Interview: Melinda Snodgrass

Melinda Snodgrass is the author of many SF novels, including the Circuit and Edge series. She also writes for and is the co-editor with George R. R. Martin of the Wild Cards series. She served as the story editor for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and wrote several episodes for ST:NG and other shows. An expert equestrian, Melinda Snodgrass splits her time between New Mexico and California. In Evil Times (July 2017) is the second book in her Imperials series, preceded by The High Ground and followed by The Hidden World (2018). Melinda Snodgrass has a Website as well as a blog, and you can find her on Twitter and Facebook.

Did you have a playlist for In Evil Times?

I have been listening to a lot of Mozart piano concertos and Beethoven cello sonatas and Saint-Saens Piano concertos. I was classically trained singer so I tend to favor classical music though I am beginning to enjoy more pop music now.

What’s your writing process like?

I get up each morning. I look at my outline and I know what is up next to write. I try to write every day, but writers are always writing. Dialog is spinning through our heads, we’re eavesdropping on diners at neighboring tables, etc. The other thing I do is each morning I reread the previous days work, and edit and rewrite. That means I’m fixing as I go and putting myself back in the space where that novel and its characters live. I also can’t jump ahead and write a scene that I know is coming. I have to experience it in real time with my characters.

How different is it from your perspective to write for TV vs writing for print?

I actually write my books using a lot of the tricks from screenwriting. In fact I believe my time in Hollywood has made me a much better novelist. For example, I will cut from a line of dialog and have that line finish in the next scene spoken by another character. I try to have every scene and every chapter hand off to the next one like a relay runner. I almost always start in the middle of a scene rather than do all that — knock, knock, come in, thank you for seeing me captain, etc. And my books are very dialog heavy. I have to remind myself to fill in all that boring description. (fill in gif of irony here)

In your Imperials Saga, you’ve got a society with an aristocracy and lines of inheritance and family inter relationships. How do you keep track of reoccurring characters and back story?

I use Scrivener which is a wonderful program that keeps things beautifully organized. They have sections for characters, places, research. With every book I keep track of any new characters, adding them to the list, and I update the status of returning characters. Okay, so Delia is married and her two kids are now this age and one’s at The High Ground. That sort of thing. Every phrase that is unique to the books ends up in the research section. All the planets, descriptions of them, capital cities are listed in places.

In addition to the human culture of the Solar League, you also have a number of non-human species with their own cultures and history. How do you manage world building? That is, did you work out the world building concepts, for instance the cultures and aliens first, or as you went?

I had a pretty strong idea of the traits of the various aliens. I knew the Cara’ot were master traders, and genetic engineers. I knew the Isanjo were functionally high steel workers, the Flutes are highly skilled in mathematics. Truthfully I cheated a bit though I’m going to have to address this in book four since I have an alien view point character. Because the aliens are a conquered people their own religions, cultural norms, etc. have been suppressed by their human rulers. Most of them claim to worship human gods, particularly the Christian god, they don’t have to accept the limits female participation in business because they are considered less than, but in most ways they try to ape their conquerors. It’s just safer that way.

Although I’ve only read the first two books of the five-book series, it’s pretty clear you have a plan for the journey and a destination. Any advice about how to plot?

Plotting is my favorite thing to do. And yes, all five books are worked out and the final scene of the series is already laid out. I start with a cork board and 3×5 or 4×6 cards and multi-colored pens. (You can also use a white board, that’s what we used on Star Trek but it’s hard to make changes or move scenes. I prefer the cards.) Anyway I put up cards detailing Teaser, and generally 3 acts though some longer books can be 4 or 5 acts. I then assign a color to each major character. I then put down the final scene of the book. Because if I don’t know where I’m going I can’t get there. I then generally put in the teaser. The hook that convinces someone to buy the book. I then put in the final scenes of each act. The exciting revelation that puts the heroes deeper in a well or changes up the game, etc. I then fill in the big scenes that get me to those act outs and the climax. The reason I use different colored pens is so I have a visual cue that I’m losing track of a character or another character needs to be cut back. Sometimes you discover in the early plotting stages that you don’t even need a character because you can’t keep them on the board. For a screenplay I would have every scene blocked out. For a novel I can’t do that, but I lay out all the major scenes or what I call tent pole scenes.

[Editor’s note: Melinda Snodgrass has an excellent post about “the teaser, the hook, the opening scene of a book” on her blog.]

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I hate clutter so my space is very orderly. I love writing from my home in NM because I have a breathtaking view out my window. In L.A. I’m in a cubby hole and I really hate it, but right now my life is lived in two places. I generally have music playing, but not vocal music because I was trained as a singer and I start listening to the lyrics rather than writing. I keep a cup of coffee or tea at my elbow and sometimes a small sweet. More because it gives me something to do with my hands when I’m thinking about a sentence or a scene.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

I adore Emma Newman’s Split Worlds series; Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaign series, Paul Cornell’s London Falling books. I have to read a lot of Wild Card stories from our writers who I help edit so I don’t get as much time to just read for pleasure as I would like. I also find myself sick of words by the end of the day so I often play a video game rather than read. Or watch TV because that is homework for me.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

I actually don’t because I sort of stumbled into this. Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman is good. I liked Steven King’s book On Writing, but I don’t agree with him about just feeling your way through a book. I think plotting — being an architect as my friend George R.R, Martin puts it — is essential if you have to write on deadline, and especially in Hollywood.

What’s your favorite charity?

I have a number of them. I donate to Planned Parenthood, I’m an investor making micro loans with Kiva, I donate to Heifer International. I sponsor girls through Child Reach, I’m an ACLU member, The Horse Shelter in Santa Fe. I have a page on my Website called Doing Good. If a reader makes a $25 or more donation to any of the listed charities and sends me proof of the donation I will send them any book of their choice autographed. I pay the postage too.

 

Camp NaNoWriMo July

Image credit: Clean Public Domain

The July session of Camp NaNoWritMo is about to start. Like the April NaNoWriMo Camp, Camp in July is an opportunity to work on projects with word count goals between 30 and 1,000,000. Writers can work on any project they’d like, including new novel drafts, revision, poetry, scripts, and short stories. A lot of writers use the July camp to sketch out and plan for NaNoWriMo in November, or concentrate on editing and revising the previous NaNoWriMo draft. Camp is very flexible, so your project is completely defined by you—even non-fiction is ok at Camp. This post about the April Camp has some suggestions about what you can do at Camp.  Don’t miss this page of resources for Campers, writing fiction or non-fiction.

Now is the perfect time to sign up for NanoWriMo Camp in July and to find a cabin—your cadre of fellow sufferers writers during Camp. A cabin is a group of up to twenty writers; you’re placed into a Cabin based on your Preferences settings in your Profile once you’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo Camp. If you’ve got writer friends who are also Camping, you can set up or join a private cabin with them. (There’s a thread on Absolute Write for people looking for cabin mates.)

Interview: Alice Loweecey

Baker of brownies and tormenter of characters, Alice Loweecey recently
celebrated her thirtieth year outside the convent. She grew up watching Hammer horror films and Scooby-Doo mysteries, which explains a whole lot. When she’s not creating trouble for her sleuth Giulia Driscoll or inspiring nightmares as her alter-ego Kate Morgan, she can be found growing her own vegetables (in summer) and cooking with them (the rest of the year). Her fourth Giulia Driscoll Mystery The Clock Strikes Nun will be released on May 30. You can preorder now at Amazon or B & N.

Did you have a playlist for The Clock Strikes Nun?

For The Clock Strikes Nun, I discovered white noise on YouTube. Those sleep recordings that mask outside noises. Did you know there are more than a dozen haunted house white noise recordings? They have crackling fire, thunderstorms, ghost sounds, howling wind. They’re great atmosphere. Plus they really do mask things like rugby on the TV. I like sports as a kind of white noise, but haunted houses were perfect for this book.

How did you become interested in fascinators?

Alice Loweecy with fascinator

I’ve always liked vintage fashion and jewelry and I’m fortunate to be able to wear hats. Except baseball caps. I look awful in those. When I turned 50 I decided I wanted to try a fascinator. I spent a week or so on the black hole that is Etsy and found my first one. I was going to wear it as a confidence booster for my first-ever Bouchercon panel (9 am) and take it off afterwards. But everyone started recognizing me in it and I loved wearing it. Thus a style was born. I have five now. Chiki Bird Hat Studio is amazing! I tell her the theme of my current book and she creates a hat for me.

Do you start out knowing “who did it,” or do you discover it as you write?

I write gigantic anal-retentive outlines, so I usually know who did it, but characters are ornery creatures and sometimes they take over the story. For The Clock Strikes Nun I knew who did it from the start. For the next book in the series, I wrestled with the outline for at least a week longer than usual until I realized I was trying to make the wrong person the villain. Once I let that go, the story fell into place.

What’s your writing process like?

Every single free minute is either at my keyboard or at my trusty three-ring binder. I work full-time and deadlines don’t care if you’re tired or want to watch a Saturday night horror movie. Even fifteen minutes is enough to write a few paragraphs or edit a page. I learned this years ago when I was shuttling my kids to soccer games and band practices.

How do you keep track of reoccurring characters and back story?

Excel spreadsheets are my life. Each book has a giant spreadsheet with multiple tabs. Character charts, research, backstory, outline. I also use Scrivener for its corkboard and web page cache features.

Any advice about how to plot?

I’m a tactile writer. I work best with pen on paper or fingers on a keyboard. I always start with a character. My first step is to open a blank spreadsheet and brainstorm. There’s no pressure this way, and my characters reveal all kinds of personal information as I type, especially the villains. They love to talk. Doing this in a Word doc is probably easier, but I started out this way and it frees my mind because my fingers go into auto-pilot.

While I firmly believe the best way to plot is the way you’re most comfortable with, I’ve recommended my method to several new writers as a jumping off point.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

It depends on the season. We have a small koi pond in our back yard. In the summer I sit out there as much as possible with a three-ring binder and a fountain pen. When Buffalo weather does its thing, I plant myself on the couch with either the binder or my laptop. If the words aren’t flowing, I switch from one to the other.

Enquiring minds want to know; whats in your binder?

In the front of my binder is a hard copy of my outline. Then 30–40 blank pieces of paper. At the back are hard copies of all the character charts and any backstory. Everything I need for an extended stay in the sun.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

A Line in the Sand (Jesse James Dawson #5) by K.A. Stewart. I’ve devoured every one of these in a single sitting and am salivating for book 6.

When Falcons Fall by C.S. Harris. Another terrific series, with a riveting antihero.

There’s also manga, which I read for relaxation. The current series I’m reading are Bungo Stray Dogs and The Ancient Magus’ Bride. So much fun!

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

Save the Cat! (Blake Snyder)
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne & King)
Zen in the Art of Writing (Bradbury)
Writing the Breakout Novel (Maass)
Eats, Shoots & Leaves (Lynne Truss)
The First Five Pages (Lukeman)

Save the Cat! is a screenplay book, but it made me look at characterization in a whole new way. When I read Maass, my takeaway was his advice to think of the worst thing you can do to your MC, and then do it to them. I applied that to my then-unpublished horror novel which had piled up an Eiffel Tower of rejections. It changed the MC’s motivation and made her darker and more obsessed. The book sold.

What’s your most memorable fan mail?
Fan mail is the best, but this one stood out because I could practically hear its tone of voice. It began, “I want you to know I don’t like to read! I finished all three of your books in one weekend. When’s the next one coming out?”

I replied “Sorry not sorry” and named a character after this fan in the next book. I smile every time I tell this story.

What’s your favorite charity?

A local organization, Buffalo City Mission. They’ve been helping the homeless for years. They also have a women’s shelter.

Alice Loweecey has a Website. You can also read more about her books on Facebook and Goodreads. Sometimes, she Tweets

 

Reading for Writers

Matthias Stom painting of a young man reading from c. 1630
“Young Man Reading by Candlelight” Matthias Stom ca.1630. National Museum. Stockholm

I’m one of those writers who came to writing from reading. I never had any intention of “being a writer,” or writing for a living. I wanted to read books. I still love reading, not only the kind of reading where you inhale the pages out of pure narrative lust, but close reading, the kind of reading that is bread-and-butter to any reformed humanities liberal arts graduate.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”—Stephen King. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft 

It is always a bit of shock to me to meet writers who identify, strongly, as writers, even writers of fiction or poetry (and I am neither), who say they don’t read. I’m not the first person to notice this trend, as this piece in 2011 piece in Salon makes clear. Writers who don’t read aren’t a 21st century creation, so I don’t think it’s the fault of social media, as the Salon piece suggests; I think rather, what seems like a startling increase in the phenomena of writers who don’t read is perhaps more noticeable because more people are interested in writing given the increase in viable self-publishing options.

That said, writing without reading strikes me as problematic. I’ll go out on a limb and say I think it’s mandatory for writers to read if they want to be read. I’m not referring to writers who don’t read while they’re concentrating on writing a particular book, I mean writers who don’t read. Sometimes non-reading writers say they’ve not read a book since leaving school. Some say they never were much interested in reading. Some say they haven’t time to read. They may not read for a variety of reasons, but time and lack of interest are the two reasons for writers not reading that I’ve heard the most.

I’m going to quote Stephen King from On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, again, because I think he’s on the money here:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut. . . . It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true.”

We work from models; we learn from models, in terms of learning other crafts and how to be adult humans; why should writing be any different?

Close Reading: Reading Closely

That doesn’t mean, as Chuck Wendig notes, that simply consuming text will make you a writer. When I say reading, I’m referring to thoughtful reading, reading of the sort that used to be called close reading. Close reading, or for the French, explication de texte, means reading carefully, analytically and thoughtfully. It is the antithesis of speed reading. Speed reading is about consuming. Speed reading is about eating as much as you can and swallowing it rapidly, even if it makes you queasy. 1) Woody Allen quipped “I took a speed reading course where you run your finger down the middle of the page and was able to read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It’s about Russia.” See also: Speed Reading: I Was Able To Go Through ‘War and Peace’ in 20 Minutes. It’s About Russia

Close reading means looking at the language, looking at how the words function in the sentence, how the sentences function in the paragraph, and the ideas and concepts conveyed by the language. It means looking at the language, at the text, in terms of rhetoric, the way idioms and metaphors and tropes and schemes and figures are used to emphasize ideas, feelings and concepts. In other words, the techniques that you probably use when you read and think about poetry will work for any text, whether it’s the back of a cereal box, an article in Newsweek, a novel by Agatha Christie, or Ursula Le Guin, a poem, or a book review. Read as if it’s all important. Wendig puts it this way:

You don’t learn to write through reading anymore than you learn carpentry by sitting on a chair. You learn to write by writing. And, when you do read something, you learn from it by dissecting it — what is the author doing? How are characters and plot drawn together? You must read critically — that is the key.

Reading critically; reading actively, are key. That doesn’t mean you can’t read for plot or for sheer enjoyment, it does mean you need to pay attention as you read (or after) in terms of why you enjoy it (or don’t enjoy it). What’s stimulating your narrative lust? Why do you want to turn the page?

If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but didn’t have time to read, I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” — Stephen King. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Find time to read.

We spend a fair amount of time waiting. Waiting at the doctor’s office. Standing in line at the DMV. Those ten minutes or half-hours while you’re waiting for something else are perfect for reading.

Even if you can only read half an hour a day before you go to sleep, that’s several books a year. Reading allows you to think about words and writing without having to be responsible for them. You can discover how to write as you work on understanding what someone else has written. How does it work? Where does it not work for you, and why?

“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.
Then write. If it’s good, you’l find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” — William Faulkner—University of Mississippi, 1947

Read Widely

I’m not one of those who advocates reading “only the best,” or “only canon literature.” I think writers should read widely and voraciously. Take a book and a notebook (or use an ereader app and a note taking app on your phone) everywhere you go.

As we read, whether it’s fiction, or poetry or non-fiction, our brains are paying attention to words and sentences and themes and language. We are absorbing and integrating as we process; reading widely educates our writerly palate just as trying a wide variety of food or wine educates our more conventional palate.  Writer Susan Wittig Albert, in suggesting new writers follow Faulkner’s advice notes that “There’s a trick, though. You do need to read to ‘see how they do it’—something like taking the watch apart to see how it ticks, rather than using it to tell time.” That’s a good reason for re-reading books you’ve read before, even many times before.

“If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” — Oscar Wilde  

Reading a book for the second (or the nth) time allows us to see it differently. While the text before us is the same, we as readers have changed. We have read other things. We have had new experiences, so that the text we read now is not, exactly the same to us as we re-read. We are not the readers we were. Sometimes that means the suck fairy visits, but more often, re-reading exposes an even more interesting and intricate text.

Cressida Downing notes that

If you want to write, and get your work read, you need to know about the process of reading, about the excitement and fascination a reader can get out of a book, you need to learn about that connection.

Read widely, and read attentively. Ask yourself why a writer chose this word or that, notice the patterns, whether patterns of language or thought, or structure. What makes you want to continue reading? What makes you want to stop?2) I freely give permanent dispensation to readers who want to stop reading a particular book; and try it again later, if they want.

If you want to get back to reading, the first thing to do is make sure you always have something nearby to read. Books are portable, even printed (perhaps especially printed books). Consider an AW reading challenge. Read and discuss Vernor Vinge’s Hugo Award winning SF novel A Fire Upon the Deep  along with other AWers (discussion starts June 1; grab the free ebook now). There are always book reccs in AW’sBook Club forum. AW’s SF/F readers post about What we’re reading. If it’s been a while since you read a book, consider a book you loved in years past as a re-read.When you read something good, a book, a poem, an essay, an article or a blog post, tell others about it. Start tracking your reading in a book journal, or a book lover’s social site like Library Thing, BookLikes or GoodReads.

References   [ + ]

1.  Woody Allen quipped “I took a speed reading course where you run your finger down the middle of the page and was able to read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It’s about Russia.” See also: Speed Reading: I Was Able To Go Through ‘War and Peace’ in 20 Minutes. It’s About Russia
2. I freely give permanent dispensation to readers who want to stop reading a particular book; and try it again later, if they want.

Poetry Manifesto

Poetry is the philanthropy of the illuminated mind to the dulled wits of those immured in the tragedy of mundanity. —Aero Gantz of Pampa City.

Poetry is the truest literary, spoken and visualized form of communication. Whether sonnet, haiku or that apex of wit, the limerick. Only the poet can fully immerse themselves in the creative world, from ordering in rhyme at a restaurant to wearing the beret required by Our Muse. Poetry must flow throw your veins, and serve as your soul’s breath. Poets give us words like these noble verses about the Magdalene’s eyes:

Two walking baths; two weeping motions;
Portable, and compendious oceans.

Narrative is the realm of the banal, the pedantic halfwit who thinks himself wise, yet lacks meter and rhyme. Naked prose is harsh, crude and uninspiring, without the adornment offered by poetic figures. True masterpieces speak the language of poetry even when clothed in prose:

Her cheeks were almost as red as her hair already, like red Delicious apples under green leaves which were her eyes and the dark pupils were like little curled up caterpillars in the middle—Travis Tea

Poetry speaks to and from the soul. It tickles and caresses the mind as one mulls over the next word or phrase to imbue the reader with a kaleidoscope of images that flow from each precious verse. Only the poet can engender true rapture in the reader, such that

My ear is open like a greedy shark,
To catch the tunings of a voice divine.

All writing is poetic, to the truly sensitive soul. Never in the history of mankind ever has there ever been a more perfect, more inspiring or more nobler form of communication than poetry. One must aspire to exalt the noble art to its highest incarnation; to bring joy and bliss to the world with wit, rhyme and the perfection of the 5/7/5 haiku, or, in the highest form of poetic art, the limerick.

Pity those unable to grasp and embrace the rich visual beauty of the spoken sonnet. Mourn the barren souls of those bereft of the lyrical gift of rhyme. Know that deep down frankly, you are more perfect, more better and more refined than the mouth-breathing, knuckle dragger who hears a couplet and thinks, that’s it. Buffoons.

If you have so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry . . . thus much curse I must send you, in the behalf of all poets, that while you live, you live in love, and never get favour for lacking skill of a sonnet; and, when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph.

Happy April 1. Now go read some good poetry in honor of National Poetry Month.

Camp NaNoWriteMo in April

Writing in the woods.
Photo by Doug Robichaud

You probably already know about National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo. It’s all about writing a novel in a month. But twice a year, in April and July, there’s a version of NaNoWriMo called Camp NaNoWriMo. The basic idea behind the April Camp NaNo is that you spend the month of April working on a specific writing project, one that can be anything from 30,000 to 999,999 words, hours, lines, or pages for your project.

What’s more,  “project” doesn’t have to mean “novel.” In the official Camp NaNoWriMo FAQ regarding What genres can I write in? Can I write non-fiction or poetry? it says that Camp NaNoWriMo welcomes

open-ended writing, including scripts, poems, and more! You can specify the category of your work on your Project Info page.

People write novels, memoirs, humor, scripts, poetry, outlines . . . pretty much anything. You set your own goals for your own project, and can track them via the NaNoWritMo Camp website.

Another thing that differentiates Camp from NaNoWriMo is that participants are assigned to a “cabin”: a group of up to 20 other writers who serve as a mini community to cheer you on (and commiserate). Think of cabins as an online writers’ group; you can even create your own private cabin for you and your Camp participating friends. Cabins include a small message board for cabin members only.

You can join Camp NaNoWriMo here. Right now is a great time to start thinking (and planning) what you’re going to write about during NaNoWriMo Camp. You can jot down random idea, write a detailed outline, start gathering inspiration in the form of pictures and character descriptions . . . If you look at the list of resources compiled by the Camp NaNoWriMo staff (scroll way down to the section under Non-Novel projects and you’ll see that people have taken advantage of NaNoWriMo Camp to write all sorts of things. There’s even a resource guide for people writing non-fiction during Camp NaNoWriMo.  Some people use NaNoWriMo Camp to research and plan, with the goal of writing a detailed outline.

I’m thinking hard about giving Camp a try, since non-fiction is OK. It’ll be my first time at NaNoWriMo Camp, so feel free to offer suggestions. Any one else planning on camp next month? I know there’s a thread about Camp NaNoWriMo at the Absolute Write NaNoWriMo forum.

Bullet Journals for Writers

There’s a high probability that you already know what a Bullet Journal is, in which case you can skip ahead. If you think a bullet journal is for gun enthusiasts, read on.

What’s A Bullet Journal?

Image credit: Mario Valdez

As originally designed, the Bullet Journal is a minimalist system relying on a notebook and numbered pages. You use short codes to tag kinds of data and tasks. You create your own pages to suit your personal needs and style. A bullet journal (BuJo for short) is an efficient way to track your time and goals, and other data that you use for short-range and long-range planning.

If you’re completely unfamiliar with the concept, a place to start is the original bullet journal video Bullet Journal – YouTube by Ryder Carroll. I’ve also linked to some useful pieces about how to create, customize and use a bullet journal in the Resources section below.

Bullet Journals for Writers: The Basics

Because a bullet journal is so very flexible, many writers use a BuJo just for managing their writing time and tasks. I find a bullet journal especially useful in terms of tracking multiple projects and deadlines.

The Index

The first thing to do when you start using a bullet journal is to number the pages. (Some notebooks have pre-numbered pages, like the Leuchtturm1917 notebook, but it takes mere minutes to do it by hand).

The second thing to do is reserve the first three or four pages of your notebook for your Index. The Index is a list of pages and what’s on them; it makes finding your information very quick.

Tobias Bucknell, SF/F author, has written a helpful post about his experience creating, using, and customizing a BuJo for use by a writer This is how I Bullet Journal | Tobias Buckell. Bucknell says that for him the Index was a key point in making a Bullet Journal personally useful:

But creating an index, that was interesting. Because now I suddenly, like a light bulb going off, realized I could create not only daily to-dos, but project to-dos, and flip back and forth. Even better, while I used a variety of to-dos via digital software, some projects of mine were getting so complex that I needed a way to glance at the 30,000 foot view quickly.

Bucknell’s post provides a wealth of information about customizing the basic concepts and practices behind bullet journals with lots of specific suggestions about how writers might want to use a bullet journal.

There are lots of writers of every sort using bullet journals; some of your peers are likely using bullet journals, and may very well have some specific tips. In the meantime, here are some suggestions about ways to use bullet journaling as a writer.

The Key

Image credit: Mike Rohde

One of the primary techniques behind bullet journaling is what Ryder Carroll calls “rapid logging.” It means making brief notes about tasks, events and ideas, marked with identifying symbols to make it possible to tell what kind of a note you’ve made, and whether it’s a completed task or event or re-scheduled, at a glance. There’s an “official” Bullet Journal key; it looks like the image to the right. People customize the symbols they use all the time.

Collections are Powerful
A bullet journal Collection is a collection of data; that data can be lists or images or mind-maps or sketches, or trackers (more about trackers later). These are some possible Collections for a writer

  • Backstory and plot notes
  • Character notes (and sketches)
  • Setting notes (and sketches!)
  • Scene or Chapter breakdowns
  • Brainstorming—ask yourself questions about your WIP (why does Whitney go to the barn? What does Simon need? What does Simon want?)
  • Inspirational Quotes (See Tobias Bucknell’s post on starting with a motivational quotation)
  • A list of those words, you know, the ones you can’t spell without having to look them up.
  • List special character and place names, or special spellings of standard words, archaic words, idioms or invented words that you’ll want to submit to your editor so they won’t get changed.
  • Your personal style sheet; leading and trailing spaces before and after em-dashes, or not; spaces before and after ellipses, or not; preferred spellings of words that have options. Sure your editor and publisher may have different opinions, but if you standardize the way you do it, they’ll be much easier to change later, if it’s necessary.
  • Patricia Wrede has some great questions for fantasy world building that are useful to answer in a bullet journal as part of your backstory.

Trackers

Trackers are a visual method of tracking repeated events or habits. They’re often used for things like tracking sleep or miles walked, or water imbibed, or pages read, or words written. Technically, trackers are a subset of Collections in official Bullet Journal terms, but they’re endlessly flexible.

  1. Trackers can be as simple as M T W Th F S S to represent a week.Draw a line through the letter to mark the days on which you met your daily goals.
  2. Use a row of boxes with numbers for tracking monthly goals. Cross off or fill in the boxes on the days you met your goal.
  3. If you want to track multiple daily habits for a month, create a simple graph; habits or tasks across the top of a two-page spread, and numbers for the days of the month down the side of the left-hand leaf. Use a filled- in square or dot or X to mark the task (or habit) you completed under the column across the top. (Here’s a tracker example from Heather Haft).

You can get colorful of course, and there’s lots of advice and models about using trackers in your bullet journal. See for instance Bullet Journal Habit Trackers from Productive & Pretty. Lots of people use trackers to track good habits and health.

Migration

Migration in bullet journal terms refers to an event or task that wasn’t completed when you planned, so you migrate it to another day. In other words, you move it from Tuesday the 6th to Friday the 9th (or whenever). The official Bullet Journal Symbol for migrating something is >; lots of people use other symbols. Part of the point of migration is that you have to write the thing down again every time you migrate; if you find yourself doing this repeatedly, it’s an indication that you really don’t want to do the thing, or, that maybe, it doesn’t really need doing. As Ryder Carroll, the inventor of the Bullet Journal says:

You can reduce the amount of things you have to do by transferring things by hand. If a task isn’t worth the time to rewrite it, it’s probably not important. Spend time with things that are important and be mindful of how you spend your time.

Plan to Write

As writers, we all struggle with time management; with finding time to write. One way that a bullet journal habit can help with that is that you can plan not only the time but what you’re actually going to write.

By reducing the time we spend in non-writing activity in our writing time, we can actually get writing done. Those collections with questions, and character notes, and plot points can be springboards, specific starting points for your daily, nightly or weekly writing time.

Tip: A particularly useful technique in terms of tracking your narrative and writing progress, is to make a note when you end a session about where to start the next session

Bullet Journals are Analog

We’ve got Google Calendar, and iCal and all sorts of ways to sync data between our phones, our computers and our tablets. I’m still using them. But there are some advantages to writing by hand on paper.

  1. Handwriting aids retention.
  2. Handwriting allows us to use the parts of our brain that we don’t when we keyboard; there’s a thing that happens when we’re doodling or brainstorming with a pen in our hand where we solve problems, whether of plot, narration or character motivation, or planning. Some of it is perhaps not conscious, but as we write, we formulate a solution.
  3. Because of the way we concentrate on what we are doing and because it is slower than a keyboard, writing by hand gives us time to think.
  4. There’s something to be said for having a single place to track our time and ideas, especially when we write on a digital screen. Think of the journal as a portable extra screen, one that doesn’t require switching windows or apps.

A Note On Aesthetics

Lots of people spend a great deal of effort on prettifying their bullet journal; if you’ve got the time and skill that’s great. There are some incredibly beautiful BuJo’s out there. Me, I have neither time nor talent. I started my bullet journal in stumbled-upon blank page notebook, using a mechanical pencil and my travel fountain pen.

Bullet Journal Resources

Getting Started
There’s the video that Ryder Carroll made, of course, but these are some particularly useful guides to getting started using and customizing a bullet journal to suit you.

For a quick intro see Buzzfeed’s WTF Is A Bullet Journal And Why Should You Start One? An Explainer

It’s worth signing up to the once-a-month newsletter at Ryder Carroll’s  official bulletjournal.com site to download a copy of the free .pdf starter guide. It’s a cheat sheet for getting started with a bullet journal.

The best starter guide (full of practical suggestions for customizing) is How To Bullet Journal: The Absolute Ultimate Guide from the Lazy Genius Collective. Lots of useful pictures, and down-to-Earth advice.

Kim at Tinyrayofsunshine.com has an excellent Thorough Guide to the Bullet Journal System. Her pictures are very helpful and there are some excellig ideas about simplifying and customizing.

Bullet Journals for Writers

Writer’s Edit’s The Complete Guide to Bullet Journaling for Writers has some excellent suggestions about getting started, tracking submissions and using a bullet journal to plan and to manage NanoWriMo.

Victoria of Something Delicious has more specific tips for writers using bullet journals in Bullet Journaling for Fiction Writers. (Scroll down past the introduction to bullet journaling to see specific tips for writers).

Belle Cooper has some great practical suggestions for using a bullet journal to track freelance writing.

Supplies

There’s a section in the Absolute Write Amazon Store for Bullet Journal supplies; but you might want to try bullet journaling first before making an investment in pens and notebooks.

According to Bullet Journal inventor Ryder Carroll “All you need is a notebook and a pen . . . ” Consider using something you already have to start with (I did!). If you don’t have a blank page notebook (notebook paper isn’t really suitable) consider something like this Amazon Basics Classic Notebook, in either blank or “squared” (graph paper lines).

If you’re sure you’re game, consider using a notebook that has either a square grid (like graph paper) or a dot grid; they’re easier to use for charts, and they make it easier to write legibly.

If you already use a BuJo, let us know how you use it. What tips do you have for those just starting out? What do you suggest in terms of bullet journaling for writers?

Interview: Marko Kloos

Marko Kloos is the author of the Frontlines series of military Science Fiction and a member of George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards consortium.

Born and raised in Germany, Marko now lives in New Hampshire with his wife and two children. Their compound, Castle Frostbite, is patrolled by a roving pack of dachshunds. Marko Kloos has a website. His latest novel Fields of Fire (Frontlines Book 5) is due February 28, 2017 from 47North. 

Why did you self-publish initially?

I used to be dead set against self-publishing, but when I finally went that route with Terms of Enlistment, it was sort of a measure of last resort. I had pinged every agent and publisher on my list, and run out of places to send the manuscript. At that point, I was tired of the submission/query treadmill and figured that if I don’t put it out there myself, nobody would ever read it. So I published the novel through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. I figured I’d see how it would go, and move on to other projects in the meantime.

Did you handle the book production yourself when you self-pubbed?

Yes, but it wasn’t very difficult. I bought a commercial license for cover art I wanted to use and uploaded the ebook to KDP and iBooks. My writing software, Scrivener, can compile ebook formats, but in KDP’s case, it wasn’t even needed because you can upload the book as a Word document and let the Amazon software handle the conversion. (I did compile the book in all current ebook formats to have on hand for direct sales.)

Did you plan to involve the Lankies (aliens) at the start or was that something that occurred to you later?

I didn’t have the idea for the Lankies until I was in the middle of writing Terms of Enlistment. But once I knew I needed aliens to fuel a conflict for more than one novel, I wanted to subvert the “bug war” trope and make humanity the bugs, so I knew I would need unusual and formidable aliens, vastly bigger and stronger than individual humans. Everything else just came out of that requirement.

How do you track the back story data (i.e. weaponry and station names, etc.)?

I keep a whiteboard in my office with data for the current novel in progress. I also have notebooks for all the ancillary data that comes with writing novels in a military SF environment: ship classes, hull numbers, lists of names for key unit members, and so on. And I still contradict myself and list the same ship in different books with two different hull numbers. (It has only happened once, and the copyeditor caught it, but it was definitely a “d’oh!” moment. Keep detailed lists and refer to them often, kids.)

Did you have a playlist for Fields of Fire?

I did! I have a playlist for every book. For Fields Of Fire, it was a lot of video game soundtracks, particularly the Halo series, and the soundtrack for Mad Max: Fury Road. (Terms of Enlistment and Lines of Departure were written to the Battlestar Galactica soundtracks from the first few seasons. Angles of Attack was written to the M83 soundtrack for Oblivion and other assorted electronica.)

I know you’re going to be writing for George R. R. Martin’s Wild Card consortium. Can you tell us a little about that?

George asked me to join the consortium in late 2015, and I was both elated and terrified at the same time to be invited into such an experienced and talented group of writers. My apprentice piece, if you will, was a novella called Stripes, which will be part of a Wild Cards novel called Low Chicago, out next year from Tor Books. Since then, I’ve played with more ideas for characters and storylines, and I’ll be contributing more stories to the Wild Cards universe in future books. Wild Cards is out of my usual wheelhouse, but it’s a really fun world to play in, and having to work with the constraints of someone else’s sandbox is a great creative challenge.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I have an office in the back of the house, between my kids’ bedrooms. It has just enough space for a chair, a big desk that can be turned into a standing desk with a button push, a bookshelf, and some whiteboards, brag trophies, and movie props on the walls. (I rented an office in town for a year, but it didn’t work out as well as I thought it would, so I moved back into my home office last year. It’s much easier to get up and running in the morning if you don’t have a 40-minute commute.)

I wrote the first two Frontlines books in longhand with a fountain pen, but the current publication schedule means that I only write longhand occasionally now—a chapter here and there, just to mix things up. But most of the time, I write directly into Scrivener on the laptop. For the longest time, I used a Macbook Pro, but the latest iteration had me underwhelmed. The current laptop is a Surface Book, which has a detachable screen that serves as a tablet in a pinch. For software, however, it’s always Scrivener, whether I write on the PC or the Mac. It’s an indispensable tool for me when it comes to structuring a novel and keeping track of the flow and beats of the story.

I know you used to have full-time munchkin wrangling duties; any suggestions about time management for writing parents?

Writing while parenting full-time is rough. To be able to be productive in that sort of setting, you need to let go of ritual and forget about writing when you’re “in a creative mood.” Kiddo goes down for a nap, you have an hour or two to crank out as many words as you can, even if you feel like taking a nap yourself. No special setups or circumstances allowed—it takes too long to get your special writing tea and fill your special writing pen with your special writing ink. I’ve written hundreds of pages on playground benches while the kid was running around and playing on the swings. Get a notebook and a pen, something that doesn’t need a charged battery or a power cord, something you can stuff into the diaper bag on the way out of the house. Writing while parenting will teach you how to make the absolute most of your limited time, and you will learn to be able to write anywhere with any tool at hand.

Why dachshunds?

Because they are a lot of dog in a low-slung package. Smart, stubborn, tenacious, ferocious little killers, admirable in their single-minded pursuit of small prey and kitchen scraps. Of all the dog breeds I’ve ever owned, dachshunds have the most distinctive individual personalities.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

The two novels that stick out in my head immediately are N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth books—The Obelisk Gate. It’s a fiercely inventive fantasy/SF mix with terrific world building and believable character and social dynamics.

I’ve also been on a bit of a YA binge. I read Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall and then tackled her entire backlist. And Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake blew my socks off—it’s an apocalyptic narrative taking place during the Norman invasion of England in 1066, and it’s written in a sort of “shadow tongue” that mimics Old English. The first few pages will seem bewildering, but then you get into it, and it’s a mind-bender. (The audiobook is considerably easier to get into, because the narrator already parses the spelling for you.)

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

My favorite books about writing aren’t so much about technique and nuts-and-bolts stuff as they are about general mindset. Stephen King’s On Writing is great, of course. But the best “How To” writing books I’ve read are Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, and Spider, Spin Me A Web.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

“Which dessert is best?”, to which I would have to answer, “Crème Brulee. Always Crème Brulee. It’s the perfect union of texture and flavor.” (Although a good tiramisu is a close second.)

What’s your favorite charity?

I have a lot of fans who are in the military or not too long out of it, so the charity I’ve picked for my own fundraising efforts in the past is called the Semper Fi Fund. It assists wounded, critically ill, and injured service members and their families. They do much-needed work, their administrative expenses are low, and their accountability and transparency ratings are very high.

As of this posting, Marko Kloos first four Frontlines books are on sale for Kindle in anticipation of the Fields of Fire release. I read the entire series over the course of a week, and enjoyed them for their characterization as much as for the story. 

Handwriting: Is it Part of Your Process?

I still like writing by hand. Normally I do a first draft using pen and paper, and then do my first edit when I type it onto my computer. For some reason, I much prefer writing with a black pen than a blue one, and in a perfect world I’d always use “narrow feint” writing paper. — J. K. Rowling 

Image credit: Petar Milošević

I prefer to take notes by hand because I’m actively listening when I write, in ways that I’m not when I’m typing. Sometimes I choose to handwrite because being able to write with paper and a pen or pencil and a convenient light source makes it possible to write in places where even a Chromebook or iPad are cumbersome.

The primary reason I choose to write by hand that my brain works differently with pen (or pencil) and paper. I’m less distracted by aesthetics (typography, for instance, is not an issue). I often turn to pen and paper (or pencil) when I get stuck, particularly on when I’m writing books, or lengthy research articles. Often, I’ll draft in long hand, then edit in longhand, then keyboard it and edit again before I submit.

Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of other writers also choosing to write in longhand, or print, even when they could use a keyboard. I was surprised by how many of my favorite novelists are prefer pens and paper for drafts.

When you’re writing with pen and paper, you’re working in the same direct mode you use to tell a story to children, and for a first draft, that’s maybe not a bad thing. — Joe Hill  

J. K. Rowling deliberately chooses to write by hand, though as she notes, she prefers narrow-ruled paper and black pens. Neal Stephenson, in a now defunct interview for Barnes and Noble (quoted here) notes that he started writing his novels with a fountain pen with Quicksilver, the first volume of his Baroque Cycle. Stephenson said

What I was noticing was that I’ve become such a fast typist that I could slam out great big blocks of text quite rapidly — anything that came into my head, it would just dribble out of my fingers onto the screen. That includes bad stuff as well as good stuff. Once it’s out there on the screen, of course, you can edit it and you can fix the bad stuff, but it’s far better not to ever write down the bad stuff at all. With the fountain pen, which is a slower output device, the material stays in the buffer of your head for a longer period. So during that amount of time, you can fix it, you can make it better, you can even decide not to write it down at all — you can think better of writing it.

I think that’s true. I noticed that the amount of time it takes for me to formulate a thought into a sentence, because it’s slower to read the paper than the screen, often means that I realize that it’s not something I want to write, that the idea or sentence isn’t ready for committing to paper. ItÆ’s less a matter of the internal editor interfering, than one of my “inner ear” noticing that those aren’t quite the words I want, In the time it takes to hesitate before committing the words to paper, my brain supplies other, better words. In other words, there’s less to edit or delete. Stephenson comments on that too, observing that the process of editing is often easier with pen and paper:

Editing, strangely enough, is quicker and easier with a pen. Because drawing a line through a word is just faster than any sequence of grabbing your mouse and highlighting the word and hitting the eject key. That act of editing leaves behind a visible trace of the word that you decided to change, and sometimes that’s useful; you may want to go back and change your mind about that. Finally, I find that writing with a pen is a physically healthier activity. There’s actually more range of movement involved with it than there is sitting with your fingers on the keys for hours at a time. So I just physically felt better when I was using the pen rather than typing.

Jonathan Carroll, famous for his contemporary fantasy and slipstream novels, notes that:

Handwriting anything makes me think hard about what I really want to keep or throw out. Because the process is generally slow, I’m thinking all the time while my hand moves across the page. While using any kind of keyboard device, my fingers are whizzing much faster than my mind can think and that is a dangerous thing if you want to write it right..

I find that the experiences of novelists in terms of their writing process, is true of my much less interesting process as well, when I’m writing scholarly or academic pieces or even when I’m writing pieces that I know are destined for Web publications; I think differently, and write differently with a pen in hand. As Joe Hill says:

Finally, in a notebook, you’re stuck with yourself. You’re cut off from your games, the internet, Twitter, Facebook. The only thing you have to entertain you is your own imagination.

What about you? Do you write by hand? Have you ever tried switching to pen-and-paper (or a pencil!) when you’re stuck? Is handwriting part of your process? If not, consider trying it.

NaNoEdMo: Revise that NaNoWriMo draft

You completed NaNoWriMo and you have at least 50k words of rough draft. You’ve put it aside since then.

Now it’s time to edit and revise.

Photo credit: Rennett Stowe

NaNoEdMo is National Novel Editing Month. It starts March 1. The idea between NaNoEdMo is that you spend the month of March editing your draft. Instead of counting words edited, the goal is to spend 50 hours revising your novel. It’s free to join here, and joining provides community benefits, including an active forum and lots of support with other writers revising and editing right along with you. There’s lots of advice and help as well as commiseration.

You can even get a certificate for completing your 50 hours. The rules are pretty simple. Basically:

You have to log your editing hours at least once every 7 days in March until you reach fifty hours. That is once between 1st-7th March inclusive, once between 8th-14th March inclusive, once between 15th- 21st March inclusive, once between 22nd-28th March inclusive and once between 29th-31st March inclusive; making a total of 5 times and totaling fifty hours or more. You can log your hours as much as you like but you must have at least one log in each period until you reach fifty hours.

They define editing as:

Editing is defined as changing previously written material. Editing does not include writing a completely new novel. It does not include planning or researching. It does include anything from correcting the grammar and spelling to substantial rewriting of the novel.

That means that your novel doesn’t have to be one that you wrote for NaNoWriMo. It also means that you can continue your 50K novel; keep in mind that 50K is a pretty slim novel by modern standards, so fleshing it out as part of editing is a reasonable idea.

If you want some suggestions about how to edit your own work, many writers have found Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King full of practical advice about how to edit, what to edit, and why you need to edit.