Friday, April 16, 2021

The Joys of Scrivener--My Favorite Software for Organizing Your Book-in-Progress

Before I wrote books, I wrote stories, essays, and poems, columns and articles. Short stuff. Short stuff doesn't require that much organization. I had a friendly relationship with Word and Pages. I kept files of the multiple versions of my short stories, for example, in separate files within Word--not so hard to scan and use if needed. I often printed hard copies and kept a file folder until the piece was published. I used an Excel spreadsheet to track where I sent writing and what happened to it.

Totally manageable.

Then I began writing books. Within months, pages accumulated. Way beyond anything my short stuff generated. I was swamped in paper, with no great way to organize it.

Word was no longer my friend. Too hard to search 300+ pages for a scene, too hard to avoid duplicating what I'd already written. I could no longer easily track each version of the book as drafts accumulated. Sure, I could do a whole-document search for word repetition, but more complicated searches were beyond clumsy. And if I wanted to shift the order of chapters? Well, forget it.

I began looking around for something more streamlined. More geared to book writers.

Twelve of my books got written and published before Scrivener came along. A friend showed me how to set it up and transfer my chapters from Word.

Scrivener has saved my writing sanity. And many of my students' and clients' as well.

Tons of programs exist. I haven't tried very many of them, truthfully, since Scrivener works so well for me. Most, though, are plain text, no formatting ability. Not the sophistication of Scrivener, in my mind.

Scrivener was developed by a writer in Cornwall, UK, who was unsatisfied with the mechanics of what was out there. He wanted to be able to import images, different fonts and text, and other options into his documents--easily--and still have the ability to keep track of the overview via a sidebar list.

The result is light years beyond anything I've used--and you may be as devoted as I am. Like I said, It does take setup time, to import your current document, but for the way I write books, it's perfect. I can craft "islands" or scenes and log them as individual documents on my sidebar list, then begin to group them into folders as my chapters build. If I am missing a scene, I can easily create a placeholder for it on the sidebar list. Best of all, if I decide scene 2.4 really belongs in chapter 10, not chapter 2, I can move it on the sidebar list and it automatically moves in the document itself.

Scrivener also takes care of the multiple versions of any scene, chapter, or act. The feature called "snapshot" allows you to take a picture of each version. They are stored with the current version and can be accessed in a click. You can decide part of an earlier draft was way better and paste it in with no trouble. Try doing that in Word--yikes.

Another thing I love about Scrivener is the ability to bring in visual or written research and view it either in the notes or in a split screen as you work.

There are so many features of Scrivener that I haven't even tapped, even though I've taken four classes on it. I use what I need, and when I'm ready to learn more, I go for another class.

Scrivener for iPad came out a while back. I'm still learning it, but there are tutorials if you're interested. All versions are available at both for PC and Mac. They offer a 30-day free trial, so you can test drive before buying.

It's good to set aside 2-3 hours to set up your draft in Scrivener. You are given different templates to start with (I use the fiction template). Then you basically copy and paste in your islands, scenes, or chapters from Word or Pages. It helps to sit with someone who knows Scrivener, as I did, while you get set up. There are also some good tutorials here.

I also recommend taking a class from Gwen Hernandez, who wrote Scrivener for Dummies. Gwen is an excellent instructor and her online courses take you through basic setup and use of Scrivener tools, through advanced levels. Check out her Scrivener Classes when you're ready to get started. I also highly recommend Alison Murphy's online classes; Alison teaches through Grub Street, a writing school in Boston. You can find out more about when Alison will offer the class on Grub Street's website or click here.

I wish I'd found Scrivener when I first began writing books. There's a lot about the software even now, after many years of using and loving it, that I don't yet know. The compile feature is still a challenge for me, but it works more than not. I'm learning a lot of other tricks as I need them.

Your weekly writing exercise is to download the free trial, if you haven't tested it out. If you already use Scrivener, check out the tutorial link, above, and try working with snapshot or one of the other extras.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Power Positions--How to Increase the Tension in Characters and Locations

"Who's on first?"

We're not talking baseball. We're asking: Who is the power person in a particular scene? Who is the character that holds the control over present and future outcomes? Who will most easily score the home run?

Once I identify that player, I can begin to work the elements of tension in my fiction and memoir more skillfully.

To create tension, two or more elements of power combine, and one wins out. Just like people try to exert control over their lives every day. so must characters on the page. Story is about that give and take, that gain and loss of control over oneself and one's circumstances.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Enter Late, Leave Early--A Great Piece of Writing Advice for Chapters

Not everyone wants to pay for an MFA degree, and I didn't either, for a long time, until I started writing fiction and realized I knew nothing about it. I'd been published for years in memoir and nonfiction, but fiction was truly another animal. I researched schools, found one, got accepted, and began. In those two years, I learned a lot I didn't know, but one particular piece of advice reshaped my understanding of chapters, scenes, and books.

It was this: Enter late, leave early.

I learned, after graduation, that this slogan is widely known among screenwriters. Less so among novelists or short story writers, although it's just as valuable to us. William Goldman and David Morell wrote it as "jump in late, leave early." It applies to scenes, to chapters, to the entire book, in my mind. But I find it most useful in chapters.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Finding the Shape of the Forest-- Learning How to Read Your Own Work

I'll never forget the writer who approached me many years ago, asking me to read her work. "I can't read it myself," she said. "It makes me too upset."

I asked her, out of curiosity, how she went about reading it.

"On the computer, of course," she told me. "I edit every sentence as I go." She shook her head. "I haven't made it past chapter seven."

Over the years since, I've spoken to other writers who literally hate to read their work. They want someone else to do the deed and tell them what to fix. Totally understandable. A client emailed me this week about how she "can't see anything anymore; it all looks like mush." We do get blind to our book's strengths and weaknesses. We've been studying the leaves so long we forget how the forest should look.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Revising for Meaning--Beyond the Basic Revision Checklist

With the long winter wrapping up, it seems many of us are also wrapping up book projects.

I'm hearing from quite a few writers in revision. Behind progress reports and exhaustion lies the usual self-doubt: Are we there yet?

And more importantly, How do I tell?

Friday, March 12, 2021

Making Your Scenes Rock--Seven Tips for Stronger Scenes

One of my favorite writing-craft guides, often recommended to writers who want to hone their scenes in fiction and memoir, is The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield.

Not all writers know how to write scenes, truthfully. Neither did I, for many years. My scenes began as "islands," or unorganized snippets of writing that kinda felt like what a scene should be. They were a far cry from what I learned as I studied scene-making. Scenes are the backbone of a book, at least in the fiction and memoir genres. I knew my scenes had to move the story along, had to take place onstage in front of us versus in the character or narrator's head. But other than those two rules, I had no guidelines for how to write them.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Learning New Tricks from Published Writers--What Advice to Make Your Own?

I learned early in my writing career that just because a writer was brilliant--well reviewed, published, and capable on the page--that didn't mean they were the best teacher. Or even a reliable dispenser of advice I could use. The lesson came hard.

I'd signed up for a weeklong class with a short-story writer I admired intensely. His story ideas were amazing, his execution of them even more so. I anticipated the workshop for months, rereading his work and listing questions to ask. I wanted to get the most from the week.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Summary Tells, Scene Shows--How to Use Each in Fiction and Memoir

I've been thinking a lot this week about the ways we tell stories. Some writers come from a background of oral storytelling, as in gathering round the fire and relating tales. A tradition of vocal rhythm, handed down from culture or place or heritage, crafts their stories almost unconsciously.
Stories are something told, not necessarily something shown.

There's much beauty in this. Much to value.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Dealing with Rejection Close to Home: When Family and Friends React to Your Writing

A reader sent me a poignant email a few months ago. She's writing a memoir and happened to show segments to her family--for all the best reasons. She wanted her sister and brother to verify facts from their turbulent childhood. She wanted them to validate what she remembered. And she, naturally, wanted their support as she went forward with the book.

It's a hard story to write, and support would be so very welcome. But instead of confirming her memories, this writer's siblings reacted strongly against them, horrified that she'd open the vault of family secrets.

Another writer wrote me this week about her own family rejection--she'd put together a group of her stories and created Shutterfly books as holiday gifts. They were lovingly made, with photos tucked into the narrative. But she received only silence from most of the recipients, just one acknowledgement. That hurt!

I've heard similar stories in my classes, experienced it myself. I was once married to an editor, like myself. When I showed him my novel-in-progress, he took great care to mark all the punctuation and other errors in his trademark red pen, then handed it back to me. I asked him what he thought of the story itself, since that's what I was really after. "I don't read fiction," he told me. And I knew that. So why did I expect differently?

I've come to believe there are two main reasons we decide to share writing with those closest to us.

One reason is to get their feedback, blessing, or approval if we are including them in our stories in some way (even fictionalized or with identity mostly hidden). That's reasonable and often wise. A recently published memoirist worked with me on this very issue when she was writing about a mentally ill brother. She sought unofficial release from him, his permission, and he gave it. It relieved her immensely to know that at least she'd done her best to include him in the decision. Another writer I worked with carried a completely different view: her writing was nobody's business but her own, her story was hers to tell, she needed no approvals. You have to find your own side of this line.

For me, I decided to get signed releases from those whose stories I included in my memoir/self-help book years ago, and I'm glad I did. A few years after publication, one of the contributors wanted his story removed. I approached the publisher but the book was not able to be reprinted on just this request alone--too costly. And I had the signed release. I went back to the contributor and shared the news. Not entirely what he wanted, of course, but nothing he could do about changing their decision.

On the other hand, I didn't run family stories by my siblings before including them. Neither sib was mentioned in the story--only our grandmother--but it still caused friction for about a year after publication. All's well now, but that was a good lesson. I don't know if I'd have done anything differently, though. I leaned towards the "this is my story" when I made that decision, and I stand by it now.

The other reason we share our writing with those closest to us is as a gift. Like my reader who made the Shutterfly books, we are giving something from our hearts to theirs. And writing, given as a gift, is precious indeed. We expect, even if we haven't said it even to ourselves, some reaction, some thank you, some praise. We want our beloveds to love it as we do.

In my experience, this rarely happens. Sad to say. I am extremely choosy about who I share my writing with now. I learned from my ex (the editor mentioned above) that praise is not automatically granted even if we're married. I've also learned from sharing with close friends that they can be bewildered by my expectations and not really know how to react. Whether they love the writing itself or don't, it's a bit like someone painting a picture for another person and giving it with the expectation that it'll be appreciated. I also remember doing this with a dear friend, many years ago. Gifting her with one of my paintings, then never seeing it hanging in her house. Eventually I asked. She said it wasn't her taste. We remained friends but I learned a hard lesson there.

My choosiness now, around sharing my writing, means I have a group of writerly friends and colleagues. I share with them. If I share writing with a friend, I make sure they know what I want from the gesture--I tell them directly what kind of feedback I'd like, if any. That helps them. I also tell them that if they'd prefer not to give feedback, to just let me know. A big relief for everyone.

My spouse is a working singer-songwriter. We have discussed this topic so often, because it impacts both of us. When to share, with whom, and what to expect. Sometimes, one of us wants to share just because an exciting milestone has been reached--a gnarly lyric completed, a hard scene. We've given each other feedback for works-in-progress in the past, very usefully and with goodwill. Now, we tend to wait until something is show-ready. In fact, I haven't even shared a word of my current novel, wanting my agent to comment first.

There's something good about waiting. I call it creative tension. In my early career, I had very little of it and shared with everyone. I'd find the energy or good tension around a project collapsing fast. I learned to wait, let the tension build, let it generate momentum. More got finished.

There's no single right way, in my opinion. You find your own side of the line. But just one small piece of advice: be sure, before you share, why you're sharing and if the people, those dear to your heart, are the best receivers.

Friday, February 12, 2021

A Different Way to Work with Revision for Your Book--Segments and Reverses

Revision is the final stage of the book journey, after the gathering of material and the forming of a rough draft, after the structuring that happens next. Revision is hard, but essential if you want to publish. And there are so many ways to go about it.

I think I've tried them all.

Some approaches to revision are so daunting, so discouraging. The worst one I've experienced is this: start with chapter 1 and go through the book, line by line. That is great for the final fine-tuning. But if you're trying to revise larger problems, such as structure, it'll bog you down in no time. Lots of writers come to me at this stage, saying how stuck they feel, how they hate their book, and how they want to give up. No wonder. I would too.