Tag Archives: writing tools

The Incredible Shrinking Outline

Asking an author about their pre-writing process, in some ways, is like asking them what color their underwear is. While it’s an interesting conversation starter, the answer is really personal. I know authors who do a full bio sheet for each character, and others who just keep it all in their head. Me, I write massive and slightly strange outlines.

The way I learned to write outlines back in grade school was the typical bulletpointed lists with headings and subheadings. That’s great for some people but it’s too vague for my needs. You see, because of a childhood illness I have a chemically rewired brain. All that rewiring made my memory a little wonky. I can remember the most trivial details of a conversation I had three years ago, or the exact placement of a particular book on my shelves. But remembering what I meant by “Morpheus starts a fight” isn’t quite enough to tell me what kind of fight I’d intended for that scene or even who he’s supposed to fight. If it’s an early chapter, yeah the chances are good that I’ll remember. However, when I’ve put 10,000 or more words down, too much time has passed for me to recall every little detail. Plus I found that putting all of those little details in subheadings is visually annoying to me. In addition to that, my theater experience taught me how powerful a few key words can be when I’ve forgotten what my next line is. With all of that in mind, what I do instead is this:

(If you haven’t read The Moonflower, there’s spoilers ahead)

Chapter 13

Ariana’s class goes on an outing to the Louvre. Mr. Talbott takes them through an unmarked side door and takes them down to the basement. One of the students asks how he got permission to come down here. While down there, Ariana finds an old carved stone frieze from ancient Greece laid out on a work table. It’s one of Sair’s. She recognizes it from his workroom. She decides that she needs to know more. She runs home and re-enters the Demos Oneiroi in order to find him and learn more.

 Chapter 14

Ariana enters the dream. She searches for him in the field first, then checks all of the landscapes that they’ve visited before, but doesn’t find him. She is frustrated and scared for him. She tries to think of how he would search for her and remembers that he pops in and out of places at will. She concentrates hard on Sair and tries to will herself to his location. When she opens her eyes she is in a white marble Greek temple. A blindfolded woman dressed in white walks up and asks if she can be of any assistance. Woman is Dikaiosyne, the spirit of justice. Ariana meets Phobetor and Phantasos. Zosime is thrilled to see Ariana again and brings her in to see Sair. She says that she’s looking for Sair and the attendant escorts her without any difficulty.

I’ve found that a paragraph style outline is a lot more helpful to me. I can fill it with as many details as I like and since I’m the only person who sees it I can use run on sentences, poor grammar, wrong punctuation, leave out punctuation, use colloquialisms and slang…pretty much whatever I feel will give me the right cues. Sometimes the outline paragraph is only three or four sentences, and sometimes it’s half a page. I just keep writing until I get the full scene mapped out. I’ve even been known to put things in my outline that usually have no business being in an outline. Things like character descriptions or a song with the right tempo and mood for the scene that I need to play in the background. That doesn’t stop me from adding them because it’s a cue that I’ll need later.

I also don’t outline the entire book. I outline all of the major/really important chapters, whatever minor chapters I can think of, and then put all of those events in linear order. If I know what chapter 9 and 11 need to be but not exactly what comes between I’ll leave empty chapter headings and fill it in later. All of this though usually only covers about 2/3 of the book. It never fails that once I get about a third of the way into a manuscript I think of another cool twist or two that adds more depth and/or character development or I finally figure out what is supposed to be in a hole I left so I purposely leave room for those additional chapters.

Yes, there’s nothing unusual about that. I realize that many writers outline this way or in a way that’s very similar to this. But this is only half of my outlining process. What I do with that outline is where it gets unusual.

I’m a disciple of Alton Brown in that I like tools that can multitask and that’s exactly what my outline does. You see, there’s a reason that my outline is in bold. When I’ve finished typing out my outline, the very last thing I do before I start writing the book is make a second copy. The first copy of the outline stays in a file, pristine and untouched so I can refer to it when I’m working on subsequent books. The second copy is what becomes my manuscript. You read that right. I write the book in the second copy of my outline, right under the outline paragraph. When I’ve completed one of the items in the outline I delete it. That way I don’t have to re-read what I wrote the previous day in order to figure out where I’m at. I can look at what’s left of the outline for that chapter and immediately know where I left off. Life is crazy and NaNoWriMo in particular is crazy. Some days I only have thirty minutes to write and I can’t spend that time re-reading. This makes it so much easier for me to jump right into it so I can make the most of the time that I have. (It’s another reason that having the right cues in my outline is so important to me.)

So many pre-writing tools are single purpose but if you’re an outliner there’s no reason why it can’t serve multiple purposes and be adapted — even Frankensteined — to be tailored to your exact needs. Besides, it’s just a tool. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just needs to do the job efficiently.

Advanced Google-Fu

Anyone can go to Google and search for a particular piece of information. Sometimes they luck out and find what they were originally looking for, while other folks end up getting sidetracked by a website full of cute fluffy kittens.

As authors, we tend to have limited resources, particularly time. Using efficient search techniques, our precious time can be spent on writing the next chapter instead of searching for details on how you remove the clip from an AK-47 assault rifle.

Google engineers and coders included many advanced search operators when they built their search engine. Using operators, we can focus our search on very specific terms or files.

Here are a few of the common operators:

  • + The plus sign indicates something is required.
  • – The minus sign indicates something is to be excluded from the search results.
  • (x|y) Groupings – in this case, “x” OR “y”, are acceptable.
  • inurl: Something that is part of a website URL.
  • intitle: Something from the title of the web page
  • filetype: This indicates the result should be a particular file type.

Going back to our example, I put in the following search term:

filetype:pdf +(ak47|ak-47) remove clip

In English, the search term means:

Find an Adobe PDF file that contains either AK47 or AK-47, plus the words “remove” and “clip”.

On the first page of the results, I discover a PDF document that not only shows how to remove the clip from an AK-47, but how to do a complete teardown for cleaning (with plenty of photographs for those who are not familiar with the rifle.) Excellent! Now your zombie killer can clean her AK-47 properly.

Let’s try something that can be useful for the average author. I want to find pirated copies of a novel. We’ll use Stephen King’s novel, “Under the Dome”, as our test subject.

My very focused search term is:

inurl:(htm|html|php) intitle:”index of” +”parent directory” +description +size +(mobi|pdf|azw|epub) stephen king under dome

What this means in English:

Looking on web pages that have “htm”, “html” or “php” in them, make sure the title of the web page is “index of”, and make sure the web page has the terms “parent directory”, “description”, and “size”. Also, make sure there are ebook files on the page (mobi and azw are for Kindle; PDFs; or ePub ebooks for the Nook, Sony or Kobo reader). The specific thing I am looking for has the words “stephen”, “king”, “under” and “dome”.

Most of the pirate dump sites are just a plain automatically generated web page with links to the files. These pages usually contain common terms like “index of”, “parent directory”, and “size”, which makes it easier to find the pirate sites.

Running the above focused search term, I get three results. The second one has a freely downloadable pirated copy of Stephen King’s novel, “Under the Dome”.

Personally, I use the filetype: operator almost daily. I can pick the exact file I want to find, usually a PDF or a Microsoft Word “.docx” file by typing filetype:pdf or filetype:docx in the search window.

Another operator I use all the time is the “-“, or NOT, operator. If I was searching for Rocky Wood, an author and HWA president who passed away last year, and Horror, I may end up with links to all kinds of unusual things, such as Rocky (the boxer), Norwegian Wood, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I can tailor my search like this:

+”rocky wood” -boxer -“rocky horror picture show” +horror

In English:

Find instances where the words Rocky and Wood are together, but ignore any pages that have that goofy musical and any references to boxers. Also, please make sure the word “horror” appears on the page.

Note that it is easy to get so focused that you end up with no results. Running the above query, I get only five pages back. If I wanted more pages, I could try this query:

+”rocky wood” +”horror writers association”

I get seven times more relevant pages using the second query. If your results are too small, try making your query less restrictive, or try using other key words that are apropos to your searching desires.

About the Author:DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award®; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at WikipediaGuyAndTonya.com, and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.

Business by the Numbers

In order to be a professional author, to make enough money to live off your art, you need to treat your writing career with the same respect and diligence as you would any other type of business. Though it is possible to make money following intuition alone, it is very difficult to make consistent profits off feelings and hunches. For me, it seems like putting on a blindfold and stumbling around hoping to fall into a pot of gold.

Instead, businesses need to be able to quantify their success or failures objectively in order to make informed and useful decisions. Large corporations hire fleets of analysts to do this work for them. However, don’t let the math intimidate you! Writers, especially indie authors, typically don’t have nearly enough data to need someone devoted to the math. Additionally, there have been some very smart people who have already done most of the work for you. All you really need to do these days is to know which tools to use and which numbers to pay attention to.

Even still, I know how trying to dig into data can be intimidating. However, if you break the process down into 5 easy steps, it all becomes a whole lot more approachable.

STEP 1: DEFINE YOUR PRIORITIES
The first thing you need to do when approaching any statistical analysis is define what you care about. There are ways to quantify just about anything you want to know. In fact, sorting the useful information from the noise is often the hardest part of any analysis. Approaching your pile of data with specific questions will help you get specific answers. So, what is it that you hope to get out of your career as an author?

STEP 2: PICK YOUR TOOLS
There are tons of statistical tools choose from. Some are more intuitive than others, some more flexible, and yet others more comprehensive and powerful. Unfortunately, the more powerful the tool, the more difficult it is likely to be to use, and the more interpretation the results will require. Though it is a constant give and take, there are a few pieces of software that I think achieve a good balance and that I would recommend even for people who hate math.

One of my favorite pieces of statistical software is Google Analytics. I believe it to be one of the more powerful, flexible, and user friendly options available. Most importantly, it is free. After all, Google is the company made their fortune off being able to quantify the Internet. So, it only makes sense that their statistics software would also be top notch. Need help installing and configuring the software? The Google Analytics community is fairly robust. I’d recommend starting HERE. On the other hand Google Analytics has a lot of data and power. It can get quite involved and distracting if you let it. Be cautious as obsessively monitoring every page view can easily become a time sink.

Additionally, if you use Word Press for your website, I’d also recommend installing Jetpack. It comes with all sorts of useful widgets, one of which is a basic statistics program. Though you won’t be able to do any manipulation or dig into the data very far, it’s often good enough to give you a general idea.

Finally, most publishing platforms come with some sort of basic statistics modules. This will allow you to track sales, geography of purchases and several other metrics. One of the limitations here is that you track exactly what the distributor allows you to track. Almost always, their statistics are better than what you are given access to.

STEP 3: TAKE A STEP BACK, WAIT, AND LOOK FOR PATTERNS TO EMERGE
Chances are that you already have an audience that is interacting with your web page. So, the very first thing that you’ll need to do after installing any new statistics software is to allow for time to pass. Initially, I’d recommend continuing as you were for three weeks to a month so you can get a feel for how your business runs before you make any changes. Without a baseline, you’ll have no idea what is “normal” behavior and what is a reaction to a change you make. I’d also recommend establishing a new baseline each time you make a major alteration to to your business strategy.

Once you get to the point where you start running social experiments (Step 4), you’ll need to be willing to take a step back from the keyboard. Statistics takes patience. You can’t reasonably expect your consumers to respond immediately to your actions. Also, the initial reaction of a consumer group isn’t necessarily going to be their long term response. I’ve spoken to several indie authors who have tried raising the price on their books only to see an immediate drop off in sales. At that point, many of them lowered the unit price in a panic and swore they’d never ask for more money. However, *some* of the authors who stuck it out and let their new price stand for a few months noted that their sales returned back to their original baseline or even increased! Patience is key. So is being willing to risk and knowing how much you are willing to risk.

XKCD_CorrelationSOURCE: http://xkcd.com/552/

The bulk of statistics is finding the long lasting, consistent patterns in the noise. You want a change you can believe in. Just because you see a big spike, doesn’t mean that one event was caused by the other, nor can you even say that the spike is significant. Let’s say you spend $100 on advertising and sell 15 more books than your baseline sales. The next week, you spend another $100 and sell 2 more books than your baseline sales. Chances are that there is some deeper explanation in the first spike that differentiated it from the second. Any consumer group is going to have patterns in how they choose to spend their time and money. Find those patterns that represent a real response and you’ll be able to take advantage of them.

Let’s take my own website, www.NathanBarra.com, as an example. When I first looked at my own baseline, I noticed spikes of activity first thing in the morning, for a couple hours around lunch time, and in the evening. Additionally, I tended to see a spike in views on Mondays. Over the course of the week, the number of page views slowly died out until no one visited over the weekend. These patterns repeated over a the course of the month, so I had faith that they were a true look at my audience. Once I had the baseline, I needed to understand what the patterns meant.

STEP 4: INTERPRET THE PATTERNS
Now it is time to go back to the goals we established in Step 1. Are you into writing to make money? In that case you should be tracking the Number of Units Sold and how many visitors Click Through from your website to a point of purchase. Additionally, you can gain some insight if you pay attention to your Audience’s Geographical Origin. If you plan to do a book tour, make sure you go to the places where you have lots of fans. If you have no readers in a particular region, try to find out why. Are your marketing dollars beings spent to reach the widest audience possible? Are your books even available to that audience? Do you need to devote more advertising money to that demographic? Additionally is your marketing proving effective? Do you see any spikes up to a new plateau or steady growth in purchases following a marketing push or promotion period?

Are you the kind of writer that just wants to get your stories in front of as many eyes as possible? Then focus on driving up the Number of Visitors (number of unique individuals that loaded any page on your website) and Number of Page Views (the number of total pages that were loaded). When combined with your web site’s Bounce Rate (the percentage of visitors who look at exactly one page before leaving), you can understand how your readers interact with your website. Additionally, you want to pay attention to your largest sources of visitors, particularly your referrals. These days, much of your audience will likely come from somewhere else, be it social media, Google, or a link a friend emailed them. These people are your Referral Visitors. They represent how often and how widely your links have been shared. If you can understand your biggest sources of referrals, you can know where to focus your efforts to get the biggest return.

Instead, are you trying to build a steady and faithful audience? If that is the case, you need to encourage Repeat Visitors (people who have been to your page before) and Organic Visitors (those who typed your URL into their browser directly). You want the ratio of repeat visitors to new visitors (called your audience’s Rate of Return) to be as high as possible while you minimize the Days Since Last Page View.

Keep in mind that you won’t often be able to manage to make progress on all your goals simultaneously. When I first started NathanBarra.com, I wanted to get my page out in front of as many readers as possible, with the long term goal of establishing a steady audience. To that end, I started experimenting.

STEP 5: DESIGN AN EXPERIMENT AND RETURN TO STEP 3
Now that you have an idea of what “normal” is and what it means, you want to try to rock the boat a little and see what sort of waves you can make. Going back to my NathanBarra.com example, the first thing I did was change the amount of lag that I allowed between when I scheduled a post and when I first advertised it to my target audience. In the beginning, I saw that almost all my audience came from referrals that occurred after my media blast. I then went back posting and advertising near simultaneously. After a while, I started to wonder if I had become better established with a larger group of readers. I once again started delaying my media blasts and found that I had a steady flow of readers visit my page after I posted, but before I advertised. The things I had been doing to boost my audience had been working!

The key here is to change as little as possible and to wait long enough to observe meaningful results. If I were to spend see a spike in sales after a blog tour during which I also ran a BookBub campaign, which source of advertising should I focus on next time? There’s no real way to know.

Once you’ve made a change, return to Step 3. Wait, gather data, and then interpret the results. I would always recommend repeating any experiment at least twice. If you repeat your actions and see the same result, you can be confident that what you are seeing is real. If the results are different in consecutive experiments, then try to find out what is really causing your audience to react the way they did. Additionally, you need to take time to evaluate if the change you made supports your goals. If so, consider permanent implementation. If not, lesson learned, don’t do it again.

The key to any good statistical analysis is good interpretation. Take your time to think through all the possible reasons for the change, suing your experiments to hone in individual elements and actions. The longer you work at it, the more you’ll be able to determine from your results. Eventually, you will be so in touch with your audience that the statistics will just be a spot check to ensure that your audience is reacting the way you expected they would. Once you get to that point, you’ll understand why businesses focus on the numbers and leave the hunches for the amateurs.

About the Author:NathanBarra_Web
Though Nathan Barra is an engineer by profession, training and temperament, he is a storyteller by nature and at heart. Fascinated with the byplay of magic and technology, Nathan is drawn to science fantasy in both his reading and writing. He has been known, however, to wander off into other genres for “funzies.” Visit him at his webpage or Facebook Author Page.

On the Road… with Google Street View

My recently completed Watchers Chronicle is by and large a travelogue. The stories hit every continent, more than a dozen countries, and even more cities and countrysides. At book signings, I am often asked if I have visited all the locales featured in the book, to which I must sadly answer, “No. I wish.” Frankly, I don’t have the budget or time for first-person research on that scale. Very few authors do, including those many times more successful than me.

So what’s an author to do? With a story like this one, the locations exist in the observable world. I can’t just make up geography to suit my needs. The cities and streets and lakes and fields and mountainsides are all real. They exist, and therefore they need to be as accurately depicted as it’s possible to do from the confines of my home in the middle of the Canadian prairie. It’s very flat here, and I can see an awfully long way, but I can’t see all the way to Switzerland.

Fortunately, Google can. Specifically, Google Earth. Google Earth is an encyclopedia of visual information sorted geographically. If you want to see locally sourced pictures and information from any location in the world, all you need to do is scroll to it on Google’s beautiful globe of accurate and increasingly detailed satellite imagery, and there you will find everything you could possibly hope for. It’s a geo-lover’s paradise.

The most powerful tool in the arsenal is Street View. A fleet of Google vans has been busy crisscrossing the globe’s million-or-so highways and streets for about a decade now, capturing a constant stream of 360-images as they zoom through urban centers, savannahs, high-altitude plateaus, and stunning sea sides. You can literally jump to just about any street you can think of and see for yourself exactly what it looks like. You can study the buildings, the passersby, the sidewalks, the shops, the road surfaces themselves, the soil and terrain, the trees and vegetation, even the wildlife, literally everything available to the eyes. Do you want to know exactly what the terrain is like at the opening to I-50’s Eisenhower Tunnel in western Colorado? No problem. Do you want to see which shops and restaurants adorn New York’s Times Square? Easy. Do you want to track the exact route between London’s Piccadilly Circus and Heathrow International, and capture all the sights along the way? Done.

What a resource to travelogue authors everywhere. Jack Kerouac never could have imagined this.

Of course, these research tools don’t fill in all the gaps. Your imagination still has to bring these still images to life. And of course the eyes only account for one of the five(ish) senses. You still have to fill your story with the endless sounds, smells, and tactile details needed to create a truly rich and diverse literary experience.

That said, Google Street View really is the perfect place to start. Unless your story is set on Mars. Except, actually, Google is working on that too

Evan BraunEvan Braun is an author and editor who has been writing books for the last two decades. He is the author of The Watchers Chronicle, whose third volume, The Law of Radiance, has just been released. He specializes in both hard and soft science fiction and lives in the vicinity of Winnipeg, Manitoba.