Tool Time

The good thing about neglecting a manuscript for a couple of years is that when you get back to work on it, it’s really easy to see all the problems that need fixing. The bad thing about neglecting a manuscript for a couple of years is that when you get back to work on it, it’s really easy to see all the problems that need fixing.

I posted that early this month on Facebook, and have been working on those problems ever since.

nano_09_winner_120x240nano_09_winner_120x240Of course, it hadn’t been only a couple of years that I’d neglected this manuscript. I wrote the original draft for NaNoWriMo in November 2009, the year before I became TC Chair. After letting it sit through the holidays that year, I’d open the file every few months, read it through, clean up a few sentences and tweak words here and there, but never really dug into it deeply enough to even recognize  character or structure problems that needed fixing.

After this year’s Summer Nationals in Columbus, though, I finally got down to serious work. The first problem to be fixed was voice. I’d written the original draft in close third-person. I’d intended a first-person voice when I started the story but it sounded alternately stilted and silly to me, so I switched to a more remote third-person. Reading it over in August, I realized that my voice problem had been that I hadn’t known my protagonist well enough to be able to speak in her voice. The less personal third-person narrator, though, was boring. But one of the advantages of having let the story sit for long is that I’ve have five years’ more experience watching and listening to the fencing community, to high-level athletes like my protagonist, to officials and staff and parents. Even though I hadn’t been writing during those years, I’d been thinking about my characters and their story all along, so when I finally sat down this month to write a first-person version, I found the voice I hadn’t been able to find for that first draft.

screens2I am, of course, a Scrivener fanatic for my writing, which made the conversion easy. Since the book is set at a Summer Nationals (setup day plus 10 competition days), I’d made each day a chapter containing separate scenes within each. Chapter by chapter, I went through the manuscript with my writing window split vertically, old third-person version on the left and new improved first-person on the right. As I finished the scenes for each chapter, I moved the old versions into a separate folder (First Rule of Fiction Writing: NEVER throw away anything you write.), so that by the time I reached the end, I had a nice clean manuscript folder full of my new current version.

Then I began playing with some of Scrivener’s fancier bells & whistles. I know many writers don’t use it at all, but I love the name generator. I detest coming up with character names and when I’m banging out a first draft will often use placeholder names or acronyms (“BC IT Guy” or “Crabby Vet-70 ME Fencer” or “OOP – Obnoxious Outraged Parent”). In the Scrivener website forums, I found links to one (generous) writer’s collection of name lists based on US Census data, sorted by decade, which I downloaded. So if I want to name a 70-year-old referee assigner or a 15-year-old cadet fencer, I choose the appropriate decade for the first name, designate an ethnicity if I want, and it generates a whole list of names for me to scroll through until I find one that fits. (Weirdly, I hardly ever use the exact combination of names it provides—I usually end up picking first and last names separately, but so far I’ve always found usable names far more quickly than the baby name guides and phone books I used to use.)

Then I started with the structure tools. For each scene, Scrivener has an “index card” view which contains, by default, the first words of the scene. But you can write a synopsis of the action or any other information useful to you. I created a synopsis for each scene, and then switched into Scrivener’s outline view. I’ve set this view to show columns containing my scene synopses, the status (done, needs tweaking, needs major work), the scene setting, the scene’s characters, and the scene type  (action, dialogue, thought, etc.)

Just creating the synopses unearthed a few new problems. If I couldn’t describe what happens in a scene, the scene probably didn’t do anything for the story. So off it went to a “discarded scenes” folder. (Remember, even if the scene is dumb, First Rule of Fiction Writing: NEVER throw away anything you write.) Sometimes I wrote a synopsis for a new yet-to-be-written scene; for other scenes, I decided no replacement was necessary.

iconOnce I had my outline view in good shape, I used it for playing with a software tool new to me, Aeon Timeline. With this, I’m mapping out the events of my story in a visual timeline that I can scroll in and out of at different levels of detail. What’s really helping me is setting up separate timeline “arcs”—so far, one for my protagonist’s point-of-view, one for the the events going on in the venue on any given day, and one for events happening offstage. The venue arc is great for keeping track of which specific competitions happen when, so that I don’t inadvertently change events halfway through a chapter and can keep track of when they start and turn and end. The others will help keep my plot timing straight—it’ll never do to have my protagonist discover clues before they’ve been left. It’ll probably take me most of the next week to finish mapping out the other two arcs, but I’ve already discovered that Chapter 8 should really be Chapter 7 (Yay, Scrivener! All I had to do was move it up to the right place in the sidebar.)

Already I can tell that my story suffers from a problem endemic to early drafts—it drags in the middle—and I’ve got a few ideas for expanding some characters. Once I’ve got everything mapped out, I’ll start changing the timing of some events to fill in plot holes and ramp up the suspense to where it ought to be, making notes of what needs to be done on each scene’s card. Then it’ll be back to work on the actual writing.

The good part is that I’ve got myself into an “I get to work on my manuscript!” mindset, instead of “Oh, I should work on my manuscript.” The biggest secret I learned from that 2009 NaNoWriMo was that—and remember I’ve been a compulsive, voracious reader almost my whole life—writing a book is even more fun than reading one.

The bad part—inevitably—is that it’s going to take longer than I’d projected to finish it. Being realistic (and allowing for the holidays and the January NAC), my beta readers (yes, Angie, this means you, too) probably won’t get a readable draft before February. On the other hand, I may just take the time after the October NAC to work on plot development for the next book and get that first draft done during this year’s NaNoWriMo. Then I can let it simmer while I finish this one, and be ready to get to serious work on the second one again later in the spring.

But right now it’s time for the last Giants’ game of the regular season.

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