The Darkest Moment

Stories are all about conflict and transformation. If the main character in your story can achieve all of his/her desires without any struggle at all, then it wouldn’t be much of a story. It is therefore the job of the writer to make things difficult for the hero/heroine. One writer likened this to getting your main character stuck up a tree and then throwing rocks at them. As readers, we tend to love an underdog: someone who succeeds in the face of adversity. Therefore, as writers, it is our job to make sure our main characters suffer, so they can earn the success that they truly deserve.

Often the main character also has to learn something important about themselves before they can take that final step to success. If you are familiar with the Three Act Structure, you will know that this epiphany moment usually occurs following the main character’s darkest moment at the end of the second act. The darkest moment is that time when all seems lost and our hero/heroine is in the depths of despair. It is at this point where they find something new about themselves, which gives them the courage and inspiration to go on.

Even if you don’t believe in a three act structure, the darkest moment is usually recognisable story beat in most successful stories. It is the emotional darkness before the dawn of success. Without it there is little emotional contrast. Some writers talk about two stories: the outer story we associate with the plot line and the inner story about the change or transformation of the main character during the course of the story. Another term often used is the character arc.

Of course, not all stories are about main characters that change for the better. Some may change for the worse, or they may refuse change despite everything. It depends on the type of story you are writing. In an action-driven story, the inner story may seem  unimportant compared to the outer storyline. But it’s still an important component. It’s just more subtle. That’s because  all stories are about characters; and if you want your reader to empathise with those characters, you need to understand the character’s inner story. It is the character’s inner story that carries the moral theme of the story (for example, good will overcome evil, love conquers all, freedom is worth fighting for, family is important  etc.). And as I have said in an earlier blog, without at least one theme you have no story.

That Eureka Moment

bookThis morning I had one. Yes — a eureka moment. When was your last eureka moment? I mean, an idea that pops into your head about your story line: a twist or turn that just seems right for your story. Don’t lose it; write it down. Keep a notebook with you at all times, and make sure you never lose an idea again.

However much we plan and develop our stories they don’t appear fully developed in our mind’s eye at the start of a project. Or at least not for me. You might have a good understanding of the main story beats; the sources of conflict and tension in your story; the character arc; and the ending. You might even have planned out all the major scenes. But following a predictable plot line won’t necessarily excite your reader. There has to be some sparks, some excitement and unpredictability for your reader.

Everyone knows how most stories will end: the good guy will defeat the evil monster; the guy will win the girl’s heart; the hero will learn his lesson and change for the better. So why does the reader want to read on? Partly, it’s because the reader wants to experience the hero/heroine’s emotional journey: to feel his/her pain and depths of despair, and then the joy of winning through. But if that journey is too predictable then it becomes a bore.

A twist is simply something the reader does not expect. It can be something major that sets the plot on a new course, or it might be something less dramatic that your reader will enjoy. In either case it should give the reader the desire to read on.

During the last three years, I have read a large range of books about writing and learned a lot about the technical aspects or story telling. And I’m still learning. But one of the simplest pieces of advice that I found from other writers was to keep a notebook with me. I keep a small notebook and pen with me, and anything that’s important gets put down. It’s unstructured and has all manner of things in it including some mattes not related to writing. But the important bits of information get transferred into project notes on my computer, where I use Onenote and Scrivener to organise my notes.

If you are a newbie to writing, there’s a lot to learn about your craft. But one of the simplest pieces of advice I can give you is to keep a notebook and pen with you.

Cutting out the boring bits

One of the mistakes a newbie writer can make is to assume that a story is an unbroken series of actions all of which have to be conveyed to the reader.  Instead, the writer should try to think more like a screen writer, and regard the story as sequence of scenes and transitions, where only the important elements of the story need to be shown.  In a film, you see the detective rush off with his side kick, and next you would see them arrive at the scene of the crime scene. What happens in the middle: they drive from A to B, but the audience can figure that out for themselves without being told.  It’s unimportant.  It would be different if the car journey was an important scene in itself: for example, an argument breaks out between the detective and the sidekick in the car, or that they realise they are being tailed by a mysterious car.

Thinking about a story as a sequence of scenes means you have to think carefully about what the purpose of each scene should be. Does it move the plot forward?  Does it reveal new insights about the characters?  Does it create suspense or dramatic tension?  If it doesn’t do any of these, why is it there?

Scene beaks in novels are normally signalled by a double line spacing between each scene, or sometimes it is evidence by #  or  *** symbol .  The purpose is the same: to signal that a scene has ended and a new scene has begun.  The author’s choice of where to break a scene is also important.  For example, leaving a scene on a cliff-hanger is a great device for getting the reader to read on, particularly when the next scene shifts to a new plot-line, and the reader to read through it to find the answer in the scene following.

Another device the writer can use is a simple transitional phase;  for example, ‘Later that day…’ or “Some while later…” Transitions are important to keep the fluency of the story line and indicating the passage of time.

Those authors that like to plot may use a card system, or some other record, to outline the scene structure of a book. Those authors that don’t like outlines or plans, and prefer to write organically, still need to be aware of scene breaks and how to deal with them.

One last word of warning.  Recently, I was watching a television drama written by a famous film director where the heroine was caught trying to infiltrate a heavily fortified enemy camp. She was taken to the antagonist room in the heart of the fortified camp, and was about to be tortured by him, only for the hero appear in the antagonists room defeat him and rescue her. There was no explanation at all about how he got there.  He was just there at exactly the right time to save her, as though by magic. And in the next scene they had escaped the fortified campsite and were back home.  My son has a term for these plot holes; he calls it ‘space magic’.

The same fault arose in some of the early western movies, where all seemed lost for the wagon train encircled by indians, only for the cavalry to come over the horizon riding to their rescue. It was as though the cavalry had some kind of satellite navigation system as to where the wagon train would be. As a reader and lover of movies, when I come across these contrived solutions I feel cheated.

The technical term for plot devices that solve what seems an unsolvable problem by the contrived intervention of a new event or character is called ‘deus ex machina’. It means ‘god from the machine’ and refers to the use of machines (cranes) that were used  in Greek tragedies to bring actors playing gods onto the stage to solve a problem. Getting our heroes and heroines into difficult and impossible scenarios is great for increasing dramatic tension. But when you do, don’t cheat the reader; find a solution that is credible and doesn’t rely on ‘deus ex machina’ to get them out of it.

Cutting out the boring bits of story is important to keep the reader’s attention and is particularly important when the story needs to pick up pace.  But only cut what the reader expects to happen. Don’t leave a plot hole and stretch the credulity of the reader in the process.

Bad guys aren’t necessarily all bad

Unless you’re dealing with satanic supernatural characters, an easy mistake for new authors to make is to assume that the antagonist has to be the epitome of all evil. In practice, the bad guy may well think he’s his own hero. He just sees things differently from the good guy. Like the hero, he has a back-story that explains why he is what he is; and a goal – which usually brings him into direct conflict with the hero/heroine. The goal might be to:

• feel love, or be respected.
• control, or rule others around him.
• become wealthy.
• possess something, or someone
• satisfy his lust, or desire.
• extract revenge.
• satisfy some deep religious, or political conviction.

Some of these motives are not necessarily all bad. But, unlike the good guy, the bad guy may be prepared to go to extreme lengths to achieve their goal – well beyond the boundaries of the law, or acceptable behaviour. The point I am making is that once you understand the goals of the antagonist, his behaviour is quite logical. In the antagonist’s mind his behaviour is justified. They think it’s his victim’s fault for being weak, or for getting in his way, or failing him, or being different. Some antagonists may justify their behaviour by labelling their intended victims as being less than human: they are communists, or fascists, or some racial or religious group that doesn’t meet their standards. And this is seen as a reason to persecute, or destroy them.

This isn’t to say that the antagonist cannot have some redeeming qualities. Even Norman Bates (“Psycho”) loved his mother. And have you noticed that some of the Bond villains have pets; they may want world domination, but they love their pets. Some of the most despotic leaders from history may well have been family men at home, only to be monsters to others.

To fully understand the antagonist role in the story, his story needs to be told. He shouldn’t just turn up in the final scene to be destroyed by the hero. A good example is Anakin Skywalker’s path to the dark side in Star Wars Episode II and III. There are early hints in the movie where Anakin is talking to Pademe about the need for strong leadership that betray his political leaning. But it all starts when Anakin tries to rescue his mother from the Tuscan Raiders. When he gets to the campsite, he finds that the Tusken Raiders have tortured his mother to death. In revenge, he slaughters everyone at the campsite, including the women and children. He later confesses his actions to Pademe. Later, in episode III Palpatine places Anakin on the Jedi counsel, but the Council deny him the rank of Jedi Master. This makes him resentful of his Jedi masters. Then when Pademe becomes pregnant, Anakin has premonitions of Padme dying in child birth. Palpatine convinces him that the only way to save her is to turn to the dark side. Anakin becomes Palpatine’s apprentice, and is re-christened Darth Vader. After which he kills the Jedi children in the temple and his path to the dark side is complete.

It isn’t just movies that detail the antagonist’s story. Dan Brown is one of the experts at giving his evil antagonists a story of their own. Take Silas, the albino religious killer, from the Da Vinci Code. In Chapter ten, Silas experiences a flashback of his father beating his mother to death when he was seven. Silas blames himself for letting this happen, and stabs his drunken father repeatedly until dead. The boy flees to live in the basement of a dilapidated factory eating stolen food. When he was twelve a girl twice his age mocks him and he pummelled her within inches of her life. At eighteen he is caught by two crewmen steeling food. He kills one, and is caught by the police before he kills the other. He is sent to a prison in Andora. Twelve years later an earthquake destroys the prison and he escapes in a railcar. He is found beaten again and wanders to be taken in by a priest. He saves the priest from a thief’s beating. The priest names him Silas. From then on he sees his religious calling and will help the priest build his church and do his every bidding.

So what can we learn from the Dan Brown? If you’re going to have dangerous psychotic religious zealot, like Silas, you need to explain why they are like that. Silas first appears in the fourth paragraph of the prologue killing the curator of the Louvre. But this is not the place to explain Silas’s character. There is too much going on. We see him again in Chapter two phoning the ‘Teacher’ and telling him that he has killed four people; and later he is seen inflicting pain on himself as a religious cleansing ritual. We now know that he is a religious psychotic killer. But it is only in chapter ten that we learn about his background.

In between these chapters there is of the course the story of Robert Langdon, the protagonist, who is brought to the Louvre by Captain Fache and suspected of being the murderer of the curator. By the end of chapter 18, Langdon and Sophie (the grand-daughter of the dead curator) have escaped from Fache and are on the run. The protagonist story and the antagonist’s story have been brilliantly sandwiched together in the first 124 pages. Can anyone put the book down at this point? The Da Vinci code is also a great example of what an author needs to do in the first Act: introduce the characters, and set the story question of what the story is all about.

If your novels are going to have evil antagonists, then it’s important that you understand the antagonist’s back-story. How he/she became what they are today and what is driving them. You also need to think carefully about how the antagonist’s backstory will be revealed, and when it is best to reveal it. In the case of the Da Vinci code, it was the ‘stone towers of the Saint-Sulpice’ that triggered the memories of him in prison and how he got there. There is quite an art to doing flashback scenes and the best way to find out is to follow great fiction writers.

Not all stories have a human antagonist; but those that do need to develop the antagonist’s character and provide a glimpse of why he is what he is.

How many types of plots are there?

tableAccording to Christopher Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ most stories can be categories under one of seven basic structures. For example, Jaws, Alien and Beowulf would all  fall under the ‘Overcoming the Monster’ category. ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ fall under the ‘Quest’ category.

Booker is not the only one to look at story structure. Ronald Tobias analyses stories by using twenty Master Plots. Some of these overlap with the seven basic plots. In the diagram I have tried to align them under the different categories although they do not necessarily easily fit. For example, Tobias examples of ‘Pursuit’ include ‘Jaws’, ‘Alien’, (which is close to the ‘Monster in the House’ category)  but also ‘Narrow Margin’, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’. Tobias is more detailed than Booker and looks more to the motivational aspects of the story.

Blake Snyder in ‘Save the Cat’ also categorises movies according to ten different types.  His ‘Golden Fleece’ category includes ‘Star Wars’, ‘Back to the Future’ and most heist movies. The ‘Dude with a problem’ category includes ordinary people with a problem: ‘Die Hard’, ‘Titanic’ and ‘Schinder’s List’. The ‘Superhero’ category includes exceptional people with a problem: ‘Gladiator’, ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Dracula’, ‘Superman’ etc. ‘Buddy Love’ includes ‘Rain Man’, ‘Dumb and Dumber’ as well as every love story ever made. ‘Institutionalised’ is about groups: ‘MASH’, ‘The Godfather’. The ‘Fool Triumphant’ includes ‘Dave’, ‘Forrest Gump’, ‘The Pink Panther’. Whydunnit’  includes ‘China Syndrome’, ‘All the President’s Men’ to every detective story ever told. ‘Out of the bottle’ includes ‘Bruce Almighty’, ‘Freaky Friday’, and ‘The Love Bug’.

Of the three authors classification systems I tend to prefer Blake Snyder’s approach. It’s less detailed than the twenty plots of Ronald Tobias, but is in my view more intuitive. The only aspect that does not seem to fit easily into the structure are tragedies. But then again tragedies are not particularly popular at the box office.

Why is story structure important? If we can understand why certain story structures work and others don’t we can analyse our own work to see if they contain the same pattern (or beats). The trick is to use the same winning pattern, but to be somehow different.

Plot and character – the chemistry

So what type of stories do you write: character-driven or action-driven? When thinking about your story ideas, do you start by imagining an interesting character, or do you start with some interesting ‘what if’ events and then consider the character?

It doesn’t really matter where you start, but you need both character and plot to make an interesting story. They are inseparable. How is a character going to reveal his character – only by how he/she responds to events, and by the decisions he/she takes which in turn affects future events. Plot and character are intertwined.

A great character with nothing to do doesn’t make an interesting story. Jack Reacher or James Bond without bad guys to go after is a pretty boring story. A series of events, like World War II doesn’t make a story. A story about a group of soldiers in a particular action in World War II and how they react in a particular situation may well be a great story.

The chemistry between character and plot is one of the key ingredients of a story. They must fit snugly together. Take the Hunger Games – a brutal plot where children are put into an arena to kill each other, and Katnis a strong willed heroine who volunteers to take her sister’s place in the arena. The story wouldn’t have worked without her. What if Brigette Jones was playing the lead in Hunger Games instead? It wouldn’t work. Putting it another way – the characteristics of the lead character are defined by the requirements of the plot.

The same is true in stories that are not action orientated. Katnis wouldn’t have made a great lead in Briget Jones’ Diaries, or Never Been Kissed. Would Erin Brockovich been the same without the feisty character played by Julia Roberts?

The problem with many ‘how to’ books on writing (and I’ve read a lot) is that they look at the writing process as something that can be broken down into components that can be studied separately: character, plot, descriptions, dialogue etc. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learnt a lot from these books, particularly about avoiding those basic newbie mistakes. But there are some aspects of writing that come down to pure chemistry: and plot and character are two important components. You know when you’ve got it right; and you know when it doesn’t work. But it’s hard to put your finger on it. It’s called ‘chemistry’.

What makes a good story ending?

Having covered story beginnings and middles in previous blogs, it seems only natural to cover story endings. Whether a story ending is right or not can ultimately only be judged by the reader. If the ending is not consistent with the direction the story is taking the reader, they may well feel disappointed and let down. After all, the reader has invested his time, and emotional energy in the characters of the story.

So what makes a story ending consistent with the direction of the story? Ultimately it depends on the type of story and the expectation it generates about the ending. That isn’t to say the author can’t surprise the reader with an ending (a twist); but the twist ending should be consistent with the type of ending the reader expects.

In Christopher Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’, Booker discusses a ‘universal plot’ in which the conflict in any story revolves around a component of human nature symbolised by a ‘dark power’. How the hero/heroine responds to the ‘dark power’ determines the outcome of the story.  In the beginning of the story a hero or heroine is in some way undeveloped, frustrated or incomplete. In the middle of the story they fall under the shadow of some ‘dark power’. The ending depends on whether the hero learns to overcome his weakness, defeat the ‘dark power’ and reach his goal (positive ending); or whether he fails to change and ends in his own destruction (negative ending). Thus the universal plot is based on moral sense of justice.

The universal plot is easy to identify in many of the tragedies of Shakespeare: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. These were basically noble men whose tragic flaws led to their own destruction. Tragedies are less popular today, as Hollywood seems to have a preference for positive endings. In the positive ending, the hero overcomes his weaknesses, defeats the antagonist and achieves his goal, even if the rest of the cast die in the process (e.g. Alien).

In a recent Blog on Goodreads, many of the participants complained about Hollywood’s preference for ‘happy endings’ in many Sci Fi movies. The consensus seemed to be that Hollywod didn’t understand ‘real’ science fiction. Some eulogised over some of the more depressing endings provided by some dystopian Sci Fi literature. I can’t say I’ve read a lot of this type of  science fiction. But I think the role of science fiction is to entertain the reader and not to prophesy. China Mieville would seem to agree:

“I think the role of science fiction is not at all to prophesy. I think it is to tell interesting, vivid, strange stories that at their best are dreamlike intense versions and visions of today.”

Those movies that I have seen with depressing endings I have found disappointing. Most tanked at the box office (at least Hollywood understands money). Personally, I want to see endings that show the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the ending has to be ‘happy’. It may well be sad if that’s what fits the storyline.

For example, in Space Cowboys (2000) Corvin and Hawkins discover that the Soviet Communications satellite that is about to come out of orbit has six nuclear missiles onboard. To stop the missiles re-entering the rockets have to be fired manually. Hawkins fires the rockets and takes them to the moon. He saves the world and achieves his wish of going to the moon, only to die on the moon’s surface. Not exactly a ‘happy ending’, but a sad one, and the right one for the movie.

An author has to have a good beginning, a good middle and a good end to his story to satisfy his reader. A bad opening and the reader will not pick the book up. A bad middle and the reader will put the book down in the middle. A bad ending and he/she probably won’t look at a book from the same author again.

First or third, what’s your point of view?

Writers tend to read a lot, and recently I ’ve been reading more than I’ve been writing. Apart from the joy of reading a good novel, it’s also an opportunity to study the styles of successful authors outside my genre, and learn from them. One of the books I finished recently is Stephenie Meyer’s Host. It was a impulse buy based on the unusual story description and the fact that it was now a major Sci Fi motion picture. The story is written in the first person (I), from the point of view of the heroine, who happens to be a selfless alien parasite inhabiting the body of her human host. Yes, it seems such a strange plot line, particularly the relationship between herself and her human host. But it’s so well written and emotionally charged that it works. I couldn’t put the book down.

The fact that the author wrote in the first person is not the only reason why the book was so emotionally powerful. Stephanie Myers is a successful writer and such success doesn’t come about without being a great writer. But I doubt whether it would have worked out so well if it had been written in the third person (‘she’).

Another book I enjoyed reading recently was Suzanee Collins’ Hunger Games. In fact, it was so good I read the whole trilogy one after each other. Again the trilogy was written in the first person from the point of view of the heroine, but in this case it was also written entirely in the current tense. At first, this seemed very strange style to adopt, but the books are such great stories that it didn’t seem to matter. Stepenie Myers also uses the current tense in the Host, but only in certain passages where the heroine was reliving certain memories of her host body.

Why then do many authors tend to write in the third person and in the past tense? That’s easy to answer. The story demands it. Stories written in the first person can quite clearly make the reader identify and empathise with the protagonist. But the story is told purely from that one person’s point of view. Consequently, there is no easy way of making the reader aware of actions away from the main viewpoint character that may be vital to the storyline. The reader only sees what the point of view character sees or is told. If you want the reader to see what is going on when the main character is not present then the story needs to be written in the one of the third person forms (she/he).

One way is to use use third person limited point of view. This means that each scene is written from the point of view of one character, the point of view character. For example, all of Dan Brown’s books featuring Robert Langdon are written in the third person. So when Langdon is not present in a scene, a different point of view character is used.

When using third person limited point of view, it’s best to ensure that there is only one point of view character per scene. Otherwise it leads to a kind of ‘head hopping’, which can be irritating to the reader. When there are more than one main character present in the same scene, a choice will need to be made. In Collision, my own novel, there are two main characters, Elle and Ben, and I give each a share of point of view scenes. There are also point for view scenes for each of the antagonists. In this way, the reader can see what’s coming. The antagonists just don’t turn up to surprise the heroine.

First person, and limited third person point of view are not the only points of view that could be used to write a story from, although the other choices are far less popular. For example, second person (you) is hardly ever used. There is also third person omniscent where the story is told by some god like narrator who sees everything rather than a particular character. It’s a style that’s less popular these days.

Whichever point of view you choose to write in will have an important affect on the way your story unfolds and the way it needs to be written. But whatever point of view you choose will need to be applied consistently.

What a novelist can learn from the movies

It’s almost eight months since I published my first novel and I’ve only just written the opening scene of my second novel.  It might seem a long time in planning, but I haven’t been working on it full time and I wanted to make sure that I had the right story and I understood my plotline and characters before I got started.  Knowing how I would start the story was easy; figuring out how it would end was much more complex.

Imagine that you were asked to plot the end scene of Star Wars, without knowing the detail of what came before.  You know the good guys are going to win and the death star will be destroyed, but how will they do it? Or if you’re writing a romance, you know the hero and heroine will get together, but how will it happen?  Endings are perhaps the most difficult to plan-ahead and outline.  Yet without some idea of the ending it is impossible to prepare a workable plot outline.  Of course, we could always write the end scenes first; there is no reason why any novel should be written chronologically.  But I suspect there are few authors that actually do it that way in practice.  (Let me know if you do!)

Recently, I read about a famous crime fiction author who said he never knew which character was the murderer until he had finished his first draft.  That’s real organic writing or ‘pantsing’.  And he’s not the only famous writer who has confessed to not knowing his ending before starting their first draft.  Of course, there are many writers, who don’t outline their work because they see it as unnecessary or too restrictive.  To them story telling may be as instinctive as riding a bike.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that these master storytellers haven’t prepared, or haven’t thought deeply about their characters and story idea before they start; or for that matter that they don’t consider story structure when editing the next draft.  For lesser mortals that are still learning the craft of storytelling, some form of outline plan or story structure is helpful.

One of the fun ways of understanding story structure, oddly enough,  is by watching movies. Yes, it’s a very different  medium from writing, but movies are all about storytelling; and a novelist has to become a good storyteller.  Much like a novel, a movie is an emotional rollercoaster where for a short time we grow to empathise with the hero or heroine as they face the trials and tribulations of their story and at the end, if the movie is any good, we will end on an emotional high. How they produce this magic in 90-120 minutes of film-time, requires a great screenplay, great acting and direction, plus the odd $100 million or so.

It’s therefore not surprising that many of the great books on storytelling are directed at screenwriters and not at authors.  But many of those same books are just as relevant to authors of fiction.  Two of my favourites are ‘Save the Cat’ and ‘Save the Cat Goes to the Movies’ by the late Blake Snyder.  The latter book analyses the stories of many of the great blockbuster movies into their components or beats.  It’s a great read and if you haven’t already come across Blake Synder’s Beat Sheet before you will find it fascinating.  It will also change the way you look at movies.  Another great book is John Truby’s ‘The Anatomy of Story’, which takes a slightly different approach. Truby sets out a twenty-two step story structure that sets out the most dramatic way to tell your story.  Again a fascinating book and a lesson in story structure.

There are also some books aimed directly at authors of fiction that take ideas from the screen and apply them to the novel. Three  good examples are Alfie Thompson’s , ‘Lights! Camera! Fiction! A Movie Lovers Guide to Writing  a Novel’, and Alexandra Sokoloff’s  ‘Screenwriting Tricks for author’s’  and ‘Writing Love; Screenwriting Tricks for Authors’.  Each book does exactly what the titles suggest.

Now it’s time that I got back to writing that novel.

Authors’ software

As a newbie author, I’m always on the lookout for new software that might make the task of writing easier. I have always wondered if there was that killer application lurking out there that would make life simpler, if only I could just find it. Other newbie authors might be thinking the same way. Therefore I thought it would be helpful to run-down of the software that I find useful. It’s not necessarily the best, but it’s what works for me.

Firstly, it is important not to forget that many great authors in the last century managed to publish their great works of fiction without much more than pen, ink and paper. The most important ingredient is therefore, and will always be, that piece of software between your two ears. But it would be silly not to recognise the power of personal computers, laptops, pads and even phones to make life easier.

The most obvious application is of course the word processor, and I have seen quite a few during the course of my business career. Today Microsoft Word clearly dominates the business market and has become virtually a de facto standard both in the business and publishing worlds. I have used it for over two decades and it is still my word processor of choice for general word-processing , spellchecking and editing. But it is not what I use for drafting or publishing fiction.

For most of my business career I was a Windows user. When I retired two years ago, I was looking for something new to do and I took a look at the Apple Mac. I had also heard great things about an application called Scrivener that then ran only on the Mac (A version is now available on Windows, but lacks some of the functionality of its Mac counterpart). I purchased a MacBookPro and Scrivener and started to write. I used Scrivener to write and publish my first book ‘Collision – a Sci-Fi Romance’. Scrivener is an amazing piece of software, so much more than a word processor that it’s difficult to describe. It allows you to write scenes and chapters in any order you like, move them about without cutting and pasting; and you can visualise the structure in either an outline format or as cards on a corkboard. And you can review your notes while writing on a split screen. It also allows you to compile your manuscript into a variety of formats including DOC, RTF, EPUB and Amazon’s MOBI and more. For an excellent review of the software see or go to Literature and Latte’s site at

The other software I tend to use is a mixture of tools some of which run on the Mac others are Windows. For outlining before I start a project I tend to use OmniOutliner. This is a simple outliner for the Mac, which I use to map out the scene structure. It’s quick and efficient. You can also export files from to Scrivener into OmniOutliner and import OmniOuliner reports into Scrivener.

When I am developing ideas I sometimes use mind maps. There are many free applications available on the Internet. The one I used recently was MindMeister, which does pretty much everything I need. More recently, I have used the beta version of Scapple from Literature and Latte. It’s not really a mind map, but an application that mimics a large whiteboard. It’s great for putting down ideas in free-form as though you were using a big whiteboard. When it appears in the Apple Store I will be one of the first to buy it.

I use Microsoft Excel for analysing scene structure and all kinds of analysis. This might seem strange for an author, but for someone that has used spread sheets in the business world for over two decades it is the most obvious software for me to use. I’m simply used to it. If you don’t already have Excel, for other reasons, then I would suggest a simpler spreadsheet would suffice. There are many available on the internet, some of which are open source and free.

For general note taking, I find Microsoft’s OneNote is the best for jotting down ideas and thoughts. I’ve looked at Mac note taking software, but haven’t yet found anything quite as powerful as OneNote. However, for project specific notes, outlines, character sketches and the like I put directly into one of my Scrivener folders for access when I am writing.

There are also a variety of software products that claim to provide authors with a framework or structure for novel building. Some are very structured – a kind of novel building by numbers. This type of software doesn’t interest me. Others like StoryWeaver, Novel Writer and Contour have some merit as structured learning tools, but have limited value to me personally. The remainder seem to duplicate some of the functionality of Scrivener. The one exception I came across was StorybookPro. This is a story boarding application that has some useful visual features for viewing the different strands of a plot and for tracking the time line. I found its Book Summary and Character List reports useful. In my case I exported the reports as RTF files and imported them into a Scrivener folder for access for when I am writing.

Lastly, there are lots of software products that are aimed at helping the author with the editing, and grammar checking process . Most of this software seems to me to be over-hyped and expensive and the ones I’ve looked at didn’t provide any noticeable improvement over Microsoft Word’s own spellchecker and grammar checker, which I already use. Personally, I think it is impossible to produce a grammar checker that is totally reliable, because of the complexity of English grammar. Accordingly this type of software will always produce ‘false-positives’ to confuse the author. A writer needs to have a good grasp of grammar. And if he/she doesn’t then they’re in the wrong business.

There is one exception I would make to editing software and that is software that analyses word count and over-used words in your work. I use a software product called MasterEdit (Windows) which is simple and efficient and inexpensive. And if you’re interesting in analysing your writing style you might like to look at the free online sites and

You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned any software relating to social media. This is because when it comes to social media I am a bit of dinosaur. For example, I only use my cell phone for telephoning and I have never sent a text in my life. But perhaps I’ll summon up the courage to dip into the social media in the near future. I never thought I would blog; and here I am.

That’s it. This was never intended to be a comprehensive review of all the software available to an author; only a list of those software products that work for me. If anyone out there believes, there is a killer-application that I have missed please let me know.