Back in the Saddle

Last week, I wrote about how I needed to take back control of my work time and close out the noise. The complications of living during this so-called pandemic were taking a toll on my writing. Who am I kidding? They were taking a toll on my life, just as they have on everyone else. Even though I’m basically an introvert who doesn’t mind staying home, being told I can’t go somewhere chafed. Social media is filled with horror stories (from all sides of the equation). The media is telling us we’re all going to die. Hell, I even saw a story today where a zombie movie director was cited as an “expert” on the body language of protesters over the weekend. Is it any wonder I haven’t been able to get any work done?

Oh, the ideas have been there. But to say I’ve had an extreme case of popcorn kittens is putting it mildly. I’ve made notes on four different books. But that’s all. Actual words haven’t been happening, at least not in any consistent quantity, much less quality. I simply couldn’t focus long enough to make it happen.

So yesterday I decided enough was enough. Maybe it’s knowing Texas is slowly opening back up and the hope that soon life will return to some semblance of something close to normal. Maybe it was just reaching the point where I said “fuck it”. (sorry about the language) Whatever it was, I’m glad it happened. I got a solid eight hours of work in yesterday–to the point I forgot to stop and eat lunch until it was almost time to start dinner prep.

Part of it was remembering something I’d read here in the last year or so. Cedar mentioned in a post an app designed solely to help writers brainstorm and outline their work. It’s nothing new, not really. Scrivener and other programs give you the same potential. But something about what Cedar wrote stuck with me and I went looking for the program yesterday morning. I was getting desperate and was willing to try just about anything.

That program is Plottr.

Unlike Scrivener and others, you can’t write your story in it. There aren’t a lot of distracting bells and whistles. What you can do is visually plot your story out, keep track of multiple storylines, add character sketches and export it all into a docx file you can then import into Scrivener if that is your preferred writing program or simply file away if you use Word or other programs.

While I’m not much of a plotter, this is exactly what I needed, especially the visual storyline tracker. Writing a series, much less several series, means I can easily drop a storyline and not realize it until too late. This lets me look at the visual or simply the “cards” and see where I am or where I need to be going.

The above is a screenshot of the timeline view of the opening of Night Magic. (I know it says Rogue Magic but that’s because I am not certain of the title yet.) The boxes don’t really tell you what the plot is. They are more cues for me. But, if you go to the outline view, you get this:

Again, it’s not detailed. It won’t even be completely accurate once I start writing. But it is enough to get me going in the right direction. The dots next to the chapter/scene headings on the left indicate which plot point is involved and where the scene falls in the timeline. That information is also indicated in the scene box on the right.

You have the same sort of interface if you use the “notes” tab–of the ones for characters or places.

You can be as brief or as detailed as you want. It is up to you.

I went ahead and, out of curiosity, paid an extra $10 to get the templates the app offers. Here’s a list of them and, let me tell you, I can see how they can help. And, yes, they are editable so you aren’t stuck to just the number of chapters listed, etc.

If you’re like me and you spend any time looking at plot structure resources, you’ll recognize at least some of the above. For an additional $10, it might be worth the investment.

Now, I’m not telling you to rush out and plunk down money on the app. Nor do I get anything if you do. What I do recommend is if you are finding it hard to focus and get your writing habit back on track you check it out. Plottr allows you to download the base program and try it out for free. It is the full program, iirc, with no restrictions.

That said, I will admit the documentation is slim to none. But the program is pretty intuitive. Also, the developer is very quick to respond, or at least he was for me yesterday. I couldn’t figure out how to export a docx file. Oh, I found the export function with no trouble. But when the dialog box came up, the only option was to export as “all files”. So I went back to the website and sent a PM to the dev. I doubt five minutes passed before he got back to me. As we talked, I figured it out. All I needed to do was add the .docx to the title name before hitting save. We both had a bit of a laugh and he assured me that wouldn’t be required with the new version he is working on. The quick response is just the sort of thing to keep me happy.

Another thing I like about the program is that you actually buy it. This isn’t a yearly license where you get dunned again in a month or a quarter or next year like so many programs and apps are going to. You pay and it’s yours. Also, it is available for Mac and PC AND there is a 30-day money back guarantee.

I will note something else and this is from Cedar. She commented that while you can use the program on an android or iOS device, it isn’t as good on them. My guess is it isn’t optimized for a smaller screen. But since I don’t tend to plot on my phone or iPad (except when using it as pen and paper) that’s fine with me.

But, for now, it helped me focus enough to not only know where the story is going but to finally get the main character to decide on her frigging name. She and Myrtle the Evil Muse thought it funny to keep changing her name. I don’t know about you, but if I’m writing a story and have to keep saying “hey you, what’s your name?” to the main character–especially if she is the POV character–it sort of throws me out of the story.

If there is a real upside to the program other than what I’ve already mentioned it is that I now have a complete character list with at least some sketchy notes for the entire series in one place. That’s huge because it means I don’t have to keep looking back at the previous entries in the series to find out who did what with (or to) whom when and why.

Now I have a book to write and for the first time in a month I’m excited to write and that means I can get back to editing (Jason, I haven’t forgotten and am about 1/3rd of the way through your book) like a “real writer”.

Until later!

Featured Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay


  1. I’ve had yWriter installed for a while, and haven’t used it recently, or very much at all.

    I’m also puzzled how I want to move forward to outlining my current project.

    This post has given me four options, two I haven’t been able to mess with in a while, plottr, and ‘some way to store information the way plotter does here’.

    I am glad to hear that things are going better for you.

    1. Thanks, Bob. And I hear you on being puzzled about how to move forward with your current project. Sometimes, it is a situation where you have to find a new way of doing something–or going old school and simply sitting down with pen and paper.

  2. “Hell, I even saw a story today where a zombie movie director was cited as an “expert” on the body language of protesters over the weekend.”

    We’re in the very best of hands.

    1. And they are so proud of it–and think the rest of us don’t know what they are doing/what they are thinking. There really are days when I long for the ZA just to see those idiots trying to figure out how to survive without a gun or sharp point object, much less without their daily half-caf, non-fat whatever from the local coffee shop (that they now go pick up at the curb or have delivered).

  3. My “work” box is Linux, so thanks for the recommendation, but…
    (It isn’t tech snobbery, but a weakness against distractions. The only program I have on it that isn’t strictly necessary for freelance work is an audio player.)

    1. Ah, but an audio player is, by my lights, necessary for work. If I want to get actual work done, it’s very helpful to have noise** filling up the cracks in my brain, so it doesn’t wander away and stop thinking about the task at hand. Have found I can concentrate 2x-4x longer that way.

      (**Industrial and aggrotech are more noise than music. My younger self would be appalled.)

      1. I have various instrumental folk and Eastern Orthodox liturgical music on loop while family members are watching TV and I’m doing Day Job. Writing can handle other genres, but grading to “O Fortuna” or “Our Solemn Hour” is Not Recommended.

  4. I gotta rant about .DOCX format, and its evil twin, .ODT format (Libre/OpenOffice)..

    These are not what you’d think of as normal document formats. They are ZIPfiles on disk, filled with XML and stylesheet files. They are unzipped by the editor so you can see and edit them on screen, and zipped again when saved to disk.

    This is all dandy until the moment the header gets corrupted during a file save (or perhaps later, by a disk error), and you don’t happen to notice right away (frex, if you were closing down for the day). And then you make backups of that file, corruption and all. And next time you go to work on it… it won’t open. And the document repair function doesn’t work either, because it relies on the ZIP header to rebuild the file index.

    And being a ZIPfile, not a normal document file, you can’t just open the corrupted file in a text editor to salvage the text. In fact, unless you’re very lucky and enough information remains to rebuild the ZIP header — the file’s contents are locked away forever. (The commercial “recovery” apps appear to be nothing but PKZIPFIX in a nice wrapper, and achieve no more than it can for free.)

    I know someone who lost an entire finished novel this way, and didn’t realize it til after the corrupted file had propagated to all her backups, and it was too late. I’m pretty good at extracting data from trashed files, and all I could salvage from it were a background image and the contents listing.

    So if you insist on using the evil .DOCX, or its evil progenitor .ODT (likewise, whatever Scrivener calls its default format, which is really just a .DOCX), fer ghu’s sakes ALWAYS save a copy as .RTF (Rich Text), or old-type .DOC (which if mangled is still easy to extract text from), or WordPerfect format, or just about =anything= but a damn ZIPfile. Never ever not EVER trust .DOCX or .ODT as your sole format for your precious work. You Have Been Warned.

    1. True, but every format has its dangers for a writer, especially an indie author doing their on conversions. A lot of the conversion programs hate–HATE–rtf. Doc files of a certain vintage, as well as WPD files of a certain vintage (don’t know about the newer versions because I haven’t worked with them) all contain so much junk code you’d be better off saving as a straight txt file and then hand coding the html tags. The real key is to do multiple saves each day on different media and to not simply overwrite the previous save. That way, if you do wind up with a corrupt file, you have lost (at most) a day’s work.

      1. XML files contain many times as much junk code (that’s why you get so much junk when you export ’em to RTF or whatever)… the main difference is that the way the junk is formatted (basically similar to HTML), any code an XML processor doesn’t understand can be ignored.

        Sometimes you can kill the junk by doing an interim export to HTML, using the oldest software you can find. Or load ’em into DocXViewer, then do a screen copy and paste.

        The most gunked-up I’ve seen came from a commercial OCR service, whose OCR software had dutifully preserved every quirk of spacing and leading and even type weight… holy crapola, what a mess. Microsoft HTML Engine (1995) to the rescue!

        But yes, saving incremental versions and multiple formats (preferably in multiple locations, not all on the same disk) is the way to go, so you’ve always got *some* copy that’s good.

        And it doesn’t hurt to also print out the day’s work. Have a client whose very long novel was saved by that… his housemate did not know as much about computers as she thought, and managed to nuke the drive AND the backups.

        Yeah, most of us are lazy and don’t do all this. (Or we do too much and wind up with 500 copies scattered across 50 HDs.) But in an ideal world…

      2. Exactly. A USB stick big enough to hold lots of novels (say 8G or so, since it’s hard to find smaller ones) costs under $5. So get a bunch of them, and, at the end of the day, save the WIP in several formats (docx, doc, pdf, rtf). And rotate which stick you use, and keep the last 10 copies or so. If you use a different stick for each day of the week, it means you can reconstruct everything for the last two months, losing, at most, a day’s work — for under $40. As a bonus, keep another copy on a stick you keep in your pocket whenever you leave the house, in case it burns down while you’re away and destroys all the saved sticks.

        It’s overkill, of course, but relatively cheap. Scale down as appropriate for your level of paranoia.

    2. Note that this can also apply to any of the x extensions (.xlsx for Excel, etc.) You’d hate to lose a quarter’s accounting because of this….. or series bible, etc.

      One thing you can do is get something like PrimoPDF which will allow you to put the files out as an Acrobat document. Open/Libre Office has an “Export to pdf” function built in.

      1. Yep. I don’t use a spreadsheet for anything, so I tend to forget they exist, and that they can likewise be rendered unreadable. BTW Apple Pages is also bad for this.

        PDFs can have problems too, and internally are compressed, so a mangled PDF is likewise not recoverable. It’s a fine print format; it’s not a good document format.

        Basically if you load the file into a text editor, and you can’t locate and read your text — it’s compressed, and not safe as an archival format.

        Oddly, some of the old page layout programs were okay for this — the pages weren’t stored in any sane order, but all the text was intact and readable, and easy to extract from a munged file. (Knew someone who wrote fiction in Quark Express, WTF.)

    3. A better solution is version control (git is the current darling of the software development world), so you have all your revisions from the very beginning.

      If using version control meant for software developers is too complex, there should be other options, such as cloud storage (IIRC, the paid version of DropBox does some versioning, but might be limited), or OS-supported (for example, NAS with snapshots + proper setup on Windows or Mac, maybe Mac time machine)

      And don’t forget your backups! I just had a 1TB NVMe SSD decide it didn’t want to be recognized (fortunately, not much of any value was lost, but I’ve set up nightly backups to another drive now).

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