Keeping Focused With Scrivener

Don’t you just love Scrivener? I certainly do. I was a little wary of spending money on another glorified word processor but years later, I still think Scrivener is the best thirty quid I’ve ever spent.

However, simply having the right tools for the job does not an author, make. While Scrivener did provide the resources to easily research, plan and write my novel in an organised way, I was not getting the most out of it at first because I wasn’t bothering to do any proper planning. I was just writing mountains of narrative; something I could have done for free on OpenOffice. However, not to be deterred from my dream of finishing that novel, I (a natural ‘pantser’) decided that I had to become a ‘planner’ to take my writing to the next level.

It was the right decision but it was still an unnatural transition for someone used to the freedom of ‘pantsing’. I decided in advance, therefore, to stick to a simple three-staged approach:

1- Research everything I needed to know in order to write my story; history, science or even good old fashioned people watching. For fantasy stories, this stage would also include ‘researching’ everything I needed to know about my fantasy world (i.e., world building). No actual writing happens at this stage.

2- Plan the specifics of my story. This is when I plan out my plot and flesh out my characters.

3- Write a draft. Assuming the first two stages are complete, this should involve no plotting or research. I should already have the fully fledged story in my mind; it is now a simple(!) matter of bringing that story to life in pleasing language.

This is where Scrivener came into its own. Useful though the pre-loaded templates on Scrivener were, I needed a template that would make it easy for me to remain focused on what I was supposed to be doing at each stage. Fortunately, it’s a doddle to make your own templates on Scrivener, so that’s exactly what I did; one based on the above structure.

scr1I began by creating a blank Scrivener project. By default, a blank project on Scrivener still includes three folders: ‘Draft’, ‘Research’ and  ‘Trash’. I added two more, which I labelled ‘The Old Drawing Board’ and ‘Stage 2 – Plan’. I also renamed the ‘Research’ folder as ‘Stage 1 – Research’ and the ‘Draft’ folder ‘Stage 3 – Draft’ and shuffled them into numerical order. These would form the basis for my ‘born again planner’ approach to writing.

The Old Drawing Board

‘The Old Drawing Board’ isn’t, strictly speaking, a stage in the process. This folder contains three documents which I have dipped in and out of throughout the whole process:

Initial Idea(s) – a small document in which I keep all the little flights of fancy I have which will eventually give rise to an actual story. I began by writing down my first idea in here, but quickly realised that I would need to keep coming back to it whenever a new idea occurred that might tempt me to skip research or planning.

Timetable – This document consists of a table recording what I intend to do each day and what I actually accomplished. This helped me to stay focused on whatever task I had set myself for that day because it provided me with realistic goals that could be achieved each day. It was also rewarding to see evidence that my work was heading in some direction. The only difficulty I had with this approach, as a natural ‘pantser’, was deciding in advance what I would need to do each day.


Jotter – I used this document to scribble down any notes I wanted to write to myself (all headed and dated, so I could keep track of them); plot ideas, character auditions and whatever other odds and ends came to mind at inappropriate times. I also found it useful to begin work every day by setting aside twenty-five minutes to write anything that came to mind. It got the urge to ‘pants’ out of my system and allowed me to focus on what I was supposed to be doing that day.

1 – Research

Anything that I needed to know to help me write my story went in here. Anticipating the likelihood that I would have to research a variety of subjects, I divided my research folder into several sub-folders that I was likely to need: ‘Religions/Philosophies’, ‘Historical Events’, ‘Locations’, etc. In most cases, these folders would contain documents, images and webpages of relevant factual information.

However, the novel I was working on at the time was a fantasy novel. This meant that factsresearch and world-building went hand in hand. I decided, therefore, that for fantasy stories, I would have a ‘Factual’ sub-folder, in which I would keep all the factual information that inspired my fantasy world but the other sub-folders would be used to hold all the ‘research’ about how my fantasy world worked. This allowed me to keep all my factual research and world building separate yet together.

2 – Planning

There were two related goals that I wanted to realise in the planning stage: plotting and creating characters. It was natural, therefore, to divide this folder into two sub-folders for characters and plot respectively.

The plotting folder contains a variety of self-explanatory documents such as ‘synopsis’, ‘timeline’ (doubly-essential in my story, since I’m using a fantasy calendar) and a chapter-by-chapter outline of events that occur in my story.

charactersThe character sub-folder is more complicated. It contains a further two sub-folders for the ‘Good Guys’ and ‘Bad Guys’, as well as an individual document which deals with how each of the characters relates to one another.

The ‘Good Guys’ and ‘Bad Guys’ folders work the same way. Each one contains a profile of every character in the story (names, ages, etc.). Thanks to the magic of Scrivener, these profiles also double-up as ‘folders’, which contain a variety of other folders and documents such as ‘auditions‘ (short bursts of narrative which I write to flesh my characters out) and ‘gallery’ (a fairly self-explanatory folder of images). This allows me to produce a large amount of information about each character while keeping them all separate and orderly.

The aforementioned ‘Relationships’ document is not attached to any one character. Instead, it is a single document which I use to map out in a few sentences how each character relates to all the other characters in the story.


3 – Draft

Last but not least, we have the drafting stage. I don’t have very much to say about this section which won’t be painfully obvious to you, especially if you use Scrivener yourself. I have left the drafting folder exactly the way Scrivener gave it to us: each folder is a chapter, each document within that folder is a single scene. Scrivener even formats each document for us into a suitable manuscript format, so there was very little in the way of customisation required here. All I needed was the discipline not to touch this folder until I had finished my research and planning.

And there you have it! A simple three-staged approach to planning for ‘pansters’ made easy by Scrivener, Literature and Latte‘s glorious contribution to the world of writing.


Preventing Phantom Protagonist Syndrome

Have you ever had a really great idea for a story that somehow seemed to die a little more with each word you tried to write? Ever had a thrilling plot with no obvious holes in it that you just couldn’t seem to get off the ground? Perhaps, in addition to your thrilling and seamless plot, you also constructed a world so detailed, so complex and so marvellous that it would give Terry Pratchett and J.R.R Tolkien a run for their money; an antagonist whose diabolical scheme is sure to keep the reader on the edge of their seats; you’ve even managed to weave in a romantic subplot (which admittedly still seems a little half-baked, but it’s showing real potential)… and yet still, you just can’t seem to really ignite all that hard work into a half decent manuscript.

If any of this sounds familiar, there’s a good chance that your story is suffering from a chronic case of what I have dubbed Phantom Protagonist Syndrome (PPS). PPS is a condition which occurs in stories where the protagonist (that is, the main character) has not fully developed into a believable person but is only ‘half there’. Other symptoms of PPS may include excessive backstory in your manuscript (especially in the opening pages) giving complex details of the social, economic and political situation for the last thousand years of your fiction world; numerous failed attempts to audition your protagonist; feelings of despair and frustration (in the author) and an overwhelming urge on the part of the author to delete the whole story and work on another project (knitting, or some other non-literary pursuit). Symptoms of PPS usually become apparent in the mid-late planning stage of development (although it has been documented at all stages, including several untreated cases in published works) and typically affects almost every other part of the story.

‘Is it serious!?’ I hear you cry.

Why, yes it is. Terminal, in fact. Remember, your protagonist is the driving force behind your story. Think about the busiest place you know; your office, your living room or your kid’s school playground. What do you think happens when there is nobody there?

That’s right. Nothing happens. The same is true in fiction. No protagonist, no story. Your story hangs on your protagonist’s every thought (because this affects what he does) and his every action (because this affects what actually happens), so the more he seems like a real person, the better.

‘How is PPS diagnosed?’

PPS, by its very definition, is caused by having a half finished (or even non-existent) protagonist. Therefore, it is the protagonist himself we must put to the test. Begin by consulting your protagonist’s character profile and ensure that it is complete. At the absolute bare minimum it should include:

  • The character’s full name (including aliases)
  • Age and D.O.B
  • Place of birth
  • Gender
  • Religion (be specific about this. Even atheists believe something to be true; for instance, they might believe religion is the scourge of humanity to be actively opposed or they might have a more ‘live and let live’ approach to religion, while still rejecting it for themselves. When answering the question of your character’s religious beliefs, be sure to know what he believes, rather than simply what he does not believe).
  • Sexual orientation
  • Nationality (if you can whittle this down to a particular town, street and house number, so much the better)
  • Physical description (including dress)
  • Family (spouse, children, siblings and parents at least)
  • Career (both their actual career and their dream career) and hobbies
  • A little back story on how he or she got to where they are now
  • A list of personality traits
  • A list of likes, dislikes, hopes and fears.

If any of these are missing or incomplete then your character is still a mere phantom, not a fully formed person. I’m very sorry, but it’s PPS.

If, however, you’re satisfied that you’ve got all the basics in place, then we need to perform a more invasive test on your protagonist. We need to get right inside his mind and find out what our protagonist’s motivation, goals, conflict and epiphany will be. These not only add substance to your protagonist, but they also form the backbone of your plot. Each of these four things follow on, one from the other: motivation influences goals, goals determine the conflict, which in turn determines what the outcome of your story will be and, consequently, what your protagonist will learn (the epiphany).

For instance, Johnny swears by his morning cup of coffee to get him through the day. He’s often late for work and his boss has told him if he is late one more time, he’ll get the sack. One morning, Johnny wakes up and – oh no! – his bus leaves in ten minutes! He quickly decides not to have the cup of coffee he swears by but jumps into the first set of clothes he can find and runs to the bus stop. He makes it to work just in time where he does such a good days work that he gets a promotion. And I did it all without a single drop of coffee, he reflects on his way home.

This story (simple though it is) works, because we have all four of the above elements feeding in to each other:

Motivation John wants to hold down his job
Goals To this end, he aims to drink a cup of coffee and get to work on time. He believes both are needed to satisfy his motives.
Conflict Time (an abstract sort of antagonist, if you like) has conspired to make him lose his job by forcing him to choose between his two goals.
Epiphany Having got to work on time, he realises he can live without coffee after all.

Johnny had two goals in this story: to have his morning cup of coffee and to get to work on time. His motivation, however, is to hold down his job and this determines his every action, including his decision to abandon one goal in favour of another. A common cause of PPS is giving your protagonist plenty of goals (i.e., get to the bus stop at all costs) but no motivation. Johnny would never have reacted in such haste if he wasn’t motivated to keep his job. He might not even have bothered about the coffee. He would have stayed in bed and learned nothing. How much more unlikely is it that your protagonist is going to try to assassinate Hitler or propose to his friend’s sister unless they are motivated? Johnny had goals because he was motivated. Conflict arose because the ‘antagonist’ (time, in this case) forced him to choose between his two goals. The choice he made, based on his motivation, determined the outcome of the story and, in the end, taught him a valuable lesson that made him a better person (but why not click here for the alternate ending?).

That, dear reader, is a character driven story and the most powerful vaccination I know against PPS.

6 More Six-Word Stories

If you’ve been following Penstricken since it started in 2015, you may recall that on one occasion I set myself the challenge of writing 6 six-word stories using Thinkamingo’s Story Dice as stimuli. Since I am in an unoriginal sort of mood today, I’ve decided to do it again. The only difference is that this time, in addition to taking my cue from the story dice, I also intend to make each story a different genre, i.e. sci-fi, historical fiction, etc.

As before, I am using one die per story.

Alea iacta est (again!).

Now let’s see what I can come up with based on that starting from the top left and working my way down to the bottom right. As ever, the following are all my own work and have not been published anywhere else before:

  1. KING FELIX DEAD: Nine assassins executed (fantasy).
  2. ‘I shall avenge thee!’ Bambi vowed. (fan fiction)
  3. Rose wrote to Henry: ‘Dear John…’ (romance).
  4. ‘Butler dunnit’, written in Butler’s blood. (murder/mystery)
  5. MARTIANS: No spacesuits on the beach! (sci/fi)
  6. Sword drawn, Julius crossed the Rubicon (historical)

That was even harder than last time! Without a shadow of a doubt, the most difficult one was the cat (though I will admit, I was scraping the bottom of the barrel a bit including a Bambi fan fiction as well). I didn’t have the foggiest idea what to do with it and I’m not even all that sure that I pulled it off terribly well but never mind. It was always meant to be a challenge.

Why not grab some story dice (or use the images I’ve posted here; I am certain you can come up with much better stories than I have) and give it a bash yourself? And remember to share your efforts with the rest of us by posting them in the comments section below!


Why I Quit Camp NaNoWriMo

Before anyone gets cross with me, I want to say that NaNoWriMo is a great idea and there is no doubt in my mind it works for a lot of people. If you’ve had a positive experience with NaNoWriMo, good for you! If you happen to be one of the brains behind NaNoWriMo, I want to offer my sincere congratulations and thanks to you for providing an approach to writing that obviously benefits thousands (or maybe even zillions) of writers and helps them get their novels written. If you’re planning on ever using NaNoWriMo or anything like it in the future, please, do not let me discourage you. That’s the last thing I want to do. NaNoWriMo is just fab!  You should try it!

Now that that’s out of the way…

I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo this year, full of enthusiasm and the certain hope that it would propel me towards my goal of furthering (if not necessarily completing) my novel. I’d heard about NaNoWriMo from various folks but this was the first time I’d ever actually got around to trying it out for myself. It was a bit of a spur of the moment decision, I will admit. My novel was going nowhere (although he’s feeling much better now, thanks) and I noticed someone on Twitter remarking that they had just signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo.

Ah-ha! I thought, Now’s as good a time as any to give this whole NaNoWriMo lark a bash. Maybe it will help me complete my novel…

I was very excited about it. I was going to make progress and lots of it! I joined a cabin so that I could compare notes with other like-minded writers; I read all the useful ‘camp care packages’ that were sent to my inbox, full of useful advice to help me make the most of Camp NaNoWriMo; I perused the forums and all the articles full of helpful writing tips…

The one thing I did not do was write my novel. Sure, I had been stuck in a serious rut before I started Camp NaNoWriMo but at least I was sitting at my computer with Scrivener open for my appointed writing times, even if I was just writing things like ‘I suck at writing :-\’ all over my manuscript. For that first week or so of Camp NaNoWriMo, I didn’t even do that. I spent large chunks of my allotted writing time perusing the forums, checking my inbox and chilling with my cabin mates. Wonderful though all of these things are, the truth is that when you’re struggling to write your novel (and everybody does at some point), there is only one solution: write it anyway. Write it badly and fix it later if you have to, but you must write it. I often find that when I’m not having any success at writing something I’m proud of, it is tempting to either give up or else to try to find (usually on the internet) some clever ‘get out of writer’s block free card’.  The former is obviously unacceptable; the latter is just the former in disguise.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of websites, books and other resources which can really help to improve your writing style, get you some constructive critiques of your work or simply motivate you towards greater productivity (like NaNoWriMo). If I thought those kinds of resources weren’t useful, I wouldn’t waste your time by writing this blog week after week! But if, like me, you are struggling to think of what to write, I’m afraid to say I know of no quick fix except to write anyway, even if what you write is rubbish (you can — and should — always come back and edit it later). Resources like NaNoWriMo, no matter how good they may be, can’t make you write, nor can it tell you what to write. That’s not what it’s supposed to do. That’s what you, the author, is supposed to do.

So I quit. Just over a week into it, I resolved not to go back to the Camp NaNoWriMo website for the remainder of the month. I was going to sit down in front of Scrivener with the biggest mug of tea I could and I was going to put words on that page even if it meant drawing blood.

I won’t lie to you. It was like drawing blood at first – from the proverbial stone. A lot of what I wrote was rubbish. But any farmer will tell you that to produce a healthy crop, you need to spread plenty of manure on your land and writing is no different. The more proverbial manure you produce, the better your ideas will grow and before you know it, you’ll have a story you can really be proud of. No one will be able to help you write your story if you’re not willing to actually sit down and write. I definitely want to encourage anyone who is thinking of using NaNoWriMo to give it a bash because it’s a great idea; just don’t make the same mistake I did of using it as an excuse to procrastinate. That’s the complete opposite of what it was designed for.