Writing Tools

4 Lessons in Storytelling from a Screenwriter Who’s Also a D&D Dungeon Master

2 September 2015

From Co.Create:

They say writers shouldn’t hesitate to kill their darlings. It’s not an invitation to actual homicide, but a plea for the willingness to jettison any element of a story, even if you love it like a friend. That’s just one of the many work-hazards writers share with those in charge of Dungeons and Dragons games—a dungeon master has to kill off his or her friends all the time.

Consider pouring out a flagon of mead, in that case, for poor Matthew Robinson. As a pro screenwriter and a recent convert to the world of Dungeons and Dragons, he is constantly deluged with decisions about character arcs and turns of phrase by day, and also responsible for the fate of those fellow D&D-ers whose weekly quests he architects. Naturally, he has found that there is some serious overlap between the skill sets of screenwriting and overseeing fantasy roleplaying games.

. . . .

After becoming interested in trying it out, Robinson found that gaming stores across the country have Wednesday night league events where anyone can find a group, join in, and keep track of his or her character’s fantastical conquests digitally. As a storyteller by trade, he quickly gravitated toward the role of dungeon master, the person in charge of planning out each week’s adventure, and executing it based on the roll of the dice. It’s his experience in creating movies and shows, though, that keep his gang of adventurers in a state of agitation as they await some kind of resolution.

. . . .


Don’t Be BoringDreaming up scenarios and envisioning outcomes is a helpful skill in the world of D&D—and any time you have an audience, really. But those scenarios better keep people’s attention.

“What D&D does best creatively is it puts the focus on being entertaining,” Robinson says. “It’s almost like having an audience in your house. I have five players, and I have to entertain them. You can’t just throw monsters at them and expect them to fight because they’re gonna get bored of monsters, they’re gonna get bored of fighting and they’re gonna want some interaction. But if you have only interactions, they’re gonna get bored of that and they’re gonna want to start fighting again. It really takes you back to the basic, bare bones storytelling concept of, like: is my audience bored right now? If so, what are they craving and at what point after I give them what they want, do I need to then give them something else?”

. . . .

 Anticipate Audience Reactions

With D&D, you’re playing a game, but the game is really just a means to create the best possible experience for your audience. In order to do that, you have to know who your audience is and use that information to play off their expectations.

“Most DMs work off a campaign book, which I do too. It gives you the guidelines of the story but you never want your players to feel like they are in a story that has a beginning, middle and end,” Robinson says. “You want them to feel like they’re telling the story and you’re just improv-ing wherever they go. If you play with the same group every week, you start to really know what kind of stuff they dig, and what they get bored with. My group likes combat where they feel like they’re not gonna necessarily win unless they really play it right. Also strange occurrences and weird mysteries—like, they’re just walking down the road and all of a sudden I’ll describe something shimmering off in the distance. They love just going off the path and seeing what will happen. You want to give them the illusion that the story isn’t on rails, when for the most part it is.”

Link to the rest at Co.Create

Character Names

11 June 2015

If you’re stumped over what name to give one of your characters, there’s a website for that.

Enter a few parameters, identify the gender (sorry, there are only two) and the names roll forth.

Mignon Esta Sechrist

Margaretta Annika Heng-Meas

Eugene Jonathan Myers

Daniel Joe Patterson-Stanley

Porter Hipolito Morris

Link to the rest at Character Name Generator and thanks to Joanna for the tip.

The Strange Rise of the Writers’ Space

10 June 2015

From The New Yorker:

An editor I know once told me that on a weekday afternoon, during a period when he was freelancing, he looked out from the rear window of his Brooklyn apartment and saw a burglary in progress, à la the Hitchcock film. He called the police. When two detectives arrived to take a statement, one of them asked, “What were you doing staring out your back window in the middle of the day?” A freelancer myself, I told my friend, laughing, that I would be wounded by this remark. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “I scuttled back to cubicle life pretty quickly after that.”

There is something embarrassing about working from home. You wonder what the UPS man thinks of you when he delivers advance copies of new books. So this guy just reads all day? You worry that the prominent figure you are interviewing by phone can hear the refrigerator door or the neighbors’ kids upstairs. (Skype video interviews are even worse; the trick is finding a camera angle that doesn’t reveal anything blatantly domestic.)

. . . .

A relatively new institution, the shared writers’ space, fills a niche so small that it isn’t covered in Saval’s book. At these urban oddities, members get access to a quiet room or two full of desks, often with an adjacent eat-in kitchen, perhaps a couch—in other words, an office. But without a boss. And you pay them, instead of the other way around.

Selectiveness varies, but at the one I belong to, in New York, no big-league credentials or book contract is required, only “serious intent and a strong drive to write,” though references are checked. Members don’t get dedicated desks, but enrollment is capped to insure that a free one can almost always be found. Lockers are available for an extra fee; some people keep their laptops and papers there more or less permanently. Wifi is, of course, supplied, as is a serious laser printer (B.Y.O. paper). Writers can help themselves to the coffee, the tea, and the bowl of candy, and read the communal copies of newspapers and magazines.

It’s a different beast from the “co-working space,” where, as I understand it, startups and entrepreneurs gather under the banner of cross-pollination and ideation and use whiteboards. My writers’ space, by contrast, sternly enforces silence in the main room. White-noise machines, earplugs, and cough drops are provided, and a sign advises, “PLEASE WALK SLOWLY & LIGHTLY.” (The library-like atmosphere does present difficulties for reporting; I have called sources from the stairwell, as others walked past, to discuss their days dealing cocaine.) Outside the inner sanctum, though, some networking and griping and encouragement takes place in the kitchen area, which also hosts events such as roundtables with literary agents. Replicating the water-cooler experience with ersatz colleagues is part of the draw, relieving the loneliness inherent in the job.

. . . .

At least nine cities, from Hamburg, Germany, to Charlottesville, Virginia, now have shared workspaces for writers. But New York is the capital. Founded in 1978, the Writers Room, near Astor Place, was the first in the U.S. and “most likely” the world, according to the executive director, Donna Brodie. Brodie boasted that she has shared with other workspace founders “the winning formula for success”: a 24/7 operation can support six or seven writers per desk and never experience congestion. Like Planet Fitness, a writers’ space counts on its members not to show up too much.

The analogy holds in other ways, too. As with the gym, at the writers’ space you feel less ridiculous spending your time on an activity with uncertain and elusive benefits: everyone else is doing it, too. It’s a cocoon that protects its inhabitants from a world where most people regard writing, with some reason, as a peculiar and dubious hobby. Inside the cocoon, a gentle sense of competition takes hold. You want your treadmill to be moving as fast as the next guy’s.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker and thanks to Dana for the tip.

The Enduring Genius of the Ballpoint Pen

6 June 2015

From The Wall Street Journal:

The battery never runs out; you never have to worry about getting a bad signal; it can’t get hacked. When this new device was launched, crowds lined the streets, desperate to get their hands on it. “A window-shattering, hell-raising, no-holds-barred fracas”: That was how Nation’s Business magazine described the American debut of the ballpoint pen in 1945.

At $12.50 a pen—around $160 today—the Reynolds International ballpoint wasn’t cheap, but that didn’t stop thousands from queuing up outside Gimbels department store in New York City on Oct. 29 of that year to buy this “fantastic, atomic-era, miracle pen.” According to the New Yorker, Gimbels sold $100,000’s worth of the pens—nearly $1.3 million today—on that one day alone.

. . . .

The ballpoint pen came to the U.S. from Budapest, by way of inventor László Bíró. Born in 1899, Bíró tried several careers—from studying medicine to practicing hypnotism to selling insurance—until he stumbled into journalism. That led to his great invention. One day, while visiting the printing room of the newspaper where he worked, Bíró grew frustrated when the heat of the presses made his fountain pen leak. He watched the machine cylinders apply ink to paper and wondered if he could develop a pen that worked similarly. He spotted one issue: A cylinder could only roll backward and forward, while a pen needs to move in all directions.

Bíró sat in a nearby Budapest cafe, trying to solve this puzzle. Looking out the window, he saw a group of children playing marbles in the street. It had been raining, and one boy rolled a marble through a puddle. As it rolled along the pavement, it left a line of water in its wake. With that inspiration, the ballpoint was born: By using high-quality ball bearings and creating minute grooves in the head of the pen to draw the ink to the tip (through a process known as capillary action), Bíró was able to create a reliable product.

. . . .

But it was a Frenchman, Marcel Bich, who truly perfected the ballpoint—producing an icon of modern industrial design. He dropped the last letter of his surname to avoid mispronunciation and called his new pen the Bic Cristal.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire) and thanks to Margaret for the tip.

How Typing is Destroying Your Memory

15 April 2015

From FastCompany:

Bad News: If you take notes in a meeting using your laptop, or if you create a to-do list using an app, you might be undermining your ability to recall the information later.

A recent study published in Psychological Science found that the pen is mightier than the keyboard when it comes to remembering what you just jotted down.

Princeton University psychological scientist Pam Mueller, lead author of the study, noticed the difference while she was a graduate teaching assistant. She normally brought her laptop to the lecture to take notes, but one day she didn’t have it. “I felt like I learned a lot more,” she recalls.

. . . .

“Students who took notes on the laptop were basically transcribing the lecture,” says Mueller. “Because we write by hand less quickly, those who took notes with pen and paper had to be more selective, choosing the most important information to include in their notes. This enabled them to study the content more efficiently.”

In the second study, Mueller told the laptop note-taking group to try not to take verbatim notes; however, students were unable to do that. “It’s an ingrained technique,” says Mueller.

. . . .

“People should be more aware of how they are choosing to take notes, both in terms of the medium and the strategy,” says Mueller. “There are times when taking notes by hand can be much more beneficial, and there are times when your laptop is the right choice.”

When you’re in a situation where it’s important to form a deeper understanding of the material, such as during a conference or workshop, taking longhand notes will allow you greater processing while you’re listening. When you’re writing, you’re thinking more, says Mueller, and you might have more insight about what is most important at the time.

Link to the rest at FastCompany

When PG thinks of the trillions of words he’s typed over the years, he’s surprised he can remember . . . uh, remember . . . .


John Green’s Key To Writing? Using Different Keyboards

22 March 2015

From The Huffington Post:

John Green’s written such celebrated works as The Fault In Our Stars and Paper Towns, but not without sacrificing copious keyboards along the way.

In a HuffPost Live conversation on Thursday, the young adult novelist revealed his “weirdest” writing ritual: He develops working relationships with the keyboards at his desktop computer.

“I switch keyboards every draft and then if — here’s my problem — if something isn’t going well, I throw out the keyboard,” he confessed to host Nancy Redd.

“Keyboards are only like five bucks,” he added, but if a piece of writing is going well, he’ll “keep the keyboard.”

Link to the rest at The Huffington Post and thanks to Tom for the tip.

PG has been using ergonomic keyboards forever. His last few have been from Microsoft. He’s even been known to pack one of these to use with a laptop while traveling if he expects to do much typing.

Handwriting Isn’t Dead

11 February 2015

Thanks to Julia for the tip.

How Susan Orlean Writes With Evernote

22 January 2015

From Evernote:

Successful author Susan Orlean is well known for her work as a veteran journalist at The New Yorker as well as several critically acclaimed nonfiction books. Her research has been the foundation for literary non-fiction, including her investigation of a Florida orchid grower (The Orchid Thief) and long-form journalism with her profile of a clique of surfer girls in Maui (“Life’s Swell”).

. . . .

Susan’s journalistic skills are traits all writers can learn and adopt for themselves. Many of the same qualities of reporting—expanding on ideas, asking questions, taking good notes, creating detailed outlines, and structuring a story—are elements required to piece together compelling nonfiction and fiction alike.

Susan manages many of these details in Evernote, which helps her focus on her writing and on hitting deadlines.

We interviewed Susan last week via email about how she uses Evernote for writing success.

. . . .

Do you have Evernote tips that help you through your writing process? Do you use it for writing, information gathering, source capture?
I use Evernote extensively for collecting information and organizing it—especially web material. I just discovered the “stacks” feature, which is especially helpful. I also use Livescribe Pen, so I have notes uploaded directly to Evernote in their written form. Having all my material on all my work devices (computer, iPad, phone) also makes me feel like I am always able to use any bit of time to review and organize material. ​

Link to the rest at Evernote and thanks to Joshua for the tip.

PG was an early adopter of Evernote and has been a big fan ever since. See here and here for some earlier posts. You can get most of Evernote’s features in the free version. PG signed up for the premium version, but he paid mostly to show support for the company.

Creating Characters and Grading Research Papers

11 October 2014


From Roger Colby at Writing is Hard Work

This week has been hectic.

The 11th grade research paper was due and I have been in the middle of grading them. Such is my life.
However, in the midst of this, I have been thinking about what makes excellent characterization as I construct my newest character driven novel series.

In Orson Scott Card’s book Character and Viewpoint, he states that when creating characters, writers must ask three questions: “Who?” “So What?” and “Huh?”

What Scott Card means by this is that we first must answer who the character is, why the reader should care about the character and then finally the writer must remove all doubt about whether or not the reader should follow this character throughout the writer’s narrative.


I put together a few tips of my own that will address Scott Card’s questions concerning crafting characters, and I hope they help you as well:

Real World Avatar –

I found a neat little feature on Scrivener used for character creation that allows me to insert a picture of my character in order to reference that particular character. This has allowed me to peruse Google images for an actor or actress or even concept art (for aliens) that would be a visual representation of the character I am creating. For my main character I envisioned Benedict Cumberbatch (if my book were a film) and so I inserted a picture of that actor on the character biography page. This helps me answer the “who” because my main character (if my book were a movie) would be played by Benedict as my first choice.

Curious Development –

The character must have something happen internally to them in the plot that drives us to follow them to the end of the novel. If we do not create these curious developments we will find our readers leaving half-way through the novel to find something else to do. This requires us to create some kind of secret about the character that is only hinted at throughout the core of the plot and then revealed later. This element needs to be a mind-blower, something that probably might be out of character for them, but not enough that it defies logic. Life itself is not logical at times, and if we can translate that to text, we’ve done our job as novelists.

Well, now that I’ve shot out these few tips for the week, it’s off to grading the rest of the research papers. I only have seven left.


Read the rest here.

From Guest Blogger Randall

The Writing Tools of 20 Famous Authors

24 July 2014

From Flavorwire:

Hemingway balanced his writing between a simple pencil and typewriter:

“When you start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none. So you might as well use a typewriter because it is that much easier and you enjoy it that much more. After you learn to write your whole object is to convey everything, every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader. To do this you have to work over what you write. If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. That is .333 which is a damned good average for a hitter. It also keeps it fluid longer so you can better it easier.”

We also learn about his writing preferences in his Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast:

“The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of cafe cremes, the smell of early morning sweeping out and mopping and luck were all you needed.”

. . . .

Of course Neil Gaiman uses a fountain pen. We’re not complaining. The author had this to say in a 2012 interview:

“It started in 1994 when I wrote the novel Stardust — in my head I wanted it to be written in the same way as it would have been in the 1920s, so I bought a big notepad and Waterman pen.

It was the first time I’d used a fountain pen since I was about 13. I found myself enjoying writing more slowly and liked the way I had to think through sentences differently. I discovered I loved the fact that handwriting forces you to do a second draft, rather than just tidying up and deleting bits on a computer. I also discovered I enjoy the tactile buzz of the ritual involved in filling the pens with ink.”

He goes on to reveal that he owns about 60 fountain pens and enjoys writing his novels with two different types. He also signs books with them. “I like changing ink color each day. It shows me at a glance how many pages I wrote,” he once noted. Brands Gaiman has mentioned he uses: TWSBI Diamond 540, Visconti, Pilot Custom 823 Amber, Delta Fluida, Lepine Indigo Classic.

. . . .

One of the notebooks Austen used was a quarto stationer’s notebook bound with “quarter tanned sheep over boards sided with marble paper. The edges of the leaves [were] plain cut and sprinkled red.” The English novelist composed her novels with a quill pen and iron gall ink. Here’s the quaint ink recipe:

“Take 4 ozs of blue gauls [gallic acid, made from oak apples], 2 ozs of green copperas [iron sulphate], 1 1/2 ozs of gum arabic. Break the gauls. The gum and copperas must be beaten in a mortar and put into a pint of strong stale beer; with a pint of small beer. Put in a little refin’d sugar. It must stand in the chimney corner fourteen days and be shaken two or three times a day.”

Link to the rest at Flavorwire

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