Storyboards: Teeny, Tiny Index Cards

In a previous blog I talked about using story-boarding to revise. Story-boarding, however, is probably better known as a plotting tool.

Story-boarding is a literal translation: you create your story by writing each scene on a 3×5 index card and laying it out on a wall or board in the order that works for your story. If you’ve ever watched the special features or extras on a DVD, especially those for HBO shows, you might be treated to a visit to the writers room. That is that magical place where the writers sit in communion with the muse and wait for her to sprinkle them with pixie dust and voila, an amazing story is born, full-fledged, fleshed out and fabulous. Uh… no. Nope. That’s not how it works. Not at all. But you do get to see how they work their storyboards and you should.

So how do you use story boarding?  Much the same way as the show-runners do, expect you’re alone and you don’t have a writers room, but if you’re lucky an office on the main floor of your home, or if you’re not so lucky a desk in the basement, or if beggars can’t be choosers, the dining room table ’cause everyone eats dinner in front of the TV watching HBO anyway. Now in the case of the office, maybe you’ve got it set up so you have space to actually put up those little index cards. You can also use the floor, if you’ve got it free. Or if not, you can get creative using a blanket and safety pins, or one of those huge craft paper rolls. But if none of these work, you can try Scrivener and its virtual storyboard called the cork-board, or yWriter and its storyboard feature.

The premise to story-boarding, whether you use actual cards or virtual ones, is the same. You want to write down key information for each scene so that you can adequately see your story. And remember you’ve got a space that’s 3×5 inches or 8×13 cm. But no matter which measurement you use we can all agree that that’s a small space. And don’t go writing so small that you give yourself irreparable eye strain. That’s not going to work. You need to get enough on the card so that you can grasp, at a glance, how each scene moves the story forward. And that’s the key isn’t it. Because it isn’t enough just to write down what happens in a scene; you need to know how what happens is important to the story. And here’s where a few choice words can come in handy on such a small piece of cardboard.

And So Technique

When you start writing especially in fantasy and science fiction, the options are endless. But with that comes the danger of running off on tangents and stringing together random scatterings of events that, although might be cool, lack cohesion to the basic story-line. By writing and so on your index card you focus on the thread that’s pulling you, and hopefully your reader, through your story. And so or and therefore, illustrates cause and effect; how the moments flow naturally or better yet believably into each other. This method also offers some much appreciated distance from which to view your story; especially those epic tomes that these genres often generate.

A great post to read, is this one from Query Tracker.

Try Fail or the Yes, but / No, and Method

Stories are about conflict; without that there’s no story. One of the best ways to examine this, is to use your story-boarding to see how your conflict unfolds. Each scene should have a conflict crucial to the story. At each of those moments the question is; will the hero succeed or fail? Yes or no? The kicker is, to each of these answers there is a further complication or setback that propels the character and the reader into the next scene. Yes, they succeed, but their situation gets more complicated. No, they don’t succeed, and there are further setbacks. See how that works? Using this on an index card forces you, not only to examine the progression of your story but the pacing and tension. Remember the ‘yes, and’ only comes before ‘they lived happily ever after’.

Brandon Sanderson talks about this technique  – ‘nuff said’ – like I’m going to say it better than Brandon Sanderson – just check out the video.

You can also take fifteen minutes to check out Writing Excuses with more on the subject.

GMC

G = Goal. (What does the main character want?)

M = Motivation. (Why does she want it?)

C = Conflict. (What’s in the way?)

There are two types of GMC: internal and external. By focusing on these points on an index card you are not only working through plot but character and using both elements to drive the story. Now you might look at that and say – but isn’t the GMC going to be the same for the entire story – isn’t that, in fact, the story? Sure, but in each scene it’s going to manifest itself in different ways. yWriter has a tab that is a variation on this theme, using Goal, Conflict, Outcome / Reaction, Dilemma, Choice to analyze a scene. By exploring the GMC of your character in each of your scenes, you’ll have a much more engaging story.

Several writers discuss this technique on their blogs. Though I can’t remember how I glommed onto it, a name that keeps popping up is Debra Dixon’s book – Goal, Motivation & Conflict.  A great article that delves into the importance of your characters’ goals is this one from Writer Unboxed.

Story Grid – 5 Elements of a Scene

According to Shawn Coyne, the creator of the Story Grid, every scene should have the following: an inciting incident, a progressive complication, a crisis, a climax and a resolution. If that isn’t a checklist, I don’t know what is. So to break it down, and I’m quoting a little bit here from the story grid: an inciting incident is an event that knocks things off balance. A progressive complication is an event that makes things even worse. A crisis acts as a question: what’s the main character going to do now. The climax is the main character making the decision to act and try and solve the problem. The resolution is the outcome of that decision and the action taken. Answering these for each scene on an index card would be a great use of that small space and an effective way to storyboard.

At the StoryGrid Shawn Coyne goes in deep with this and uses examples for the podcast, A Deeper Dive into the Five Commandments of Storytelling.

So, whether on the computer or the wall, story-boarding can be used to see the big picture, check your tension and pacing, and make sure your character or scenes are engaging. Here’s a little bit of fun with the nursery rhyme, Mary Had a Little Lamb – hopefully you all know it.

Story Grid Plot GMC
inciting incident /

AND SO

Mary had a lamb that followed her everywhere GOAL – the lamb wants to be with Mary

MOTIVATION – because Mary loves it so

progressive complication It followed her to school and disrupted the classroom  
crisis What’s Mary going to do about it?  
Climax /

AND SO

Nothing  
resolution The teacher has to put the lamb outside CONFLICT – the teacher does not want the children distracted
Is the action successful?

Yes, but /

No, and

Does that stop the disruption? TRY/FAIL

Yes, but  –

The lamb is waiting  outside which excites the kids all over again

Okay – so that’s sort of a hot mess, but I can already see plot holes and where building up the motivation of the characters might enrich the story. So if this could work on a nursery rhyme, think what it could do for a story.

You’ll find plenty of assistance on using Scrivener; learning how to change the look of the cork-board and adjust the fonts and all that. Here are just a couple from the Write Practice and Simply Scrivener. And don’t forget to check out You Tube to see Scrivener in action. Ultimately, however, a tool is only as effective as your ability to use it.

When plotting, using those teeny, tiny index cards, you might try any of the methods I’ve mentioned. Approaching your story-boarding with an appreciation of the components of a scene and how scenes make a story, will get you closer to creating a strong framework for your first draft. And isn’t that the goal?

 

Springtime Poetry

Last post, I mentioned the April Poem A Day Challenge.

Here is something I’d like to share – a Haiku I wrote on day 7.

A Haiku is a 3 line poem comprised of lines that are made up of 5 syllables on line one, 7 syllables on line 2 and 5 syllables on line 3. Japanese in origin, the Haiku often has themes surrounding nature or the seasons and, rather than saying how the scene makes the writer feel, hopes to evoke an emotion through the imagery. I loved the challenge of the form.

To me, these types of shorter more compact poems feel like vignettes; still pictures rather than movies, moments in time, ethereal yet poignant.

Here’s my attempt.

Birds on bare branches

Voices in defiance raised

Implore summer skies

Hopefully all of us, birds included, won’t have to wait too long for the warmer weather.

Time Crunches and Opportunities

Did I tell you I live by two axioms. Well not just two … oh you know the rest.

There is never enough time in the day.

Things always take longer than you think.

But this blog post is not about making the time to take advantage of opportunity. No. This is about, when time is limited, seeing that limitation as an opportunity.

I am fortunate enough to have a somewhat predictable ebb and flow to my busy times. The word, somewhat, being of course open to a very loose interpretation. But I can look at my year and reasonably predict when my time will get taken over by atypical onerous duties I have no control over.  The rest of the time, however my schedule gets eaten by the usual predators; household, family and job. Still these demands are by and large, reasonable. I have made certain lifestyle choices that allow this, choices that I know, having had some intense conversations about it, others are not keen to make. To each his own. Everything costs: time, money, sanity, soul. Pick what is important and what you are prepared to pay and pay it. Did I say I love axioms? Or maybe I just have too much time on my hands. Not likely.

My previous blog was all about managing the time you’ve got. Key elements are:

  • Plan, but schedule wiggle room – allowing an easy pace to your activities will not only help quell the stress, but may allow you to accomplish more.

  • Discipline not to act, is just as important as the discipline to stay on track.

  • Flexibility depends on knowing the demands of your individual activities – seeing the micro and macro and being able to adjust what can be accomplished in the time allotted.

  • Forgiveness is not making excuses – it’s acknowledging the limitations inherent in our lives.

My biggest fear is having time crunches pull me off track completely. I know. I know. I’m the one all about forgiveness and being easy on yourself… yadayadayada… But I worry that it will be so much harder to get back on the path again. So I try not to stray. That might sound a little exhausting and maybe a little unrealistic. Remember I myself wondered how anyone can keep the pedal to the metal indefinitely, but just because I’m going doesn’t mean I’m going at the same speed, all the time. This busy season I was determined to not stress myself out, but also not let myself down regarding my art.

I explored two challenges this past month. One was a version of NaNoWriMo, called Camp NaNoWriMo that happens in April and July. As you may or may not be aware, National Novel Writing Month occurs in November during which, writers attempt to write a 50,000 word first draft. The cool thing about Camp NaNoWriMo is you create your own parameters for success. Want to write an outline for a new novel or revise a draft, or create a world bible for your new fantasy story? This is your chance. You can use word count or even hours worked as parameters and you decide what constitutes ‘winning’.

I chose hours and committed to 2 hours a day of working on a draft of my current WIP [work in progress]. I did not get nearly as far as I wanted. Ah, axiom number two. How disdainfully you rear your head. I did however succeed with my hours. So, good on me. And again, was I religious about the two hours per day? No. My weekends carried the majority of the load, however even those few minutes during the week helped to keep me chugging along and feeling positive about my progress, slow as it was.  I could have so easily let my manuscript hit the back burner for the month and really been totally justified, but come May, the ole jalopy was going to sputter and steam and give me all kinds of grief getting back on the road. This May not only did I not lose momentum, I was rearing to go.

The second thing I did was the Writer’s Digest Poem a Day Challenge. More writing, I hear you scream at the screen. More?!!! What are you nuts? Now hear me out. While I have been working on short stories, my primary focus has been novels. You know novels – huge gargantuan undertakings, a kin to pushing boulders up hills? Yes. Novels. Poems I thought would be much smaller boulders and might offer a sense of completion far quicker than novels. So, challenge accepted. And completed! Yes, I did a poem a day, every day [except for one day – but I made up for it the next] for the entire month of April. Oh, it isn’t good poetry but it is poetry – some of it, atrocious, some of it, meh, some of it, not half bad. I also used the time to get to some lyrics for songs I have been meaning to finish. [Have I mentioned I’m also a musician – I know, I know – I’m a sucker for punishment]

As an AWADJ time management is crucial. Sometimes though, a crunch is inevitable. Instead of getting squeezed maybe try these [sorry – totally did not mean to rhyme – darn you poetry challenge]:

  • Look for inspiration; activities to galvanize action, challenges that will gently but firmly kick you in the butt to keep you going

  • Focus your efforts: work smaller projects to enhance specific skill-sets

  • Set time limits: narrowing your parameters can give you a manageable quantifier, while committing to a month allows you to get in the flow, make up time, if things get extra crunchy, and create distance from larger projects

  • Embrace change: adopt a flexible mindset to make use of, or create opportunities.

Art doesn’t have to be spelled ‘ART’. It can be ‘art’. A little bit is better than none. Besides, you can make excuses, or you can make art. Which will it be?

Time Management

I live by two axioms. Well not just two but for the purposes of this article we’ll say two. One: there is never enough time in the day. Two: things always take longer than you think.  So how do we get to everything we want to, in the limited time we have. That is a question I think we all struggle with.

You might have noticed recently, I have not been posting as frequently as I have been in the past. That’s because I’ve been going through that holy-crap-is-that-really-the- time- where-the-hell- did-the-day-go time of my year.  We all have these. Some may believe it’s their every day.  If so, my hats off to anyone who can keep that pace up, without end in sight. I do wonder however how long anyone can realistically do that and if that is even good for you – but that’s a conversation for another day.

As an AWADJ, justifying an activity that may appear frivolous to the average person, that you also don’t get immediately paid to do, allows for a lot of doubt and self-recrimination to seep into the mindset of an ‘Artist with a Day Job’. So time management has even deeper meaning and regarding your efforts, significant consequences.  Regardless of whether you’re an AWADJ or just someone with a lot of demands on your time, I think we can all agree that life is busy. So how do we manage our time effectively?

Planning

You can’t know what you’re dealing with until you take stock. It isn’t hard to take a calendar and fill out every little slot. You might even feel a sense of relief. Look. There’s all the proof you need for that stretched like a worn rubber band feeling plaguing your every waking hour.  But what you’re really doing is trying to get a handle on your schedule, not fill it.

Have you ever scheduled appointments only to realize later that you didn’t account for the time it would take you to get there? Maybe that seems an obvious mistake. What about the time it may take to come up with a solution to a problem. This is an act of creation. Creation can’t be rushed. It’s one thing not to take into consideration google maps or your gps, but how can you account for your ‘thinking’ time. That’s why leaving ‘down-time’ in your schedule is very important. Yes you’ll need to recharge and relax but you also need time to reflect.  Time to reflect without your schedule pushing you to act may allow you to catch errors before they become obstacles to getting things done.

Plan but schedule wiggle room. Allowing an easy pace to your activities will not only help quell the stress, but may allow you to accomplish more.

Discipline

I write this word and I know what you’re thinking. Yes. I must have the discipline to get done all I say I will, to stick to the plan, to stay on schedule. Sure but you know what’s even harder than that? The discipline to be able to set aside interruptions not on the schedule. To prioritize is all well and good but if you succumb the first time some unforeseen issue shows up to rob your time, your plans will quickly fall apart.

That’s not to say that things won’t come up. And if you’ve built in wiggle room you may have the resources of energy to react. That’s not the only issue however. You might be tempted to sacrifice recreation time activities or down-time crucial to that recharging we need. The wisdom you have to learn is when to adjust and when not to. It might be a hard lesson and one that can only be done through trial and error, but to start with, you need the discipline not to get swayed the minute an ‘emergency’ pops up.

Discipline not to act is just as important as the discipline to stay on track.

Flexibility

Look at the schedule from a distance, the big picture. Day to day time management is important; all those steps be they big or small count on the journey. But if an hour a day of writing is what you are shooting for it doesn’t have to be each day. Think weekly if that works better into your schedule. The goal is to get to what you need to do, but in making long–term progress, allow for variation in both the allotment of time and how it is distributed.

Dissect your activities. There may be some that demand a good two hour stretch, while others can be negotiated into smaller chunks. Understanding what those are goes a long way to utilizing your time. And again, don’t discount the need for relaxing, recharging and reflecting. It may not feel like you are doing anything, but you may be surprized at how those three ‘r’s can help you get things done.

Flexibility depends on knowing the demands of your individual activities – seeing the micro and macro and being able to adjust what can be accomplished in the time allotted.

Forgiveness

You are going to stumble. Plan and be disciplined all you can but bank on being human. Life happens. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Control what you can, manage what can be managed and then take the rest of it as it comes. Yes you can look back and say would have, could have, should have, but regret really isn’t very helpful, unless you can use it to learn something useful going forward.

Forgiveness is not making excuses – it’s acknowledging the limitations inherent in our lives.

Artistic endeavours rest completely on the shoulders of the artist. So time management is a skill as necessary as the most rudimentary skills your art demands. After all, if you don’t make the time to get to your art, it isn’t going to get done. It’s as simple as that.

Understanding Workplace Culture

Perhaps it is the recent economic upsets that have us thinking less about money and more about quality of life. Perhaps it is the immediacy of media, and the amped up technology at our disposal that allows us to share our experiences so much more easily. Perhaps it is both of these things, prompting us to individually and collectively examine our work-lives. Whatever the reason, I am finding discussion and debates regarding workplace culture increasingly present.

So what is culture and why should we care about it?

Culture can be perceived as the climate of the work environment. It goes beyond what your company does, and instead, defines its character or personality. It is made up of the values, beliefs, traditions, behaviours and attitudes of the people that work there. In short, culture is the unwritten rules that govern an organization. As such, culture cannot be mandated. It evolves from the minutiae in every action and interaction that goes on in an office, sales floor or factory line.

Most importantly, culture is unique to your situation. So while this article is titled Understanding Workplace Culture, and it implies an explanation of the term, the deeper implication is; are you understanding your culture? Have you honestly examined the actions of your senior team members, managers, directors, and partners? Have you considered the attitude of your staff? What aspects of your workplace culture might be prompting their attitude? As a leader, are you with purpose and consistency actively involved in fostering an effective culture for your organization?

Culture has a cumulative effect, reflecting leadership, engagement, productivity, creativity and growth.  One might say, workplace culture, like a specimen in a petri dish, is growing all around you. All you have to decide is: are you going to create a culture that enables your organization to thrive, or one that won’t.

By the way, the photo today is courtesy of Tasha Sturm, Cabrillo College. It is an actual hand print on a large TSA plate from her – at the time – 8 1/2 year old son after playing outside. Cool, huh.

Better Teams, Better Companies – in 3 Books

We all find ourselves, at one time or another, growing dissatisfied with our present work situation, wandering over to the “100 Best Companies to Work For” list and wondering how do I get a job there. It is a well-accepted fact that people don’t quit jobs, they quit people; sometimes managers, sometimes co-workers. And while it might feel nice initially to just point the finger and take all the blame off yourself, this approach won’t be the most effective way to go about getting to that ‘best company’. So before you go updating your resume, what about creating that ‘best company’ where you are. But how?  I think it might be possible in three books.

Three books? Only three? Which three? Where can I buy them? Tellmetellmetellme. Whoa. Slow down. Before I tell you which three, I need to tell you why three. What strikes me, is that there are three premises that are key in developing a company that might be list worthy.

Premise 1: If you don’t know yourself, how can you work with or, more importantly, lead others?

My pick: Growth Mindset by Carol S Dweck

The unique opportunity presented in this book is a good hard look at what attitude you might have that gets in the way of success. I stress, hard. We all want to think that we are well put together, positive thinking individuals without that liberal layer of ‘crazy’ lurking beneath the surface. Remember: without honest self-reflection there is no growth.

Premise 2: If you don’t know group dynamics, how can you participate, create, or lead in an effective team?

My pick: 5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Partick Lencioni

This book starts out with a fictional story that is so startlingly accurate, you may find it hard to believe that Lencioni wasn’t sitting in on your last team building workshop. It is followed up by an examination of the five necessary functions of a team, why they are important, and how to go about encouraging them in yourself and in others.

Premise 3: If you don’t have perspective, how can you gage your effectiveness? And everyone needs inspiration to keep going.

My pick: Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull

Whether you work with what Catmull calls ‘smart creatives’ or not, his guiding principles, his efforts to be actively engaged in managing, and his successes and failures are both inspirational and instructional.

Now, are these the definitive books that are going to set you on your path toward company bliss? I don’t know. Part of the adventure is figuring out which are your three. There are plenty to pick from. Just remember; you work as part of a team, there are other people in that team, and don’t worry, great teams are out there to learn from. Hasn’t it been done before? Isn’t that list of “100 Best Companies to Work For” right there in front of you? Don’t you want to be on it?

What three books do you think might help develop constructive management skills, positive team mindset and get a company on that list?

Growth Mindset

Maybe it’s the impending spring but my mind is turning to new beginnings. Cleaning up the winter windblown debris collected against fences and the sleepy sluggish corners of our minds. Throwing open the once frost locked windows, finally thawed, to invite a breeze to sweep away the stale overheated air trapped inside homes and souls. Time for to-do lists with little check marks all crisp and decisive. For goals to be set. So, what if you set out to fail? I don’t mean that you’re setting yourself up to fail. No. I am asking you to give yourself permission to fail.

Have there always been things you wanted to try but thought, I’m not good at that, I don’t have any talent in that area, it’s not my strength so why waste the time… The reasons go on and on. Some might even make practical sense. I mean, in this day and age when time is a precious commodity, why waste it on something you aren’t good at? But how do you know you aren’t good at something if you don’t try it? And therein lies the crux of the problem. Fear of failure might be at the core of these reasons. And that is the biggest obstacle between a fixed and a growth mindset.

Carol Dweck, Ph.D. one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation, talks about growth mindset in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Watch this Ted Talk or for more information check out her site. In her book, Dr. Dweck explores the concept of ‘not yet’ a way of measurement that does not focus on failure but on the process of learning, improving, bettering ourselves, evident in a growth mindset. Adversely, a fixed mindset prevents us from discovering previously unknown territory. It keeps us safe in the familiar, never risking venturing off the path. It gives us every reason to say no.

So if a growth mindset is a way to deal with the fear of failure, what can you do to go from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset? Here are the four main points from the book and a few quotes to perhaps help anchor them deeper in your mind.

Learn to recognize when you are holding onto a fixed mindset

  1. Becoming is better than being. Carol S Dweck
  2. Did I win? Did I lose? Those are the wrong questions. The correct question is: Did I make my best effort? Carol S Dweck

Recognize that you have a choice

  1. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. Albus Dumbledore
  2. Every time you are tempted to react in the same old way, ask if you want to be a prisoner of the past or a pioneer of the future. Deepak Chopra

Realign your thinking to a more growth mindset track

  1. Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. Albert Einstein
  2. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Wayne Gretzky

Take the growth mindset action

  1. Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself. George Bernard Shaw
  2. Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. Winston Churchill

So, what will I attempt while exploring and hopefully developing a growth mindset?  Writers Digest is promoting a Poem a Day in April. This of course is not a random undertaking, but a focused effort to better my language skills. I will push myself, explore my gifts, and improve my skills. I will be disciplined and committed. I will be brave. But most importantly I will give myself permission to fail.

So, if you are a writer or someone who has always wanted to write, or someone who’s had that hidden, secret desire that you couldn’t voice, even to yourself, you might venture forth this April. Of course, it’s an opportunity to improve your writing, but maybe that’s not the point. At least not the only point. You might learn failure doesn’t kill you. It doesn’t define you. You can not only survive it but thrive because of it. So fail. Fail magnificently and beautifully. Fail and learn and grow.

Whatever you decide to try, perhaps a purposeful exercise in courting failure will help to deal with not just the fear of failure, but those moments in life when failure is all too real. Because failure is more than academic or theoretical or just a word on a page. It is not just an idea but at times a presence that is a formidable as a six walled room. Failure is that niggling little hand that plucks at your heart one string at a time, calling you to hear a strain you want to silence. It’s that finger that pokes you in the chest and says not you. It’s that fist that closes around your heart until you can’t move.

Maybe that’s when you need a growth mindset the most. To keep moving, one foot in front of the other. To tell yourself, hell, why not you. To remind yourself, it’s okay, maybe you aren’t there.

Not yet.

The Big Picture

When one starts on a story, it is usually birthed from a kernel of an idea; a scene, a bit of dialogue, an interesting character, a world concept. But by the end of the first draft, that seed has sprouted. It might be easy to say it has grown into a tree, but you may find yourself in a forest, wondering lost without a path, unable to see the forest for the trees.

I’ve mentioned critique groups and beta readers and how helpful they are. Turning to them to get perspective when you are lost, seems a natural choice. The issue with this in regards to critique groups is their vision is narrowed to about a chapter at a time, with gaps in between readings. And while they can certainly tell if the moment is ringing true for the scene, they may not be able to tell me if it is doing so for the story. And while beta readers may be able to give you general feedback, they may not be able to pinpoint those specific elements of the story that aren’t working, let alone give you suggestions how to fix them. The truth is, no matter who you try to get help from, whose opinion you seek, there may be limitations to what they can do for you, because, after all, this is your story. Your vision. But then again, isn’t that the problem?

Sometimes you’re so close to your story, you can’t get an accurate look at it. So, how can you make sure all the dots are connected. How do you check that the puzzle pieces are fitting neatly into each other.  How do you pull back far enough to be able to see your story for what it is. How indeed.

Visual Organizing with Story-Boarding

Perhaps you need to see everything laid out in front of you before you can sort it. Story boarding with index cards might work for you. Index cards are great because they force you to condense the concept of a scene into that small space, but also allows for notes to be made.  Write out your story, one scene per index card, and lay them out in order on the floor or on a wall. Now you can evaluate the effectiveness of your story. You might find that certain chapters need to be rearranged. Perhaps you might need to introduce a character earlier in the story.  Maybe the middle lags because there’s not enough tension. Plot holes, inconsistencies, structure issues should be clearer from this view.

Don’t have sufficient wall or floor space? Scrivener  has a virtual cork board that allows you all the benefits to laying your cards out, without worrying that someone’s going to come along and kick them out of order. Another great piece of software is yWriter, a free writing program that allows you to make notes about your scenes and move them around with ease. Though it doesn’t offer the cork board feature, it still is great for keeping track of all the moving parts that is a novel. Either way, whether on paper or the screen, condensing your scenes, is one way to get a handle on the big picture.

Elevate your View with Mapping

Mind maps are ways to visually represent ideas and concepts and their connectivity. It can help to wrangle all aspects of your story into a picture that you can easily view. With it you can track, check and test the way your novel is ‘mapping’ out. You can do it by hand, but there is software that can help with this – again, just google it.  By creating a diagram of your story, made up of the plot, its characters, and any other key elements, you can see how they all interact. This birds-eye view offers the opportunity to tell if the parts are supporting the story.

A Guided Outlook with Spreadsheets

Weather you call them spreadsheets, checklist or tables, organizing your story and the elements of your story into this format allows you to make sure you are accomplishing what you want in each scene. There are many you can find online – just google scene tracker or plot spreadsheets or create your own template. Essentially, your plot is laid out in outline form and you assess its efficiency using certain values, deeply probing how your scene functions in the grand scheme of your story. The simplest approach you might take is the yes, but / no, and’ technique which Brandon Sanderson discusses at about the fifty minute mark [but seriously you should just watch the whole lecture because really who are you kidding – it’s Brandon Sanderson] or the ‘and so’ method which is a take on the cause and effect approach to plotting. And while these are plotting techniques, they can also be used to make sure your story is still on track.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know I’m a big fan of The Story Grid. Editor Shawn Coyne uses a tool called the Story Grid Spreadsheet to help analyze the effectiveness of your scenes. In his own words, your spreadsheet will pinpoint exactly where you nailed your best moments and where you need to do more work. Not only where to do the work, but how to do it. If you are curious, check out the spreadsheet for The Silence of the Lambs. As you can see this spreadsheet is quite extensive, really challenging you to dig deep into a scene. But whether you start complex or simple you are looking for something that can offer you a big picture view while seeing the inner workings. And what is that big picture?

Theme as Your Guiding Light.

Gaining perspective can be the hardest part of creative endeavours. You know the old writers ode – kill your darlings. When I first heard this I didn’t know what that meant. In subsequent years, I have found many interpretations. Delete any passages that sound too authorial because you aren’t being true to the voice of the story. Condense characters; if they’re too similar, do you really need them all. Lose the scene: it may work on its own, but is it pushing the story forward. Still, it’s hard to pull back far enough to see which passages, which character and which scenes are the ones to stay, and which are the ones to go.  I find that keeping my theme in mind helps to view these two key issues at the same time; the story as a whole and the parts that it is made up of. So the question becomes, is this scene doing all the things it should to further the plot, engage the reader and the like but also, in some way shining a light on the theme.

By testing the elements of your story against your theme, you might be able to nurture the root of your idea, cultivate all the branches that support the plot and produce a great story.  Your story.

The Not-To-Do List

On a previous post, I talked about how occasionally one might feel the need for a mental tidy. One of the most notorious contributors to that cluttered feeling is the T0-Do List.

We are all familiar with this sometimes growing, often never shrinking list of things that we must do, in order to keep our lives from descending into chaos. Sound dramatic? Don’t do the dishes or mow the lawn or recycle the garbage for a while. You may find yourself trapped in your house, a camera crew waiting outside and your family preparing for an intervention. I’m just saying.

But we never let it get that far, do we. We soldier on, pushing that rock on up that hill. Why? Because there’s no one else to do it? If it’s going to be done, you want it done right, and you’re the only one for the job? What will the neighbours think? What would you think of yourself?

Let’s start dissecting these arguments. You might find a Not-To-Do List surprisingly easy to create.

The no-one-else-could-do-it-like-I want-it-done Syndrome

Who else indeed. Did you know that there are entire professions, list of professionals, with the necessary skills and tools to get these jobs done? Google it. You might be surprised at how many enterprising people are providing a service for almost any task. Especially those that you might not feel are the best use of your precious time. Not only that, but as professionals they probably have standards that are even higher than anything you might be able to accomplish.

Got’em, Need’em, Trade’em Technique

Can’t afford to pay? Barter. That’s right. If you can’t afford a professional, barter with your mate, your kids, a family member, or even a neighbour. What might it take for a neighbour to mow your lawn while they’re doing theirs? You can return the favour in whatever ‘currency’ you both determine is fair. And who knows? What one person thinks of as a chore, could be a form of relaxation for another. You might be doing your bartering partner a favour in more ways than just relieving them of an undesirable task. You might actually be giving them something to do that they enjoy.

Other People Opinion Anxiety

Worried about what other will people think? Frankly they’ll probably think oh, thank goodness. I thought I was the only one. Sharing the load is something humans have had to do since we hunted on the plains. The fact that we have machines now and are isolated in our little boxed-off domiciles has made us forget that. Ask for a hand. Better yet, reach out a hand. You might find people are eager to take it and reciprocate the favour.

The Inner-Critic Visit

Now perhaps that negative voice in your head pipes up. You worry what does a Not-To-Do List say about you? It says you’re a realistic enterprising person who knows how to manage their time and recognizes the skills they have and values the skills of others. Look around your office, your neighbourhood, your home. Are there people with the skill-set, mind-set or abilities better suited to some of the tasks on your list? Are you better suited for something on theirs? Just because an item started on your list, doesn’t mean it has to stay there.

In closing

Now, there will be those jobs that just have to be done by you. Whether by necessity or circumstance, you just can’t put them on your Not-To-Do List.  If, however, you’ve re-examined these items and thinned the herd a little, maybe you won’t feel so trampled by the ones remaining.

How do you manage your To-Do List? What might go on your Not-To-Do List?

A Mental Tidy

Sometimes life is just too much. Sometimes it’s just so too much that we don’t realize it until we are sitting/standing/lying there and thinking; how did I end up here, feeling this way. Feeling…

Cluttered.

What I’m talking about is that lie in bed and stare at the ceiling sleeplessness that comes when the noise in your head may as well be a dance club complete with disco-ball and strobe lights and a nasty and extremely public break-up at the bar. It’s that multi-screen movie theatre flashing in front of your eyes as every random thought, worry, and concern vies for attention. It’s when you feel stress has come at you like a runaway wagon driven by the four horseman of the apocalypse and you are trapped under the wheels.

That’s when you may need a mental tidy.

For some, this slang intimates a minimizing or condescension of a real struggle with mental health. That is not my intent. Mental illness is a serious concern, and as such, needs serious considerations from those much more knowledgeable than me. However, I find the reality is that we all have our moments when we are plagued by worry, insecurity and fear. And while they may not be as dire as someone with clinical psychological problems, it seems to me that sometimes these more minor bouts of anxiety can have a cumulative effect, resulting in a serious impact on our lives and the lives of those around us.  Why not try to actively engage in solutions for those moments. Here are a few suggestions.

Exercise

Get your mind off the roller-coaster and move your body instead. Any physical activity that gets your heart rate pumping will do. Run. Walk. Swim. Dance. Heck, even housework would do. Plus, you get the added bonus of a clean house. Engaging in a little sweat equity regarding your body, can help to tidy your mind.

Breathe

This sort of goes along with the previous suggestion. I mean, try not breathing while you exercise. Does not work. So breathe, breathe, breathe. Fresh air is always preferable, but really the focused act of breathing will do wonders to calm and refresh, to centre and relax. Once you’re there, you can tackle the jumble of thoughts into an organized and manageable list of tasks.

Smell the Roses

No, this isn’t an extension of breathing, but rather a call to slow down. And don’t just indulge the olfactory. Treat all your senses. Go to an art museum. Listen to music. Take a walk in nature. Enjoy a meal. Better yet, enjoy these things with a friend. Slowing down enough to share these moments makes them even richer and gives your mind an opportunity to expand. An expanded mind is less likely to suffer the claustrophobia that a cluttered mind does. An expanded mind will see obstacles as challenges and opportunities for growth.

Change Tracks

Resume a hobby you enjoy. Try something you’ve always wanted to try. Take a one day course. My personal favorite is give yourself the perfect day that your ten-year-old self would have loved. Remember back then when you said when I grow up I’m going to be able to do whatever I want? Guess what, today’s that day. The beauty of this suggestion is that you can actually schedule these mental tidies before the clutter has a chance to become overwhelming. Your life will still be waiting for you when you return but your approach will be smoother as you pull into the station, ready to resume your regular schedule with renewed zeal.

Be thankful

When life is too much, we forget that our stress comes from caring about a life we essentially love. Count your blessings. Even better than counting sheep. When we focus on the positive things going on in our lives, we gain perspective on the noisy negatives. A de-cluttered mind is also so much more empowered to constructively deal with the elements in our lives we want to improve.

Have you ever felt the need for a mental tidy? What do you do to get yourself mentally refreshed, re-aligned and de-cluttered?