Useful Websites For Speculative Fiction Writers!

Today, I’ve got a couple useful websites for you. The first…

SF Editors Wiki – it’s a wiki for keeping track of the works that science fiction editors have worked on. It includes editors with Ace Books, DAW Books, Baen Books, and Tor Books, just to name a few.

The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam. How cliched is your novel? Is it derivative crap or fresh and interesting? While answering the questions in this exam won’t necessarily give you an accurate answer to those questions, it can still be loads of fun. 🙂 And if you want to write a cliche-ridden derivative piece of crap, this would be a great checklist to make sure you got ’em all. 🙂 Or at least a lot of ’em. 😀

TV Tropes Wiki. Not for speculative fiction only, and not for television series only. It just started with television before expanding into other forms of fiction. For the uninitiated, tropes are story elements that help convey a purpose. Clear as mud? 😛 Go there and get started reading. It’s not just educational but also highly entertaining. 🙂

An interview with three speculative fiction editors and what they do – and don’t – want to see in their slush piles. Like no Isabelles nicknames Izzy. No exploding spacecraft in opening paragraphs. No unheard of virus that alters humanity completely except for one (un)lucky bastid who’s immune. Poor guy. 🙁 😉

The Query Project. With links to published authors who post the query letters that worked for them. Even Simon Haynes‘ query letter is included, as rambling as it is. 😉

Writing Software

Since my husband, Fahim, is a programmer as well as a writer, he writes software for me. 🙂 I use the following:

PlotCraft – keeps track of all the story ideas you get. Free.

WriteTrack – submission tracking software.  Free.

Amanuensis – word processing with tree view structure for organizing scenes, chapters, notes, etc. Free.

Agents / Publishers List – an online database of agents & publishers.  Searchable, filterable, plus anyone can add agents/publishers and add comments to existing ones to update information.  Free.

Word Counters – progress bar you can put on your blog or website.  You can set the units to words, hours, scenes, chapters, etc.  Free.

Word macro – marks adverbs, frequently used words, passive verbs, clichés, trouble words as you input, and so on.  Free.

As for software the husband didn’t write…

There’s yWriter written by Simon Haynes, Australian programmer and science fiction author.  yWriter is so worth checking out – it’s logical and intuitive and easy to use, as well as also being free.  It’s an excellent piece of software that’s happily used by a lot of writers.  🙂  Free.

I tried out Liquid Story Binder and hated it.  There’s a fairly steep learning curve to it, it’s not at all intuitive, and the various building blocks don’t work together.  It’s kind of like having one Lego piece, one Mechanix piece, a child’s hammer, a Pyrex dish, and a Raggedy Andy doll.  All useful in their own way, but they don’t work together to create anything useful, yet they’re put into one program that claims it can do everything.  From where I sit, it’s a piece of software written by programmers who’ve never actually written anything themselves, other than code, who think they know what the writing process is like, but are actually quite clueless.  But I really really hate it.  🙂 Not free.

I also use Microsoft Word.  With all the scenes/chapters properly labelled with heading 1, heading 2, and so on, with document map turned on, it’s easy to find what I’m looking for.  But more than that, I tag-team edit with my husband, so we use Track Changes so we can see what the other person changed, then accept or reject.  We use Track Changes extensively – we’re also editors for a local geek & gadget magazine – so Track Changes gets a huge workout from us. Not free, of course. 🙂

And if you’re into collaborative writing at all and need to share documents, I’d suggest Microsoft Groove.  Create a workspace, invite participants, and everyone who’s a member of that workspace can access the documents on it.  When one person makes changes to the document, it’s updated in everyone else’s space, too.  We use this extensively and it works beautifully. Also not free.

If you want a full-feature word processing program, go with OpenOffice Writer.  It’s a pretty useable and decent piece of software.  Free.

Then there’s KeyNote which is much more than a word processing program.  It’s really a knowledge management tool with a treeview structure.  Doesn’t have live spell checking, though.  Worth checking out. Free. 

What works for one writer doesn’t work for every other writer, so it really is a case of figuring out what works for the writer in question. Try these and other programs out and see what you think.

Please, let me know of any other writing software you know about. And one of these days, I’ll do a full review of as many of them as I can. Not all on the same day, of course. 🙂

Vijitha Yapa’s has a website?

How sad is this that I didn’t know that? Vijitha Yapa‘s is the bookstore Fahim and I prefer to shop at – they have the widest selection of English-language books, and while not a huge selection of fantasy and science fiction, it’s better than anywhere else. Here.

If you’re looking for books on Sri Lanka or by Sri Lankan authors, check it out – they ship worldwide, too.

More on the Galle Literary Festival 2008

I found an article online at the Sunday Times site written by Smirti Daniels with more information on the Galle Literary Festival. At the end of the article, Smirti mentions this:

The Festival lasts for less than a week, however, one of our key aims is to use the profile of the festival to act as a springboard for and to publicise a variety of community initiatives with our friends and sponsors of the festival, say the organisers. Here are few of the initiatives you can expect to see at the Festival this year:

  • Workshops in Galle and the Southern Province School with AdoptSriLanka and The British Council.
  • Debating and creative writing competitions with Adopt Sri Lanka.

If those two initiatives actually take place, great! I’d prefer workshops not just in Galle, though, but also in Colombo and other major cities. Still, if they happen, it could be very good for the writing scene in Sri Lanka. If you hear more about this, please pass the information on to me!

The festival appears focused towards the yuppie literary crowd (cooking lessons from a renowned chef, don’t’cha know), not towards those who are seeking publication.

And for the controversy behind the 2007 festival, check this out. It involves the sponsor of the event, AdoptSriLanka, and how donations are being spent.

Disclaimer: mudslinging and partisanship is a sport here, and accusations are frequently flung with little or no proof. I’m not saying that is the case here – it’s just something you should be aware of. Make up your own mind. That applies to newspapers, websites, and, well, everything.

Literary Events in Sri Lanka

Fahim told me about two literary events taking place in Sri Lanka this month – The Galle Literary Festival 2008 and Book Buzz 2008.

The second annual Galle Literary Festival 2008 takes place in Galle, at the south west end of the island from Wednesday the 16th to Sunday the 20th of January. There are lectures, debates, book launches, films, panel discussions, and more. There are some free events, although most have a charge. Details on the website.

Book Buzz 2008 is sponsored by the British Council in Sri Lanka and takes place in Kandy on January 19th and in Colombo on January 22nd. Seating is on a first come first served basis with no indication of cost.

If you know of more literary or related events taking place in Sri Lanka, please let me know. I’d love to add them to the list!

Collaborative Writing Tools

I did a lot of collaborative writing this past year with my husband, Fahim, including freelance writing work and editing for a magazine, and here are two of the tools we found exceptionally helpful.

Groove

We’ve used it since before Microsoft bought it out, but didn’t use it as extensively until this year. We created a shared workspace and, as a document needed reviewing or editing by the other person, we dumped it in there and the other person received it in their Groove space nearly instantaneously. Groove makes sharing files very very easy.

We also use it for editing the magazine – that shared space also includes magazine owners and layout / graphics guy. And again, it makes sharing files with multiple people very easy.

The only downside is that the computer that holds a file has to be on for the other computers to be able to retrieve it. Not a problem when it’s a small file, but can be problematic if it’s a 20 MB file or a group of files adding up to, say, 160 MB, as was the case of images I dumped in to the space to go along with a gaming article. Synchronizing files that large with the slow internet speeds we have here can take a day or three. But, it’s still better than emailing and clogging up the email servers and all the inherent problems associated with that, and it works with nary a hitch or glitch.

Microsoft Word with Track Changes

Honestly, we’re not Microsoft fanboys / fangirls, but we do recognize good tools that fit their purpose. Microsoft Word with Track Changes works very well for our purposes.

Whether Fahim writes the first draft of a document, and I then do the first editing round, and pass it back to him, and so on, or I start with the first draft and he edits first, track changes is a remarkably useful feature. With it enabled, I can edit his text – whether deleting whole swaths of redundant text, adding necessary commas, or using more clear language – and, when the draft is passed back to him, he can see exactly what I deleted, what I added, and, for that matter, what formatting I changed. I can leave notes asking for clarification or indicate that I didn’t understand something.

Then, he can accept or reject each change I made individually. He can make further revisions, still tracking what changes he made, and he can also leave notes. And so on and so forth.

With more than one person working on a document, this is a fantastic tool to track changes. While we’ve used it mostly for our freelance writing, it’s equally useful for editing rounds in short stories or novels.

Fahim has checked other writing software, and none, thus far, include tools to compare to track changes. With the way we work, this is one tool that we consider absolutely essential.

On Editing

Editing is necessary to polish a work into excellence. First drafts, for the majority of writers, are not ready for publication – there are usually logic problems, inconsistencies, spelling errors, and so on, and all of this needs to be fixed as much as possible before a manuscript is ready to be sent to an agent or publisher. And that’s where this list comes in handy – it provides a logical order to editing, something you can check off as you finish each item if that helps you.

Before you start editing, a few quick tips.

  1. Before you begin, make a backup. If you wrote your first draft by hand, make a photocopy or scan it into your computer. Whatever you do, make a backup. For that matter, make a backup at least once between every drafting cycle. Yes, Virginia, paranoia is a good thing. 🙂
  2. Give yourself some time away from your manuscript after finishing your first draft. You need some space away so that you don’t read it the way you think you wrote it, but instead you read it the way it really is written. The mind is powerful and can fool us into thinking something is written a certain way when it isn’t. We can miss spelling errors, punctuation errors, or logic problems because it’s still too recent. How much time? That depends on you. Some writers say two weeks. Others say a couple of months. I just switch to another project and finish that one (ie, a completely different first draft or editing a completely different WIP) before returning to this one. Since I have anywhere between three and eight WIPs at any given point in time, that’s easy for me.
  3. As you edit, if you think you’re going blind or otherwise missing things, or even if you don’t, change your draft to an entirely different font with different spacings, etc. If it visually looks significantly different, you’ll notice different things. You can also experiment with editing on-screen and printing it out on paper – you’ll notice different things on-screen vs. printed. Change things around so the brain isn’t getting tired of the same old thing.

Onward and upward, ho!

Things to check for:

Bringing order out of chaos

Yeah, I really can’t help my Borg references. 😀

  1. If you don’t already have one, create an outline of your story as you have written it. It doesn’t have to be too detailed, but it does need to give you an overview of where the story is going.
  2. Re-work that outline, marking which scenes need to be deleted (don’t move the story along), moved (fix logic problems), or need to be added to fill in gaps. This is the time to fix plot holes and/or logic problems and any foreshadowing you want to add to the story. Make notes of all the changes you want to make.
  3. Make those changes to your draft now, adding, deleting, or moving those necessary scenes, and adding the foreshadowing.

Make the story come alive

Does this qualify as a Frankenstein reference?

  1. Add detail and description where needed – build in more character traits or description. (In the natural flow of writing, I frequently fail to add enough description in my first draft.)
  2. Check the first paragraph of each chapter for hooks.
  3. Check the end of each chapter for cliffhangers.
  4. Ensure that each page is balanced between description, dialogue, introspection, and action. Too much description can be boring, too much dialogue and introspection doesn’t move a story ahead, too much action can be tiring to read.

Delete anything that doesn’t move your story forward.

  1. Get to the point. Don’t waste time with meaningless sentences, generalizations, or other deadwood. Delete all the unnecessary bits that don’t move your story forward.
  2. Avoid overdoing eye movements (stare, gaze, glance, glare look), facial expressions (smile, grin, laugh, chuckle, giggle), and physical features (a character’s eye color or hair color). I know, I know – I said before to add detail and description. You just don’t want to overdo it.

Fix the confusing stuff.

  1. Look for inconsistencies. Blond hair in one chapter, but brown in another? Change of names or names spelled differently? Fix them.
  2. POV shifts. Each scene should have one POV only. If you find that you’re bouncing around in more than one character’s head in a scene, then you have a POV problem.
  3. Fix punctuation, spelling, and grammar.
  4. Passive sentences aren’t as precise as active voice. Get rid of passive voice. (was, were, had, as, was verb+ing, were verb+ing…)*
  5. Simplify your overwriting (“sits down” vs. “sits”).
  6. Replace multiword verbs. You can replace most verb-particle combinations like “leave out” with more precise verbs like “omit” “drop”, “avoid” or “erase”. Try removing all the multi-word verbs and replace them with single words that pack more punch
  7. Shorten complex sentences – most sentences should be around 20 words or fewer. Variable sentence length adds interest to the piece of writing – shorter sentences=faster pace, and longer sentences=slower pace. If your sentences are too long, consider dividing them. Your work will be come more readable.
  8. Get rid of adverbs (-ly words) and replace with better words. *
  9. Ditch waffle words and phrases – they add nothing. For example, somewhat, rather, always, very, so, well, even, just, so, more, already, that, quite, some, okay.
  10. Look for repetition – words and phrases repeated too often, too close to each other. *
  11. Avoid using conjunctions to start your sentences (And, But, Or…)
  12. Avoid empty, weak subjects like “it is” or “there are”. Focus on the real subject of the sentence.
  13. Find typos and grammatical errors. As you go through your novel for the first items on the list, you’ll make changes, and if you did the typos and grammatical errors first, you’d still have to do it again, so I leave it for last.

Summary

All of the above are generalities only, and like all generalities, can be ignored if there’s a specific purpose to serve, like emphasis, or are otherwise done very well. You know, that whole “You can’t break the rules until you know the rules” thing.

I suggest going through the manuscript, each time focusing on just one item on the list. It’s hard to catch everything when you’re distracted by, well, everything. If you look for just one thing on each pass, you’re that much more likely to catch the mistakes.

Finally, I’ll go through the manuscript paragraph by paragraph in reverse order. Yup, start at the end and work my way to the beginning. Rate each paragraph on a scale of 1 to 10. Everything that’s an 8 or above, leave alone. Paragraphs rated between a 4 and a 7, look at how you can improve it. How does the paragraph rate now? 8 or above? You’re done. Below an eight? Rework. Paragraphs 3 or below – delete them. If the paragraph was essential to the story, rewrite it until it’s above an 8.

That’s it. You’re done. Theoretically…

More Writing Tools

Fahim’s finished setting up his Writing Resources page, so it’s now much easier to see all of his writing-related software in one place. One lovely addition is his MicroSoft Word macro.

Long story short, this macro can be used to find “adverbs, passive words, overly used words and cliches/misused words, and then highlights them in different colours. You can customize the word lists which are checked (or excluded in the case of adverbs) and the colours used to highlight for each category by editing the variables at the top of the script”.

If you have problems or questions about any of his software, go to his forums and post under the correct software section.

Spacejock Software is also worth looking at. Simon Haynes, the author of the software and the Hal Spacejock books (which are also entertaining books), has written yWriter (up to version 4), an incredibly useful novelist’s writing tool. I’ve used versions 2 and 3 (reviewed them for a magazine), and I liked both very much. Considering that he’s a programmer who’s also a writer, and it becomes a lot easier to see why the software works for other writers.

Simon also has other software, like Sonar, a manuscript tracking program, BookDB for tracking your library of books, and a whole lot more. His software is worth checking out, especially at his prices – free.

Writing Tools

Fahim’s been working on updating some of his writing-related software (all free) and tools (also all free). So, check ’em out if they sound like they’d be useful for you.

WriteTrack

A submission-tracking program – it helps you track your manuscript submissions, whether they’re submitted to a newspaper, magazine, agent, or publisher.

PlotCraft

A program to help you track your various plot, character, and world ideas, and whatever other types of ideas you have kicking around your brain. Fully customizable and completely useful.

Word Counters

Word counter graphs (although they can use other units, like scenes, chapters, hours, or whatever else you’d find useful) that you can post on your own website.

Agents / Publishers List

A database Fahim started when he was searching for agents and publishers for his novel. At this point, it’s populated mostly with agents and publishers who deal with science fiction, but anyone (who’s registered at the site, of course) can add additional agents and publishers. Registered users can also add comments to correct or update information for existing agents & publishers.

DNote – Beta

A database program similar to KeyNote or TreeDBNotes (but without the slimy bait & switch payment tactics TreeDBNotes uses) that stores your information in a tree / node structure. Immensely useful for storing all sorts of data. Can also be used for flash cards & word prompts.

Amanuensis

A word processing program designed specifically for story writers. Keep your chapters & scenes in a tree structure, keep notes on each chapter & scene, keep notes on your characters, locations, and more.

And of course, there’s…

Blog

A desktop application for writing up your blog entries and then posting to your blog, even if it’s using a WordPress or MovableType or other blogging platform on your domain. Also provides you with a backup of your blog entries on your local machine – handy in the event of a server failure.

If you have any problems with the software (bugs and whatnot) or have any feature suggestions, visit Fahim’s forum and post in the relevant section.

Websites

And here’s for some surfing fun… Useful sites I’ve encountered recently…