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Guest Author Kristina McMorris: Writing Dual Timelines

TPWK_CoverI realized from the beginning writing dual timelines was going to be a challenge; I’d never before attempted to interweave past and present storylines into a single novel. Yet due to the nature of what would ultimately become my latest release, The Pieces We Keep—in which a boy’s dreams are mysteriously linked to family secrets from WWIII decided it was definitely worth a try. Among my greatest concerns, however, was that one storyline would outshine the other.

When I myself have read novels with dual timelines, frequently I’ve had to fight the urge to skim the present-day chapters to return to the historical ones. Granted, in large part this is likely due to my personal passion for tales of the past. But I also find that high stakes involving life and death are naturally inherent in most historical settings—from revolutions and world wars to times of slavery and civil rights—and can therefore easily dominate when placed directly beside current-day conflicts of familial or romantic relationships.

To overcome this obstacle, I tried to imagine which scenarios would be as devastating to me, or my character, as the harrows of wartime. My answer, as a mother, came without pause: losing my child in a tragic death, or perhaps in a battle for custody. Obviously there are many other situations that can ratchet up tension and maintain a high level of suspense, no matter the era in which they’re set.

Another challenge I encountered came from my choice to alternate the two timelines with every chapter. I am personally a huge fan of short chapters, finding it nearly impossible as a reader to put down a book when the end of the chapter is “just a few pages away,” but I realized it would be important to find a way to prevent jarring the reader. Also, since links between the two storylines in The Pieces We Keep are fed out gradually, I wanted to suggest a connection early on, without (hopefully) giving too much away.

Pieces-boardcroppedTo address both issues, and in hopes of creating a feeling of fluidity, I opted to start every chapter with a sentence that in some way echoes the last sentence of the preceding chapter. For example, one chapter would end with: “He left no proof of existence—save for the missive in her hand.” While the next chapter would begin: “A half hour later Audra sat alone on a stranger’s couch, the slip of an address still in her grip.”

Finally, another goal of mine was to immediately ground the reader in whichever era they were reading, never wanting them to feel “lost.” Date and location stamps were an obvious choice, but with more than 70 chapters in my novel, I felt these would be cumbersome and redundant (and perhaps even make the book 50 pages longer, ha). Fortunately, my publisher allowed me to use two different fonts, one for each chapter/time period. As a result, this required me to merely state the dates and locations at the start of the first two chapters. I’ve also seen this done in other novels to great effect when clarifying changes in points-of-view.

Needless to say, the tactics I’ve mentioned might not work for every book featuring dual timelines, but perhaps they’ll at least serve as options to consider while you’re brainstorming ideas for your own interwoven story!

McMorris-headshot

Thank you, Kristina, for this intriguing glance at your process.

For those who want more information, Kristina will be stopping by periodically to answer your questions, and in true Ruby fashion, will be drawing the name of one lucky commenter (Shipping costs limit this to US residents only) who will receive a signed, trade-paperback copy of The Pieces We KeepOf course, you can find all of her books at various retail outlets including Amazon and Barnes & Noble

Kristina McMorris is a critically acclaimed author published by Kensington Books, Penguin, and HarperCollins UK. Her works of fiction have garnered more than twenty national literary awards and appeared on the New York Times and USA Today bestsellers lists. Inspired by true personal and historical accounts, her novels include Letters from Home, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, and most recently The Pieces We Keep. Prior to her writing career, Kristina worked as a host of weekly TV shows since age nine, including an Emmy® Award-winning program, and has been named one of Portland’s “40 Under 40″ by The Business Journal. She lives with her husband and two young sons in the Pacific Northwest, where she is working on her next novel. For more, visit www.KristinaMcMorris.com

 

 

 

It is Better to Have Loved and Lost…

So I’ve had this love affair with grammar ever since I can remember. In school, I relished writing research papers and making sure the punctuation and sentence structure were just right. I cherished being able to tell the difference between an adjective and an adverb. I loved the way sentence diagrams looked laid out on the page. How orderly my little world seemed. Everything had its place. I made good grades, because I always tried to follow the rules. If I wasn’t sure of something, I could go to my trusty little grammar book and look it up.

Then I started writing for fun. I wrote manuscripts, entered contests, and picked up six critique partners along the way. And almost overnight, my world became a messy place. Why? Because the rules that once governed my writing, no longer applied—at least not as rigidly as they once did. So I’m here to mourn the loss of seven of my favorite rules:sad punctuation

  1. The semicolon. Oh how I loved this little punctuation mark. Joining two independent clauses was once so easy. Just slip a semicolon between them and voila! The first manuscript I wrote was riddled with semicolons…well, maybe not riddled, but it certainly had more than its fair share.
  2. The word that. When I was in school, I learned that an indirect quotation was always set off by this particular word. He said that I needed to finish my homework by tomorrow. I entered my first writing contest years ago and was in for a shock. Almost every instance of the word that had a strike mark through it. I couldn’t believe it. I went to several online groups and vented my outrage. And I found out the judge was right. When writing fiction, the word that causes a reader to slow down rather than glide over the prose. So I waved goodbye to my much used friend.
  3. Never start a sentence with a conjunction. Okay, I admit I’ve embraced the breaking of this particular rule a little too well. My CPs often have to rein me in when it comes to starting sentences with ands, buts, or ors. I love them. To me, starting a sentence with a conjunction makes for a smooth passage from one thought to another. But (hee hee, see what I did there?) they really should be used in moderation.
  4. The colon. I actually still use this punctuation mark, and my editor leaves them in! I think the colon has now taken the place of my beloved semicolon, since I can get away with sneaking them in from time to time.
  5. The lowly comma. <big sigh> How many of you remember the thousand and one rules for comma usage? I can remember looking these up in my grammar book to make sure I put that comma in just the right spot. I loved the comma desperately (notice the forbidden use of the adverb in this sentence). But now? I’m a comma minimalist. No more debates about the serial comma. No more making sure each comma placement is just so. I want my readers to be able to drift through my story without putting them through an obstacle course of punctuation marks. Except when the tone changes or I’m writing romantic suspense. Then I use commas to make the writing a little more jagged or to make the reader push harder to get through certain passages. I still love how this little mark can change the tone and flavor of sentences. I just don’t follow all the rules anymore.
  6. Sentence fragments. Yep. I’m now guilty of throwing a single word onto the written page, plunking a period after it, and calling it done. I can remember when that would have earned me a big red circle and an I.S. notation (incomplete sentence). This is another one that should be used in moderation (and I tend to sprinkle them a bit too liberally). When used correctly, the sentence fragment can make a big impact on your story.
  7. A paragraph must have at least three sentences. Maybe this rule isn’t in effect any longer (yes, I’m that old), but when I was in school, this rule was a biggie. I often sat in my seat grabbing at any random sentence and sticking it into my paper just so I could call a paragraph a paragraph. Oh how my little world has changed. There are times in my books when I have a paragraph that consists of a single word. There’s always a flicker of guilt when I hit that enter key afterwards, but I somehow manage to live with the shame.

So that’s my list. How about you? Are there any grammar rules you’ve left behind and wished you hadn’t? Or do you find ways to have your cake and eat it too? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think breaking the rules should be an excuse for sloppy writing. As the old saying goes…you have to know the rules before you can break them. I admit I do miss the days when everything was cut and dried. I still tend to be a rule follower in real life, which creates a dilemma for me when I write. But <insert evil laugh at conjunction usage> I now tend to just shrug and move on to my next sentence fragment.

Guest Ashlyn Macnamara: Unique Character Voice

Recently, I’ve been rereading a series I discovered when I was younger. It’s a five-book middle grade fantasy series based on Welsh mythology entitled The Chronicles of Prydain. Since I’ve become a writer myself, I can’t help but noticing the author’s craft. Something really jumped out at me this time. The author, Lloyd Alexander, is a real master of character voice.

Each of his characters has his own unique way of expressing himself, and that voice helps them leap off the page. You get an immediate sense, through a character’s dialogue, of who that character is.

Take, for example, Eilonwy, the heroine of the series. She’s a secret princess, a bit of a motor-mouth, and one of the first feisty heroines I read about. Oh, and she often showed more sense than many of the male characters. I loved her. I wanted her to be real so I could be her friend. One of the ways the author sets her speech apart from the others is her penchant for spouting similes and metaphors—and they’re often just this side of implausible.

Season Sense

If you’re thinking this blog is about setting, you’re totally wrong.  Maybe I should’ve changed the title so you wouldn’t have thought so, but after I started brainstorming ideas for a blog it actually fit.

My original idea was to write about two lessons I learned many years ago from my creative writing professor which, yes, would’ve pertained to setting, but then two of my Ruby sisters had also mentioned on our private loop that they planned blogs about the subject. Although I knew we’d approach the subject matter from different angles, I kind of figured our readers would say enough already.  So I’ll save my thoughts on setting for another time.

Anyway, going back to my creative writing classes— since I know you’re all dying to know what they were—the first one was free writing. We all know what that is, right? You just write whatever comes to mind without stopping for a length of time and the writing doesn’t need to follow rhythm or reason. It’s a way of freeing your muse. Thinking about that lesson helped me put a twist on the second lecture, which was setting sense and had to do with experiencing your world, and ‘Wala’  I think I came up with unique tutorial for our awesome followers.

Using Scrivener for Plotting

I am a plotter, not a pantser.  I would no more think about starting a book without a plan for it, than I would leave my house on a long trip without my GPS.  I’ve been a plotter for a long time, and it used to be that I kept all my notes, GMC charts, photos of characters, plot outlines and whatnot in separate documents for each book.  Then I would create a great big fat Word document for the manuscript.  And I would start writing the story at the beginning and end on the last page.  Every book was written in a linear fashion.

Enter Scrivener, a word processing program that’s designed to help authors manage bigger works of fiction.  I tried this program out about a year ago.  And it’s changed everything.  I honestly don’t know how I would plot or write without this software program.  I mentioned this recently in a comment on the blog, and immediately my Ruby Sisters suggested that I write a blog.  So here it is.

Organizing the plot, subplot, and plot layers. 

My books are complicated.  They have one main romantic plot, a romantic subplot, a couple of plot layers and a series arc.  To get all this straight in my head before writing a book, I used to graph it all out on a piece of paper.  Here’s an example of the kind of graph I would make before starting out:

In these visual plots I would assign a color to each arc and jot down (in teeny tiny writing) a bunch of scenes that I thought would be important to telling the story.   I used to keep this chart in front of me as I wrote and I would amend it and scratch stuff out and by the end of the process I usually had a book, but my plot paper would be wrinkled and erased and a total mess.

I may still use a piece of paper to get me started, but once I’ve got my ideas down, I immediately transfer them into Scrivener, making a lot of use of the the program’s virtual index cards.

 

Each of my scene cards is given a color code to indicate the plot, sublot, or plot layer that applies.  I provide a title for each of these scene cards and then a short synopsis about what I think is going to happen in the scene.  I will then apply plot steps to the cards so that I know whether a scene is showing the ordinary world or a turning point of some kind.

How do I do this?

For the plot colors, I use Scrivener’s label options, which I edit to reflect the various plots, subplot and plot layers of my WIP.

 

 

For the plot steps I use Scrivener’s built-in status tags, which are designed to show which scenes are finished which are yet to be written.  But I ignore the way Scrivener wants to use these tags, and have changed them to story step tags that I can apply to my scene cards.  These story steps take the place of the W form of my hand written plot arcs.  I know where along that imaginary arc of rising and falling action each of these story steps falls.

 

 

I want every scene to move one of the various plots or plot layers along.  But sometimes there are scenes that may move along more than one plot or layer.  I will assign a color to the card to reflect it’s main purpose in the story, but I’ll use Scrivener’s Key Words to put a little splash of color along the edge of the card to tell me that the scene is going to relate to actions in other layers or arcs.

 

 

So in the example above.  The scene in question is the initial scene of the Last Chance Book Club and falls into the book club plot layer (yellow).  Its story purpose is to show the ordinary world of the book club members, but it will also move along the main plot (green) having to do with the hero and heroine battling over possession of the abandoned Coca-Cola bottling plant.

You can set up your own labels, status values and keywords by checking the options in the “Project” menu on the Scrivener menu bar.  Since I’m plot driven my tags and colors relate to those things.  But if you’re more of a character driven writer, I’m sure you can figure out ways of organizing your scene cards to help you figure out what’s going on in the character’s arc.  The program gives you so many tools to organize your work before you even start writing.

Keeping me on track as I write

Eventually I have to quit organizing myself and start writing.  Here’s where Scrivener’s writing interface provides some more cool tools.   Here’s a picture of the main interface:

 

Down the left hand side of the interface are all of my scene cards – from beginning to end.  I end up adding scenes as I go along, and being able to see them in color is  is incredibly helpful.  I can see my story from forty-thousand feet.  The colors tell me if I’m veering off track.  And, most important, when I get to the end of a scene, I don’t have to think too hard about what comes next.  And if I’m not really feeling it for the scene that’s supposed to come next, I can jump ahead and write in a non-linear way.  Most important, I can move scenes around.  I do this all the time.  Scrivener makes it easy for me to keep the tension going by helping me to see where the story is going next.

In addition, on the right hand side of the screen is a place to put document notes.  I cannot tell you how helpful this is.  Instead of having editing notes scattered all over the place in comments that are hard to find.  All my editing or drafting notes are right there.  In the case of this example, you can see that I spent a moment before drafting the scene to think about what my POV character’s goal is, who the antagonist is in the scene and how the scene will turn out in a mini-disaster for my POV character.

All the plot notes are right there

I still have documents with character GMCs, character names and descriptions, research, maps of the town and whatnot.  But now, instead of having them printed out and tucked into a folder or notebook, I can load all of that right into Scrivener.  If I am confused and need to refresh my memory, all I have to do is split the screen and open up the research document or GMC.  Below is a screen shot of my current WIP with the scene in the upper screen, and my GMC chart in the lower screen.

 

 

A few last words

Scrivener also does a few nifty things that I really love.  It allows me to track how many words I’ve written in a writing session.  I set my goal at 2000 words per session, and it’s amazing how that accountability keeps me producing words at a faster rate than ever before.  I can also see my overall progress on a project which can be terrifying or gratifying depending on when my deadline might be.  Finally, all of my problems with where to place chapter breaks have disappeared.  I don’t worry about them anymore.  I just write form scene to scene and in the end I insert chapters where they make sense.

I can’t imagine writing a large project like a novel in another other word processing program.  I’ve become a total Scrivener convert.

I hope this gives you some idea of the program’s features and how you can use them for your own writing process.  I certainly wouldn’t impose my OCD writing process on anyone.  But Scrivener allows me to be ultra organized which makes me sooooooo happy.

I’m happy to answer any questions about the program or my crazy writing process.

 

Gwen Hernandez, Scrivener for Dummies

Welcome, Dummies! Ahem, I mean Ruby blog readers!

We’ve all heard such wonderful raves about the power of Scrivener and how it turned messy, frustrated writers into organized, competent authors who got the BIG picture at last. Ever wonder what the fuss is about? Wonder if you might be helped by this miraculous writing tool? Well, today I have the answers to all your questions about Scrivener because I have the Scrivener guru with us on the blog. Without any further ado, I give you Gwen Hernandez, author of the soon to be released Scrivener for Dummies.

Story Alchemy

In the middle of May, I took some time off from my hellish work schedule for a retreat, up in the mountains of North Carolina.  The occasion was a weekend hosted by singer-songwriter David Wilcox.  As always, listening to David’s music recharges my batteries.  But I have to say that the most surprising and inspiring moments of this year’s retreat came during a workshop for songwriters given by Laura Hope-Gill, a North Carolina poet.  (http://laurahopegill.blogspot.com/)

Laura spoke of the alchemy of the writing process.  And her discussion of alchemy has led me on an interesting writer’s journey.

PRODUCT PLACEMENT

How much thought do you give to the products your characters use?

A) Not much? B) Somewhat? C) The story hinges on it? D) None of the above. 

RESEARCH FOR DUMMIES

Let me begin by admitting that I hate research. 

Mash-up Merriment, Dr. Suess & Pirates

Perhaps you’ve noticed. There is a strange, but interesting quirk arising in the world of fiction, called the mash-up novel. What’s a mash-up? It’s fiction combining pre-existing work with new text from popular genres. Think Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. Authors are taking public domain classics and applying their own spin with new material and alternate plot lines. It’s quite a fascinating endeavor. One with which my reading comprehension deficiency would not allow me to explore. Unless I mixed it up with Green Eggs and Ham and pirates.

A pirate ship! A pirate ship!
Could you? Would you? On a pirate ship?

Not on a pirate ship! Not in a tree!
Not in a car! Sam, let me be!

I could not, would not, in a box.
I would not, could not, with a fox.
I will not eat them in the rain.
I will not eat them on the Spanish Main.
I will not eat them with a bum
I will not wash them down with rum
I will not eat them over or under.
I will not eat them while I plunder.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like green eggs and ham!
I do not like them Sam-I-am.

No, I’d fail miserably at a mash-up book. But recently, a writer friend approached me and two others with a great idea using a similar technique. The four of us meet regularly to decompress and ‘talk shop’, and for the sake of protecting the innocent, we’ll call this merry band of writers The Usual Suspects. Kind of an oxymoron, now that I think of it. Anyway, he approached us with a unique experiment.

Usual Suspect #1 would write the beginning of a story up to around 1000 words. He would then send his story to the next author, who in turn would pick up the story and write another 1000 or so words. Then Usual Suspect #2 would pass it along to Usual Suspect #3, and so forth. After Usual Suspect #4 finished their contribution, it went back to Usual Suspect #1 for another round. When it was our turn again, we read the story thus far and added another chunk. The idea was to go several rounds and create a short story. There was no discussion of genre, plots, characters, or motivation. Imagine our surprise each time the story landed back in our laps, especially given that each one of us has our own unique voice, writing in different genres.

But the bigger surprise came when we finished. We had a great story! Sure, there were plot holes big enough a convoy of beer-toting truckers could drive through and moments of mass confusion. (Where’d Clyde go? He was here a moment ago? Oh, he’s dead now? Really? How’d that happen? Oh wait, it was just a flesh wound? Yeah, someone should fix that.) But the bones were strong. We talked about the problems and how to fix them. We didn’t always agree (can’t trust those shifty-eyed Usual Suspects), but we worked out solutions. Editing came in the same roundtable fashion, sweeping up any evidence of the writer-ly crimes committed.

Though it was an experiment, we didn’t treat it as such. We put thought and honed skills to task. The end goal was to have a marketable finished product. Now the real work begins, agreeing on a title and book cover.

One of my biggest surprises participating in this co-written short story was how much I enjoyed the process. It was … fun! I stepped out of my comfort zone, away from the historical romance genre I write, and blindly tried my hand at something completely different, suspense. There is value in that. I challenged myself and learned I could be flexible with my craft.

I strongly feel that challenges such as our impromptu mash-up and being held accountable by other writers flexes and strengthens our writer muscles, making us understand and grow as authors.

What about you? Have you stepped outside your comfort zone? Have you participated in a writer-related experiment? If so, what were your results?

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The Latest Comments

  • Autumn Jordon: Kudos. Kate. You followed your path and I’m happy you did!
  • Kate Parker: I’ve heard we regret the things we didn’t do much more than the things we do. I didn’t...
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