Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Essay: Writing Tools (Books and Software)

I've been a reader of books for a great many years, and I've also attempted to write once or twice, but I've never thought much about what makes a book good (or enjoyable to read, not necessarily the same thing). Some books I liked and some I was less keen on, and some were obviously 'good' in some sense (whether I liked them or not), but if you had asked me why I would have been stumped. I was in the 'I know nothing about art but I know what I like' camp.

But belonging to a reading group these last couple of years has focused my mind somewhat. I read reviews of the books we read, and even wrote a few of my own, although rather badly. Then I started to read fantasy and found that some of it was brilliant and some of it was infuriating and some of it was downright unreadable, and I began to get interested. The quality of the writing is often subjective (some very famous and well-loved fantasy series I tried were so execrable I couldn't get past page 3), but the structure of a novel is something that there is some agreement on - there must be conflict, and three acts (disaster, disaster, resolution), and a powerful emotional experience. Some 'how to' authors make it seem as simple as 'writing by numbers'. And there are lots of 'how to' authors, with websites and books and software all designed to make the beginning writer competent and the professional slicker and more efficient.

So here are my thoughts on just a few of the myriad of such offerings out there.
1) The Snowflake Method
I was attracted to this because the author talks about using a spreadsheet to hold all his character and plot notes, and that really appealed - can it be that simple? The basic premise is that creating a novel is like fractals - you start with a one sentence summary, expand that to a paragraph, expand each paragraph to a page and so on, each section dividing and growing just like a snowflake. Eventually you have a detailed breakdown of every scene and chapter in the book, and can begin writing.

Of course, not everyone writes like that, but for those that do, the method supplies a rock-solid template on which to build. This is available as a (rather expensive) training course, and also as a piece of software (reviewed separately), but a good deal of it is also available for free on the creator's website.

2) Snowflake Pro (software)
This program encapsulates the Snowflake Method, by providing the outline on which a writer can build. Each of the ten steps in the method is a tab waiting for input. Step 1 is the one sentence summary, step 2 is the one paragraph summary, step 3 is a basic list of characters and their role in the novel, and so on, developing plot and characters on alternate steps. Step 9 is a detailed scene list, and step 10 uses all the previous information to produce a proposal ready formatted for you to send to a publisher. Every step has useful advice, and also an audio version.

It's a terrific system for those who like to plan every last detail before starting to write, not so good for those who like to write first or as they go along. It's also quite inflexible. Step 7, for instance, allows for vast amounts of information to be input for each character, but only according to the categories provided, which can't be deleted or edited, or new ones added. And the summary chart shows all of them, even those left blank (which may be irrelevant to your character or novel). Having so many options is a good prompt for aspects of your character you might not have thought about, but once you have, it would be nice to switch off the unwanted ones. And step 8, the list of scenes and chapters, would work better as a tree structure.

The other big disadvantage is that it's only designed to manage behind-the-scenes information about plot, character, structure and so on. In order to write the novel itself, you have to use some other method, like MS Word, which involves having two windows open on the screen. This is not necessarily a deal breaker (and it's perfectly normal for such software), since most writers prefer to use Word or similar anyway, but it is an inconvenience.

There is some clunkiness to the software - it feels like a program written by an amateur, and not really kept up to date. It throws a UAC warning on opening under Windows 7, for instance. This is probably an unfair criticism, since the software was written by an author for his own use and then marketed, but it's not the cheapest out there, so it should be well up to industry standards.

3) Writing Fiction For Dummies (book)
I only bought this book because it got me the Snowflake software for half price, which made it a halfway decent deal. But actually, it's a terrific book, covering everything from what makes a great story (a powerful emotional punch, apparently), right through to getting published and why a manuscript might be rejected. In between is a very detailed analysis, with examples from real books, of how to build the story into something marketable. It's very practical, and easily adapted for any kind of writing or any approach to writing (planning first, or just writing). You can read it from cover to cover, or just dip in for advice about making your characters interesting, or writing a powerful scene, for instance.

4) Your Writing Coach (book)
This book is less focused on the practical nuts and bolts of writing as on motivation, organisation and inspiration. It really does have the feel of a coach on the sidelines - 'Come on, you can do it!' - and there are exercises for the reader to do, too. But there's also quite a lot of detailed information in there. I find it's a little more non-specific than 'Dummies', but it's still a worthwhile read.

5) Newnovelist 3 (software)
This is one of the few apps which includes a word processor (albeit a fairly basic one) as well as the organisation of information, so you can write and have all your notes readily to hand at the same time. There are sections for details on characters, places, things and ideas, and the first three have lots of suggestions for questions you could be asking about it. Best of all, these questions are fully customisable. You can make notes on each chapter, too.

There's also a built-in browser (so you can do a quick Google without leaving the program, but again, it's quite basic), and a couple of word association functions to help you find a synonym, or just get some inspiration. There are some nice statistics, too, including reading level assessments. The program will read your words back to you, and you can even dictate into it. You can print reports on each chapter, character, etc, and also export in RTF format for final editing or printing. It looks and feels like a very professional piece of software, and my only grumble is that it always opens full screen, and it always asks 'Are you sure?' before closing down.

There are some technical glitches too. The search function works when in the export page, but not in the review section. There's no 'find and replace' function. The notes sections seem to have a pre-fixed font, and copying and pasting in a different font, or moving text from notes to main editing window or reverse can cause the font to change unexpectedly. There are also font issues in the main text editing window - sometimes a paragraph which is partly italic become all italic, and refuses to be changed. Also, the built-in browser throws some Javascript errors, and also keeps running in the background, slowing things down, even when you switch back to the editing screen - it needs a disconnect option. The PDF export loses the page breaks for some reason. None of these are mission critical, just annoyances.

The big downside is that it assumes you are writing your novel in just one form - the 12-step hero's journey. You have to select one of three categories (plot, character or epic) and then a type within that category (such as love story, action adventure or chase), and it then creates 12 chapters with detailed hints and suggestions for each step. This makes the software appear to be very constraining, and is extremely offputting for beginners, since you can't even get into the program without making a selection. Of course, you can add or delete any of these chapters, and completely ignore the advice if it's not relevant to your own story, but it would have been nice to have a blank template option.

But on the whole, for those who want an embedded word processor, this is a good choice. Surprisingly, there are numerous negative reviews of it online (although they are generally for previous versions), some of them quite aggressively so. But I like it.

6) The Everything Guide To Writing Your First Novel (book)
Like the 'Dummies' book, this is aimed at beginners and covers all the basics, in a similar readable style. It takes every step, from defining what a novel is and the various types, through planning, writing, editing and getting published. Along the way, there's lots of information about writing action scenes, dialogue, characters and even sex! An appendix suggests a schedule to complete a novel's first draft from scratch in six months. A worthwhile read.

7) Scrivener (software)
This has had loads of positive reviews, but until recently it was only available for the Mac. Now, however, even Windows users can enjoy it. Like NewNovelist, this includes a word processor at its heart, with a treeview on the left of documents (arranged as chapters and nested scenes, or however you want), and notes on the right. You can also use a full screen version, which eliminates all the clutter and hides most of the desktop, for when you just want to write, or there is a corkboard or outline mode for viewing synopses and notes.

Unlike NewNovelist, this gets everything right. It has the power and flexibility to adapt to whatever way you prefer to work (outline first, writing first or any other arrangement). The work-in-progress can be broken down into chunks as large or as small as you like, with pieces shifted around, viewed separately or as one document. There are powerful formatting and search functions, and at the end, you can output into whatever format you need, ready for submission to a publisher or in ebook format, for instance. [First written June 2011]

Edit: October 2011

Since writing this, I have added a number of other books on 'how to write', and I won't be mentioning any more of them here. They all have their own virtues and styles. Writers vary in how much planning they are willing or able to do before writing - starting with an idea and a blank sheet of paper at one end of the spectrum, or planning every last detail of plot, sub-plot and character before starting to write, at the other. I seem to work best if I do some planning (first third and ending, plus background) and let it run from there. Most of the 'how to' books, and the software too, for that matter, try to shoehorn you into the author's preferred camp. So it's a matter of preference. A book will only help if it encourages you to work in a way that feels natural to you. A couple of exceptions. Stephen King's book 'On Writing' is at least as opinionated as any other, but it's so funny that it should be required reading for every aspiring author. And of the software packages, Scrivener is the only one which really allows the writer to create according to his or her own style, whatever that happens to be.

8) Online writer critiques (Bookcountry)

Writers often get together in groups to read and critique each other's work, and this can sometimes be a fruitful approach. You get an independent view of your work, and you also get to review and discuss other people's styles. It's win win.

I joined a new online community, Bookcountry, set up by Penguin books, designed specifically for genre writers (romance, fantasy, mystery and so on). You write reviews of other people's work, and you can post your own work, long or short, for review by others. There are the usual functions of a social networking site - friends and followers, a forum, and so forth - but no instant messaging or direct contact, all communication between members being via reviews and comments attached to them.

As a beginning writer, I got some incredibly useful advice. But I felt there were serious issues with the site, such that eventually I withdrew from it. Firstly, there was a very opaque system of awards (for reviewing or posting on the forum, for having a popular book, and so on), and eventually it seemed as if the same small cabal of very active members was constantly bubbling to the top in a self-serving way that discouraged newcomers. It was very hard, for instance, to find books which had few reviews, without trawling through a badly arranged complete list. And to get reviews for your own work, you generally had to review work by one of the very active members who already had a great many reviews, so there was no possibility of saying anything new.

Secondly, it takes a long time to review something properly, and there was a natural tendency for reviews to focus on short pieces, or to only cover the first two or three chapters. This made for a lot of repetition where there were multiple reviews, and also served to keep an author focused on the beginning of a novel, rather than the whole of it. I found I was rewriting the first chapter or two over and over, instead of getting on with the rest of it. And it's tempting then to overload the beginning of a book with explanations to ensure that reviewers don't complain about things they don't understand. There really ought to be some mystery to draw people in, especially in fantasy, when some parts of the secondary world won't be explained until the end of a trilogy.

The site was in beta then, so maybe some of the kinks will be ironed out in the future.

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