Ink and Pixel: Writers’ Edition

Last year, I wrote a post about the pros and cons of e-book readers compared to traditional paper books. Well that’s all well and good for reading, but what about for writing fiction? How do you write? On paper or with a computer? These days, it’s not really much of a choice. You’ll have a hard time getting anything published if you don’t at least type up your drafts before you send them to anyone who edits or publishes for a living and (as I recently discovered) manual typewriters are hard to come by these days.

But what about in those glorious early stages, when you’re still figuring out character profiles, chapter outlines and scribbling out rough zero drafts?

My first order of business tends to be to grab my notebook and Bic four-colour ballpoint pen and get brainstorming, (click here for more on how I like to do this). I’ve tried to use the same brainstorming technique on my computer before but… it’s not the same. It’s too tempting to press that ‘delete’ key if I don’t like things and typing doesn’t allow me the same freedom to scribble small notes to myself in spare corners of the page. Scapple by Literature and Latte certainly allows me more freedom to order my ideas any way I like but for me, Scapple comes into its own later on in the planning stage, when I’m ready to start organising my ideas, as opposed to simply coming up with them. Using a lined paper notebook allows me to vomit my ideas out in an orderly but unrestricted fashion. There’s something about working on paper that gives free reign to my imagination in a way which, for some reason, seems to be lacking when I work on computer. Perhaps it’s because coming up with new ideas is so closely related to daydreaming, and they are yet to build an app which does anything to enhance a human’s ability to dream. There’s also something quite natural and pleasant about writing on paper. It feels less like work and more like playing, perhaps because that’s how I used to write when I was a wee boy scribbling out stories in my bedroom with crayons without worrying about how neat or clever it is.

However, once I get past the brainstorming stage, into the slightly more formal side of planning, I find myself far more drawn to my computer and tend to use a combination of the two: organising my thoughts on computer, but still relying on my notepad to help me work my way through any problems I might encounter. I have already commented on my love for Scapple. Once the basic ideas are in place and I know roughly what I want to do, Scapple allows me to organise and structure all my ideas (and identify potential problems) in one place without having to buy my own body weight in post-it notes or scribble all over my bedroom wall. In the same way, Scrivener, also by Literature and Latte (I promise they’ve not paid me to write this, I genuinely just love their stuff) helps me to stay organised by keeping together all my drafts, character profiles, plot outlines and my whole story bible in one neat and tidy place. No loose bits of paper, no losing things, no jumping from notebook to notebook or indeed app to app.

I never fully abandon my paper notebook, however, until I get to the stage of writing an actual first draft (not to be confused with a zero draft; more on that in weeks to come). Once all the planning is done and I feel confident that I can make the story work, there really shouldn’t be much call to come up with any new ideas unless I hit a serious problem– and I shouldn’t hit a problem that can seriously undermine my story if I’ve done the planning stage thoroughly. The bulk of the work is done on Scrivener, although I also use the Hemingway Editor to help me at the editing stage and I will also occasionally use FocusWriter to help me get into the swing of things if I’m having a hard day getting started (though whatever I produce still gets transferred to Scrivener). As a rule, the further I progress with a project, the more I find myself using Scrivener to the exclusion of all other apps (including Scapple), as well as paper stationary.

In a word, then, I tend to begin the story-writing process exclusively on paper and become more dependant on my computer as I progress. Paper is great for helping me come up with ideas. I’m yet to find a substitute for it. It’s the only way I know to record my imaginings in a way which is pure and complete and there’s a great joy to be had in the process of doing it. But when it comes to organising, producing and editing a written work, that’s when the computer/tablet (and the whole plethora of apps for writing that are available) really come into their own. There’s no substitute for the ease with which I can edit my work, the orderliness it brings to my life or indeed the fact that a grown-up publisher might actually read my manuscript when it’s finally done.

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Until next time!


Hey Author, Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

‘Oh, so you’re an author then? Where do you get all your story ideas from?’

Ughhhh! Stop asking me that! I don’t know! If I knew the answer to that, I’d probably have more ideas!


Okay, so for reasons best known to yourself, you want to know where to find the House of the Magical Idea Wizard and think that perhaps I, or one of my author colleagues (you know, the ones that have actually got a few novels published), might have the answers you seek. I know I’m not alone in having people ask me about this. Writers’ blogs seem to be replete with authors whining and complaining about how often their family, friends and fans (those of you who have fans) ask them this same question.

Well… today, O seeker of insight, I am going to attempt to answer this singularly annoying and misguided question in the only way I can: from my own narrow experience.

The first thing you need to know is that there is no Magical Idea Wizard. Or at least, if there is, I’ve never met him. Plot bunnies are certainly real enough, but they are not bred by any one person whom you can purchase one from, nor do they grow on a special tree. In fact, between you and me, I’m not even sure plot bunnies are all that useful. They’re certainly not to be relied upon if you plan on making a career out of story writing.

‘Hold the bus for just a minute!’ I hear you cry. ‘What on earth’s a plot bunny when it’s at home?’

I’m glad you asked. A plot bunny is a story idea that pops into your head and won’t go away. They tend to appear out of the blue. For example, I recall on one particular occasion I was sitting on the upper deck of a bus coming home from the hospital where I work. At one point, while we were stopped at traffic lights, I noticed a Chinese takeaway and I was struck by exactly two thoughts:

  1. Mmm… salt and chilli chips…
  2.  If I ever figure out how to invent a time machine, I’m definitely going to keep it a secret. Then I’ll open a takeaway and be able to trump all the competition by travelling back in time to get all my orders to my customers mere moments after they make the order.

The first thought was mere gluttony. I ordered a takeaway when I got home and that was that. But the second thought was a plot bunny par excellence. For months I turned that strange little notion over in my mind, convinced that there was a story in it (for in itself, it was not a story but just a premise) but I just couldn’t make it work. Nevertheless it was a persistent nuisance in my brain, demanding to be written but it was a whole year before I was able to actually turn it into a story. More often than not, however, I find most plot bunnies come to nothing.

So… it is possible to be struck with sudden waves of inspiration, but they’re often unproductive in the long run and — more importantly — there’s absolutely no way to simply snap your fingers and make plot bunnies come to you on demand. In a word, plot bunnies are utterly unreliable.

Wise authors know that if you want to be able to write stories on demand, you need to be deliberate and methodical in developing your idea from the tiniest seed. That ‘seed’ could be anything. For me it’s usually either a theme I want to write about (e.g., my current novel started as a simple desire to write a story about rebellion) or else it’s a character looking for a story to belong to. But where does that ‘seed’ come from?

It’s not magic. All you need to do (boring though this sounds) is to make a deliberate point of setting aside time to sit down and be proactive in developing an idea from scratch. I don’t just hope for ideas to come to me on the bus, on the toilet or anywhere else (though I certainly write down any that do pop out of the blue). I set aside regular time to sit down at my desk and produce as many ideas as I can. Coming up with story ideas is not a supernatural gift that strikes without warning; it is a discipline which can be learned through practice and patience. I can play the trumpet, not because every now and again musical talent strikes me, but because I have devoted time and effort to regularly practising my skill. I started off rubbish. Over time, through regular practice, I became an accomplished (perhaps even good) trumpet player. If I stop practising for any length of time, my ‘talent’ gets noticeably rusty. The same is true of coming up with story ideas.

For me, I find the best way to come up with ideas is to brainstorm. I sit down with a notepad and give free reign to my thoughts, omitting nothing that comes to mind. Often I will find myself inventing characters who I can then audition or ‘interview’ in different settings and situations (the main antagonist in my current novel came about this way). Journaling can also be helpful. Scribbling down all my thoughts, feelings and opinions about politics, family, philosophy, religion, humour, music and whatever else comes to mind can often help me to discover new themes to explore in a fictional setting. I then question and experiment with whatever comes to mind. From there, it’s a simple matter of taking the time to refine my ideas. If I really, really, really can’t think of anything, there are plenty of prompts available online which you can use as a springboard into creativity; however, I tend to rely on these only as a last resort.

You asked me earlier whence ideas come. The simple, boring and profoundly mysterious answer is that they come from your own mind. There is no magic, but the everyday magic of that lump of slimy grey matter in your skull which, by some inexplicable design, is able to invent entire worlds and people from nothing and to use those inventions to communicate all manner of beliefs and philosophies. If you have a brain, you have ideas. You have all manner of ideas every day, both good ideas and bad ideas. You’ve probably had dozens of ideas already today, about a whole range of subjects. Turning these ideas into stories is simply a matter of practice and patience.

I Love Scapple; You Should Too!

Sometimes when you’re in the planning stage of constructing your story, it can be difficult to keep track of all of your ideas – especially if you’re still undecided about what ideas you’re going to use and what ideas you’re going to discard. Figuring out timelines of individual characters, their relationships to one another or the history of your fictional world (particularly for us fantasy/sci-fi types) can be a complex process. I spoke before about how I like to brainstorm in a notebook, but notebooks have one major weakness when it comes to refining your story: they’re a bit on the small side. Even if they have a million pages, you still can’t spread out all your ideas in front of you at once; much less easily organise and rearrange them.

Corkboards or spreading out your notes on your kitchen table is one way around this, but they have limited room too (they can also get really untidy and that can leave you feeling more confused than ever). There is plenty of mind-mapping software out there, of course, but its usefulness can be limited if you’re experimenting with many different ideas at once, because they force you to make logical connections between each note. Thankfully, the good people who gave us Scrivener have done it for us again.

At first glance, Scapple by Literature and Latte might appear to be just another piece mind-mapping software claiming to possess the secret of eternal creativity but in actual fact, it is quite different in a few important ways; ways which make it the ideal tool for those of us who have a million different ideas they need to organise and have been unable to find a large enough whiteboard or a thick enough packet of post-its.

weescapple1‘Freedom’ is the word that comes to mind when I think about Scapple. Freedom to organise all your thoughts (however many, and however big or small) into whatever order you want, in whatever style you want and with remarkable ease. One of the main freedom-endowing features Scapple has is that it allows you to place notes anywhere on the board, which you may choose to connect or not connect to other notes as you see fit. If you want to link your notes together, you can do it using arrows, two-way arrows or dotted lines. You are also not bound to work from a single central note as you are in mind-maps (though you certainly could do this if you wanted to). Each and every note you add to your board will be a free and independent note, which you can connect to or disconnect from as many other notes as you wish – assuming you choose to join any of your notes together at all. You can also easily surround some or all of your notes with a ‘background shape’, which keeps them together. All of this makes it ideal for experimenting with many different ideas at once.

weescapple2If you’re like me, you probably find that colour-coding your notes is a big help when you’re coming up with new ideas. Fortunately, it’s easy to customise the style of your notes to make them look exactly how you like them. The bulk of the customisation Scapple offers is available through the non-intrusive ‘Inspector’, which includes two tabs: one for customising the note style of whatever note you have selected at the time, and another for customising the format of the overall board (background colour/image, default font, etc). By default, Scapple comes with a few pre-made note styles that you can easily select by simply right-clicking the note(s) you want but you will probably find yourself quickly wanting to create your own note styles that you can re-use. Fortunately, it’s easy to create re-usable note styles by simply creating one bubble in the style you want and then choosing ‘New Note Style from Selection’ in the Format->Note Style menu. Not only that, but you can also redefine pre-existing note styles and even import note styles from another Scapple board (saving you the hassle of re-creating your custom note styles every time you start a new board).weescaple4 You can also add images as notes simply by dragging the file from your File Explorer directly onto the board and of course, as this little gem was indeed conceived by the same minds which gave us Scrivener, you can easily import notes from Scapple into Scrivener simply by dragging them into Scrivener’s Binder.

For me, however, Scapple’s usefulness doesn’t end once I’ve refined my basic idea. Once I’ve decided what story I am going to write, Scapple can be of further use for creating useful diagrams such as timelines. For the novel I’m currently working on, I used Scapple to create a timeline which allowed me to mark off where individual story beats came in and how this related to the progress of the protagonist’s character arc. This allowed me to see the whole functioning skeleton of my story, with all its individual elements working together in a format which was very clear and easy to work with. Additionally, the freedom Scapple gives you to add notes anywhere on your board meant that I could still easily add notes-to-self on any points which I was concerned about (of which there were a few!).

I really would like to come up with a few negative points for the sake of giving a balanced review of this product, but its simplicity, ease of use and freedom to do what you want with it makes it a really great product with very few cons that I can think of (incidentally, I’ve also found a few other non-fiction related uses for it). It’s available for Mac and PC and is also available as a 30-day free trial (that’s 30 days of use, so you don’t need to feel under pressure to use it every day for a whole month) so why not give it a go? If it’s a way to organise and plan your novel that you’re looking for, I’m sure that Scapple won’t disappoint you.

A Colourful Approach to Brainstorming

One of the most effective ways to generate ideas, in almost any creative sphere, is to get together with a bunch of other folk and brainstorm together. It’s a time honoured tradition of mixing creative, imaginative, rational, critical minds together and coming with and developing a truly unique and superior idea. Unfortunately, writing is a pretty solitary business most of the time. But today, I want to introduce you to one of the most valuable tools I have in my writer’s utility belt; a tool which has allowed me to single handily harness (at least some of) the magic of brainstorming with others:

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, The Bic 4-Colour Ballpoint Pen*.

Four colours in one pen!

I know what you’re thinking. Ancient technology. Humble. Boring. Run of the mill. You’ve probably got one yourself that you never use. Your kids have probably got one too. But trust me on this, it’s proven a great help to me whenever I’ve been trying to come up with new story ideas on my own (and you can use it during a power cut!).

It’s quite a simple technique really. First, grab a notebook that you don’t mind scribbling all your loose ideas into (seriously, we are not interested in presentation here). Second, grab your Pen of Many Colours. From now on, each colour represents a person in your ‘group’, and these will interact with one another. There are four members in my imaginary group because there are four colours on my pen (although if your pen has more colours, I suppose you could have more. Whatever works for you). In my case, they are organised something like this:

Black – Chairman (doesn’t really serve a creative function; I just use it for headers etc. although you might find another use for it).
Green – Creator
Blue – Questioner
Red – Critic

Now, since there’s not really a group of four people involved in this process, it’s important to remember one thing: you must write down everything that occurs to you. No matter how good or bad it is, you must write down everything or this won’t work.

So we begin by bringing the meeting to order. This is the main time I use the black tip. I write a header, which specifically establishes what it is I am trying to accomplish, to give some kind of focus to the session. I also include the date, but that’s just to make it easier to find again. If I’m brainstorming a brand new story idea, I might also write down other details such as intended audience etc. For instance, my most recent one reads:

‘Untitled Sci-fi Novel – Minor Antagonist Ideas – 30/11/16’

Great! I now know what it is I’m trying to create: a minor antagonist (though you could use it to generate ideas for anything, even a whole new story). Now the other three colours come into play. I tend to flick between the three of them frequently throughout the process (that just means it’s working) so what order they get used in is both unpredictable and ultimately, not relevant. All that matters is that they are all used to their fullest capacity.

For instance, whenever I have a creative idea – good or bad – it gets written down in green. Every single idea without exception, even if I know it is never going to work in a month of Sundays. It gets written down in green. The reason for this is that I usually have multiple ideas and it’s not always clear which ones will work the best, or if any of them will work at all. That doesn’t matter for Mr. Green Tip, however. Mr. Green Tip’s sole function in life is to record every single idea that pops into my head, no matter how awful.

The blue tip has a related, though somewhat different function. It asks questions of my previous ideas and prompts me to come up with new ones. For example, in my most recent session, I had the idea that ‘the minor antagonist could be a friend of the protagonist who betrays him’. Written underneath it says, ‘Why would he do this?’. After all, there’s nothing wrong with the idea but in order to function within my story, this question really needs to be answered. If I can’t answer it at this stage, you can bet your life my readers will be wondering about it too.

Asking this question then prompted further ideas, such as conflicting political beliefs or that he might see the protagonist as a rival for the affections of his love-interest. This prompted even more questions and more ideas.

Another use for the blue tip is to ask ‘what if?’ style questions, again, to provoke ideas. This is a really great thing to do if you’re stuck in a rut. ‘What if the antagonist were agoraphobic?’ for instance or ‘what if the protagonist were thirty years older?’. Asking these kinds of questions pushes your imagination in directions it might not otherwise go.

Of course, with all these ideas flying around, we really need someone to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is where the red tip comes into its own. It is used to judge every idea and decide what can and should be used. If there are any problems to be found with any of my ideas, no matter how insurmountable or minor these problems may be, they get noted in red. The result of this is that I will either come up with a new and improved version of the original idea or that I will abandon the idea altogether and come up with a brand new one. For instance, underneath my aforementioned idea that the antagonist could be a rival for a love-interests affections, it says in red ‘We’re trying to write a YA sci-fi/thriller, not a soap opera’. I therefore abandoned that idea and went along with a better one I’d had.

I don’t know how likely it is that you will find this exact process useful. I hope you will at least find the basic premise of it useful. Goodness knows I’ve read up on countless approaches to brainstorming, planning, writing and everything else besides and if there’s one  thing I’ve discovered, it’s that no two authors approach writing in quite the same way, so I strongly encourage you to tinker with it until you get the approach that works for you. Maybe you need more colours. Maybe the whole thing is of no use to you. I don’t know. But this works for me, and I hope, dear reader, that you will be at least able to glean something from it to aid in the creative process.

*other multi-coloured ballpoints are available.