Building a World Guide

This past week, I’ve been talking in my reader group on Facebook about keeping track of fictional worlds. Since compiling the world guide for Dragonfire – which was a seemingly endless job – I knew I needed a better system. I’ve been using a new tool this past year, mostly for DragonFate, and am pleased with it. Since people were interested, I thought I’d share that here, as well.

I’ve tried a lot of methods for keeping track of my worldbuilding and character lists. The tried and true is a stack of index cards. Each character gets a card with his or her pertinent details. Locations that recur get a card, again with any mentioned details. I still use index cards for Flatiron Five Fitness and Flatiron Five Tattoo. I use a highlighter to mark the side of each card with that character or place’s first appearance in the series. (The index cards are lined. On the right edge, I colour between the first and second line for anything in book one. Between the second and third line means that element or character is introduced in book two, etc.) This means I can easily grab all pertinent cards, and also helps me find the first written description of any given element in the book manuscript.

This works well for contemporary romances but I find that paranormal romances have too many elements. This index card system gets overwhelmed quickly and doesn’t offer me enough ways to search for details.

I’ve tried other systems like Scrivener but have settled on this one, called Plottr, for the moment. I don’t want to create in the software, as I’m perfectly happy to use Word for that — actually, I’d be happy with a typewriter or writing longhand. I prefer as little interference from tech as possible when I’m writing.

Plottr is intended for plotting a new work, but I don’t plot in such detail in advance. I use it as a worldguide. I compile the timeline for each book after it’s written. This is kind of backwards, but it works for me. Let’s have a look.

Here’s the series page from Plottr for DragonFate. I need to update the covers since the second two now have gold type instead of grey, but here you can see the series at a glance. Each book has its own detail page but I like being able to see the series. (And yes, there are more books below this, but you can’t see them yet!)

The DragonFate Novels tracked in Plottr by Deborah Cooke

Here’s the plotting page for Dragon’s Mate.

Dragon's Mate by Deborah Cooke, timeline in Plottr compiled by Deborah Cooke

The timeline is a grid, almost like a spreadsheet. You can add as many columns to the right as you want and as many rows at the bottom as you like. The default is for each column to be a chapter, and the scenes to cascade below that, presumably in order. I have more than one plotline in the series, and want to track them in order of events. I also don’t plot by chapter. There are a number of templates included in the software for plotting, but for me this is more about tracking the series once each book is written than plotting in advance.

The timeline is more important to me, so I put it in the top line. The chapter line is a reference to the book manuscript, in case I want to double check any detail. The green line is the main plot: in this case, Hadrian and Rania’s firestorm and romance. There are two longer slow-burn story arcs in this series, and they’re tracked below: Sebastian and Sylvia, then Theo and Mel. There are a lot of magickal elements and items in this series and I track them on the next line. Finally, I track mentions of the rest of the Pyr. (Ignore that box with the dotted outline on the last line: it thought I wanted to add an item when I was taking the screen shot.)

Each box is a scene, and I list them in order from left to right. I end up with 70 columns or so for each book, but I can find anything later and quickly.

If I click on one of those scenes, like the very first Fae Attack, that opens a detail card:

Opening scene of Dragon's Mate by Deborah Cooke in Plottr

Here I can add a more detailed description of events, plus I can choose the characters in the scene from my character list, and choose the location from my list of places. This means that later, I can filter the timeline by character or location. This is hugely useful when cross-checking what secondary characters have witnessed or heard. (I don’t use the tags as yet.)

Of course, I can look at characters or places and get a similar card for details. Here’s the card for Arach.

Arach Knights, one of the Pyr in DragonFate by Deborah Cooke, tracked in Plottr

The character list is sorted into groups – this is the list of main characters, but there are secondary and other characters. I’ve added a field for “kind” so I can keep track of my shifters. On the Character page, I can filter by kind or by specific words, which helps me track (for example) the selkies that I’ve specifically named already in the series. I put unnamed characters here as well – “Nameless Wolf Shifter” – and they often get names later.

I like the sort and filter functions. If I forget the names of Rania’s twelve brothers, for example, I can just sort by name and scroll down to “Rania’s brother”.

Rania's brothers in Dragon's Mate by Deborah Cooke, documented in Plottr

There are other options to display your plot as well. I use the timeline, but here’s the outline that can be compiled from the timeline.

Dragon's Mate by Deborah Cooke outlined in Plottr.

The colored boxes indicate which storyline the scene is from.

You can see on the menu bar that there’s a display for Places, which is similar to the one for Characters that I showed you above with Arach’s listing.

Bones from the DragonFate novels by Deborah Cooke, documented in the places list in Plottr

In my version of the software (which is older) the book list isn’t automatically populated for each location. It seems this feature could be easily added and it may have been since I updated my version.

When I set up a new book in Plottr, the next one in the series, I copy the plotlines – they’re the same for each book. In the first column, I list the outstanding items or status of each and also the goal for that line in the next book. So for the next book on the Magick line, I’ve noted that the gem of the hoard is destroyed and that Maeve is a lizard, Fae is no longer a separate realm, the Fae weapons that slice between realms are destroyed, and the Regalian magick is gone. One question is how earth magick has reasserted itself. Another is what happened to Bryant. A third is what happened to the earth magick charms mentioned in Dragon’s Heart that were given to species of Others. And on and on. This will be modified when the book is done and I create the final timeline for it, but gives me a snapshot of what I need to address (or can consider) in the next book.

One of the great things is that as I move deeper into the series I can easily locate all previous mentions of the two longer arc stories. I’m compiling a timeline for Sylvia and Sebastian, for example, which includes all mentions of their interactions so far – and the gaps – with dates and locations. That will make it easier for me to see where I can fill gaps and list questions that are outstanding. I’ll do the same for Mel and Theo, as well.

Plottr also has an export function to Word which I haven’t tried yet. That would make it simpler to compile an actual world guide when that time comes.

I’m sure that I’m only using a small percentage of this software’s capabilities, but it’s working well for me. I find that many applications are almost overwhelming and tend to focus on what I need to get done instead of exploring all the options. Because it is essentially a spreadsheet, this one makes the most sense to me. (I always want to lose myself in the story, not in the tool.)

There’s a peek behind the scenes for this week! I hope you found it interesting, or, if you’re a writer yourself, that it gave you food for thought.

NaNoWriMo 2020

NaNoWriMo logo

It’s that time again. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) launches tomorrow. Participants aim to write 50,000 words in the month of November. Participation is free.

As usual, I’m participating. If you want a writing buddy, you can friend me at NaNo right here.

I’ll be putting down the words for Just One Silver Fox, as well as a couple of other projects.

If you want to learn more about NaNoWriMo, check out their website.

Ten Things I Learned From Copy Editors

The other evening, I was reading a book, and a sentence stopped me cold.

“No!” she hissed.

I put the book down, wondering what had happened to all the copy editors.

When I was traditionally published, one of the most dreaded phases of the editorial process for me was the copy edit. Copy editors are fierce, in my experience, and they are precise. They ensure that the author writes exactly what he or she means. The book that I put down the other night was written by a famous author and published by a big publishing house. There were many similar issues throughout the story, which prompted me to write this post. On this Author Resource Thursday, I’ll share ten things I learned from copy editors – or ten ways I learned to more accurately express what I mean.

1. Dialogue tags
A dialogue tag is the bit that comes after the dialogue in quotes.

“I’ll be there soon,” he said.

he said is the dialogue tag. A dialogue tag should define the speaker, and is separated from the dialogue with a comma. Some authors believe that “said” is the only acceptable dialogue tag, while others use more expressive verbs to convey emotion. That’s a style choice, but if you are going to use expressive verbs, a copy editor will flag some of them. Here are some reasons why:

First, the verb you choose must be a verb that allows for dialogue to be expressed.

“Bring me that cup,” she pointed across the room.

Pointed cannot be a dialogue tag. It isn’t a verb that includes speech. Two possible corrections are:

“Bring me that cup.” She pointed across the room.
or
“Bring me that cup,” she commanded, then pointed across the room.

Second, the verb you choose must allow for the dialogue you’ve written. Some dialogue tags are on the boundary between verbs that convey speech and those that don’t. They work best for very short utterances.

“No!” she moaned.
is fine but
“We have to catch the train at nine,” she moaned.
is silly.
“We have to catch the train at nine.” She moaned at the prospect.
is better.

“Oh! I never thought to have a house of my own!” Mary gasped.

Could Mary really gasp all of that? Probably not. This is better:

“Oh!” Mary gasped. “I never thought to have a house of my own!”

Third, the dialogue must match the implication of the chosen verb. You can only trill a line of dialogue that includes a lot of l’s. The example at the top of this post would have been flagged because you can only hiss words that include a sybillant or an “s” sound.

“Yes!” she hissed.
works perfectly. The first example would need to be changed, perhaps to:

“No!” She hissed her next words. “She’ll see us!”

Alternatively:
“No!” she said.

Fourth, dialogue tags that describe animal sounds (growl, purr, croak, etc.) carry an extra layer of implication. Not only should the dialogue match the expectation set by the verb in terms of sound (you purr things with a lot of r’s); not only should the dialogue tend to be short; but these tags are often used to indicate “animal desires”—or an appetite for food or sex. When they don’t, it seems odd or even funny.

“I’ll have you now,” he growled.
is infinitely more plausible than
“The lace ruffle on that petticoat is the perfect flourish,” he growled.

2. Simultaneous Action
In colloquial speech, we often use “and” to indicate consecutive events, even though, strictly speaking, “and” means that the events are concurrent.

Joe went to the store and bought milk.

We know that these events occurred in succession – obviously, he couldn’t buy milk until he got to the store – but technically (and copy editors are all about technicalities), this sentence says that the two events happened at the same time.

Joe went to the store to buy milk.
or
Joe went to the store, then bought milk.

3. Wandering Eyeballs
This is a pretty common error and one that occurs a lot in romances, where eye contact is an important part of courtship.

His eyes slid over her.
Her eyes were cold.
His eyes locked with mine.

These are examples of “wandering eyeballs”. If we use active verbs with “eyes”, then the eyes are literally on the move. Read those sentences again and think about it. (Ick.) What is meant here is “gaze”.

His gaze slid over her.
Her gaze was cold.
His gaze locked with mine.

4. Date of First Use
The first time I saw this notation, I had no idea what it meant. A word was circled in the manuscript (this was back in the old days when we edited on paper) then in the margin were the initials D.O. F.U. and a four-digit number. I had to call my editor (yes, on the phone) to ask what it meant.

When you write a book in an historical setting, the copy editor will flag words that were not in use at the time of the book’s setting. The notation on the circled word is the year of first use, and often there’s a notation as to which dictionary is the reference. (O.E.D. for Oxford English Dictionary or M.W. for Mirriam-Webster.) The concept is that a word can’t be used before the recorded date of first use, which is often a literary source.

This becomes problematic for books set in the medieval era, especially as we often write about the aristocracy. The English court spoke Norman French until the 15th century (and they kept records in it for longer than that). The work of Chaucer (1343 – 1400) is often the date of first use source for English words, because he was the first poet in England to write in the vernacular. Marie de France (ca. 1160 – 1215) lived in England but wrote in French for her courtly audience. Here’s a cool post on Wiki about English words with French origins. I think it’s fair to use any of them from medieval French in a book written in English with a medieval setting – even if your setting is too early for Chaucer to have used them (or their derivations) in an English work. The dictionary that provides date of first use in French is Le Robert.

The concept behind date of first use is that a modern word used in an historical setting can jar the reader out of the atmosphere of the book and this is a valid concern. The mister and I were watching an historical movie a while ago in which one character asked the other “Are you okay?” after a huge sword fight. We nearly fell off the couch laughing, because the phrase was so incongruous and the characters didn’t notice. A fun example with the same phrase is in the movie Gosford Park set in the early 1930’s in England: the director from California stops his car beside that of the countess (played by Maggie Smith) and asks “Are you okay?” She recoils and says “Am I what?”, responding to both his familiarity and his use of an American colloquialism. So, take a hard look at your modern words, colloquialisms and any slang in your book, and ensure it doesn’t ruin the mood.

5. Who Said That?
It’s tedious to read a book in which every line of dialogue has a dialogue tag. At the other end of the spectrum, if the author leaves out dialogue tags, it can be easy to lose track of who is saying what. Sometimes authors use stage directions to indicate who is speaking, and discard the dialogue tags. Another convention to add clarity is to put each character’s dialogue in a separate paragraph.

“We have to leave now,” she said. “If not, we’ll be late.” She closed her suitcase and locked it. “I’ll get the car.” He grabbed his keys, then went to the door. “Hurry!”

If this is all in one paragraph, you might be uncertain who said what, after the word said. Here are three options:

“We have to leave now,” she said. “If not, we’ll be late.” She closed her suitcase and locked it. “I’ll get the car.”
He grabbed his keys, then went to the door.
“Hurry!”
In this example, she says all the dialogue.

“We have to leave now,” she said. “If not, we’ll be late.” She closed her suitcase and locked it. “I’ll get the car.”
He grabbed his keys, then went to the door. “Hurry!”
In this example, he says only the last line.

“We have to leave now,” she said. “If not, we’ll be late.” She closed her suitcase and locked it.
“I’ll get the car.” He grabbed his keys, then went to the door. “Hurry!”
In this example, he has two lines.

6. Orient the reader
Using paragraph breaks in dialogue is one way of orienting the reader, so he or she can remain immersed in the story and not stop to think. Another place to orient the reader is after a scene break. A scene break occurs when an interval of time passes and/or the point of view character changes. I learned from copy editors to make it clear in the first sentence which of those things have changed.

The store was busier than expected.
As the opening line of a scene, this sentence tells us where we are, but not when or whose point of view we’re sharing.

Joe waited until the morning to go to the store. It was busier than he’d expected.
This potential opening, describing the same thing, ensures that the reader knows exactly where we are, whose perspective we’re sharing and how much time has passed.

(I also learned from copy editors to eliminate scene breaks when the point of view hadn’t changed or there wasn’t an interval of time passing.)

7. Unique and other Absolute Modifiers
Editors are usually the ones who comment on the author’s use of modifiers (adjectives and adverbs), particularly if the author in question has the dreaded Adverb Disease. Copy editors, however, will always flag modifiers on words like unique.

The word unique is an absolute modifier, which means that it accepts no modification. Something cannot be truly unique or very unique or utterly unique. It is unique or it is not. Period. Other absolute modifiers are perfect, final, total, and complete. Modifying these words is a colloquial use – a copy editor will probably let almost pass as a modifier, but otherwise, the modifiers should go.

8. Parallel Structure
Parallel structure (or parallelism) means that the words in a list are in the same format. The similarity of structure makes it easier for us to process the information being presented. We do this intuitively in its simplest form, but in more complex sentences, we might muck it up.

Her hobbies included crossword puzzles, hunting vintage patterns and growing prize petunias.
This is not parallel structure. There’s no verb in crossword puzzles as in the other two hobbies.

Her hobbies included solving crossword puzzles, hunting vintage patterns and growing prize petunias.

I notice the lack of parallel structure often in book titles, too. When books are in a linked series, it’s easier to perceive the connection if the titles show a parallel structure. The Beauty Bride, The Rose Red Bride and The Snow White Bride, for example, are clearly a set. Beguiled, Addicted to Love and The Frost Maiden’s Kiss don’t appear to be a set. They aren’t 🙂 but if they were, I’d think about changing the titles to a parallel structure.

9. Misplaced Modifiers
In English, a modifier (like an adjective or adverb) usually modifies the closest candidate (noun or verb) in the sentence. For example, moving the word brown in this sentence changes the meaning because it changes what is being modified:

The brown horse ate the grass.
The horse ate the brown grass.

We intuitively get this right in simple sentences and with single word modifiers, but with modifying clauses, it can get more complicated:

Josie answered the door to find the police on the porch in her pyjamas.

Who is wearing Josie’s pyjamas? While it’s possible that the police have dressed for the moment, it’s more likely that this is a misplaced modifier.

In her pyjamas, Josie answered the door to find the police on the porch.
Josie, in her pyjamas, answered the door to find the police on the porch.

If the police really were on the porch in Josie’s pyjamas, I’d still move the modifier and use a stronger verb:
Josie answered the door and was astonished to find the police in her pyjamas on the porch.

10. Split infinitives
In English, the infinitive form of any verb is two words: to write. Putting another word in the middle is calling splitting the infinitive and is incorrect. Colloquially, though, we split infinitives all the time.

Jason wanted to just be alone.

I find that moving the offending word often changes the meaning of the sentence, so you may have to be more creative with choices in this situation.

Jason just wanted to be alone.
All Jason wanted was to be alone.

Splitting the infinitive is something I still do, because it is such a common colloquialism. (Consider: “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” That example is hard to forget.) Like most colloquialisms, I think it’s fair to let a split infinitive stand in dialogue. It’s an accurate representation of how people actually speak and using colloquialisms in direct speech can make your characters more personable and realistic.

There’s a short list of things I’ve learned from copy editors.

In reviewing edits, by the way, the author has the right to accept or over-ride any suggested changes from the copy editor. When the author wants the suggested editorial change to be ignored, he or she writes STET beside it, which means “let it stand” or stick to the original version. So, it’s entirely possible that there was a copy editor on the book that prompted this post, and that the author put a stroke through the correction and wrote STET in the margin.

Happy writing!

Avoiding Writers’ Block

Today, we’re going to discuss some tips and tricks for ensuring that you always know what comes next when you sit down to write.

I don’t love the term “writers’ block”, partly because it sounds insurmountable. Like so many things, being “stuck” can be overcome with a little preparation and several little steps. You could think of these as good practices.

• Review what you wrote the day before
This is a tried and true strategy used by many writers I know. Job one of any new day of writing is to edit what was written the day before. This is a neat trick because you polish your work so that it’s clean behind you, and it also fills your mind with the story again. You might even see details or directions to explore which you missed the first time around.

• Leave a hook for the next scene
When you stop for the day, choose a deliberate point for stopping. I find that if I write everything I know about the story, the next day I might come up dry. I also find that I see two scenes very clearly and often a third one a bit less so. So, I write those two scenes, then hold back on the third. I’ll write the first sentence of that scene, to pull me back into the moment, but then let that scene stew in the back of my mind for the remainder of the day. Combined with the review suggested above, this is a surefire way to get me writing again each day.

• Retrace your steps
Most authors write a story in a linear sequence. This means that if the next scene isn’t clear to you, you’re stuck, as if you encountered a closed road on your map to the big finish. For me, this often indicates that I’ve taken a wrong turn or painted myself into a corner. The first thing I do in this situation is delete the hook on the end of the last scene I wrote. I then go make a fresh pot of tea, thinking about what else that hook could be. Often that sets me straight on the path again.

• Write out of sequence
Sometimes another scene than the one I know comes next is clear in my thoughts when I sit down to write. This might be the ending, which is a useful thing to write in advance of getting to the end of the book. Many authors find that writing the ending gives them a more clear sense of their destination and the feel of the end of the book, and that helps with the pages in between. You might feel compelled to write the big finish, or the dark moment, or a comparatively minor scene between secondary characters. As a general rule of thumb, if something is burning in your thoughts, write it down, whether it comes next in the story or not.

• Write a synopsis
The most obvious way to ensure that you know where the story is doing (and how it’s going to get there) is to write a synopsis. I’ve yet to meet a writer who loved creating a synopsis. It can be a painful process. But the fact is that once you have one, you have a map of your book. It’s very easy to put your finger on your location in the synopsis then read on to see where the story needs to go next.

• Stock your well
Julia Cameron talks about this in The Artist’s Way. It’s a strategy for ensuring that you always have new images and ideas to draw upon, so that your work continues to evolve and stay fresh. For me, this kind of creative thinking is completely opposite to the kind of planning I do as a publisher. Stocking my well is dreamy and irrational, meandering, and often seems like daydreaming or “wasting” time. The less free time I have, the more critical I am of the kind of play that stocks the well—but if I don’t do it, I get stuck.

I suspect that part of the reason I’ve been less productive creatively this year isn’t just a lack of time to write; it’s a failure to leave time to play and dream. I play with textiles and color to let my imagination wander off and explore the next part of the story I’m writing. I knit and quilt and bead and garden and cook, and this review has reminded me that I need to defend the time to do that, as well as the time to write.

So, the final tweak that comes out of this entire review is to protect the time I spend mucking about with creative endeavors. When I protect my writing time and my source of ideas, the routine of publishing must be pushed out to occur last in the day instead of first.

This is an intriguing idea and one I’ve already started to put into action. I’ve already seen an improvement in my productivity: in October, I wrote 54,000 words, which blasts me past my high count in May of 43,000. Now I just need to make these changes into habits. I’m curious to see if my word count increases in the next six months – I’m curious to see if it will help me succeed in NaNoWriMo. 50,000 words this month would be a victory!

Do you have any tips or practices that help you avoid writers’ block?

NaNoWriMo 2018

NaNoWriMo logoIt’s that time again. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) launches tomorrow. Participants aim to write 50,000 words in the month of November. Participation is free.

As usual, I’m participating, and (as usual!) I have more than one project to get done this month. If you want a writing buddy, you can friend me at NaNo right here.

If you want to learn more about NaNoWriMo, check out their website.