Sep 03

Lesson Learned: Focus is Good

By terranceacrow | News

When we last chatted on this site, I was trying a new technique to outline my novels before writing the beats. I’d successfully written the beats for Divinity Ascending, but I felt like there had to be a faster way. In my previous post, I talked about trying out OmniOutliner and tried it out.

There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that OmniOutliner is a fantastic outlining tool. The bad news is that making an outline wasn’t what was holding me up.

Please allow me to take a moment and confirm some advice we’ve all heard before: If you want to finish writing a novel, you have to write the novel. Putting a little different spin on that, I’d also say that if you want to finish a novel’s beats, you have the write the novel’s beats.

I got caught up trying to make an outline explicitly following  Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering. I still think it’s a fantastic resource, and I’m still using it as a guide, but I found that if I try to use it as the skeleton of an outline, I couldn’t make progress.

So now I’m taking a different tack. I’m trying to think through the political, corporate, religious, and other world-building elements. Since I’m often away from my desk when I have time to work on that stuff, I’m using Notes on my iPhone, laptop, or (when I manage to get home) my iMac.

Apple’s Notes application has enough structure to help organize my thoughts but enough flexibility that I can quickly document my thoughts while sitting in a McDonalds.

Another factor is that since early this year, I’ve experimented with increasing the number of posts on my anime site, Crow’s World of Anime. In the Spring 2019 anime season, I went from about 3 posts a week to 5. In the Summer 2019 season, I went to 8. I learned two important lessons:

  1. I could publish content daily (two on Sunday, including a collaboration with Irina from I Drink and Watch Anime), which means I had time to write.
  2. Writing 8 posts a week meant I had little time for, you know, novel writing.

In essence, I was trading the excitement and pride in producing content whose daily readership is steadily increasing for progress on the novels.

When you last saw the beats for A Ghast in the Machine, there were only 14 entries. Now, there are 17! That’s an increase of 3 in… well… 9 months. Clearly, I need to change my approach.

Starting with the next anime season, I’m going to reduce my output to 2 main reviews, a collaboration review (if my collaborator has not grown weary of collaborating with me!), and one or two abbreviated reviews, which I call Best in Show. That’ll free up some time for novel preparation and writing.

If that’s not enough time, I might cut back to one main review, a collaboration review, and 2 or 3 Best in Show reviews. The latter are much faster to write, though my readers seem to prefer the longer form reviews.

If it means I can force myself to focus more attention on novel writing, it’ll be more than worth it.

Apologies for any typographic errors — I had a few minutes before turning in, and I wanted to give you a quick update. Please feel free to share any thoughts about Apple’s Notes or integrating it with Scrivener (especially beyond just copy/pasting!).

Thanks for stopping by!

Dec 25

The Need for Speed

By terranceacrow | News , Novel Pre-Production

I’ve been working on the beats for A Ghast in the Machine since at least May 2018. My last update in October boasted that I’d finished the beats for about 12 chapters. Guess how many I have now?

Sixteen.

That’s about two a month.

Clearly, I need to make some changes! I started thinking about why I was able to finish Divinity Ascending’s beats in a shorter span of time, and I think I figured out why. It’s a much more simple plot. I didn’t have to juggle as many plot or character interactions, so I was able to keep track of things with a minimum of administrative overhead.

Ghast seemed much more difficult to even start the beats, much less push them forward. I was taking a lot of time to reacquaint myself with the lay of the land between sessions, Using Scrivener’s cork board view and using different tags to color the Point of View (POV) characters helped, but there was still that burden of having to re-immerse myself every time. Some nights, I get less than a half an hour quiet time, and it’s easy to spend that much just getting ready!

Scrivener’s cork board is awesome, but I was missing something. Some key to getting more quickly back into the book’s universe.

I began to wonder if I needed a higher-level outline for Ghast. Something that would be more abstract than the beats, but at the same time, be more accessible — and accessible more quickly. 

I did a bit of research and found posts like this one from the Scrivener forum. Scrivener can do outlines, but in the way felt natural to me. Plus, I love Scrivener for what it can do for the rest of the process, from character sketches to world building to beats to actually writing the novel. I didn’t want to interfere with any of those areas of functionality.

I thought it was time to look at a product that specialized in one thing: outlines. I needed something where I could sketch the main plot milestones that I learned from Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering

As we all know, Google’s our friend when it comes to something like this. I used it to narrow down the list, but you know what? I wasn’t comfortable choosing something that’s going to be integral to my writing based on reviews alone. I had to be able to evaluate the product first.

I’ve used products from the Omni Group for years. I used OmniGraffle to create sketches of some of the interiors for the Indiana, one of the ships that’s going to play a big role in Ghast. Before that, I used OmniPlan to create moderately complex project plans. In both cases, I had good experiences not only with the products, but with the products’ tech support. It felt natural to try OmniOutliner for my current quest. 

Since I have a Mac, I was able to use the App Store to download a trial version that would let me emulate the two versions: Essentials and Pro. I set the emulation to Pro and tried to re-express the beats I’d done as a plot-centric outline. 

OmniOutliner looks like it’ll give me the higher level view that I think I need. I hope. 

I learned two things from the exercise. First, OmniOutliner’s highlighting and other formatting tools will help me keep organized and oriented. I think it’ll give me a way to quickly engage with the material by showing me the plot context of each major development. I can map one major plot point/development to a family of beats.

Second, it showed me something I wasn’t looking for, but should have been: Because I didn’t have this view of the plot, my beats were drifting away from the plot structure I think I need. That means one of two things: I’ll need to spend a lot of time re-writing the beats to realign them, or I’ll miss that need entirely and end up writing the book based on plot-skewed beats. 

That would mean one of two things: reduced readers because the plot would not be as satisfying, or a much bigger investment in time for rewrites. I would prefer to avoid either of those scenarios, thank you very much!

Now, I just hope that OmniOutliner will have the impact I hope it does! One of the benefits to me maintaining this blog is that I can see exactly how long things are taking, so I hope to have the answer soon!

Have you used a special-purpose outliner? If you have, I’d love to hear about your experiences! 

Aug 02

A Ghast in the Machine Takes Shape!

By terranceacrow | News

A Ghast in the Machine continues to take shape! It’s been May since I last posted about it, and I haven’t made anywhere near the progress I wanted, but I’m still fighting the good fight!

Well, at least I haven’t given up…

That’s something!

Here’s what Scrivener looks like right now:

What? Only five chapters? To be fair, if you look at the Character folder you’ll see that I haven’t been completely idle!

Now, before you accuse me of sloth, take a look at the Characters folder. You’ll see some work’s done there! Plus, you can’t see the Planetary Systems folder, or the folder called Ships…

Like Divinity Ascending before it, the background is expanding by leaps and bounds. It’s not reflected yet in the beats, but I have the elevator speech done, so that’s guiding my development. At this stage, I have two things I’d love to share with you.

First, I just learned that one of new characters, Yessica Romero, is from Cusco, Peru. I had no idea! I love discovering stuff like this about my characters. Whether this is just me trying to make the creative process sound more portentous or not, it’s still fun to see the characters develop at this stage of my novel writing process. In case you’re interested, Yessica is the President of the UN’s General Assembly. Whereas Divinity Ascending focused on what had once been the United States, A Ghast in the Machine takes place all over the globe and beyond the Sol System. In fact, this is the book that beings to move in the direction I’d originally envisioned for the series — that of a Space Opera.

Yessica Romero is from the Peruvian city that’s home to these ruins (Machu Picchu). Beautiful, aren’t they? If a corporation were to say, threaten them, it might come across as a bit negative, right? “That’s a nice world heritage treasure you have there. It would be a shame if something were to happen to it…”

Second, I just had lunch with one of my friends, Bruce Westbrook. Since Divinity Ascending takes place mostly on Earth, I can’t really call it Space Opera, can I? That was really bugging me, because I’d intended for it to be the first book in the series. Bruce, an avid science fiction reader, reasonably suggested that I make Divinity Ascending a prequel and release it after the initial two or three books to satisfy the curiosity of readers who might like the characters and situations.

And suddenly, everything made sense!

A Ghast in the Machine will likely (according to my current plans, which, as you well know if you’ve been reading this blog, change from time to time) be the first book that I try to publish. Instead of a trilogy, I think I’ve come to understand that the characters and situations are pushing me towards a long-running series. I’ll probably try to publish two or three books, then release Divinity Ascending. Or maybe I’ll save it as a gift to entice folks to join my e-mail list.

In any event, I had to write the beats for Divinity Ascending before I could understand how to start A Ghast in the Machine. So the work, far from being wasted, was foundational.

Now, if I could just figure out how to wring more time out of a day…

As it stands now, I’m having a blast fleshing out the world and writing the beats. I really hope to have something concrete to share with you soon! Until then, have you ever read fanfic? You might know that I watch a lot of anime (it’s good for the creative juices!). One of the series (Sekirei Pure Engagement) inspired me to write a short story, and you can read it here.

At least it’s evidence I can write fiction! Note that I’m not making any claims to its quality…

Thanks for reading!

May 17

The Beats for Novel 2 (Trilogy 1) Are Underway!

By terranceacrow | News

I’ve been able to give real life the slip for a few days, so I’ve been able to get started on the beats for the second novel (of the first trilogy)!

Remember when I announced that I’d finished the beats for Divinity Ascending? At that time, I wasn’t sure what the next novel would be called. The two main characters of Divinity Ascending, Melchizedek “Dek” Conrad and Matsushita Sachi, had staged a coup, and they forced me to reconsider my plans for the first trilogy. After intense negotiations (you have to keep both eyes on Sachi, I can tell you!), we’ve decided on the title of the book 2:

A Ghast in the Machine

Wow. It sure looks empty.

Before, I mentioned that the Ghast wasn’t even supposed to be in the first book. Well, not content with a larger role in Divinity Ascending, she demanded to be featured in title for the second book. And to be honest, I still don’t know her motives. I’m not kidding — this character’s going places I didn’t intend!

The screen shot above is from what I’m evolving as my default Scrivener template for a book. It’s only a little different from the standard Scrivener fiction/novel template, but I like to add things like the “In a Nutshell” section with the elevator speech. I was surprised how much that helped me focus the direction of Divinity Ascending. Want a taste of the first few lines of the elevator speech from A Ghast in the Shell?

What if you try to get away from the corporations, but they get there ahead of you?

Starts in Spring, 2166.

At the end of Divinity Ascending, Mel and Sachi had struck a deal with TCP to fend off the destruction of TransStell. But TransStell was no less damaged, and TCP no less strong. They’d only bought themselves some time — if they could use it.

Now, if I can elude Real Life’s attention for awhile, maybe I can crank out these beats!

Mar 11

Does Finishing a Novel’s Beats Qualify for a Celebration?

By terranceacrow | Novel Pre-Production

Remember back in January when I said I hoped to have the beats for Divinity Ascending finished soon?

Guess what?

As of 6:30PM on Sunday, March 11, 2018, the beats for Divinity Ascending are done!

Does finishing the beats/outline quality for a celebration? I don’t know for sure, so maybe I’ll only have a Bud Light instead of a higher quality brew…

Yes, it’s true! The beats for Divinity Ascending are done. And you know what that means! Time to write the beats for the next book!

73 chapters. From Columbiana, visible from the wreckage of what used to be Columbus, Ohio to the gilded vaults of Manhattan. From the ruins of Old Cleveland to the launch ports near the coast in Opelousas, Louisiana. From the TransStell manufacturing facilities in the L2 Earth/Moon orbit to the bases constructed in the Newton crater on the moon. The beats for Divinity Ascending are done!

I mentioned earlier that I want to finish the beats for the first three or four novels before actually writing them. I’ve been studying Sterling & Stone, whose Fiction Unboxed is well worth the price, as well as Nick Stephenson’s Your First 10,000 readers, which seems to be  a great resource for setting up your own marketing infrastructure that is independent of, but takes advantage of, the e-publishers like Amazon. The consensus seems to be that you need three or four books in the chute to begin building your audience, and I guess that makes sense. So, that’s my plan.

Problem is, Mel and the Ghast weren’t content with dramatically changing the plot of Divinity Ascending. I thought I had the initial trilogy planned. But Mel, the Ghast, and others (don’t even get me started on Matsushita Sachi and her family) have decided that no, Olympia Dreaming isn’t the next book. In fact, it’s not even in the first trilogy!

In all honesty, I’m hugely relieved that the characters are interacting with me like this. The stories are about them, and if I’m serious about viewing my writing as an act of sub-creation (albeit in a derivative sense), then I’m going to need their help.

Now that I have a system down, I hope I can crank out the beats for the next two books (whatever they’re called!) in less time. According to my instance of Jira,* I spent 48 hours and 31 minutes of effort hours to write the first beats. That seems excessive to me. I’ll see if I can do the next book even faster, with more coherency!

I hope you’re excited to see forward motion! I’ll try to have some interesting material for you as we get closer to launch.

Hope to have more good news soon!

* Yeah, I use Jira, a software development tool, to track progress on my books. Old habits die hard!

Jan 14

Characters in Rebellion!

By terranceacrow | Novel Pre-Production

My characters are assuming control of the first novel.

This is actually a good thing. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself. This is what happened: As I was pushing to finish the last 20% of the beats, the Ghast and Mel Conrad conspired to dramatically change the direction of the plot.

First, not content with a bit part, the Ghast (who wasn’t even supposed to be in this novel!), demanded a bigger role. For reasons unknown, Mel supported her! Now her role is about 60% larger than I expected.

Second, in a related development, the title is changing to “Divinity Ascending.” I hope you’ll see why soon.

What high maintenance characters!

Seriously, I do think this is a good thing. It means I’m getting to know the characters better. It means they’re speaking to me and they’re trying to help me be a less stupid writer.

I almost feel sorry for them. Their struggle in that regard will be mighty!

In any event, I hope to have the beats done for Divinity Ascending soon. Then, I’ll write the beats for the next two novels before harmonizing all three. If my plans go well, within a few months I’ll start writing in earnest.

I hope to have more news soon!

Nov 21

Progress! Otherwise Known as “Beats are Hard!”

By terranceacrow | News

Over forty and counting! Conrad’s in Old Cleveland and Sachi is trying to keep TransStell together.

Okay, maybe “Beats are hard” is a little hyperbolic. They’re only hard in comparison to something, and when I’m in a complain-y mood, beats are hard compared to sitting and drowsing on the couch. But if I’m honest, beats are actually easier that the regret I’ll feel if I don’t finish them!

In my last post, I mentioned that I was working on the beats for “Divinity Descending” (it was called “Divinity Falling”). Then, I had about 10 chapters outlined. Now, I have over forty.  I’ve finished the Setup and the Response (based on Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, which you can buy it here — I can’t recommend it enough!), which means that according to Billy Wilder’s plot nomenclature, my main character is up in the tree, and the tree’s now fully engulfed in flames.

I’m really enthusiastic about that description!

During the time this story takes place, what was the US has broken up. Kinda the way things are now, but with national boundaries and military involvement. Plus corporate interests. The profit motive and international politics are a bad mix…

Not only do I have the beats sketched for 40+ chapters, but I’ve greatly refined the map of the North American continent since the time of my screen shot comparing Scrivener to Storyist.

I’ve also greatly expanded the list of characters and locations. A lot of the story happens in Columbiana, Ohio, which rests northwest of the remains of Columbus. It’s basically the result of Delaware, Ohio and Marysville, Ohio. I’m not sure if the backstory will make it into the novel (at least the first novel), but Colonial America made several deep incursions into The Middle States, and both Columbus and Cleveland were nearly destroyed.

Fortunately for the story, Old Cleveland is fertile ground: The ghast has taken up residence there. What, a ghast? You can read a little about the ghast in this post.

I still hope to get a mailing list up and running soon, because if I’m going to independently publish this, I’ll need to have folks (like you?) interested ahead of time.

If you’ve read this far, thanks! I hope this sounds interesting to you.

See you next post!

Oct 18

No More Excuses! (Said More Timidly than the Exclamation Point Suggests)

By terranceacrow | News

I should probably tell you to sit down.

So, for your own safety, please sit down!

Ready?

I’m trying to write again! Semi-defeatist humor aside, I’ve been plugging away for a couple of weeks now after wrapping up the massive spring/summer project. Here’s proof:

 

I told you to sit down, didn’t I?

 

I have the major character fleshed out, as well as many of the world’s settings. It’s been just over a year since I selected the working titles for the trilogy, and only my full time job and family commitments have stopped me from moving forward more rapidly. Well, that and insecurity. Oh, and on a more positive note, I invested in Sterling and Stone’s Fiction Unboxed 1.0. It’s a video/audio/artifact journey. Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant (with some guest appearances by David W. Wright from Undisclosed, Florida) go from no concept to finished novel in 30 days. Putting aside the achievement of writing a 100,000+ word novel in 30 days, I found the insights gained from seeing how they leverage beats and story planning sessions to be fascinating.

And helpful.

I don’t get any kickback if you invest in that series, so please know I’m only recommending it because I thought it was helpful.

Not ready to invest that much? Then I can recommend the book from Amazon. And I do get a cut if you buy that book, since I’m an Amazon affiliate!

I’ll keep you up to date on my progress. I might share an occasional scene, if there’s interest.

Okay, back to writing for me!

Jun 27

The “Whole Audience Thing” through the Lens of Star Trek Discovery

By terranceacrow | Novel Pre-Production

I’m trying to be a student of Sterling & Stone’s Smarter Artist approach to indie writing. One of their core concepts, just after “Know your why,” is to know your audience and to write material they’d want to read.

Not sell yourself out by writing junk you think might sell, but by finding your audience, a group of folks who want to read the kinds of things you want to write, and writing for them. It’s an important rule, and like all rules, only a master can break it with hope of success.

For example: When Harlan Ellison wrote the original script for Star Trek’s (original series) episode City on the Edge of Forever, legend has it that he had crew members on the Enterprise dealing drugs. The Star Trek audience wouldn’t have accepted that, because that’s not the world Gene Roddenberry envisioned for Star Trek. Harlan Ellison* criticized the decision to change his script, but in the end, Roddenberry and associates won out to protect the integrity of their vision. Otherwise, they would have disconnected from their audience.

As I’m building the world for Divinity Falling, I saw the official first look trailer for Star Trek: Discovery. I wondered why I disliked it so intensely. Stars I like hold the leading roles. The special effects look like they’re top notch for today’s technology. But you know what?

It’s not Star Trek.

Even though it says Star Trek right in the title, it is not Star Trek.

First, Star Trek is about the ships. I can tell the difference between the Constitution-class Enterprise and Enterprise-A; the Excelsior-class Enterprise-B; the Ambassador-class Enterprise-C; the Galaxy-class Enterprise-D; and the Sovereign-class Enterprise-E. I can even identify the NX-class Enterprise by sight. Maybe because of the tireless work of the designers since the original series, the ships of each era had distinctive characteristics. At a glance, you know that the USS Reliant from Wrath of Khan was a contemporary of Enterprise-A, or that the Defiant from Star Trek Deep Space Nine was a contemporary of the Enterprise-D. The ships and their related technologies like Star Bases gave the world of Star Trek a distinctive and comfortable feel. Not only the ships, but their interiors, especially the bridges, were part of a continuity. As a fan, I loved that.

I’ll bet you can tell at a glance what period a ship comes from. Check out this image from Deviant Art. Don’t read the caption. Just at a glance, what period is it from?

The Discovery doesn’t seem to fit anywhere in that timeline. Watching the official first look trailer, I felt like I was watching something from the Kelvin timeline. It’s nothing like what I’d expect for a bridge that existed before the Enterprise of the original series. If anything, I’d expect it to share updated characteristics from the Enterprise shown in The Cage. Truth be told, I’d love to see a resurrected design like that!

Technology changes, you say. I can’t expect a series produced in 2017 to use such outdated visuals, you say.

Sorry, I ain’t buying it!

The Star Trek Next Generation episode Relics showed the original series Enterprise bridge in a Holodeck simulation, and it never looked better. And if you want to be part of Star Trek, be part of Star Trek! Don’t make something that looks like a cross between Dune and Star Wars A New Hope! Both are great franchises; but neither are Trek.

The second characteristic of Star Trek has survived almost all of its television incarnations, even to a lesser extent through Enterprisesocial awareness and commentary. Whether they’re protesting the war (like the war contemporaneous with the original series, which was Vietnam) in A Taste of Armageddon, exploring the insanity of racism in Let This Be Your Last Battlefield, or the implications of disability (like deafness) in Loud As a Whisper, Trek often dove into these topics. That’s part of its timeless appeal. Did you see anything like that in the Kelvin timeline? I didn’t. This is only conjecture, but I’m betting that’s part of why the latest movies haven’t spawned the kind of merchandising success that we saw for previous efforts.

As a part of the original Trek audience, I can say that those forays into social commentary are what stay with me.

I look at the official first look trailer, and I don’t see anything that speaks to me. And lest you think I’m just being a typical old curmudgeon yelling at the new series to get off my lawn, consider: I watched Prelude to Axanar, and I see what could have been if the powers that be doubled-down on the core Trek audience. I even watched the trailer for a Trek spoof called The Orville, and I’m excited! That’s more Trek than Discovery!

Be honest. Watch the official first look trailer:

Then go watch Prelude to Axanar:

Heck, go watch the trailer for The Orville:

Please, be honest.

Which of those three shows look and feel the most like Trek?

I’ll tell you my opinion: Axanar first, Orville second, and that’s it. I don’t think poor Discovery feels at all like Trek.

If Harlan Ellison, a Science Fiction Grand Master and one of the most prolific and imaginative writers of our time, had to respect his audience with “City on the Edge of Forever,” then I’m betting that Discovery will have to as well. That is, if the show hopes to succeed.

What do you think? Am I being too harsh on an unproven series? Does Discovery’s current masters seem to lack respect for the Trek universe? Or am I setting up a false dilemma? Let me know in the comments!

* If you’re interested learning more about Harlan Ellison and his colorful personality, I strongly recommend Dreams with Sharp Teeth. I re-watch it when I need a creative boost.

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