How “scrib-something” in a podcast changed my writing life.

Rising action (of a mild, reflective kind)

My wall awaited. My stockpile of comic-novel timeline raw materials awaited. I will get to that, I told myself. And told myself. Then one day, tired of the self-harangue, I went on a walk and listened to a podcast interview of author Gail Carriger by a certain Evan Christopher. (I think, Evan; English accent, American ears.) The Christopher fellow briefly waxed gushingly about scib-something writing software. Carriger said she would check it out. Me, too, I thought. Why? Because when I listen to a podcast, I eschew saying things out loud.

Scrivener’s neat yin-and-yang ripoff logo with commas appeals to my aesthetic sensibilities; and that literatureandlatte.com is their website appeals to my “that makes no sense whatsoever but I like it” sensibilities.

Back in the office, I discovered that scrib-something was in fact Scrivener. (Google! Is there a better spellchecker for the severely spelling challenged?) I went to the website. I read. The progression of my comprehension went as follows:

1.) After reading, “Scrivener knows nothing of pages until it comes to exporting or printing and therefore does not have the page layout viewing features of modern word processor applications,” I thought, “What? No page layout view! These guys must be absolute idiots!”

2.) I watched two Scrivener instructional videos and thought, “Actually, it appears these people are pretty smart idiots.”

3.) I watched more videos – “Snapshots” and “Statistics” to be precise – and thought, “My god, they’re fucking brilliant idiots.” (As this blog’s author and editor, yes, I’m allowed to use the f-word as well as many other letter-hyphen-”word” words.)

4.) After the “Outliner & Synopses” videos, I dropped “idiot” altogether and wanted to have the developer’s child.

And so it was that I assumed the full risk of Scrivener’s 30-day free trial offer. This brave decision was helped by the fact I had sent the developer, Keith Blount, an email with whiny questions to which he had responded with a short story of explanations. (As someone adept at testing patience, I especially appreciate it in others.) Or perhaps it had been a slow day in Truro, Cornwall, population 15, 310 (World Book Encyclopedia, 1975) where Blount lives and writing me had been a diversion from boredom.

Falling action (of dubious narrative relevance)

(I was excited to communicate with someone who lived in Cornwall. I’d seen firsthand the striking Cornish coastline on “Coastlines of Europe.” [If you find that amusing, know this: it was in high def.] Add every episode of that Masterpiece Theatre, 18th Century Cornwall-set, soap-opera classic “Poldark” to my body of knowledge and it’s easy to see why I’m considered something of a [modest] expert on things Cornish, especially in the subject areas of game hens and clotted cream.)

Climax (in a narrative sense, a narrative sense!)

Scrivener puts everything before the writer’s eyes and at the writer’s fingertips. It ignores other parts of the writer’s body, but that’s OK.

Scrivener was a revelation. Here was a program designed around the needs of crafting a book-length manuscript without the 18,628 superfluous features that MS Word inflicts (That’s a rough count.) I could, were I of a mind, bore you to tears with how Scrivener has this amazingly simple yet efficient interface, how it breaks writing into manageable chunks, how it enables you to rearrange chapters or scenes in endless ways, how it can isolate a subplot or part of the story from start to finish for viewing, how it creates an index card for each piece of writing and thus an outline as you go, how it takes snapshots of each draft of a scene and then reveals how you changed it from one revision to the next, how the screen splits into two vertically or horizontally so that a picture or website or PDF or some other file can then be viewed in one of the halves, how all the research related to any part of the writing appears with that part for easy reference. But as I say, getting into all of that, even in summary form, would most likely be more than you’d care to hear about. And dear reader, I like you.

Dénouement (for purposes of a blog post anyway)

You’re probably thinking, “But George, was Scrivener easy to learn how to use?” Yes! Indeed it was! Mastering it (more or less) didn’t begin to approach the difficulty of the first time I took Calculus 101 in college. (Or the second time I took it. Or, for that matter, the third.)

Epilogue (of sorts)

Scrivener is all things to a writer wrestling with a novel, non-fiction book, film script, poems, song lyrics, lecture, or any other chunk of writing. Kudos to Keith Blount for realizing the need for such a program and developing it. I love that guy. But we’re both already married.

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Word doesn’t have it. But does another app?

When The Blog of George editorial office held its brainstorming session for this week’s post, one suggestion was an account of my switch from Microsoft Word to a writing app designed for book-length manuscripts.

I said, “That would make an entertaining read? Who would give a Muridae Rattus‘s ass about that?”

To my utter surprise, this suspect idea carried the editorial day. It’s a problem of brainstorming sessions. A poor idea can be put forth and catch on like wildfire. And then? Then somebody has to write it.

Introduction

How does the most ubiquitous word processing program on the planet, Microsoft Word, facilitate novel writing? Word gives you folders. What can you do with them? Put them into other folders. (You can also take them out.) In manuscript management tools, Word, in a word, sucks. But I had never found anything better to use. Had I looked? Sort of.

Prologue

After finishing the second draft of my novel’s manuscript, I deconstructed it, i.e., did a reverse outline, to see what I had in those 98,000 words.

I had problems in those 98,000 words.

I spent weeks moving parts of the story forward and parts backward, expunging a subplot here and a chapter there, adding notes on where the storyline had to change and new narrative had to be written, and umpty-umpth edits later, arrived at a 13-page synopsis. Mind-numbing process, really. Almost drove me insane. My right hand still trembles a bit. (Benign tremor; had it since childhood.)

The story begins. (Or does it?)

The problem with a 13-page outline is that, visually, it’s a 13-page outline of words. (True of most outlines, actually.) I couldn’t look at it and see the story arc. And so it was that I devised My Brilliant Bayeaux Tapestry Plan: a wall timeline of my novel synopsis.

In illustrative style, the Bayeux Tapestry had set a low bar I knew I could top. But does writing allow time for embroidery? No. Special thanks to the Barnaby’s Picture Library, London and the Bayeux Museum, Bayeux, France for their permission to World Book Encyclopedia for use of this image in the 1975 edition, volume E, page 246a. And my personal, heartfelt thanks to Canon, Inc. for its easy-to-use MP460 printer/copier/scanner.

The next two questions were simple enough: How long would it take me to learn needlepoint embroidery? And then, to create the tapestry? Way, way too long, I discovered.

I changed the name to My Brilliant Bayeaux Tapestry-like Plan.

Careful measurements revealed that at 30-plus chapters, the timeline would cross a wall of my office, exit the door, jump over the old pine wardrobe on the landing, go around an outward-facing corner of the wall, go into and through an inner corner of the wall, and end somewhere to either side of our guest bedroom door. Careful measurements I made after going to Staples and purchasing sheets of foam-core board, packages of Velcro hanging things, shrink-wrapped stacks of index cards, bubble packs of colored gel pens, boxes of pushpins, a package of Post-It notes (not on my list, but multicolored and on sale), triple-A batteries (two-for-one deal!), a pencil cup (clearance bin!), and a trashcan-sized barrel of sourdough pretzels (irresistible bulk-buy savings!). I hauled all of this stuff home to my office, opened each item, and laid it all out in staging readiness. I was justifiably proud of what I’d accomplished so far. Staples is a great store. But is everything on one aisle? No.

Is Howarth's book an enjoyable read? Absolutely. Should I have read it in preparation? Maybe not.

Is Howarth’s book an enjoyable read? Absolutely. Did I need to read it in preparing to do my timeline? Probably not.

Break time! I retired to the den to veg out watching the tube and enjoy a light snack of one or two dozen pretzels and a half-gallon of iced tea. (Is there any snack drier than hard pretzels? I don’t think so.)

I had writing to do; I moved on to it. Time passed. (Have you noticed that, too?) I contemplated beginning the construction of the timeline. I also thought about what it would mean to have it hanging on display. Such as having one of my daughters’ friends who was sleeping over say to me, “Mr. Tisdale, this scene where Scott tries to get that girl’s attention and rides his motor scooter into a hedge. I was thinking, what if you moved that over, um, to here? I really like that. What do you think?”

I think I’ll conclude this story next week.

Memorandum to The Blog of George editorial staff: There will be no brainstorming session on next week’s post. Enjoy your weekend!

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Here, for the first time, I reveal a writing secret.

People often say to me, “George, what are the secrets to writing well?” I’ll mumble something about there not being any. But of course I’m lying. Why? As a freelance writer, I am loath to divulge these secrets. Give away one here, another there, and before long a client might make an ugly comment such as, “Do we really need George?”

But I’m not an overly secretive person. So now, for the first time, I will reveal a single writing secret that’s been so closely guarded it has not once appeared in any book on writing (of which I own all but two or three thanks to my unfortunate discovery of Bookfinder.com). (Tempted to click on that? Wouldn’t if I were you.)

All right, here goes. There comes a stage in composition when editing on paper provides a writer with a helpful change of perspective. Problems and alternatives stand out in ways that they never did on the computer monitor. When this moment arrives, the tendency is to reach for a red pen. All you amateurs, this is a colossal mistake.

Seeing red? Uh oh. 

Among the colors of the spectrum, red is the most aggressive hue—and it’s never consented to anger management. Red is the color of war, of blood, of heat. Red admonishes, e.g. Stop here, or else. Red warns, e.g., CHECK ENGINE. Red assigns blame, e.g., The Scarlet Letter.

Consider some “red” expressions. A business in the red? Doomed. Red-faced? Embarrassed beyond belief. Red card? Not only ejected from the match, but from the sidelines, too. A Red? A communist. Red herring? To be misled on purpose and feel foolish about thinking it actually was the butler who did it.

So unless you’re into self-flagellation (and if you happen to be, please seek help immediately), avoid editing in this angry color.

(Of course if you’re Chinese, red is a lucky, happy color that brings good fortune; and the above Western biases would not apply.)

Feeling blue? Not good. Not good at all.

Blue? Blue is a “neh” color for editing. Blue is nonchalant. An edit in blue says, “Make this change. Or don’t. No one really cares.”

And when blue isn’t diffident, what is it? Depressed. They don’t call the blues the blues for nothing. That English rock group The Moody Blues? Sucessful, sure, but no one would call them happy. Those NYC rockers, Blues Magoos? Forgotten, sadly.

Take “blue” expressions. A person blue in the face is extremely exasperated. Or dead. If something goes into the blue, it went far into the unknown—and good luck getting it back. Out of the blue? Appearing out of nowhere, and that’s rarely associated with a positive development. Bluetooth? Short-range wireless technology that disconnects for no known reason. Devil in a tan dress? Little black dress? White strapless evening gown? No, it’s devil in a blue dress. Black and blue? In a bruise, yes. In an edit, forget this namby-pamby color.

But combine those two flawed primaries and the result is perfect purple.

Don’t laugh. Purple has one positive connotation after another. Purple has long been been associated with royalty. As far back as ancient Rome, purple denoted rank, authority, and privilege. Today, the Purple Heart honors those wounded in battle.

But is purple more? Purple is more. Purple is fun, e.g., the 1958 hit single, “The Purple People Eater.” Purple is playful, e.g., Barney the Dinosaur. Purple is a revelation, e.g., Who knew Oprah could act until The Color Purple?

So edit in a color of positive connotations; edit in purple, the secondary color that writers in the know reach for first. Not too laid back, not too emotional, friendly purple pops off the page and says, “Yes! Yes you can write The Great American Novel—or at the very least a pretty decent essay for that grad school application.”

What shade of purple? I personally recommend the Pentel EnerGel® Deluxe RTX Retractable Liquid Gel-Ink Pen in the 0.7 medium metal tip, in violet. I get my editing mojo on with that pen.

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Here an editor, there an editor

Before launching this blog, I sent the link to a client, John Homs, and asked him what he thought. His office called to say John was out, but he wanted to chat online. I got on iChat and saw John’s robot-head icon with a green “available” dot.

I typed, “Where are you? And how do you like my blog?”

His typing bubble appeared. Pop! “Bogota, Colombia”

Wow, being a hemisphere away didn’t deter John from helping me. Was he a great client or was he a great client?

Pop! “Writing hit me wrong. I found it tiring and self-conscious.”

Or semi-great in John’s case, to be perfectly frank.

I typed, “The entire blog?” barely restraining my left pinky from a string of girly exclamation marks.

Pop! “First post. You’re much funnier, much more sophisticated than that.”

Semi-great, yes, but John does have his moments of sheer greatness.

I dragged the draft of an alternative post into the chat window. John liked it; I decided to go with it. But would another pair of eyes lend confirmation? I asked my wife Maria to read the draft.

Getting too close to the writing is an occupational hazard for any writer. To safeguard against it, I grab the nearest warm body and say, "Read this, and tell me what you think without the least regard for my delicate, writer's psyche."

A quick aside on a long-held theory of mine: When someone asks for advice, then disagrees with it, what the advisee actually wanted was confirmation of an opinion already reached. I return to my story.

Maria said, “I like it, but it’s a little slow in that second paragraph.”

I said, “I worked on that paragraph a lot, and I think it reads pretty quickly,” with a slight inflection of some kind.

“You asked me for my opinion—and I told it to you.”

She had. She had. But I was struck by the value of something else: We’d just proven my advice giving-and-receiving theory—and emphatically, at that.

Could Maria’s take be corroborated? Could mine? I asked the recent college grad to read it. When Anna looked up, I told her, in a neutral tone so as not to prejudice her response, what her mother had said. (Also, Maria may have been sitting there at the moment.)

“I liked that paragraph,” Anna said.

Vindication, baby!

Then she added, “But it does go on about half as long as it should.”

Correction, partial vindication for me (maybe), and for Maria, vindication in the 100-percent range. But after tweaking that paragraph, the debut post would be good to go.

Anna said, “I have some other comments, if you’d care to hear them.”

Huh, she wasn’t finished. “Sure,” I said, in the (perhaps begrudging) spirit of collaboration.

Anna suggested tightening cuts, with such illuminating comments as, “This is too cute!” and “What’s that supposed to mean because I don’t get it?” and “The armpit joke isn’t working.”

What was the joke about? Not much, which is why it wasn’t working. I mean, obviously.

I had two takeaways from this post-writing experience—continue to ask others to read my writing, and when they give advice bite my tongue—and one realization: I had no idea I lived in a household of keen editorial insight.

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Cats, the post

For my second post, I thought we might continue to get to know one another. While I promised to never do another imaginary Q&A, this would still require a conversation of some kind. I began it this way.

Me: What’s your name?

You: (silence)

That was a no-go from the get-go. Then I recalled what Rebecca Schinsky (a.k.a., She Who Knows All Things Social Media/Blogging/Books) had said about my second post: nothing. I could write a post about anything. Our cats, for example. Correction. My cats.

It all began a few years ago—many past events do, I find—when our younger daughter Anna broke up with boyfriend I-forget-the-number. As with previous breakups (and those to come), Anna was distraught. My most heartfelt and practical advice—“Don’t worry, sweetie, you’ll have another boyfriend one day”—didn’t lift her spirits. Like men often do with women, I had misread the situation: My job was to listen; and if anything could make Anna feel better, she’d let me know. At last, she did.

“I want a cat,” she said.

Not what I was expecting, but before long Family Tisdale was en route to PetSmart, where we went to look at the adult cats up for adoption. An older, calmer cat, wiser from a life of hard knocks, desperate to please a new owner, sounded like the right cat-acquisition strategy to me. Looking through the glass at a big, sleeping, neutered (informative window sticker) grey tomcat sporting white, baby-booty paws, I said, “I like the looks of him. What do you think?” No reply came, but then it never does when others aren’t present. The girls—wife Maria, Anna and sister Sara—were in the center aisle gushing over the kittens.

I moseyed over to the kitten cages. Anna handed me a brown tabby. Worn out from all the attention it had been receiving, it settled down for a snooze in my arms. Anna added a grey tabby to my arm cradle. It promptly climbed onto my shoulder and then atop my head, proof that even at an early age a cat has a strong need to do what’s in its nature: Look down on us humans. They were both cute. Which one would we choose?

Seeing our indecision, someone (possibly an interfering PetSmart staffer) said, “If you get two, they can play with each other.”

This was choosing-between-two-kittens advice? The mob-rule element of House Tisdale thought so. I wasn’t so sure. We needed to think this over. And away from PetSmart, too.

We went to a nearby deli for lunch. As we ate, Maria, Sara and Anna stared at me. We returned to PetSmart, where it was time for me to be firm. I had a tough decision to make. I was going to make it.

“We’ll take them both,” I said.

After all, if one is going to cave, one might as well cave lock, stock, and litter box.

We named the brown tabby, Coco, and the grey one, Lola. They grew up fast—though not as quickly as Maria returned to work, Sara left town for points north, and Anna decamped to college dorms and apartments. Meanwhile, back on the home and freelance-writing front, I continued in the role of constant-cats companion.

What else can I tell you about the Cats Tisdale? Like other female members of the family, they like things their way. And of course they do charming cat things (e.g., fireplace-mantle sitting, hair-tie playing) as well as irritating cat things (e.g., midnight blind “I want to go out” banging, bathroom activity sharing [and that's any activity]).

Do cats help the writing process? When not catatonic, and in the mood, yes, they can be able assistant editors, though more in limited, desk-accessory roles, such as furry paperweights and printer-operation observers. Sad to say, cat talents don’t carry over into composition. But in the event I did get a special request for something written in stream of cattishness (e.g., nnnnnnnnnnnnjjjjjjjjlllllllllllllllllll?//////’), I know I have the capable staff to take it on.

 

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