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Author Archive for Ron Seybold

Five simple steps to start with Scrivener

Sooner or later you’ll hear about writers using Scrivener. It’s a writing tool that makes projects flow faster and increases your production. You write more, and faster. You find what you’ve written easier. It’s only $40, and your writing in it will live on your laptop (you can back up to the cloud, if you want.) Using it for the first 30 days is free. Download it for free here.

You’ll also hear that Scrivener is complicated. Hard to get started with, and full of a lot of features that are hard to understand, let alone use. You might have heard that same thing about Microsoft Word, too, once upon a time. Look how simple you can make Word. Scrivener can be just as simple. And like Word, you can reach for the deeper features if you want.

You don’t need to reach, though, in order to make Scrivener turbo-charge your creativity. There are only five steps to start writing in Scrivener, once you open the program for the first time. These First Five will give you chapters and even printed pages, if you need any these days.

Step 1. Start by launching your first project. Projects are the big box that everything for a book lives in. Project=book. “My Debut Novel” is a good name.

Action: When the program starts, the “Project Templates” window (above) opens. Click on “Blank” to the left, then double-click on the white page to the right. Name your project. You’ve now made your big box.

Important: Avoid the roadblock of choosing special Templates right away. Blank is good. Fiction, Nonfiction; all of that is for later. Using them right away will make Scrivener harder to learn. Choose Blank.

Step 2. Scrivener always opens with the Binder on the left. The Binder is important because you’ll see all of your book’s parts in it.  Name your first document; nlick where it says “Untitled Document” and rename it. “Chapter 1” or “Opening Scene.” Names don’t matter now; you can change them.

Action: Click on “Untitled Document” and rename it, then hit return.

Step 3. Start to write your book. The cursor is already inside what Scrivener calls the Editor window. Look — you’re already writing! Scrivener auto-saves. You can play with the fonts (right above your writing in the Editor Window) just like in Word. Or not.

Action: Start writing. Have fun. Watch the word count in the bottom of the window swell.

Step 4. Written enough of your scene, or chapter? Make the next one.

Plus Button

Action: Click on “Draft” in the Binder on the left. When it’s highlighted, click on the Plus + button, right overhead on that tool bar. A new document (scene, chapter, section) is created, right under the first one. Go to work and write in the editor again.

Step 5. Print a document

Action: Click on the document in the Binder you want to print. Go up to the Edit menu and select “Print Current Document”.

That’s all you need. As you write, you will be creating a set of book pieces in that Binder, using the Plus Button. This is your book in its earliest draft. You can see the pieces. If you write longhand and have sections, just transcribe them into new documents you’ll make with that big + button.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Your writing is now all in one place. If you quit Scrivener, it will start up again with the big box (project “My Debut Novel”) you were working on last time. It will even go to the last document you were writing in.

You can do countless things with the Binder. Or something called the Inspector (the blue i on the top right). Don’t worry about those right now. You don’t need them to draft or revise. Once you want to share your writing, or shuttle it into Word, there are other steps to use. Only a handful, too.  That’s for another blog.

Scrivener is a tool for writers at all levels. It makes it difficult to mislay writing you did, and makes it easy to compare versions and even passages. To find characters in scenes. So much more A lot. But these five steps get you writing, and drafting inside of Scrivener.

Okay, you have other questions.

Inspector

What are all those buttons, like the blue i?

At first you only care about the Plus button, the Magnifying Glass button (for searches)—and maybe the Inspector (Blue i) button. The Inspector will tell you when you created a document and when you last updated it.

Keep it simple for now. That Plus button can also make folders, but you probably don’t need them just yet.

What is a “Binder?”

It’s your road map, the address book, the list of pieces of your project, running all down the left-hand column. These are the doors. Your writing is inside them. Click one to select. Keep the Binder open at first, so you can jump from piece to piece.

Do I have to “compile?”

Only when you are truly, truly finished and ready to publish your book. Or, perhaps to share a bunch of scenes or chapters as a single file for your workshop group.

Go ahead, download Scrivener and try it out with the five steps. Start writing more and faster.

How to sum up a novel in a sentence

“Help!” a budding novelist asks, hoping to get some advice on a novel. “I’m in a contest and my entry has to be summed up in just one sentence.”

Summary is a mighty task. Your book of 70,000 words must be reduced to maybe 35. You can do it, but it’s going to demand several revisions. Your first try might be a 50-word sentence. Too long. You don’t want your sentence to be over-packed with clauses, either.

Your model ought to establish a character’s main desire by showing an inciting event, then establish the character’s action the book will tell in its story. I also want to see who opposes the character and get a hint at the resolution.

This is as good a time as any to check your structure. In Story Engineering, Larry Brooks shares a test for whether an idea is fleshed out enough to make a story.

[When] some event sparks a character to action, that [character acts] with deliberate purpose [until] that action is opposed by an external force, [leading to] a conclusion.

You can use a descriptor (amateur botanist) in the character section of the sentence. You’re reaching for sizzle in the inciting incident, something dramatic. That’s your hook. Your opposing force is your villain, the character whose job is to stop the hero from her goal.

Your goal? To write a sentence that effectively conveys the emotion and entertainment of your book. Bryan Cohen, who advises authors on how to sell their books, has a useful article on this at Amazon Author Insights.

One last bit of how-to. Be ruthless about what you include in your sentence. Does the element illuminate emotion, or convey entertainment? Leave it in. Help a reader desire your story.

 

 

And so she’s become a #novelist,too

Holding PenThe #MeToo movement, also called a moment, has delivered many disturbing ones over the past months. Men have been forced to face their history with the women in their lives, and for some of them, it’s a history of failures. There’s not an ending coming for this movement anytime soon. It would seem the only repair is to raise a new generation of men who see these violations to be as senseless as genocide.

The #MeToo story spreads across unexpected subjects. Writing novels has taken a hit. One tale is being told by one woman about another, a woman she admired and held up as a role model. In the New York Times, a column by Amanda Taub tells the story of Heidi Bond. These stories all have lessons and costs. Taub’s story about Bond includes a striking comment about anyone’s career as a popular novelist. Becoming an author can be portrayed as a misfortune.

Bond has reported that Judge Alex Kozinski sexually harassed her a decade ago while she worked as a law clerk for him. Clerks, if you don’t know, are lawyers in this kind of job. Taub knew Bond while both women studied in Michigan’s law school. This time out, the harassment story led to Bond leaving her profession and slipping away from her career, and even the use of her name.

Taub explains, in the article that ran in the Times.

The harassment tainted her career so much that even though she had access to some of the most coveted jobs in the country, she wanted nothing to do with them. She left the legal profession entirely, and is now a successful romance novelist writing under the name Courtney Milan.

Bond’s transition from abused attorney to romance novelist looks like it’s painted as an utter fall from power and magnificent, meaningful work. Becoming a novelist is no small bit of work to get successful at it. Romances are read by women, by and large. The tone that I read in Taub’s writing — she’s a journalist, and so a writer like Bond — felt like the career of romance writing was some ash heap.

Bond’s accomplishment has her books in the top 500 Victorian romances at Amazon. Big list. High number. She publishes herself, which is the smart way to get books out if you write in genres.

But romance writers get dismissed, even by other writers. Romance writers get read in great numbers, a thing that separates them from some earnest, MFA-studied novelists, nominated for prizes because their readership is rooted in literature experts. Romances first came into my house in a box from a good friend, one with a Master’s degree in Library Science. Jane said she had another box of these romances waiting for me if I made my way through the ones she brought.

I’m trying comprehend Bond’s story on an emotional level. A bright and capable woman says she was abused by Kozinski and ultimately left her dream career. The place where Heidi Bond resurfaces is amid a life’s work creating stories about women and men striving to love each other. Those stories often involve women coming into their rightful places in life, where their talents and drive are rewarded with happiness. They are recognized and respected. Sometimes these heroines’ jobs in the novels make a great difference in life.

On a personal level they want it all, though, and they are entitled to that. They want to experience love, and the majority of those characters want that love from a man. The men in the romances are unlike the judge. They are sometimes mistaken and full of flaws. Few of these men have a disgraceful act against a woman in their past. They are complex nonetheless.

Complexity is something that’s been put to the side during the movement. I’d like to believe that Amanda Taub’s article did not use “romance novelist” as a tut-tut clucking of disregard. It’s possible that I read that into the piece on my own. But just after Taub delivers the report on the romance writing, she tells us that Bond’s story is about “the systemic and institutional consequences of this kind of harassment.”

Those consequences include working to become a successful novelist. This in no way forgives what the Kozinski may have done. There’s also nothing like novelist harassment, unless you count the unkind acts that Amazon reviewers do every hour of every day. Like Bond knows as an author, we sign up for that kind of abuse as writers.

Writing novels might not change the world in the same way that laws in courtrooms can. But creativity brings meaning to our lives, and few kinds of creativity aim so straight for our hearts as romance novels. Writing them can be noble work, not a consolation prize.

We have to take care here in this moment, while women and the men who support them weed out abusers and re-educate them, not to lose our grip on love. Exemplary love between men and women is no fantasy. Having a role model is a good thing for every one of us, whether it’s a top lawyer or the heroine in a novel. A model from fiction is created with imagination—the special talent that writers have to inhabit and comprehend, with compassion, every aspect of human nature and foibles.

If that sounds like I am equating being a lawyer headed to the Supreme Court with being a successful romance novelist, I’m guilty of that. Without being too glib, laws do get reversed, even the ones that do good. And so good laws can then be replaced by unfair ones. The worst thing that can happen as a result of a romance novel is that it gets pulped by a publisher who couldn’t sell it. These days even that’s unlikely, since self-publication, and success, is well within any hard-working author’s grasp.

Harassment is abuse and a sin and a crime. There’s no crime in abusing writing, but I’d rather not see it thrown onto the ash heap. We may not need to celebrate this moment by dismissing something as complex as creating a novel. We’re going to need love going forward. We’ll need it closer to our lives than just imagined in the pages of a book. Those pages are a good place to start, though.

Use NaNoWriMo to get your book to finished

Halloween will deliver more than costumes, debauched parties and tons of candy corn. On that day at midnight it’s also the start of National Novel Writing Month, a worldwide 30-day event where the goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Those are aimed to be words for a novel — although you can hijack this event to fill the pages of your memoir, since that form uses so many techniques of fiction.

You can sign up for free, and register your book in progress, at the NaNoWriMo dashboard. The roots of this event are aimed at novel writers, but the collective creativity month serves any long project. You see, memoir, creative nonfiction and novel all share the same powerful elements. Characterization. Scene. Dialogue. Setting. Metaphor. Theme. Structure. Story. Plot. Dramatic arc. Transformation.

All of the above are tools to use in telling any story. It doesn’t matter if your book’s bones have elements of fact for memoir or the long-form essay, or stand up as a fabricated tale that is, like all great ones, “based upon a true story.” The point is that the community of NaNoWriMo is at your beck and call.

Your goal is to write 50,000 words. They’re unpolished, rough-draft words. You don’t edit during NaNo. That’s work for EdiMo — not really an official event, but there should be a National Novel Editing Month for December. Don’t look for EdiMo. Just look for the delicious experience of drafting all those words without making it perfect. Pat Conroy, who wrote The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini, said “Write like you are a lover. Edit like you are in charge.”

November is a month for lovers, those lovers of storytelling. You will draft faster if you have a simple list of scenes that go into your story. Plan a little in the week to come.

Sign up at the NaNoWriMo website, so you can log your writing as you go. Once you’re at 50,000 words you’re done. You upload your file to the organizers who do a blind word count on it. It’s scrambled, so it makes no sense and is secure. All they require is 50,000 words. What you get out of the month is the experience of how it feels to write, on average, about 1,700 words a day.

Writing 50,000 words makes you a winner. But getting any big chunk of writing completed in even a rough draft in a month’s time is the real victory.

Search and replace barrier words for POV power

Some easy writing advice to follow, offered all the time, is show instead of tell. But it takes careful work to remove showing at the same time you remove barrier words from your writing. Barrier words are ones that make a story less vivid and make the writer more obvious.

You don’t want the latter to happen. We tell stories, but we don’t want our readers to focus on us as storytellers. (Write memoirs or essays if you want to be seen while you tell the story.) Fiction has several key elements, and few of them give writers a reason to show themselves telling. Not even in first person.

Make a list of these barrier words and post it close at hand:

  • saw
  • looked
  • watched
  • noticed
  • smelled
  • heard
  • touched
  • felt
  • knew
  • realized
  • thought
  • remembered
  • reminded
  • decided
  • seemed
  • imagined

You rarely need these in fiction’s narrative writing. (In dialogue you can do almost anything—but the dialogue still has to propel the plot, or reinforce character traits, or make extra conflict. Reflection, as with these barrier words, is not a great mission for dialogue. At the hardest end of the barrier word-cutting, thought and decided can be erased by first-person limited point of view.

He thought he could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

becomes

He could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

At the easiest,

Randolph saw the wagon sink in the mud

becomes

The wagon sank in the mud. We should know it’s Randolph doing the watching.

Let a reader observe the action itself in the writing. Visuals rarely need watched and saw. Sensations like smell (one of my favorites) should be unique or pungent enough to stand without the verb smelled. The fuzzy one is felt: it’s almost useful while you describe a texture. But the stubble on his chin felt rough can easily become The stubble on his chin was rough.

Go through and check your writing during revision. After awhile, you won’t write even first drafts using these barrier words.

The 12 Disciples of Creativity

Creativity requires faith, and sticking to your creative faith is easier with exemplary practices to follow. I’m a Catholic boy if you go back far enough. We learned our faith in part by studying the lives of the disciples. The root of the word disciple means to show a devotion, so these 12 practices are the devotional work to do as we create stories.

Simplicity: Focusing on the immediate action at hand. Breaking the mission into the smallest parts, and doing them one at a time. Making each creative act look obvious and inevitable. Because writing a sentence is not complex, when done one at a time. Because creating an outline card is not hard if you only do it one at a time.

Regularity: To make the act of creating as essential as waking from sleep each morning. To consider creating part of the day that can no more be skipped than the sunrise. To know you can’t leave the house without clothes, and to know that you can’t leave a morning without creating something, not in full. But a draft.

Solemnity: To light a candle, to close the door, to silence the phone, to feel as it you’re entering a church of a faith that propels you. To know and believe, in your soul, that what you’re about to do in creation is important, because it delivers meaning. To feel like a priest in prayer at a mass, or a minister in a sermon, or a pastor giving a benediction before an important event.

Honesty: To do, as Hemingway said, just write one true sentence. By true he doesn’t mean built of fact, but a sentence that delivers the essence of its intention. To be aware, always, that you’re an imperfect creation yourself and that only change and time will deliver your desires for your work. And to carry that awareness to your creations, imperfect always, full of the wabi sabi that makes them your signature. To be honest about your energy and your desire, know when it has flagged after good creative work.

Self-Direction: To understand and believe that you can master the course that you set out to complete the creations. Gifts of the sea come your way when you swim in a direction, and it’s always a direction you choose. Take actions. Know that it may not be the eventual course, but any movement you make toward the sometimes-distant light of your complete creation is an act of the self.

Intensity: To sit and write just a little longer. Go beyond where you are afraid. To allow nothing to break your dream state of conjuring. The practice characterization in performance, aloud, to see yourself as that person in the story, or as your genuine self standing before an audience, with your inner eyes locked on an immutable and immovable image, like Rushmore.

Presence: To be utterly in only one place, unreeling that spool of line into the water of creation, then to study the line while you wait for that fish of an idea to bite. To be in the very moment your fingers and your arms and your legs are dedicated to anything which is not the effort of the past, or the work in the future.

Ceremony: To embrace the act of creating with little talismans and icons and regular friends of habits. For example, “I always light this candle. I always play this music. I never allow my phone to ring. I always stand up to stretch after 25 minutes. I always bring a glass of water in with me. I always write one good sentence first, even though it has nothing to do with my creation. I always read the last thing I wrote, aloud, before I make my next passage. I always do toning with my voice, vocal exercises. I always stretch with a deep bend, then add my two favorite tai chi movements.

Joy: To love a life with less certainty than others because mine always holds unexpected pleasures. To revel in the persona that I create for myself as an artist, a creator, seeking meaning. To give thanks for an existence that can feed me and feed others’ hearts with one dedicated effort. To smile when I think of getting away with doing this as my life’s mission, because I play as my work.

Discipline: To love what I do, because discipline is getting what you want. To believe I am a disciple of my affection and devotion to my craft. To work with focus to make my mastery hours meaningful, not just ticks of the clock of life. To return to my creativity on a schedule and respect deadlines.

Self-trust: To make the doubtful moments a regular part of the life of creativity, and believe in their ability to make the work a thing I will craft to my intention. To know that I am making productive choices when I say no to an effort that I’m delivered, and to believe in the parts of my creations I adore because they’re essential to making meaning of life, especially mine. To trust in the future because no one knows what it will become, and so the confidence will carry me through times that look bleak or blurry.

Primacy: To make my life about creating, the thing that keeps me alive, the most vital and essential element of the human who is me. To make all other things serve my creation, even while I’m walking the dog or washing dishes or paying bills or changing a diaper. Everything is in my life like a handhold along a staircase or tread on tires — to deliver me to the moments and hours and days of creativity.

I do my creation early in the mornings, and I can pull from each of these 12 things, these essentials. I love the feeling of having created, because I’ve eliminated the dread of failing to create, erased it before I do anything else. Being a working creative person makes everything else, all the dreams of finding and sharing meaning, possible. Being fresh as a morning blossom encourages the bees of ideas, of scenes, of chapters, to pollinate me.

In the morning my strength of resolve and devotion is greatest. I ride my bike in the mornings with fresh legs. As a boy I served Mass in the mornings. My favorite meal is breakfast, breaking my fast. And morning is the place closest to the theatre of my dreams, the majestic stage of my unconscious.

Transportation as a story pace control

Over at Kristen Lamb’s website, a column by Cait Reynolds examines some aspects of distance to be travelled as a control of story pace. She mentions means of transit as well as physical distance. People go places in most stories, and if yours includes a trip longer than a jaunt to the bathroom, there’s a time element attached to transit. You can use it for story choices that lead to characterization, too.

For example, in my upcoming historical fiction novel, there’s a trip from Raisinville to Grand Rapids and back in the same day. Distances being what they are between a mythical place (Raisinville) and the well-known Grand Rapids, I had to calculate the average speed of passenger railroads in Michigan of 1899. How fast could a locomotive like the late 19th Century one above travel? How early in the day did their train have to leave to let them make it a day trip? Did Anna have to hurry Frank’s breakfast so she could make that trip with Joe?

Public transportation gives a wild card to plot and character introduction. Driving in a private vehicle, be it car or a carriage, limits the characters to those we know. Putting characters into a conveyance where anyone could show up adds opportunity.

Showing spunk about making sentences

Out on the Writer’s Digest Web site, Bonnie Trenga has posted an article on grammar that boils down the writing of a good sentence to four commandments. She starts with shall nots and shalls.

1. You shall not write passively.
2. You shall not overuse weak verbs like “to be” and “to have.”
3. You shall not fluff.
4. You shall make every word necessary.

They are so fundamental that we need to know them like our own faces in order to cast them off. See, breaking rules is part of writing, too. You’re working inside rules like these four to be polite, so readers don’t struggle to enjoy your writing.

An antidote to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style

A list of rules, though, can become a rutted road for a reader. You might have this experience if you watch TV on the reality channels and see one episode after another of house flipping shows. The hopeful but innocent flipper introduced. The stern advice from the host. The headstrong ignoring of said advice. The cheerful praise of finished flip work from Realtors, followed by grim assessments from the buyers during the open house.

Read enough such formula and you begin to long for something that tastes different. Learning how to differ is the advice you can read more about in Spunk and Bite, a good antidote for the writer who’s lashed to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

Write something that follows these four commandments without fail. Then rewrite it so it bends, or even breaks one of the rules. See if you can create something unexpected but understandable. Know the rules, but break them when you can.

Oh, one more bit of advice: Set any intentions or guides like these in positive statements. The brain can only process affirmative statements. It throws away the word “not” or “don’t.” So,

1. Write in the active voice.
2. Select strong verbs to limit your use of “to be” and “to have.”
3. Choose the best word, the one understood easily and most accurate.
4. And yes, “You shall make every word necessary.”

Themes, power, and how they make queries easier

Theme is among the most mysterious and powerful elements of storytelling. In the classic pyramid of writing crafts from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, theme stands at the pinnacle. Theme is represented by symbols in that pyramid, the icons such as candles in a story about being lost. Even though it’s at the top of that diagram, theme is the nuclear reactor, the molten magma of your story. It bubbles up from the writing. It’s also got another superpower. Theme, and knowing yours, makes writing your queries easier.

If you’re just writing for the first time on a story, book, or script, theme will be lurking under the surface. Your motivations for your characters are your primary concerns in early drafts. The needs and conflicts of the characters drive your plot. Remember that plot is about events, and story is about yours characters and how they change. When you consider what each character needs, you may find the needs can align around a bigger idea. Freedom. Justice. Redemption. That sort of thing. Some characters oppose the theme to provide conflict, too.

The Da Vinci Code is about the power of knowledge versus the power of the Church. The Great Gatsby is about the American dream and how it fails. Your theme can be downbeat as well as uplifting. Lonesome Dove is about the power of friendship and it can push a man across a new frontier of his life.

The gift that theme gives to query is better focus. In a good query letter you have to sum up your story relentlessly. What’s the book about? You begin the task of answering by writing a synopsis. Then it becomes a paragraph. Finally, it’s tight enough to state in a single sentence. It’s hard to do, but you’re the best person to find your theme. You’ve lived with the story longer than anyone. You knew what you meant to convey with your book. Not the telling part; that’s plot. You want to convey a feeling, because the feeling is central to unlocking the meaning of the story.

Theme usually emerges later in the creation process. It’s almost like you have to write a draft all the way through to understand what you were meaning to show with the story. Theme then becomes a good tool to polish and pare down and redirect a story.

Answer these questions to discover a theme under the surface of your storytelling.

  1. What stories are you drawn to the most? What issues do you struggle with in your own heart?
  2. Why do you feel compelled to tell this story?
  3. What is this story about if what happens is…

Your characters’ voices will sound clearest when you listen for theme. Let them report on the theme. Write what they’ll ask about their challenge.

 

Give your characters agency to drive a story

Action-and-IntentionWhen I coach writers on their stories, I advocate the relentless use of agency for their characters. Agency is not a term that is common to writing instruction. I first heard about agency in a seminar taught by novelist Jim Shepard at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. Shepard was dynamic in those classes, teaching from the balls of his feet, always moving and taking action.

Agency is the persistent taking of action or intervention. A rich and well-crafted character is always taking action to respond to challenges and improve their life. Things do not just happen to a good character. They make choices: tear down that fence, apply for the scholarship, take the ill-marked back road, give their coat away on the rainiest day of the month to a homeless person. Lie to win a job, and so on. As a reader I enjoy living with characters who take agency. Right choices or wrong, these are interesting people.

Things happen in a story where the characters have agency. They attempt to control their fates. The payoff is that as a writer, you get to create scenes. Building scenes is hard work, when it’s done well. Actions — even the fight that ends a relationship, or the interrogation of a suspect in a mystery — are the high-octane fuel of a story.

The alternative is a story that’s driven by feelings and musings. There’s a place for those stories, too. But maybe the most important part of good stories is that their heros and villains are acting. Not talking about what they once did, or remembering in a boozy stupor what someone said, or wishing for better fortune but doing nothing to gain it. Bad things should happen to the best of characters. But those things should flow from some choice or action that character makes.

Try it out with a character when you’re stuck in a story. You know what they want. Make them take an action to get it. They should be the person who acts to produce a particular result. Give them severe stakes if they make the wrong choice.