Creating a book map


https://plottr.com/features/

As a determined pantser writer, I resist the outline and prefer to thrash out a mini version of my opus in the format of the 3DayNovelContest. Then, once I get it all down, I go back and create a structure around the blathering I’ve just completed. It takes a long time, but eventually I get everything laid out.

With my latest book, Spit and Polish, I found I was getting mired down in the historical tidbits and varied storylines. I had my main character’s arc, but it was…thin. I needed some other story arcs to wind about it to make the plot and characters more dimensional.

So I logged in to Plottr, something I highly recommend for this sort of thing. They have a variety of templates of story structures in the program that guide where you put events, show you where you need events, indicate whereabouts crises and climaxes and resolutions and so forth should fall. It is infinitely adaptable, has separate sections for character descriptions, location descriptions (good for if you forget what that place looks like by page 50), other notes, research, images, etc. You can create timelines for each character or even local/world events, helpful when writing historical novels. It is fantastically rich, though I wish I could easily print off the timeline.

Normally I use Scrivener for all things writing related. It’s way cool, and allows for separation of your project into sections that can be easily moved about or edited, and even eventually compiles all your precious thoughts into an acceptable format for submission. But I find the timeline feature of Plottr was terrifically helpful to have open along with Scrivener so I could slot in various events (historical, for ex) and then take them down to Scrivener to write the actual section. There are note cards in Scrivener, but I wanted a timeline that wasn’t all included in the text.

In Jane Friedman’s excellent blog, she recommends creating a book map for both fiction and non-fiction. The article, and indeed everything on the blog, is worth a read. Book maps help keep you from the dreaded middle languishing, a common problem with longer works. I’d like to have a plot wall with stickies all over it as illustrated on the blog, but a. I live in an apartment with limited wall space and b. I have tiny T-Rex arms that limit my reach and don’t relish all the step-stool climbing I’d have to do to include everything. So Plottr and a second display it is.

In other software I find helpful, I am seriously in love with ProWritingAid as it finds all of the times I write the same phrase, identifies my tendency to passive voice, catches my bad typing, and tells me gently when I’ve started the past several sentences the EXACT SAME WAY. It gets pushy, sometimes, and occasionally I have to push back to maintain my voice, but it’s a good serious look at what I’ve written.

Sweetly, all of these programs can work together, though it’s best to start with Plottr, go to Scrivener, run everything through ProWritingAid, then back to Scrivener or Word for assembly. With my pantser approach, I go back from the first Scrivener round to Plottr, which can get confusing. I plan to change that approach for my next book. Maybe it will save me some time.

So why not try a book map for your next writing project, if you aren’t already? I have to admit, a book map sounds more fun than an outline. It seems more adventurous somehow…like you are heading somewhere exciting with dragons around the edges…

Photo by Ekrulila on Pexels.com

Learning editing, or squeezing those little grey cells until they weep


Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Photo is of course not me as I currently am perched at my desk in my bedroom, curled onto a footstool so I can reach the keyboard, dressed in my writing gear of my son’s LCVI class of 2008 sweatshirt and loose pants. I dream of being well-put-together and smiley, but instead I squint and growl alternately as I wrestle with the document I’ve been assigned for my structural editing class at Queen’s University. Occasionally I get up to walk to the printer which will no doubt be my step count for today.

Sometimes you just have to have a hard copy of a document to make any sense out of it.

It’s early days for the course and I suspect my classmates are equally wobbly as we try to figure out what is wanted from us, but the instructor is one I know and like, so I am relying on past positive experiences to get me through these early periods.

One of the things we learn in these courses is where to find resources to guide our practice. In the very second class, we’ve been directed to the very helpful website, The Book Designer. I highly recommend the site if you are looking to self-publish or working with a smaller publisher. It honestly is FULL of goodies. It’s a motherlode of useful information about all sorts of things, from how to put together a book cover to how to write out that little thing at the end of the book that talks about the font you’ve used and its history – ah yes, the colophon!

And this is where I am finding a bit of a challenge with my Multiply Sclerosed brain. I used to be able to remember things well. Of late, the little grey cells are a bit overtaxed and things keep falling off the edge of my memory table. How this is going to work with editing practice is anyone’s guess, but I have hopes that, as with all things, the more I do it, the more I will remember.

I do find that if I focus on one thing at a time things go better. Unfortunately I have overcommitted myself in every direction and now race to catch up, holding onto errant grey cells as I dash. Feel a bit White Queen in Alice in Wonderland-y, to be honest. Definitely feeling this vibe. Even dressed a bit the same.

art by John Tenniel

Or perhaps I am more like the sheep she turns into: “The meeting ends with the Queen seeming to turn into a bespectacled sheep who sits at a counter in a shop as Alice passes into the next square on the board. The Sheep is somewhat different from the Queen in terms of personality and gets “more like a porcupine every time [Alice] looks at her” because she knits with several knitting needles all at once.” from Wikipedia.

Ah well, they say using your brain to learn new things keeps us young, refreshes the pathways in the brain, creates new side roads and byways. Perhaps all this frazzled thinking will turn out okay in the end.

After all, it did for Alice.

On writing self-help, or have you eaten your tail lately?


https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20171204-the-ancient-symbol-that-spanned-millennia

I’ve been researching the “how to write/edit your book and get it published” industry as I prepare for my editing work and it is starting to make me laugh.

It’s an ouroborus, that magical snake eating its tail. There’s a lovely article on BBC about the history of this symbol, which is used to denote the cycle of life, the never-ending story, birth and rebirth. It’s been around forever, as, I suspect, has the self-help industry.

All of it makes me think of all those people who sell books telling you to market your book before you even start writing it- to check what sells and then write to the market. Most of the books they have sold, these marketing-focused authors, are self-help in one way or another. Cheery blandishments about living for today, stress management, decluttering, how to market yourself, write that novel now!, etc etc. It goes on and on and on.

Either that or a stories about werewolves in a post-apocalyptic world where there are three suns and 14 moons.

In the writing field, it seems to be the thing to write a book telling people how to write. I’ve been fooled into purchasing several of these, having been told they were “must reads” if you want to understand the writing process. A few are good. One or two are extremely valuable. And the rest? Ummm.

I’m getting cranky now, as I get older. I’ve also bought too many of these tomes, only to open them and realize there is nothing inside but babble and dross, most of it promoting other self-help or writing books. And when I read things like the “Self-Publishing Formula” and am told these authors are cranking out a book a month, I can’t help wondering if all the things being spun out are of any worth at all. (After all, writing a book seems to take me YEARS!) But people sell them, and promote them within the community, all telling everyone that that book by their friend must be read.

And so the snake goes on, eating its tail, being reborn as yet another self-help book, forever.

One of the most visible ouroboros writers is Julia Cameron. She had a good idea, with her “The Artist’s Way” book, and she has been spinning out the morning pages and artist dates ideas into book after book after book – all with essentially the same content. I’m not sure if I am envious of her success at persuading publishers to buy in over and over again, or just irritated that so many trees are being killed to produce the same thing over and over, with a slightly different take. I mean, I know the lass has to make a living, but I do wish for fresh ideas.

It’s really tough to come up with a creative, original story line for fiction, romance, science fiction, mystery. In these areas, rehashing the exact same ideas is somewhat frowned upon. I suspect it is less tough to come out with a book on truisms and how-tos. Or involving werewolves.

I expect publishers like the non-fiction things, too, in that people keep buying them, never mind the post-purchase regret. And much of the self-help industry relies on well-written book blurbs that lead us to expect great things from the enclosed advice. So we buy, and regret.

I adore good non-fiction, the stuff that is carefully researched, that shines a light into an area I know nothing about. I’m always looking for new sources of knowledge. See: Entangled Life: How Fungi make our worlds, change our minds and shape our futures by Merlin Sheldrake (Such a glorious name for someone writing on fungi! I mean, he thanks the fungi from which he has learned in acknowledgements! I love him already.)

But the ouroboros of retelling the same mundane details and self-help advice that is written in poetic smarm – that I can do without.

Thank heavens for libraries that allow you to dip in without financial commitment – and yet the authors get a bit of a payback nonetheless, enough to compensate for the work they’ve done reworking concepts. I always buy the ones I find useful. I suspect Mr. Sheldrake will gain a spot on my bookshelf.

The enduring prejudice


Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

The other day, while idly wandering cookie recipes online, I came across one for oatmeal chocolate chip ones and scrolled down (I couldn’t remember my usual go to and had some chocolate chips looking lonely). The writer started off, as many do, with a little introductory blather, in which she said something to the effect of:

My grandmother lived to age 94, surprisingly, given her love for cookies and sweets and things like this recipe.

Now I’m a certified cookie-lover, and I couldn’t help but take umbrage. Why is it surprising that her grandmother lived while still loving cookies? Maybe it was the cookies that gave her the will to live! I know that on some of these grey winter days, when getting out of bed seems an unworthy struggle, the thought of a fresh cookie with my morning coffee can be the difference between loitering under the covers and springing into action.

And these were HOME MADE cookies she was talking about, lacking the usual death-dealing chemicals found in the store-bought kind that the author was probably secretly scarfing while looking all judgey-judgey at her poor grandmother toiling over a hot oven to bring deliciousness to her family (and/or herself, and there’s nothing wrong with that).

You never see anyone talking about their grandmother expressing surprise that she lived to an extended age despite her persistent love for kale, do you?

Well, that’s because people who live on kale die young, realizing early on that life has no purpose, no joy, no raison d’être. There’s only so much bitter green stuff a person can chew through before the pointlessness of it all becomes apparent.

But it’s okay to shame the cookie-eaters. Of all the prejudices, the ones against the plump, or even the sweet lover, the eater of fat, well, those remain and are endlessly reinforced.

Heard a comic the other day talking about how the best marriages are when the man’s ability to see drops as his wife ages. Yeah. The wife that births the children, manages the everything, and maybe, maybe, resorts to the occasional cookie in desperation. The wife whose eyes see fine and realizes the husband has turned into a smelly hairy hulk with bad teeth, but she’s the one with the problem with sinking attractiveness, of course. Grr.

So I say, huzzah for the cookie. It’s a small bundle of pure joy, perched in the palm of your hand like a precious gift, ready to bring delight. Eat on, grandmothers and others who cherish cookies. Life is too short to fill with gritty greens, no matter how long you live. Munch on, wallow in the brown sugar and butter goodness. Then, when you live long, you might actually enjoy it.

Write what you know, they told me.


Every time I listen to a famous writer, I find myself wondering what I would tell people in an interview to explain what I write about. Or, more importantly, what part of my life could be used to make my writing more interesting? Deeper? More moving? What do I actually KNOW?

Truthfully, after a life of boring middle class white privilege, the cupboard seems pretty bare.

I could write about what it’s like living with MS (like everyone else with MS), or about being under 5 feet tall, or about surviving being beaten up every time after my Catholic education classes… but really, how interesting is that?

I suppose I could write about my scarred body- multiple surgeries, marks from pregnancies, my almost complete set of limb scars (only my left arm is untouched and now I am developing a twisted arthritic finger there). As a nurse I’ve found most of them fascinating; as a body, I suspect I’ve had enough.

Or I could write about relationships I’ve had. Maybe not. Most of those people are still living.

Or then there’s all the places I’ve lived, many of them odd. And then I think, as my son told me once, every time you move you bring you with you. Which makes me wonder if it’s me that’s odd, as vs the places.

What about you, readers? What would you write/talk about if interviewed? What would you highlight? What would you dig into for story ideas? What do you try to keep hidden that keeps creeping out into your work?

For me, I’m bad at intimacy, at even being a bosom buddy. Maybe it’s time to mine some of that, my awkwardness, the way I use humour to push everyone just a little bit away. While that may not be fascinating, it’s perhaps relatable… and I do know it, unfortunately, very well.

Liminal Grey


Photo by Karol Wiu015bniewski on Pexels.com

This liminal time between the overhyped Christmas and the resumption of workaday life is always a gentle grey. Fluffy, like fog, but warmer. Enclosing.

In amongst the vaguely smothering feelings caused by way too much chocolate and loneliness, I’m struggling to pull myself forward, knowing full well the sun will come out and life will resume in all its busyness and glory, laughter and foolishness.

But for now, I wallow, in full goblin-mode, hair unwashed, teeth brushed but without my usual enthusiasm, waiting to feel the rumblings of my self restarting. I do things that are restful to the little grey cells (as Poirot would have called them), watching movies and stitching, saving my creativity for another time, when the rootlets I am feeling stirring push their way towards the light.

Because I can feel them. Much like the lengthening of the days past midwinter, I can feel creative things returning to bright. They are nascent as yet, tender, at risk of being flattened by too much enthusiasm. Baby steps, I tell myself. They need gentle encouragement. Any more and I will frighten them away.

Even now, thinking about things, I find myself wondering what it’s all FOR, really. Why bother to write, to try new things, to care? Who will even notice?

This way darkness lies. Bad darkness, the kind with gnashing teeth and despair. I’ve spent some time there and I DON’T LIKE IT. In truth, we all live with the deception that what we do matters. It’s the only way we can get up in the morning and go on. To do this we need to mend the little rips that occur, when we are let down, when we fail, when we are alone. Stitch them over with colourful threads, make any injuries part of the pattern, livening it up with each hurt. So I pull at the rough edges of my self, bring out the bright coloured ribbons, weave myself together. We can all do this. But slowly, gently. We have to fool ourselves into it, turn the mirrors to the wall while we reassemble, stop judging every movement.

I start slowly, planning, holding myself to my magic of ten minute increments. I learned years ago that the only way I can make myself do anything is to tell myself I will only promise to do it for ten minutes. I don’t frighten away the creative gods if I tell them I won’t ask them for much, not this time. Let’s just play for a moment, I tell them. And they agree.

Gradually, the grey recedes, a bird sings, a song on the radio speaks to me, my feet remember how to dance. And my fingers find the keyboard and words fly about. Most of them will need honing, adjusting, but for now, I let them blow by, rejoicing in their return.

Photo by Elizabeth Tr. Armstrong on Pexels.com

The year of reading podcastingly, or an alternative to the Book Riot’s Read Harder challenge


My darling cousin referred me to an excellent podcast, Backlisted, described thus: “Giving New Life to Old Books. The literary podcast presented by John Mitchinson and Andy Miller. Brought to you by Unbound. Visit www.backlisted.fm

My current to be read list…

Suffice to say my life has been forever changed. Who knew there was a book called “The Victorian Chaise longue“? It’s a horror story, by the way. And I want to read it after listening to the people on the podcast discussing it. They discuss books like “Diary of a Nobody” and another must read for me, “Silence”, by Shusaku Endo. A quote from there via Goodreads:

“Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.” 

Doesn’t that sound like a mind exercise? A thought expander?

In the podcast, the speakers start off with telling the audience what they are reading that week. They read the most enticing things. So so many books I haven’t yet read, a few already on my TBR list, lots of authors of whom I haven’t even heard. So astonishing.

So, for this upcoming year, I plan to surf through this podcast’s recommendations and try to read as many of them as I can. One of the presenters is the developer of the year of reading dangerously, so how could he lead me astray?

I highly recommend the podcast, thought the intro music is the most annoying stuff I’ve ever heard. That said, they incorporate music in the rest of their presentation that add a lot to the discussion. All of the presenters seem to be having such a jolly time, all really enjoying the books they read and talking about them. It’s terribly inspiring.

So off I go, today listening to “The Complete Molesworth” with a view to reading that pretty quickly. Another for the TBR list.

Anyone game to join me in reading from this list?

Christmas Work


Photo by cottonbro studio on Pexels.com

In my family, we always thought of Christmas as my dad’s day. It’s not clear why, and after having squeezed the life into a few family Christmases myself, I can empathize with the repressed rage my mum must have experienced over this.

She’d spend weeks, months even, baking, cleaning, getting us new clothes, preparing us and the house for big parties with neighbours and friends. When family visited from far away, she sorted out beds and meals and church and every bit of the framework. And then my dad would step forward and lead the festivities. He’d gather us at the piano, and we’d all sing or play along on whatever instrument we were torturing at the time. He’d dominate the jigsaw table, hiding pieces from us, only to tap them in place with a braggart’s finger, triumph on his face. Just him and us. Mum wasn’t a part. She was in the kitchen.

We’d be honoured to accompany him as co-conspirators when he asked us to dash about with him at the last minute, seeking just that perfect present, running in and out of shops before the final closing on Christmas Eve. We’d be forcibly marched out of Lechmere, a shop filled with all sorts of cool technology, the clerks glaring at us as the overhead blared that, “The store is now closed. Please make your way to a cashier now.” He was either extremely lucky or had spent more time thinking about things than it seemed. He’d always find the perfect gift for my mother– a soft green velour pantsuit that highlighted her gorgeous eyes was one I remember. I don’t remember many others, focused as I was at the time on my own goodies, but I do remember her cries of delight.

Mum never got the same reaction. She’s have spent weeks in agonies over what to get him, and whether he’d like it, only to get a lukewarm reaction from him. Her gift somehow was always the wrong size or not wanted and dad’s disappointment would show.

Tension inevitably grew as the day passed. At the time I was unsympathetic, but back then I didn’t know the Christmas fatigue that overwhelms mothers, or whoever else gets the task of making the day happen. Now I do.

Dad had fun, though –the clown at the party, he came on stage and managed the presents (most bought by mum). My older brother, an acquisitive lad with some Smaug-like tendencies, was forced to exchange one of his past items for the coveted new one while Dad looked on with glee. My brother collected cameras, so my dad would gift my younger brother a piece of the new camera my older brother wanted. He would have to sacrifice one of his treasured older cameras to get the piece he wanted, and he visibly hated that thought. Both boys would eventually be happy, my father could economize, but we always knew his real joy lay in watching the reluctant exchange.

Then, just like the Grinch after his heart growth, dad would preside over the dinner table to carve the Roast Beast. Ever the perfect host, he’d regale the table with stories and jokes, puzzles and games (and far too many puns). Meanwhile my mum would carry in the meal she’d prepared, serve it, clear away the dishes, and tidy up the mess. We kids would all flee the table and follow him like imprinted ducklings into the living room to play with our new treats, abandoning mum to the kitchen tasks.

We were heartless.

Still, at Christmas, I always think of my dad, of his smiles, his music, his obvious love for us shining forth. Meanwhile, the softer, more hidden love that showed in all the backbreaking labour my mum did keeps getting forgotten.

My dad even died on Christmas Eve, taking his light away on the day we most associated with him, ensuring we’d always think of him first at that magical time. I’m sure he’s laughing about that even now. Somewhere.

My mother is probably laughing, too. She died on Mother’s Day a few years later, a final kick at the ‘who’s more important’ can. So she has her own spot where we can never forget her.

I wish she’d been around longer, long enough for me to let her know how much I enjoyed her efforts, understood her holiday fatigue, was so grateful for all of it. I don’t think I ever did.

Christmas (or any holiday) magic takes time, effort, hard work. Cheers to all who manage to create it for those you love.

Write what you fear


A few years ago I got this advice in a workshop and I immediately thought of my friend who’d just been admitted to a long term care home after a stroke. In minutes, his life was no longer his own; unable to function, he was completely dependent on an institution to provide everything for him.

It’s a terrifying thought, especially for an independent gal like myself who lives with a progressive incurable disabling disease. Ever since my diagnosis, this spectre has haunted my thoughts. On those days where I have trouble with my legs and have issues getting into the shower, it trots right in to my mind and makes itself at home, picking its teeth and farting loudly.

Of course it immediately occurs to me that both of those things are not acceptable in long term care homes. I mean, you are under constant supervision. How does one pass wind? I immediately envision me scootering around to abandoned areas of the home to let go, only to be discovered by disapproving residents.

A friend of mine has just had to arrange this sort of transfer for her mother and the amount of work she has to do gives me pause as well. I restrain myself from immediately calling 1-800 got junk and having them take away everything, just in case. I have a horror of the kids going through my precious items and judging me, laughing at what I chose to keep, those indecent bras that I like because they are comfortable but which really should never be seen, love letters from men they never met, odd books from friends, half knit socks…

It doesn’t help that I’ve just heard that the retirement home bleating of on-site health care is just this, bleating. If you are lucky, you might have an on-site nurse, but generally it can be anything from a PSW to a retired surgeon resident who maybe can see you at coffee.

This seems unpromising.

So off I go to the gym, hoping to forestall the eventual. Truth is, we’re all, after a certain point, just one fall from being incarcerated. But I persist in trying to postpone it as long as possible.

I admit the thought of daily meals prepared for me can seem tempting. And someone to do laundry. Maybe someone to chat with over meals.

But, (she thinks), that would mean retiring those bras…

Instead, I’ll write stories about captives in nursing homes, subjected to attacks and robberies, under the grip of malevolent administrators. Maybe I’ll make them win most of the time.

It’ll make me feel better, anyway…

Cutting cutting cutting


Photo by cottonbro studio on Pexels.com

It seems to me a lot of my life is spent cutting – physically, as I clip threads and cloth, virtually as I edit my writing and try to help others with theirs. I like to to throw a bunch of material on a table, pull off a long stretch of fibre, toss as many words around as possible.

Trimming at first seems easier, once the ideas are in place. But that’s deceptive. It’s easy to end up with too much to handle, to have threads and yarns and stories get tangled in knots as you try to work with them. Teasing out sense from the resulting mess can take longer than choosing words, threads, fabric properly the first time. Hard to do when you are just learning, difficult habits to break even as you gain experience. Thank heavens for editing, and the chance to rework.

Just ran across an excellent article by Jason Hamilton with the Kindlepreneur folks, listing the words you can and should minimize if you want to be read (writing for yourself is always a good idea, but some of us don’t feel validated until our reading is read by others and cheered or booed), and it threw a bit of salt on my writing wounds. I just know I simply use too many of these words all the time, repeatedly, inappropriately, and when I sit down at my computer I can hear them trying to escape into my writing. (as they just have, by way of an example).

“Just” is a pernicious weed in my writing. I pluck it out, it creeps back in. I overuse “felt”. Looking over my recent creation my ever helpful ProWritingAid told me I had my poor heroine say, “She couldn’t help herself” do something many many times, surely not the approach I wanted for a strong female character!

I have trained myself to flinch at adverbs, but I kindof like playing with run-on sentences. They are dangerous friends, though, easily transforming themselves into sets of wrongly linked clauses. Unplanned hilarity can result. And while I am all for unplanned hilarity, it is hardly appropriate in a death scene. Well, most of the time.

And so, and so, like the boy in Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, I must grab my Vorpal sword, gird my loins, and get cutting.

One, two! One, two! And through and through 

      The vorpal blade went (goes) snicker-snack! 

It’s going to take me awhile, and golly I do wish I hadn’t sent my inelegant MS out to be looked over already. I have hopes, though, that one day, like the aforesaid boy, I’ll be able to cheer “Oh frabjous day! Callow! Callay!” and chortle in my joy.

And maybe, just maybe (she says, violating already her hard fought principles) someone else will chortle with me.

(On a side note, I highly recommend ProWritingAid. It catches the most amazing things, like when I start every sentence in a paragraph with the same thing, or when I babble on vaguely. It’s worth the investment, IMHO. Of course nothing helps more than a good editor, an outside set of eyes, particularly an understanding set. If you’re looking for one, check out Somewhat Grumpy Press, where I work with another great editor to help others avoid these problems and others.)

Happy writing!