Saturday, December 28, 2013

Hour on, hour off

On her Throwing Up Words blog, Carol Williams discusses how she balances her writing with the rest of her life. The Utah writer and WIFYR mastermind writes for an hour then takes an hour off to deal with other things, then writes for an hour.

During that hour on, it is strictly writing, no Facebook, emails, or phone calls, “just me and the computer and the story and the best words I can put down.” She’s worked this out with her kids and they know interruptions aren’t allowed (though her girls do take precedence over anything).

When the hour is up, she can deal with cleaning or family matters or preparing dinner. She sets a timer and sixty minutes later it’s back to writing.

Carol tries to stick to this schedule but knows there are times when it is not possible. She is strict with it, yet lenient. She says that this approach makes it easier to quit when the time is up. Somedays she goes two hours on, two off.

She is a more dedicated writer than I. She writes at least for hours daily. Carol also has more publishers in her life pushing deadlines, a problem I would like to have.

I’m writing for at least an hour a day. (Most days. I was busy over Christmas and didn’t write for three days.) I set a timer and sitting at the keyboard for sixty minutes is manageable. When the writing is working, the time flies and the timer means I can get up, stretch, and move around before returning for more time. On days when I’m fighting the story, an hour with butt in chair is not terribly long, yet results in a word count.

I’m swinging between two projects, the one I started for NaNoMriMo and the one I’m sharing with my critique group. The plan is to alternate between the two. Spend one hour on one, get away form writing for a while, then spend an hour on the other.

Whatever your strategy, you have to make it work for you.

(This article also posted at

Friday, December 27, 2013

Apps for Writers: CardBoard Index Cards with CardBoard Novels

Did you get a new tablet for Christmas, and are you now looking for good apps to help with your writing? Or are you maybe looking for new ways to use your older tablet?

I've tried a few apps to try to use my tablets as writing tools, with mixed success. Today, I discovered a free Android app called CardBoard Index Cards that I think is going to be really useful. Unfortunately, it's not available for Apple products. I found some similar apps in the Apple App Market, but I haven't tested them, and they are not free. What makes me really like CardBoard is the CardBoard Novels add-on, which is also free. I'd like to review a similar app on my iPad, but I'm hesitant to pay for an app just to try it out, and it probably wouldn't have a similar add-on.

The CardBoard app lets you create index cards and arrange them in various layouts on a virtual corkboard. I was playing with it and thinking about how useful it could be when I happened across a reference to the Novels add-in. This add-in puts it over the top as a writing tool and makes this a tool that might stick in my toolbox. This review assumes that, as a writer, you would want to use both parts of this set.

Installing the app is easy, but the add-in gives it a couple more steps than most Android apps. First, install the main CardBoard Index Cards app like you would any other Android app. Then, go back and install CardBoard Novels. When both are installed, open Novels and follow the prompts to install it. Then, open the main app, go into its settings, and select the option to use Novels as the default card set when you create a new database. You can delete the Novels add-in app to save space. After you have run the add-in, the Novels cards are a part of the base app and the separate Novels app is no longer needed.

The base unit of the app in the database. Database can be an intimidating term to non-techies, but don't be afraid. Think of a database as a project. A database can contain multiple layouts. Each layout includes the cards you add to your board. Cards can be arranged vertically or horizontally, whichever you like best. If you select the options in the settings, you can even stack cards in groups. A card can be added to multiple layouts.

Cards can either be plain index cards, or they can be set up as card types. (More on card types later.) Like real index cards, they have two sides, and you can write whatever you want on a card. You can type more than fits on the card, but anything you write that goes beyond the end of the card is cut off from the card display. You can still view the extra text in the editor.

You can also link to pictures and have them appear on your cards. So, you could, for example, create a card describing a character, and find a picture to represent that character and put it on the other side.

In the main app, card types are color coded. The Novels add-in takes types several step deeper. The add-in includes color-coded card types and layouts for a four-act structure, character archetypes, character details, the hero's journey, and scene ideas. Each of these types has its own set of preconfigured cards. For example, there are cards for the protagonist, antagonist, ally, shadow, sidekick, mentor, and more. You can use the cards you want in your layout and ignore the rest, and you can change the titles and other content of the cards to whatever works best for you.

(Screenshot from author's Samsung Galaxy Tab, button bar not expanded) 

Having the preconfigured cards provides handy reminders for things you need to do when planning your work. For example, the Scene card includes a space for the viewpoint character. You might want to add info to a scene card that includes a summary of the scene, the goals for the scene (yours and the character's), and the conflict. If you like the "scene and sequel" structure model, you might also get into the habit of including the disaster and the sequel on the scene card, or you might create separate cards for the sequel. They are index cards, so you can do what you want to make them fit the way you work and think about your stories.

It took me a few minutes to get used to the interface. For example, I didn't notice at first that you can stretch the button bar across the bottom of the screen. I also accidentally created or copied cards. The interface could be more elegant, but it's sufficient, and it doesn't take long to learn. The app includes a help page that, although not very detailed, should be enough to help you figure out what you're doing. (Disclaimer: I'm looking at the help page through a tech writer's eyes, so my expectations might be different than those of the average user.)

(Screenshot from author's Nook HD, button bar expanded)  

Some of the terminology used in the app is perhaps overly technical and could maybe be more user-friendly. For example, a project is a database, and images are added by creating a link. If you link to an image, it displays on the card. If you link to another file, the file path shows on the card, but you don't actually link to the file. I didn't test links extensively, so they might be more useful than my quick test indicates. These terminology issues are minor, and should not hinder you quickly learning the app.

UPDATE 2/4/14: In response to this review, the developer has made changes to the terminology. "Layout" is now "Board," "Database" is "Board Set," and "Link" is "Shortcut." The developer's responsiveness to input makes me even more likely to use this when planning my next project.

Your layouts can be exported to text files that you can use elsewhere, and you can save your database to any folder. The interface for choosing a folder to save to is a little awkward, but once you get used to it, it's not difficult. I asked the developer if it's possible to sync between two Android devices, and he responded (impressively quickly, by the way) that you can indeed sync by saving your database to a Dropbox folder, then opening the file from the Dropbox folder on the other device. You could even use the BlueStacks program for Windows or Mac to run this (or any other) app on your computer. The syncing worked pretty well. Of course, any image files you link to from a card on one device do not appear on the other device, unless the images are also synced using Dropbox.
If you use a program with a storyboard function, such as Scrivener, this app will look familiar, and perhaps be unnecessary. But, if you are looking for a way to use your tablet to help you plan your stories, this one might become a valuable part of your toolkit.

Test Details

I tested the app and add-in on both a 10" Samsung Galaxy 2 tablet and a 7" Nook HD. It worked fine on both, and the smaller size of the Nook did not create any usability issues.

The app claims to be created for use on a phone, so I installed it on my HTC phone. I was pleasantly surprised by the way the app looks on the 3.7" screen. I'm unlikely to use the phone for any serious work, so I didn't test beyond installing and looking at it. If you like to use your phone for such things, it should work for you. I recommend the larger screen size and keyboard of a tablet, though.

I did not test extensively, like by planning out a whole project, but I did run through some essential tasks, such as (but not limited to) creating and editing cards, changing card colors (make sure only one card is selected, unless you want to change multiple cards at once), playing around with layouts, saving a text file, adding an image and trying other links.

I tested the Dropbox syncing by opening a file from the CardBoard folder in Dropbox. The folder had been synced on each device using the Dropsync app.

  • Easy to use for freeform storyboarding (base app).
  • Add-in provides useful card types for several common writing methods
  • Ability to customize cards and arrange them horizontally or vertically, and to stack cards
  • Syncing between Android devices is easy if you use the Dropsync app to sync the CardBoard folder on each device with Dropbox
  • Quick response from developer when I asked a question (without mentioning that I was writing a review) 
  • Free 
  • Not available for iPad or iPhone
  • Minimal help file (but at least there is one)
Thinking about self-publishing? Avoid common mistakes:

Monday, December 23, 2013

My Grown-up Christmas Wish

To all my friends in the writing community,

May your stockings be full of great ideas. May you have all the time in the world to write them. May your plots never lead you to dead ends. And may you land the biggest book deal of the decade--with the help of the agent of your dreams, of course.

That is my Christmas wish to all of you.

Merry Christmas! Or Happy Hollidays! Or Whatever makes you feel all warm and fuzzy!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas carols and writing

What writing lessons can one take from Christmas carols? T. P. Jagger examined that question this week on the From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors blog. He suggested five carols and the writing truths they offer.

If you want to pull in the reader,
start with a problem that needs to be overcome.
Do so quickly.
In the first four measures of Away in a Manger, we are aware of the no crib issue.

Have the protagonist struggle with
the loss of something or someone.
In Elvis’ Blue Christmas, the season just isn’t the same without his special someone.

Jagger can only take so much of Alvin and the Chipmunks’ Christmas Don’t Be Late and thus:
Don’t overdo dialectical speech in dialog.

A single unique trait is often enough
to create a memorable character.
Think Rudolph.

You never know when the muse will strike so you need to
just sit down, start writing, and see what happens.
The Christmas Song (a.k.a. “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) was written in about 40 minutes on a hot summer day in 1944.

Readers to the blog offered other truths:
We Wish You a Merry Christmas shows the magic of 3s.
Frosty the Snowman embodies magical realism.
Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer is a reminder to include humor.
The prelude to White Christmas, “The sun is shining/ The grass is green/ The orange and plan trees talks about sunny, warm palm trees sway/ There’s never been such a day in Beverly Hills, L.A” is such a contrast to the rest of the song. Lesson to learn: get your setting right.

If I may throw in one more bit of writing wisdom, throw in a plot twist as does the last line of I’ll Be Home for Christmas.

What lessons can other carols offer writers?

(This article also posted at

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Christmas Time is Here, By Golly

by Deren Hansen

My title comes from the first line of Tom Lehrer’s, “A Christmas Carol.” Here’s how he introduced the song:

"It has always seemed to me, after all, that Christmas, with its spirit of giving, offers us all a wonderful opportunity each year to reflect on what we all most sincerely and deeply believe in.

"I refer of course, to money. And yet none of the Christmas carols that you hear on the radio or in the street, even attempt to capture the true spirit of Christmas as we celebrate it in the United States: that is to say, the commercial spirit."

In the second verse, Lehrer sings:

It doesn't matter how sincere it is,
nor how heartfelt the spirit,
Sentiment will not endear it,
What's important is the price.

Whether or not we are immune to the relentless commercial drumbeat that fills the final month of the year, thanks to our simian need to track our social status we are all keenly aware of the quality of gifts we receive.

For most people, gift giving is tied to a handful of well–defined occasions. Writers, however, constantly offer themselves up for scrutiny because writing is the gift of our thoughts.

Words on a page are kind of program that enables another brain to re-create the thoughts—even the experiences—implied by the collection of symbols. The quality of the gift embodied in our writing is a function of the care with which we arrange and present our thoughts. It is a matter of both craft and to devotion.

This season of gift giving is a good time to review the gifts you give through your writing. Are they shoddy, perfunctory presents dispensed to satisfy perceived social conventions, or are they heart-felt expressions motivated by and embodying the joy of sharing something wonderful?

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Christmas Miracle

This week, Julie offered Christmas ideas for writers and Sarah gave us Teddie’s Story Joint. I would like to present a little feel-good thing, too.

My first thought was to share it next week, the last post before Christmas. Then I thought differently because, sometimes, you just need a little Christmas, right this very minute.

Giving credence to planning in the pantser/plotter debate, someone thought this one through. It’s a You Tube of a special holiday treat a corporation gave its customers. There is progression of plot and a great twist on the ’Twas the Night Before Christmas lyrics. Its a pat on the back WestJet gives themselves, but a well-deserved one.

Here is the link to watch it full-screen:


(This article also posted at

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Most Important Editorial Tool: Patience

by Deren Hansen

If, after all suggestions to the contrary, you're convinced your NaNoWriMo masterpiece is ready for the world after two weeks of editing, do yourself and everyone else a favor and review, "Ten Things I’ve Learned from Evaluating Self-Published Books for a Year," by Jessica Bennett, writing on Writer Unboxed. Here's a sample:

"2. Many Self-Publishers Publish Too Early

"One of the hardest decisions for an author to make is to decide when their book is “ready” to publish. I think a lot of newer authors lack the experience and patience to give their book that last needed scrub before putting it out on the market. Many of the self-published books I’ve read could benefit from a couple of months in a drawer to “breath” and then one last no-holds-bar edit.

"3. Self-Published Authors Need To Care More About Grammar

"Grammar is the most common quality standard that our submitted books miss at Compulsion Reads, which is a shame, because it’s also the easiest writing issue to fix. When you publish your book it’s no longer just art, it’s also a product. I’m amazed at how many self-published books I read that are filled with grammar mistakes."

Read the full article here.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at

Monday, December 9, 2013

Christmas Gift Ideas for Writers

By Julie Daines

Well, Christmas is just around the corner. So what do you get your writer friends--or yourself--for Christmas? Here are a few suggestions:

Books that I find especially good:

Save the Cat has excellent advice on plot, concept, and pacing. Writing Irresistible Kidlit gives more in-depth instruction on the finer points of writing such as voice, imagery, and showing verses telling. Both are a must for any writer.

Useful gifts:

For me, Scrivener is a must. I don't know how I'd write without it. It's available for Mac or Windows. Every writer needs and loves a note book, small enough to fit in a pocket or purse.

Just for fun:

A Shakespeare bust--or whatever you think might inspire them, like a bonsai tree, an hourglass, a cool desk lamp. CafePress has TONS of fun and witty mugs, t-shirts, water bottles, mouse pads, etc with sayings on them about writing. Crazy Aaron's Thinking Putty is perfect to work out writer's block. And  this handy Aqua Notes pad lets you write down every great idea that comes to you in the shower.

What are your suggestions?
Or, better yet, what do you want for Christmas?

Saturday, December 7, 2013


Now that November is over, we can take a breather if we were pushing for 50,000 words. I fell short, as in about halfway short. But I’ve got a story in the works.

It is a volume two to another. I was that close to sending the first to one of the agents from last summer’s WIFYR when the wonderful Carol Williams offered to take a final look at it. She found issues and raised questions. As I couldn’t satisfactorily answer them all, the story stalled.

That was August.

I’ve picked at it since, but things wouldn’t resolve themselves. I would bounce between thoughts of Carol knows what she’s talking about, but she’s just one voice and we writers are free to ignore critique suggestions, then back to she really knows children’s literature and what publishers are looking for so maybe I ought to listen to her. Nonetheless, I couldn’t see what she was talking about and couldn’t repair it.

Along came NaNo and I started the second, same characters, same voice. In the middle of the month, I began reworking volume one to share with my writer’s group and voila; there was what Carol was talking about. The matured voice, or main character, or whatever from the second book helped shed light onto the shortcomings in the first. Spending the month revisiting the character in a different story has allowed me to critically understand the MC in a new way.

That is the way writing goes. At times you’re stuck with some major obstacle in front of you. Later it’s gone and the path is clear.

(This article also posted at