Writing Tools that Work the Way I do
April 10, 2012
One of the things I get asked most often when writing my novel, besides what is it about, is what writing tools I use.
First, I should tell you that I use an iPad 2 for my on-the-go notes, thoughts and ideas, and a MacBook Pro for my gitn-er-done writing. After a time-consuming process of trial-and-error, I have discovered several resources, websites, iPad apps and Mac programs that have made the job if not effortless, then at least fun and more productive. Today I want to share with you a few of those discoveries and explain why I find them so useful.
My Approach to Writing
Everyone writes differently. For me, the pre-writing effort is crucial, and is usually done in three stages. I’ll focus on the first stage today (story generation) and cover the other two in upcoming posts. My three stages are listed below. Only when these are complete am I ready to start writing.
- Story Generation (coming up with the big idea, or overall gist of the story)
- Brainstorming (generating key ideas, details and critical content)
- Outlining (creating and arranging beats, scenes and plot points)
Who knows where story ideas come from? Personal experiences. Daily observations. The imagination. Perhaps hopes, dreams, fears or fantasies that can be turned into a story. I really don’t think there’s any sure-fire or guaranteed way to come up with story ideas. I suppose that’s where the divine spark we sometimes call our muse comes in.
That said, if you find yourself in need of a plot, here are some methods, references, and tools I can suggest that might help get things started.
I have found that the following general statement, when filled in with my own ideas, often provides a good starting point from which I can then continue building the story. Here is the statement (the parts you fill in are in brackets.)
When a [describe character] is faced with [describe situation] he/she sets out to [describe goal] only to find that [describe obstacle] forcing him/her to [describe solution] which leads to [describe outcome].
When a [young spice farmer] is faced with [the murder of his family by Imperial Stormtroopers] he sets out to [join the rebel alliance] only to find that [his involvement is anticipated by the Emperor and his mystical henchman] forcing him to [master his own mystical powers] which leads to [a rebel victory].
Let’s try it,
When a [tiny mouse] is faced with [the birth of a litter of kittens in the house] she sets out to [teach the kittens to like mice] only to find that [one kitten plans on snitching to the parents about the plan] forcing her to [prove to that kitten that it can trust mice] which leads to [a friendship between the cats and the mice].
If the story statement doesn’t work (or even if it does), there are several time-honoured resources out there that can help get you up to speed. Magazines like The Writer and Writer’s Digest provide monthly suggestions, examples, and exercises that can be very insightful and motivating. The editorial staff and contributors to these magazines know where you’re coming from as a new writer, and typically provide timely advice, guidance, ideas, and resources. I find both these periodicals fun and informative, and look forward to each new issue. I would recommend that any novice writer start their learning here.
At your local library or bookstore are many good books that describe the writing process. Most typically focus on one of these four main aspects of writing;
- Originality – coming up with an original story idea that readers might enjoy
- Structure – making sure your story adheres to one of several tried-and-true formats
- Style – the clever and effective use of words to convey your story and captivate the reader
- Story Elements – the things that editors and readers demand in a gripping story, and those things that might cause them to reject or stop reading your book
Since this first part of my writing series looks at story generation, I’ll only list books I’ve read that cover this topic to some extent. Here’s my list of recommended books.
No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty (the NaNoWriMo guy)
Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson (the Snowflake Method guy)
How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James Frey
The Internet is awash in sites that discuss tried-and-true story structures like the Hero’s Journey that can provide a writer with a skeleton on which to hang the meat of their story. Or you may find that a more generic approach, like Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method, can help you grow your story organically. His method gets you to first describe your story in a single statement (like the one above), then expand it into a paragraph, then a page, and so on until you have a complete and workable story.
Here are a few sites that I have found useful for creating a plot from scratch.
Randy Ingermanson’s The Snowflake Method
Paperback Writer: Ten Things to Help with Novel Plotting
Stella Cameron’s Plotting Your Novel
I can’t guarantee that all the suggestions and approaches offered on these sites will work for you, but even if they simply unclog your creative juices then that can only help, right?
Now we come to the software aids. Software is always a matter of taste. One person’s ideal software may turn out to be totally useless to another. Here are a few excellent programs I have used at one time or another.
- yWriter5 (free, PC only)
- WriteWayPro (PC only)
- Power Writer (PC only)
- Power Structure (PC only)
- Storyweaver (Mac, PC)
- Character Writer (Mac, PC)
- Dramatica Pro (Mac, PC)
yWriter5, WriteWayPro, Power Writer and Power Structure are all specialized word processors, organized into sections like Characters, Locations, Plot Points, Theme and Scenes, where you can enter and organize your story thoughts and ideas as they come to you. Some even provide helpful prompts, questions, selections and examples to assist you with this process. The idea is that having these resources readily available as you write will keep you on track and help improve the process. Personally, I find the presence of all these sections to be a bit busy on the eyes, but I can see how others might find them useful.
Storyweaver and Contour are very different. Both are designed to help you build your story. Although each employs a different interface, they both walk you through a series of prompts, examples, and questions to help you generate your plot, characters, story goals, beats, and conflicts. I’ve used both programs and found them easy to follow, instructive, and revealing. Although I came up with most of my novel’s plot on my own, I admit that stepping through the prompts offered by these programs gave me additional ideas that I might not have come up with on my own. After using either of these programs you will still need to use a separate word processor for your actual writing.
Character Writer is a program that merges two previous programs, Quick Story 5 and Character Pro. Character Writer includes a feature called the Story-Generator that helps you answer a series of simple questions about your story, then combines your answers into a story synopsis. The program includes a similar automated feature called the Character-Generator for generating your characters. This is a pretty slick program that can teach you a lot about story structure, character traits, and dramatic character relationships, if such things are new to you.
Dramatica Pro employs a unique approach. Writing a novel the Dramatica way is like learning to drive a car by studying auto mechanics, the highway traffic act, and human psychology. It forces you to confront the inner workings of your story and its characters, right down to its core – the psychological motivations and reactions that make people who they are, and how they interact in tough situations. Things we expect to see reflected in good fiction. This program is not for anyone in a hurry. There’s a lot of terminology to master. And the user interface is rather dated. Yet, I would hazard a guess that by closely following its approach, you could well find yourself with a runaway bestseller on your hands.
The Bottom Line
As I said, I came up with most of my story’s plot on my own. I had, after all, been mulling it over in my head for years before I sat down to write. So I cannot attest to the ability of any of these methods, publications, websites, or programs to help you generate a plot from scratch. But, what I can tell you is that trying some of these ideas will definitely get you thinking more about your story, which can only be a good thing.
In the next part of this series, I will look at how I brainstorm the finer details of a story.
Brad, what I found useful while writing my novel is free flow – i.e if a free flow of ideas start then I key them down quickly. That way one becomes an instrument of other forces in the universe and at times that can produce great works too. it can be combined with all the other very useful structured techniques and softwares you describe. The hardest part of writing my novel was the editing and re-editing one has to do several times to polish/correct the work after the initial draft of at least 80,000 or so words is done. It got so tiring in the end that I just dropped the final rounds and went ahead with publishing the novel. Perhaps in future I shall do a second edition that is more thorough. It was easier with the novella because it was much shorter.
Brad, this is a well written, well compiled collection of useful tools to spark a fledgling story!
As a published author who is seriously ready to dabble in fiction, I’m finding there is still so much to learn to ensure a successful book. Your suggestions have now been added to my to-do list.
Might I also recommend a new writer consider spending an entire month of November writing a minimum of 50,000 words in 30 days with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writer’s Month at http://www.nanowrimo.org). There is great support there and invaluable resources as well! Having done NaNoWriMo myself, it gave me the confidence to know I really could write that great Canadian novel – or at least attempt to!
Appreciations to Ashok (above) for his honest comment about the most challenging aspect of writing – the editing & re-editing. It is, after all, a very vital part of the final product. Going in with your eyes open to this less glorious task is wise.
Brad, an excellent article with valuable tools & resources for both the beginning writer and those like myself who have been writing all their lives. There are a few pointers you’ve given here that have tweaked my own interest in enhancing my to-do list …
Might I add a suggestion for anyone unsure if they have what it takes to get serious about writing – sign up with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writer’s Month at http://www.nanowrimo.org). These are folks excited to support you, encourage you, challenge and inspire you! They give sound advice and have a wise collection of resources available for you on their website. Commit to 30 days in the month of November to write 50,000 words. Seem daunting? Trust me, it can be done – I did it!
And appreciations to Ashok (above in your comments section here) for being brave and brazen enough to mention the E word – editing and re-editing. For me as well it has to be the most challenging and grueling aspect of the writing process – yet the most essential component of your finished product. If it is not something you can do with confidence on your own, it is worth paying someone to do this segment of the process as the end result is vital – a professional, polished gem of a book.
Thanks, Marc. On your recommendation I did include mention of NaNoWriMo in Part 2 of my series. And, yes, editing forces us to stand without our metaphorical clothes on before that full-length mirror with the harsh lighting and deal with the bitter truth about our work. But it’s all part of writing the best book we can. I appreciate your comments. Cheers.