Unpacking the Defensive Reaction to Feedback

I wanted to explore some thoughts on the kinds of feedback traps fallen into by me or others I critique for.  Throughout my attendance of multiple writing groups these last few years, both casual and “serious” (read: looking to get published sooner than later), many times there are reactions to critiquer feedback that produce the following sorts of defensive responses from the author:

  • Oh, you’ll find that out later
  • Well, see, the backstory is…
  • No, I’ve actually seen this really happen before (or, Actually, I based this character on someone I know)
  • But that’s the mystery!
  • That’s just how the character/story/villain/culture is!

Barring abuse on the part of the critiquer, and if the critique is coming from someone who really is in your target audience, a defensive response selected from a list like this is missing the purpose of the feedback: My words were read, processed, and then the reader was confused or unsatisfied.  I can choose to ignore an unwanted reader reaction, but I need to be careful if I’m the only person I’ve ever found who reacts positively instead of negatively.

Many of these responses show us that the reader isn’t happy with the product, and while we write for ourselves and our target audience, we do sell fiction that we expect others to enjoy as well.  What they don’t enjoy, for example, is buying a 1000-piece puzzle only to open up the box to find all the pieces already glued in their proper places, nor do they enjoy opening it up to find a picture in the puzzle wholly unlike the what was suggested by the box’s outer art, nor a puzzle whose picture is incomprehensible even when completed.

Taking the puzzle analogy about as far I know how, I can’t simply appease my reader concerning the inclusion a plot point just by pointing out that it actually exists way off over in unrelated corner of the puzzle.  When the puzzle I designed for them implied that the pieces would be closer to each other than that, I likely have a potential problem.

It’s the way the puzzle pieces of fiction fit together that can make or break the reader experience, not just the presence of individually cool pieces.

Oh, you’ll find that out later

Think long and hard if you’re saying this.  This could be fine, but just because someone will find something out later if they stick with it doesn’t mean that the scene which raised the concern is off scot free.  The reader should not be genuinely worried or unsatisfied about a point like this, because either I did my job and imbued the scene with the appropriate questions from characters, or I didn’t do my job and the characters went through a scene without them or the narrative acknowledging at all that the concerning piece of information is coming later.

 

If my reader goes through my book and reads a scene about a private eye sitting down with a presumable suspect but only reciprocates meaningless talk of baseball, then leaves without much introspection, we get zero sense that the private eye was doing their job, or was concerned the same way the reader was about how the conversation stuck to baseball, or anything else.

If I write the private eye as feeling frustrated, that gives the reader permission to be frustrated as well.  The frustration becomes an asset, and the reader no longer asks “Well, why on earth did that guy just ramble about baseball?  Why didn’t the private eye just nudge the conversation back to where it ought to be?  Do they even care about solving this mystery?  What was the point.  This person seems lazy.  I don’t like them.  They’re not interesting.”

My reader shouldn’t have a reason to ask a plot-breaking question, even if I really did plant an answer later in the book.  Period.  That does not mean that there can be no questions, only that I need the reader to be asking the right questions.

And of course, there is nobody more in control of the text than me, the author.

I need to transmute bad reader questions into curious observations that build their investment in the story.  For example, the question “Why didn’t the private eye just nudge the conversation?” means that the scene needs to be adjusted so that the reader instead might say to themself, “Huh, when the private eye tried to put the conversation back on track, this suspect let himself get deliberately distracted by anything at all.”

It can yield mostly the same result—our private eye leave the office not having received the information they wanted, yet this time we feel like our response is mirrored in the characters.  The piece of info the reader finds out later should be why this happened, not why the private eye let it happen.  The execution is crucial—I don’t get to claim the benefits of the best possible reaction when I wrote something that provokes only frustrated questions.

Well, see, the backstory is…

If I have to tell you contextual details that make the text work, then either those expository details need to be in the text so I don’t have to have this talk with my readers, or, more effectively, the scene needs to not rely on prior exposition of that backstory for it to make sense.

A curious symptom of this actually presents itself with the parts of the scenario flipped around: because of a reveal later (Bonnie gets redemption in killing her gang boss), the narrative positions the character early so that the reveal can happen (Bonnie is on a warpath to slaughter gang bosses).

If a reader sees hypothetical Bonnie here on a warpath, they’re forced to ask “Well, why?  What was so bad that happened to her?”

If the story is based on that mystery, you might be fine, but the authorial answer must not be “Well, see, the backstory is…” or, relatedly, a bad deflection of “You’ll find out later.”

Bonnie needs to show us now the clues we need to understand the shape of what happened in the past that the story will actually pay off.  Merely seeing that she is ruthless isn’t engaging all by itself, because it’s the connected details that intrigue us: maybe the reader should sense an obvious pattern in the crimes of those she’s killing, or readers can tell by the way she talks to her victims what kind of trauma she suffered before the story began, or anything at all.

Unless the plot arc of the novel is a mystery to that very question, we need to be given the tools to understand our characters to the depth required by the plot, whether or not they are written as point-of-view characters.

No, I’ve actually seen this really happen before

My opinion is that this is entirely a motivational issue for a character or plot.  I often have no doubt that this true when someone says it, but if it’s the end-all-be-all defense of a scene or character, then this seems a deflection of an underlying challenge to the motivational problem observed by the reader.

The majority of readers can’t possible have empathy for a character basely purely on the fact that this or that aspect of the character is from the author’s real experience.  If the readers don’t understand this unbelievable character or why they’re doing any of what they do, and if even the other characters don’t bat an eye about it either, then the readers are almost forced to conclude that it is the author’s narrative that is out of touch with reality.

These sorts of characters and scenarios are often included for the “cool” factor in the author’s mind, but there’s often very little automatically intriguing about the character to the reader just by virtue of the fact that the character exists.  We see weird things all the time.  They’re a novel commodity at best.  My role while including such a component in my book should be to connect the reader to the reaction I want them to have to that component, which may indeed require one of my characters wrinkling up their nose at it, refusing to be in the same room, or similar hints that the reader is allowed to have that same reaction.  I should see something of why it fits the story, either thematically, as a foil to some other character, as foreshadowing—anything.

We shouldn’t mistake the role of fiction to simply reinforce what the majority believes, but this need not be in service of majorities; perhaps my character explicitly shouldn’t react to the oddball in my story, but in that case, the readers need the tools to understand who this character is and something of why they are the way they are.

But that’s the mystery!

If I catch myself defending my work with this, then I need to dig deeper into the reason for the unsynchronized understanding of the story that I’m having with my readers.  Is it that the reader cares way more about this other sub-plot?  Is there an sympathy/empathy problem with my characters?  Did the reader actually just miss key plot info from earlier, or misattribute it in an undesirable way?

If I fix those problems instead, then the only people I should expect to be upset with the core motivation for my story are those that don’t enjoy that core motivation as a storytelling device.  If they’re not my target audience, I may be in the clear, but I need to make sure that’s true before I dismiss anyone who doesn’t connect to my story’s core components.

That’s just how the character/story/villain/culture is!

This one is a lot like the above two—I’m stuck defending the existence of a thing merely because it is the way it is.

Sometimes this can indicate a problem, sometimes not.  However, if this is the only defense I have, then my character/plot/villain/culture may not be strongly enough integrated with the rest of the story.

My reader shouldn’t have a reason to genuinely ask me this question if my only response is “but I think it’s cool.”  Instead, my reader needs to witness that a serial face slapper of a character is consciously choosing, regardless of consequences, to slap faces, even if the logic is demented and not at all relatable.

When this is a problem, I like to believe that the problematic aspect is a self-awareness thing on the part of the character.  If my character slaps faces “because that’s just what they do,” then I haven’t properly provided any depth to this character.  The reader is inspecting what amounts to a cardboard cutout for a sign of life behind its eyes, and they’re not seeing any.  That’s a deeply unsatisfying experience as a reader and can unravel the whole book.

Proving to us that the character has conflict inside them, (for example, either in recognition that slapping a traffic officer is a dumb move or that they know they should stop but can’t) shows us that they’re not just a bad caricature of a gimmick existing purely for the book to use as a pawn.

Don’t mistake this for the reader needing to understand the backstory of the character—the book need not contain the entirety of the character’s life story up to this point, but I should consider ways to make it appear that this character has been alive and shaped by their experiences and reactions, changing over time, cementing them into who they are.  We can begin to understand a serial face slapper if we sense their present motivations, good or bad, whether or not they go through with a given slapping opportunity.

 

Clichés, Tropes, and Borrowing Key Signatures

I have the weekly opportunity to argue debate and defend various writing strategies with friends, things we find out in the wild, things we incorporate into our own writing or distance ourselves from.  One of my favorite “craft of writing” metaphors comes from the Writing Excuses podcast, wherein the suggestion is made that while anyone can cook, only the chef is skilled enough from potentially years of experience to know what every ingredient does and why.  Swapping things in and out becomes a matter of expertise instead of unguided speculation.

When I introduced this concept to my sparing debate partner, and before I could fully explain the metaphor, they dismissed the idea, claiming that borrowing from other genres or story archetypes only nets the writer “the clichés” of those genres or story types.

In our shared category of speculative fiction, I think this is a very shallow analysis of what it means to borrow.  Tropes and plot devices only become clichés when they are poorly implemented or too transparent, a green bit of garnish on a plate without real understanding of a purpose.

It’s my fear that my nemesis colleague shies so far away from including anything that has been seen before that their work borders on being unrelatable, like a Lego brick house built only out of bricks that don’t normally show up in Lego brick houses.  A curious experiment to be sure, and perhaps a spectacle, but not one that sports a broad enough appeal to properly entertain those in the market for a house.

In a debate like this, the contender interlocutor sitting across from me should understand that anything done well of course deserves to be judged on its own merits.  Just take care not to borrow badly, blend the borrowed concepts crudely, then brush all away in disgust because of the uninspired feedback earned.  Deeply root into the story anything borrowed.  Tie it in from multiple places—environment, plot, worldbuilding, character—so that the element works so naturally that it seems a mistake to remove it rather than to keep it.

It’s okay to write a song using the key of an existing song.  It’s okay to use a note on the keyboard someone else has used.  Your work isn’t being judged for the notes that appear, but the order you put them in and how well you can build up to the combination of notes that makes your arrangement distinct in the minds of those listening.  You can even choose the same climactic note as someone else, just take us there in a heartfelt, convincing way, and we’ll be there with you.

Word, macOS, and System Keyboard Shortcuts

I’ve got just one question for you, fellow person:

Wouldn’t it be great if you wished yourself dead a touch less often when using Word on a Mac?

Microsoft is hellbent on making Office for macOS behave exactly as it does on Windows.  That sounds great on the face of it, but they take it too far with the keyboard shortcuts.  They have their own keybinding system that overrides a lot of the quiet native stuff offered in macOS.  When you use Word on a Windows system, Word’s shortcut system just happens to match the Windows-standard text navigation.  You never have a reason to notice that Word is goofing around with your keyboard input.

Of course, on macOS they put the proper Command-based shortcuts in play, but the Control-based Windows ones are still there too, making Word respond to both Cmd and Ctrl for commands such as Save, New Document, Cut, Copy, Paste, and others.  Word altogether ignores the wisdom of the standard Cmd-Up and Cmd-Down for “top of document” and “bottom of document” (instead making it jump paragraphs) and instead opts for the Windows-influenced Cmd-Home and Cmd-End, which is particularly obtuse because on any modern Apple keyboard this means you have to push Cmd-Fn-Left and Cmd-Fn-Right when you really want to go up and down.

Worse for me, honestly, I use the “secret” system Ctrl shortcuts quite a lot in text editors of all kinds, so Ctrl-N, Ctrl-P, Ctrl-A, and Ctrl-E mean important things to me (up, down, home, end).  Word messes up or completely ignores these commands, because even on macOS, Ctrl-P means Print to Word, and Ctrl-N is a new document, and Ctrl-A means “select all.”


I refuse to be bothered by this counter-productive nonsense on a daily basis.  So here’s what you do.

Screen Shot 2017-06-16 at 11.21.17 PM

Open Word and visit the “Tools” menu for the “Customize Keyboard” menu item.

The window that pops up will give you access to the master keyboard shortcut system that Word uses (and stores in the mythological “Normal.dotm” file—more on that later).

They try to throw you a bone in this window to break up the commands into their respective menubar groups, but the truth is that it’s not a very tasty bone.  There are lots of shortcuts bound to things that don’t explicitly appear in the menus, and they all have names that come off as obtuse to the average user.

Screen Shot 2017-06-16 at 11.26.59 PM

So scroll down in that little Categories list on the left and find “All Commands” so that you can cut the bullshit and get to filtering commands with the names I show in the table below.

When clicking on a cryptically named command in the right side list, you will notice that the box below all of this will show any shortcuts bound to that action—sometimes there is more than one, as you will see if you look up the “FileSave” command, which lists both Command-S and Control-S.  A huge number of these commands don’t actually have shortcuts assigned, but they’re open to new assignments if you’re brave.

All we’re going to move some assigns to their “native” macOS behaviors.

As a technical aside, it’s actually not good enough to just remove Word’s bad use of a shortcut and hope that it’ll let macOS just do the right thing—you have to actually redundantly tell Word what to do for any standard shortcut you hope to use.

Screen Shot 2017-06-16 at 11.54.40 PM

To set a new shortcut, place your blinking cursor in the box below all that and just press the combination you want to use.  If it looks right, press that “Assign” button and (once you finish off by pressing the window’s “OK” button) you’re good to go.  As demonstrated in the related image, you don’t have to worry when assigning a shortcut that is in use elsewhere; Word will strip the old command of that combination and assign it only to this one.

Another potentially interesting aside: if you ever remove an overridden shortcut, it seems to go back to its original command all by itself.  No matter what I did to stump it, Word seems to know what all the defaults are even if you mess stuff up.  Just remove a bad shortcut if you don’t like it and things will go back to normal.

Following is the list of (fairly self-explanitory) command names that I myself was interested to fix, and also what the proper system default shortcut should be.  I’ve written the names the way Word will display them when you’ve correctly entered the shortcut.

Command name New shortcut
StartOfDocument Command+Up Arrow
EndOfDocument Command+Down Arrow
StartOfLine Control+A
EndOfLine Control+E
LineDown Control+N
LineUp Control+P

To add zest to my already improving life, I added these as well, which help you navigate up and down by paragraph.  These aren’t strictly system shortcuts, but they are common in popular code and text editing software.

Command name New shortcut
ParaDown Option+Down Arrow
ParaUp Option+Up Arrow

By default, pressing the “OK” button on this window will automatically save these changes to your “Normal.dotm” file, which is the master template that Word will use for all future fresh, blank documents.  Lucky for you, if this is really the only reason in your life you’ve messed with this stuff, then all previously existing documents will get to use the custom shortcuts too (since those documents didn’t embed their own overrides).

I choose to back up the file in order to preserve this work so that I don’t have to mess with this process in the future should I get a new computer and install Office.  There’s not much of a reason to back it up just to preserve Word’s default though; just deleting “Normal.dotm” will make Word recreate a fresh default one.

You can find this special file in the amazingly named folder “UBF8T346G9.Office” at the following place in your user account’s “Library” folder.  (Open Finder and use the “Go” menu for “Go to Folder” to paste this path and go there directly.)

~/Library/Group Containers/UBF8T346G9.Office/User Content/Templates

If you’ve had Word installed for a long time and did an in-place upgrade from their 2011 version to 2016, the folder will be at the old location, shown below:

~/Library/Application Support/Microsoft/Office/User Templates/My Templates

So.  May you wish yourself dead a touch less often when using Word on a Mac.

2017 and Writing Professional Scenes

I’m not huge on super longterm goals (weekly goals are more approachable), but last night I spent a fair bit of time thinking about the upcoming year.

Each time I put a story in someone’s hands, I’ve felt apprehensive (the healthy way) about the quality of my storytelling.  In the moment of writing and immediately after I finish, the writing itself always looks and acts the way I designed it, and so I feel good about it.

But when I watch someone else sit in front of me and read it, all the things I know that I should have done come back to haunt me.  It’s like I ignored what I knew was the better structural choice simply because what I was writing was “good enough.”

I’ve got the distinct sense of just how absolutely in control I am of how strong a reaction I can get from a reader.  The exercise I keep going over with myself is to imagine another author (literally anyone) writing my story better than I did.  It makes me borderline indignant right there where I sit that I would choose to settle for writing the story with less care than my imagined rival.

So this year, I’m going to stop writing scenes that do too little.  If a scene does little but is perfect for the story, then that’s fine.  The scenes I want to stop writing are those that, for example, are 3,500 words of great dialogue and blocking, but little else, or that don’t put enough conflict in the mix to be interesting beyond the surface details.

This isn’t “stop writing useless scenes,” but “start writing professional scenes.”

2016 was a year of brute force of craft.  I wrote over half a million words this year.  I did three NaNoWriMo events—the official one and two Camps.  Literally every story listed on my Projects page at the time of this writing had its writing take place in 2016 (and some others that aren’t making the cut).  For an hour or more almost every day, I listened to audiobooks or writing advice content like Writing Excuses.  That’s more hours of Writing Excuses than there exists, you might note, and so I actually listened to Writing Excuses au complet four times from start to finish.  I attended my first real writing conference and learned just how much more ground I had to cover.  I’m part of two small writing groups that are hitting me with perspectives outside of my own and forcing me to write better content.

The stories themselves were amazing experiences from a process standpoint.  Each one felt completely different.

I took a boat to Alaska and wrote nearly the entirety of Soulbound, a single POV story, while the coast turned from green to white.  I fumbled the ending so badly that I’m still thinking about how to change it.

When I arrived in my new apartment, surrounded by mountains, I sat in the middle of my empty floor and planned Holder of Ash for a month before I dared to “begin” the story.  I worked on nothing else so that I could do prewriting, character concepts, worldbuilding, plotting, etc.

Holder of Ash was the first story for which I went immediately into revision mode once the draft was done.  My instincts were sharpening about what was working and what wasn’t, and it was exciting to be aware of that and watch the story get better with each change.

I tackled short stories.  I think only a couple of them are any good (and one was a full novelette that I absolutely gutted just this last week) but I learned a lot about making every paragraph count.  I want to do more of them.

Week by week, this is going to be a busy year.  I might not write as many words this year, but the ones I do will be even better.

I’m not published just yet, but the steps are right there in front of me to work towards change that.

No Excuses

I catch myself (and others) writing phrases like the following:

I pushed on the door.  Luckily it wasn’t locked.

Wary, she settled her weight on the roof tiles.  At least they were dry—it hadn’t rained in weeks.

The first example isn’t very interesting, but because it’s so much simpler to analyze, I included it.  The second example isn’t so bad, but could potentially stand to benefit from subtle changes.

These phrases are sidestepping storytelling issues.  The first one, unless there’s a really believable reason why the character left it to chance if the door would be unlocked or not, it’s a plot device made of pure convenience for the author.

The second is an improvement because we see that the author thought about why walking on a roof might be dangerous, but it raises this risk of danger and then doesn’t deliver.

I think this stems from a thought that comes to the author in the moment of writing up a storm.  The scene has momentum, there are other issues at hand, and so when that character steps onto the roof, she’s already got a job to do, and it isn’t to have a skating scene on a roof.

You can elevate character tension if you deny yourself any cheats.  So long as it seems plausible that the character could deal with the added difficulty (even if it’s by the occasional stroke of dumb luck), and the difficulty isn’t just put there as a meaningless obstacle, you can raise the stakes on safety or reputation or whatever it is your character is risking.

In our second example, the author has demonstrated the value of forethought, but hasn’t raised the stakes.  Sometimes this is fine.  Not everything the character does needs to be the hardest feat the world has ever seen.  But consider not giving your character an excuse for being able to perform the feat.

Maybe you should let it be slick, even unexpectedly so.  Don’t launch into a 1000-word sub-scene of rooftop skating, but let us feel the added danger, even if it’s not the primary conflict.

On the other hand, you could enrich the scene by making it important earlier on that there has been no rain.  It could be the reason why she thinks to try the roof in the first place, because she knows it’s not an insurmountable task.

Of course, if it makes no sense at all that your character just randomly breaks open a locked door with a previously unseen skill with lock picks, you shouldn’t go that route.  Remember plausibility.  Foreshadow.  No miracle excuses to make a scene easier if you haven’t already justified it.

If you find yourself coming up with details and then mentioning them as things that aren’t transpiring, try flipping it on its head sometimes to make sure you’re keeping scenes unpredictable and lifelike.

Fantastic Revisions and Where To Find Them

Now that NaNoWriMo is over, I’ve switched back to revision mode for Holder of Ash. I’ve started my third (of probably many) revisions, and like the first two, it’s a big one.

At the start of November, I got really excited and did some prewriting for the sequel, The Assembler Constant.  I set out on that little journey fully expecting to realize issues in Holder of Ash—things I would have to foreshadow better, conflicts that have to be seeded if they’re going to show up in the sequels with any convincing delivery.

I realized all at once that Kenjn, the dominant councilor for Queen Djet Zne’tal, needed to be male instead of female.  It was the kind of realization that was at once both hard and easy to internalize—I knew it was going to be the right thing to do, and yet I loved the character as she was.  I can’t say that it was a “darling” exactly, but I was at least fond of her.  She was like a matronly version of Zarya from the game Overwatch (which is a home run of a character shorthand that I fully intend to use, so back away from that with your hands where I can see them).

The change became important to me for a couple of reasons: I had used a lot of female characters to the point of having a large proportion of the males be bad guys, and I loved the subtle effect that making Kenjn male did to the relationship between Djet and one of the other main characters.  It felt right.

So Kenjn would become male, but now I had a council of three males, an antagonistic female, and the queen herself.  I didn’t like the way it was shaping up so far as it concerned the sequel.  In Holder of Ash it would probably be fine, but…

That led me to realize that I needed to cut the pool of councilors in half.  Four to two.  Kenjn would stay and the antagonistic female would stay, because those were the only two that actually impacted the plot in a really meaningful way.

Getting to work

I got to dwell on this change through all of November while I wrote other things for NaNoWriMo.  It really let the scope of the change sink in.  It’s not that the scope was staggeringly big or that the change would be hard, but just letting it sink in helped me become confident with what I was planning to do to the manuscript.

Now, I got hyper organized in this project and used Keywords out the wazoo to tag every scene with the characters that appear in it.  This actually wasn’t going to be good enough for me to hunt down the scenes that needed changes, if only for the simple reason that (until a full read-through) I might miss offhanded references in thought or dialogue to a cut character where they weren’t otherwise present.

screen-shot-2016-12-01-at-4-30-31-pmI love Scrivener’s search function.  A text search for the names of the cut characters was obviously what I needed, and Scrivener is about to make my life a lot simpler.

Because these two characters were to be removed simultaneously, I put them in the same search.  You could make separate searches out of these, but I liked the idea of treating this as a single step of revision.

To make it work, I use the RegEx operator type, which enables the arcane “pattern matching” mode.  I put a \b at the start and the end to signify a word boundary (so that “Trab” didn’t match the word “demonstrably”—a case sensitive search could help you here, but not if the name was something like “Koa” and you used the word Koala at the start of a sentence somewhere in the manuscript).

The parentheses are wrapping a list of things I’m looking for, and the pipe character | between the names is an OR operator.  If you need to, you can append more of those into the parenthesized list: \b(Trab|Anmir|Kenjn)\b

So now we can save the search using the last option in the list, and you get a new tabbed item in your binder:

screen-shot-2016-12-01-at-4-38-27-pm

Now you have a list of scenes where these names appear.  Don’t rely on this to catch everything (I know for sure that I have scene where a POV character sees these characters without knowing them well enough to use their names) but it’s a great automatic TODO list of scenes that need attention.

Once the scene has no more mention of either name, it’ll automatically get removed from the list.  If that’s a problem, you can make your own custom Collection via that thin little + icon by the word “Collections” and drag all of the scenes in your search to that Collection instead.

This is basically my task list for the next week or two!  Thanks Scrivener!

“Who” Versus “How” a Character Is

Let’s mince some words with a couple of arbitrary definitions for the sake of having a discussion.

Flat characters, to me, are ones that are built as a list of bullet points, and you can see right though them.  The character is X, Y, and Z, and so they do things that are obviously connected to those things.

It’s a great starting place, but we can get ourselves into all kinds of trouble.  Another way you could look at “flat” is “stereotyped”.  They’re not exactly the same, but within the category of person that this character is—the category of XYZ—if they act squarely in the center of what you’d expect, then they’re not interesting.

Sometimes the mere exploration of XYZ is enough of a literary task to make the character truly interesting, but don’t rely on this justification.  Are you absolutely convinced your XYZ is so unique that it demands a book be written about it?  If so, fantastic.  If you’re kind of waffling as you decide, then the answer might just be no.

So start asking yourself How your character is.  This requires you to understand their internal struggles, not just because of XYZ, but because they are a rational-emotional being.  What things do they say or do that might at first contradict this XYZ formula?  We all have them.  We justify things to ourselves, we synthesize explanations for our behavior to others when they call us on contradicting our core beliefs.  Some things get us mad while the person next to us goes unfazed.  Some things bring some of us to tears, and others not.

These things are in motion at all times.  I’m a black box and you can’t always know how I’ll be just because I am XYZ.

Allow yourself to create diverse characters.  Try making two characters that are both XYZ, and yet are fundamentally different people in the way they think or act.

Using NaNoWriMo for Quality, Not Just Quantity

I want to write just a little bit about NaNo for people that might feel a little discouraged in the wake of the chaos whirlwind that is enthusiastic participants committing 800+ words to the page during a 15 minute writing sprint.

I’m a guy that gets maybe 300 words in 15 minutes if I already know what I’m trying to write about.  This is time spent actually writing, not letting the blank laptop screen and the click of others’ keyboards hypnotize me.

Sprinting

A lot of regional leaders for NaNo have outgoing, go-get-em personalities that help drive events and activities.  It kind of comes with the territory it seems.  I’ve known a few leaders that are a little more reserved, but they seemed to be co-leading with someone else that tracked the timer, handled word count prizes, did the spreadsheet to track the cumulative group total, ran the Facebook group, ran the Google calendar, etc etc.

I like these write-ins (write-outs?  Depends on where you’re from) for the social aspect.  If you come regularly, you are automatically just part of the crew.  You don’t have to talk about yourself if you don’t want to, you can just have a fun conversation between blocks of writing time and a bite to eat.

I am consistently a low word-count writer at these things.  The woman that handwrites her NaNo projects writes about 10 more words than me on average during a 15 minute sprint (allowing for word-count technology discrepancies, I guess).

People at some of these write-ins sometimes feel like they’re not keeping up if they’re at the low end like me—you can hear it in their voices sometimes when people sound off their word totals once the timer beeps.

The only thing that should have you down about your progress in the story is if you don’t like the story anymore.  Period.

There’s a bubbly obsession out there with word counts, not in a way that is judgmental of those that don’t have big numbers, but rather in terms of measuring their own performance.

Caring about what you write

The old standby advice out there is to “turn off your inner editor” and just get to writing.  They say, don’t backspace, don’t doubt yourself, just write.

Turning off the internal editor for me I guess means something a little different, because I have to love what it is I’m writing in order to keep going.  It’ll be a far cry from perfect, it’ll be lacking necessary plot fixes and foreshadowing and wordsmithing, but I will die on the hill of being asked to write something I don’t (at some level) love working on.

My 300-words-in-15-minutes experience is one that I’m proud of.  My progress is thoughtful.  If I don’t know where the story is going, I am in a sense “just writing” to find where it goes, but I’m not sneezing out five pages of dialogue that could have been said in five lines.

Vomiting huge numbers of words without backspacing is a way to treat a problem in your own creative drive, but it’s not remotely close to how I’m going to write a book, a chapter, or even a scene.  If you’re not happy with your story anymore, maybe the big word dump is what you need to find your feet again, but I personally would caution you against making it into your only tool for putting words to the page.

Find time enough to meet your word goal, whatever it might be.  If you get behind on a given day, you don’t necessarily have to break your back the next day doing double duty.  Just meet your daily goal, whatever it is.  I feel the zen of writing taking over when I’m in the regular rhythm of it, not strapped to the rollercoaster of 500 words one day and 2,800 the next and 1660 the next.  Sure, some days you’ll get more than your goal done, no problem, but don’t put yourself under the gun if you were low the day before.

The traditional daily NaNo goal is about 1667 words a day to meet 50,000 by the end of the month.  Despite writing only 300 in a 15-minute “sprint”, I will have so many blocks of writing time when I dedicate myself to it that I’ll be way over the monthly goal by the end.  I don’t do it because 50k+ words means I’m done, but because I loved writing this thing so much that I invested all of that time.  Because I was thoughtful about every section I wrote, I rarely come away from something ready to trash it.  Revising to actually make it great is another step, but at least I loved what I produced.

I write for the thing I produce at the end of it all.  I don’t want the exhilaration of the moment to be the drug that makes more words appear in my document that I’m not going to use.

All that good and bad advice

Try to categorize the advice you hear and read, try to figure out what works for you, what only sometimes works for you, and what absolutely never works for you.  I know that I’m working hard to produce something I want to hand to someone else and have them entertained or moved by it, so I’m going to pay attention to advice that I feel helps me accomplish that.

Here’s a piece of advice you should inspect and then make a decision on its utility to you:

Get excited about a project, and then strive to write some words every single day that you think are good enough to essentially make it to the final draft.

I don’t mean that you should spend an hour wordsmithing as if you’re on your final draft and it’s sink or swim—just put words to the page that you know essentially belong to the story.  Sometimes you’re going to find that what you wrote doesn’t belong, and that’s ultimately fine too.

If you want to up your writing game, make NaNoWriMo about the habit of writing and not just the passing mile markers.

And when November’s done, don’t stop.

An Effective Use of Templates in Scrivener

Here’s the basic introduction to templates if you don’t know how they work or how they could help you in your outlining/prewriting:

In your project Binder, there are a number of folders you might be managing.  The obvious defaults might be just Draft and Research.  You can add a Characters folder to join these, or inside of Research, whatever suits your fancy.

But do you find yourself duplicating a lot of work when you do multiple Character sketches or Place profiles?

What scared me away from templates at first was the idea that a single document was supposed to hold all of the templated info.  I may as well just duplicate some other existing character file and change the values.  No big deal.

But templates are way better than that.  You can make a template folder that comes with all the broken out sub-documents you want.  Combine this with the “Default New Subdocument Type” option for folders, and you can do some really great things.

Setting up your Templates folder

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-2-17-02-pmStart by adding a regular old folder to your project.  You can name it whatever you want, but Templates is a pretty reasonable choice.

I let this folder exist at the root of the project alongside Draft and Research because once I set it up, I’m probably not going to drill down into anymore.  You can make this folder live wherever you want, though.

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Now designate this folder as your source for all Template files/folders.

This will give the folder a unique icon to show its special status.  You can only set up one of these folders.  The menu option shown here will change to “Clear Templates Folder”.  It’s not the end of the world if you clear it and re-set it, even if you’ve already started building out your repository of templates.

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I’ve now added a Character folder within Templates, and I gave it the icon I like to use.  Notice the small “T” added to the icon to represent that this is serving as a template.

For a basic template, you’d make this a text file instead of a folder, but I want it to be a folder so that I can throw in a bunch of default sub-documents that I like to have when I make a new character.

So let’s add a few documents (with fancy icons!) that give me the big picture view of this character.  I’ll want to add notes on the fly once I’m working with a real character, but this is the just the template, so I’m creating just the stuff that all characters hopefully have in common.

Let’s step away from our Templates folder for just a minute to explore how to put this to use.

Make a Characters folder in Research, and make sure it’s actively selected (that is, the Binder has application focus, not the writing area of Scrivener or something else).

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Using the Documents menu, you have an important option available: “Default New Subdocument Type”.  That’s fancy talk for “What happens when I push [Enter] when I have this folder selected?”

The answer in this case is that we want the Characters folder to spawn new Character templates instead of basic old text files.

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You’ll notice that hovering over the Character template shows us the sub-documents we made, but you should ignore those.  You can actually just click on Character directly and it’ll move that little checkmark from the default “Text” choice to “Character”:

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So now, when you have Characters highlighted in the Binder, pushing [Enter] will create a whole duplicate of the Character folder, complete with all of the sub-documents!

There is one hitch about the way Scrivener handles templates that you’re probably going to run into at this point:

Even though your brand new Character folder says its default sub-document type is a standard “Text” file, highlighting the new character or one of its sub-documents and pushing [Enter] again will yield something that is probably not all that helpful: a nested character template.

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Yuck.  I want to be able to push [Enter] inside of my character folder to create new blank text files for notes, ideas, stuff that I like to see in the expandable list rather than actually opening a notes file and skimming for text in paragraphs.

If you check the “Default New Subdocument Type” for your new Character, it’s actually already set to Text, so what happened?

At the time of this writing, Scrivener treats Text as the lack of a more specific choice on your part.  It’s Text because you’ve provided no override.   But this folder consequently inherits the setting of its parent folder (and maybe that folder inherits from its own parent, all the way up the chain).  Once it finds an override, that’s what it’ll use.

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So here’s what you do.  Back in Templates, add your own template file called Text—I’ve left mine empty, just like a default text file.

Delete that Character folder you made in Research, because we want to update the template and recreate it from scratch.

Now you can set this “custom” Text document as the default sub-document for our Character folder template:

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Now make a Character in your Research‘s Characters folder, and push [Enter] again inside of that Character, and you’ll see your Text file appear instead of a nested Character.

Perfect!

Once you spawn a copy of a template, Scrivener doesn’t track where it came from, so old copies won’t get updated if you alter settings on the original template.  This is why you should either trash the broken version of the Character that we made before we realized this mistake, or you should go back and set the Character‘s default sub-document type to the new Text type.

Nested Templates as default sub-documents

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You can set sub-documents for sub-documents!

Here, I’ve built out a World template because in my story there are going to be a few of those, and I want to track some basic info about them.  In addition, I need to list the cities or points of interest, and each of those places might have any number of notes, from “This is the capital” to “So-and-so died here”.

So we have an empty Places folder in the World template.  Rather than loading a handful of blanks to get it started, I leave it empty, then make a lonely Place template (green flag in the image above) outside of the World template.

Now you can do what you’ve done before: Set the Places folder to use Place as the default sub-document:

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Make sure for both World and Place, the default sub-document is our custom Text type so that we don’t accidentally make nested Worlds in Worlds, and Places in Places:

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And finally, you can create a proper Worlds folder in your Research and set the sub-type to spawn World templates:

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Each World comes with set of skeleton documents for notes, and a Places folder which spawns Place templates.  The Place templates are empty, but you can generate as many notes as you want.

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To the left is the final view of the templates and example research that I built.

The best way to make the most of templates for faster project construction is to use them as default sub-document types, like we’ve done here.

This may seem like a time-consuming effort, but I highly recommend that you save a stripped down version of this as a custom project template.  Even if you find yourself customizing it for each project, this can be fun to tinker with and can ultimately save you a lot of fiddling.

I have a workflow for my Draft as well, which is to create Chapter templates that spawn simple Scene text files with a name pattern that I like, such as “City: Location”.  It’s a tiny thing, but it makes working in the Binder completely effortless.

When you save a Scrivener project a new project template, you should keep things like our Characters and Worlds folder, but make sure they’re empty and have the right template set as their default sub-document type.  This will let you start a new project and immediately get to work!

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And now you’re a template power user!

#STWL: Scribing Tools Wish List #1 — Meta-Data Woes

Let me at least say that I have an abiding love for Scrivener as a project manager.

Let’s talk about one pretty huge but, though.

Meta-Data: Labels, Keywords, and “Custom”

I love that Scrivener supports user-defined project metadata, but the whole thing feels kind of tacked-on.  It’s a shame, because the functionality is there, but it’s awkward to make maximum use of it.

You have two categories of user metadata: keywords and “custom meta-data”.  The difference between the two is essentially that keywords are just tags you put on something, and “custom” is like a tag but with a value hand-entered by you on a per-document basis.

For this reason, “custom” items can be enabled as columns in your outliner view, and every document down the list will show its entered value for that one “custom”.

But here’s where my gripes come into play:

  • There’s seriously not a better way to refer to these than a “custom”.  Give this concept a better name.
  • Keywords and Customs are extremely related in concept and execution, and yet are implemented very differently.  The UIs could not be more different from each other.
  • Keywords and Customs are project-searchable, but Scrivener offers no automatic helping hand to give you filters.  You have to perform the search manually.  This is pretty annoying if you think about it.

User Interface

Defining new items

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I’m going to have to just gloss over the fact that the UIs for these two things are so separate.  You can assign them colors, although for Customs the color is optional.  I can only guess that color is required for keywords because they’re essentially just more Labels, but less useful because you can’t do much with them.

I’d vote for putting the Keywords as another tab in that Settings sheet, but the Settings sheet is actually a modal dialog thing, so it has to go away before you go back to the project.

This is nothing against modals, but we should have these two things living together one way or another.

Outliner

I’m kind of happy with the way it works in the outliner:

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You can even click directly into a Custom’s column and edit the value…

But you can’t click and edit Keywords—it’s a fancy list that might have multiple terms with their differently colored underlines.

Search

Searching only works against the values you enter for a Custom, not the presence of a given Custom.  In other words, I can’t do a project search for the phrase “key-value item” and expect to get a list of documents that define a value for that Custom.  Instead you get nothing (unless some document somewhere had that phrase in the VALUE of some Custom).

Keywords are better suited for this—you search a keyword, you get documents with that keyword.

Document UI

screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-3-37-06-pmAt this point, the question should be asked: Could we perhaps merge these two different ways of tracking meta-data?  Would it perhaps be more straightforward to keep Customs, call them something else, and optionally allow them to be “tag-only” (to prohibit values)?

When we flip to the inspector’s “Custom Meta-Data” panel, we see the bottom bit display a sheet of all the Customs declared in the project, and a space to enter values.  They’re even colored like in the outliner!

There is a separate panel for Keywords, which is empty even if you’ve declared Keywords in the project—it only lists the ones that have been explicitly assigned to the document.
Adding keywords into that list is actually kind of weird:

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Pushing the little + button adds new keywords to the project on the fly and lets you type existing names or new names.  This is kind of nice for rapid creation of keywords on the fly, because it auto-assigns random colors and everything.

But could we maybe… combine these things?

I might like to see a UI more like the “Custom Meta-Data” panel, where I have a sheet of my existing stuff, all Keywords and all Customs.  The Customs can keep their textboxes, but the Keywords would be checkboxes for me to hit if I want to tag the document in question.

But that’s a digression.  It’s actually not the best solution.  Let’s continue.

The quirk that probably stops Scrivener from making a change like this is that Keywords are actually implemented in a hierarchical way.  You don’t get any indication of that hierarchy in this Keywords listing, but if you open the floating panel for the project’s bank of them, you can see and change the structure (which organizes how they would appear in that “Add Keyword ->” menu shown above).

The other quirk we run into at this point is that you can tag the same document with the same Keyword multiple times:

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This is probably comes down to a lazy implementation.  If Scrivener stopped it from autocompleting the a duplicate keyword, what happens if you type it all the way out and push enter anyway?  Are you supposed to get a distinct copy of the Keyword with a new color?  Definitely not.

The Binder

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So here’s the rub.  This is what it all comes down to for me.  I can’t surface ANY of the Customs or Keywords in my binder via colors.  This might sound nitpicky, but it’s HUGE.  Coloring in the binder is an incredible way to see the story documents for what they contain.  Navigation, reorganization, and skimming is all much easier with those colors.  But Labels are the only option for coloring binder items to add visual distinctions in a big project.  Labels are cool, but every document only gets one.

What if I could declare which meta-data source shades the binder icons/cards/rows?  I could even shade icons one way and rows another way—why not?

It’s awkward to do in this kind of cascading menu, but more than that, we have to ask ourselves what we need from the workflow to make this work:

  • Shading by Keyword doesn’t actually make a ton of sense as-is.  Are you supposed to pick some global keyword and if the document has it then it’s shaded, and if it doesn’t then it’s not?  Nah.  That’d be dumb.
  • Shading by Custom is more practical, except it’s the per-document values we put in the Custom that really dictate the color, isn’t it?  Scrivener lets us pick a color for the Custom itself, not the unique values that will appear in it.

So now we understand why it only lets us shade by Label, because “Label” is essentially a special Custom that Scrivener names for us, and the labels you add as choices are actually what we need: color-coded values that appear in the choice list.

The Conclusion: Labels

Keywords are cool—they’re searchable.

Customs are cool—you can put arbitrary per-doc values in them and show as outliner columns

Labels are cool—you can assign colors to values

All three are broken, and no single one is sufficient to solve the problem.

We need someone to figure out assigning multiple labels to a single document, where they are hierarchical: every top-level Keyword gets a dropdown, and your choices in that dropdown are the color-coded sub-items for that Keyword.

In Scrivener speak:

  • Ditch everything: Labels, Keywords, and Custom
  • Every project starts with a top-level Keyword called “Label”
  • “Label” is a dropdown picker that starts empty, just like in Scrivener today
  • Adding new labels is actually adding new child Keywords to “Label”
  • All child Keywords let the user assign colors (the labels concept lives!)
  • The user can add more top-level Keywords for whatever they want, just like Keywords today.  I would probably spring for “Setting” as a top-level.  “Characters Viewpoint” would be another.
  • With the addition of new top-level Keywords, that lonely little “Label” dropdown gets siblings: now there are “Setting” and “Character Viewpoint” dropdown (empty of course until I add child Keywords to each as I flesh out my story)
  • Allow child Keywords to be entered on the fly to address the use-case for arbitrary text entry in Customs.  It autocompletes and auto-assigns color if the value is new.
  • Now my choice for coloring binder icons/cards/rows is nicely structured to let us pick a top-level Keyword as the source of color shading (the color being the child Keyword chosen for that top-level on a per-document basis).

This all comes off as very picky, but if something like this ever happened, it would streamline the metadata situation so much that I would just spend a day crying under my blankets.

We still probably want to maintain document tagging (i.e., more than just picking one thing out of a dropdown), but I think this puts us closer to better meta-data.

What a bright future.