Category Archives: General Interest

Using a Spreadsheet to Write

Beat sheets, outlines, storyboard, and other tools help me organize my thoughts when writing. Too many writers stick with word processors as their sole “digital tools” when many other great applications exist — and “applications” for various applications, too.

How can you use a spreadsheet to write? And why might you try this?

A spreadsheet’s columns and rows, a reflection of the ledger books they replaced, make an ideal way to track your pages, words, minutes, or other metrics. My writing spreadsheets range from simple checklists to complex sheets with calculations reflecting how much I need to cut or add to parts of story. (Scrivener’s outline view is similar to this, so allow me to plug Scrivener yet again.)

My basic story sheet resembles the chart on our website page “Plot and Story”.

Some plot points should be reached at specific pages, especially early in a story, while others should be reached within ranges of pages, as a percentage of the overall work. Using a spreadsheet helps me track these personal ideas.

For example: I like to have the “perceived problem / challenge” and the “real problem” within the first ten pages of a 90 minute screenplay or stage script. In a book, I might want those within the first “ten percent” of the work. Express each plot point in 25 words or less.

Major Beat 3 -> Perceived / Immediate Challenge -> Bomb ticking in a subway tunnel
Minor…
Major Beat 4 -> Real Challenge -> Corrupt leaders creating the chaos to gain powers
Minor…

Using Excel or another spreadsheet, I include columns reflecting page counts, minutes, real time, literary time, and more. These metrics help me pace my stories.

Do you have a checklist? If not, create one. Every creative writer using narratives should have a beat sheet, because it forces you to recognize when things are missing from a story.

Comments and Marginalia in Manuscripts

As I was writing a post about “comments” in computer programming source code, I noted that I like comments and marginalia when I write for “human” readers. Even when writing for myself, I like to preserve my notes. One of the things we lose with the transition from paper to digital media is the marginalia and other marks readers and writers leave as they read and write.

Reading and Marking

My wife and I both love books. We revere books. Because of this respect for the printed page, neither of us is an active highlighter, annotator, or scribbler. When I took a class that required marking in a book, it pained me to be destroying the pages with green and orange highlights.

When I buy a book, especially a textbook, I don’t want someone’s marks on the pages. First, the previous reader(s) might have marked the wrong passages as important. Second, it is distracting. I want to read and think about a text on my own, at least initially.

I do take notes, and I use Post-It flags to mark important passages. But, I cannot push myself to mark on the pages, no matter how useful that might be. I realize that most of the books I own have little resale value, but some are valuable. They are all valuable to me, regardless.

However, I realize that writing notes and highlighting strategically are good study skills. These are skills I wish my students possessed. It would help most of them earn better grades and, more importantly, consider texts more thoughtfully.

When I do see a student’s text marked, the pages are nearly solid markings. I have to explain to a student, yes, authors should make every word count, but you highlighting every word doesn’t help you focus on the most essential passages. If more than a quarter of a chapter is marked, there is no way to review and study the content effectively in the future.

Here are some suggestions for marking and marginalia I offer my classes:

  1. Limit marks to less than a third, ideally less than a quarter, of any chapter or section.
  2. Use more than one color to code the text in a meaningful manner.
  3. Mark words or phrases that represent the essence of the content, especially technical jargon.
  4. Annotate when a section refers back to another section, with a page number and word or phrase. (For example: “Ref’s c2p23: continental drift.”)
  5. Compare your notes to the index and table of contents, because titles and index references reflect major concepts in most texts.
  6. Outline using the marks you made, updating marginalia as necessary.

Marking a text seems tedious to many students. And, if they are avid readers and book lovers like me, they might resist marking directly on a page. That is why I also demonstrate using Post-It flags and notes for book lovers.

Unlike when I was an undergraduate, today students and teachers carry notebooks and tablet computers. I recommend using dedicated outlining software, either while reading or while reviewing marks. Many word processors have an outline mode, and you can use any text editor for notes, but a program such as OmniOutliner lets you organize and reorganize your thoughts. I demonstrate OmniOutliner and several free alternatives to my classes when I discuss the value of outlining after reading a text.

For books that are in digital formats, most e-reader software has highlighting and comment modes. I scan some older, more fragile texts and “mark” the PDF copy. When I can work with a digital copy of a text, I write a lot of notes to myself.

Notes While Writing

I make notes to myself while writing. Not a few notes, either. These notes help me when I edit, reorganize, and revise any text. Sadly, many writers working at computers don’t take notes. In the dark ages, a writer would write in longhand or type and make all manner of marks on the pages. Those marks and notes were helpful, but that practice is fading.

Tangent: My theory is that longhand and typing force writers to go slowly, to think about every word. When writing each word takes a bit of effort, I write less — but I write better. That’s why I write on legal pads and in notebooks, especially when writing fiction. There are fewer distractions and less temptation to generate high word counts on paper.

When I do open the laptop or pull out the keyboard drawer, I keep making notes while I enter text into my text editors and word processors. I spend part of a class meeting on using the “comments” feature in various programs because I want my students to develop this note taking habit. By the end of the semester, students are thanking me — as if some great mystery had been reveled to them. (Most claim to be masters of Word, yet have little awareness of templates, styles, macros, or basic automation tools.)

Microsoft Word and Apple’s Pages both support comments. When you print, you can control whether or not to print the comments — but there’s no need to delete the comments before you print the document! Too often, my students delete comments that might be useful later. If you must remove comments and other marks from a document before sending it to another person, make a copy of the file first.

Do not place notes as text within the document, not even as “hidden” or “non-printing” text. Comments in a document will alter the layout, page count, and word count. Learn to use your word processors and editors properly.

One reason I love Pages and Scrivener is that they save “versions” and “snapshots” of documents. If you decide that what you have been typing for the last four hours isn’t what you wanted, not a problem. You can “revert to previous” or “restore snapshot” and get back the version you liked. The edits are not lost, either — they are stored as comments and notes.

Additional Notes

I encourage using comments, and I also encourage keeping all other notes taken during the writing process.

Good writers plan. They outline. They research. As they write, they revise and reorganize what they’ve already written. I’ve always kept a physical folder for each writing project, and I try to use a single notebook or legal pad for my handwritten notes, that way the notes for more than one project don’t end up intermingled. I’m usually working on more than one project, so keeping organized is essential.

I advise all writers, especially my students, to keep everything for a project together, both physically and virtually. How you organize the materials should reflect your work style, but be organized. It never seems to fail that the notes you thought you didn’t need anymore become essential to a passage you are writing or revising. Even when you finish a project, keep the notes.

Every writing project has to potential to become another project. For example, I’ve had short stories become stage plays, and then morph into screenplays. I’ve taken novels and turned them into scripts, and vice-versa. The notes I’ve maintained along the way have enabled me to adapt works effectively. Adaptation is hard work, be it an old short story that inspires a novel or a novel that might work well as a film. Without my notes, I might not remember why I made various choices.

Non-fiction also changes. I’ve written articles that lead to other articles. You don’t want to “reuse” earlier works, but you do want to draw from them. Good research for an article remains valuable even if it is contradicted by later research findings. Having old notes, therefore, helps construct better arguments in later works.

While I love physical folders, notepad, and notecards, eventually you type a manuscript or research paper. Since my earliest computing days, I’ve organized my projects carefully. At first, each project was a single floppy disk — or set of disks with labels of the same color. Multicolored disks were a great invention, too! Once hard drives became affordable, I created a “writing” directory (folder) and created folders within that for each project.

Today, I sill keep folders within folders, carefully named for quick searches. The folder approach is good, but for a few years now I have taken this to the next step by using Scrivener for drafts of most writing projects. If you write a lot, buy Scrivener (http://www.literatureandlatte.com). I also suggest buying Bookends (http://www.sonnysoftware.com) if you need to prepare bibliographies and track sources. Without writing a review of Scrivener (there are many online, since it is a great program), I’ll explain my endorsement simply: it organizes any writing, and all the research for that project, in a nice “binder” with sections.

Whether a writer uses Scrivener and Bookends or some other combination of tools, keeping notes is invaluable.

It is easy, too easy, to delete a document or project from digital media. A click or a keystroke and away the file goes, the bits to be reclaimed and reused for other data. With hard drives, USB memory sticks, and other media so affordable, there really is no good reason to delete documents or other files. Resist the temptation, unless you have a very, very good, extremely good, reason to do so. And even then, I’d discourage deletion.

What if You Become Famous?

That might seem like a silly question, but it is serious to scholars.

When writers worked on paper, libraries and universities could archive the materials of famous individuals. While some writers’ notes were destroyed (Jane Austen) and others hoped their notes would be destroyed (Franz Kafka), the manuscripts, notes, journals, and correspondence left behind by writers are useful artifacts for scholars.

E-mail is unlikely to be saved, so we are likely losing the notes writers exchange with editors, publishers, and agents. We are also losing most of their personal correspondence. (Granted, most emails isn’t worthy of being archived, but not all handwritten or typed letters were important, either.) E-mail, text messages, and other electronic communications quickly fade, though some services like Twitter do offer their archives to the Library of Congress and universities for research.

Sadly, even archived data can be rendered useless.

The floppy disks, old hard drives, and other media stored in our basement cannot be accessed by our current computers. I have no floppy drives, no tower cases with IDE interfaces, no way to access the odd media that seemed so amazing 15 years ago (Zip and LS-120 drives).

I try to remember to migrate old documents and files, including those I haven’t used for years, to each new system I buy or hard drive I install. I’m sure I’ve missed some files over the years, though. In those cases, I should still have printed documents in file folders.

Do your part to keep comments and marginalia alive.

Marketing a Book (or any Creative Work)

You as a Brand

If you are a writer or artist of any kind, you are a brand. I tell my students, every person is a brand: you become associated with a product or service. Your reputation for integrity and quality will proceed you. I could write a long essay on the value of being honest, hardworking, and so on.

Writers rely on building a following, usually based on consistently good works. But, even that’s not enough. You also have to get people interested enough that they will read or see your works. Marketing matters.

One of the mistakes authors and artists make is assuming that a publisher, producer, agent, or someone else will deal with marketing and promoting the work — and your career. You might tell yourself, “My success is their success.” Unfortunately, you’re likely one of many. Yes, you might be viewed as a commodity by the people you expect to market you.

Agents, publishers, publishers… they do love you while your career is hot. Become the next big thing, and everyone will be more than happy to work to promote you. This is not because everyone is greedy or selfish; it is more complex. Since these people represent dozens, hundreds, or thousands of artists, they have to invest their energy (and money) wisely.

An author recently told me that he didn’t want to be the one promoting his works. It felt like pride or conceit to be claiming people should buy his book. As an artist, you created your work for an audience, though we sometimes tell ourselves differently. You must reach out to that potential audience, somehow.

The Marketing Steps

Step 1: Ask Permission

Be honest with your agent or others involved in promoting your work. Ask if you can do some of the legwork to promote yourself and your work. Keep things positive, explaining that you understand your work is one of many and you simply want to help.

Step 2: Review Existing Plans

You should know what has been or will be done to promote your work. Compare any existing plan to the remainder of this quick and simple marketing guide. Only do those things that won’t undercut the efforts of marketing experts. Just as you should let an editor do what an editor does best, let the marketing pro do his or her job. But… you might need to help fill in some gaps.

Step 3: Web Presence!

If you don’t have an “official” website and/or Facebook page, create those. (If you need help, we are available to guide you.) If your works are available on Amazon, also create an Amazon “Author’s Page” and link that to your other Web presences.

Have your online sites complete and ready before moving to the next steps. You should include links to your website and Facebook page within your email signature, on business cards, and in any marketing materials.

Step 4: Create a Media List

Create a list of the local media. Starting local is much easier than trying to contact national media. Start with local newspapers and broadcast media. Once you identify those organizations, identify particular columnists, reporters, and show hosts with a history of covering authors and artists. Sending press releases, marketing materials, and review copies of a work to “Editor” or “Manager” is ineffective. You need specific names. You also need to know enough that you can connect your work to others the media personality has mentioned.

Step 5: Write a Template Letter

Personal letters work better than press releases. Compose a template letter that can be customized to each media personality you hope to reach. The template will be the “body” of the letter, and then you will write custom openings and closings for each recipient. Today, most people will send an email. Still, use the template approach instead of sending “off-the-cuff” letters to strangers.

Step 6: Customize the Template

Your customized letters should begin with a mention of some the media personality has done that enjoyed and that connects to the work you are promoting. For example:

Your interview with Beverly Smith, author of Knights of Nowhere, was a great introduction to a master of young adult fantasy. As a fantasy author, I appreciated your respect for the genre. My new work, Middling Squire No Longer, was recently mentioned by Smith on her website.

End the letter with a similar connection to the personality.

Step 7: Contact… and Follow-Up

After you are satisfied with your template letter and the customized versions, start sending them. Send only two or three at a time, instead of sending every letter at once. Keep a week or two interval between the mailings, until you have contacted every media outlet on your list.

Two weeks after each mailing (or emailing), send one follow-up note to each personality contacted. Do not contact anyone a third or fourth time, unless you are asked to do so.

Step 8: Local Organizations

As you contact local media outlets, also begin compiling a list of local organizations with a history of having guest speakers. As a writer or artist, libraries and museums are certain to be on this list. Search online for other organizations, too. Sadly, many people have forgotten local service organizations are still active: Lions Clubs, Rotary, Soroptimists, and others. (Maybe you should join some groups, too.)

Additional Suggestions

Never say “No” to an interview or public appearance, no matter how small the group or media outlet. Remember, you need an audience — readers, viewers, listeners, et cetera. They have plenty of choices. Be accessible and it will be rewarded over time.

Help other writers and artists with kind words — and online links. On your website, Facebook page, and elsewhere, be sure to support other writers and artists.

Participate in any “niche” organizations related to your works. If you write romance, join the Romance Writers of America. If you are a playwright, join the Dramatists Guild of America. Connecting to colleagues builds a network that will help your career. Do not merely join groups, either — be an active member.

Be patient. Marketing takes time.

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Book Reviews, Part III

Concluding our survey of book review formats, I want to explore the “analysis” or “coverage” that publishers and editors sometimes provide to authors. In the film industry, script coverage is something many screenwriters pay a consultant to provide. Knowing what others think about your manuscript helps identify when you didn’t quite accomplish your goals.

Too many of the aspiring writers I meet confuse professional coverage with traditional reviews. One writer recently told me, “Friends and colleagues love the manuscript. The coverage I received couldn’t be right.” Yes, it could be right. You can submit the best written literary work of all time — and it could receive a thumbs-down from the reader.

Coverage Analysis versus a Review

Only one criteria matters to an editor or reader providing coverage: Will a work attract a large audience? No audience, no book, play, or movie. Publishing and producing are expensive endeavors. If your work isn’t going to appeal to a sufficient number of people willing to pay money for it, nothing else about the work matters.

No single factor decides what will or will not have a market. Some works with average plotting have a market thanks to appealing characters. Other works are simply well-timed to the marketplace. The tastes of publishers and producers also matter.

I’ve had writers ask what the point of a coverage and analysis report is, especially if the coverage isn’t meant to make you a better writer. The real question is how you define “better writer” and why being better matters. Better at what? Coverage defines better as “marketable” and interesting to the largest possible number of people.

A literary critic has different understanding of better writing, often reflecting his or her academic grounding. Some critics embrace experimental literature and film, while the audiences for such works is relatively limited. Magical realism might impress a literary critic, and obtuse references to literary traditions might warm another critic’s heart. But, will the work sell? A literary critic is supposed to focus on what the public should read and watch, not what they actually consume.

If you would rather be a literary great than a commercial success, don’t pay for coverage of a manuscript. Instead, take some courses at a good MFA program.

SUMMARY OF EVALUATION

Formal coverage begins with a few sentences stating if the work should be published/produced. If the evaluator has concerns, he or she might mention them in the summary. Some publishers and production companies use a simple “A through F” grading scale. A work with an A or B grade moves forward, while everything else is tabled.

I’ve seen one-sentence coverage summaries, both positive and negative. Some of these have been humorous, probably unintentionally. A science-fiction writer I know received the following summary: “Good story, interesting characters, no way it would sell.” Welcome to the business.

MARKETABILITY

When considering a market, there are various groups readers consider. Does the work appeal to everyone? There are works called “tent-poles” because they are expected to turn a huge profit, propping up a producer or publisher. These are summer blockbuster films and Oprah list books. They aren’t made or published to stand the test of time: they are meant to sell, and sell big.

Film studios also describe films in terms of male/female, youth/mature, YA, tween, family, and so on. The “four-quandrant” work promises to deliver men and women of all ages. The “key demo” (the ideal demographic) in film and TV remains the 18-to-25 block. In publishing, you want either the YA (young adult) or the “mommy” reader. Yes, “mommy fiction” is derogatory — the Fifty Shades of Gray trend is called “Mommy Porn” for a reason though. We know that the largest reading segments are girls and women. The YA group from 12-to-18 and the 25-to-45 group drive book sales. (Maybe the college years are too busy for mass market book reading?)

Think about your audience, even as you decide what to write. Romance books sell. Think about the two types, though. We have the Twilight series and the Fifty Shades books. Right now, paranormal is hot, with distinct segments in the YA and adult markets. It is difficult to market books to men. Movies for men? Much easier to sell, from raunchy comedies to action films, young men are a good market for screenplays.

If you don’t know your market, don’t expect the coverage reader to tell you what the market is for a manuscript.

GENERAL LITERARY ELEMENTS

Don’t expect a reader to offer much in the way of literary criticism; they focus on the potential market, not the potential for a lasting legacy. Still, readers offer minimal guidance for writers. You tend to receive more feedback the closer a manuscript is to being optioned. If you receive a lot of comments, that’s a good sign. Readers don’t waste time with hopeless causes.

PLOT

Expect to be told when the plot’s pacing is off, especially if events move too slowly or events don’t advance the plot in any clear way. What you might believe to be an essential event might not be so obvious to a reader.

STORY

Stories are wrapped around plots and characters. Readers focus on if the story appeals to the widest possible audience, or a well-defined (and profitable) audience. Read about loglines. If your story cannot be conveyed as a logline, readers will likely give a pass to the manuscript — and I don’t mean a passing grade, either.

http://www.scriptologist.com/Magazine/Tips/Logline/logline.html

POINT OF VIEW

Readers look for a “sympathetic” point-of-view when they provide coverage. The assumption is that audiences want to see a story told through a likable, trustworthy character to whom they can relate. The point-of-view does not need to be that of the hero; companions are often the guides through a film or book. The key is that the perspective should be consistent.

Film presents a bit of a problem, since your primary guide might not appear in every scene. In books, the common mistake is mixing point-of-views within a chapter or scene. Think of every scene as a self-contained narrative, from one character’s perspective. That character can only know what he or she experiences.

Try to emphasize the scenes with the primary guide. Viewers and readers try to imagine what the main characters do and don’t know. When the audience knows too much, because you’ve let the point-of-view slip to an antagonist, then some of the mystery and suspense is lost. Your audience wants to be on the edge of their seats. Controlling the point-of-view allows you to control the audience.

THEME

Popular books and movies tend to have simple, easy to appreciate themes. Good wins, usually, and the theme is obvious. Don’t confuse a theme for a thesis or moral, which is an argument supported by the work. A theme might be “Accepting people despite differences.” A thesis would be, “Accepting others leads to a better understanding of yourself.” Yes, popular stories teach a lesson, but the theme is what you can sell in a short logline.

STRUCTURE

To sell a work, start with a three-act structure. It should have a beginning, middle, and end. Furthermore, I suggest concentrating on the “Hero’s Journey” model for your structure. That’s not because there aren’t other formulas, but because coverage readers like the journey models taught in film schools.

I’ve argued this with emerging writers and literary writers: structure matters when you want to sell a story. That assertion does not imply every story must adhere to the formula coverage readers expect. You are free to break whatever rules you want — but don’t expect an easy time selling a work that doesn’t adhere to the simple three-act structure.

CHARACTERIZATION

Make your character distinct. You don’t want characters that are similar to each other. Also, the protagonist and antagonist in a story need motivations. They need backstories. You should know the details of a character’s life, even if those details are never in the story. Coverage is going to focus on whether or not an audience is going to enjoy a character.

Not every “enjoyable” character is good. Darth Vader is enjoyable. Freddy Krueger is enjoyable. Characters that are odd, a little quirky, and distinctive are enjoyable. An audience should want to follow your characters, good and bad, because they are larger than life.

DIALOGUE

Dialogue sells books and movies. Since film has drifted away from narration (voice over), books are starting to do the same. As a result, the dialogue between characters is how readers learn what a character is thinking. Write good, tight dialogue; every word matters.

SETTING

Coverage readers look at settings in two ways: 1) How expensive would it be to film? 2) How much will audiences care about the setting? Cheaper is better for film, while more elaborate and amazing is better for some types of book. Remember, books are an escape from reality for many readers — and it costs nothing to create a setting with words.

If the setting is essential to the story in a book or script, be sure to research the details. If the story could take place anytime, anywhere, then you’ll be focused on the characters.

DESCRIPTION

Script readers want minimal description and narration in a film or stage script. As they say, “Let the director do his (or her) job.” Scripts are sparse, only 4500 words or so for a full-length feature. That’s the length of a short story. You cannot afford to get lost in detailed descriptions.

For a book, paint with words. Be as descriptive as possible. You are the director, the cinematographer, the set designer, and more. The book author is all-powerful. Use that power, but use it wisely. A manuscript analysis will indicate if you need to add description. Rarely does an analysis suggest less description, but it does happen. Describe what matters.

The Librarian

This weekend, TNT aired “The Librarian” movies. It reminds me of other great references to books and libraries.

From The Mummy (1999):

Evelyn: I may not be an explorer, or an adventurer, or a treasure-seeker, or a gunfighter, Mr. O’Connell, but I am proud of what I am.
Rick: And what is that?
Evelyn: I… am a librarian.

From the Doctor Who episode “Tooth and Claw” (2006):

Sir Robert: Nevertheless, that creature won’t give up, Doctor, and we still don’t possess an actual weapon!
The Doctor: Oh, your dad got all the brains, didn’t he?
Rose Tyler: Being rude again!
The Doctor: Good, I meant that one. You want weapons? We’re in a library! Books! The best weapons in the world! This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have – arm yourselves!

I found the idea of being a librarian very appealing—working in a place where people had to whisper and only speak when necessary. If only the world were like that!
― Peter Cameron, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You

Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.
― Neil Gaiman

When the going gets tough, the tough get a librarian.
― Joan Bauer

A book is a fragile creature, it suffers the wear of time, it fears rodents, the elements and clumsy hands. so the librarian protects the books not only against mankind but also against nature and devotes his life to this war with the forces of oblivion.
— Umberto Eco

Not all librarians are evil cultists. Some librarians are instead vengeful undead who want to suck your soul.
― Brandon Sanderson, Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones