This is the worksheet that I use for planning out my novels. One quick note: the first tab is based on the story structure that Dan Wells advocates, although I tend to play pretty fast and loose with his good advice. If you aren’t familiar with this structure, I highly recommend following the link and checking it out.
As I’ve mentioned before, I use several different pieces of software during the creation of a novel, but this worksheet is in plain old Excel. You can get a copy here. If you don’t have a copy of Excel (or equivalent), you can upload this to Google Docs for free and use it that way.
I’m in this worksheet daily, far more than any of my other tools. It helps me with four basic functions:
Overall Plot Structure
Tab one is where the big plot goes.
Column A, the blue one on the left, matches the story structure I’m using and lists the seven major steps that I want to keep track of for each story and character arc. Column B is for the main plot. This is where I’ll jot down a quick note for each step of the primary story. You don’t need much detail here. The other columns are for any character or sub-plot arcs that you have. This will be much more sparse, and you’ll want to put them near the row that matches the main story arc where they happen. Take a look at the Dan Wells videos for more details on this. Also, this isn’t carved in stone, feel free to put whatever plot markers you like in column A. The goal is just to have all your plot threads on one page.
This is where I list out all of the scenes that I want to put in the book, in order. In the example workbook, you’ll notice that there is a column for each day where those scenes would take place. There’s no need to use a day structure, of course. You can use a single column with a long scene list, or break it up by parts of the book or plot. The goal is to lay them out in a way that’s easy to look at so you can get a feel for the passage of events. Again, not much detail needs to go here. Think index cards. As you write, you’ll be inserting or deleting scenes, which is why I like a spreadsheet for this. Also, notice that there is a small column called “Ch”, where you can list the chapters that the scenes are actually in. Fill this out after you write the scene, so that you can quickly find it during later drafts. In many cases, I’ll have an idea for a particular scene long after I write it, and this helps me not only find it, but also to remind me of the events surrounding it, just in case I’m about to screw up my plot.
These are revision notes. The first column is whether or not you’ve made the revision, the second is what chapter the revision is for, and the last column is for the actual note. I use this tab whenever I have an idea to implement later, to keep me from being sidetracked from the task at hand. I frequently think of something cool while writing chapter 20 which requires me to go back and put a gun/spaceship/baby doll in chapter 3. Instead of losing my train of thought, I just jot down a reminder here and then keep going. When it’s time to revise, this is the first place I go. Note that after these changes are in, the resulting manuscript should still be considered first draft. Once that’s done, then I start the second draft and use this tab again to note things that I see as I revise. Rinse, repeat.
Love, meet hate. Don’t skip this tab. Use it, especially if you have a deadline. If you don’t have a deadline, give yourself one, then use this tab. The first column is for the date. Never skip a date here. Ever. If you can’t write that day, then your progress is zero, but it still needs to be noted. This serves two purposes. The first is that your average words per day are calculated correctly, and the second is that it provides motivation to get some words down in order to keep a writing streak alive. If you’ve made progress for a solid week or month, the last thing you want to do is drop in a big ol’ zero. You can use whatever quota you like, but this tab is currently set for 1000 words a day. If you change the cells for target and minimum words per day, the colors will follow. Enter in your starting count and ending count each day, and the progress column will automatically calculate your progress.
The goal with this workbook is to have a quick and easy map of your book to work from. The plot tab is basically a big overview, the scene tab is a more detailed roadmap, and the last two tabs are to provide course corrections and to keep you moving. When you finish a scene, check to see what the next scene needs to be. If you get a great idea, take a quick look at where it fits in the existing structure. Need to chop something for length? Scan the scene list for organ donors. You’ll be surprised how often you come back and check this road map during all stages of completion.
I use the hell out of this thing. It’s made a big difference to me in terms of being on time and producing coherent plots, and I hope it does the same for you.
As you can probably tell from my release schedule, I work under some fairly tight deadlines. Luckily, I write pretty fast, so it hasn’t turned into a total disaster. Yet.
But unless I get better about maintaining a consistent output, I really have very little control over the final completion date. So, in the spirit of ‘you have to understand something before you can improve it’, I’ve started tracking this year’s daily output:
I have two goals here:
- Maintain as close to a 2000 word per day average as possible
- Maintain a continuous daily writing streak
There are a couple of things that aren’t reflected in this chart. First, notice that the word count implies total work that day, so it appears that I was really slacking on the 2nd. In reality, I did a ton of re-writing on a scene I wasn’t happy with. It just happened to come out slightly larger than the original. This entry could just as easily been negative.
Second, it doesn’t account for time spent doing non-prose work, like plotting or research. I spent a significant amount of time on both the 2nd and the 4th on both of those things. So, even though I spent roughly the same amount of time working each day, my totals varied wildly.
My answer to that? Too bad. In the end, I need the book done by a certain date, and to do that, I need to put out at least so many words per day. The fact that plotting and research and re-writes take time is irrelevant. Nobody cares why a book is late, it’s just late.
If you’re not tracking your daily output, I highly suggest you give it a try. Even if you don’t have a specific goal in mind, it’s a great motivational tool to keep your ass in the chair. There’s a big difference between the feeling that you’re slacking and actually having to look at the proof.
One note about setting a number for the daily quota. After several books, I have a pretty good feel for what my pace is when I’m taking of business, so I set my quota accordingly. If you don’t know what your pace is, just do the tracking and make sure you do some work every day. Do this for a month, and see what your average speed is. If you feel like you were hitting a good clip, use this as a starting quota. If you spent the time doing less than you wanted, raise it a bit and try it out.
In the end, the goal is to get consistent output, not to burn yourself out. Don’t set the daily quota you wish you had and then kill yourself trying to meet it. Base it on your actual writing speed and tweak it later if needed.
Now beat it so I can work. I can’t bear the thought of another one of those shameful red boxes.
Being privileged to work hard for long hours at something you think is worth doing is the best kind of play. – Robert Heinlein
If writing were an old school martial arts movie, the secret technique handed down by the grizzled old master just before the big fight would be called Buttocks Grip Chair. That’s because the single hardest part about being a writer is the actual work of sitting down and wrestling the keyboard for hours on end. It’s the best part, too, don’t get me wrong, but the discipline required to get it done day after day is hard to come by. Like a muscle, your willpower will get stronger the more you use it, but in the meantime, here are some things you can do to keep your head down and fingers moving.
Don’t Wait for Inspiration
If you want to get serious about writing, you can’t wait to be in the mood or hold off until that moment when inspiration strikes. The mood is whatever you feel when it’s time to write, and the inspiration is ‘my story isn’t finished yet’. You can write without the perfect conditions, and you’ll be surprised how similar your output is. Just start working.
Defend Your Time
It’s hard to put the effort into starting a writing session if you know that you’re going to be interrupted anyway. It takes a good twenty minutes for me to get into the flow, and each interruption starts that timer over again. It’s a lot easier to start writing at a time when you know you can be productive.
Have a Quota
So you started. Good job. And then you wrote for a few minutes until you got stuck, and figured you’d pick it up tomorrow because, hey, you did your session for today. That’s not good enough. Give yourself a quota and stick to it. I use 2000 words, but pick anything that seems like a good day to you. If you get stuck, feel free to walk around and talk to yourself, just be aware that you have to come back and finish before the session is over.
Have a Deadline
Even better than a quota is a deadline. Make one up if you have to, and tell people about it. You’re a lot more likely to put the work in if you know how much time you have left.
I like hot mugs of something tasty to drink. So, now I have a cup of coffee or hot chocolate whenever I sit down to write. Any small pleasure will do, but I find that making it part of starting a session works better for me than having a reward afterwards. Try it a few times and you’ll find that it makes getting started a lot easier.
Care About the Work
It sounds silly. I mean of course you care, right? But admitting that you care about what you do, openly and without reservation, can be difficult. It makes you vulnerable to criticism and exposes the limits of your competence. You can no longer say that a piece is just something you’re fooling around with, or that it’s something you just dashed off. You have to make the commitment that everything you put your name on is the best you can do, and openly admit it.
This is the single most important factor in getting in front of the keyboard day after day. If this piece, this novel, this short story, really matters, then it won’t be about finding the time to sit down and put your hands on it, it’ll be about finding the time to take care of the other things in your life.
Besides the obvious benefit of spending more time writing, the payoff for investing yourself in your work, regardless of whether you write, build furniture, or make sushi, is that you will experience a deep and abiding satisfaction that can be found in few other ways.
Writing is hard work. My response to that? Big deal. So is everything else worth doing.
So do it already.
Regardless of the route you took to get your book into the marketplace, you’re going to have to do some promotion. Well, with one exception. If you got a six-figure advance from a publishing house, then you can rest assured that they’ll throw some marketing muscle behind your book. But if you got a standard deal, or put your book out yourself, you’re on your own.
Here are a few things that have helped me get noticed:
The first, most basic rule of promotion. Be present. A good platform will give you a place to build a community, give out information to people who already know who you are, and to provide a reason for new people to get interested in you. I use this WordPress blog, my Twitter account, and Facebook. But because I’m lazy, I don’t want to update all three. Wordpress can automatically send things to Twitter, so I have that covered. For Facebook, I use:
NetworkedBlogs is a free service that can push content from your blog to a Facebook page. I post things to my blog, and this service creates posts on my Facebook account automatically. It’s free, fast, and best of all, preserves the images and formatting of your blog posts when updating Facebook.
All I have to do now is post once to WordPress, and it goes out automatically to the other services. Use your platform to stay engaged with your readers and to provide a way to find your work.
Once you have a place of your own, you need to get people to visit you. The first way is to be active in your online community. The goal here is not just to give back as much as you can (I’m sure you got plenty of advice from other people’s articles and blogs before you got that first book out), but to find opportunities to network with other people. Things like: guest post on each other’s blogs, give and get mentions on book sites, and generally exchange help with your peers. You’d be surprised how quickly your name will get out if you provide value to others. Check out sites like Goodreads, LibraryThing, or the writing areas of Reddit.
Honest reviews are critical. A word of advice. No matter how tempting the anonymous nature of the internet might be, do not create dummy accounts and write glowing fake reviews of your stuff. Also, don’t ask your friends and family to write fabulous reviews, either. Feel free to ask them to read and review your work, but that’s as far as you can go. Reviews will accumulate naturally over time, but to jumpstart the process there are two things you can do.
First, submit your work to as many popular review sites as you can. You can find a great list here. Secondly, you can try a service like BookRooster, which for a fee, will distribute your work to readers in exchange for honest reviews. These reviewers don’t know you or care about you, and the service doesn’t ask for anything but honest reviews. You aren’t buying good reviews here (otherwise I wouldn’t recommend them), so be warned. Any reviews you get from here will be posted with a disclaimer that the reviewer received a free copy of your book for review. The best use of this service is to get some reviews up quickly, and to break the ice so that other reviews will follow.
Here’s where it gets tricky. JA Konrath is famous for warning against paid advertising for authors. And with one exception, I agree. I tried several different forms of paid advertising, and while I did get sales, it ended up costing me more than the income I got from them. I had pretty much given up, when a friend of my wife’s who is also an author, mentioned Project Wonderful. PW is an ad network that serves webcomics. You’d be amazed at just how many different webcomics there are, and how much traffic they get. I’m targeting sites with 10,000 unique visitors per month and up, and that’s on the low end of the scale. PW uses a bid system, where you bid on a site and the max bid per timeslot gets shown.
First, you’re going to want to create some ads. Here are mine:
Then you want to search for comics to display them on. There are several different parameters you can set around spend per day and max amount per bid, as well as a host of other controls for both spending and the regional scope of your ad. I’ve had success with both targeted ads, which means I found comics that I though matched well thematically with my books, and with a campaign. A campaign lets you target all of the sites that match certain criteria, and automatically makes bids for you. This allows you to spend the least money possible across the largest range of comics that fit your parameters. The upside is the increased coverage, but the downside is that your ads may show up on comics whose readership will have no interest in your offerings.
Here’s a shot of my current campaign:
One more thing. When someone clicks on your ad, you can send them straight to Amazon, or wherever your books are sold, but you might consider a landing page instead. This allows you to show something a little more compelling than the default product page, as well as give them multiple choices for how to buy. Here are the pages for Bad Radio and Walker.
Note that at the bottom of each there are links to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords. The nice thing about these is that can can be affiliate links for your books. These are basically custom links from the site that sells your books, that give you a small percentage of each sale in return for referring the buyer to them. These are easy to set up and well worth the trouble.
That’s pretty much my promotional strategy in a nutshell. If you have any other tips that work for you, leave ’em in the comments.
Let’s talk about writing tools. You don’t really need anything more than a text editor to get the job done, but unless you’re a real stickler for the minimalist approach, there are a lot of options out there to lighten your load.
Being a nerd, of course, I’m always tempted to optimize everything to within an inch of its life. That usually means trying to find the perfect tool for every job, or trying to cram every job into a single do-everything tool. It turns out that neither approach works very well for me, so I’ve settled on using the smallest number of tools possible to get the job done.
Here’s a look at what I’m using:
Research, Recording Ideas – Evernote
I used to carry around a Moleskine notebook so that I could jot down random ideas and thoughts whenever and wherever I might be when they struck. This had two problems: going back to look for something sucked, especially across multiple notebooks, and having my ideas on paper and my associated research on the computer.
Evernote lets me use my phone when I’m out and about instead of a notebook, which means one less thing I have to lug around, and access my notes from anywhere. And the search is incredible. It even has the ability to make text in a picture searchable, which is pretty dang cool. And since I do 95% of my research on the web, it’s easy to clip anything I find into Evernote and tag by related topic. Now my notes and research are all in one place, and I can actually find stuff when I need it.
Brainstorming, Plotting – Springpad
Evernote is awesome for collecting notes and research, but it’s missing one thing that I need: index cards. When I’m working out the plot for a book or a series, I like to write down events and scenes at a high level and lay them out in front of me so that I can visualize the flow of the story. I also like to shuffle them around when I make changes. Using index cards like this is a common technique, and there are a ton of software alternatives to carrying around an actual pack of paper cards.
Unfortunately, most of these alternatives are based on particular tools that can only accessed from a specific location or device. Springpad neatly solves that problem by having an index card ‘corkboard’ in their web interface, as well in their apps for IOS and Android. For me, the best part about Springpad is being able to get away from the PC and noodle on the plot on my iPad. The board interface is beautiful and very touch friendly. Perfect for lounging around somewhere pleasant and thinking.
Now I have a place to do my plotting that’s accessible from anywhere if an idea strikes me, plus I can stick my brainstorming notes in the same place. The board is just one function of Springpad, in other respects it serves the same purpose as Evernote.
I would have liked to replace Evernote with Springpad to keep the number of tools to a minimum, but the clipping function in Springpad just isn’t up to par. Instead of grabbing the actual content that I want to save, it saves the URL and a screencap of your browser window. That means search is limited to the URL and your tags, and if you want to go back and read it, you need to go back to the page and hope the content is still there.
Information Repository, Timelines – Liquid Story Binder
Liquid Story Binder is actually an all-in-one writing tool. It has functions for everything under the sun, but for me the most useful parts are dossiers and timelines (shown above). Take a look at their site to get an idea of what it can do.
I used to use LSB for plotting as well, but since it’s a PC only program, I always had to be at my desk to get things done. Now that I’ve discovered Springpad, I may drop this. I find that if I do my index cards right, I don’t really need a separate timeline.
If you’re looking for an all-in-one tool, however, I highly recommend this one.
Writing – Word
Mostly because I’m used to it and it works well for long-form writing, but also because it’s the de-facto standard when I’m working with editors, proofers, and formatters. You can export from lots of other tools into a .doc file, but without exception, I find that I have to go back afterwards and massage the results.
I don’t use much of the formatting capability that Word has, but what I do use is easy to setup. I typically create a template that I use for each chapter, which is a separate file. So, for each new chapter, I simply open a new doc with that template and I’m good to go. Separating the manuscript into chapter files helps me keep organized and allows for a modular structure that’s easy to work with.
As I said earlier, none of this is really necessary. If I were brutally honest, I could probably get along with nothing but Evernote and Word, and be 99% as productive.
Maybe after this next book …
In support of Neil Gaiman’s All Hallow’s Read project, I’m giving away free copies of Bad Radio on Smashwords until Midnight on Halloween!
Neil on All Hallow’s Read:
Simply go to Smashwords and use coupon code: MT52Z
Happy Halloween from all of us here at the Langlois Compound!
Barry Eisler, bestselling author of the Rain series, has a fantastic guest post on JA Konrath’s blog today.
He often speaks about his shift from legacy publishing to self publishing, and exposes why so many other well-known authors are going a similar route. Check out this damning list of behaviors that characterize the lack of competition between the Big 6 publishing houses:
• An identical, lock-step, onerously low 17.5% digital royalty rate
• The practice of forcing readers who prefer digital to wait, sometimes for over a year, until a title is also ready to ship in paper
• Digital retail prices equivalent to paper ones despite the obvious lower costs of digital distribution
• Byzantine and opaque royalty statements, delivered twice-yearly as much as six months after the end of the applicable reporting period
• Non-compete clauses that attempt to preclude authors from meaningful control over their own professional and artistic destinies
• Morbidly obese contracts delivered months after agreement on high-level deal points, written in unendurable legalese and drawn up in nine-point font on 14-inch legal paper, the only purpose of which is to intimidate authors into not reading the document, and to obscure the meaning of what’s written just in case they do
• Payments tendered months after they’ve come due
• A refusal to share sales data with authors, even though authors have long clamored for such information and the web technology to provide such access was already old a decade ago.
The article addresses the fear mongering from legacy publishers that as soon as enough power shifts to Amazon in the publishing space, they’ll become a monopoly and cut royalties. His response? They would have to go a long way to become as bad as the current crop.
Go here for the full article.
As I’ve said before, I’m not great at taking advice. However, on the rare occasion that a good idea can make it past my thick skull, I like to mention it.
Here are some facts:
- Like physical endurance, you only have so much mental focus to expend on a given day.
- Like physical activities, some forms of mental effort are much more taxing than others.
I never did. For years, I used time as my only real qualifier for getting work done. Did I have an open spot in the day or not? How long was it? If I could get an hour to write in an otherwise busy day, I’d take it. The dumb part is that I never took into account what I was doing before that slot.
We instinctively understand that an intense weight-lifting session is probably a bad idea right before showing up for your swim competition, but we don’t have a similar grasp of mental activity. We’re told that sitting down to think is just a matter of discipline and time management. And if you don’t get anything done, then you suck and just need to try harder.
That’s crap. You have a reserve of mental endurance, let’s call it focus, and there simply may not be enough left to spend on tasks that have a very high burn rate.
From a writing perspective, content creation, which includes heavy revision, is a high burn rate activity. Do it first, or if you can only clear the time late in the day, be as much of a mental lazy ass as possible before that time (I probably don’t need to mention that I’m an expert on the lazy ass part). Fill the rest of the time with low demand tasks: do some research, answer mail, blog, look up that rule about Oxford commas that you keep putting off. Tweet.
And you don’t have to veg out in front of the TV as soon as you’re too tired to keep up with a high burn rate activity. When a jogger gets tired, they don’t stretch out on the road, they walk. Low demand mental tasks can still be done after you’ve completed the tough stuff, and for a much longer period of time.
If I were clever, I’d do the heavy lifting part of my writing day early so that I’m sure to get it in. Unfortunately, I hate mornings, so I try to conserve until later in the day. If I know that I have to do a lot of braining (it’s clearly a word, I just used it) before my normal writing slot, then I’ll suck it up and write earlier.
Also, if your day job is going to require a ton of focus on a particular day, give yourself the option of sticking to the low demand stuff. Recognize that you may not be able to sustain two high burn activities in one day. It’s cool, you’re only human. A word of caution: there’s a difference between entertainment and rest. High involvement video games, especially multiplayer stuff, is not a recovery tactic. It can easily be a high burn activity.
All of this is obvious in hindsight. I just never put two and two together and actually made a conscious effort to protect my reserve of focus, and spend it in the right place. That one change made a huge difference in the time it takes me to write a book. As in about fifty percent huge.
Bottom line: If you’re in a creative business like writing, give some thought to the conservation of focus. It really does make a difference.
Hi there, WWdN visitors!
I guess I should have expected it, but I totally didn’t. One offhand comment from Wil Wheaton, and suddenly I’ve have more folks dropping by in the last two days than in the last two months combined. Wow.
Anyway, to say thanks, the first ten people to drop their email addresses in the comments below, or to me directly at langlois.mike (at) gmail (dot) com, will receive a free copy of Bad Radio, as either a Kindle gift or an epub file.
Note: you don’t have to be with the WWdN crowd to get a free copy, I’m totally not a jerk like that.
EDIT: Damn you Wil Wheaton (shakes tiny fist)! Your ravenous horde must be fed! I’m upping the giveaway to the following:
10 Kindle versions
10 ePub versions
5 signed paperback editions
Here’s how to win the signed paperback edition (best!): Write a haiku about my favorite piece of zombie art by Jason Chan, which can be found here. The deadline is midnight on Sunday the 16th, and the winners will be picked by my lovely pre-zombie wife.
Update: All of the poems are in, winners will be announced tonight after much reading out loud and re-enacting in the kitchen!