I am a Flake!

by Doranna

No, not THAT kind of flake.

Well, I guess…yes, that kind of flake.  Sometimes.  But that’s not what I’m talking about this time.  I’m talking about software for writers.

Because what’s better than finding software that gives you an excuse to procrastinate wallow, develop, and otherwise play with the story?

Actually, I’ve never gotten into the whole “build your book” software thing.  Or before that, the endless systems advised for same.  Oh, you know.  The index cards, the character interviews, the systems, and the navel-gazing, self-important, overly righteous exercises by which one is supposed to build a book.

(“Gosh, Doranna, tell us how you really feel!”)

And every time someone suggested such things, whether they came by way of book, seminar, or software, my muse made a retching noise and slammed the door between us.  After all, she’s been writing books since she was twelve, a native pantser who learned to plan ahead by about a third of a book at a time while holding the entire big picture in her (MY) head.

Well, a retching muse is hard to ignore.  (I want you to know I looked for a graphic for this spot, but had a sudden attack of class.)  And since writing as a pro also means coming up with proposals, which means coming up with detailed synopses, I just did it her way–which is to say, lots of hand-waving.  “So there’s this cool set-up, and then [hand-waving] something cool happens that raises the stakes!  And then [hand-waving] another something cool happens that raises the stakes even more!”

I always knew what I wanted to accomplish at any given point in the story, but I never knew quite how it would happen or what threads would be weaving through what point of the book.  And that works for me, but still…

I do like to be organized.  And I like to wallow and play in the worlds of my mind; I just generally do it without writing anything down.

In recent years I’ve stumbled through a lot of non-bloatware software.  There was the one that had a Save File” bug (unannounced) that ATE MY CHAPTER.  There was this other one that was waaaaay too complicated (see above, navel-gazing) and looked like nothing more than a great big fat excuse to Never Write Again.  There was one that was close, but not quite flexible enough.  There’s Scrivener, which I’m actually using for first draft, but have found the compile feature to be a major-league PITA/FAIL and the backups to create a dizzying number of hard-to-access folders and files, so I don’t like to do anything but the most primary and simplest work that way.  There are features I love and I’ve written 18 months of fiction on it, so it’ll likely stay my drafting software.  But.

snowflakeI don’t even remember how I came across Snowflake, by Randy Ingermanson.  I was following my nose in the search for drafting software, and stumbled onto it.

Muse: OMG.  OMG.  This is IT!  This is how I think!  GET IT FOR ME!  GET IT GET IT GETITRIGHTNOW!

So I did.

And lo, it has changed much about the way I develop books.  Even if I don’t put a story or book through the system, I have it in mind as I’m pulling the story elements together, and it gives me direction.  And confidence.  And besides, it’s FUN.

The Snowflake system is called that because like snowflakes, its story-building process is fractal–not linear.  It starts with the very basic one-sentence summary of your story–the simplest level of complexity–and adds layers.  And it’s totally flexible–you can skip steps that don’t work for you, and the whole process still works just fine.  Or you can mutate the steps slightly to suit your needs, which I’ve done from the start.  I also recently started treating story threads as characters–that’s where it fits in the system–and that works juuuust fine.

Anyway.  I can well imagine that this system wouldn’t work for everyone (shoot, just look how many approaches not only didn’t work for me, but were actively antithetical to the way I work).  And it’s not a system that will teach you how to write–you have to know how to tell a story going into the thing. In fact, most of the criticism I see about the method is aimed at the fact that while it does create a plot, it won’t automatically result in storytelling.

Well, no.  Not much does, does it?  There aren’t any shortcuts for that.  You have to put the story into the planning your ownself.  So far I haven’t had any trouble doing that with this method.  It’s all in the way you expand from sentence to paragraph to synopsis–which, except for short pieces, is as far as I go.  If you want, you can write scene to scene, but that’s not for me.  Doesn’t matter, though–after all, the tool is there for me to use–I’m not there for the tool to use!

Muse: No one is the boss of me!

Yeah, yeah.

There’s a really good description of the process here, and here’s how someone else felt about it–but it takes me a heck of a lot less time to go through the process than is posited in these discussions. A tenth of the time, maybe?  A fifteenth?  Maybe because I don’t get stuck on the final step with the scenes, or maybe because I have a pretty solid thing of my own going already.  Here’s another conversation about it–this echoes my experience a little more closely, except the part about getting bogged down.

In fact, this is a process that un-bogs me, should I be floundering a bit.  That’s the whole point.  But I think it’s necessary to have a sense of when you’re doing the exercise in a truly constructive way and when you start doing it for the sake of doing the exercise.

Anyway, I’m currently snowflaking the third Reckoners book and having a blast.  I’m happy, the muse is happy…what’s not to love?

Or do you have a different book development software/process that makes this one inspire your muse to slam the door?

About Doranna

My books are SF/F, mystery, paranormal romance, and romantic suspense. My dogs are Beagles, my home is the Southwest, and the horse wants a cookie!
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9 Responses to I am a Flake!

  1. Marilyn says:

    Will have to look at this snowflaking. I am currently attempting to use Scrivener, which is very nice for a single author, but a pain in the keister if you are collaborating with someone who lives a thousand miles away. Mostly, I use Word XP and have an astounding organization system on the computer. (System has mirrored drives, and just did an off-site back-up.)

    I start with An Image. Usually hits me just about the time I’m falling asleep. And build from there. I will create an outline of sorts. The one book I wrote from an outline was the most deadly dull thing I’ve ever written. Characters acting the way they did because my script called for them to, not from any intrinsic motivation on their part. Never tried that sort of outline again. Now I write chunks and images, and rearrange them until I have a reasonably coherent story.

    I also have a private wiki with the research on web pages which can be accessed by me or my co-author from any computer, so I don’t have to lug notebooks of data with me. PBWorks is pretty decent for a free wiki, iffen one doesn’t have the skill to set one up for oneself.

    What I need to find is something that makes the search for an agent less tedious.

  2. Doranna says:

    I can’t imagine collaborating with Scrivener. I find its fussiness about its saving format/re-opening format/backups to be its biggest logistical flaw. Using a wiki for collaboration is a cool idea!

    I think one of the tricks about writing an outline is to let it be a guide instead of a strict architectural plan. That’s always been the case for me, anyway. No matter what planning you do, no matter what programs you use, there has to be room for the story to tell itself.

  3. Robert says:

    Since I haven’t yet finished a novel length story I really have not had need for anything like Snowflake, but if and when I do this sounds like a possibility.

    I find it endlessly fascinating to read something of the process other writers/storytellers use as they go about writing the story.

    As for my short fiction it is certainly more fractal than linear. Most of the time any outline for a story comes long after the story has been told a few times and finally written out. My one published story started out as a punch line, “He had one story but he told it well.” The story took 4 or 5 years to catch up with the punch line, and then I didn’t write the whole thing down until after I had told it several times. Other stories have come about after I get a picture of an opening scene. I have one such working now, the scene is deep in an old growth forest something like you would find on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state. Annie Tall Pine and Fiddle Foot Jones are moving through a thick shroud of mist along a path winding through the crowns of the massive trees many hundreds of feet above the forest floor.

    Now that was fun, when I first saw them I had thought they walked along the forest floor the scene in the treetops just appeared as I was writing this. Not sure if Annie and Jones are otherwise involved, but they are partners.

    It is as you say, no matter what software you use “there has to be room for the story to tell itself.”

  4. Marilyn says:

    Well, we’re trying the collaboration with Scrivener, partly because a number of people we know swear by Scrivener. It has some nice features, but there are occasions when I tend to swear AT it.

    And yes, the story has to tell itself. That was the lesson I learned from that one attempt at strictly following an outline. Yet I know people who do 40-50 page detailed outlines and then their story follows the outline, period. ANd they do good stories.

    Dif’rent strokes, I guess.

    The wiki works quite well — we not only have folders with various pieces of research, but discussion pages where we can go back and forth on some element — and then have a record of the discussion to refer to later if needed.

  5. Doranna says:

    Robert, I use Scrivener for short stuff, too. I find it really useful–it’s the one time I do plan vague scenes. Stories have to be so tight! Have fun with Annie & Jones!

    Marilyn–I think the whole challenge with writing is that it *is* different strokes. It’s possible for teachers and programs to provide suggestions and options as far as process is concerned, but we each have to find our own way. Honestly, I think starting young was a big boon to me in this regard (I wrote the first book when I was 12)–by the time I was thinking consciously about process, I knew who I was as a writer in general. I can’t even imagine sitting down at, say, 25 years old and more without ever having written a book, and trying to figure out where that was coming from within me.

  6. Mona Karel says:

    I’ve got Scrivener on the computer and I’m doing battle with the note cards. Is that really how we save chapters? Seems so…inefficient. I have Write It Now, which barely got out of the unboxing stage. Might look at snowflake; I think my muse is related to yours. Maybe they were relatives in a former life?
    I read and write for emotional payoff. So I know I’m going to write a loaded with angst scene somewhere around *here* and a couple mroe *there.” Plus move them around in between. Hmmm I don’t think I plot.

  7. Mona Karel says:

    And I think if I can’t spell more it’s past time to be in bed

  8. doranna says:

    Mona–perhaps our muses were indeed connected in a former life–that’s my very basic SOP, too. It’s evolved over time, but that’s the core of it.

    That wasn’t misspelling, that was tired fingers! ;>

  9. Marilyn says:

    Doranna, I think I started telling myself stories around age 8 — I built air cars for Barbie dolls, and created an entire civilization for a pair of rubber alligators I got at Disneyland. My favorite cry is “I have this Image!” (usually the seed of a story) and I can’t imagine NOT being a raconteur.

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