JM Williams

A home for all things fantasy and sci-fi.

Writing Tools: Write Monkey

May
02

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I have written before about the nice little program Plume Creator, and how it can be very helpful for organizing a large project and keeping on track.

My post on the topic can be found HERE.

Plume Creator helped me incalculably to finish my first book. I used it to keep track of chapters, scenes, even characters. But the most useful tool in the program was the distraction-free writing application.

Write Monkey takes that idea and does a much better job of it. When you launch the program, it immediately full-screens, covering up your taskbar and notifications. It also doesn’t have an onscreen toolbar, you can right-click to get all your file and editing options. So, from the moment your start, there is nothing but your words, and a tiny clock and wordcount in the corner. It is amazingly freeing and focusing, to have no other distractions but your own words (which can be quite a distraction themselves!).

The main drawback of Write Monkey, as compared to Plume Creator or other writing apps, is that is doesn’t really help your organization. You need to keep your files and data saved on your own. Though, I have started keeping my outlines in Word format anyways after finishing the book.

Right now, as I focus on smaller pieces of writing, Write Monkey is more appropriate for me. Maybe if I start working on another novel, I will go back to Plume Creator, but for now I need the writing tool more than the organization one. The only large project I am working on now is the series with Fiction Vortex, which is a collaborative effort with other authors writing in the same fantasy universe. That forces me to run all my outlines and synopses through the team, so I won’t forget or lose any bit of it.

Anyways, I urge you to check out Write Monkey if you have trouble concentrating while you write. I has been very helpful to me.

And speaking of Fiction Vortex, the Kickstarter is still active for our new reading app. You should head over and check out the promo video for Fictionite. Support the platform that supports me!

Share: The Bus Test

Apr
25

Here is a great tool for writers: the bus test. It is a quirky way to measure the value and emotional depth of your characters.  I do not agree that a reader has to “become” a character. In fact I find that idea preposterous in most cases, since fictional characters are by their very nature unreachable. How can someone know what it is to be an alien, or a wizard, or even a killer? Even the author doesn’t really know. The best you can hope for is empathy, for your reader to understand the character’s struggles and feel for them, not to put themselves in the character’s shoes.

Besides that point, I like what this little article has to say and I think it is a good tool to add to your box.


The Bus Test: A Simple and Merciless Method for Improving Characters

By Mike Cluff

Do me a favor and read this first paragraph from a story:

Alley sat on a park bench. She sat there eating a taco. She hated tacos. Just like she hated Jim. But she couldn’t resist either one. They were both so beefy and greasy. Alley had to call Becky and tell her how much she was looking forward to going shopping. She needed a new pair of skinny jeans. Alley started texting instead. She stood up, and as she crossed the street a bus rounded the corner and flattened her. End.

I imagine you’re wondering a few things… READ MORE

Seeing Red

Feb
27

tracker

Added status counts to my publishing spreadsheet today (Excel is so useful!). Oh boy, that’s a lot of red!

But I’m not letting that slow me down. I just got a new acceptance letter today, recently got a request for a rewrite, and have two other stories in the final round of selection at their respective publishers. As I evolve into a better writer, I can see the momentum of acceptance picking up. It took me months to get my first, now they are coming every couple weeks–volume probably plays a part in that as well.

The worst thing that has come out of all this so far is not the rejection. I’ve quickly grow Teflon skin. The worst thing probably has to be that AntipodeanSF asked me to record myself narrating “Webs.” Ugg…rolleyes

Revising the Story Tracker

Feb
15

story-tracking

Professional writing is hard. Over the past few months, I have had to rein in my expectations. It takes a lot longer to get an answer from publishers than I expected. And rejection is a much more common result. The long duration of the publishing process makes it all the more important to have some way of keeping track of it all.

I posted about my method for tracking story submissions before. I use an Excel spreadsheet to track where each story has been and what the current status is. A quick scan down the list allows me to see if there are any currently in limbo and also which publishers are currently reading one of my works.

The method has worked well so far, but in the past few months I have tweaked it a bit. I wanted to share the update here.

First, it is helpful to mark the titles of the story to show if it is a reprint or unpublished, since that directly affects where you can send it (I marked my reprints with -r- and placed them at the top of the list. Most of these are taken from my blog).

Second, it is helpful to mark the publisher with the date you sent it, their stated turn-around time, and whether they accept simultaneous submissions (which I marked with an “sm” as with the story “The Dirt”).

I also started marking possible future publishers that seem a good match for works that are currently elsewhere (such as with “The Alchemist”). This was perhaps the biggest lesson. It often takes a long time to get a result on a submission, and you should generally expect rejection. As can be seen in my sample above, there were many more rejections than acceptances. Planning for rejection will help you to get back in the game when the letter comes, getting that story back out on the field as soon as possible.

Another thing that can been seen by this sample is that I send my works to a lot of different publishers. Not only does this give me a better chance to find editors that like my style of writing, I also think it is nice to not barrage some poor editor with your stuff repeatedly, even if they say in their rejection letter to keep sending. Give each place a moment of rest and try a new one.

Currently there are about 30 stories on my tracker, so I have been quite busy the past few months. It’s amazing to see how much I have done. “Dead or Alive” is currently at the fifth publisher. I am not giving up on that one. Every time if comes back I do a revision and send it back out. I’m sure it’s just waiting for the right editor to read it.

Good luck to all my fellow authors in getting published. If you’d like some ideas of where you can send your work, just ask me below.

UPDATE: I forgot to link to the original post where I introduced my story tracker. That can be found HERE.

What’s Your Crisis? – The Essential Component of a Short Story

Dec
29

The recipe for a short story is so simple, yet it is one of the hardest things to craft well. There are only two essential ingredients for a story, a well-developed character and a crisis. Within the word limit of your tale, you must make us understand your character, give him or her an issue to deal with and feelings about it, and resolve the issue in some manner. This is why flash fiction is so difficult to do well; micro is significantly worse.

Crisis does not only mean a fight or a conflict. The crisis can be a physical problem, a psychological issue, a goal, an emotion. Hating oneself for being overweight is a crisis, as is confronting the evil wizard. What is important is how the character deals with his or her issue. The character must be trying to do something, change something, otherwise what you have is a vignette, not a story. Ask yourself “What is this character trying to achieve?” or “What are they dealing with?” and keep your story focused on that.

I have been browsing WordPress today looking for stories to share. I read a micro story about a guy skiing. He dodges trees, makes it to the bottom safely and then goes back up. We are not told why he does it, why it matters, and thus the story ceases to matter–in fact, no story exists. I read another story (which I reblogged) about a girl going to a company that turns people into heroes. The world is very smartly developed but the character is lacking. We are given almost no detail on the character herself. We don’t know her motivations, what has led her to this decision, and thus it fails to be a crisis. In both cases, they are simply describing the passing of events rather than telling a story.

Here is a decent a story  for examination called “Hinterland” from the blog SchoolofWords:

I traveled through the wastelands with my head held high and my lights held low. I knew that a flash of this thing would rile up a pack of those detested Junk Rats. I was in no business of hunting those things, that was the job of the Skinners. I was just trying to move my way from one side of the city to the other without a hitch. No need for pointless bloodshed, or at least that’s what my people say. I couldn’t tell whether it was the middle of the day or the dark of the night from the clouds hanging above. All I needed to know was that the next set of tunnels were opposite of the city. The tunnels would lead me to the next settlement up north where hopefully I meet with some neutrals. They always tell you to go north in these scenarios huh? Wonder why. I reached the tunnel without a hitch, but there was one problem. I checked my map to make sure that I was actually at the right tunnels. It appears that I was, but the only problem was that my map didn’t tell me that a set of Hounds were feeding on a corpse at the entrance. Damn things, there must have been ten at least, all feeding on the last unsuspecting group of scavengers who weren’t warned. I guess this is why my people always used to call the tunnel openings hinterland. No one knows what will happen when you find one. I brandished Old Glory, the shotgun my grandfather passed down through my family. It was an old beast that has seen many wars and in some strange twist of coincidence now belongs in my hands, too bad the only ones who can see it in action are those mutants. I brought the sights to my face, and then checked my remaining shells. It’s going to be a long day.

There is a good world-building here, and tension. We have a sympathetic character, and a strong narrative voice. The crisis is presented early and clearly: “I was just trying to move my way from one side of the city to the other without a hitch.”  It is clear and direct, we know what our narrator is trying to achieve. So the first step in revision is to go through and remove anything that does not relate to that crisis or move it forward.

I traveled through the wastelands with my head held high and my lights held low. I knew that a flash of this thing would rile up a pack of those detested Junk Rats (This needs more to make it important for tension-building. Why is the narrator afraid of them? Otherwise cut). I was in no business of hunting those things, that was the job of the Skinners. I was just trying to move my way from one side of the city to the other without a hitch. No need for pointless bloodshed, or at least that’s what my people say. I couldn’t tell whether it was the middle of the day or the dark of the night from the clouds hanging above. All I needed to know was that the next set of tunnels were opposite of the city. The tunnels would lead me to the next settlement up north where hopefully I meet with some neutrals (If this is important  for the character’s motivation, build it into the crisis introduction, don’t leave it as a hanging detail that breaks the momentum of the story). They always tell you to go north in these scenarios huh? Wonder why. I reached the tunnel without a hitch, but there was one problem. I checked my map to make sure that I was actually at the right tunnels. It appears that I was, but the only problem was that my map didn’t tell me that a set of Hounds were feeding on a corpse at the entrance. Damn things, there must have been ten at least, all feeding on the last unsuspecting group of scavengers who weren’t warned. I guess this is why my people always used to call the tunnel openings hinterland. No one knows what will happen when you find one. I brandished Old Glory, the shotgun my grandfather passed down through my family. It was an old beast that has seen many wars and in some strange twist of coincidence now belongs in my hands, too bad the only ones who can see it in action are those mutants. I brought the sights to my face, and then checked my remaining shells. It’s going to be a long day.

World-building and exposition is important, but only in so far as it moves the crisis forward. The details about the origin of the shotgun do give us background on the character but don’t connect to the crisis, which is simply moving from point A to point B. Is the character abandoning some part of his past that this relates to? Does this emotion drag him down on his journey? If so, make it clear. He seems unsure of it in his hands, but that emotion is not reflected in his general confidence moving around in this dangerous world. The concept of the Skinners has no bearing on the story’s crisis; the character is not one, nor does he encounter one along the way. Same thing with the Junk Rats, but to a lesser extent.

The question to ask is “Does cutting this change the understanding of the story?” If the answer is “No”, then you should cut. Cutting the parts indicated does not change the story for us, the story being a person’s journey across dangerous grounds. There is a tendency in writers (including myself) to want to add more world-building details than are necessary. Storytelling is all about sharing your own worlds, right? We are very proud of our imaginations, of our creations, but that doesn’t give us an excuse to bog-down our writing with unnecessary details. It is something that needs to be reined in. And that takes a lot of willpower and focus. here we can cut the world-building and add some more character development. Why is he making this trip? That’s a key detail that we are missing here.

To reiterate, if your story doesn’t have a crisis, if your character doesn’t have a goal and if we don’t understand why, it is not a story. And this should be very clear to the reader, presented early on. The experience of reading a story is watching how a character deals with his crisis. In order to do so, the reader needs to know what the crisis is and how the character feels about it. And every part of the story should have bearing on the crisis, if not, cut it.

The editing tips above are my personal opinion, but a well-educated one. Other editors will cut it in other ways, but the end result will always be cutting. Revision is usually two-parts deletion, one-part addition.

I hope this analysis here helps you to improve your own writing. Flash and mirco is really hard to write. Many think that short equals easy, but in this case the opposite is true. Just remember “character and crisis” and you’ll do fine.

SchoolofWords is a nice little blog (I don’t know who the author is), with a lot of decent micro-fiction pieces. They are short and easy to read. I would suggest checking them out, or even following the author.

More on First-Person Narrators

Dec
20

Bards and Sages: First-Person Narrative Pitfalls

Here is another interesting discussion on the problems with first-person narrators. However, I personally disagree with the last point. There is no necessity that the first-person narrator must have a logical means to deliver the story to the reader. That is wholly unnecessary meta-thinking. The story is not connected to our world, it is a world of its own. Within that world, it can do whatever it wants. The narrator does not have to be a real person, it can simply be a voice telling us the story. There is nothing wrong with a first-person narrator dying at the end without explanation of how the story is getting out; it’s a fictional story, not a historical journal. Those who take issue with this I think have a flawed relationship with the concept of fiction. But that’s just me, and I know I am a minority voice.

Narrative Perspective: 3rd Person Pure Limited or Limited Omniscient

Dec
19

I had another good discussion with my editor as we reviewed his comments on my book manuscript. Another interesting, you-know-it-but-don’t-realize-it topic came up: narrative perspective.

I generally write in third-person. It’s standard form for fantasy, though less for sci-fi. I find most first-person writing to be lazy. It goes back to the age-old adage “show don’t tell.” Most writers using first-person simply describe thoughts and feelings, rather than showing their effect.

A major problem I have with a lot of classic SF, is that the main characters often come off as cardboard plot devices, rather than real people. Plot usually takes precedence in SF over character. But I am a character writer by training, so that’s no good for me. Thus, I tend to stick with third person.

There are basically three ranges for a third person narrator: pure omniscient (which you should almost never use), limited omniscient, and pure limited. The middle one was the new[ly recognized] concept from our discussion.

What is the difference between limited omniscient and pure limited? Well, it has little to do with what the narrator knows of the story; both perspectives come from right behind the eyes of the character, limited in knowledge to what the character knows. The difference is how events are judged. Is the story being judged (as in the actions of other characters) by the character or is the narrator’s independent perspective coming through.

The way my mentally-challenged character views an aggressive older boy is going to be much different than I would. I probably hold that boy to a higher moral standard and will be harsher in my judgement. The character has encountered this boy before and has become numb to his bullying. So which perspective do I use?

This is important because I have many characters and perspectives in my book. Do I do it like George R.R. Martin and have the moral perspective change with each character? Or do I provide a consistent judgement of the world throughout the work. I have decided to do the latter, for consistency and balance (once you see the structure of my book, I think you will understand). Though the narrator is limited in knowledge to what the characters know, his moral compass analyses and presents events to the reader in a consistent way.

This difference between limited perspectives is something that cannot be done in first person, and one of the reasons a lot of first-person writing is flawed. Take the story The Disavowed Agent by Allison Spooner. Not to dig at writer, the story is based on a fun concept and was a good read (follow the link and give it a read). The problem is that her character is a 7-year-old and yet has a mostly adult world view and vocabulary. She explains this by suggesting her character watched a lot of spy movies, but there is only so much such a young child can absorb and emulate.

In first-person, the voice must match the character, it doesn’t make sense otherwise. The solution would be to write this story in third-person limited omniscient. Then you can keep the complicated adult voice, but be in the character’s head at the same time (though, you’d have to change some of the dialogue).

I find a lot of first-person writing suffers the same problem. First-person is the easiest form to write badly and the hardest to write well. Unfortunately, it seems either a lot of publishers out there prefer first-person stories, or writers do.

I would caution any writer to think twice about writing in first-person as a default. Ask yourself if it is necessary, if it adds something to the narration that cannot be achieved in third-person. If you don’t have a good positive answer, stick with third-person and build your character by showing rather than telling.

But that’s just my limited perspective.

Keeping Track of Submissions

Nov
30

Any good writer knows it takes a lot of work, and many attempts, to get published. I am relatively new to professional fiction writing, but I have started to develop systems to make the process run more smoothly.

Below is my method for keeping track of everything. My experience as a staff NCO in the Army has led me to like using Excel spreadsheets–we call them trackers–for following the moving pieces.

pub

As can be seen here, I currently have 11 short pieces at publishers in various states. This is less than two months’ work so far, so I feel like I’m being productive. One of my pieces has recently been accepted for publication, and others are pending. I have found several different publications to send to, as I find diversification is good for my publication chances and a good way to build an audience.

As also can be seen, this tracker anticipates rejection. Writers should expect rejection and not let it slow them down. If you get a rejection letter, do another revision on the story and get it back out into the market. But it’s important to keep track of where a story has been so you don’t send it to the same place mistakenly in the far future. And you should keep a lot of space on your sheet for rejection–I don’t know if even four is sufficient.

If you write S.F. or Fantasy shorts, it would behoove you to look up the publishers on this list and try to send them something. It can’t hurt.

I hope this tool is helpful for those of you who are starting to consider publishing.

The Continent of ESSARSEA

Oct
29

 

essarsea

I’ll be the first to admit I am not very artsy. I can draw stickmen, if I really put my mind to it. Which makes simplified tools, such as the Inkarnate map maker, so incredible to me. I was hesitant to use maps early on in my story planning, but I have found it very useful to have a concrete design to rely on when I am writing. There is no ambiguity and no time lost trying to think about geography and lay out while I am writing. Creating a simple map like this does help the actual writing process a lot, and its a good piece to have once I think about getting formal maps created for the final book.writing tool

Above is a conceptual map I made of the small continent on which my current book takes place. The book centers on the city-state Marudal, which lies east of the Green Mountains and along the Blekgast River. As is visible in this map, the river is actually channeled through the city via a canal. To the north of the city is a large forest, where many significant parts of the story take place. Also visible here are Marudal’s political rivals Kingston and Oddesia. What is not visible is the growing empire to the west of the mountains. This military, expansionist polity is perhaps the greatest threat to peace in the eastern continent.

For someone who has no skill at drawing, map making tools like this are a life-saver.

The program is currently in free open beta, at Inkarnate.com

If you’d like to know more about Marudal and Essarsea, check out the other posts in this blog or pick up my book when it drops.

Tools: Plume Creator

Sep
29

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I started this blog while in the middle of writing my first book. The tool I was using to write that book was the awesome, open-source Plume Creator.

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This program offers a simple way to organize your writing. You can organize by books, acts, chapter and scenes (of course you can rename these as you wish, my first book consists of 3 parts, with several chapters each, with 3 scenes in each chapter). I find writing by scene is a very effective way of getting content down.

Then you can add the text of each scene into the main section of the program. It will even autosave for you every 20 seconds, which is great. I keep my save file in my Dropbox, which adds a double edge of security.

In addition to the basic organization features, the program has several other tools. There is a section for storing information on characters, items and places. Also, there is a notes tab where you can put notes on all the scenes and sections. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it has a writing timer and distraction-free fullscreen mode. The latter turns your whole screen black and covers your desktop menu bars so you are free to write until the muse leaves you. I often find myself writing for a hour or longer once I turn this on.

Of course a program like this, made by an indie developer and distributed for free, is not going to be as complex as some other pay-for programs available. Even so, I find that this program offers me all the basic tools I need to organize my book. I personally don’t need things like a story construction wizard; I just need a place to store my characters and something to keep me focused on the writing. Plume Creator does that very well. I highly encourage giving it a try.

Source: http://www.plume-creator.eu/