February 2010 - Posts

The First Thirteen
Thursday, February 25, 2010 3:41 PM
The most important part of any story is probably the beginning. A reader or editor might not like the end, it might leave them completely unsatisfied, or even angry but the fact is, they wouldn't have read to the end or even the middle if the beginning wasn't strong enough to pull them. Some say the most swamped editorial staffs and slush readers will only read the first thirteen lines of every story and from those thirteen decide whether it is strong enough for them to push forward.

Why the first thirteen lines? Simple. When a manuscript is submitted in proper format, with a heading that includes the author's name and address, doublespace with the word count and the title, then some empty space, there will be thirteen lines of actual story on the first page and if an author can't get them to turn that first page... rejection.

A good thirteen lines has to be interesting, quick paced and contain all the basic initial story elements: a protagonist who wants something facing a problem. The forum of science fiction writer Orson Scott Card's website is devoted to the first 13 lines, allowing people to post the first 13 of their stories for people to comment and critique. The website is www.hatrack.com.

Until next time, I'm Eric and I'm an unpublished writer.

95 days until deadline, nine chapters complete.
by DMI | 1 comment(s)
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Software Review: StoryMill
Friday, February 19, 2010 3:52 PM
Men and women have been writing fine novels without the help of a word processor for centuries, dabbing ink onto parchments and scrolling free hand into notebooks, and I have no doubt that people will continue to write novels with no more than simple text input programs or the monolith that is MS Word. No new program can truly improve your writing any more than a new type of pen can. But, they can make things a little easier. A program I've been using for larger projects, including the novel I'm currently writing (broke 30,000 words today!), is called StoryMill. StoryMill is produced by Mariner Software for Mac and costs $49.95.

On its most basic level, StoryMill is a word processor. When you first open the program you are greeted by a window divided into five sections, not counting the bottom bar that says stuff like "Page 1 of 1." The top section is the toolbar, fully customizable though your options are limited. Below that are three columns. The middle and by far the biggest is split in half horizontally. You do your writing in the bottom half, the blank page, and on top of that it shows you what you are writing in. Much like iTunes, the left hand column is for organization, one of the program's greatest strengths. If you click on 'Chapters' the top half of the middle will display a list of your chapters (just like a playlist) and from there you can click on one of those and then see what you've written in the chapter. Besides 'chapters,' the program preloads with a 'characters' playlist as well as 'locations,' 'tasks,' 'scenes' and 'research.' The far right column is a place for tags, notes and the display of data such as how many words are in your current viewed document.

This all-inclusive organization is without a doubt the programs greatest strength. Without having several different programs open or thirty word documents and a dozen finder folders a writer has everything in their project at their finger tips in a single window. You can go from working in a chapter to re-reading that character sketch your wrote by just clicking over to the characters view. These 'playlists' are also customizable (for my science fiction novel I have chapters, characters, planets and moons, other locations, races, research notes, tasks, and finally submissions) and a double click will produce a chapter or locations description in a separate window if you want to have them both open at the same time. I haven't found much use for the tags function but others might and the ability to insert hyperlink annotations into the text is a nice touch that I imagine someone writing a piece of nonfiction that had a lot of research would put to good use.

Other nice features include a full screen capability comparable to WriteRoom and a fun, ultra-simple, must-have delight is the progress bar. Located in the toolbar, you can adjust the progress bar to be a timer or take count of how many words you've written since you opened the program. I've set mine to 1000 words, the bare minimum I must write everyday, and as a blue bar extends as though I were downloading something and a sound chimes when I reach my goal. There is also a "project goal" progress meter. Mine is set to 100,000 words, a ballpark for novel length. I know it sounds quaint but I've come to love it and rely on it just as I often use the full screen (what StoryMill touts as a "distraction free writing environment"). My only qualm is that I can't put whatever sound I want in there. How I long to hear Han Solo yell, "Lets blow this thing and go home," every time I reach my goal.

There are a host of problems with the software, however, not the least of which being a frustratingly unusable timeline feature. Maybe I just never figured it out, but I played with it for a long time and couldn't figure out how to get the events I was inserting to be at any other time than the time I was inserting them at. I don't need a day planner or a calendar I want to timeline my damn book. The timeline is also tied to scenes which StoryMill uses as a way to break up your chapters into individual elements. It sounded like a good idea but it just turned out to be cumbersome (notice that 'scenes' wasn't one of my organizational categories). Another little annoying problem is a lack of hot keys for certain features. I love me my hot keys.

All in all, it has been a great program that I despite its short comings but I have to say that there is a lot of room for improvement. First of all, there needs to be support for multiple drafts. Right now you can label your character sketch or chapter as being draft one or two or finished and it'll be given a different color coded bar in the selection window. This is a nice visual touch, but there is no way within the program to retain a previous draft. So far I've been saving older copies of chapters to independent word documents (grrr...). Speaking of saving to windows, there is an export feature that is so lacking in usability I've resorted to select-all, copy and paste. For someone who likes to be able to back things up, a simple to use but versatile exporter than saves to .doc and .rtf is a must. I browsed through Mariner's web forums and discovered that  support for drafts is in the works for the next version. While we're adding things to the StoryMill wish list, better stat tracking would be nice such a feature that can tell me what chapter is the longest, which the shortest, etc. and while they're building in draft compatibility I'd like to see something comparable to MS Word's track changes and insert comments function.

If you like the idea of WriteRoom and have out grown MS Word in terms of needing to organize and better attack a large scale writing project, despite its flaws and large room for improvement, I'd definitely recommend StoryMill. Its worked for me so far and there's no sign that will change. You may want to hold out for the next version because the price is a little high, but that's to be expected. I give StoryMill four out of five pens.

Until next time, I'm Eric and I'm an unpublished fiction writer.

101 days until deadline, eight chapters complete.
by DMI | with no comments
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Don't wait 'till later, back up your data!
Monday, February 15, 2010 4:29 PM
Today, a quick bit of very simple advice that I'm sure you've heard before but I'd hate for anyone, writer or not, to overlook. Save often and back up your data! I thought of this as I was copying all my files to an external hard disk today, something I do periodically but should probably get in the habit of doing once a week or so, especially since I don't have a second volume big enough to take advantage of apple's time machine. I used to use The Automator program that comes with the mac to copy a set number of folders routinely to my external hard drive (geekly named "Resurrection Ship") but they changed the program with the new OS and I lost that ability. Now I just do the old fashioned drag and drop, but un-flashy as that may be, it's necessary! Magazines used to warn submitting writers to never send their only copy of a story. Silly I know, but if your hard drive crashes and the only copy of your story has been mailed off to The New Yorker, then you can kiss all of that work good bye. Who's silly now?

If you're not backing up your data go buy an external hard drive and start! It's not much work (or much money anymore) and while the computer copies files in the background you can go about your writing, or whatever it is you do. It's just as important to make sure you're saving your work in case of a sudden power outage. I personally am in the habit of hitting command-S every time I pause to think.

There are tons of easy ways to back-up and protect your data as well as all your important paper documents. For more about this, read the article Digitize your Documents that I wrote for Tallahassee Magazine.

Until next time, I'm Eric and I'm an unpublished (more accurately, unpaid) writer.

105 days until deadline, six chapters complete.
by DMI | 1 comment(s)
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Not a lack of experience but a lack of success
Thursday, February 11, 2010 2:59 PM
I wanted to make it clear that the indecision in my previous blog post between which method of writing and constructing various drafts works best, even for me personally, come not from a lack of experience but a lack of success. While I have tried both many times and done numerous combinations of the two, what keeps me from definitively saying which way I would recommend or which I personally prefer stems from the fact that I have never really seen either way amount to much as I have only published one story on a non-paying and somewhat obscure website (no offense intended towards anyone at 365, I love you guys). While I write for hours upon hours everyday, churning out stories and chapters, writing and revising, outlining and editing, I just feel a little uncomfortable saying, "this is what works," because in all honesty I don't know.

If I'm lucky, maybe one day I'll be able to say what works and these blog posts can be looked back on and read as a how-to. For now though, this isn't a how-to but a what-to-try. And that's all I'm doing: trying. Everyday is an adventure.

Until next time, I'm Eric and I'm an unpublished writer.

109 days until deadline, five chapters done.
by DMI | with no comments
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The difference between editing and revising and whether or not these things are even necessary
Tuesday, February 9, 2010 2:45 PM
Last night I was talking with my sister and brother-in-law about how some people need to revise and some write a first draft that is basically the final draft. We weren't just discussing fiction which few people write, but writing papers for school. My sister is a high school english teacher and my brother-in-law used to be a college professor and they were commenting on how some students could write a single draft the day before it was due and still turn out a quality paper. In college creative writing classes, professors endeavor to "demystify" the first draft and advocate a method where you just write down all of your ideas and get the story on paper without worrying about how good or bad it is, then you can go back and fix it by placing no importance on what you've already written. Essentially, the first draft is suppose to be quick and disposable. Some writers even advocate something called a "zero-draft," as opposed to a first draft, where one would basically free write, intermingling ideas, notes and rough drafts of actual scenes and exposition to be featured in revised form in later drafts before one even attempts a full first draft.

The problem I've always had with this methodology with writing fiction is that all my life in school I was the kind of student that wrote the first and only draft the night before a paper was due and then I almost always got an 'A' (and if I didn't it had nothing to do with the writing). Quick side note, correcting grammar, syntax and typos is not revising a draft, that is editing. Anything I write (even this blog) has to be proofread. That is editing. Revising involves making significant changes in how a paper or story looks such as deleting scenes, moving paragraphs around, rewriting dialogue, changing characters and tailoring the length.

My brother-in-law made the interesting point that some people need to write a first draft before they can even think about how they want the final draft to appear while the people who successfully write a first and only draft often do more preparatory work and are thinking about the paper before they write it. I can back that up. In school, I always did all my research and outlining well in advance and had everything mapped out by the time I actually sat down to write. My question now is, why should my fiction writing be any different just because the PHDs told me so?

Don't get me wrong, I learned so much from the english professors at FSU and they will get a great deal of credit if I ever make something of myself but I can't help but wonder if here they may have been wrong for me. Different strokes for different folks right? My all time favorite author, Heinlein, said in his essay, "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction," that one of his rules for writing was that, "You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order." This flies against everything I was taught in fiction class! It also made me think, "damn, is everything I've ever read of Heinlein's first draft!" Probably not but I think he was one of those writers who thought and planned things out before starting. I'm sure he edited and was edited and had to change some stuff to make if fit for certain markets ("editorial order") but perhaps the whole revision thing isn't as big a deal as I thought it was.

I can now confess that I have sent some stories to magazines, including "Why I hate the Colonists," the short short I had published on 365Tomorrows, after only editing and minor revision, no rewriting involved. Others I have subjected to a great deal of rewriting and I think for the most part they needed it. It will be interesting to see which stories eventually get published and what methods I used on those. For now, all I can do is continue to measure the need for revision on a case to case basis and tell anyone else, aspiring fiction writer or student, you'll just have to determine what kind of a writer you are.

All this came up because my brother-in-law finished reading the first complete draft of a lengthy story of mine and we were discussing potential revisions. I'd like to thank him for doing that for me as well as an old friend from high school, Meagan, who did the same. It's hard to get honest assessments of my work and I'm starved to have anyone read it and tell me what they think so, to both of you, thank you very much. It is certainly one of the stories that needs some work.

Until next, I'm Eric and I'm an unpublished writer.

111 days until deadline, five chapters complete.
by DMI | with no comments
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Software Review: WriteRoom
Wednesday, February 3, 2010 1:15 PM
Welcome to the first Eric: Unpublished software review! Today I'll be taking a look at WriteRoom (http://www.hogbaysoftware.com/products/writeroom), software that's been available since before 2007, when its creator started charging for it ($24.95) and has since inspired a slew of other free knock offs and the incorporation of its main device into larger, more complicated and more expensive writing programs. But I wanted to try out the original.

The original, so to speak anyways. What WriteRoom does is simple, your screen goes completely black and you are faced with a solitary, blinking green box. All you can do is type and you are alone with your writing. Immersive and distraction free, the simplicity of WriteRoom recreates the minimalist, early twentieth century writer's bare walled apartment, barren desk and loan type writer in the cluttered digital world of e-mail, web-surfing and font book. Whether you're a professional fiction writer or a student trying to get a paper in on time, write room is an arm sweeping across your cluttered desktop.

If you haven't tried full screen writing, I'd suggest you download the free trial of WriteRoom and give it a shot and see if it is something you like. It is certainly worth at least that. But as form follows function, the minimalism of the program extends to its every corner and you may find that you'll miss much of what MS Word has to offer. While WriteRoom is customizable, allowing you to change that blank black screen to white or a nice shade of purple and the same goes for the font color and style, having to go to preferences to fiddle with all that, for me, quickly got tiresome. You could argue that's the point, leave it alone and just write (which I did at length during the course of trying it out, penning an entire short story in an afternoon), but don't expect anything besides the matrix-like interface and the same nagging feeling you get from a blank page.

The program does offer some amenities. Spelling errors will still be underlined in red, if you move your mouse to the bottom left corner you get a word count, the screen automatically adjusts so that you don't end up typing on the bottom of your computer screen and it saves to .txt files so there's no worries when it comes to open that same document in other word processor when you're done so that you can play with the fonts and get your work ready for printing.

While we all have WriteRoom's creator to thank for this great idea, especially if full screen is something you really dig, the present price, existence of other similar programs, and the incorporation of a full screen feature into more heavy duty programs such as Story Mill and Scrivener has put the original out of business in the opinion of this humble blogger. Those two other programs may be more expensive but they come packed with so many more features that can help you with your writing that they might be more worth buying, even if you only intend to use the full screen feature and ignore all those other bells and whistles.

WriteRoom may accomplish what it set out to do but it fails to reach beyond that in any way and has been overtaken by other writing softwares. I would recommend trying it to anyone, but I doubt more than a few will care to buy it, even if they enjoy the immersive writing experience. I give WriteRoom 3 out of 5 pens.

Until next time, I'm Eric and I'm an unpublished writer.

118 days to deadline, four chapters complete.

by DMI | with no comments
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June 1st Deadline
Monday, February 1, 2010 4:49 PM
I mentioned last week that I wrote two chapters in my novel and the week before that I wrote one. In all honesty, that was starting over and rewriting or doing second drafts of the beginning I already wrote so that brings me up to three chapters in total this go around. I started chapter four today and got about half way through it. My goal is to write a chapter a week and start or finish the next, or finish a chapter and then write another, in essence scribe three chapters every two weeks, four if I can pull it off. I've talked about how you need to set goals and write everyday if you're going to be a successful writer. Writing everyday is something I've got down solid. The goals, however, have been a bit lofty and vague. So, today I'm announcing that I intend to have the first draft of my first book, in its entirety, complete by the first day of June. I'm not sure how many chapters exactly the work is going to be but I'm going to ball park at being somewhere between 25 and 30. There are 18 weeks between now and my deadline. If I write two a week that'll give me 39 (remember, I've already got three). If I do three every two weeks as I laid out above I'll end up with 30 (that's not counting the three I've already got), my high estimate of total chapters. There you have it, a fire under my ass and the math to fuel it.

To some, it might seem lofty for me to try and write so many chapters and essentially pen an entire book in four months, but I think I can do this for a variety of reasons. For one, I've been working on this project for a long time. I thought up the very broad, most basic part of the story in my ninth grade biology class (not that it has anything at all to do with biology) and I've been thinking about it since, slowly building on it and writing ideas down. About nine months ago I actually tried writing a few chapters, the chapters I edited or rewrote the last two weeks, so I've started already. And more than just a hand full of chapters, I've developed large quantities of background information and sketched out several of the characters as well as making outlines and maps and so on.

All that said, it's difficult to just assign yourself a deadline though. I know, I've done it before. What's different this time is that I'm announcing it to all of you here, in this public forum so all of you can hold me to that promise. Plus a little incentive helps. In addition to the incentive of making my dreams come true and getting a novel published before more of my grandparents pass on I've set the date around the time a friend of mine finishes an internship that is taking up all of his time. With that behind him and hopefully this enormous undertaking behind me, we'll both be in for a break. If I complete the project on deadline, JC and I are going to spend a few days relaxing and playing Zelda.

Until next time, I'm Eric and I'm an unpublished writer.

120 days until deadline, three chapters complete.

by DMI | with no comments
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