Category: Craft

Why Scrivener is great for Nanowrimo

You might well have heard of Scrivener if you’ve been in the writing community for long. Before the current proliferation of online writing software, it was the go-to app (indeed, before people spoke of “apps” at all). It’s somewhat complicated, but you don’t need to use all the features to get a great benefit out of it. Here’s my top reasons to use it for Nano, only 11 days too late to be useful!

1. Full screen mode.

You can set a background for each project and write in focus mode—especially valuable when you’re trying to get down almost 2,000 words a day! For my current WIP, about a magic ballroom in Vienna, this is how it looks when I write:

focus mode

You can customize the size of the font, the width of the “paper,” and whether you use “typewriter” mode, which keeps your current line in the middle of the screen to save your neck. Here’s how to change it for the current project:

on Windows, View menu -> Full Screen Backdrop -> Choose…

2. Each scene is a document.

scenesWhen you “compile” (turn your project into another format, such as a Word document or ePub book), scene breaks (e.g., “* * *”) are automatically added between documents. For Nanowrimo, I wrote my first draft as unsorted scenes (see picture to the right).

3. Create chapters automatically

chaptersEach “document” in Scrivener is a scene, so each folder is a chapter. I write my scenes first, then reorder them according to Three-Act Structure, and then group them into chapters based on length and scene ending.

In the picture at left, “Part 1: Setup” is a note to myself that I leave out when I compile, but if you wanted to divide your book into parts or sections, you could include them. Then Chapter 1 is automatically created and titled with the name of the folder (you can specify the format, but for manuscripts I use “Chapter 1: Change in Policy”).

4. Snapshots

The whole project is automatically backed up locally (by default, whenever you close the app), and I save the project to OneDrive so that it’s also backed up in the cloud (Google Drive and DropBox, etc., would work the same). But what I love most is being able to capture and label specific versions of scenes, especially as I’m drafting. Never lose a great idea again! You can view or roll back to a snapshot at any time.

a screenshot from Scrivener of 6 dated and labeled drafts of a scene
an example of snapshots from a scene I’ve edited a lot

5. Scrivener loves Nano!

The free Scrivener trial is 30 days (not consecutive calendar days, either, but 30 days of use!). Participants get a discount to buy it at the end, and winners get an even bigger one. Give it a try! And feel free to tweet me @AbigailFair if you have any questions. I have a lot of experience with both Word and Scrivener! (Albeit mostly on Windows.)

How to Write a Satisfying Cliffhanger

We’ve all had the experience of sitting raptly through a book or movie, only for it to end with a character hanging from a cliff, her fate uncertain. It’s usually a metaphorical cliff, although often the character’s life is in jeopardy, but it’s rarely satisfying. Indeed, since the point of a cliffhanger ending is to make the reader or viewer desperate for the next installment, you could argue that satisfaction isn’t even the goal.

KissOfDeceptionBut I’m here to assure you that a satisfying cliffhanger is possible! Mary Pearson wrote what might be my favorite fantasy trilogy of all time, The Remnant Chronicles. If you like YA fantasy and haven’t read these, please stop what you’re doing and go read them. (Obviously, since I’m discussing the endings, there will be considerable spoilers, so I really urge you to read them first!) I’ll also be discussing her follow-up series and how it didn’t quite live up to the first one, in my opinion.

(WARNING! Spoilers! Last chance to turn back! Seriously, I would rather you read her books than my blog post. You can jump down to the numbered lists for the takeaways.)

How to Do It: Resolve the Important Question

The Kiss of Deception begins with Lia, a princess of Morrighan, running away from an arranged marriage to an older man that she assumes would be loveless. At the end, she’s been kidnapped and dragged across the continent as a prisoner of war. Her true love risks his life and country to pursue her and catches up with her just as she’s about to cross into the enemy’s country. In one of the swooniest* moments I’ve ever read, he walks fearlessly through a battalion of soldiers to lie his way into the country so that she won’t be alone in hostile territory.

* It’s officially a word now

HeartOfBetrayalTalk about a cliffhanger! I was so anxious to find out what happened that I couldn’t even wait until the next day to get book 2 from the library; I bought the ebook that night.

In The Heart of Betrayal, Lia and her love pretend they hate each other to survive while plotting their escape from the brutal main antagonist of the series. It created almost more tension than I could bear—I seriously experienced physical anxiety about these fictional characters’ well-being. At the end of the book, she’s unconscious and wounded and they’ve lost track of their friends in a blinding snowstorm—but they’ve escaped from Venda.

At the end of both books, the characters’ lives, not to mention the safety of their countries, are still very much in jeopardy—true cliffhangers. But the books are still highly satisfying because:

  1. The characters were together and knew they loved each other.
  2. The main question raised by the beginning of each book had been answered (“Will Lia find true love?” and “Will Lia survive and escape from Venda?”).

How Not to Do It: Throw in a New Conflict

DanceOfThievesPearson’s next book didn’t tie up as neatly at the end, in my opinion. I know publishers want authors to keep their readers hooked, but I think she could’ve just let the reader think everything was fine until the next book came out. The problem is that the main characters in Dance of Thieves resolve their romantic tension at the end of the book, and the identity of the sequel’s antagonist is hidden, so there’s no remaining problem for us to wonder about. Her solution was to give us a scene outside of both main characters’ points of view, introducing a new conflict so that we know everything has fallen apart at home while they’ve been gone.

This tactic is a common method of creating a cliffhanger (besides just stopping at an arbitrary moment). To me, it’s less satisfying because the book doesn’t end on a note of emotional resolution—which, as we’ve seen, is possible even for a cliffhanger. More specifically:

  1. The last scene happens after the “real” ending; it’s literally just the beginning of the next book.
  2. Of necessity, introducing a new question means new information the reader couldn’t possibly have known beforehand, so it doesn’t feel connected to the rest of the book that came before.

While it’s incredibly hard to come up with an ending that both hits a note of resolution and makes the reader desperate for the next book, it’s something I will strive for if I ever write a series. If you know of any series that have satisfying cliffhangers, do let me know!

You can learn a lot from writing one short story

Especially if you spend 7 days working on it! *nervous laughter*

Write Often

I attended Maggie Stiefvater’s “Portraits and Dreams” workshop in February, which was amazing. One piece of advice she gave was to write a lot of short stories, and write them often. (She gave similar advice two years ago at her “Seven Sentences” workshop, but I was apparently not ready to take it then yet. In other news, take as many of Maggie’s workshops as you can.)

After all, she said, the hardest part of writing is translating the beautiful abstract story from your head into words on the page. Nothing can help you get faster except lots and lots of practice. Completing a whole story arc over and over, which short stories allow you to do, helps you get faster at the translation part. She and two of her author friends committed to doing one story a week each, and they found the practice really helpful. You can read some results and about the process in The Curiosities.

Do the Pre-Work

Having just rewritten a 1,500-word story at least five times in seven days, I can confirm that translation is hard. For me, I had trouble even figuring out what I meant to say, but that might just be another way of saying “translating the feeling and impression in my head onto words is hard.” I did at least write the end first, advice I got from Jonathan Maberry (who credits it to someone I’ve forgotten), but then I changed the ending.

I find that my prose “sets up” (like concrete) a lot faster in a short story. Writing longhand first would help me be less precious about the words. Because I was writing for a contest with a low-ish word count limit, I kept worrying about that. Do not do this. Instead, get everything down first and then trimming and eliminating. I hope Future Me will remember this.

Rewrite Blind

Another technique Maggie suggested was the “blind rewrite,” or I might call it the “fresh start rewrite.” After you’ve analyzed your story and figured out what’s wrong, start with a completely blank page and rewrite from scratch. It’s doesn’t take me more than 90 minutes to write 1,500 words if I’m not too focused on getting the “right” words down. I found myself longing for clever turns of phrase from the previous draft, but you can always go back and grab them. I found that sometimes I had come up with even cleverer ways to phrase things by remembering only the impression that I had.

As I got to later revisions, I only wrote the new snippets from scratch, but I did them before diving back into the existing prose. That kept me from being too in love with old words to truly write the new words I wanted.

Find the Contrast

Maggie says the most interesting bits of writing are the points of greatest contrast. Even/especially for novels, she likes to think up the pivotal moment and work backwards, to make sure the reader has been properly set up for it. The beauty and difficulty of a short story is that you don’t have much room to fit in a whole character arc, but it can be done! Some short stories are more like tone poems, but if you can build to a dramatic crescendo, why not?

Practice Practicing

Photo by Omar Tursić on Unsplash

The down side is that I spent 7 workdays on this short story instead of working on my novel. Now, I need the practice, I like the result even if it doesn’t win the contest, and it’s good to get away from my novel once in a while. But I do hope that the practice helps me get faster, because I spent an average of like 40 seconds per word on this thing.

But in honor of finishing, enjoy this teaser from the short story. 🙂

How learning story structure helps me write faster

I last participated in NaNoWriMo in 2010. Since then, I’ve had two kids, quit my job, and rewritten my novel twice. Along the way, I picked up quite a bit about story structure and am now a reformed pantser (although no one is ever only a plotter or a pantser, many lean far to one side of the spectrum or the other).

Given my love of plotting, then, I didn’t know if I’d ever participate in Nano again. However, I was sufficiently motivated this year, and I’m loving it! And what I love most is how the years of studying story structure are paying dividends in a decidedly write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants month.

Before I learned structure, when I got stuck, I’d ask myself, “What do I want to happen next?” Or maybe even, “What should happen next?” But since I didn’t know anything about that should, I just brainstormed until I came up with a good idea (or any idea).


Now, when I want to know what should happen next, I just have to position myself within the framework of structure. “What should happen next? Well, I’ve just passed the call to adventure/inciting event, so now I need to work toward a First Plot Point that will change everything, oh yeah, and reveal the antagonist’s power and/or plan, and force my main character to make a decision to enter the Adventure World.” (Sometimes I even write sentences exactly like that in my brainstorming! Because it’s hard to hold everything there is to know about the First Plot Point in my head all at once.) That is a much easier question to brainstorm an answer for, because structure gives me criteria—a way to judge how good ideas are.

Usually by the time I hit on an idea that meets all those criteria, it’s plenty good enough to roll with! It might take slightly longer to get to that idea than to come up with an answer to my old, more generic questions, but the difference is that I know the specific question will lead me to an answer that won’t paint me into a corner and will leave me with something more novel-shaped at the end. That saves me time both in November and in my future edits!

I cannot recommend K.M. Weiland’s site highly enough. She will kindly and gently lure you into plotting (even if you still like to pants the heck out of the first draft and just apply structure in editing). For a quick rundown (with way more depth available), check out her everything checklist!

P.S. You can support girls’ education and motivate me to finish Nanowrimo this year by donating to the Malala Fund!

How to Format Your Manuscript, Part 2

Level 2: Jediimage

So the last post told you about font formatting and headers/page numbers. This post takes you to the next level of convenience—because that’s really what this is about. When you use the techniques Microsoft Word is expecting, you can get the application to work with you instead of feeling like you’re working against it.

Use styles for chapter headings

Why? Because you get at least two cool features: jumping around easily in your document using the navigation pane and automatically starting each chapter on a new page.

Here’s the top of my navigation pane in the full manuscript when I use Heading 1 as the chapter heading style:

By default, Heading 1 is a larger and possibly different font, but I updated the style to be the same font (instructions also in previous post), just without first-line indentation and centered instead of left-aligned (from the Modify Style dialog, in the lower-left corner choose Format > Paragraph).

I mentioned a second cool feature, which is this: I also clicked the all-important button to force automatic page breaks.

No more hitting enter until you get to the next page, or even Ctrl-Enter that might get deleted accidentally. I also happen to think it looks nicer if there’s a little more breathing room after the chapter title than after a regular line, so I add space after the paragraph (which gets added automatically without having to double-enter).

But what about the first chapter?

I’m glad you asked! If you follow agent Mary C. Moore’s advice, you know she says to just begin the novel right after the title on the same page. No problem! Put your cursor in “Chapter 1”, then open the Paragraph dialog (Format > Paragraph, Alt+o+p, etc.) and unselect the “page break before” option I showed above. This will change only chapter 1 and not affect the style for other chapters. This is technically a hack (content-level formatting) but it’s good enough for now.

Right-aligned tabs

You’re doing great, but then you have to put the word count on the right side of the page. What is this magic? Spaces? Tabs? A new textbox? All functional hacks (and I don’t turn up my nose at hacks, as I just demonstrated), but for ease of use, you can’t beat the right-aligned tab. As you can see below, where I’ve “shown invisibles” (formally known as formatting marks), I use just one tab and it’s aligned to the right margin.


If you’re using US Letter paper with 1-inch margins, the usual standard in the US, you want to set a right tab at 6.5″. As the link describes, you can do that with the ruler, but I find the Tab dialog easier.


Voilà! Type your name, then Tab, then your word-count. You can also use this technique if you want to have both left- and right-aligned information in your header. Why might you do that? Here’s a teaser for the next post:


(OK look, I feel bad about not including Padawan Obi-Wan in the last post, but I loved that flail GIF, so here’s some more handsome for you.)

Image result for young obi wan kenobi

Getting readers hooked (and stringing them along)

City of Bones by Cassandra ClareTrying to unstick myself while drafting my current work-in-progress, I was drawing a timeline of my story (an adaptation of the idea in this post). My main plot is a question that’s (hopefully) raised in the reader’s mind on almost the first page and that doesn’t get resolved until almost the last page—the main dramatic question. Along the way there are many other questions that get raised and answered at various points in the story.

To help myself understand the technique, I started thinking about a book I’d reread recently (City of Bones) and the example in the article (The Hunger Games).

I realized something about the “hook” of a story that I’d never thought of before—about how you not only hook readers at the beginning of a novel but reel them in. (Links go to my favorite site about story structure.) In the latter post, you’ll read that you have to hook readers just long enough to get them to the next hook. But how?

I thought of two ways to do it. The first is illustrated by City of Bones. Its first chapter is summarized in the back-cover blurb:

When fifteen-year-old Clary Fray heads out to the Pandemonium Club in New York City, she hardly expects to witness a murder—much less a murder committed by three teenagers covered with strange tattoos and brandishing bizarre weapons. And she’s more than a little startled when the body disappears into thin air.

What a hook! However, most of the explanations for the questions raised by the blurb are revealed throughout the first four chapters. So what keeps us reading? By the time all those questions are answered, Clary’s apartment has been ransacked, her mother is missing, a demon attacks her (the Inciting Event), and one of the teenage “murderers” (actually, of course, demon-killers) rescues her. By then, we’ve been plunged into the main plot of not just this book but the whole series, as Clary tries to rescue her mother and comes to grips with a magical world she never knew about. The questions raised in the first chapter overlapped the questions raised by subsequent events just long enough to get us hooked! And of course, like any good plot, the early questions are all tightly linked to the main antagonist.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne CollinsThe second way that keeps readers interested I noticed in The Hunger Games. The story opens on Katniss waking, finding her sister not there, and worrying about her. The questions are raised and answered in quick succession, so quickly that we might not even notice them, but each answer produces another question.

“Where’s Prim? With our mother. Why? She had a bad dream. Why? Today is the Reaping. What’s a Reaping?” That question sustains us for a few more pages, when the answer immediately makes us wonder, “Will Katniss be chosen?” The answer turns out to be no, but only because it’s her sister, Prim, who must face death (the Inciting Event). Given how much we now know Katniss cares for Prim, we can’t learn that it’s Prim without asking, “What will Katniss do?” When she immediately volunteers to be Tribute, we then land on the dramatic question that will occupy most of the rest of the book, which is, “Will Katniss survive?” (Because readers might know that the book has a sequel and guess that Katniss will have to survive, even if learning how she survives would be an interesting question in itself, the clever author quickly makes us care about another question with a far less certain answer: “Will Peeta survive?”)

So there you have it: overlapping questions and answers that are also (or that immediately produce) questions, two different ways to hook your reader and string them along until they care enough about the characters to want to find the answer to the main dramatic question.

Faze vs. Phase

The noun phase most commonly means “a stage in a process of change or development” (a phase of the moon, a kid going through a phase) or “a state of matter” (e.g., a phase change of water is going from liquid to gas). Its verb form is less common but means “to carry out in gradual stages” (e.g., to phase in or out a tax credit).ijrq_trek_iii_movie_phaser If you’re a nerd like me, you might also think of a phaser, a weapon that delivers a beam that can be set to “stun.” 🙂

The verb faze means “to disturb or disconcert (someone),” as in, “his antics don’t faze me.”

You generally do not want anyone to “phase” you…even at stun.

So here’s your grammar quip.

Captain Kirk observed several phases of the creature’s lifecycle,
but nothing could faze him with his phaser at the ready.

As a side note, I think I fixed the mobile viewing experience on my website, so let me know if you’re still not getting a mobile view when you view my site on your phone.

Confessions of an Inveterate Pantser

Or, “How I learned to stop bumbling and love the outline.”

On the spectrum from “write by the seat of your pants and see where it goes” [whence “pantser”] to “plan every scene before you write a first draft” [“plotter”], I’m naturally a lot closer to the former. I like to wait for inspiration and just write what comes. I wanted to plan ahead, but I didn’t have any better luck figuring out what should come next, and then I also didn’t have any words written.

Unfortunately, after two abandoned novels and too many anguished hours staring at that blinking, taunting cursor, I realized that discovering the story by drafting wasn’t working for me. I spent too much time polishing words in stories that meandered and fizzled out, and I learned the hard way that pretty words can’t make a boring story more interesting.

The big problem with “outlining” was, as I said, that I didn’t know what should come next. Enter Story Engineering. It’s positioned as the answer to “what comes next.” Unbelievably, in all the books on craft that I’d read and all the creative writing courses I took in college, no one had ever mentioned that stories follow a structure. Stories have common elements, just as houses do, and the architectural answer to “What comes next?” is known! It was a literally life-changing revelation. Delivered in Larry Brooks’s occasionally obnoxious but totally spot-on style, it was a swift kick in the pants for this pantser. (It turns that screenwriters have known about this for ages, but I really appreciated someone making the mapping to novels for me. If you want a kinder, gentler introduction to story structure, I highly recommend KM Weiland’s site and book.)

Now when I’m “outlining” (which certainly does not involve Roman numerals for me), I’m no longer staring at a blank page. Instead, I’m solving a fill-in-the-blanks puzzle, and I have criteria by which to judge whether a plot or character decision is working. If I’m stuck, I can pick a direction and plan in it and realize whether or not it works without any wasted prose. (It still takes time, of course, but not nearly the same kind of time it takes to draft in pretty words and without the temptation to polish them.)

Most importantly, I’ve found that for me, the joy of discovering my story isn’t diminished at all by planning it ahead. I get just as much thrill out of nailing plot points as I did when drafting. I still have pages and pages and pages of brainstorming notes, in both spiral notebooks and OneNote, but since I’m not intending those words to ever be seen by anyone else, I don’t put any pressure on myself to make them beautiful, which means I can crank them out much faster. I can brainstorm with friends and critique partners (CPs) and try out and discard ideas so much faster when I’m dealing with a few-hundred- or few-thousand-word plot plan than with an unwieldy 100,000-word draft. When my CPs discovered a serious plot hole in the middle of the outline, I was a tiny bit demoralized but could just wade in and fix the outline without losing any drafted words.

The best part of story structure is that you can still be a pantser if you want. You can do as much outlining as you want and then dive in. I knew by feel when I had reached a detailed-enough outline that I needed to start drafting. You can outline down to the scene level before you write a word of prose, or you can totally pants your whole first draft, then apply structure to it ex post facto in the editing process.

Of course, this revelation means that all of us will have stronger plots now, which means we’ll all be more competitive in getting published… but as a reader, I say, hooray to all the fantastic books I’ll soon have available to me!

Tenet or Tenant? Grammar help you can remember!

A basic tenet of owning a rental:
Your tenant quality is fundamental!

Bonus! I’ll give you pictures.

Tenet: a belief (not necessarily religious) or principle

Tenant: someone who rents a space

Tennant: To me, always the Tenth Doctor

Okay, yes, I was basically just looking for an excuse to have a Tenth Doctor picture.

Affect vs. Effect: Grammar Help You Can Remember

These two words, affect and effect, cause a great deal of consternation in English, no doubt because they sound similar and each can be either a noun or a verb. The quickest rule of thumb is that, in most cases, you affect something (verb) and cause an effect (noun).

Side note: the noun affect is pronounced AFFect, as opposed to all the other instances of both words, which put the emphasis on the second syllable.

Second side note: the less common meaning of the verb affect is to pretend or feign something (as in the example in the link where one can “affect a Southern accent”). I couldn’t fit that into the rhyme. 🙂

Finally, here’s your hopefully memorable quip:

From a cause, an effect, about that there’s no doubt;
And you’re effecting a change if you bring it about.
Affect as a noun is likely not what you meant,
So affect others’ grammar and send this to them.