Writing Process #2: Building on the Idea

YOU have your story idea. Now what?

To paraphrase Stephen Koch in his excellent book, Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction:

  • You don’t know the story until you’ve told it
  • You can’t tell the story until you know it

. . . which of course sounds paradoxical. But the insane thing is, it’s absolutely true. You really don’t know the whole story until you’ve told it to yourself. And you can’t tell yourself the whole story until you know it.

Ok, if it was that much of a paradox, writing any story would be impossible. Here’s what I do:

I write the whole story out in a single paragraph. At this point in the story’s development, that’s all I can really do. I don’t have enough detail to go any deeper just yet. That’s the point; I start with the ten thousand foot view, and get more detailed as I descend to ground level.

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So now I descend, as it were. I write the story again, in three paragraphs:

  • What happens at the beginning.
  • What happens at the end.
  • What happens in the middle.

Note the order. The beginning part is the setup, where I establish my characters (at least, in a very vague form at this point; I haven’t assigned names, ages, genders, etc.). The end is where I want them to be at the end of their journey. I can’t figure out the middle part until I have an idea of where the story ends.

The middle part is the story, in many respects. I know where my characters begin their journey, and I have a pretty good idea where they’re going to finish up. Now I can tie a rope between those pins, and figure out how it goes from one end to the other. That rope’s going to go up and down and maybe round in circles a little bit, in the sense that the characters are going to have problems and conflicts and hurdles to deal with, and while they might be forced off their trail by those obstacles, overall they’ll be moving toward the end. But they must, must, MUST! have those twists and turns. There must be things getting in the way, all the time. A story without conflict is a boring story. (George must kill the dragon. He drives his 4WD to the dragon’s lair. The dragon’s asleep. George walks up to it and shoots it with his revolver. The end. You see? Boring.)

The beginning and end don’t really need much else just yet. It’s the middle part that needs 99% of the work.

And so, I tell myself the story again. I’ve already written the beginning, middle, and end as single paragraphs. So now I write them again, expanding them to three or four (or more) paragraphs each. And then I rewrite each of those paragraphs, expanding them to three or four more detailed paragraphs. And so on. And all the time, I’ll be trying to think of conflicts and obstacles and hoops the characters have to jump through.

And while I’m doing that, I’m getting a better idea of my characters. For me, at least, this is an almost automatic consequence of developing the storyline. Story is characters. Characters are story. You can’t have one without the other. And I find that the more detailed I get with the story, the better I get to know my characters.

I begin to work out back stories for the characters. Not that all of that back story will find its way into the final typescript, but if I know that Jenny, say, has an aversion to rabbits because one bit her when she was a kid, it then makes sense when I write a scene in which she freaks at the sight of her friend Alice’s pet fluffy bunny. The thing is, back stories can help you greatly in figuring out your characters’ motivations, and those are important because they are in themselves a source of conflict between the characters themselves.

When do I stop with all the detail? There comes a point where I can say that each paragraph represents a single, self-contained scene. There’s no point going any deeper once I’m there. That typically takes four, maybe five iterations starting from my original one-paragraph story.

How many scenes should there be? That depends. I find that when I come to write the scenes later (I’m not to that point yet), each scene ends up being anything from about two hundred words to about two thousand, with an average length of about seven hundred and fifty (but that’s down to my personal writing style—your mileage may vary). For me, that means that a final scene count of around a hundred and thirty-ish will equate to a novel of around one hundred thousand words. Fifty scenes or less, and I’m looking at something that would be barely novel-length (it’s pretty standard that forty thousand words is the minimum for a novel, and less than that is a novella, maybe). If I’m working on a short story, I might aim for twenty scenes or so, depending.

But the real answer to the question is, the right number of scenes is whatever the story demands. However many it takes to tell the story, from beginning to end.

So by the time I’ve finished this process I have a bunch of scenes that tell a story. Am I ready to start writing yet? Not quite. There are a few more steps to take care of before I get to that point, and I’ll be getting to those in upcoming posts.

Until next time . . .

Writing Process #1: Ideas

I finished up the first draft of a book yesterday, and since the next thing I’ll be doing is to start work on my next book—whatever that happens to be—it struck me that this would be a good time to carry through on an idea I had a while back, which is to write a series of posts describing my process.

Shall we begin, gentle reader?

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Ideas

You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.” – Neil Gaiman

. . . and that really says it all in a nutshell. We all think up stories, every day or even every hour, wherever we are and whatever we’re doing. The thing is that most of the time we dismiss them, or just let them drift away. As Gaiman says, writers try not to do that. We want to remember them, cultivate them, turn them into words on paper. And it really isn’t that hard to do that. It’s just a matter of being conscious, when thinking about an idea, that it might make for an interesting story.

I get ideas from lots of places. Occasionally I’ll see something while I’m driving that gets me thinking. A lot of ideas come from reading, and watching TV and movies (I’m not suggesting you copy a story from a movie; what I mean is, there might be some element of another story that sets your thinking off in an intriguing direction). That generally gets me started on expanding that seed of an idea into the beginnings of a story.

And that’s the moment I’m talking about. That’s the time when the writer in you should jump up and say, I JUST GOT AN IDEA FOR A STORY, and you hook the thing and reel it in, and don’t let it drift away. And the more you do that—the more often you can make yourself conscious of the fact that you have an idea, and grab it with both hands—the easier it gets. After a while it becomes almost second nature, and you might be surprised just how quickly that can happen.

When you get an idea, you need to make sure you remember it. It’s extremely easy to think, that’s a great idea for a story, and make a mental note for later. The trouble is, when you come back to it later it’s all, I had this great idea and now I can’t remember what the hell it was, bugger it bugger it bugger bugger bugger. Daydreams are like night dreams; they evaporate. And it’s frustrating as all hell when you know you had this idea that you thought was just brilliant, and now it’s gone.

The answer is: record it. Write it down. Or use a voice recorder. Even just making a note of a keyword or three as a reminder can be enough to bring it back to you when you need it.

Like I said, after a bit, coming up with ideas becomes something you do so often that you have dozens of ideas. And when you want to write, you don’t know which of all these brilliant story ideas you want to go with. You can’t write all of them. The ideas will come faster than you could possibly turn them all into complete books or even short stories, even if you lived a thousand years, I can promise you that. So how do you choose?

Here’s what I do. First, recognise that many of the ideas—most of the ideas, actually—will be crap. And you’ll know it. Tear those ones up and burn them, so you just have the good ones. Then, look at what you have.

Don’t think about what other people might like to read. Don’t think about what would make friends, or family members, or anyone else, will think about the story. (Or if you can’t stop yourself, put it like this: there are something like seven billion people on the planet as I write this. If only one person in a thousand likes your story, that’s still seven million people. So stop worrying.)

And don’t think about what might sell loads of copies. There’s no way to know, anyway.

Look at the ideas you have to choose from, and pick the one you most want to write. In a lot of cases I know which, of three or four completing ideas, I want to write the most. It’s generally the one I’ve been thinking about more than others, but not always. I know it when I see it, and so will you.

Until next time . . .

Google Tips: Drive (and Docs, and Sheets, and…)

I think I’m about done with Chrome-specific tips for now, although if I see something that looks interesting I might put something together.

I’m going to finish up this short series with a quick look at some handy Google features that are designed with Chrome in mind (in that they’re all easy to get to and use in Chrome). Specifically I want to look at Google’s cloud storage feature, Drive, and some related applications.

GoogleDriveEtc

Drive

Drive is basically a place to store files in the cloud, where you can get to them easily. Think of it as a disk drive. You can create folders in much the same way, and organise things the way you want to. It’s great for keeping safe backup copies of important stuff from your machine. And all those files can be accessed from any machine you’re logged in from – so you can upload files from your laptop then get to them from a tablet, say. By default only you can see your files, but you can also share files and folders with anyone you choose to (and you can choose to give certain people read-only access if you like). Sharing brings with it the ability to collaborate on things with others – family, friends, clubs, work, and so on.

To get to Drive (and most of the related apps I’m coming to), open a new tab then click the app drawer symbol.

AppDrawer

Drive should be there…

Drive

That opens your Drive as a web page where you can see what you have, create folders, and so on. To upload a file, click the red New button and select File upload. Easy. There are a bunch more things on that page, but I could spend a week writing about them all. Just explore. You’ll get it.

You can save any kinds of files – Word documents, image files, plain text files, whatever. Google gives you 15 gigabytes of storage at no charge, and you can buy more if you need it. (To give you an idea, I use Drive for backups of all my writing files as well as a good number of spreadsheets and images, and in all the time I’ve been using it I’ve never used more than 10% of my 15Gb space.)

Now, before I go any further, I’d better explain that there’s a difference between Drive the feature, and Drive the application. The feature is just as I described – safe storage on Google’s servers, accessed through your web browser (or mobile apps), and “owned” by your gmail account (that is, the files are associated with you as owner through the gmail address that identifies your account – the one you’re signed into Chrome as).

The application builds on that. It’s an executable that you optionally download and install on your Windows PC or Mac, and it lets you link folders on your machine’s hard drive to your Google Drive storage. At that point, any changes you make to any files in those linked folders are kept in sync with the cloud. If you lose your Internet connection, you can continue to work with the local copies and they’ll get synced up when you’re connected again.

Docs, Sheets, Slides…

There are some related apps that let you create and edit files right there in your Drive folders, using Google’s own file formats.

Docs is basically a word processor. It’s not as fully-featured as Word or OpenOffice, but it’s great for basic stuff and perfectly adequate for letters and manuscripts. And you can download a local copy of the file in various file formats such as Word and HTML. Sheets is a spreadsheet application, and it’s surprisingly powerful. Slides lets you create presentations as a set of slides (think PowerPoint). There’s also Forms, which lets you create, duh, forms, for surveys or whatever.

What’s really cool about Docs and Sheets is the collaboration feature (and this probably applies to Slides and Forms, too – but I haven’t tried that – and it might very well be true in other apps such as Google Drawings). When you share a document with someone else (or several someone elses) and others have it open at the same time, you can see who else is working on it. You can see other people’s cursors, colour-coded. When one person makes a change, everyone else’s screen updates right away. You can demonstrate it yourself if you have two machines (a laptop and a tablet, say) logged into the same account. Create a document on one machine, then open it on the second machine too. Now as you change the document on one machine, the view on the other machine changes. IS THAT COOL, OR WHAT?

Not only that, but you can open a chat window so that you and your collaborators can talk to each other as you work. That means that a group of people can work on a text document, or a spreadsheet, etc., and coordinate what each other are doing. Now, that’s collaboration.

Other Google Apps

There are a lot more Google apps available. Open that app drawer again. You have some apps right there. Click More at the bottom and you’ll see (wait for it) more. (And by the way, you can drag and drop things here to move the ones you use most to the top section and get the ones you don’t use so much out of the way). And at the bottom there’s a link that says Even more from Google, which opens a page with links to a whole herd of Google apps. News, books, maps… Remember the trick from a few posts back, where you can add a web site as an app? (Hamburger, More tools, Add to taskbar.) Pick the apps you can use, add them as apps using that trick, and then you can fire straight into them using the App launcher.

Some I use:

  • Google Keep is really useful. Create notes and lists (I use it for shopping lists, among other things) and have them available on your phone. Neato.
  • Google Calendar – I don’t know how I’d manage without this one.
  • Google Translate – very useful from time to time.
  • Google Sites – create web sites and wikis. Well, actually, I haven’t used it myself but I’m planning on trying it out just to mess with it and see what it can do.

Until next time . . .

Chrome Tips: Apps and Extensions 2

Extensions

THE previous Chrome Tips post was about apps. In this one, I’d like to talk a bit about extensions.

Extensions

Extensions add new features to Chrome, or modify the way it works. The pic above is from my Chrome, and you can see icons for four extensions I have installed. (Not all extensions put icons up, by the way.) These are just examples, to give a feel for the kinds of things extensions can do, and it doesn’t constitute any kind of recommendation. From left to right:

  • IE Tab: this one lets you open a web page in a tab using Internet Explorer’s rendering engine instead of Chrome’s own. That can be useful for viewing pages that were designed specifically for IE, and that don’t render properly in other browsers. These days I don’t have much need for it but I keep it around just in case. And, I don’t know how Microsoft’s new browser, Edge, fits in since it uses another rendering engine altogether.
  • Forecastfox: That’s a weather extension that tells me the current weather and temperature. The background on the temperature changes to red when there’s a severe weather warning.
  • Adblock Plus: Does just what it says – it blocks ads, which can speed up page loads. But it does more than that; it also blocks tracking cookies and a certain amount of malware, which is the main reason I use it.
  • Pinterest: Gives you a quick way to pin a page to a board on your Pinterest account.

You get extensions from the Chrome Web Store, just like you do for apps, and you install them in pretty much the same way. Explore the store – there are lots and lots of extensions for all kinds of things.

Like I said, not all extensions have icons, but you can see all your currently-installed extensions easily. Quick way: right click on any icons you already have in that area and choose Manage extensions. If you don’t have any extension icons, then go to the Settings page and click Extensions on the left side. You’ll get a page with all the details.

ForecastfoxExtension

Here you can remove extensions easily (just click the garbage can icon). You can also disable extensions – useful if you have one that you want to switch off for a bit but you don’t want to remove. Some extensions (like Forecastfox) have customization options, and you can get to those by clicking the options link.

Last word: if you have multiple accounts set up (as I explained in an earlier post), each account has its own set of extensions. So if you sign in on a new machine, your extensions are installed for you automatically. Nice.

Until next time, gentle reader . . .

Chrome Tips: Apps and Extensions 1

The Difference Between Apps And Extensions

APPS are things that you start when you want them to, and they typically run in their own tab or window. Extensions, on the other hand, modify Chrome’s behaviour more generally. This post is about apps. I’ll come to extensions in the next post.

To get to your apps, click the Apps button—it’s usually at the left hand end of the bookmarks bar.

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Oh, wait. You don’t see that on your Chrome? Right click in the bookmarks bar and click the Show apps shortcut setting to turn it on.

Oh, hang on. You don’t even have the bookmarks bar? Click the hamburger button Hamburger then mouse over Bookmarks, and you’ll see the option to switch on the bookmarks bar. Or just hit Ctrl-Shift-B to toggle it.

And there’s another way to get to apps, which is the Apps Launcher. This is installed for you (either when you install Chrome, or it might happen when you install something from the store; I don’t remember for sure). You can get to it on Windows by clicking the Start button, going to the installed applications, and looking under the Gs. You should be able to drag it to your task bar or pin it to the start menu. When you open it, you’ll see a grid with the icons of all your apps, and you can open them right there.

Where were we? Right, getting to your apps. Click the Apps button and you’ll see a page with your apps. One that should be prominent is the one for the Chrome Web Store. That’s useful to have, because the store is where you can get more apps and extensions. In fact, do that now. Go on, click it.

There are all kinds of apps for all kinds of things. There are games, of course. Lots and lots of games. But wait, there’s more. Productivity apps (including the ones Google provides, of course) like spreadsheets, and calendars, and text editors, and lots more besides. You have a Netflix account? There’s an app for that. Want to read books? There’s a Kindle app that lets you read books from your Amazon library, and of course there’s Google Play Books. Explore the store and you’ll see what I mean. Many of the apps are free, but there are a few that cost a little bit (if you find an app you’d like but it’s not free, the best thing to do is get a Google Play Store card. To add the funds to your Google Wallet account, follow the instructions printed on the card).

Adding an extension from the web store is easy. Pick one you want, and click it. A popup will pop up, and there you have the option to Add to Chrome. Click that, confirm that you want to add it, and it’ll download and install itself. That’s it. You don’t have to restart Chrome; the new app should be on your apps page and you can use it right away.

Sometimes apps open in a new window, sometimes they open in a new tab. You can control which. Go to the Apps page, right click on the App, and you can check or uncheck Open as window.

Removing an app you no longer want is easy, too. Right click on the app and select Remove from Chrome.

You can also set web pages as apps (in fact, some of the apps aren’t really anything more than a link to a web site). To do that, get the page open in a tab, then click the Hamburger button, mouse over More tools and then select Add to taskbar (I know – not really obvious). Choose whether to open as a tab or window (you can change that at any time, as I described earlier), and save. Now it’ll show on your apps page.

[Update: some time after writing that, a Chrome update changed that. At version 47 this feature appeared to have disappeared. At 48 it came back but works a little differently: now you click the Hamburger button, mouse over More tools and then select Add to desktop. That opens a dialog where you can set to open as a window. When you click Add, the web page link is added to your apps and as a desktop shortcut. You can then delete the desktop shortcut if you like, leaving just the app launcher link.]

Last thing: Remember the earlier post, about signing into Chrome? When you sign in on another machine, your apps will usually get installed on that machine right away so you have them available. Cool, huh?

Until next time . . .

Vacation

What I Did On My Holidays

THIS is more of a diary entry than anything else. Most pro writers agree you should write something every day. And so…

Dear diary…

I took extra days off work to bridge the gap between the Labor Day weekend and the next, so I have a nine day break, of which I have three and a half days left. Here’s what I’ve been up to.

Writing Stuff

ON Sunday I went through a three-and-a-half hour editing marathon that finished the long-running first pass of The Artemis Device at long last. That went off to my editor the next day, so now it’s just a matter of waiting until she gets a chance to look at it from her side and start feeding back suggestions for improvements. Not holding my breath, as I know she has at least two other projects on her plate right now.

So the plan is to get started into my own self-editing pass of the next project, Smoke & Mirrors. I’ve deliberately taken a breather before I get on with that, but now I feel ready and I’ll probably get to it tomorrow or even (time permitting) later today.

I’ve also been writing a series of blog posts about Google Chrome. You might have seen them. I have a couple more written and scheduled to auto-publish over the next few days.

Bought a New Printer

OLD printer was old. It kept getting clogged print heads and was having problems feeding paper. So I took advantage of a Labor Day special at Office Depot, and got a nice new printer for $50. It’s wifi so we can set it up pretty much anywhere, and thanks to Google Cloud Print we can print stuff directly from phones and tablets from anywhere we have an Internet connection. Nice.

Watching TV

NO vacation would be complete without some actual rest, and in my case that means lying in bed and watching TV. I watch quite a bit on my tablet using the Netflix app. Recently I’ve been watching The 4400, which despite being more than ten years old, I’d never heard of until recently. I’ve also been re-watching Warehouse 13. Fun show, that. I actually wanted to watch The Dresden Files again, but it’s disappeared from Netflix (why? WHY?), so I’ll have to see about buying it on DVD, if it’s even available.

Reading

CHUCK Wendig’s Miriam Black books, a book about writing (The Snowflake Method), and Ian Watson’s God’s World (which is SF, by the way, not a bible tract).

Pest Control

THE warm weather brought with it an influx of insects. Earwigs (which seem to have died down without help from me), and tiny little red ants which (thank you, Internet) I was able to identify as grease ants. I bought some stuff from Home Depot that took care of that problem in two or three days, and they haven’t come back. Here’s hoping it stays that way.

That’s enough for now. Until next time . . .