Tools for progress

Tools for progress

I’m an unabashed plotter, with overtones of pantser. (Don’t worry, pantsers — there’s something in this post for you, too!)

But having an idea for a story, and then getting that story on the page, can be a chore. How do I keep going on the days I don’t feel like writing? How do I measure my progress without beating myself up? How do I stay on track to meet deadlines, self-imposed or otherwise?

To make matters more interesting, the novella trilogy I’m writing, The Sapphire Veil, is unusual in that its three stories run concurrently, and the characters wander in and out of each other’s books. So there’s an element of timing that I have to consider as I work through the stories.

So layered on top of the “chore” of the actual writing is the complexity of the structure I’ve decided to try. How the heck can I make this trilogy happen without driving myself nuts?

I like tools and strategies that help drive my success (rather my nuttiness) — even when I don’t feel like driving myself at all. [tweetthis]Panic is a great motivator, but not on an ongoing basis.[/tweetthis]

So I embraced some tools to help a daunting task seem less intimidating.

The first is Microsoft Excel. Yes, the idea of using a spreadsheet to represent a writing project is probably daft, but it gave me the opportunity to see the major plot points of all three books at once. And I do mean major — one sentence that describes the time-sensitive points I had to hit on specific days. This gave me a really broad picture of what needed to happen while counting down to the big battle crucial to the trilogy.

Now that I had a general picture of how the books would intersect, I needed to drill down into each scene. So I turned to the Outline tool in Scrivener. If you know Scrivener well, you’ll have discovered its quick outlining tool that lets you basically break a detailed synopsis into chunks that represent each chapter or scene.

Scrivener note: I’ve learned the hard way to outline at the file level rather than the folder level because those synopsis notes will be automatically attached to whatever “thing” you’re outlining with. If you want to have the synopsis handy to look at in the Document mode, write the synopsis at the file level.

You can see here that I have a synopsis for each scene, and I use the Label feature to define times of day, since timing is everything in this trilogy.

Scrivener Outliner

There are a few critical things about the outlining capability in Scrivener:

  • It encourages me to think about the book as a series of scenes, and lets me include in each scene a synopsis of its specific action.
  • It’s a lot easier to see that the plot has gone awry, or that I have a big ole gaping hole where action should be, or when I’ve plotted myself into a corner. It’s a lot easier to recover from a few lines of synopsis than 20 pages of lovingly-crafted manuscript.
  • Every day I sit down to write, I know exactly where I’m going.

Pantsers, you can choose how deeply your scene synopsis delves. You can include just a couple of sentences to remind you of the general plot points, and then rely on your Girls in the Basement to take care of the details.

At this point, because I’ve outlined at the file level, the synopsis for that scene (or chapter) is automatically displayed in the Document view, ready for me at a glance, with no digging around in my files for it.

If you don’t have or want Scrivener, you can do something similar in Microsoft Word using Word’s outlining, as well. Or just make a manual page break for each scene and type in your synopsis at the start of each scene and then delete it when it isn’t needed anymore. I did this for my first published book. It was a heckuva lot easier to open Microsoft Word and look at the next scene’s mini-synopsis than to face a blank page.

So here’s the critical point about any strategy I use to “keep writing”:

[tweetthis]Each tool I adopt must remove one of my Reasons For Not Writing Today.[/tweetthis]

I’ll post next time on a handmade spreadsheet I wrote for myself that I call The First Draft Helper, which helps me gauge my progress in real-world conditions.

Do you use any tools or strategies to help you make your writing goals? We’d love to hear them!

12 thoughts on “Tools for progress

  1. Okay, so I like the idea of Sciviner, but when I’ve tried using it, it feels like I am doing more work than I’m gaining benefit. Do you think this is because the pantser in me is still dominating my writing process although I desperately want to grow up to be a plotter???

    And FYI – I am entering my notes at the file level rather than the folder level, not because I knew better. Just the way I started doing it.

    1. I don’t think there’s any “growing up” into any particular kind of writer except oneself. 🙂

      Yah, I’m wondering if the “doing more work” is really about the fact that you see yourself as a pantser and you’re now forcing yourself out of your comfort zone. It just *feels* like more work because it’s different.

      But here’s the thing: In the past when we’ve critiqued together, you’ve known *in your head* where the story is going. Maybe not every stinkin’ detail, but in general, which is really all you need. Is the only difference now that you’re writing it down?

      I personally like to know where I’m going, hence my crazy plot work, but within that structure, I have no idea what will happen in the scene, or what images will spring up, or what a character might say that makes me consider the story in a new light.

      When I was working on the still-unfinished Summoned, I wrote seemingly randomly in a back story moment that a now-deceased character had been wearing a pristine white shirt to garden when she was killed. I thought it odd at the time, but decided to go with it because the Girls in the Basement usually kick those things up for me. They seem to come from a deeper place than the rest of the writing.

      Well, Terri picked up on it during critique and wondered about it — pristine + white + garden = oddness. Then, about four months and several chapters later, the Girls told me why… The character became a much richer person and her impact on the hero much greater as a result.

      All that said, if Scrivener doesn’t work for you, then it doesn’t work for you. If the tool doesn’t help, then it’s not a tool.

      But that’s just my experience. YMMV.

  2. Lorinda: Did you go through the Scrivener Tutorial? I keep planning to do that, but it says it takes two hours, and when I finally get around to sitting at my computer, a part of my brain tells me that’s wasted time, but after reading Kay’s post, I’m going to spend my first two hours of my writing day learning to use this new tool. Not a waste of time, but hopefully, if I learn well and use it correctly, a HUGE time SAVING tool.

    1. Yeah, the 2 hours is scary, but you don’t have to watch all of it at once. (I don’t know why they didn’t break it down into lessons on specific topics, which would be a lot easier and less intimidating.) I’d say watch just enough to feel comfortable starting a project.

      The critical thing is the folder and file structure, the outlining, and then writing in Document view. The compiling and all that jazz can probably wait until you’re ready to generate pages for critique or printing.

      1. Maybe it’s because I’ve already started my current story my old way, but so far, going the tutorial is great. As I’m reading about the features, I’m seeing specific, DARCY’S DILEMMA (gotta get a real name for this project!) applications already.

        So I’m learning about my new “tool” and learning about my story. A definite win-win for a dreary, rainy day.

  3. Kay:

    As usual, great words of wisdom. I’m cracking open my Scrivener today.

    As for tools, I always start with a “Ramblings” document where I just sit and let my fingers spew on the keyboard. Everything is written in first person so I can’t just cut and paste into my document. My ramblings are basically a outline/synopsis, and the details range from big picture (something needs to delay her so she shows up late), to plot issues (need to research home remedies) to specific bits of dialogue (“I told you not to deviate from normal activities.” “I didn’t.” “So buying men’s underwear is a normal activity for you?”) That last example came straight from my “Darcy’s Ramblings Document!

    But the key part here, as you’ve already said, is not having to stare a blank screen when it’s time to write. After all, that first word is the hardest one!

    PS: Really looking forward to your First Draft Helper post. You always come up with great ways to weed through the “noise” and take a close look at the “meat” of any idea. You rock.

    1. I love love love the idea of a Ramblings document! It sounds like a great way to let the Girls start having their say first, before any left brain plotting starts.

      Thanks for the tip!

  4. Scrivener takes some learning, but it’s well worth the effort. I don’t think I could go back to writing in Word. The tutorial that comes with it is a little overwhelming. Gwen Hernandez’s classes are excellent, and her Scrivener for Dummies Books is also good. The simplest intro might be an ebook called Writing Your Novel in Scrivener by David Hewson.

    I’m pretty much a pantser (“stuff happens” and then they live happily ever after), and I find writing in scenes in Scrivener works very well. And it’s so much easier to find something when you need to go back and figure out what you said about something three (or eight) chapters ago.

  5. I well remember that pristine white shirt and I agree it was an awesome gift the girls gave you that day.
    I’m gifting myself Scrivener today. I’ve been considering the purchase for months and putting it off until I got back to civilization — as in a DSL connection rather than a slower-than-turtles-slogging-through-peanut-butter connection. I’m BACK.
    Plus there is the realization that ALL MY FRIENDS HAVE IT! I don’t want to be left out, and yes, I know that makes me sound like a three-year-old, but a three-year-old is one of my favorite people, so it can’t be all bad. LOL
    I’m a pantser. Maybe when I grow up, I’ll learn to plot. Maybe this Scrivener outline thing will help. I love the thought of being able to find things three (or eight) chapters ago.
    Honestly, my 58 year-old-brain is shuddering at the thought of going to Scrivener school, even if it is only for two hours. I wasn’t a good student fifty years ago, and that hasn’t changed much!
    NOW – if someone could just invent a tool to make sure all my commas are in the right place …


    1. Congratulations on joining the world of 2015 technology, Terri!

      And another congrats on taking the plunge into Scrivener!

      I really do think it might help you unabashed pantsers get slightly more organized. And remember that your synopsis for your story doesn’t have to be acres of text long…. It can just be a couple of sentences to remind you where you once thought the story was going.

      Add Dawn’s Ramblings doc idea, and we should have lots and lots of stuff to work with.

      All to help us avoid procrastinating, right? 🙂

      D.K. the unabashed plotter

  6. Just a reminder to all you ladies out there in Procrastination Land, we should be at the 30% mark towards our goal. Check your progress bars. Those colored markers are looking pretty tiny for 30% – mine included.

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