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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Big "O" for Writers—Organization: The Writer's Toolbox #3

This is Ruth Harris's third installment in her Writer's Toolbox series. You can read Writer's Toolbox #2 here and Writers Toolbox #1 here

Today she's talking about tools for organizing your research and ideas: very timely for me this week. 

I've been working on and off for months on researching my next Camilla mystery, which takes Camilla back to the English Midlands (where she may or may not find out whether Peter Sherwood survived that yacht disaster).

I had the bright idea of creating a subplot involving Richard III, since his remains were recently discovered under a parking lot a few miles from the Midlands town I call Swynsby-on-Trent. (And who better to meet up with the ghost of the last Plantagenet king than Camilla's best friend, Plantagenet Smith?) 

And ever since, I've been lost down a rabbit hole of research. 

Do you have any idea how many books have been written on the subject of Richard III? Then there are the archives of the Richard III Society, the Society of Friends of King Richard III, the Richard III Foundation, Inc.and myriad social media pages and websites. I could spend a lifetime reading Ricardian lore and never write my book at all. 

There is, indeed such a thing as Too Much Information. So I'm going to get to work with some of these tools (just downloaded Evernote!) Now I'll see if it will help me tame the wild ideas in my head into a well-behaved plot. ...Anne

Writer’s Toolbox #3: Organize Up. Clutter Down. A cyber-Container Store for writers with lots of FREE stuff.
by Ruth Harris

Ideas come helter-skelter. Plot points arrive unbidden and in no coherent order. Characters can be stubborn and do what they what—not what the author wants. Dialog arrives in disjointed bits and pieces. The “perfect” sassy/ominous/devastating come-back might take a week (or more!) to marinate and then create.

Research all by itself can be chaotic mess. Take my novel ZURI for example:

  • Rhino ophthalmology? Check.
  • Safety protocols at zoos? Yep.
  • Endangered species? Basic.
  • Poachers and poaching? Can’t write the book without.
  • Illicit wildlife trading stats? Need-to-know.
  • How elephants communicate? But of course.
  • Career paths for veterinarians? Certainly.
  • Good goats and bad goats? Definitely.
  • What, exactly, does an expert in animal communication do? Gotta find out for sure.

In order to write Zuri there was all this plus plenty more but no way was I the only writer slogging through an Everest of info. Writers of historicals, techno thrillers, fantasy and multi-book series must also keep track of voluminous amounts of data and information.

In all books timelines need to be pinned down and adhered to. Can’t have a snowy Christmas scene in which a character in shorts and a t-shirt admires the blooming geraniums on the terrace.

Conflicts must escalate in pulse-pounding ways which means scenes must fall in just the right sequence. Can’t have a violent shootout in a gleaming office tower come before what seems a laid-off employee’s boozed-up threat against the boss s/he hates.

Characters need to be believable and consistent. Can’t have a blond, blue-eyed Alpha hero turn into the shy, poetic type. At least not without a damn good reason.

The overwhelmed writer must find a way to pummel, massage and mold the whole mess into a book that will delight readers.

It’s a huge, often frustrating task but here are some handy or even indispensable helpers, some I’ve mentioned before, others new (at least to me), lots of them FREE or available at modest cost.

Evernote, a FREE download, is well known and widely used. Evernote’s slogan is "Remember Everything", and this powerful app does exactly that. Evernote can save images, web pages, videos, audio files (great for phone interviews) and comes with a handy reminder function. Evernote will take dictation, you can email research to and from, the web clipper does its job perfectly and it’s hard to imagine a writer whose life won’t be made easier—and more organized!—thanks to Evernote.

Here are some research how-tos and tips from author and blogger Alexandra Samuel to help you get even more from Evernote. Thanks to Alexandra, I found out that notebooks can be set offline so you can access your information even when you’re away from an internet connection.

Scrivener, a powerful writing tool which comes in both Mac and PC versions, is an effortless organizer. My Mom used to say “a place for everything and everything in its place” and Keith Blount, Scrivener’s creator, must have been listening.

Scrivener provides places for your manuscript, your research including web links, images, audio files and videos. There are easily accessible cork board and outline functions and, because of Scrivener’s “binder” concept, moving scenes around is quick and easy. There is a generous trial and, if you decide Scrivener is for you, the purchase price is $45.

At The Organized Writer, Annie Neugebauer makes the excellent point that organization is just a framework for creativity. Hover your cursor over the Organized Writer on this page and you will find a useful drop down list of templates for everything from a writer’s bio to plot sheets, agent queries and character charts. All FREE.

A post there by Stacey Crew has a number of suggestions for coping with the messy business of writing. One I particularly like is using your smart phone to dictate ideas that occur to you when you’re away from your desk doing errands or walking in the park. Your phone will convert your words to text so you can email yourself your brilliant ideas and save having to retype them.

At Adventures in YA Publishing, Martina Boone and co. offer detailed instructions plus pix about how to create a plot board. The plot board (called a storyboard when used in pre-production on movies and tv) uses ordinary office supplies and allows a writer to visualize his or her book scene by scene or in overview.

Alexandra Sokoloff, screenwriter and teacher, uses an index card method for keep track of plot and story structure. She goes into detail about the three-act structure, the how-tos of her system and explains how her screenwriting techniques also apply to novels. Alexandra even includes a part-and-page breakdown for fiction writers.

Bestselling novelist Diane Chamberlain also uses the index card method and shows via pix the difference between the neat and organized final book and the chaotic and messy WIP stage.

Cindy R. Wilson at the Writers Alley talks about needing a direction (as opposed to a plot) when she starts to write. Cindy uses a combination of folders, notebooks and lists to keep herself organized and lays out the details here.

Author of medieval romance, Blythe Gifford, uses a spreadsheet to rein in the chaos. With her trusty Excel spreadsheet, Blythe has developed a way to keep track of everything from timelines to backstory, from a character’s first kiss to big picture stuff like war, peace, pestilence, famine and crashing meteors.

At Harlequin, Shelly Jump tells how she developed a simple way to keep track of myriad details that comprise a writer's life. She uses inexpensive stationery store items like colored folders, archive boxes, notebooks and highlighters to help tame the onslaught.

The staff writers at Open Education Database have pulled together 150 FREE online resources covering everything from help with research and statistics to basics like grammar, spelling and definitions. This invaluable list also includes assistance with business and legal matters, organizational tools, genre guides ranging from technical writing to fantasy, word counters and professional organizations.

We may never achieve the perfect big O (not that one; get your mind out of the gutter!), but these hints and tips will definitely help you contain the clutter.

How about you, scriveners? Do you find it tough to assemble all the data in your head into a coherent story? Do you use index cards or storyboards? How about Evernote or Scrivener? Or do you just jot stuff down in separate .docs and throw it in a big old Word folder the way Anne does? 

Opportunity Alerts

The Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award from the Mid-American Review. $10 entry fee for a story up to 6000 words. First Prize: $1,000 and publication. Four Finalists: Notation, possible publication. You may submit online or snail mail. Details at website. Deadline is November 1, 2013.

J.F. POWER PRIZE FOR SHORT FICTION NO ENTRY FEE. The winner will receive $500. The winning story will be announced in February, 2014 and published in Dappled Things, along with nine honorable mentions. The word limit is 8,000 words. Deadline is November 29, 2013.

MYSTERY AUTHORS! The Poisoned Pen Press, one of the most prestigious small presses, is open for submissions for one month. They open for submissions twice yearly, once during the month of October, and once during the spring. During October, they will accept submissions for regular publication. During the spring submissions period they open for the Discover Mystery first book contest. Please note their entire submissions process is electronic via the online submissions manager, Submittable. Mailed or e-mailed submissions will not be read. They will be accepting regular submissions during the period between October 1 and October 31.

The Lascaux Prize for Short Fiction: Stories may be previously published or unpublished. Length up to 10,000 words. Entry fee is $5, and authors may enter more than once.The editors will select a winner and nineteen additional finalists. The winner will receive $500 and publication in The Lascaux Review. Both winner and finalists will earn the privilege of displaying a virtual medallion on blogs and websites. Deadline December 31, 2013.

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Blogger Anne Gallagher said...

Such a timely post. I am right in the middle of putting together a ship for a few scenes I'm writing and the research has taken me to the Royal Navy, Napoleon, Old Salt Slang, and a few more websites so that now, I am just totally lost.

I usually keep my stuff in "folders" in my favorites bar, but that has grown so vast, I forget where I put things.

I think I'm going to try Evernote for this latest book. I'll see if that makes it easier.

Thanks Ruth, Thanks Anne. Another great post.

October 27, 2013 at 10:11 AM  
Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Tons of great resources this week!
Most of what I need to remember as far as a timeline ends up in my (very detailed) outline. I know many writers swear by Scrivener, but I like to keep it simple.

October 27, 2013 at 10:13 AM  
OpenID lisemcclendon.com said...

As a former Word doc dumper, I am now a Scrivener convert. I also do white boards with post-its, in a later phase than I'm in now (first draft). I am so OVER being a pantser! It just creates more work down the road...

Thanks for the post, Ruth.

October 27, 2013 at 10:33 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Anne—Thanks! I know all about getting lost in a mountain of research. That's why I wrote the post—I figured I wasn't the only one!

Alex—Hi Alex and thank you. I'm one of those who swears by Scriv. It lets me keep everything organized and in one place. I use Evernote to keep stuff that doesn't belong to a specific book but that I know I will need to refer to in the future.

Lise—Yay! Another Scriv convert. I'm sort of halfway between a panther & plotter. Problem is, damn book keeps changing!

October 27, 2013 at 10:42 AM  
Blogger Natalie M said...

I tend to use organization as a procrastination tool. As it were, I have so many systems at work for me that pretty soon I'll need to organize my organization. Eek!

When I started my current novel, I kept track of all of my research links in a Word document. That became unwieldy. This week, when I felt blocked, I went back and pinned all of my research links to a private board on Pinterest (and while I was pinning, I let myself get sidetracked for an hour pinning other things that had nothing to do with my book. Pinterest is the devil and I am weak! Ha!) I also have good, old-fashioned folders and a delightful collection of Post-its. For Part 1 of my novel, I set up a piece of poster board next to my desk and used Post-its to create a story board of sorts. For each chapter, I'd summarize main plot points so I'd be able to quickly refer to them later. More recently, I created a Word document with a chart where I've been tracking my characters and their development.

All of these tools are helpful on their own and definitely help me keep track of what I've done, but working on them is also keeping me from writing new material. Beyond revisions, I haven't written anything new in weeks.

The deeper I get into the story, the more bogged down I feel. Some people in my writer's group swear by Scrivener and I've been meaning to try it, but (ironically) I've been holding out because I feel like if I do it, it'll be one more excuse to reorganize YET AGAIN and will keep me from writing new material.

One thing I don't do is a formal outline. However, I suspect that's what I need to be doing.

Meanwhile, thanks for the tips and resources; it's helpful to know what other people are using.

Natalie Munroe

October 27, 2013 at 10:59 AM  
OpenID liebjabberings said...

Scrivener - plus Dramatica Story Expert.

The combination is what works for me. The only overlap between the two - which I copy and paste - is the list of scenes. DSE gets my plot all organized and allows me to see how changing one thing affects everything else. Scrivener is where the writing happens.

I am fanatical about not losing things - I have a LOT of auxiliary files going on in my novel's Scrivener system since I moved over earlier this year.

Everything that used to be in a paper file - somewhere - is now searchable.

If I can't remember where I put something, Scrivener's ability to instantly make huge composite files out of whatever bits you care to throw together allows me to find it. It's like having a truly organized brain.

All of its extra files - Document notes, Metadata, synopsis card, etc. - are in use to keep scenes and chapters organized.


PS Using the keywords 'dramatica' or 'scene template' at my blog will pull up a short series of posts on either option.

October 27, 2013 at 12:00 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Natalie M — Organization as a procrastination method is excellent. Now why didn't I think of that myself? lol

Alicia — Thanks for sharing your organization methods and thanks for introducing me to DSE. Scapple is another app some writers find useful for the brainstorming stage.

October 27, 2013 at 12:58 PM  
Blogger G. B. Miller said...

I usually function by the organized chaos method of keeping track of stuff.

If I have to research something for my story, I use the following methods which are usually quite inconvenient for everyone else but works for me:

1} I stop what I'm writing, then research the particular point that I'm stumped at. Once I get the information that I want, I go back to writing the story.

2} I'll continue writing the story using the faulty information until I can ask people in the know for clarification, then go back and re-write/re-create the offending paragraph(s)

Method #2 came in handy while I was writing my first novel and I needed clarification on a few rather personal physical characteristic for women, so naturally I asked a few close female friends of mine for clarification.

I rarely take notes with either method as I've been blessed/cursed with a really good memory.

October 27, 2013 at 3:36 PM  
Blogger Julie Musil said...

I love all these ideas!

Just this morning, I organized all the stuff for my next book. My super duper high-tech gadgets? Three ring binder and index cards. Slick, right?

October 27, 2013 at 7:06 PM  
Blogger Rosi said...

This is such a great post. So much useful information. I will be putting the link on my next blog post and will be downloading Evernote right away. Thanks for this.

October 27, 2013 at 8:50 PM  
Blogger Claude Nougat said...

Great post, thanks Ruth, I never heard of either DSE or Evernote, shall explore both asap!

I come from the generation that used index cards and I still do, only that I've gone digital with them...But surely my own personal organization could be vastly improved (for the moment it hangs on the titles I give my info-filled word docs that all go in a research folder linked to the novel...So I'm looking forward to better systems!

October 28, 2013 at 3:18 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Julie—Thanks. Sounds like your super duper high-tech gadgets work perfectly for you. As they say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it! OTOH, tweaks to the system can improve a system — which is why I'm constantly fiddling around trying to turn "good" into "better." ;-)

Rosi—Thanks for the kind & flattering words. It took me a while to figure out how to use Evernote and I still use only a small per cent age of its power but I find it indispensable. It's always open on my desktop & I love the mini reminder that's instantly accessible for those essential little notes I never quite had the right place for. Now I do!

Claude—Thanks! I never heard of DSE either so that makes two of us!

Do you use Scrivener? It has an excellent digital index card function which I don't use nearly as much as I probably should. Like you, I'm on a constant hunt for better systems. There's so much behind-the-scenes prep involved in writing that organizing it so we don't get overwhelmed by it (or actually forget the gems we've unearthed) is a crucial part of the job.

October 28, 2013 at 4:24 AM  
Blogger Annie said...

Great resources! I cant' wait to check out Evernote. And thank you so much for linking to my Organized Writer docs!

October 28, 2013 at 8:10 AM  
Blogger Michael Kelberer said...

Thanks for this overview. I've become enamored of both Evernote (especially after I read Michael Hyatt's post on getting the most out of it (http://bit.ly/1aB5XJa)) for general research and helping me remember where and what I've read on blogs (webclipper is great!), and Scrivener for research related to a specific writing project.

October 28, 2013 at 8:12 AM  
Blogger Christine Ahern said...

Thanks, Ruth. Great information. I think I will check out Evernote. It sounds very helpful. I'm just wrapping up book two of a trilogy and can use help keeping track of...well, everything!

October 28, 2013 at 8:28 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Annie—Thank you for making Organized Writer so inspiring!

Michael—Thanks and thank you for the link to Michael Hyatt's very helpful post! Right now, I find the Scrivener/Evernote combo indispensable. They let me do what needs to be done in an easy, efficient way.

Christine—Thanks! Evernote is the perfect author's helper for trilogies!

October 28, 2013 at 10:13 AM  
Blogger Blythe Gifford said...

Thanks for the shout out! Great stuff here and I'm going to track down some of the resources. One of my new tricks is Microsoft One Note. Works like a tabbed binder and is great for saving access to whole web pages.

October 28, 2013 at 2:55 PM  
OpenID paulfahey said...

Ruth, Absolutely terrific post as usual. This one I'm bookmarking as there are so many different ideas to try out. I've used several strategies in the past like the 3X 5's for prewriting with log line, theme, plot points, the end when I can think of it, with much of this borrowed from Syd Field and his screenwriting books. And I usually use the three act structure as well. But I'm really intrigued by some of these other techniques that I can use for research and organization while I'm writing. Thank you again. Always great info when you post. My best,


October 28, 2013 at 9:21 PM  
Blogger Lexa Cain said...

I know a lot of writers who like Scrivener. I'm happy that you mentioned that one and others too. Great post! :-)

October 28, 2013 at 11:53 PM  
Blogger Shah Wharton said...

Wow, a superb collection of links I have this on Evernote (which I will now learn to use for more than web clippings) :) X


October 29, 2013 at 2:24 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Blythe—I was so impressed by the way you adapted Excel to your own needs and preferences! A great example of creativity at work! Thank you, too, for adding Microsoft One Note to the list of useful writers' helpers.

Paul—I've been looking forward to hearing from you! :-) Glad the post gave you some ideas. In the end, I think we all mix-and-match to create an individualized working system which is also always in flux as we try to improve our work—and our working habits.

Lexa—Thank you for the kind words. Lots of writers (like moi) like/love Scrivener.

Shah—Thanks for your comment. Evernote is so helpful as to be indispensable. Like you, my learning curve continues! Lots of ways to use it and lots of features to explore.

October 29, 2013 at 4:15 AM  
Blogger Julie Luek said...

Wow-- thanks for doing the work for us and pulling together this great list of resources. That's wonderful. Off to do a little organizing research now. Thanks for the afternoon "O". ;)

October 29, 2013 at 12:26 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Julie—Thanks! Anne and I always try to please our readers. Every time and in every way including a Big O whenever possible! ;-)

October 29, 2013 at 12:42 PM  
Blogger Kittie Howard said...

Another great post. Thanks for the tips. I'm off to check out Scrivner's.

October 29, 2013 at 4:15 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Kittie—Thanks! Be sure to check out Scriv's basic tutorial to get an overview. Then dive in. As you use it, more will become clear. I've been using it for ages & am still finding new and very useful features.

October 30, 2013 at 10:30 AM  
Blogger Joy Moore said...

Thank you for such informative posts. Just what I need at the right time.

November 1, 2013 at 2:11 PM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Joy—Thank you for the kind words and for taking the time to comment. :-)

November 1, 2013 at 2:55 PM  
Blogger Meghan Ward said...

I use Scrivener, but I've never tried Evernote. Is it mainly used for mobile devices, or do people use it on their laptops too? Do I need Evernote if I already have Scrivener? It sounds like I could have Evernote on my phone for recording ideas, interviews, etc. out in the field and Scrivener on my computer at home.

November 9, 2013 at 5:16 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Meghan–I use both Scriv & Evernote and find both invaluable. Both are always open on my desktop. I'm waiting for Scriv for iOS but until then Evernote is on my mobile devices.

I keep all book research in the Project file on Scriv but many other things go into Evernote: I keep track of keywords in Evernote, Evernote's quick reminder function lives on the menu bar for immediate access. I can email stuff I want to refer to later to Evernote: it's uses are endless.

Plus it's FREE! You can try it and if you like it, you don't even have to buy it! ;-)

November 9, 2013 at 10:10 AM  

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