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Master Outlining and Tracking Tool for Novels V2.0

A few months ago I published a post that contained the first version of a novel outlining tool for Excel. This is the second version of that tool, including several fixes, improvements, and additions. I strongly suggest that you read the first post before jumping into this one to get a full understanding. In this post I am only discussing the new additions.

 

What’s New?

scene-type-outlining-toolThe new version includes a few bug-fixes, updates in the general look-and-feel and various text edits here and there. I also tried my best to improve the documentation and add comments on the headers wherever I felt an explanation is needed. So, wherever you see a little red triangle in the top-right corner of a cell, you can hover your mouse and a text-hint will pop up, like in the image on the left.

 

Changes in the Scene List

Not too much changed here, except for one thing: I’ve added an Act column. If you subscribe to the 3-Act structure, or a different similar Act-Based structure, this is helpful and it plays out into the Cards, which I explain below. Below is the new header.

scene list outlining tool

 

Plots Tab

It’s not unusual that a novel-length story includes multiple plot lines. They might be parallel, intertwined, connected, complementary, you have it. Either way, there will be a few most likely. This tab allows you to track the plot lines. At this point, I’m not entirely sure how this will play out in the overall picture, but as I was plotting my own novel, I found like I needed to know this. The Plot Status at the end of the novel should be “Closed” in most cases, but if your novel is a part of a series, there might be plot lines that are left be open or uncertain. The difference between open and uncertain is: “open” is the hero swearing to kill xyz on the last page of the novel, and “uncertain” is the alien egg that appears in the last scene.

plots-sub-plots-novel-outline

 

Timeline Tab

As soon as I started outlining my own novel with this tool, I immediately realized that the concept of Timeline was missing. As I was writing the manuscript I was making mistakes such as having people travel way too fast between places, not allowing enough time for things and so on. So, I realized that a way to track the time when things happen became critical. So, I came up with this worksheet called Timeline.

The header is loosely divided into PAST, PRESENT, and FUTURE. Feel free to copy/insert columns if you need more space. The Actual Date row header allows you to put actual dates and on the following rows it calculates the difference in days, months, and years relative to the START which is your novel’s “present date” setup in the Dashboard. The scene list is automatically copied from the previous tabs, so you don’t have to worry about that.

At the intersection of each scene row with the date column, you will make the cell black (background) and put an “x”. That’s important as you will see in a bit when we get to cards. As you start filling in the cells, you are actually defining the timeline of your novel.

novel timeline outlining tool

 

Cards Tab

Lots of people love the way that index cards look like when outlining. I thought this could be kinda cool to have here. So, I created a fully-automated Cards tab. It draws all it’s data from the Scenes list without any intervention. Here’s a snapshot:

novel outlining index cards

And here is a more detailed anatomy of an index card:

scene-index-card-novel-outlining

If you used the Acts column in the Scene list, as I explained above, the sheet will automatically color-code your card headers with different colors for Act 1, 2, and 3.

When you are done with your scenes, don’t forget to use the filter on column V and un-check the “No.” This will hide any blank cards. This sheet prints on landscape by default and you will get 20 cards per page. If you move rows around in your Scene List, the cards will update automatically.

 

Intensity Tab

Even though there’s an intensity chart in the Charts tab, I felt like a very visual intensity model would help when put parallel to the scenes. So, in this tab you have the scene list on the left and the graphical representation of the intensity (represented by a number from 0-100) on the right. As you read through your outline, make sure the intensity you plan matches the scene you plan. You should see some mountains and valleys as your novel’s intensity goes up and down as the story progresses. This is derived directly from your Scene List tab.

novel-scene-intensity-outlining-tool

 

Chapters Tab

Last but not least, the Chapters Tab. Just like everything with writing, there’s no set rule about chapter length or number of scenes per chapter. But, I personally find it’s a lot easier to read a book when there is some sort of structure or flow. I’m not saying that chapters should be equal, or close, or anything. I’m just saying, be aware of it. This tab gives you a quick view on how each chapter stacks against the others in terms of word-length and number of scenes.

chapter-length-novel-outlining

If you reached the end of this post, but haven’t read the original post, I strongly recommend you check the text describing the first version of the novel outlining tool before downloading.

 

Download Version 2.0

Here is the download link: Master Novel Outlining and Tracking Tool.

 

What’s Next?

Now that I’ve gone through a few cycles with this, tested it myself and gotten some feedback from various people, I think I am ready to start moving this idea into a full-fledged software application. If you have any ideas, thoughts, or would like to collaborate in any way, feel free to contact me.

And yes—people have asked—I will move my a$$ and create a full sample of the tool with an outline from a-z. I just didn’t have the time…

All the best and happy writing!

Iulian

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Master Outlining and Tracking Tool for Novels

UPDATE (Oct. 22): I have posted an updated version of this tool: Master Novel Outlining and Tracking Tool V2.0. You should read this post first before moving to the update.

Have you ever felt tired and unable to write a single word in your masterpiece novel? Have you ever felt stuck in your plot and unable to advance, unable to talk to your characters and understand them? If so, you are not alone. Thousands of writers around the world suffer from the same affliction. So, ask your doctor about Deprocrastinify and Ideastificator. Side effects might include…

Okay, I’ll stop the cuteness right there. We all know such magical solutions don’t truly exist. We all wish they would, but they don’t. So what’s a writer to do besides, well, write? I’m sure every writer has a set of tools they use whenever they’re stuck either with plot or characterization. In this article, I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. Instead, I am going to show you how I’ve used technology to simplify two related processes: the outlining and the tracking process.

If you are a pantser, you’re probably thinking this is not for you. But wait, there’s more! I believe that this outlining method will help you verify your structure after the fact and, most importantly, it will help you with another dreaded task: writing a synopsis. Bah! Just writing the word gives me shivers—the bad kind. But, truly, I think this tool will help you too, pantser! Just read a little bit more.

So, what exactly is this? It’s a tool I’ve created using Excel that allows you to take one idea and grow it step by step into a full-fledged outline and scene list. It goes even further than that to character sheets and even family trees.

As I said, it’s not a new idea, it’s just a different way to put it which I believe is easy to use and gets you where you need to go fast. My idea is loosely based on the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson. He took the concept of starting with a simple structure and growing it time and time again, like a fractal. He put that idea in a software called Snowflake. I still use it today and I highly recommend it. My method is a twist on that and works really well for people who like Excel, regardless if they are a beginner or an expert user.

At the end of this article you will be able to download a full blank template of my tool. Feel free to use it as you wish.

One last word: this tool, just like any other tool, is not a substitute for writing. Your novel won’t be made using tools, but with writing. So, don’t get stuck in analysis-paralysis and agonizing over your outline. Keep it short. The method I present here should allow you to outline a full novel in one weekend. One! I mean it.

So let’s dive into it.

The workbook is divided into worksheets that cascade one from each other from left to right, and each step brings you closer to the full scene list. Most settings transfer from one page to the next, so you only have to type them once. This blog post serves as the full usage manual for the worksheet, but the sheet itself has an Instructions page at the start which you can refer to.

If you want to follow along with the Excel file open, click here to download the Master Outlining and Tracking Tool for Novels (MOTT).

 

Setting Things Up

The first worksheet is “Dashboard.” Here we setup the basic things about our novel, such as name, word count, date, etc. This information is further used in the subsequent sheets. Two important values here: the estimated word count and the present date. What I mean by present date is the time when the action takes place in your novel. For instance, if your action happens in the 80’s, then Jan 1st, 1985 might be the day. This date is used to calculate character ages. If your novel jumps all over the place, put whatever you think is most relevant here.

 

Part One – Level 9

In part one, you start with one sentence that describes your novel. Think along the lines of:

“A farm boy on a far-away planet journeys with a Jedi master to rescue a rebel princess and fight against an evil empire.” – Star Wars

“A boy wizard begins training and must battle for his life with the Dark Lord who murdered his parents” – Harry Potter (Thanks to Randy Ingermanson for this one)

Come up with the one liner for your novel and type it in the first box.

Note the rudimentary word counter on the right. It’s designed to keep track of the word count in your sentences. Try to keep your outline sentences up to 25 words. Don’t go too wordy here.

If you want to learn more, read Rachel Gardner’s post ” Writing a One-Sentence Summary.”

Then, take that one idea and split it in 3 separate sentences. Think like this: beginning, middle, and end. Each sentence should encapsulate the story idea for those segments.

Now, take those 3 ideas and expand each of them into 3 more. Once again, think in terms of the same beginning, middle, and end, but this time take it one step further: the beginning of the beginning, the middle of the beginning, and the end of the beginning, and so on.

Now you have 9 lines of outline. Let’s take it one step even further. Now, expand each of those lines into 3 more! I know it sounds hard and complicated, but it’s not, once you give it a shot. It’s like unfolding your story, three steps at a time. The worksheet passes the clue right in front of your eyes, so all you have to do is read it again and then expand it into three steps:

At this point you have a 27-line outline. This is a good start.

 

Part Two – Review Level 9

On the next sheet, I reorganize the 27 lines you came up with in Part One. Read them again from top to bottom. Does it make sense? If you were to read this to somebody, would they get the gist of it? Try it out. Read the current outline to a friend and see what their feedback is. On the right column you will notice some hints for a possible 3-Act structure. This is definitely optional, but if your novel does follow the 3-act structure, this is a good guideline that hints if you are on the right track.

 

Part Three – Level 81

Can you guess what we’re doing in Part 3? I hope you got the pattern… We take each of the 27 steps from Part Two and we split each into three sub-steps. It sounds awfully long and complex, but I believe that the way that the spreadsheets presents it, makes it easy. The 27 steps you already have are on the left, and on the right you get the 3 “splits.” Go from top to bottom and just expand each of them into three. At this point and depth, you are actually describing scenes in your novel.

Here’s a glimpse:

 

Part Four – Scene List

So, after the three steps above, you wind up with a hefty list of 81 scenes. Before we move to analyzing your structure using some other tools, simply read your list again. Ask yourself if this is the story you want to write. With 81 sentences, you should be able to capture the basic idea and a minimal level of detail. If you craft this part well, you should have a decent, factual synopsis of your novel.

A few questions to ask yourself:

  • Is there a clear beginning where you set things up?
  • Is there a clear ending where you wrap all your plot and sub-plot points?
  • Does the overall structure reflect the original one-line idea or did your outlining take a whole new dimension? This is not wrong, but if it happened, go back and adjust your one-line or maybe even the 3-sub-steps of your one-line.

Make sure you don’t move forward until you are happy with how your one-line translates into your 81-scene list. You will thank yourself later when you have to summarize your novel into a short or long synopsis. Having done this work ahead of time will be invaluable.

A question you might be asking: what if you find that a certain step is too simple or too complex to break in 3 parts? If it’s too simple, you can leave blank rows. If it’s too complex, copy and insert new scenes where you need to. The links in the file will maintain, except for your manual scene which will stand independent.

Here’s how the Scene sheet looks like:

 

Scene Analysis

Once you’ve completed the 81-scene list, it’s time to start tweaking it.

There are a bunch of columns following each scene’s description that allow you to categorize and tag your scenes in preparation for further analysis. Let’s take them one by one:

Chapter – This is the chapter number that contains the scene. You will fumble and play with this a lot, but it’s helpful to start grouping your scenes by chapter. You most likely want to do this last after you get a good sense of how things are coming along.

POV – this is your point of view character for that scene. Obviously, in a first person story this will always be your protag. In a third person story though, you should strive to have one POV per scene. This makes it easy for readers to be in the “shoes” of the POV character. If you do head-hopping because you are writing an omniscient POV, this field is probably useless.

Setting and Character – These are minor fields that you may consider using to give you a quick idea about the scene. In the characters’ column type the name or initials of the people in that scene. In the Setting, just type the location where the scene takes place (“New York,” “kitchen”, etc.)

Major / Minor – Even though your novel can probably not exist without all the scenes (because you should never have useless or pointless scenes in your novel!), some of them will always be more important than others. You will probably find your major scenes at the beginning and at the end, as well as on the cusp between beginning and middle, and between the middle and the end. Either way, there’s no rule about it. You must use your unique knowledge of the story to identify the major scenes. Making this distinction now will come in handy when you start writing. That’s because if you write your major scenes first, it will be much easier to fill-in the gaps with minor scenes.

Purpose – Every scene in your novel must have a reason to be there. If it doesn’t, it does not belong in your novel. There are several reasons for a scene: Develop a Character, Advance the Plot, Describe Something. Figure out what is the reason for each scene.

Type – Active / Reactive – Every story has a sort of ra-ta-ta-tat-a rhythm that is not easy to describe, but easy to feel. It’s a series of active and reactive scenes that when stacked together create this rhythm. An Active scene is when something is happening to the POV and a reactive scene is when the POV does something in response. It’s like a tennis game and the reactive scenes are when the ball is in your court. If you have too many active scenes one after the other, the story will feel like a bunch of stuff is happening to your character and him/her doing nothing. If you have too many reactive scenes, it will feel like your character is doing a bunch of things for absolutely no reason. You need to strike a good balance of action/reason followed by reaction/reflection. This will give your story rhythm. Tag your scenes and see if you had accomplished that with your outline.

Actual Words / Actual Cumulative Words – As you write scenes, you will fill in the Actual Words for each scene. This is optional, but recommended. It will give you an overall idea if some scenes are too lengthy versus too short. Again, there are no rules. The only rules are those established by you and by your story. But I do find the guide provided by the actual word count useful.

Estimated Words / Estimated Cumulative Words – The sheet estimates the average word count based on the overall word count. This is simply a mathematical guideline, nothing to be too crazy about.

Actual Intensity – Each scene in your novel will have a certain level of emotional intensity. Most likely major scenes and scenes around the climax and disaster will have very high intensity, while minor scenes will have lower intensity. Your story should read like a roller-coaster and the size of the ups and downs will depend on you. But the last thing you want is a flat lazy-river. Nobody wants to read that. Your novel needs to bring us up on a peak (which can be physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual) and then drop us back to a calmer road. And again, and again.

This is what intensity is doing for your story. There are literally hundreds of graphs out there that show the intensity charts. Your story’s chart will be different as it depends on your story. But, here’s a peek at an example from the web:

This shows a “standard,” generally acceptable structure of a story. Using the intensity column, you can plot your own intensity. Look at the Charts sheet to see how yours looks like.

After you finished categorizing all your scenes, take a look at the whole outline and ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there a sense of rhythm?
  • Do enough reactive scenes balance the active scenes?
  • Does the intensity make sense?

As I said a few times before, there are no real rules when it comes to creating the structure of a novel. With experience, you will develop your own style and you will start dreaming this stuff up. But until then, I suggest looking into some standard structures that have been working for a very long time. I’m talking about the 3-Act structure and the general graph of intensity.

I won’t go too much into the details about why they are important (you can read yourself about the Three Act Structure and the Story Intensity Diagram), but this Excel tool uses those as a basis for analysis.

 

Tweaking

This brings us to tweaking. Read your outline one more time, but this time think in terms of intensity. You will probably find that your major scenes map to higher intensity moments, while your minor scenes to less intense ones. That’s obvious. Keep reading and tweak those intensities as you see fit.

As you make changes to your intensity, you will see that the graph on the Charts page will divide into two lines: the red line shows the story intensity for your own story, while the blue line shows the original, standard line. This will allow you to visualize how different your story is, intensity-wise, from a standard distribution.

 

Adding / Deleting Scenes

Now that you’ve completed this stage and you are certain that your one-line translates well into your scene list and the scenes are properly categorized and assigned an intensity, it’s time to see if anything is missing.

If you did things right, most likely you won’t have to delete anything, but you might have to add something. Let’s say that a certain concept that you split in 3 scenes, really needs four or five or more scenes. What do you do? Well, simply insert lines in the place where you want to add scenes and write manual scenes. The formulas that bring the cascade of outline elements will be preserved, but your manual scenes will stay fixed. Perhaps you can mark them with a different background color to make sure it’s obvious they’ve been inserted.

 

Word Counts

In the beginning, you set your story’s word count and the scene count was set to 81. By default, the sheet will divide your word count equally between the scenes. If you’ve added manual scenes in the step before, make sure to edit the number of scenes in the dash board so the system properly determines the average word count per scene.

 

Additional Tools

 

Character Template Sheet

When outlining, I find it critical to learn more about my characters and develop them. Sometimes, it’s best to describe your characters before you start outlining. Learning and discovering who they really are will give you new ideas for your plot.

To help with this, I’ve added two Character Worksheet templates—one for major characters and one for minor characters. Both include a list of basic things about your character, as well as list of questions and answers that will help you shape your character in multiple dimensions.

I suggest duplicating the major character template sheet and have one for each of the following characters:

  • Main Character (Protagonist)
  • Antagonist
  • Sidekicks
  • Other important characters

All minor characters, or at least most of them, should get a minor character sheet.

Each major character sheet also has a place for you to set the value of the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator. This value describes the overall personality traits of your character, based on a survey which you must fill-in as your character. So, answer all questions in the same way as your character would answer them and you will get their indicator. If you want to learn more about this technique, read my blog post on creating memorable characters.

 

Character Genealogy

For me it’s always important to know a lot about my characters before I throw them into action. Most of time, the reader will never get this information. But it’s important for me to know because it allows me to develop that character and understand how he/she would react in different situations. For this, I am using a simple tree-like genealogy chart. With it, I can take one character’s family history all the way to his/her great-grandparents.

I know it’s a kind of unilateral and simplistic view of life. In reality, people divorce and die and remarry and run away and kill each other. But here, with this genealogy tree, I am just trying to get a snapshot of my character’s family history at some point in time.

Feel free to delete this if you don’t use it, or duplicate it for more characters. I usually like to create one for my protagonist, antagonist, and sidekicks. It makes my characters feel more realistic and gives them history.

To use this, simply fill in the name of each person, their place and date of birth, their place and date of marriage, if any, and their place and date of death. On the right side, the sheet calculates each person’s age (as relative to the Present Date you set in the Dashboard), and the person’s age at death, if applicable. For characters who are dead already, the Age can be interpreted as: how old would this person be if he/she were still alive today.

A little Excel quirk: if you need to use years prior to Jan, 1 1900, the age calculator will not work.

 

Word Count Tracker

The last tool in this worksheet is a word count tracker. It allows you to set your writing goals and track your progress. It’s pretty self-explanatory-simply type the date of your writing session followed by the total word count after you stopped writing. The sheet will compute your session’s word count and the percentage of completion:

 

On Going Usage

Once you are done with this worksheet, you are ready to start writing!

As you do, remember to adjust:

  • Word count as you advance through your story
  • Scenes’ actual word count (which will drive the word count in your chapters)
  • Chapter assignments as you complete scenes and decide if they belong here or there

 

Final Thoughts

As I was hinting in my intro paragraph, this is just a helper tool. It will not work for everybody and, most importantly, it will not work for every type of story. If you have a lot of parallel sub-plots, this tool might not be the best for you (unless you create one sheet for each sub-plot).

So, try it out and see if it works. If it doesn’t, I hope something else does… If it does work, let me know; I’d like to hear about it.

 

Download

Without any further ado, please click here to download the Master Outlining and Tracking Tool for Novels (MOTT).

Feel free to use these at your own leisure, modify them, and share them in any way, shape, or form. However, I’d appreciate if you left my credit and links in the dashboard. Also, if you share it on your blog, please link back to this post. I’ll appreciate it.

Also, I truly welcome your feedback on this:

  • What do you like and/or hate about this method and tool?
  • How would you improve it? What would you add?
  • Any other thoughts?

Thank you!

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I’ts alive!

Here I am, one year and two days after the last post on this blog. It’s been a rough time. New job, new baby, a full speculative fiction magazine to take care of, publishing an anthology, and working on my novels. It’s not surprising I haven’t had time to update this blog. But…

…it’s not dead.

I’m planning to revive the blog and I already have a few posts lined up. I’m probably going to be realistic and admit from the start that I don’t expect to write more than 1-3 blog posts per month, but it’s still something… I hope some of you will find it useful.

So, I’ll see you all soon. And yes, if you are wondering, I am planning to finish the series about Creating a Fantasy World.

All the best,

Iulian

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Inkitt’s new Writing Competition – Epic Worlds: A New Adventure!

epicworlds

Take us to an exciting new place in Inkitt’s new Writing Competition – Epic Worlds: A New Adventure!

What is Inkitt?

Inkitt is a free writing platform where authors can get creative and watch their stories grow, and they’re opening a new writing contest for entries this spring. Inkitt is a place for writers and readers to collaborate, trade feedback and ideas to improve their work. In the long run, Inkitt’s goal is to help writers get the exposure they deserve and the publishing deals they want without worrying about the impediments and unfairness of traditional printing and self-publishing.

Writing Contest: Epic Worlds – A New Adventure

This month Inkitt’s writing contest is “Epic Worlds: A New Adventure”. Take millions of readers on an epic journey with your best fantasy stories. Submit ancient tales about dragons and griffins, or tell your vision of the future through a science fantasy story. Unleash your imagination and show what you’ve got and write a truly unforgettable fantasy adventure. Write an adventure that Bilbo Baggins would envy, one that enchants and excites, astounds and has everyone on the edge of their seats.

The contest will begin on May 6th and will close on June 3nd. It is free to enter and you can submit any fantasy story of up to 15,000 words. As per usual, authors will retain all rights to any work they submit.

prizes

How to win? Collect the most community votes to get bumped into the top 10% of entries, from there the Inkitt staff will choose the top 3!


Prizes:

1st place: $100 Cash and
5 printed-and-bound copies of story with cover created by Inkitt’s designer
2nd place: $50 Cash
3rd place: $30 Cash

Get in on the adventure! Enter the competition now and prepare to enter a world of fantastic fantasy where anything is possible! (Join Here)

All the best,

Iulian

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Author Hank Quense announces a Kickstarter Campaign for his new novel

My friend, Hank Quense is an author who has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to publish his next novel, Moxie’s Decision. Why? Hank says he has two reasons: because the world needs more parody stories and books are expensive to publish.

moxie

The Kickstarter Campaign will run from May 1 to May 31. Here is the link to the web page: http://kck.st/1GMJESP. You can support the Kickstarter Campaign by making a contribution or by spreading the word about Campaign and sharing the Kickstarter link.

The campaign offers a variety of rewards for contributors. There are ebooks, print books, ebook packages, print book packages. There is also a unique series of rewards involve one-on-one lectures covering fiction writing self-publishing and book marketing topics. All these lectures can be provided via Skype video calls or other means. Another reward offers short story critiques.

You can learn more about Hank and his works on his website: http://hank-quense.com/wp/

All the best,

Iulian

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Inkitt’s “Darkest Place” Horror Writing Contest

What is Inkitt?

Inkitt is a free platform for writers to cultivate ideas and watch their stories grow. On our site, users collaborate with fellow writers and readers to give each other feedback and improve
their work. Our vision is to help writers get the exposure they deserve and the publishing deals they covet without having to jump through the fiery hoops of traditional publishing, or wade in the shark-infested waters of self-publishing.

What is the theme of the horror contest?

“You are in the darkest place in the world.” (This theme can be interpreted literally or figuratively.) We want writers who will submit their blood-curdlers, spine-tinglers, skin-crawlers, and hair-raisers; writers who will make it their duty to scare and shock their readers; writers who can really take us to the darkest place in the world.

What are the guidelines?

It’s all about fiction: flashes and shorts up to 10,000 words, written from any point of view. Entries must be posted on the Inkitt contest page to be considered eligible. The contest opens on February 2nd and closes on February 28th. The contest is completely free to enter, and authors will retain all rights to any and all work submitted in the contest.

What are the prizes?

All entrants will have the chance to show their work to a growing community of authors and readers hungry for high-quality fiction and win the following prizes:

  • 1st Prize $25 Amazon gift card, Inkitt custom mug, Inkitt custom notebook, custom cover design for the Inkitt story of their choice (created by Inkitt’s designer).
  • 2nd Prize $20 Amazon gift card, Inkitt custom mug, Inkitt custom notebook.
  • 3rd Prize Inkitt custom mug, Inkitt custom notebook.

How to participate?

Contest Url: http://www.inkitt.com/darkestplace

Learn more: @Inkitt (hashtag #DarkestPlace)

Good luck!

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Fantasy Scroll Magazine Issue #4 Available

Issue #4 is out! We’ve got 12 stories, 5 interviews, one artist spotlight, a book review, and a movie review. See the table of contents below. Please share:

Fantasy Scroll Magazine Issue #2 – science fiction and fantasy short stories

Fiction

Non-Fiction

If you enjoy this issue, please consider buying it. It’s only $2.99. There are subscriptions available as well.

Thank you!

About Fantasy Scroll Magazine: Fantasy Scroll Magazine is an online, quarterly publication featuring science fiction, fantasy, horror, and paranormal short-fiction. The magazine’s mission is to publish high-quality, entertaining, and thought-provoking speculative fiction. With a mixture of short stories, flash fiction, and micro-fiction, Fantasy Scroll Magazine aims to appeal to a wide audience.

Iulian

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Uncanny Magazine – New SciFi and Fantasy Publication

Uncanny Issue #1Uncanny Magazine is a new market for short fiction. As their website states: “Uncanny is an online Science Fiction and Fantasy magazine featuring passionate SF/F fiction and poetry, gorgeous prose, provocative nonfiction, and a deep investment in the diverse SF/F culture. Each issue contains intricate, experimental stories and poems with verve and imagination that elicit strong emotions and challenge beliefs from writers from every conceivable background. Uncanny believes there’s still plenty of room in the genre for tales that make you feel.”

I personally love the look-and-feel of the website and I am mostly excited to see Hugo Award-winner Lynne M. Thomas and Hugo Award-nominee Michael Damian Thomas at the helm of this new venture.

Three-time Hugo Award winner Lynne M. Thomas is the Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL, where she is responsible for popular culture special collections that include the literary papers of nearly 70 SF/F authors. She was the Editor-in-Chief (2011-2013) of the Hugo Award-nominated (2012 & 2013) Apex Magazine, an online professional prose and poetry magazine of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mash-ups of all three.

The first issue looks very promising and starts very strong, featuring new fiction by Maria Dahvana Headley, Kat Howard, Max Gladstone, Amelia Beamer, Ken Liu, and Christopher Barzak, classic fiction by Jay Lake, essays by Sarah Kuhn, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Christopher J Garcia, plus a Worldcon Roundtable featuring Emma England, Michael Lee, Helen Montgomery, Steven H Silver, and Pablo Vazquez, poetry by Neil Gaiman, Amal El-Mohtar, and Sonya Taaffe, interviews with Maria Dahvana Headley, Deborah Stanish, Beth Meacham on Jay Lake, and Christopher Barzak.

The first issue features cover-art by Galen Dara.

I highly recommend you check it out!

Website: http://uncannymagazine.com/

First Issue: http://uncannymagazine.com/issues/uncanny-magazine-issue-one/

Enjoy!

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Fantasy Scroll Magazine Issue #3 Available

Issue #3 is finally out! We’ve got 13 stories, 3 interviews, one artist spotlight, a book review, and a movie review. See the table of contents below. Please share:

Fantasy Scroll Magazine Issue #2 – science fiction and fantasy short stories

If you enjoy this issue, please consider buying it. It’s only $2.99. There are subscriptions available as well.

Thank you!

About Fantasy Scroll Magazine: Fantasy Scroll Magazine is an online, quarterly publication featuring science fiction, fantasy, horror, and paranormal short-fiction. The magazine’s mission is to publish high-quality, entertaining, and thought-provoking speculative fiction. With a mixture of short stories, flash fiction, and micro-fiction, Fantasy Scroll Magazine aims to appeal to a wide audience.

Iulian

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actors.jpg

Creating Multi-Dimensional, Memorable Characters

Characters are at the heart of every story. The characters (who) together with the plot (what) and the setting (where) are the basic elements that must work together to create a compiling story. It is very rare that a story can exist without one of these elements. And even if the setting is fuzzy and if the plot is missing (like in a vignette), it is virtually impossible to have a story without characters.

It’s obviously not enough to just throw in some characters to have a good, memorable story. You need the right number of characters, and all of them need to be built from the ground up in such a way so they feel real and believable. The reader must perceive those characters as actual people because that’s the way readers connect with them. The reader must be able to put himself into the shoes of a character and get a sense of realism, of plausibility, but also feel entertained and emotionally connected.

You’ve probably heard this before: create 3-dimensional or multi-dimensional characters, be aware of and avoid flat or cardboard characters. What does that mean?

This advice spawns from the fact that nobody in our real world is a one-dimensional individual. Nobody is just bad or just good, or just stupid or just smart. People are generally bad about some things, and good about others, they are stupid about certain things, and smart about others. They have positive traits and negative traits, and all of them together make that person who he is.

Moreover, a person evolves and changes over time. A person is influenced by his environment, his family, teachers and friends. Someone who started as being a cynic might change later on when a stressing event occurs. Someone who was a loving person might turn into a misanthrope after they had lost their loved one to an accident; a god-fearing person might turn into god-hater after they had lost their child to a disease. Either way, people change – in good or in bad – and that makes them real too.

The combination of personal traits and the way that those traits change during one’s life are what define that person in multiple dimensions. It’s what makes that person unique. In the context of fiction, it’s what makes that character interesting and worth caring about.

So, to create powerful, memorable characters you must answer 3 fundamental questions:

1) Who is this character?
2) What does this character want?
3) How does this character change?

Let’s take a look at each one of these, one at a time:

who-is-character

Who Is This Character?

In this article, I am not worried about the way a character looks, i.e. his/her physical appearance, even though in some instances the way a character looks is integral to his/her personality. I am mostly talking about personality traits. Other things such as name and looks are just bonuses that, when used correctly, will propel your character further. Just imagine Darth Vader being exactly as he is, but instead of the ominous black suit, he’d be wearing a yellow overall and his name would be Skippy. I know, it’s an exaggeration, but I wanted to make a point. After you read all of the text below, an apply everything you have learned about personality, give your characters some physical features and a name that matches. Then, you’ll have a real winner!

Let’s go back to personality now. In order to define a full character we will turn to something called the Myers-Briggs test.

Now, don’t get scared: you won’t have to become a psychologist just to create powerful characters. I will give you an easy, child-proof way to reverse-engineer the Myers-Briggs test. I will only touch on the basic points here, but if you want to learn more, you should check the Myers & Briggs Foundation site for some in-depth information.

Basically, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a way to take the 16 dimensions defined in the theory of psychological types described by Carl Jung, and apply them to people. Each person will be defined by a combination of 4 factors, each factor having one dominant feature, and one minor:

a) Favorite World: do you prefer to focus on the outer world (Extraversion (E)) or the inner world (Introversion (I))?

b) Information: do you prefer to focus on the raw, basic information you have (Sensing (S)) or to interpret and add meaning to it (Intuition (N))?

c) Decisions: do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency (Thinking (T)) or first look at circumstances and their influence on people (Feeling (F))?

d) Structure: in dealing with the outside world, do you prefer to get things decided (Judging (J)) or to stay open to new information and options (Perceiving (P))?

What is great about this is that none of us is only one thing or another. We all have things we are extroverted about (like cursing out loud at a soccer game) and things we are introverted about (like asking a stranger a question). The test is conducted through a series of questions and depending on the answers you get allocated a letter of each.

So, for example: INFP = Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving

Obviously you have 4 x 4 dimensions which results in 16 possible combinations.

If you want to try it out and learn about your own personality, and thus learn a little bit more about this, here is a link to one of these tests: Human Metrics.

So, now let’s build the personality code for a character:

  • a) Favorite World:
    • a. (E)xtroverted: (Keyword: OUTER)
      • i. Acts first, thinks later (trigger-happy)
      • ii. Feels deprived when cut off from the outside world (hates isolation)
      • iii. Open and motivated by the outside world (feels great in crowds)
      • iv. Enjoys a wide variety people and the way people change
    • b. (I)ntroverted: (Keyword: INNER)

      • i. Thinks first, acts later (over-thinker)
      • ii. Needs private time to recharge (loner)
      • iii. Motivated internally (others find hard to read him or “break thru”)
      • iv. Prefers one-to-one communications (hates crowds)

Think about your character; which one of these is he/she leaning towards? If you like numbers use percentages (for example 70% extroverted, 30% introverted), otherwise just say (E) first, (I) second, to signify that this character is more extroverted than he/she is introverted.

Let’s keep going. Use the same method for the other 3 parameters:

  • b) Information:

    • a. (S)ensing: (Keywords: PRESENT, REALITY)

      • i. Mentally lives in the now (carpe diem)
      • ii. Uses common sense and easily creates practical solutions (practical)
      • iii. Good memory of details of past facts and events (facts!)
      • iv. Improvises well from past experience (street smart)
      • v. Likes clear and concrete information (hates guessing)
    • b. I(N)tuitive (Keywords: FUTURE, POSSIBILITIES)

      • i. Mentally lives in the future (opportunities)
      • ii. Uses imagination and creates/invents new possibilities (theoretical)
      • iii. Good memory of patterns, contexts, and connections (feelings!)
      • iv. Improvises well from theoretical understanding (book smart)
  • c) Decisions:

    • a. (T)hinking: (Keyword: DETACHED)

      • i. Searches for facts and logic in a decision situation
      • ii. Looks at work as a task-based process, independent of people
      • iii. Can provide an objective and critical analysis
      • iv. Accepts conflict as a normal part of life
    • b. (F)eeling: (Keyword: ATTACHED)

      • i. Uses feelings and impact on people in a decision situation
      • ii. Sensitive to people’s needs and reactions
      • iii. Seeks consensus and popular opinions
      • iv. Unsettled by conflict; dislikes disharmony
  • d) Structure:

    • a. (J)udging: (Keyword: HAS A PLAN)

      • i. Plans many details in advance before taking action
      • ii. Focuses on task-related actions, completes segments in order
      • iii. Works best when is able to stay ahead deadlines
      • iv. Uses goals, targets, dates to manage life and work
    • b. (P)erceiving (Keyword: AS IT COMES)

      • i. Plans on-the-go
      • ii. Likes to multitask and mix work with play
      • iii. Tolerant of time pressure, works best close to deadlines
      • iv. Avoids commitments which interfere with flexibility, freedom, and variety

Okay, so by now you should have two columns: one with the dominant characteristics, and one with the minor ones. For example:

Dominant: ENTJ (Extrovert, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging)

Minor: ISFP (Introvert, Sensing, Feeling, Perceiving)

What you should do next is read the description of those two types. Your character will be a LOT of the first (dominant), and a little of the second (minor), which is why you want to read both.

You can read these descriptions on the Myers-Briggs Site or on the PersonlityPage. I like the PersonalityPage in particular because they have a short description and a long, more detailed description for those who want to go deeper. In addition, they name each type with a matching label. In our example above:

ENTJ = The Executive – Assertive and outspoken – they are driven to lead. Excellent ability to understand difficult organizational problems and create solid solutions. Intelligent and well-informed, they usually excel at public speaking. They value knowledge and competence, and usually have little patience with inefficiency or disorganization.

ISFP = The Artist – Quiet, serious, sensitive and kind. Do not like conflict, and not likely to do things which may generate conflict. Loyal and faithful. Extremely well-developed senses, and aesthetic appreciation for beauty. Not interested in leading or controlling others. Flexible and open-minded. Likely to be original and creative. Enjoy the present moment.

Here is a quick chart that gives you an idea about each of the 16 types.

ISTJ
The Inspector
The Duty Fulfiller
ISFJ
The Protector
The Nurturer
INFJ
The Counselor
The Protector
INTJ
The Mastermind
The Scientist
ISTP
The Craftsman
The Mechanic
ISFP
The Composer
The Artist
INFP
The Healer
The Idealist
INTP
The Architect
The Thinker
ESTP
The Dynamo
The Doer
ESFP
The Performer
ENFP
The Champion
The Inspirer
ENTP
The Visionary
ESTJ
The Supervisor
The Guardian
ESFJ
The Provider
The Caregiver
ENFJ
The Teacher
The Giver
ENTJ
The Commander
The Executive

Just a little note here: Each of these types can be additionally decomposed to provide a deeper understanding. For example, a person who is an ENTP (The Visionary), can be described as follows:

Dominant Extraverted Intuition
Auxiliary Introverted Thinking
Tertiary Extraverted Feeling
Inferior Introverted Sensing

You probably don’t need to go that deep, but if you do, the PersonalityPage mentioned above can give you all of these breakdowns. Their detailed descriptions are really good. After you found your character’s personality, read the description and ask yourself: Does this sound like the character I had envisioned?

Now that you have your character described, the trick is to show the readers those traits through the character’s actions or dialogue. The reader probably doesn’t know the personality code, but we are all more or less versed in reading these types naturally. Read the description for The Executive above; take all those features and figure out how to show them in your prose. “They value knowledge and competence” – show the character praising this and show them display hatred of the opposite.

Make sure you choose at least one or two of the traits from the minor type and show that sporadically in your story. Maybe your executive is also loyal and faithful. He’s portrayed as this mean boss-type person, but at home he’s a loving husband and father. Give your characters 75% of their main type (which already is a combination of 4 different dimensions) and 25% of the minor type. You will wind up with an actual person, someone who is real, and someone with whom the readers can connect.

Obviously you will use actions, body language, and dialogue to load your character with the above traits. There’s something called “visual identification,” which is a method by which you observe a person and figure out his/her type from their body language, speech mannerism and so on. Since you know your type now, you need to figure those body language cues and manners of speech that would indicate that. You are in luck, because psychologists have been dealing with this for years. The 16 types info site has some descriptions related to visual identification. Use those cues to bring your character to life.

To do some of this on your own, use a simple Q&A method. If this person “plans-on-the-go” what does that mean? Brainstorm: he doesn’t have a calendar planner, he’s late, he improvises, etc. Take all the bullet points from above and figure out what does your character need to do, say, and how he/she should act in order to ooze that particular trait.

In addition to this, besides the personality traits, to make characters even more human you should give them flaws and redeeming features. Your protagonist is the hero, he saves everyone, but he also has his/her own demons. Your villain or antagonist is mean and bad, but he also has some characteristics that makes us like him/her. Everyone agrees Darth Vader is evil, but the fact that he can’t kill his own son and turns against his master at climax makes him real. Indiana Jones saves everyone everytime, and does so selflessly, putting his life on the line. But he’s afraid of snakes. Sherlock Holmes is a great detective, putting criminals behind bars, but he’s a drug addict and his ego makes him behave rather mean towards people he considers of lower intellect. See the pattern? Give a lot, take some away.

Readers also love unexpected acts of kindness especially during stressful times or from characters who don’t seem like they would be inclined to act that way. Dr. Kimble in The Fugitive movie risks blowing his cover, while on the run, only to help read a patient’s chart.

Just be aware of one thing: don’t tack good traits on a villain or flaws on a hero just for the sake of it. It will feel forced. Make sure that those traits flow naturally and actually integrate with the plot. We all hate Valdemort, but we do feel a bit of sympathy for the guy given the life he had. That’s much better than showing that he loves dogs.

All these things make the character more human. All these little facets give your characters depth and make them easier to understand and believe.

eve_apple

2) What does the character want?

Kurt Vonnegut once said: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

Stories need conflict and conflict arises when a character wants something and he is unable to get it. So, make sure that you make this clear from the beginning.

During a complete story, characters will want:

1) To solve the story’s main question (what is the one thing the character wants that is directly related to this plot?)

2) To fulfill their life-long desires – these are things that exist with or without this story; they are inherent to the character. The story could be about something, but your character might ALSO want to get a better life, or find a wife, or kill an enemy. There are things all of us want and we continue to want them throughout our life. The story might not be about those, but they do add to the character’s dimension, making them have a life outside of the
story, thus more realistic. Those things should be mentioned and hinted at in a subtle manner.

Once you establish what the characters want, make sure, absolutely sure, that it’s extremely hard for them to get it. Nothing bothers readers as much as a well-defined character that dashes through the story and succeeds at every step. That’s because in reality, life is not like that, and we all know it. And in the end, we actually despise people that have it easy in life. In reality, for most people, very few things can be obtained without a struggle. (Have you ever thought kindly about the kid who inherited a fortune and is now flashing it everywhere? Of course not, even if he saves a squirrel.)

Since I quoted Vonnegut, let me continue with his advice here: “Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

Now we’re talking. You have defined a real, multi-dimensional character, you gave him/her something to desire, and then you’ve made it hellishly hard for them to get it. We’re on the right path!

ghost

3) How does the character change?

I think deep down inside nobody thinks that they change. I have to struggle to remember what my values and thoughts were in my twenties. I am sure they were vastly different, but because change happens in us so slowly and gradually over time, we fail to notice it.

Sometimes the ones around us notice it, especially those whom we haven’t seen for a long time. So, we are aware that people change, but we see it in others more than we see it in ourselves. That’s why we are also very much aware when a character changes in front of our eyes.

A story is a slice of life and to create memorable characters you want them to change throughout the story.

Now, don’t get me wrong, not ALL characters must change. Allow me a parenthesis to explain. There are 4 types of stories in general: Milieu (it’s a story about a place), Idea (it’s a story about information), Character (it’s a story about a character’s character), and Event (it’s a story about something that happened). Each story has a little bit of each of these types. For the purposes of this section, we are mostly referring to the Character-heavy stories. Those are the stories where we follow the character arc and we can clearly see a beginning character, a path of change, and an ending character.

The Indiana Jones movies are Event stories. The emphasis is not on the character’s character, which is why Indiana Jones is pretty much the same from beginning to end.

A Christmas Carol is a Character story, and here we see the evolution of Ebenezer Scrooge from a cold, miserly person to a selfless person who cares.

There are few ways that you can modify a character in your story:

  • Change – your character turns from a regular person into a hero (Frodo)
  • Growth – your character becomes a better person (Scrooge)
  • Demise – your character becomes a worse person (Michael Corleone)

When it comes to the character arc, this is also not a one way street. Throughout one’s life, a person might find himself on a growth path for twenty years, then something happens, and the rest of the life is a downward spiral. That in itself could be an interesting story to tell.

James Scott Bell wrote in his Plot and Structure that, “As opposed to the plotline, the character arc is a description of what happens to the inside of the character over the course of the story.” He goes on and provides us with a simple list to follow this arc:

  • “A beginning point, where we meet the character and get a sense of his interior layers
  • A doorway through which the character must pass, almost always reluctantly
  • Incidents that impact the layers
  • A deepening disturbance
  • A moment of change, sometimes via an “epiphany”
  • An aftermath”

When you work on your characters’ arc, try to follow this simple forward-looking list. Your arc should span the entire novel (or even more, an entire series) and should be clear enough so that readers can understand it.

Alignment

By playing with the character arc, in the context of the personality, you can create very memorable characters. One critical keyword I want to mention here is “alignment.” Make sure that the change is possible for the personality type. A very introverted, heads-in-the-clouds artist is unlikely to change so radically as to become the President of the United States (unless you are writing comedy, in which case all bets are off). So, make sure that your character evolution is aligned to the character’s personality so that it sounds plausible. That’s why you define the personality in the first step by walking your way backwards, learning more about your character as you develop him/her.

If you defined your character’s personality well enough, gave them something to desire, made it very hard for them to get it, and established a path by which they change, you probably have a very strong character, one that readers can relate to and who will stay in their minds long after they’ve finished your book.

In your novel, you should go through this exercise for your protagonist(s), antagonist(s) and, perhaps on a smaller scale, for your sidekicks. If you populate your story with these well-defined characters, you are already one step ahead towards a memorable novel. Of course, these great characters must do something exciting and interesting, but that’s a whole other story for another time.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Please give me your thoughts. I am curious what is your approach to character development?

Some additional reading materials:

Mayers-Briggs Personality

Character Arc

Characterization

All the best,

Iulian

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