Monday, April 25, 2011


As I mentioned in my post Sticking With It, I've been writing my novel Strong Enough for a long time.  For many years I did everything in Word. Every time I had a format change, I had to edit each document separately. Numbering chapters was particularly loathsome because when I rearranged chapters, I had to go through and renumber the pages in each document so the manuscript remained cohesive. It may not sound like it, but it was nasty pain in the neck; the result of chasing one's tale.

Furthermore, I had no technique, no outline, and no clear story arc. I wrote whatever scene I felt like writing whether I knew how it fit with the rest, or if it belonged in the story. This was exactly right for me in the beginning but after a while, I didn't have a clue of the overall arc. I planned to smooth that out during editing. Instead, my story turned into a heavy lump of words that I spit against a wall.

I struggled to find my process, to remain honest to my motivation. Eventually, I found a technique that helped me bring my discordant novel into focus: index cards. Index cards were mentioned during a writing class and I instantly hmmmmed at the thought. After a few years of letting that idea roll around in my noggin, I decided to get color tacks, a bulletin board, and some colored index cards. I used blue for scenes not written but concept conceived. I used green for newly written but desperately needing attention, and pink for well established chapters. Oh, and white for chapter titles. When I pegged these to a board, voila! I could see my novel.

However, this was not a terribly efficient method. I was constantly rewriting card descriptions, changing colors, etc. And once again, changing the order of chapters was a giant pain in the ass. What I needed was a piece of software that could take my twenty-two separate word documents and turn them into a cohesive unit with a corresponding bulletin board view featuring color-coded index cards! No problem.

At that time there were only a few writing programs and they were lame wizards with prompts for when and what to write. Furthermore, I'm a Mac so the one program everyone liked, didn't run on my machine. So I went searching for writing software: reasonable, simple, useful. I even started a blog to rate each one based on a large scale of merits. My ex discovered my first sample at a Macworld Expo.  I evaluated it, wrote it up on my blog, and then immediately found Scivener by Literature and Latte.

Scrivener is exactly what I wanted. It has an index card organizational tool and it keeps all of your chapters in a single manuscript. If you move a chapter, or a scene, the software updates all of the technical issues. Find/replace is wonderful and I can color code each section as I see fit. The tool to compile a draft for export is good and capable of providing a version ready for ebooks. (It does a lot more but I don't use everything.) Here's the link to Scrivener for Windows!

Now that I had the tangles out, and my novel was shiny and manageable, I needed to figure out what was going on so I could finish it. It took several efforts but I eventually developed a detailed technique. I charted my novel.

This involved several time-lines: one for the entire novel, and one for each subplot or each character. It was amazing to take the two main characters and look at their personal story lines separate from each other. To further ensure realistic timing, I printed out a calendar for the year I set my book and fit each chapter, each scene, into logical timing. Through these tools I discovered holes, character weaknesses, timing issues, and it helped me to find the best order for my chapters.

In the last two years, I've made at least fifteen charts, one calendar, and enough lists and notes to fill a binder. Literally. My novel binder also includes interviews, research, articles, and even a map of downtown Somerville.

Furthermore, as I sifted my novel through these techniques, it became easier to recognize successful storytelling in other writers.

While reading just the other day, I noticed a nice character development wherein each character has a pretty good understanding of what they really need but when they actually talk to anyone, they fail to  clearly express this need. It's so human, so real, and I realized that in the final third of my novel, a character with whom I've been struggling needs to worry less dramatically in her head. She ought to see the situation but fail to communicate what she needs. It's so much cleaner and more sympathetic.

I know it's the analysis of my novel that's taught me to see such things, and then instill them quickly and precisely. I know my novel so well, not just because I wrote it and have read it thousands of times, but because I've analyzed it.