Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Scrivener: How I use it -- Part 3

In part 1 I talked about using Scriveners Chapter and Scene titles as a condensed version of an outline, which makes navigating your novel a breeze later on.

Part 2 covered using labels to flag each chapter (and/or scene) with some specific thing that is important to your book.  In my case it was keeping track of whose POV each chapter would be from.  In yours it might be the location the chapter takes place in, or the time period, maybe various subplots, or something else entirely.  Whatever you think will be useful later when you might want to get a "view" of your story narrowed down to just one of these elements.  In my case, I liked to be able to get rid of everything so that Scrivener only showed me the chapters from a specific character's POV.

Now, I'd like to talk about the other key feature I use in Scrivener: comments.

The comments in scrivener work a bit like they do in Word, so if you're used to that this shouldn't be too alien.  The main difference is how they're displayed.  Well, that and how I use them.

Before that, let me explain a bit about how Scrivener organizes your book, because that is VERY different from Word and you might already be a bit baffled by it.

In your manuscript there are folders and text.

Folder = A Chapter
Text = A scene

This is the key thing to remember: A FOLDER CAN CONTAIN TEXT, TOO. I'll get back to this in a second. But repeat it to yourself now. Okay? Okay.

If you want, you can do your entire manuscript at the folder level and never make scenes within them. Hell, you can even just write your entire book at the "Manuscript" level and never break it down into smaller chunks at all.  For the purposes of this post I'm going to use folders and scenes, because that's what I do and that is something that opens up a lot of Scrivener's power.

Before we head back to our Star Wars example, I want to show you what I'm talking about with a blank "Novel" project.

Select File > New Project > Fiction > Novel

You should see something like this:


As you see the default project contains a top-level "Manuscript", one folder called "Chapter", and one text called "Scene".

Click on Manuscript.  You probably just see a corkboard with a notecard on it. Ignore that for now.

Click on this little button, which is "Edit Scrivenings":


Now you should see a blank view with a line across it.  Weird?  Let me explain.  You're looking at two pieces of your manuscript, the thing called "Chapter" and the thing called "Scene", simultaneously, and that's pretty cool.  Try this: Above the divider line, type in "This is the chapter".  Then below it, type "And this is the scene":


Now just click on Scene. You should only see the text for it.  Click on the chapter, you should see the text for both.  That's because we have that multi-document "edit scrivenings" view clicked.  If this is confusing to you, stop here and do the tutorial that comes with scrivener.  Or, just make some more chapters and scenes in here and play around with it.

What's the point of all this?  Simple: In Scrivener, you're in control of what you see.  From the entire manuscript, to a select sequence of chapters, to a tiny individual scene, you can narrow down your view to just what's important for your current task and get everything else out of the way.  In Word, you're always looking at everything, and that can make navigating a large project cumbersome at best. It may be hard to grasp why this is so powerful now, but trust me, when you've got a 50-chapter, 300 scene manuscript going, you'll love it.

The main thing you need to know is that when you're writing (again, this is just my personal technique), you should put the meat of your words in scenes.  I personally only use the "chapter" level for subheadings, like "Darwin, Australia 12.MAR.2282" or whatever.

So here's our Star Wars example so far.  Note that I have "Manuscript" selected in the binder.  Also, just so you're aware, I've pasted in text from the screenplay just so this isn't empty (I'll make this scrivener file available for download in case you want to look at it more closely.)


On to Comments, then!

Let's imagine you're in the process of writing your first draft.  You're in the chapter where Luke finds Leia's message (note: in the next screenshot that's the chapter selected, not "manuscript") and you've just written a throwaway line of pointless technobabble. An idea strikes you.  "I should totally bring this back up later and have it be important!".  But when?  I'm going to cover two scenarios here to give you a basic taste of how I use comments:

Scenario 1: You have no idea where to bring this up later, but you want to remember to add it at some point.  So add a comment right here:


Scenario 2: You know roughly where you want to mention this later, so click on that unwritten Chapter.  We'll say it's "Luke joins rebellion".  It's empty because you haven't written it yet, and you can't add a note to emptiness, so just put in a single "." or something and make your note:



(Pro tip: Doing this while writing can take you away from the spot where you were.  Learn how to use Scriveners split-screen mode and you won't have this problem.)
(Feature wish: Sometimes if it's important enough I'll add comments in both places, just to be sure the text matches in terms of details.  I kind of wish Scrivener had a way to link comments together, making it easier to keep track of these)

Comments can be for anything, not just when you want to remember to add something.  Maybe you've written what you know is an ugly line of dialog, but you're drawing a blank on a better choice.  Leave a comment to make sure you come back and fix it.  Or maybe you realize you need to research the name of a town but don't want to lose your groove; just call it "FixMe town", and add a comment to the word "FixMe" to correct it later when you have time.  This allows you to keep writing but not lose these kinds of things in the long haul.

Again, this is not too dissimilar from Word's comment feature, but I think it's better for two reasons:

1.  Remember earlier when we were looking at one scene, a chapter and its scenes, or the entire document? Well guess what, the comments listed on the side there correlate to that.  In other words, if you've only got your "Death Star" location scenes in view right now, you'll only see the comments you left in those scenes & chapters.  When editing, this ability to focus in on just what you're working on is very handy.

2. A more subtle difference is simply in the way Scrivener displays these.  While Word shows the comments sort of next to the text they go with, Scrivener just stacks them up on the right.  This might seem like a step back compared to Word, but I actually prefer it.  You navigate by clicking on the comments and seeing where they point, not the other way around.  The reason I prefer this is the main thing I wanted to get across with all this:

I use Scrivener comments as my to-do list for the manuscript.

Every one of these is something I need to fix.  Each time I fix one, I delete the comment, and I don't send off a manuscript to my editor until all the comments are gone.

Here's our Star Wars example with a bunch of comments added:



So there you go!  Questions?  Add a comment and I'll answer as best I can.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Doing NaNoWriMo? Some tips for success...

November is coming up fast, and right now there are 120,000+ people out there in the world getting ready to start writing a novel as part of National Novel Writing Month.

As you may already know, my novel The Darwin Elevator started life as a Nano project back in 2008.  That was the second year I participated (2007 being the first), and so I thought I'd share some tips that might help you succeed.

Here we go!


  • Tip #1 - Write a novel.  You might be wondering why I'm saying this, and it's because I'm insane.  No, wait, not that.  The point is, remember that it's 50k words of a novel that is your goal, not just 50k words. I know some people who do fifty 1000 word short stories, or any other combination you can imagine that results in 50k words written, and more power to them.  This post is not for those people.  You see, the prize for "winning" Nanowrimo is the knowledge of what it takes to write a book.  You are finding out if that is something can, and want, to do.
  • Tip #2 - Don't edit, just write.  I don't care how screwy your project gets at the halfway mark, don't toss it and start a new one (the old 25k-split... we're on to you!).  If you realize on November 13th that your story would have been ten times better if you'd just had that troll help the hero instead of attacking him, then make a note that you intend to go back and change that and keep writing as if you'd done it that way.  Or hell, decide the troll survived and shows up NOW to help.  Make it work, keep going.  No first draft is flawless.  The trick for finishing Nanowrimo is to learn how to resist the urge to edit.  This may not be the way you'd do things without this artificial deadline, but that's okay, because...
  • Tip #3 - Remember this: The prize you're getting from Nano is huge, and that prize is you.  You, the writer.  You, armed with the knowledge of what it a takes to write a book.  You, with the extra swagger in your step because you know you've done it.  You, on the path to knowing what your process is.  Everyone's goal with Nano is to finish writing a novel, and everyone will have a different way of going about it.  If you fail, okay, look back on it and figure out where things went wrong.  Come up with a plan to fix those things next time around.
  • Tip #4 - Track your progress.  Whatever method makes sense to you, be it Nano's own tools or the built-in project goals in software like Scrivener.  I use a spreadsheet I made.  The thing is, it's sort of like trying to lose weight.  You don't set a goal of losing 50 lbs. in a year, start eating better and exercising, but neglect to weigh yourself until a week before the end and realize you've only lost 15 lbs. so far.  You weigh in daily.  You celebrate every half-pound gone.  You redouble your efforts if you get behind.  Treat Nano the same way.
  • Tip #5 - Plan ahead.  It's already October 20th, so I'd say this post is 20 days too late because a month of planning is good.  But that's okay, you still have time.  There's 10 days or so left, so devote each one to a bit of planning.  Make an outline, then throw it out and make another one that's better.  Start brainstorming who your characters are, what makes them tick.  What's your world like?  Start jotting down ideas on these things.  Unless you're a pantser (someone who prefers the blank page, and who thinks that any planning just stifles their creativity.  Horseshit, in my opinion, but to each their own!).  If you're a pantser I guess maybe start clearing your mind now!  Either way, spend this time leading up to November getting your head in the game.
  • Tip #6 - Take it seriously.  Looking back on my Nano years, it's easy now in hindsight to spot the people who won't finish.  Most of them, anyway.  They were the ones who started making excuses before November even arrived. Little innocent caveats about how they "guess" they're going to participate, or how they'll probably start but because of that new job they just landed they might not have time.  All fine and dandy, and I still encourage these people to participate because there's value, but it's defeating the whole purpose of NaNoWriMo.  Nano is a marathon and you've just signed up to run it.  Don't start in with the "oh yeah I'll be there at the starting line but I don't have any good running shoes right now.  Plus I've got tickets to see a movie that same day so I need to duck out at the halfway point anyway.  Also my leg is broken, which might make it hard to finish.  Still, I'm THERE!!!"  Don't do this.  Take it seriously.
See, the thing about Nanowrimo is that it has no stakes except those you create.  That's not easy for a lot of people.  No stakes, no motivation.  No tangible reward, no drive.  And for a lot of people it's hard, very hard, to invent stakes and impose them.  Inventing a reward might be a bit easier, but not by much.

So in this regard, consider ways to put pressure on yourself, and/or reward yourself.  The simplest possible way to do this is to let people know you're writing a novel in November.  People who care, people who will ask you how its going, people you won't want to look in the eye and say "eh, I gave up."  Don't have anyone like that in your life?  Fine, tell me in the comments. I'll hold your nose to the grinder and promise to post here praising your victory or mocking your failure as the case may be.

You can go farther than this, of course.  A lot farther.  For example, put 100$ in an envelope (or whatever amount of money you can afford to lose but will sting if you didn't get it back).  Give the envelope to a good friend or family member and tell them NOT to give it back to you unless you finish Nanowrimo.  Even if it takes you until March, tell them to hang on to that envelope until you can show them you've written fifty thousand words.  Someday you'll want that hundred bucks enough to get words on the page.

Any other questions? Ask in the comments!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Evolution of THE DARWIN ELEVATOR's North American cover

Since I'm often asked about the covers for my books, I thought I'd give you all an in-depth peek into the cover design process.

While it varies from publisher to publisher, authors are not always involved in the cover design process.  The normal experience is to be shown a “final” cover, upon which feedback is given and generally ignored.  I was warned of this by my agent early on, but luckily my experience did not go this way!
In this spirit, my editor has also provided some commentary for this post, which I'll include in grey and indented, like so:

Mike: Hi everyone!  Creating covers for our books is one of the toughest things we do at Del Rey.
Basically, our job is to create a package for a product that is intriguing, informative, and iconic.  We want potential readers to see the cover and be inspired to investigate more.  In addition, we want to convey some of the cool things that a reader will find between the covers.  Lastly, it has to stand out amongst other covers on the shelf (or online).
To accomplish this, we have to keep lots of things in mind: Who is the target audience and what would they like to see?  What have similar successful books done to visually attract readers?  How can we stand out?  What do we think are going to be the visual trends when the book comes out?  How can we appeal to the broadest possible audience? We’re lucky in that we have a great design team and lots of input from various departments such as editorial, marketing, sales, and publicity, so we can tackle these questions and more over the course of the cover design process.
I’m excited to share some of this process with you here, thanks for doing this, Jason!

So here’s a little history of TDE’s cover, start to finish.  Actually this will go back even further than that!


Many moons ago, in 2009 when I was working on the book as a rank amateur, I decided it would be a good idea to commission a painting I could use on my website, on business cards, and so on.  I reached out to my friends in the video game industry, asking if they had any concept artists at their studios who did freelance work.  This eventually led me to Kelli Davis, a very talented young artist working (at the time at least) at Supervillain Studios in Irvine, CA.

Kelli agreed to do a rough painting for me, and here was what I asked her for:

As I've envisioned it, the focus of the cover is the space elevator itself, as seen from near the base of it looking up.  I'd love to see the hints of tall, rundown buildings at the sides, and if possible a man looking up.
I also included this sketch:

It's interesting for me to go back and look at this now, because it's actually not that different from the final cover! But we'll get to that...

Kelli took this and sent me back a few rough sketches of her own, asking which I liked:

The curve in the middle one had a dramatic appeal to me, so I asked her to go with that and here was the final result:


This was really excellent, and exactly what I was hoping for.  I think the only criticism I had was the buildings were a bit too old-fashioned for futuristic Darwin.  Between that and the color scheme more than a few people got a "steampunk" feel from this, but at the time I was fine with it and happily paid her for the piece.

Now, fast forward a few years.  I've got a book contract with Del Rey and finally, months later, I get the email starting the discussion about covers.  I'd been told many times before this that authors rarely get any say in their cover art, so being included in the conversation at all made me very happy.

Mike, my editor suggested one of two paths (quoting the email verbatim here):
  • We could go for the sci-fi classic: figure with slightly futuristic garb/weapon in front of a slightly futuristic backdrop (with the Elevator, of course), a la John Scalzi, Jack Campbell, and Anne Aguirr
  • We could go highly stylized: I was thinking about the pictographs aboard the Builders’ first ship

The idea to do something abstract was soon discarded, so the focus became a "character cover".

I was, to be honest, a little miffed that all other paths were apparently already closed.  I replied with some thoughts on both of the above, and then pretty strongly indicated my preference for a "landscape cover", ala those done by Stephan Martiniere.  It's worth noting I grew up with the ambition to do 3D graphics and animation for a living, and idolized artist like Syd Mead and Ralph McQuarrie.

Mike: We’re tasked with creating a cover that conveys the right information to the biggest potential audience so that a customer browsing the shelf (or online) goes, “Ooh!  That looks cool!  What’s that?” and then goes to investigate further.
When the Del Rey team was thinking about Jason’s covers, we wanted to convey several things.  First, they had to be clearly sci-fi since that was the primary reader for this book.  Beyond that we wanted to tell people that Jason’s books are about A) characters you actually care about and B) breathtaking action.  We felt that a “character” cover with the right sci-fi elements would be the best way to communicate this to potential readers.
With regard to the “landscape cover”, we had briefly considered that too, but were put off by the fact that those types of covers can look static and monolithic and didn’t always inform about all of the great stuff inside.  Some sci-fi readers go nuts for images of huge ships or colossal sci-fi landscapes, but they can also be a turn off for non SF readers.  This was definitely on our mind as we felt that TDE had something to offer readers who didn’t regularly read sci-fi as well as those who have lots of experience in the genre.


Mike and I both exchanged examples of what we were thinking.  So here they are side-by-side:


Jason's idea              vs.               Mike's idea
Keep in mind, my point of view was coming purely from what appealed to me, while Mike was thinking (as he rightly should) only about what would be the best cover to help Darwin fly off bookstore shelves.

My main concern with a character-focused cover was that they often look cheesy.  The cover above for EMBEDDED was not cheesy at all, so I was happy about that.  My comment back to Mike was that I'd seen the book before and had no idea it was Sci-Fi. From afar I'd assumed it was a military book and had never picked it up.  I suggested if they go that route they at least try to get a sci-fi looking backdrop.  And, I subtly urged him to try and find an artist who painted people well.

Mike: I absolutely loved EMBEDDED and I really dug the cover. For me, seeing it made me want to know who this dude was, what was going on, and what shot down that craft in the background.  I knew we could do something cool in a similar vein, but tailored to Jason’s books in a way that emphasized the series’ strengths, and did so with more color and oomf.

Fast forward a few months.  In Mike's next email, he shared with me the three artists they were considering.  I'm not sure if I can say who they all were, but suffice to say I looked at samples from each and they were all amazing.  As someone who doesn't generally care for "character covers", I don't say this lightly.  As far as I could tell, Del Rey was looking at the top three artists out there.

In the end they selected Christian McGrath, and I felt very confident then that the artwork would be of the highest quality.  If Chris is anything he's amazingly consistent.  Just glance at his portfolio and you'll see what I mean.  Every one of his covers is well composed and none, in my view, could ever be called cheesy.

Some of Christian McGrath's covers

Despite being with one of the top publishers in the business, I think this news marked the first time I really felt like I'd joined the big leagues.

Mike: We’ve all been big fans of Christian’s work for years at this point, especially the covers he’s done for Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books.  I love that his figures are dark and purposeful, gritty and tough, but also appealing.  I look at the images above and wonder, “Who’s ass is she going to kick and can I read about it?”  We knew he was our guy and were very happy that Jason agreed!

Fast forward again, as Christian went off and started to do his thing.  Another month passed before Mike sent me this little preview: a few very rough sketches from Christian as he attempted to find the right pose, mood, and composition.

Here's the sketches Christian provided.  Remember these are extremely rough:



Mike: This first round of sketches is used to give us the opportunity to decide on the direction of the overall composition.  How much would it suck for an artist to create a cover image, only to have the publisher say, “That’s cool, but can you change his pose?”  Nope, the sketch is the time to have that discussion.

We chatted a bit about the merits of these, and Mike also worked internally with his graphic design people.  Eventually feedback was given to Christian, and he came back a month or so later with this gorgeous work:

This painting really pleases me. I love how it captures both the character and the Sci-Fi aspect. My only feedback was that the climbers looked too much like those oversized ski-lift passenger cars.  I sent a sketch of what I envisioned the climbers looking like, and Christian revised them before the final version.

Mike also felt something needed to be done about Skyler's hair.

Mike: I can’t tell you how much I love this image.  Love, love, love.  Skyler looks like a consummate badass, and Darwin and the Elevator are so freakin’ cool in the background.  And the color palate?  Brilliant.  Christian McGrath is amazing.  That said, the hair was a little poofy for my tastes (but this is coming from a guy who keeps his head shaved; I acknowledge my bias).  Now that we had an arresting cover image, it was time to start tinkering…

Next up was the layout and typography.  There were many iterations, a handful shown here in chronological order, and I'll only add a few comments between because I think the evolution of it speaks for itself:

(Del Rey decided to change the angle so Skyler wasn't leaning, and crop in a bit. Personally I prefer the full painting)

Mike: As Jason mentioned, we wanted to zoom in on Skyler, again trying to focus on action and character above other elements.  Unfortunately, to get Skyler to the right size and orientation, we had to crop some of the city.  This bummed out the sci-fi nerd in me, honestly, but there are methods to our madness. 
We also wanted to try some other treatments to the background as a means of highlighting the figure even more.  Often this is done by shadowing the background, but we tried the opposite and instead lightened the background.  With those options side by side, the lighter one was the clear winner. 
Then it came time for text!  We tried dozens of different typefaces, layouts, and colors, many of which were so off that we didn’t even bother sending them on to Jason for consideration.  In the end, we liked the big, vintage-looking action font and decided that red/orange would pop against the blue-hued background.




And there we reach essentially the final version on the right. 

All in all it was an interesting process and I'm happy with the result, especially the way the whole series looks together!  If I haven't before, I'd like to publicly thank Michael Braff and Dave Stevenson at Del Rey for including me in the process and listening to my feedback, and Christian McGrath for his extraordinary talent and professionalism. 

Mike: I’d like to echo the thanks for Dave and Christian, but also to thank Jason for his input and notes.  But more than that, I’m grateful for his patience and trust.  The cover design process is not an exact science and there is a somewhat complex system of thought behind the decisions that publishers make.  In the end I’m ecstatic with the final covers and so glad that Jason is on board with them: to me they tell about a great character embroiled in an epic struggle, all set in a unique and realistic setting.  Hopefully you agree but, even if you don’t, hopefully the cover was cool enough to make you look further into Jason’s fantastic series.  Thanks for reading!