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Tech review: Story Skeleton

I started using virtual index cards back in 2006 when planning for my first NaNoWriMo, and I still find them a useful way of managing a big project like a novel. I like physical index cards as well, but they’re a pain to carry around with you – which is where an app like Story Skeleton comes in.

is an iPhone app that allows you create and export outlines in a variety of formats, including as a Scrivener .scriv project. It’s this that first interested me, and I used it for an initial outline of The Prince of Lies.

Overall it’s quite a nice little app. The design is a bit fussy in some respects – on a small screen, I prefer the controls to adhere more closely to Apple conventions – but not difficult to get the hang of. You can display cards fullscreen and swipe between them, or list them as thumbnails (see screenshot, right) and scroll up and down.

There’s no hierarchical structure, however. If you want to assign scenes to chapters or acts, a workaround is to set up “card types” (a customisable list of categories), but then of course you have to recategorise cards when you move them. It’s also iPhone-only – you can use it on an iPad but the whole interface gets resized to fit the large screen and is therefore rather blurry.

Another point against it from my point of view is that whilst it has import and export capabilities, it doesn’t actually sync with Scrivener as such – you can only import outlines previously created in StorySkeleton and exported in its custom format (e.g. as backup). As a result, I found it useful for quick’n’dirty outlining at the beginning of a project, but the limitations of both synchronisation and screen real-estate mean that it doesn’t really fit well into my workflow.

StorySkeleton is available from the iTunes App Store, currently priced at $2.99.

The Joy of Stationery

My name is Anne Lyle and I’m a stationery addict. There, I’ve said it. I have more notebooks, pens and other impedimenta of writing than is strictly necessary. A lot more. I discovered just how much more when I was between drafts recently…

I’d handed in the first draft of The Prince of Lies to my editor and was taking a few days off to decompress. I didn’t want to get too engrossed in a new project, as I knew I’d have to dive back into revisions pretty soon, so I decided to tidy the drawers of my desk and bureau, which had descended into chaos over the previous few months. So, I emptied them out, put all my “work-in-progress” notebooks, index cards and so on into my desk drawer, and all my unused notebooks into the top drawer of my bureau. The latter filled the entire drawer.

My notebook drawer. Problem, what problem?
My notebook drawer. Problem, what problem?

Now admittedly it isn’t a big drawer, and I also store spare loose-leaf pads and unopened packs of index cards in there, but still…! I have numerous Moleskines in different colours, sizes and paper types, including two specifically for use with EverNote and two special editions (Lego and Star Wars); a bunch of LiveScribe notebooks, also in several sizes, for use with my Echo smartpen; and a few other miscellaneous notebooks from Paperchase, WHS, Rymans etc. I even have a gorgeous leather-bound journal that I bought in Florence, which I will probably never use because it’s far too beautiful to sully with my scribblings…

Europa Major notepads – fat enough to plan a Big Fat Fantasy!
Europa Major notepads – fat enough to plan a Big Fat Fantasy!

And then there’s my “archive” drawer of used notebooks. I have had obsessions with different brands before Moleskine; for a while it was Bur-O-Class Aurora exercise books, in which I wrote my earliest longhand drafts, then more recently it was the Europa Major spiral-bound reporter’s notebook, with 300 pages between richly-coloured cardboard covers, in which I brainstormed the plots and characters for my Night’s Masque trilogy.

Rationally, I know I do not need all these notebooks, because I do a lot of my work electronically. And yet I’m addicted to the damned things! When I was in California in February, I bought two Moleskines in a bookstore solely because they were in colours (green and purple) seldom seen in UK shops.

It’s a common foible of writers, judging by my friends’ reactions, and I think it comes down to a combination of traits:

1. A love of books and paper. There’s something very sensuous and satisfying about a high-quality notebook: the handsome cover, the way your pen glides across the thick creamy surface of the paper, the snap of the elastic fastener, the slither of the silky placeholder ribbon… You just can’t get these pleasures from an app, no matter how cool it might be in other ways.

2. Romanticism. We imagine the great authors of the 19th and 20th centuries scribbling golden prose into their pocket notebooks, and we think that if only we could do the same, our books would be just as wonderful.

3. The OCD impulses of the typical writer. Allied to the above, we believe that if we have just the right notebook, fresh and crisp and virginal, we too can be brilliant. We start a notebook with dewy-eyed optimism, which often devolves into despair at our terrible handwriting, multiple crossings-out and rambling prose. So, we abandon it for a fresh notebook. Once the habit becomes entrenched, we make sure we always have a good supply of shiny new ones to hand, because the next one is going to be perfect…

I think, though, that the seeds were sown in school. All those separate exercise books for each subject, often with a different colour per subject as well. And—this being a provincial girls’ grammar school with pretensions of grandeur—we had to write our homework in fountain pen (biros were for “rough” only). That kind of thing is liable to make a girl just a little obsessive!

How about you? Do you have a weakness for a particular brand or style of notebook? Or do you eschew paper for a purely digital writing experience?

The Prince of Lies final draft – revisions, Week 1

Bit of a journal hiatus last month, as I was analysing the plot and working out fixes, so I didn’t really have anything to say that wouldn’t be spoilers. Now I’ve had feedback from my beta-readers and my editor Marc, so I can finally knuckle down to the rewrites!

This first week has been slower than I hoped – despite taking time off work, I’ve only managed one or two chapters a day. The first three chapters went particularly slowly, but I think that was a combination of post-con exhaustion and the fact that the opening of any book requires a lot of care. Although I don’t expect new readers to pick up the series at this point, Book 3 needs to refresh returning readers’ memories without getting bogged down in infodumps, and that’s always a tricky balancing act. Add in some minor but fiddly plot illogicalities, and it required a lot of thinking.

Fortunately I hit a stretch of chapters that needed only light editing to bring them up to scratch, so I’m now on Chapter XI and thus almost a third of the way through the book. I can’t rest on my laurels, though – it’s back to the day-job today, which means fitting my edits into mornings, evenings and weekends. I’m hoping to finish by the end of April, then do a final spellcheck and polish before sending it in for copyedits. Then it will be onward to the next project!

Eastercon 2013

I’m a bit later with this report than intended, mostly because I had so much fun at Eastercon I was too exhausted to process it!

This was my third Eastercon, and whilst last year’s was memorable for very personal reasons, this year was pretty good too. I’d been a bit doubtful about the location, as the convention venue was mainly a conference centre and had few bedrooms, meaning most people had to stay in city centre hotels about two miles away, but a constant flow of free minibuses meant that this was only a minor inconvenience. A bigger problem, as with Birmingham, was the lack of good places to eat within easy walking distance; the conference centre provided a relatively inexpensive buffet at lunchtime and in the evening, but the food was about the quality you expect from cheap mass catering. Fortunately we found a US-style diner over the road, where the food was excellent (though the service was very slow). However, enough about logistics – what about the convention itself?

There was a good selection of panels and of course the traditional Saturday evening live screening of the latest Doctor Who episode, complete with bags of jelly-babies (and a few technical glitches, so I’ll probably watch it again on catchup TV). A great new addition to the programme was the “genre get-togethers”, which were a series of informal book-signing-and-mingling-with-the-authors sessions. This was also an opportunity for authors (or their publishers) to give away books to interested readers, rather than putting them into goodie-bags at random only to be thrown away. Angry Robot kindly supplied me with a box of The Alchemist of Souls, so I was able to give some away at the get-together and the rest soon disappeared from the “free books” table on Sunday!

I was on three panels, the best of which was probably “The Changing Portrayal of Gender and Sexuality in SFF”, which moderator Penny Hill turned into a cozier discussion format than the usual “five people behind a table” panel, with lots of contributions from the audience. I also went to a couple of other panels: one on non-Western SFF, and a flash fiction contest featuring my friend and fellow Angry Roboteer Emma Newman (below).

Cory Doctorow, Roz Kaveney, Emma Newman and Paul Cornell being introduced by Lee Harris
Cory Doctorow, Roz Kaveney, Emma Newman and Paul Cornell being introduced by Lee Harris

Emma won the contest, and my side of the room won the quiz that Lee had put together to keep the audience entertained during the writing, so our plan for world domination continues apace. Also, it appears that I know more Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang lyrics than the average SF geek, which is maybe not something to boast about!

The non-Western SFF panel also gave me an excuse to talk to Stephane Marsan from Bragelonne, a French SFF publishing house, and we ended up having a long chat in the bar about Asterix, European children’s TV in the 70s (remember the Czech Mole cartoon?), and Kenneth Branagh’s Othello (filmed in Italy, with French actress Irene Jacob as Desdemona). It wasn’t all networking, though; mostly I just hung out with old friends from previous conventions (Sarah Newton, Emma Newman, Mike Shevdon, Adrian Faulkner, et al) and made new ones, or at least met people I already knew online (e.g. Brian Turner from SFF Chronicles). It was a lot of fun as always, if exhausting, and I’m now I’m really looking forward to the rest of my conventions this year, especially World Fantasy in Brighton.

Now, I really must go and sign up for Eastercon 2014…