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.

Back to Work!

Right, the first NAC of the USFA fencing season is coming up next month and it’s time to get back to work.

USFA work? Not so much.

It’s not that I don’t want to get started on the new season—it’s just that the work I do with USFA never really stopped, what with the tournament summit meeting in Colorado Springs in August (we’ve still to see what will come of that), figuring out BC staffing for the new season, creating a committee to create a formal structure for BC recruiting and development, proofreading the latest version of the Athlete Handbook, and other fencing and TC odds and ends.

What I’m getting back to work on now is my poor neglected Emmy and the mystery novel she’s the protagonist of. I wrote the first draft almost two years ago, but when I started as chair of the TC, I deliberately put off further work on the book for about a year, while I figured out what the TC was all about.

Now I’m getting back to work. Since I wrote the original draft in late 2009, I’ve read through it several times, making corrections and tweaking a few scenes here and there, but haven’t really looked at how the overall story works. Over the Labor Day weekend, I put the current draft into the newest version of Scrivener, the writing software I (and apparently many, many other writers) use, and split it down into scenes.

Two things happened once the manuscript was there in all its constituent parts in Scrivener. First, I was once again utterly entranced with Scrivener: it’s so good at what I need it to do that I just do what I want to do with the story, without worrying about finding the right macro or the command buried four or five menu levels down from where it ought to be (something I always seemed to be doing when I used Word).

Second, I discovered what a huge load of work I have yet to do before anybody else gets to read it. After I broke the book up into its scenes, I went through the whole story, writing up synopses for each scene, and discovered that doing so makes the weaknesses completely obvious. When I couldn’t describe what happens or what a scene is for (character development or a transition, say), I saw immediately that something needed fixing.

Scrivener lets you make all sorts of notes and comments, which is wonderful for keeping track of what needs doing at any specific point, and it lets you take multiple snapshots of the whole or pieces, so you can change things radically and still be able to revert to any previous version if the changes don’t work.  It also lets you look at scene synopses as index cards which you can rearrange. And when you rearrange the cards, you’ve also rearranged your manuscript to match, without cutting and pasting or juggling multiple windows.

So I’ll be spending most of this month and next happily reworking this story. Then after I spew out a first draft of the next book (same protagonist—there’s so much potential for homicide in the fencing world) in November for NaNoWriMo, I’ll reread the reworked version of this one to see if it’s ready for a few outside readers.

And through it all, I’ll probably drive my husband nuts babbling about how cool Scrivener is and how much easier it makes my writing process. (I can see it already—multiple dinner conversations about whether I love using Scrivener more than he loves using Rhino, the 3D design software he uses and frequently enthuses about.)

Update on the new toy

It’s been a week now that I’ve been playing with my new iPad (and by the lack of blog entries I’ve posted during that week, it’s pretty obvious that playing with the iPad is what I’ve been doing).

The iPad is now my favorite tool for reading email and web cruising. The Mail app, especially in landscape mode, is just plain gorgeous, and far easier to read than on my MacBook. For my RSS feeds, I’ve recently started using Pulse, a newsreader app, which has somewhat the same esthetic effect–Pulse gives you each feed in a scrollable row, so that it’s easy to skim through them for interesting items, and allows you to view the full items either as text or html, and gives you the option of jumping into Safari. Essentially, my morning mail-and-web routine now uses my iPad, which frees me from my desk to wander where I will while I catch up with news from the outside world.

Writing has been a bit trickier to work out. Though I like Pages well enough for its design and layout options, and for the occasional short letter, I’m not a fan of it for my regular writing. On my laptop, I use Scrivener for most of my writing, exporting to Nisus Writer Pro when I need something that looks like a Word doc to the rest of the world. But Scrivener is the product of a teeny two-person shop and there is no iPad version planned, so for the time being, I’m using myTexts for my everyday writing. It’s a nice straightforward, no-frills writing app, great for banging out the words without worrying about styles and formatting.

All I need now is to tweak the ergonomics of writing on the iPad  a bit. I’ve used a Bluetooth keyboard at my desk with my MacBook for a few months, which has worked wonders for my shoulders—my desk is too high for comfortable typing on the laptop, and if I actually use the laptop in my lap, the arms and wrists are happier, but my eyes and neck and shoulders are not.

Sitting at a table, with my keyboard on my lap and the iPad on the table works pretty well, but I think I may toddle off to Ikea one of these days for a wheeled laptop tray, so I can slouch with my feet up in my recliner or on my sofa with my keyboard on my lap and the iPad floating at the right eye level.

So I’m comfy at home, or with the 3G, free to read my morning email at the local Peet’s. Life is good.