Tag Archives: planning

God Bless 3 Act Story Structure

I started looking at 3 act story structure last year. I didn’t have the first inkling when I wrote I Wish… I made an outline sure, but it was just based on a story that occurred to me. I was blissfully unaware that there should be a midpoint or that the B story should reinforce the theme. I didn’t even have a theme in mind. I just went for it.

It was an amazing feeling. Words just poured out of me and onto the page. But was it flawed? Oh yeah. Most notably is the ending. It ends abruptly. I reworked it a couple of times and it still doesn’t flow quite right.

For this first experiment with script writing, I’m relying really heavily on the Save the Cat beat sheet, which is influenced by Syd Field. I’ve watched around 8 or 10 movies since I started this project and they all pretty much followed his formula within a minute or two. I did have some troubles pinpointing the beats in Little Miss Sunshine. They are probably there, but the emotional highs and lows are so mild that it’s really hard for me to spot. A character dies and the family is no worse off than they were. The emotional low point is color blindness? Really? Oh well, it’s something I’m not getting, I’m sure. It has to be because that movie is pretty much universally agreed to be a good one.

Anyway, as I mentioned yesterday, I’ve got my little digital cork board all set up with 40 index cards. I’ve got a story that’s sitting in my head in a fairly complete state. I’m still missing a few filler scenes, but pretty much every important scene is stewing away up there. Now I’m in the process of plugging those scenes into the framework. And incredibly they are starting to fit.

This isn’t going to be the script where I internalize the structure and neither will the next one or two, but I can see where there’s potential for it to happen. Before long I’m going to be able to write a script that hits the marks at all the right places without having to rack my brain and decide if what I’m thinking should go in the second act or the third.

This can only mean good things for the stories I will write in the future. I can already tell that my endings will be much better paced. In fact I’m going to take a look at my outline and make sure that there are clear cut beats for the midpoint and plot points. I think I had some idea of them when I laid it out before, but it’s definitely becoming clearer to me as I work with this concept more.

If you’re working on a novel and you feel like something is missing, it might be the underlying structure isn’t quite right. I’d strongly recommend that you read up on 3 act story structure and see how well your story works. It sure can’t hurt. And in my case, I think it’s going to be the best thing I’ve done to improve my writing yet.

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So You Want to Plan a Screenplay?

Ok, don’t get the idea that I know what the hell I’m talking about because I don’t. At all. As I’ve mentioned before, a goal of mine for the year is to write a screenplay. Ideally, I’d like to submit it and see if it’s salable, but my main focus is just learning the nuts and bolts of the format, which has always seemed so mysterious to me.

In preparation for the goal I’ve read both “Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need” (Blake Snyder) and the third book “Save the Cat! Strikes Back: More Trouble for Screenwriters to Get into … and Out of” (Blake Snyder). I have the second book as well, but I’ve been using that as a reference as I watch the different movies it covers, rather than reading it from front to back.

The books really make it seem pretty doable. They don’t cover formatting at all, but luckily for me Scrivener has a screenplay template so I’ll let that handle the basics for now. Since I don’t know any better, I decided to just trust Mr. Snyder’s system for structuring a script. Why not? I’ve got to start somewhere.

He suggests in the book using “The Board” to arrange your 40 index cards, which he seems to think is the magic number of scenes a screenplay needs. I’ve decided not to question it until I’ve had at least one or two tries using his methods.

I don’t have a literal corkboard (although I have made a habit of sticking post it notes to the wall behind my computer area) so I decided that software is a good route for me to go. There is software available based on his books (“Save the Cat!® Story Structure Software 3.0” (Blake Snyder Enterprises, LLC)) which seems pretty cool, but the price is prohibitive. I’m willing to give most stuff a try if it’s $25 or less, but $100 is higher than I’m willing to go. Time to figure out how to make this work with something I’ve already got.

I’ve seen people use notecards with Scrivener, but I’m pretty much awful at using that program for anything than the basic word processing functions. If you know me at all then you probably guessed that I turned to my new favorite planning software, Curio. It worked great.

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I set up the 10×4 structure that Blake Snyder recommends and filled in some of the cards with the different beats he recommends in his books. That still leaves quite a few cards blank, but it’s a good start.

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I filled in the first one with the information he says to put on each card. It’s my little reminder of what I need to include as I fill them all in.

I will keep a copy just like this and just copy it for every project I start and fill it in with scenes that are relevant to those projects. Since I do all my work on my computer, this is a handy way to have that information available no matter where I go.

I do realize that there are probably a dozen programs that do something similar. It would actually be more useful to do it in Scrivener and then shuffle them around in there where it will actually affect my script, but this is actually perfect for my needs since I use Curio to keep track of everything that goes on in my life. I can keep The Board right next to my character sketches and brainstorming mind maps.

And how is my screenplay project going? I’ve got a pretty well developed idea, I think. I came up with a log-line and have a decent concept of the major scenes (plot points, midpoint, and final scene). I’m hoping to come up with a rough outline today and see how workable I think it is at that point. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a surprise novel. It started out as a naughty story, but ended up being way too funny to be truly sexy. So now it’s on it’s way to becoming an erotic comedy. I’ve got a pretty good start written. I’m curious to see how it works out since I’ve never started a project that I thought would be a short story only to realize that there was a lot more potential there than I thought there was.

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Scene-storming Redux

I’m getting closer to my self imposed, January 1st deadline to start working on my new novel. The other day I talked about the way I’ve been approaching this outline. I’ve been tweaking it and getting it closer to the final version. One of the main things I’ve done is to color code each bubble of my mind map by POV. I decided early on that I needed about 60 scenes to make my word count. I estimated about how many scenes I wanted to give to each of my POV characters.

As I broke my scenes down by POV it was easy to decide on some scenes as they can only be told from a certain perspective, but I also found that a rather large handful of them could be told equally well by at least 2 different characters. Something I will do for the next day or two is brainstorm how the scenes would go as told from each POV and see which one provides more conflict. Each scene should start with a character wanting something and end with something having been changed. My goal is to figure out which character has the most to lose or gain and then make sure that the change is something that makes their goals even harder to achieve.

The other thing I’m working through now is arranging the scenes into the most probably order. My first 10 scenes or so are plotted out entirely right now. After that point I started just writing down pretty much anything that seemed like it might make an interesting scene or that I knew I needed to establish somehow. I have a rebellious teenage girl character, but I know that I need to show that she’s not a lost cause so that her character arc is believable so I know that I want to have a scene showing her bond with her younger siblings. So one of my scene bubbles just says something along the lines of “Gen has a tender scene with her siblings”.

I’ve only come up with around 50 of my projected 60 scenes. I’m going to start arranging the ones I have into an order that I think will tell the best story. Once I’ve done that, I’ll start to fill in the blanks. How do we get from point A to point B? This is my first attempt to use a formal story structure to arrange my story. I don’t know if it will help or hurt me during this stage, but I’m trying to be open since I do feel like there’s real value to keeping that in mind as I write.

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Choosing a setting- real or not?

When I wrote I Wish… I set it in a totally fictional town called Desire. I wanted to be able to create a town that lived up to my idea of what a town populated with a bunch of witches would look like. There wouldn’t be a “bad part” of town since every family would be incredibly wealthy due to the powers they have access to. I also wanted it to be filed with elegant old Victorian houses that have been around for years and will continue to be there for generations to come.

No real town would live up to the picture I had in my mind’s eye. So I went crazy building a town. I have maps of who lives where and different street names, even though I haven’t needed that information in the story. It’s just nice to know. Nobody can take offense to anything that happens in this town because it’s a totally made up place.

So now as I’m planning this new story, I’m considering setting it in Savannah, GA. Savannah has quite a reputation as a haunted place. It’s full of atmosphere and awesome old buildings. And from a world building perspective, it’s a lot less work since you can just use existing maps and names.

The downfall is that if I use a real place and take certain liberties with it, I risk upsetting people who have actually visited that town. I remember reading Stephen King’s The Stand when I was younger. He wrote a note somewhere, possibly in the foreword, but it might have been somewhere completely outside of the book, saying that he made a lot of mistakes such as turning a ticket booth or something similar in a New York subway into a toilet. I’m heavily paraphrasing here, obviously, but the point is that everyone makes mistakes, even the wildly successful people.

I have an extremely limited knowledge of Savannah. To write about it is to risk making a lot of mistakes. I’m thinking about going for it anyway because the setting is perfect for the story I want to tell.

I know another option that some people use is to create an alternative place where all the magic happens in a real place. A hidden street, a pocket dimension, or something else along those lines. But that route won’t work for this story so for now it’s not on the table as an option.

Anybody have any opinions one way or another?

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My new approach to outlining

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve recently discovered the joys of Curio for the prewriting stages of my writing. I wish I got a commission for selling copies of that program because by the time I’m done I’ll have converted my entire readership, it’s just that cool.

Anyway, I’m a big fan of visuals. It’s probably the artistic side of my mind taking charge, but I think so much better when I can SEE a representation of my thoughts in front of me. That’s why I’m such a big fan of finding pictures to represent my characters. With that in mind I decided to try something new for plotting this story.

I’ve talked about how I outlined I Wish… in the past. For that book it was purely text. I started out with some ideas for scenes that I jotted on a piece of notebook paper and then it developed into a pretty good summary of the plot from start to finish. That’s the point when I started breaking it down into individual scenes. It worked well for me and it got the job done. I stand behind that approach for anyone. It’s not labor intensive and I knew exactly where I was in my project every single day I sat down to write.

For this upcoming project, I decided to play a little bit with my approach since I’m trying to write something that’s a little more complex. I Wish… is told from a 1st person POV so there’s no need to work out who’s POV a scene will be in and there aren’t a lot of crazy subplots. It’s a very linear story.

I’ve gotten a lot more ambitious with my upcoming project (F My Afterlife) and it was becoming difficult to write everything I want to happen in a summary because there are scenes that exist to lay down clues to crimes as well as clues to more subtle things like a shared history that will color their reactions to each other throughout the book. How on earth do I keep track of all that?

I briefly considered doing something similar to what I’ve done in the past with Onenote. With ON I was able to set up a page for each scene with a few sentences or more of description of what’s supposed to happen in the scene. Then I can easily move the pages up and down to try out different orders or add new pages as new scenes occur to me during the planning stage.

Since Curio supports mind mapping, I decided to use the that to my advantage. It’s easy to move the bubbles up and down in the map. I can color code each branch (including all the sub levels) so that I can tell at a glance who’s POV the scene will be in. And perhaps the most useful for an outline is the fact that I can convert the mind map into a traditional outline and back again at will. I’ve been calling this process “scene-storming” because I dig cheesy names.

Screen grabs anyone? You know how I like them. 😉

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So this is pretty much what it looks like. I have a quick scene description and the sub branches are just me going into more detail about what happens during the scene. I make as many of those kinds of notes as I want. It’s my guide post to writing the scene later so the more, the better. If there are other things I need to consider such as maybe there needs to be a long lingering look or a visual clue slipped into the description I’ll make a sub level bubble for it.

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This is pretty blurry, but hopefully you can tell that it’s a traditional outline. It’s just a super long column of information. But I’ll probably refer to it a lot as I’m writing to make sure I’m on track. Actually, I’ll probably have a copy of both views so I have options for tracking the information.

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Another thing I’m doing differently during this process is keeping a “parking lot”. It’s a concept that was introduced in a couple of different training classes I took years ago. The concept is to let the instructor know any questions or terms you want to have explained in great detail later and he’ll either write it on a white board in a designated spot or else write it on a post it note to stick on the wall. It keeps things from getting derailed without losing any important information along the way.

My parking lot is full of snippets that aren’t quite worth their own scenes or that I’m not 100% sure which scene they should be mentioned in. Maybe it’s something like a connection I want to make between two characters at some point. What does not go there are full fledged scene ideas. If I have an idea for a scene, it goes on the mind map/outline no matter how vague it is. I have plenty of scenes labeled something like “Scene where hero finds a clue”. What clue? I don’t know yet. It doesn’t matter at this stage. It’s just a place holder for later.

As I come up with new ideas for this outline, I’m adding, rearranging, and deleting scenes like crazy. That’s the awesome thing about outlining before you write. I feel free to change things drastically as my ideas develop because all I’m losing is a few words rather than 30 pages and hours of writing. There’s just not as much at risk.

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Dealing with writer’s block

I’ve never really thought of myself as having writer’s block. For as long as I’ve been writing, which has been since I was a kid, any time I’ve sat down to write, there have always been words. I’ve never felt blocked in a traditional sense. I’ve been reconsidering my views on writer’s block recently.

When I wrote I Wish, I was excited to move onto the sequel immediately. Until I tried to start plotting it out. Suddenly I wasn’t excited anymore. Even though I knew before writing I Wish the overall plot of Your Word Is My Bond, when I sat down to finish outlining the details I kept getting stymied.

For the longest time I’ve just chalked that up to an overall lack of excitement towards writing. I turned my energy to writing other things that paid the bills and just stopped writing the fiction for me. Every so often I’d sit down again, determined this time to write that sequel, only to give up after a day or two of half hearted attempts to come up with an outline.

I miss writing fun, just for me, fiction. So this time when I sat down to write I decided to scrap my plans of working on YWIMB for right now. I’ve been really digging American Horror Story lately. It’s got a gothic, dark vibe to it that I really enjoy. It inspired me to pick up an idea I had earlier this year to write a ghost story about a young woman who was murdered years ago and has finally pulled herself together in ghost form only to find that the world has moved on without her. Her toddler has grown up to be a rebellious teenager, everyone believes that she abandoned her family when she disappeared, and the only living person who can see her is her ex husband who may have been the one who killed her.

I love the premise, but originally my plan was to execute it as a 1st person POV as told by the ghost and play it more as a comedy. After watching AHS, I started thinking about what would happen if I tried to get that same eerie tone and made it a 3rd person POV instead, with several viewpoint characters. Suddenly the concept took off. I’ve recaptured the excitement that I originally felt when I was working on I Wish.

My tips for dealing with writer’s block:

Learn to recognize it:

I chalked up my lack of progress to changes in my life. Within a short period I moved halfway across the country, joined the local roller derby team, and switched from a Windows machine to a Mac- which included steep learning curves as I struggled to find alternatives to all my favorite writing and planning software.

If I had realized what was going on sooner, I could have taken steps to break out of the cycle.

Figure out what’s causing your block:

For me, it wasn’t all writing that was an issue, it was one particular project. I got a lot of positive feedback on I Wish, including the very flattering, “When can we expect the sequel”. I was optimistic and thought that it was just a matter of putting in the time and it would roll out as easily as I Wish had. I didn’t have a plan B. The idea of working on anything else before I finished YWIMB made me feel guilty. I dealt with the guilt and lack of excitement for the project by focusing on other aspects of my life and just abandoning writing altogether.

It’s a really counterintuitive way to deal with the issue. Not only did the sequel not get written, but neither did anything else, wasting all that time.

Work on something else:

Of course I want to deliver the sequel to the people who have invested themselves in my series. Since that isn’t working for me right now, I’m giving myself permission to write something else that I do feel passionate about. Writing anything is beneficial to me as a writer and to my career. Not only does it grow my body of work and thus my “shelf space” at sites like Amazon, but it teaches me more about writing than reading any number of books or articles about the craft. And I think my fans would rather read an unrelated novel that I’ve written than have nothing from me until the sequel is released.

Look at ideas from new angles:

When I originally came up with the idea for the ghost story, I liked it a lot. I could see how it would play out. I think it would have been fun to write and fun to read. Now I’m convinced that with this new approach it’s going to be a stronger story than it would have been before. It also had the added benefit of renewing my interest in the project. Now I can’t wait to start getting words on paper.

Set goals:

I sat down yesterday and spent several hours creating a production schedule based on a personal goal I’ve created for myself to write 4k words a day (2k for my fun stuff and 2k for my other projects). This is a very doable goal for me, challenging, but nowhere near unachievable. It hinges on treating my writing like it’s a full time job, which is something I should have started doing earlier this year when I decided this is what I want to do with myself.

My production schedule hinges on having several projects going on at a time, including writing one novel while simultaneously editing the last one. I have mapped out a projected 6 novels that I expect to have written by the end of the year. By planning them in advance, I can start the outlining and prewriting process for later books right now, which will give me almost an entire year to plot out the last book, which should take off a lot of the pressure to come up with something workable right now. It also gives me the ability to direct my attention to just a handful of projects instead of wanting to run with every new idea that pops into my head.

Start a “daily 5” list:

Speaking of ideas… one thing I swear by is having a daily 5 list where you write down ideas you can use in your writing. Anything is game for these lists as long as you find it inspiring. When I’m asked to contribute to an anthology, the first thing I do is scan my idea lists to see if I have anything that could be worked into a short story. Since I write down everything from character sketches, to lyrics and quotes, to entire plot summaries, I can usually find something that gives me a jumping off point. Your lists are also helpful when you get stuck in your writing. It’s almost like playing with a random generator except every idea you come across is going to be something that spoke to you at one point, which is guaranteed to make it more interesting.

The other benefit to keeping a daily 5 is that you never have to worry about forgetting an idea. You can write it down in as much detail as you care to and mark it so that you can find it again easily later. It’s really helped to curb my impulses to drop everything and run with a new idea. I know it’ll be there waiting for me when I have time to address it.

Outlining is your friend:

The one thing I can say is that once I start writing, I have never gotten hung up. Because I’ve already worked out the plot in advance through an outline, I always know exactly what needs to happen in a scene. I also don’t do any editing during the first draft, even if I’m convinced a scene is painful to read. My first draft is 100% putting words on a page. A finished novel can be reworked, one that hasn’t been finished isn’t doing anybody any good, even if the 4 chapters you have finished are solid gold. Turn off the inner critic, follow your outline, and finish that first draft.

Butt to chair, everyday:

The last thing I’d recommend making writing a priority. You’ll never write anything if you aren’t putting in the time. That’s something I keep saying, but not practicing. I haven’t been treating my writing like a job and it shows… I could be a prolific writer due to the time I have available to focus on it and the ease with which the words come to me. Instead, I have 1 rather short novel and a handful of short stories to show for an entire year. This is unacceptable to me and, sadly, totally avoidable. This is the one thing that every writer can control. If you aren’t writing, you’re missing out on the opportunity to improve your craft and your income stream.

I did some math the other day. This is something I’ve seen other places, Dean Wesley Smith preaches it regularly on his blog. There are two ways to make money as a writer: have one blockbuster release or have a large body of mildly successful titles. Clearly the second option is the more realistic option for the majority of us.

I think almost everyone can assume that they’ll sell at least 10 books per title a month. The more titles you have, the more they’ll all sell overall as it increases your shelf space, but even my lowest selling titles will move at least 10 copies per month. If you do the math based on 10 copies a month times the amount you know you could have been writing if you’d only put in the time, it becomes really eye opening. Even if all you have time for is one title a year, that’s still 120*$3.50 (the payout on a $4.99 novel)= ~$420. The next year if you write a second novel that’s another $420. After a few years you can start paying for a nice vacation with the money you earn for work you did years ago. I think most people can push themselves harder than that though and a lot will sell significantly higher than 120 copies a year.

I sort of went off on a tangent for a minute there, but the point is that it’s all moot if you aren’t writing. You can’t sell something that doesn’t exist. I think that making writing a habit will do more to cure yourself of writer’s block than anything else. If you aren’t letting yourself off easy, “Well, looks like I can’t think of anything to write. Oh well, I’ll go watch that Law and Order SVU marathon instead.”, I believe you’ll find a way to work through it because it becomes a habit. The human brain is constantly seeking ways to entertain itself. If you sit there staring at a blank page long enough, your mind is finally going to come up with something to say because it can’t stand it any longer.

The one good thing to come out of my brush with writer’s block is that it taught me things about myself as a writer that I didn’t know before. I feel more prepared to deal with this situation in the future now that I can more easily recognize what’s going on with myself the next time I start getting all cagey.

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Long time no see!

This is the first in what I hope will be a long string of regular blog posts. Of course I thought that a few months ago too and then didn’t have much (if anything) to say for the last 4 or 5 months. So no promises.

One of the main reasons for a lack of blogging has been dissatisfaction with my blogging software. To briefly recap, my old laptop was a Dell. It wasn’t good for much but typing my stories and when it started randomly pressing the control button while I was typing, it wasn’t any good for that anymore either. I replaced it with a lovely Mac machine, which I was extremely leery of at first. These days I’m happy to report I’m actually quite smitten with it and spend hours of every day doing pretty much everything on it.

One of the downfalls to switching OS was that I needed to replace Windows specific software, including the Windows Live Writer software I used for blogging. It’s free and intuitive and I love it. But how hard could it be to find something similar for Mac? Well, I wouldn’t know because I more or less gave up on it. I tried Qumana, but it didn’t click with me. Now I’m working with Ecto. So far so good.

I only tell that long and ultimately uninteresting story to segue into the real point of my post. Almost a year ago now, I posted about my go to software programs for my Windows set up. I’m still 100% supportive of those choices, by the way. It was hard to find replacements for them, especially Onenote. That one was tricky, but I’m so inspired by the replacement that I found that I overcame my aversion to finding a new blogging tool to just to be able to share with you.

Scrivener– This could very well be a one stop program because it has some pretty robust planning tools built into it, but I personally just use the word processing capabilities because I don’t care for Open Office (free). There’s a lot of positive things to be said for Scrivener that have been mentioned at length in the many reviews out there so I won’t restate them all. It’s worth checking out.

Curio– This is the only other program I use for writing these days. I tried several note taking/organizational programs before I settled on this one. It combines the mind mapping features I loved in Xmind (free) with the free form note taking capabilities of Onenote. It does have a pretty steep price tag. I bought my copy on “Cyber Monday” at 25% off and still ended up paying over $100 for the mid-grade version, but I feel good about it. I’ve posted before about my need for extensive outlining and prewriting so I get a lot of use out of the program.

As far as I’ve been able to determine, Curio does all the same things I used Onenote for and then some. It’s got all the flexibility to arrange text, images, and other media around on the page that I enjoyed with ON. In a writing context, I used that feature to arrange several pictures per page (I use pictures I find online as inspiration for characters or settings) and I like to write summaries in one column with annotations running beside it. I’ve tried other programs, but that’s a fairly unique feature, but one I really wanted.

Another improvement is that Curio supports more levels of hierarchal organization than ON. ON is committed to a notebook analogy, which is fine. I actually find it very attractive. But that seems to preclude very many levels of organization. Curio uses a combination of sections, folders, and workspaces to organize everything and allows folders within folders. I haven’t found a boundary to that yet, although I haven’t tried to go deeper than 4 or 5 levels at this point.

The visual tools in Curio are what really sets it apart in my mind. You can make mind maps and lists using several preinstalled templates and you can then further customize them with color swatches you can download from different online sites. That’s such an unnecessary feature, but one that I love anyway.

Here are a few screenshots of Curio in action with the story I’m working on currently.

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This is an example of one of my character’s mind maps. I have a blank template that I have saved and I just copy and paste it onto each workspace I create for a character. I customize the colors as desired, but otherwise the style information carries over from the original. This is also a look at the interface itself.

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This is just an example of how I drop a photo onto the workspace to use as visual inspiration. I either search Google for photos or look at stock photo sites. I don’t pay for the images since they are for my own personal use. I just ignore the watermarks. Sometimes I’ll add a paragraph of notes underneath if there’s more to say than what I can easily put into a mind map. Curio supports voice recording and other kinds of media, including handwriting using a tablet, so there’s a lot of room for building some truly epic notes.

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This is a grab of the list tool. It also supports color customization. These are just some notes I took while reading a book (“Story Engineering” (Larry Brooks) good book, btw. I’m enjoying it a lot.) the other day. **

Curio also makes tables and notecards, although I haven’t used those features at this point. You should truly take the time to look at their samples. If you aren’t totally impressed then I want to know what note taking program you use because I think I want to buy a copy.

That concludes my little essay on the reasons why Curio is a writer’s best friend and a viable substitute for ON. As far as the Ecto experiment, I haven’t tried to publish yet, but everything else has worked as good, if not better than, hoped. It even has an “Amazon Helper” tool that let me look up the link for the book I mentioned without having to leave the editor. Very cool. I think you guys might be seeing more of me around these parts real soon.

**Edit: I took new screen shots for this post since the old ones were too small to be useful due to my inexperience with Ecto at that time. The list is actually from “Story Structure Architect: A Writer’s Guide to Building Dramatic Situations and Compelling Characters” (Victoria Lynn Schmidt) which is another helpful book that I’d recommend.

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