, places, and things. Next I grabbed a stack of my handwritten notebooks and started flipping through them. Every time I found a cool name I added it to Evernote. Next I plan on making notes for ideas related to factions and so on. There are many templates that you can use to help you with character bios and other story planning chores as well. It’s a pretty good tool, especially for the price (free).

The difference between this and a story bible, is that this is just a junk drawer for the brain. If I need a new character name I can just pull up the list. When I get down to making the final the version of a faction I can look at all my ideas and cherry pick the best ones to include in the story bible. It’s like a filter for brain ooze. This helps keep my story bible what I need it to be which is a reference for the things in my story to keep everything consistent.

I used to use mind mapping software for this kind of thing, but since I was not connecting ideas, just mostly listing concepts, the mind map was not the best choice. I like Evernote for this better as the notebook concept really mirrors what I was using real notebooks for, just in a more organized fashion. Also, since it is online I don’t have to worry about losing the material. Maybe they should have called the platform Forevernote instead. Somebody get me on their marketing team.

As for the negatives? Well, I have no desire to upgrade the plan as I am perfectly fine with the free version. I can only use three widgets on the home page (I don’t need this many so it is not a deal breaker but it might be for you). The background can not be changed or customized at all. This means that I am stuck with the coffee cup background. Good thing is I like coffee. I like cups. I think that cups are the best way to have coffee (if you have tried to drink coffee out of a napkin before you know what I’m talking about. Cups for the win.) Do I want to see a coffee cup every time I open Evernote. Nahhhh. Do I care enough to pay to be able to change it. Nahhhh.

Yes, I realize that pre-planning the planning might be on the extreme side of things, even for plotters. But hey, that’s how I roll.

If you want to try Evernote here is a link for you:

If you have tried Evernote and love it, let me know in the comments. If you have tried Evernote and would rather soak your pelvis in army ants rather than use it again, let me know in the comments. If you think this whole idea is moronic, let me know in the comments.

Good luck with your projects folks.

Tech, Tech, Tech

“Notebooks are freaking magical folks. I love buying a notebook almost as much as I like using it. Actually, I think I like buying the notebook more.”

I had always enjoyed writing. When I was a wee lad way back in the day (I mean wayyyyyy back) in elementary school I was writing short stories and poems. By the time I was a teenager my short stories had taken on a very wannabe Lovecraft feel. This was fine by me. I loved Lovecraft. Sadly, however, the world already had plenty of Lovecraft clones and my contributions were easily pegged for what they were. Later on I would would write blog posts and the occasional article for an online magazine. I would also dabble in nonfiction by creating field guides and employee manuals for a couple of the companies that I worked for.

Why am I telling you this? What does all of it mean? Where is the common thread compelling me to spend the above paragraph telling you about it?

Don’t fret, I will not keep you in suspense for long. Here is the answer: They are short.

It was not difficult for me to crack open Word and spit out a serving of one of the above. Usually I could wrap up a short story, article, or blog in a single night or two at the most.

When I sat down for the first shot at my novel in 2016 I tried to do it the same way. 10,000 words later I was still in the prologue and had not introduced my main character yet. Uh-oh. My previous system was not working for me on a large scale work.

I had no idea how to write a novel. A quick check of the acceptable word counts for a first time fantasy or sci-fi work told me that I needed to have between 100,000-120,000 words. I was on track to have way too many and the odds of it being picked up by an agent out the gate was not looking good just on that point alone. I needed a plan. I needed to come up with a ton of information and then not forget any of it. I started using Scrivener instead of Word and found that it was a lifesaver for me.

I needed to find a system for me to keep track of the information I was coming up with. I decided to do what many of us do and I got a whole bunch of notebooks and index cards. Notebooks are freaking magical folks. I love buying a notebook almost as much as I like using it. Actually, I think I like buying the notebook more. And they are cheap. Consequently, I have several notebooks with all kinds of notes scribbled in them with no real order. This was problem when I just knew that I had come up with an awesome name for a salt marsh and wrote it down. Somewhere. On a random page in one of the zillion notebooks laying around.

Note cards were just as bad. I love them. I love to color code them (Sir Mongoloid only gets blue index cards. That way I know it is his. Even though I’m the guy that made it up and it is doubtful that I will become confused.) Note cards are very helpful when I’m organizing scenes. Until I spill something on them (not fun) or misplace them in the stack of notebooks (also not much fun). I did use the notecard and notebook system along with Scrivener to churn out a 106,000 word draft of the story. It was a mess. The premise was good, but I needed to be better organized.

These problems led me to search out various technological solutions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not only interested in using tech. There is no way I could give up the hands on feel of cards and notebooks. But, I needed to get more organized and thought a hybrid approach might work for me. In future posts I will let you know what I am currently using, how I feel about it, and if I plan to continue to do so and if I would recommend it.

What do you guys use for tracking your pre-writing planning. Let me know in the comments and I just might check it out myself.

And Here We Are…

Another day, another blog. Well, sort of anyway.

I have spent the last few years working very hard on a story that just refuses to leave me alone. That journey has been both difficult but also very insightful and in turn has led me to wanting to chronicle what I suspect will be the attempt that works for me. I feel that I should do this for a couple of reasons. One is very personal. I think being able to look back and reflect on what I am attempting to do and how my thoughts on it evolved over time will be valuable. The second is to share the things that I have learned, am still learning, and will learn with anyone else who is also on this road. At the very least, my failures and mistakes that creep in along the way should be educational. Failing that, there is always the entertainment value of watching someone else eat it hard, so there is that for you folks at home as well.

Writing a story is more than just stringing some interesting words together. The bulk of the things that I am learning about now are what I feel are the very heart of what defines a “good” book from a “bad” one. These are the elements of story. They cross medium and are found in movies, shows, plays, comics, novels and any other platform you can think of that delivers a fictional narrative (Interactive Fiction anyone?).

One thing I discovered very quickly was that there is no shortage of blogs, books, and videos that you can find to help you learn about these things. This is a double edged sword as there is so much content that it becomes impossible to navigate all of it. In addition to this, much of the material presented is in some cases delivered by people who are convinced that they have all the answers and their answers are the only right ones. This is not right. In many cases, they are not right either. Now right shifts over to wrong and you are still sitting there trying to figure out what to do next. And yet, there is so much worthwhile content that you come to the crossroads of trying to decide what nuggets of wisdom you can pull from various places and what you need to shake off. If you are not very careful, you will spend all of your time learning and no time doing. Wasn’t the point of this for you to become a better writer. Distraction and in many cases feelings of being overwhelmed can bog you down to where you never get anything done.

The mistake that I made in the beginning, and one that you might be making now yourself, was forgetting that I was not looking for what was right. I was looking for what was right for me. The end goal was to produce the highest quality version of my story that I could. No one would ever know (unless you read this blog) what my process was to produce the work. And frankly, who cares what I did to produce the work as long as it was ethical and I was not killing babies, burning down the rainforest, or murdering homeless folks. All that really matters in the end is the work. Does it work? Was it executed at the highest level that I could achieve? Did I take the time to really polish it?

In subsequent posts I will discuss what I have learned so far as well as the things I am attempting to do to produce my best version of this story. Do I have all the answers? No. Is what I’m doing the best way to do this? I don’t know. Should you try this yourself? Maybe.

What you should do is take a look at what I have found and what I am doing and see if it may apply to you. Remember, I don’t know everything. Heck, the older I get the less I feel like I know about anything. But if you see something that might work, or help you, try it. Take it. Bend it all up. Make it your own. Share it with the next person. If you find something that you don’t like are does not work for you, drop it like a rabid wolverine.

Good luck on your journey with your story. I have no doubt it will be excellent when it is done.

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