Last week I wrote about my initial attempts at plotting a novel, in preparation for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this November. (Read here.) I persevered and finished an outline, and also clarified a process that works for me. Maybe it will be useful to other writers; if so, there’s a template to print below.
When I last left my plot… I knew my next step would be actual writing: that is, brainstorming scenes. I also realized that plotting takes time; somehow it had seemed like an outline has so few words, I should be able to jot one down in five minutes. Not the case.
The romantic gardener’s cottage in the rose garden at Biltmore inspired me
I sat with small blank pages (index cards work great; I used the backs of old page-a-day calendars) and waited for the scenes to come. This was hard. I reminded myself of the main themes of my story: it was a love story at heart, with a crime/mystery keeping the characters apart. Once I focused on the love story, I was able to envision some scenes I’d like my characters to experience: they go on a research trip together, they go into town together and are besieged by the press, they escape a rainstorm to a cottage in the gardens—right before the evidence appears that makes her look guilty of the crime (spoiler: she’s not).
It also helped me to use what I know. When they take the trip, what city could they go to that I’m familiar with? What could she be studying in school that I know enough about to add detail to conversations? What topic has always interested me, that I’d like to research more, to get the detail I need? Maybe some writers can make this stuff up, but I can’t.
At times, a more complex issue would start confusing me, and I would stop brainstorming to write out the issue. For example, one character’s family history is entwined with the story, and I kept confusing his ancestors, and which one did what. I wrote out a family tree, labeling as needed (grandpa was the kind one who sent him to school, great grandma was the one in the painting, etc.) and noted the approximate birth dates of each to make sure my timeline worked and fit with history (they lost their fortune during the Great Depression, for example).
Splitting My Outline in Two
As I worked, I found that I kept diverging from writing what happened in a scene to writing about how the action affected the main characters (MCs): how they felt, what they learned, how they changed, what new challenges arose for them. This diversion kept getting me off track. So I got this picture in my head: running along the bottom was the timeline of the character arc—how each MC changes in the story—with the individual scenes tacked on top. I liked this picture because it paralleled the idea that each scene must have a purpose and must advance the plot, with the MC changing in the process.
I started making this picture, using the scenes I had brainstormed. Eventually, my picture evolved to have this structure:
Note that I had two MCs, so my picture actually had two left columns.
I kept working until I had used up most of my scenes. Had I plotted enough? I counted my scenes and compared with the number of chapters I expected for a 50,000-word novel, and the outline seemed reasonable. So I tied things up with a few final scenes. (Note: I’m using the word “scene” where others might use “chapter.” Sometimes the MCs might leave one location and go to another within one scene/chapter, but in my head, this was still one scene. Other writers might prefer a different definition of “scene,” or might have shorter chapters where each chapter only has one location or event in it.)
For Next Time: The Whole Plotting Process
My first attempt at plotting was a little messy, but I can now see what I would do next time. I’d start with some initial questions:
Who is(are) the main character(s)?
What misconception has the MC internalized?
What is the status quo when the story begins?
What are the main events that occur in the story?
What are some challenges the MC faces?
How does the MC change? What does the MC learn?
What are the subplots?
What are the climax and resolution?
Then, I’d make an outline:
Brainstorm scenes (stick to plot details and events)
Work out the details of any tricky parts (like the timeline or family tree)
Make the outline using the template
If you’d like to try this method, here is a PDF of the template to download. Page 1 is for a story with one MC, and page 2 is for a story with two. Print multiple copies of the page you need; the “status quo” box only needs to be filled out on the first page of your outline.
You may have heard of the concept of plotting versus pantsing: some writers plot out a novel before they begin writing, while others sit before a blank page and “fly by the seat of their pants.” Both my Nanowrimo experiences were pantsing, and I loved it. I didn’t know how I even would plot a book, since I always start with an opening scene and no idea where the book is going.
This past year I worked with a developmental editor on my new-adult novel (The Knowledge Game [or maybe The Knowledge Trick?]; Nanowrimo 2014), and she cut about 30,000 words and suggested some major rewrites. After working through the revision, and feeling certain she was right about it, I returned to my romance novel draft (Rose Fair; Nanowrimo 2016) and found a similar mess, and set about reworking it.
So I was thinking, maybe there is something in this plotting. I was waffling on Nanowrimo 2018—can I really fit it in this year?—and decided to try plotting a new novel. If I could generate an outline before November, I’d sign up.
My First Attempt
The rolling hills around the house suggested plenty of opportunities for my protagonists to sneak away from the tourists
I knew the opening scene, at a grand estate. Mom and I were heading to Asheville to see a Chihuly exhibit at Biltmore, so I decided to keep alert for plot ideas in the background of my brain during our visit.
A romantic tryst on the bridge?
At the farm, we watched a video on the historical residents of Biltmore Village. I jotted ideas. As we rode the shuttle to the Biltmore house, I scanned the countryside and imagined my characters venturing into it. More ideas. I took notes in the gardens: there was a greenhouse, a gardener’s cottage, a team of workers planting mums. We walked to the pond through the azalea garden; if it were spring, the azaleas could be blooming.
When I got home, I sat with my notes and a sheet of blank paper and started planning my scenes, writing a few words about each and connecting them with arrows. I plotted eight scenes before running out of notes.
Getting Advice on Plotting
Here I am relaxing on the loggia
Setting aside time to plot felt like it opened my imagination. But now I was back in normal life, with the cats crying for breakfast, the rug un-vacuumed, the office job looming over my morning. How would I continue?
I googled “how to plot a novel” and the results overwhelmed me: use our template, the definitive guide, the Story Circle Method, three awesome plot structures. There was one video that seemed to be Google’s top choice, though, so I watched it: Ellen Brock’s “How to Plot a Novel,”https://youtu.be/cems_-085nQ. Ellen offers a simple approach. (1) Write down every scene you can think of that you’d like to include in your novel. (2) Put them in order. (3) Make sure each is part of the main goal, and has conflict or an obstacle. But where do these scenes come from? I thought.
I also applied the main lesson I learned from reading Story Genius (see my review here):* the main character existed before the story begins, and developed a misconception about herself that she tries to overcome in the story. I’d be writing a romance novel, but the central thread of the novel couldn’t just be “Cailin wants to find love.” It would be that Cailin has begun believing she is unlovable, and can’t believe Alex would love her—especially not when she realizes who he is. What about Alex? He’s grown distrustful of women since they’re so often interested only in his wealth. Cailin seems different; she likes him before she finds out who he is. But then the circumstances indicate she might be playing him (spoiler: she’s not), and he is forced to tread carefully. Identifying this central belief for each character seemed to bring my plot to life.
More Advice: I Test Ride the “How to Plot a Novel” Articles
I gave googling another shot, first thing on a Saturday morning. This time the results didn’t seem so overwhelming. I’d recently learned that Google ranks results based on how long users stay on a page after clicking, so I would trust the writers who had searched before.
The Jericho Writers method
1. “How to Plot a Novel,” by Jericho Writers:https://jerichowriters.com/how-to-plot/
This article stresses keeping it simple, which I like. It asks you to jot down seven points about your novel; there was a pad and pencil sitting next to me so I made myself do it, and guess what? It was easy, and I had enough material to do it. So far so good.
Then I jotted down subplots and put everything into a template. There were also tips for if you don’t have enough material. I hoped for another step to turn my sketch into an outline, but the article ended there with a sales pitch. Still, I give this one five stars.
2. “How to plot a novel: 7 tips for success,” by Now Novel:https://www.nownovel.com/blog/how-to-plot-novel/
This article gives a writer a lot to think about. At first I found both the article and its links overwhelming, but I read through it all and found it worthwhile. The tips include
Think about the elements of the best plots
Create an outline
Consider the goals of each character
Identify the purpose of each scene
Plan for characters, events, and settings, not just one of these elements
Plan what else will change as the novel progresses
Use index cards to create a storyboard; each scene has a reason
Add subplots to reinforce the main plot
Another link is to “Plot outline creation: 7 smart methods” (https://www.nownovel.com/blog/7-ways-write-plot-outline/), which lists different methods that might work for different authors. No particular method jumped out at me, but rather I noted what they all have in common: start with a sketch, add detail, then add more detail.
The monochromatic initial sketch (that’s my painting spot in Andrews Hall at William and Mary!)
This general method reminded me of painting: Before I had any training, I would approach a painting by starting at one spot with detail and working outward. Often the result would fall off the canvas, or have an inaccurate overall shape. Then I learned to sketch the whole painting first, in one color, before filling in detail, and it worked much better.
3. “How to Plot a Novel: The Definitive Guide,” by Novel Writing Help:https://www.novel-writing-help.com/how-to-plot-a-novel.html
The third Google result was an overview with links to the articles of the “definitive guide.” I read the whole overview and then skimmed through the articles. A lot of the material now felt like repeat material, but the organization and detail might make this a good starting place for some writers. The one section that filled a gap for me was “Plotting the middle” using linked “mini goals” and “mini plots” to keep the reader hooked. That said, the detail overwhelmed me and I gave up about a third of the way through the page.
Here’s the final painting, in case you were wondering; in the class critique, my peers described it as “the dark side of obsession”; it’s not one of my favorites but my mom likes it
I clicked on a few more Google results, and there was more good material, as well as repeat material and recommendations that fell flat. But none of the websites told me exactly what to do next. I gradually accepted the truth: the next step would be sitting to write, forcing myself to come up with (1) more scenes and (2) more detail. There’s no magical method for making it happen that doesn’t involve (wait for it) actual writing.
Being at Biltmore gave me a boost and made the process feel fun and effortless. Cailin is an art graduate student who hangs out in the library carrels with her classmates. Since I live close to UNC–Chapel Hill, and used to frequent the libraries there, I plan to take a “research” trip to visit the libraries and art department.
And even when all I can do is work at home, I can aid my plotting effort by setting aside time and clearing my head of distractions.
What’s been your experience with plotting? I’d love to hear more tips.
*There are dozens of books on writing craft, and I hope to read them all eventually. It seems to me that authors will find most of them useless but will connect with a few. Or, some authors might find key takeaways in each, while not subscribing to the entire method presented. This is how I felt about Story Genius; I got a lot out of it, but at this point in my writing career, I would go nuts trying to follow the plan step by step.
This week I added categories to the subscription widget for this blog. Originally the blog was only for news updates, but then I started posting tips for writers and editors. As I continue my fiction writing journey, I hope to post content related to my future books; considering this new content pushed me to make a change.
I put off making this change for a while because it seemed daunting. Below, I’ve shared how I added the category capability.
About the Categories
First I clarified the categories I’ll be using. I wasn’t sure about the new category, which is why it has the vague title “Emily’s Thoughts.”
News about Emily’s upcoming books and events, and other happenings in her life. Usually there is one post every few months.
This is a new category as of fall 2018, and I’m not yet sure what direction it will go. It’s a place to post ideas and topics that may interest readers of my (upcoming) new-adult dystopian fiction book.
Practical posts relevant to authors, including resources and ideas about the craft of writing, as well as tips on the business of writing.
Practical posts relevant to editors, including tools and resources as well as the business of editing. Authors may be interested in this category as well, to learn tips that can help them self-edit their writing.
Practical posts relevant to those interested in self-publishing.
(I categorized this post as “For Authors” because of the how-to content below.)
The basic idea is to use an outside email service (I chose MailChimp) to manage my list of subscribers. My list will have “groups” (that is MailChimp’s term, and is parallel to the blog’s categories). Subscribers will be able to choose which groups they join. I’ll then set up an automatic “RSS to Email” campaign for each group; when I post in the News category, for example, everyone in the News group will automatically receive an email notification.
MailChimp offers a free account if you have less than 500 subscribers. This free account only includes support for the first 30 days; so, plan to set up your list immediately after signing up, so that you can get help if needed.
I had used MailChimp at my day job before setting up my own list. It can be a little confusing. I hope the steps below will help!
How to Add Subscription Capabilities for Categories
Step 1. Get started.
Create an account at MailChimp, and answer their questions. They will automatically create your first list, with your email address in it, using the name of your business; you can change the list name if you want. This list is where you will add your subscribers. There are other pages you should look at and customize under Settings (“List fields and *|MERGE|* tags” is where you can choose which information subscribers are required to provide, for example), but this post’s focus is on creating the campaigns and a sign-up form including categories, to use with my blog.
Step 2. Create groups.
On the main menu, choose Lists. Then choose the name of the list to open it. Under Manage contacts, choose Groups. Click the gray button to Create Groups. Choose “As checkboxes” so that subscribers can be in more than one group. Name your Group category (I used “Emily’s Author Blog”) and then fill in your blog categories under Group names. (This is a little confusing because MailChimp uses different terminology! Don’t create a new group category for each blog category.* You can see mine below.** Remember to Save.
Step 3. Create segments.
When you send an email campaign in MailChimp, you can send it to your whole list or to a segment of your list. You cannot, however, send it to a group. So, you will create a dynamic segment for each group; the segment will update as the group updates. Then you will send the campaign to this segment. To create a segment, choose Manage contacts,Segments, and click the gray button to Create Segment. Then use the dropdowns to find your Group category and one Group name, like this:
Click Preview Segment, and Save Segment. Don’t worry about the “Goose egg” screen; there is just no one in your segment yet. Name your segment and save. Now repeat Step 3 for each blog category. Note: you can’t rename a segment so get it right the first time, otherwise you’ll have to delete it and create a new one.
Step 4. Create signup form.
Choose Signup forms from the menu, and then Embedded forms.***
The embedded form will appear with information already filled in. You can see a preview on the right (you might need to scroll to see all of it) as well as the code. You can customize the form under Form options on the left; I changed the title, to indicate a blog. Copy and paste the code into a text file and save it. (There doesn’t seem to be a way to save it in MailChimp.) Then, paste this code into your website and the form should appear. For me, using WordPress, I used a “Custom html” widget in my sidebar, although a “Text” widget seemed to work as well.
Step 5. Test the form.
Your email address is already subscribed in MailChimp, but use the signup form on your site to subscribe to all the blog categories. Having an email address in each group will make Step 6 easier.
Step 6. Create an RSS campaign for each group (using segments).
Choose Campaigns and then click on the gray button to Create Campaign. Choose Email,Automated, and Share blog updates. Rename the campaign to match one blog category, and click Begin. Note that steps of creating the campaign will appear along the bottom of the screen. Here are the steps:
RSS Feed: Paste in the URL of the RSS feed of your blog category. I’m not totally clear on how RSS feeds work, but I think if you go to your blog, click on a category, and add “feed” at the end, the URL will become the feed URL. (You can’t see the feed on Safari; you’d need to download a feed reader app.) When you try to save, MailChimp will tell you if the feed URL is invalid.
My feed URLs for the above categories look like this:****
You also need to set when the emails will go out. If you post often, you might decide to send emails once a week, as a digest. I decided to send on most weekdays at lunchtime. So, if I post in the News category on Saturday, subscribers in the News group will receive an email notification on Monday at 11 AM. If I post in the For Authors category on Tuesday night, subscribers in the For Authors group will receive notification Wednesday.*****
Click the blue Next button to proceed to the next step. If you need to stop working, click Save and Exit at the top right. Note that you would find you campaign under Drafts when you are ready to continue building it.
Recipients: Choose Segment or tag, and choose the segment from the options that appear. (You can also create new segments at this point, but we created segments in Step 3. I find it less confusing to create the segments in advance.)
Setup: I altered the From name but otherwise left the defaults in place. I selected “Personalize the ‘To’ field” using the subscriber’s first name (*|FNAME|*) because I like the idea of the notifications going to a person’s name. Note that the Campaign name is not visible to the public.
Templates: This is where you start designing the actual email. The body of the email (the links to your blog) will be generated automatically, but you might want to add a logo or header at the top, and a background color, among other things. You can build from scratch or start with a template from the Themes tab. My advice is to start simple if you are new to MailChimp. Remember that whatever you use will be in every email (until you change it); you would not want to include five photos and a lot of text introducing yourself, because your subscribers would then receive this material every time they get a notification. I wanted a simple design that would work week after week. I chose Basic, 1 column.
Note that below, after designing the email, I saved it as a template. Then when I repeated this step, I used the same template, so that all emails would have the same look.
Design: MailChimp has a drag-and-drop system where you drag elements from the right onto the email on the left, and then click on an item (on the left) to open an editing window (on the right) where you can make changes. You must click Save and Close after editing each element. I’m not going to give details here, other than to say that you’ll want to use “RSS Header” and “RSS Items” because those are the elements that will automatically populate with your blog posts. The RSS information comes from your feed, so (for example) if you don’t like the title of the feed, you would update it at your blog. MailChimp’s design help is here: https://mailchimp.com/help/design-an-email-campaign-in-mailchimp/
Here’s what my campaign ended up looking like:
And, if I click on Preview and Test and Enter preview mode, it looks like this:
Just to make sure it was working, I published two test blog posts in my News category and checked preview mode again, and saw this:
Note that, as seen in the above images, the merge tag “RSSFEED:TITLE” is being filled in with “News – Emily Buehler” while “RSSFEED:DESCRIPTION” is blank. I can try to find the place to change the title or to add a description at my blog. I can also remove either merge tag by clicking on the “RSS header” element in my email, choosing “Custom,” and editing the code.
(This is where you should click Save as Template.)
Confirm: I had an error here that no one was in my segment. I knew that my own email address was in the segment, however. I tried logging out and in, but it didn’t help. It took a whole day before MailChimp got on track and recognized that an email had been added to the segment. Once the error was fixed, I clicked Start RSS and was told that an email would go out Monday at 11 AM. It would only go to me (the only subscriber).
Now repeat Step 6 to create a campaign for each of the other blog categories! Remember to use your template. Don’t worry, this step goes much faster with the template.
Step 7. Add subscribers.
You now have a form on your website where fans can subscribe to your blogs by category. If you collect email addresses at events (note: you need permission to subscribe people), you can add them to your list and to the various groups from inside MailChimp (open the list and use the Add contacts dropdown). If you previously used a subscription plugin, you can export the emails and import them into MailChimp.
Note that when someone subscribes, MailChimp will send them old posts going back a day/week/month if you have chosen to send daily/weekly/monthly.
I also sent an email to all subscribers (using a separate, one-time campaign in MailChimp) that explained why they were receiving the email, that I was changing to a new system, and that they could now choose which categories to subscribe to.
So, to sum up, you now have a MailChimp campaign set up for each category on your blog. When you post in a category (e.g., “News”), the post goes into the News feed, which MailChimp picks up. The RSS to Email campaign you created in MailChimp for the News feed creates an email that is sent to everyone in the News segment, which is everyone who subscribed to the News category on your blog. Yay!
Resources I Used
Here are the articles I read while doing this process:
In the past I’ve sometimes added a blog post to multiple categories. Subscribers would get one email each time there was a blog post. With the new system, if I add two categories and someone subscribes to both of them, the subscriber will get a separate email notification for each category. So, I will try to use only one category per post. (This seems to be a best practice for SEO reasons anyway.)
Right now, the notification emails are set to go at lunchtime on most weekdays. I think this will work because I don’t post constantly. If I started to post multiple times per week, I would switch to a weekly send time, to announce multiple posts at once. However, MailChimp does not have an easy way to combine the notifications from different categories, so someone who subscribes to multiple categories would receive multiple weekly digests, if I use a weekly send time. I’m not going to worry about this for now.
I did add an “All Categories” group, however, along with a segment and campaign, and redid the signup form. Readers who check the All Categories box will receive notifications of any blog posts bundled into one email. (If they check all the other boxes AND the All Categories box, though, they’ll get multiple copies. I included some text at the bottom of my emails [see above] to avoid this.)
The feed URL that you use for All Categories is the feed for the whole blog, not just one category. It should look something like this:******
I created three test posts in various categories on my blog. I also used the custom RSS header block and removed some of the code. My preview of the campaign for All Categories looked like this:
I hope these instructions help anyone else who wants to add the ability to subscribe by category to their blog.
*You might if your categories fall into different types—like if you had an author blog AND a plumber blog, and you wanted a set of groups/categories under each.
**After taking the screen captures, I streamlined my categories and removed two.
***This is not relevant to the current process, but it is worth looking at the Form builder, which is where you would make a “free-standing” sign-up form; you could then send interested people to this form via a link. There are also items like the confirmation email subscribers receive, which you may want to customize. There are a lot of items here, and I am not clear on which ones get used when. Another option is a pop-up form, but I did not want anything popping up on my website, because pop-ups have become common and I find them annoying.
****I had some trouble with the campaign for the Thoughts category. I wondered if the punctuation in the category name might be causing the feed not to work, so I changed the category from Emily’s Thoughts to Thoughts. Use simple names to avoid possible glitches.
*****I’m not totally sure how many days back a campaign will look for posts. Presumably a weekly send time will make the campaign look back a week. Some of my “daily” send times did not work unless I posted the blog within 24 hours of the send time; but other daily send times did look back many days. My current best guess is that selecting multiple days but not every day results in some weirdness.
******On my site, I had originally named the blog page “News,” so my feed actually appears at this URL: https://emilybuehler.com/news/feed/. But since News is now a category as well, this is confusing. On most blogs, the default name will be “Blog.”
Happy September, everyone! Just an FYI, I am working on adding categories to the subscription form, to allow subscribers to choose which content they receive notifications about. This is in anticipation of adding some additional types of blog posts, as I ease into the world of being a fiction writer. I don’t want to subject anyone to “Emily’s Thoughts” if you just want tips for writers or news updates. I’ll keep you posted.
Here’s what I’ve been working on all summer, and what I’m looking forward to this fall.
Continuing Education on Self-Publishing
I’ve been a fan of self-publishing since I published Bread Science in 2006. I’ve tried to capture and condense everything I know about it many times (see the summary in this blog post), most recently in a presentation I gave at the local library this summer (view the slides PDF, here). I plan to refine this presentation and offer it again.
A sample of ebook code and the ebook it generates, showing an error
The trouble is, in addition to self-publishing being a huge topic, many aspects of self-publishing keep changing, as new services and software become available. And I’m always learning new bits. Most recently, I delved into the code of the Bread Science ebook to fix an error that prevented me from uploading the ebook to OverDrive. I posted about that experience here: https://emilybuehler.com/2018/tinkering-with-ebook-code-for-beginners/
I continue to read articles and attend sessions on self-publishing, always hoping to learn something new. In August, I attended a talk at the Durham library by author Nancy Peacock and author/publisher Nora Gaskin. At first, I felt disheartened; how did other people know so much about self-publishing? Then Nora described how she struggled to compile a self-publishing process for herself to follow, a process she now shares with others, and I realized I was just having another incident of imposter syndrome. Her struggles sounded similar to mine.
Writing, Writing Associations, and Writing Conferences
Brooke Warner’s excellent book
Last spring I worked with developmental editor Tanya Gold on my new-adult dystopian fiction novel, currently titled The Knowledge Trick (#KnowledgeTrick—although I keep changing my mind and have not actually tweeted this hashtag yet). I revised heavily based on Tanya’s feedback, and plan to attend the NC Writers’ Network’s fall conference in Charlotte, where I’ll participate in the “Manuscript Mart” to get feedback on pitching the novel. I’m reading up on how to pitch, but I’m keeping my options open. While I want to explore a traditional publishing route, I’ve been reading Green-Light Your Book by Brooke Warner, which makes me wonder if traditional publishing is right for me. I’ll continue to learn more and hopefully the right path will become clear.
The first day of the writing retreat
On my self-funded summer writing retreat, I got back to work on my romance novel, Rose Fair, using everything I had learned from working with Tanya. I finally joined the Romance Writers of America (RWA), as well as the local chapter, Heart of Carolina Romance Writers, and hope to learn more about the romance industry and to find where my novel fits in. It’s a big industry, and I’d like to find the authors and publishers with goals similar to mine: writing well-written, easy-to-read stories with smart, empowered female protagonists and with deeper meaning behind the actions on the page. I plan to attend the RWA conference in New York in July 2019.
I’ve been busy with my editing business. I’m still copyediting academic papers, and I’ve been formatting longer reports, which has an appeal similar to that of copyediting: making it all consistent. Occasionally I do some writing work. Last winter, I drafted the summary of a report I had edited, and then I revised with feedback from the report authors. The report was titled, Reducing the Threat of Improvised Explosive Device Attacks by Restricting Access to Explosive Precursor Chemicals. The summary is now available from the National Academies Press, here.
Possibly my favorite freelance work is what I call “beta reading,” for lack of a better name: reading the manuscript and pointing out places where the reader is pulled out of the story, or where the point-of-view accidentally shifts or the action is confusing. It’s a step between an early developmental edit and a later stage copyedit. I think I like this service best because I sense that I’m making a difference to the writers, not just correcting one text but informing their writing. A few authors have approached me this year, and after seeing my sample edit of their work (which pointed out recurring issues), all decided they’d better do some more work on their own before hiring an editor.
PerfectIt at work
With all the writing I have been doing, I’ve noticed a reduction in my blog posting. One final post I did this summer is about using PerfectIt, a tool for writers and editors that finds inconsistencies in text. It’s not that PerfectIt is hard to use, but before I did, I didn’t understand how it worked at all, so I wanted to share that experience. Read that here: https://emilybuehler.com/2018/editor-tool-perfectit/
I say “appearances” because some of my upcoming events are brief ones. I’m participating in a new book sale featuring local authors at the Orange County, NC main library on November 24, sponsored by the Friends of the Library. If you’re in town please stop by and say hello. I’ll also be the local author giving the “art moment,” a brief reading to open the Orange County Board of Commissioners meeting, on December 3. I’m actually quite nervous about this—I attended this month’s meeting and remembered how big the room is, with about a hundred attendees.
The bread display at the student show at the Folk School last June
I have two classes scheduled at the Folk School, and registration is open:
The January class comes with the added bonus that you’ll get to meet my mom, a.k.a. the Two Blue Books distribution office. I also plan to teach my usual “Beginner Kneading” at the Asheville Bread Festival, date tba.
Producing an ebook is one of the more confusing parts of self-publishing. Guides offer all kinds of suggestions for DIY software and companies who’ll create the ebook for you.
I chose to create my own ebook for a few reasons: (1) to save money, (2) to learn something new, and (3) because Bread Science is complicated. I wanted the index of Bread Science to link back into the book, but without page numbers, I had to choose which word each index item would link to. I also had to move the 200+ pictures to be in-line in the correct place in the text, and to modify the text in places to match. I thought it might be impossible for someone else to make these changes correctly, or at the very least it would cost a fortune.
But recently I had to look at the code of my ebook. (While I have never found a problem with it, running it through an “ebook validator” showed six errors, and this prevented the ebook’s acceptance at OverDrive [via Kobo], the ebook service libraries use.) I’m sharing the experience here.
Methods of Creating eBooks (as far as I can tell)
Create a Word document, format it properly, and convert it using conversion software (like Calibre) or upload it at a sales site (Kobo, KDP, etc.) and let them convert it. This seems like the most accessible method to me.
Create an InDesign document, format it properly, and export it as an EPUB: I’ve been told this is a thing, and preferred by professionals, but I have no idea how this works! I’ve only used InDesign as a page layout program.
Create an EPUB by writing code. Yikes.
Pay someone else to create an EPUB,
Use method 1 or 2, then tinker with the code to make it better. This method is what we’re exploring here.
I’m not an expert so i won’t try to explain this in detail, but basically, what’s behind an ebook is code similar to a web page’s code. When you use a program to convert a Word document to an ebook, the program creates that code. Your proper formatting of your Word document results in good code.
There are probably people out there who can write that code straight out of their heads. Most people, though, create the code using a conversion program and then tinker with it. Calibre has an ebook editor, so I decided to start there, since I’d used Calibre to create the ebook.
When I opened Bread Science in the ebook editor, it looked like this:
Fixing the Errors
The staff at Kobo had helpfully sent me information about the errors in my ebook. (I later realized that I could find these errors by uploading my ebook to a free online ebook validator.) Two of the six errors looked something like this:
ERROR RSC-005 /index_split_012.html (line 24, col 33) Error while parsing file ‘attribute “value” not allowed here; expected attribute “dir”, “id”, “lang”, “style”, “title” or “xml:lang”‘.
Initially I had no idea what these errors meant. You can see that each error contains a location: an html file name, and a line and column. I opened the file (index_split_012.html) in the editor and looked at line 24.
You can see that the code for list item 9 (in the box) differs from the code for the other list items, and there is a corresponding odd indent in the ebook. The code is extra confusing because some of the items are bookmarked and linked to from the index (that’s what the blue ids are for) but some are not. List item 9 (“Cooling”) is not linked to from the index.
I altered the code to match the code from line 19 (list item 5: Fermentation), because this list item also does not have a link from the index. This removed the error.
So basically, I never really understood the error in technical terms, but I was able to adjust the code using nearby samples.
Two of the errors looked something like this:
ERROR RSC-012 /toc.ncx (line 30, col 58) Fragment identifier is not defined.
This turned out to involve a table of contents (TOC) item, the dedication page, that was missing its bookmark. So, the converter (rightfully) got confused and pointed the link to the dedication page at the title page instead. I manually added the bookmark code, and in two places corrected the link (sending it to the dedication page, index_split_004.html, instead of the title page, index_split_000.html).
The final two errors looked something like this:
ERROR RSC-005 /toc.ncx (line 20, col 58) Error while parsing file ‘identical playOrder values for navPoint/navTarget/pageTarget that do not refer to same target’.
The file toc.ncx appears to be one loooong file. It’s related to the table of contents, and it doesn’t produce a preview. Note that each item in the list has a “playOrder” that increases one by one, but the error occurs when playOrder=“2” repeats. (You can also see the index_split_000, which I changed to index_split_004, as mentioned above.)
I think this error occurred because my Acknowledgments and Dedication are two items in the TOC, but I did not insert a page break between them as with all the other TOC items. I had to search the error online to figure this one out. It appears that a playOrder number cannot point to two different locations. Even with the “000” corrected to “004” I still had two different locations: index_split_004.html and index_split_004.html#id_Dedication.
So I had two choices: change the second location to match the first (in which case readers clicking on “Dedication” in the TOC would be taken to the top of the page, and would have to scroll through the Acknowledgments to reach the Dedication at the bottom), or renumber all the playOrders manually. I did the latter.
I uploaded my tinkered-with EPUB to an ebook validator and it passed the test. I still find working in code daunting, but at least now I know what it means to tinker with the code, and I was able to make some quick fixes.
Recently I installed PerfectIt. I’d heard editors talk about PerfectIt as a time-saving tool, but until 2018 it was not available on Macs. Also, I have a general dread of new software, and I had no conception of how PerfectIt would work… but when I learned that PerfectIt was available, I signed up.
Initially I had some technical difficulties to the point where the support person at Intelligent Editing, the company that makes PerfectIt, gave up on me. A short time later, though, after a Microsoft Word update, I tried again, and the installation worked.
PerfectIt is called an “add-in” and works from inside Word. Now that I’ve used it and seen how it interacts with Word, I wanted to share the experience.
Overview of installation
I won’t give detailed instructions, as they probably vary with computer, operating system, and Word version, and probably change regularly. Also, because the process was not smooth for me, I don’t have good clean notes. So this description may not be perfect but is a basic overview of installing the PerfectIt software.
Make sure Word is updated on your computer and note your version. (Note: PerfectIt does not work on .doc documents, only .docx documents.)
Buy PerfectIt (at Microsoft’s app store—see the “Get it now” button) or start the free trial (at Intelligent Editing’s website), after checking that it is compatible with your version of Word. I’d use the free trial to make sure the software works, to avoid the potential hassle of asking for a refund. On the free trial page, you choose your version and are taken to the Microsoft app store page.
You’ll be asked to sign in to your Microsoft account or to create one, so that Microsoft can keep track of your purchase. If you’ve purchased Word recently, you probably had to create an account to install it. I had some trouble logging in, even though I had written down my password.
Follow whatever instructions you are given to download and install the software. For me, I opened Word and added the PerfectIt add-in from inside the program by clicking on Insert > Add-ins > My Add-ins, and selecting PerfectIt. This was the step where I encountered trouble; Microsoft kept asking me to log in, and then nothing would happen. You might have to wait or to close and reopen Word for it to work.
Once installed, PerfectIt will appear right in your Word ribbon (see picture).
Once you have the add-in installed, PerfectIt is simple to use. Click on the PerfectIt tab in the ribbon, and choose “Launch PerfectIt.” A panel will open on the right side. You may have to log in (my PerfectIt account information differs from my Microsoft account information).
Then, you choose from a dropdown menu which task you want PerfectIt to perform (the main one is “Check Consistency,” and the other options are to check if a document conforms to a certain style guide or spelling) and click a big “Start” button.
A spinning arrow will indicate that the program is working, and text will tell you what specific item it is working on.
If PerfectIt finds an inconsistency, it will present you with your options.*
You might need to click on the options a few times to understand what the program is asking: if you click on version 1, you see the places where version 2 appears in the document, and vice versa. You can choose to fix one or the other or both, or to skip the item.
It’s that simple!
Do you need PerfectIt?
So far, PerfectIt has caught one hyphen inconsistency for me. While I’m waiting for it to run, I think about the other editors calling it time-saving and ponder the irony of how using it adds time to my process. However, I edit mostly short academic papers, where it’s relatively easy for me to catch all the inconsistencies myself. I can see PerfectIt being useful with longer documents or book manuscripts. It also has a language feature that I plan to use if I ever have to change a document from US English to UK English.
Note: When I was taking screen captures for this post, I tried running PerfectIt on a document with only three lines, with an obvious inconsistency. PerfectIt showed a message that it performs best with documents over 300 words, and it did not find the inconsistency. I’m not sure what to make of that. I added a bunch of text to the document and ran PerfectIt again, to get the final image above.
As I’ve resumed work on my new-adult fiction novel, I’ve considered the steps that have led to the current moment: I feel confident in my writing, but I know that I’ll continue to learn about the craft and improve. I’ve observed writing as a craft that can be improved, and not merely as the first words that spew onto the page when the author sits to write (at least not for me!).
I want to record the early steps while I still remember them. This leads me to remember the resources that have been most helpful to me, which I find myself suggesting to other new writers I meet. And, it leads me to the long list of resources recommended by others that are stacked on my bookshelf, waiting to be read.
So here is the writing process of my novel so far (resources in bold), and below I will outline the updated process that I’ll use in the future:
Stage 1: Write and Revise
I wrote the first draft somewhat randomly, finishing with Nanowrimo. (I’m currently pondering if this is the best way to start a novel, or if more planning is a good idea—more on this below.) I had a story and characters I liked, but the writing itself was bad and the whole thing was a mess: trying to keep track of who knew what, how many days had passed between scenes, and what weather it was from day to day.
To address the writing, I read some books on “self-editing” or revising for authors:
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman, a short guide that points out, one-by-one, specific problems new writers’ books often have.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, a longer guide to problems and solutions, with lots of examples from literature.
The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, lists of specific actions that might occur when a character feels an emotion. (So if I had written, “Nick looked angry,” I would look up “Anger” and see a list of possible actions that Nick might do, such as his lips tightening into a hard line, or his face becoming red. I would rewrite the sentence to show that Nick was angry instead of telling.
Some of the major changes I made included removing adjectives and adverbs in favor of better nouns and verbs, removing distracting “said” words in favor of “said,” and hunting down and removing repetition. I considered each section of each chapter: was it narrative, exposition, or scene? A lot of the exposition (text explaining to the reader) came to life when I replaced it with an actual scene with dialogue. I read my dialogue out loud to make sure it sounded natural. After applying the lessons from the books, I felt a lot more confident in the writing.
To address the confusion, I made a map of my setting, a timeline of the characters’ histories, a long scroll of the plot and what happened each day (including the weather), and a world-building spreadsheet (using a template from editor Tanya Gold) that I filled in with information about my world, like the political system, the current technology, the state of the environment, etc. By the end, I felt confident the plot was consistent.
Stage 2: Get Feedback and Revise
I took my work to a local writing workshop where we spent a few hours working on our first page. I never would have believed that much revision could occur on one little piece of writing! But being forced to keep at it resulted in all kinds of changes. I also submitted my manuscript for a colleague’s class to use as a sample, which generated feedback from the students and also the colleague.
I rounded up a team of beta readers. (I asked for readers in my winter holiday letter, and then approached half of those interested.) I was lucky to receive a huge amount of feedback, from little points of confusion to suggestions that affected the whole book (like, “Devlyn is too whiny and immature” and “It’s the future but the technology is just like today’s”). Some of the feedback was overwhelming or I wasn’t sure I wanted to follow it; I actually put aside the whole project for about a year and finished self-publishing my bike trip memoir, Somewhere and Nowhere. It was good to get a break and fascinating to see how everything I’d learned about fiction affected the writing in the memoir.
(Aside: Sometimes friend beta readers don’t follow through. Authors can meet colleagues in person or online to swap beta reading, meet with a writing group for ongoing feedback, or hire a professional editor to give feedback, with varying levels of commenting (i.e., overall feedback or line-by-line). As a freelance editor, I worked with some authors on their manuscripts and realized that the feedback I provided seemed to be a professional beta read, so I now use that description of my services [read more here].)
A year later, I came back to the novel. I made a huge list of the changes I wanted to make based on the reader feedback and new ideas I had had, and then got to work making them. The revision made my novel stronger, but the feedback had left me wondering about a few major points (Was the plot too random? Was Devlyn’s age appropriate?) and I worried that my characters were not deep enough. I also just had a general feeling of insecurity and wanted approval from a professional.
Stage 3: Get More Feedback, Learn More, and Revise
I applied for a local arts council’s grant for new writers, to use the money to work with a developmental editor. The process included finding the editor to work with. I approached Tanya Gold, a colleague at the Editorial Freelancers Association whom I had taken a class from (the class was on working with authors, and I loved Tanya’s collaborative approach). In the end, I didn’t get the grant, but I wanted to work with Tanya so much that I decided to make it happen. I might have shied away from spending the money or approaching editors, because it’s a daunting step to take, so I credit the grant-I-didn’t-get with making me take the step.
While I waited for Tanya, I learned about making book maps(read more here). I had been trying to keep track of various parts of my novel in various ways. A simple book map in a spreadsheet was just the tool I needed. I also learned about sensitivity editing, which looks for problems like gender and racial stereotypes or writing that assumes the reader is a certain race, and planned to read my manuscript with those issues in mind.
Tanya’s feedback was incredible. She had asked questions to understand my goals and concerns. She sent back a letter that assessed my manuscript (including things I hadn’t even thought of, like the underlying theme and how to make it stronger) and a chart of what actions I should take with each chapter. She made major changes in the manuscript (tracking them so I could follow along) and left comments throughout. Some of the comments addressed writing issues in general. For example, I often aligned my dialogue in a way that could lead to reader confusion, with one character speaking and then another character acting in one paragraph. Other feedback made the plot stronger; for example, when Devlyn is kidnapped, her growth as a character would be stronger if she managed to escape rather than being passively rescued.
One of the major changes Tanya suggested was cutting large sections of description and explanation. This was hard for me to accept; I loved the feeling of autumn when Devlyn is walking home from work, explaining to the reader the details of the future world I had created. Thankfully, I attended the NC Writers Network’s spring 2018 conference; each session I attended seemed to address the changes I needed to make both to make my story stronger and to attract an agent and publisher (read more here). I came to see that bringing the reader in to share the viewpoint of the main character, and to be in the moment with her, was the way to hook the reader into the story.
The conference led me to several books about crafting stories. I started with Story Genius by Lisa Cron, which underscores the need to get the reader into the moment with the main character, invested in her situation. Lisa also suggests mapping out your story before you begin writing. I’m debating her idea. While I can see that I wrote a lot of material that went to waste (like the scene of Devlyn being rescued instead of escaping, plus the second and third kidnappings, which were cut entirely!), I loved the process of sitting down with no plan and seeing what came out. Lisa suggests that many writing teachers recommend this random approach because it works for them, but that it doesn’t work for most new writers.
I’m currently following Tanya’s plan and rewriting, while also making a book map. The next resources on my list are the following:
Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld
The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass
Writing Deep Scenes by Jordan Rosenfeld and Martha Alderson
The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne
The most recent #EFAchat on Twitter (a chat among freelance editors) discussed working with new authors and helping them improve, and offered these additional resources:
Since I first got involved in self-publishing, I’ve wanted to share what I’ve learned with other interested authors. The information has taken various forms over the years. The latest is an outline that spans the entire process and also seeks to clear up some of the confusing areas.
Self-Publishing from 2006 to 2017
I self-published Bread Science in 2006. There were few legitimate services back then, so I had to do much of the work myself. I read some helpful books but none that gave a complete overview, including all the small tasks you might not think about (like registering your copyright or investigating shipping options). I also sorely needed a chronological list.
Soon after my new book came out, I began to realize I’d made a mistake: by following a decade-old process, I had missed opportunities. There are so many possibilities for self-publishers these days! I decided to learn more about the current state of self-publishing.
At first, I thought I had nothing else to contribute. But then I realized I did:
While there are many services available, authors might want to learn more about what they can do themselves to save money and retain more earnings, and I knew about DIY self-publishing.
Many areas of self-publishing have become very complex; I could help to clarify them for authors.
I could still provide an overview of the whole process, which many guides lack.
Life is busy! (Will I ever start a news post with anything else?) Here’s what I’ve been working on.
Upcoming Events: Bread and Self-Publishing
On May 5 I’ll once again be at the Asheville Bread Festival. I’m teaching beginning kneading (tickets available here) at 10 AM at Living Web Farm, and after class I’ll head back to the Bread Fair at New Belgium Brewing to run my booth. I’m also planning to attend the baker’s dinner. If you’re in town I hope you’ll say hi! More details are at ashevillebreadfestival.com or in this PDF.
My June class at the Folk School is full, but I’ll teach “The Science of Bread” again January 6–12, 2019, and “Baking Traditional Breads” May 26–June 1, 2019.
On May 20, I’m giving a free talk about self-publishing at the Orange County library in Hillsborough, NC. I’ll give an overview of the whole process from a DIY perspective, but pointing out places where one might hire help. The talk is free but the library asks attendees to register, here: www.bit.ly/ocplwriting. View the poster (PDF) here. Here is the copy from the poster:
What does it take to self-publish a book? And what is the smartest route to take? With all of the self-publishing services available today, the process can be confusing.
Author Emily Buehler self-published her first book in 2006, before many of today’s services were available. As a result, she took a “DIY” approach. She’ll present an overview of the entire process (finding a printer, designing the book, forming a business, marketing, distributing print books and e-books, and much more) and what it takes to do it yourself. If you decide that self-publishing is right for your manuscript, you’ll know what you face. You can then consider which parts of the process (if any) you’d like to outsource and the smartest way to go about it.
The Internet has made self-publishing a viable option for authors, enabling them to sell books across the world, and author-publishers are now gaining acceptance in the publishing world. It’s an exciting time to self-publish—come learn all about it!
Writing: Clearing the Clutter, and Making a Map
This past month I received my dystopian fiction novel back from developmental editor Tanya Gold. I trust and respect Tanya, but it was hard to see how much she suggested cutting. My immediate reaction was that “publishers today must not want description.” But I could see swathes of description in other books in the genre.
Then last weekend, I attended the NC Writers Network’s Spring Conference. The first class I took was “Essentials of Scene Crafting” with Heather Bell Adams. As soon as Heather began talking, explaining the difference between scene and summary, I could see what Tanya’s edits were about: a lot of my description occurred while the main character was, for example, walking home from work and thinking, and thus explaining to the reader—nothing was really happening, and the reader wasn’t in the scene. I had turned in Tanya’s version of my manuscript to the last event of the day: Slush Pile Live. When the time came, two of the editors on the panel listened to my entire submission without quitting! Read more about the Slush Pile Live experience, and the helpful tips it offered, on my editor blog: http://www.emilyeditorial.com/getting-through-the-slush-pile/
Scruffy observes one of my book maps
Other highlights of the conference were the opening address by Jill McCorkle and my afternoon class with David Halperin. Jill read an essay she’d written that included the idea of being haunted by memories, particularly of places, and spoke about the balance between letting your subconscious do the work of writing, and the hard work of revising. David’s class was “Writing the Character You Know Best.” I’d always considered it a flaw that my characters were rooted in my own personality, but David spoke about it as normal and even beneficial.
I won’t list all the additional minutiae of why I loved the conference, but I’m now looking forward to the three-day fall conference, where I’ll have an opportunity to meet agents and editors. This gives me a deadline for incorporating Tanya’s suggestions, revising, and getting my book (and myself) in shape. One way I will do that is with a book map. This past month, I took a class with Heidi Fiedler on book mapping. I used one of my romance novel manuscripts in the class, but I’m eager to apply all I learned to my dystopian novel. You can read about book mapping here: http://www.emilyeditorial.com/book-mapping/
Editing: Beta Reading and Bombs
Another class I took this spring was developmental editing of nonfiction. At first, I found it hard to ignore copyediting, to focus on the big picture, but after a while I got into it. While I don’t know if I’ll want to move in that direction as an editor, I wanted to understand what the process entails. Even if I’m working as a copyeditor, I’d like to recognize developmental faults in manuscripts, and the material interested me as a writer. The class helped me classify the services I do offer; for example, what some editors call “content editing” makes sense to me as a beta read with comments. I rewrote the services page of the Emily Editorial website (here).
Finally, I’m excited to share a link to a report I worked on for much of last summer: Reducing the Threat of Improvised Explosive Device Attacks by Restricting Access to Explosive Precursor Chemicals. I participated in several rounds of edits and helped with a final copyedit this spring. I also helped draft a summary booklet on the topic (not yet available). The report is available as a free PDF here.
I recently learned about book mapping. While the class was intended for developmental editors, I found the tool helpful as a writer.
What Is Book Mapping?
Book mapping is a method of plotting out the action or themes of a story, to help keep track of them. This mapping can be done visually or with text in a spreadsheet. Developmental editors can use a book map to visualize an author’s manuscript and get insights into what help it might need. Authors can use it to keep track of threads in their story and to step back from their own writing and gain the same insights.
Scruffy contemplates the timeline of my dystopian novel
Over the years, I’ve tried various methods of mapping out certain aspects of my projects. For example, when I was writing Somewhere and Nowhere, I wrote the contents of each chapter on index cards to chart the mood, with red ink for bad moods and green ink for good moods. Laying out the cards, I was able to see the large swaths of bad mood that might bog down readers, and the emotional roller coaster that persisted through the story and might exhaust readers. I used the cards to find red areas to reduce or merge. More recently, I used a long scroll of paper to plot the days of my dystopian fiction story, to keep track of weather patterns and days of the week, among other things.
I’ve never had a system that worked easily, though, or for multiple aspects of the manuscript. Until now!
The class suggested an easy method of using a spreadsheet. Each row is a section of the story: a chapter, a scene, or a day in the story. Each column is something that needs to be tracked: a character’s development, a theme, an aspect like the weather, or something practical like what day of the week it is. After the map is filled in (chapter by chapter), the mapmaker can follow a thread by reading down a column.
My Book Map
I decided to practice with a romance novel that I’d put aside after the first round of revisions. I started by skimming through it and pulling out the items I would track (the column headings); the teacher called this “mind mapping.” My list included the development of the main characters (Rose and Dustan), each of the three villains (Rose’s father the king, the evil Prince Murkel, and the fairy queen), Rose and Dustan’s love story, Rose’s history, and Rose’s “memory loss” (i.e., after Rose loses her memory, I needed to keep track of what bits had come back to her as the story progressed).
Then I set up the spreadsheet and began reading the book chapter by chapter and filling in the rows. The first few rows looked like this:
I immediately noticed that Dustan’s character quickly grew flat (note his empty column). The story is from Rose’s point of view, so there is plenty of opportunity to show her thoughts and growth, but I wanted the reader to see that Dustan’s original ill intentions change as he gets to know Rose. The teacher, without having read my manuscript, suggested working on the villain columns (could hints be given as to their various motivations?) and the Rose’s history column (adding history might give the story more depth).
As I progressed with adding rows, I tried to be my teacher-stepping back from the story I knew and looking at the spaces (or lack of) in the map. I noticed when Rose had four different feelings within one scene (did her feelings need to be clarified?) or when she immediately regained several memories within a few days of losing her memory (didn’t I want her to regain them slowly, for dramatic effect?) In addition to simply helping me keep track of the story, the map gave insight into how to improve it.
Book mapping is a simple and free tool authors can use. If you want to get started with some guidance, I recommend the class I took, which seems to be offered periodically through the Editorial Freelancer’s Association (available to non-members as well). It’s called Book-Mapping for Developmental Editors, with teacher Heidi Fiedler. Look for it here: https://www.the-efa.org/product-category/active-courses/