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Evolving a Story: the writing group feedback loop – Part 3

Infinite loop by  Faruk Ateş (kurafire)

Infinite loop by Faruk Ateş

Two days ago, I posted the start of this series, giving our readers a glimpse into the process of incorporating notes from trusted readers.  Yesterday, I posted an update to the story opening.

I was happy to find that the writing group had responded favorably to the revised opening.  The “final” revision feels like less of a re-write, though it was built up from a blank page again; the difference being that I kept one eye on the previous take, retaining the pieces that had worked and incorporating most of the notes along the way.


Team Approach – further revised beginning

Just before it dripped into his eyes, Thom Champlain wiped the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his shirt and continued to adjust the sensitivity of the sensor he was calibrating.  He did this with practiced efficiency, the product of quite a few years in the field waiting for his big break.  If practiced efficiency played a bigger role than luck in this endeavor, Thom would have moved up the ranks already, instead of sweating out here in this remote canyon, miles from anyone else but Mickey Barton.  But, since luck was the prime mover in his line of work, there was no instead to be had.  Mickey, dressed in a camouflage shirt and wearing a red cap proclaiming Budweiser as the King of Beers that had probably been purchased at a truck stop, piped up, “Anything I can do to help out?”

Thom considered the question, but, really, Mickey had already helped by just reporting that he had seen, and acquired only slightly blurry footage of, something out of the ordinary.  That was how these outings usually started, some regular Joe going about their regular day to day happened to stumble upon the weird, the unexplainable, the just not quite right.  And the blurry, hastily snapped photos and cell-phone videos usually came along for the ride, even though every once in a while the footage the reporter provided was good enough to move their story up or down in the queue: up because it really might be Bigfoot or down and out because it was very clearly a very hirsute Uncle Earl romping around in the woods.  So, Thom gave his traveling companion the usual “Nope, just about done here.  Then we get to wait for sundown,” before resuming the task at hand.

Mickey, satisfied that he had done his duty in offering, returned to whittling a little doo-dad, a keep-your-hands-busy activity that he had picked up as a youngster.  Thom, satisfied that he had deflected Mickey’s well meaning question, ran the final tests on the sensor and found it ready to go.  He had already set up the multi-array camera unit, giving him both visible and infrared capture capabilities.  Given the distance that they had had to traverse with backpacks, Thom could only bring in light gear.  If this venture panned out, then he could request an air drop of extra items for the next phase, maybe even get a few more field agents on the scene.  But that was putting a cart full of basketed eggs before a thirsty horse, since he first had to get the proof.  Proof of whatever: as long as Mother Nature or human intervention didn’t explain it, it was all within the scope of the Extra-normal Research Group.

As the sun sank below the canyon rim, the light took on an eerie glow, highlighting the rock formations that studded the walls.  Surely there were plenty of caves and crevices up there to hide whatever wanted to stay hidden.  Thom had watched Mickey’s shaky video enough times to know that the creature it appeared to capture was about the size of a bear cub and it was easy for bears to hide themselves from prying eyes even in well traveled wilderness areas.  So, it stood to reason that something else of that size, since the video pretty clearly showed a non-bear, unless bears had all of a sudden started sprouting leathery wings, could just as easily hide as well.  With the equipment all set up, Thom suggested that they move downwind a hundred yards or so to wait.  He had remote monitoring capabilities, so they’d know if the sensors tripped from an acceptably safe range.


This time the notes were very lasered in, as I would expect from the reviews of a piece that has gone through a few revisions: subsequent reads bring up additional items.  This is one of the values of having others read your work – they will see things you don’t and offer additional perspectives.

1. Job vs endeavor?  Word choices can convey the character’s feelings about their current situation, so give the reader that extra bit of info by picking well.

2. Re-read to discern voice/tone.  Each character has a voice, reading the dialogue out loud to yourself can reveal inconsistencies.

3. Expand the description of Mickey whittling as comparison to Thom’s work with the sensor equipment.

4. Decisively convey the specific time-frame that is covered.  Hours, minutes, etc.?

5. Thom’s motivation and frame of mind needs to be clearer.

6. One thing as a what if to consider – flip first two sentences to grab the reader.


Despite the fact that I got some very good notes on this version, the overall discussion was that it was now a good anchor point from which to go forth and to hold on to those notes as things to consider when going back through after the first draft of the entire piece was done.  In other words, these are nuance items not affecting the overall story arc.

I hope that this three post series has given a glimpse into the cycle of writing->feedback->revision->feedback that often occurs within our writing group.

Evolving a Story: the writing group feedback loop – Part 2


Infinite loop by  Faruk Ateş (kurafire)

Infinite loop by Faruk Ateş

Yesterday, I posted the start of this series, giving our readers a glimpse into the process of incorporating notes from trusted readers. Given the notes and recommendations I had received, I scrapped the original story as written and developed a revised opening (despite already having continued along the original storyline, some pieces of which may find their way back in later).  Instead of a team of researchers, I re-imagined the process as a single agent acting as the initial contact with a report that the group had deemed as having real possibility.  This new opening is set “in the moment”:


Team Approach – revised beginning

“Well, it sure took you guys long enough to send someone out here.  I posted on your website a bunch of times over the last year.”  Dressed in a camouflage shirt, jeans, work boots, and a red cap proclaiming Budweiser as the King of Beers, Mickey Barton looked every bit as Thom Champlain had expected.  As the local liaison for the Extra-normal Research Group, Thom had come to this remote canyon with Mickey to ascertain whether the strange phenomena that Mickey had reported was something the group would be interested in studying.

“Like I said, Mickey, sometimes it takes a little while for reports to work their way through the queue.  We recognize that folks on the ground give us our best leads, but the volume is such that it can take some time to find the golden nuggets in the sand. I appreciate you taking the time to bring me out here personally, though.”  Thom hoped this would placate the man’s surly feelings.

“My pleasure, I’m super interested in finding out what’s going on.  I’ve been camping in this same area for many years so I can tell when something’s not quite right.”

They trudged through the brush for another hour before Mickey pulled up and pointed ahead, “Right here’s where I shot the video I sent you.  I know it didn’t capture the full impact of what I saw, but I’m not a pro where that kind of thing is concerned, just happened to have my phone out.”

“Ok, we’ll set up here then – I’ve brought some stuff with me that should help get a clearer picture.  We’ve got a couple of hours before sundown.”

Thom unshouldered his backpack and carefully unpacked the two instruments that were light enough to bring on the hike.  He arranged the motion sensor array where Mickey had indicated and then hooked it up to the high resolution digital video camera.  The whole thing came together when the two worked in tandem with the camera tracking to the motion sensors.  All automatic and very precise.  If there was something to be seen out here, they’d get the necessary footage, for sure.  And Mickey seemed confident that there was something to be seen out here.

Thom enlisted Mickey’s help in testing the gear once it was set up.  This was more to engage Mickey in the process than out of necessity.  Most often, he worked alone.  And most often, he found nothing out of the ordinary.  But that was the local liaison’s job: get a trained set of eyes on things, separate the wheat from the chaff before bringing in a full team.  Eventually, Thom hoped to move up in the ranks and take on the more interesting assignments.  But the group worked on a merit basis, you had to prove yourself in the lower ranks, pay your dues with no screw-ups and patiently wait for the invite.  The group provided the tools to let the liaison’s do their job, after all, it was talent in using those tools that got you noticed.

After testing the gear, the two men just had to wait for nightfall.  They had seen nothing out of the ordinary so far, but Mickey had indicated in his reports that the strange things only happened at night.  That had Thom a bit skeptical.  After all, he was well aware that the extra-normal was not usually on a timetable and it was only a perception that night brought out more of the weird.  With the instruments calibrated, there wasn’t much chance that they’d miss anything.  Minutes gave way to hours and day gave way to night.  Thom was beginning to think he’d wasted the better part of a day when one of the sensors chirped, something that sounded all too natural.  It wouldn’t do to have some alarm blaring, skewing the results by scaring off whatever had caused the sensor to trip.

Thom peered into the darkness, not surprised that he didn’t see anything himself.  The video equipment was scanning infrared as well as capturing the visible spectrum with an extremely sensitive low-light mechanism.  Whatever it was that had engaged the equipment would show up when they reviewed the footage.  Thom would perform a preliminary check in the morning, then send the data on up the food chain.


The notes I received when reviewing this revised piece with the writing group were more focused on specifics as compared to the last batch:

1. Give each character a perspective and more interaction/conversation – the characters feel 2 dimensional, need to put some meat on them.

2. What if you approach it like Thom’s done this 100 times – 99 failures to get to a single success – how would that affect his motivation?

3. You make mention of a chirp sound – expand that to heighten the tension

4. Make stronger contrast between the two men.  Thom as the professional, Mickey as excited to be a part of the experience

5. What if you have a faster heighten – start late, leave early – start with them already on site and get right to the reveal.  Hook the reader early.

6. Even the lightest equipment isn’t easy to hump out into the wilderness, so pare it down to the essentials and give a reason for that specific equipment to have been brought along.


I felt that these notes were more about finessing the story particulars vs it being in need of major overhaul.  Come back tomorrow to see the “final” version of this piece, mostly dialed in and ready to be the cornerstone upon which the story is anchored.


Evolving a Story: the writing group feedback loop – Part 1

Infinite loop by  Faruk Ateş (kurafire)

Infinite loop by Faruk Ateş

Several months ago, I started a new story during a writing group pomodoro session – I came up with an opening line “We found the rip in our world quite by accident” and ran with it.  A month later there was going to be another pomodoro session where I intended to continue the piece, but I had made a commitment to the writing group to post something new to WattPad by that meeting as well.  So, I dusted off the start of the story, ran it through a cleanup editing pass (sometimes those pomodoro pieces get off in the weeds) and got it released to WattPad:


Team Approach – part 1

We found the rip in our world quite by accident.  Sure, there’d been reports of strange goings on in the Arizona desert, but they’d been filed by some pretty out there folks and it just sounded too incredible.  But, even crackpots want to be heard and eventually the volume caused the signal to overtake the noise and some clarity to rise above the chatter.  So, we dispatched a crew and we took it seriously, sending them with all of the gear they’d need, a well-appointed security detail, and a full support structure back at home base to mitigate the risks should any crop up.  See, we don’t take our responsibility lightly.  When you’re the lone defense against the extra-normal you have to keep things sharp, always striving for dotted i’s and crossed t’s.

The team on the ground covered all of the disciplines: cryptozoology, extra-terrestrial chemistry, ESP, alchemy.  Everyone has at least two areas of expertise so we can be efficient and nimble.  The smaller the crew the less noticeable they are, the easier it is to blend in and act like tourists.  Our security details are dispatched with advanced weaponry, nothing that screams out their purpose – the average joe would be hard-pressed to distinguish them from the scientists.  Our vehicles look normal from the outside, nothing too flashy.  We try to avoid anything that would garner a second glance.  Now, the insides of those vehicles are a different story.  The highest of the high tech, stuff that would blow the mind of that same average joe: sensor arrays, long range scanners, data collection, chemical composition analysis.  You name it, we’ve either got it or are working on acquiring it.

So, when this team hit the ground, they were ready for just about anything – hours of training spent honing their particular skills, turning the extraordinary into second nature and habit.  Makes my job in the command center look like a walk in the park.  I’m more of a coordinator, keeping tabs on the real worlds reactions, making sure the team’s cover sticks.  Even I get some of that high end tech.  There’s not a police force in the country that we can’t tap into to get up to the minute intel.  Even some of the feds are accessible, and the ones that aren’t are already in the know about our missions and keep us in the loop as peers.  Mostly, I think they realize that without us, they’d be dealing with this stuff themselves.

Right away, we realized this mission was turning into something real and important.  The scanners registered something big, the sensor arrays tuned all sorts of disturbance: electromagnetic flux, super-gravitational bursts, extra-terrestrial chemistry – the whole nine yards.  Everyone was going to get a piece of this one.  Then we hit the first snag.  Everything was pointing to a remote piece of land, a small canyon that was privately owned.  It’s easy for us to make our way onto public land or anything managed by a government agency, but private property can get tricky.  I started working up a back story for a few of the team members, hoping we’d be able to bluff our way in for a little sneak and peek.  Once we had confirmation, we could bring in the state or federals to help get everything smoothed over, usually by offering the land owner a swap for something worth much more – usually they were amenable, sometimes not.  We always got in, sometimes it wasn’t pretty, but it was always quietly handled.

So, I put together a usual cover: environmental group looking to verify a species’ habitat in the canyon.  Usually that was better received than going in with a mining and minerals story.  We would send in the cryptozoologist since she could talk the habitat talk.  Even cryptozoology is rooted in regular earth biology and ecosystems.  Then we had to track down the property owner.  It was a desolate canyon, they didn’t live out there, they just owned it.


During the next writing group meeting, once the other members had had a chance to read it through, I got some great feedback:

1. The story had a subtle contradiction: this group apparently has lots of resources (the narrator even says that) but there is a “seat of the pants” vibe.

2. Inconsistent voicing: the narrator tries to be conversational but it slips into sounding like a filed report at times, giving a “well, this already happened” feeling.

3. The first person narrative is likely going to prove limiting since the narrator is removed from the action so everything will be filtered through what he was told, not what he saw himself.

4. What if you focused on the “feet on the ground” and put the action in the present, bringing the reader along for the ride vs telling them what already happened?


Even though I had already written the continuation of the original, I recognized the validity of these observations and embarked on taking things in a new direction (the value of having a smart group of folks whom you trust).  Come back tomorrow to see where I took it from there.


crostini al pomodoro

crostini al pomodoro (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once a month, our writing group uses half of our meeting time (we meet for approximately 90 minutes every other week) to explore the pomodoro technique together.  We write for 20 minutes, then discuss the experience before setting the timer and going again.  To give you a glimpse of how this works, I decided to reproduce here, in its unadulterated entirety, my latest result.


Jeff just set the timer for a 20 minute shared pomodoro and we are off! We have posted about the benefit of using a timed period to accomplish tasks before, but recently our writing group has embarked on using part of our meeting time to all do a couple of pomodoros together.  Some spend their time on a work in progress, a few use it to riff on something new, and me, well I am taking this one to hammer out this blog post.  I think, we are all pretty good about limiting our distractions when we are writing at home, but writing here at the coffee shop is another beast.  Last time we did it I just couldn’t concentrate enough to make sense of what I was working on so I actually riffed about the distraction itself (the coffee shop was crowded that day and it felt like the table next to us was right on top of us).  Today, at least we have a table out of the way.

It is interesting to be amongst writers writing, to hear the different rhythms of how we work.  Most of us are  touch typists, so we tend to type in flurries and then pause to move on.  We mostly avoid eye contact while working through it, but I am hyper-aware of the surroundings and find it difficult to get too focused.

This is a very loud coffee shop though, it always is.  But they have great coffee and actually a decent vibe overall.  When we lost our last meeting place (the bookstore decided that the coffee cafe just wasn’t working out), we happened on this place very quickly.  I even come here on the off weeks sometimes because they make great frozen coffee drinks and I can spend an hour to an hour and a half just working through something.

They also play a very varied musical selection here, jumping genres at a single bound.  A great Psychedelic Furs song just played and there could be a Tom Petty song around the corner. That all fades to the background when we are in the discussion part of our meetings, but often comes to the forefront when not engaged in conversation.

This post has begun to meander, partly because I didn’t come today with a defined writing goal, but I did bring my writing equipment: iPad, bluetooth keyboard, brain.  I have ideas swirling, but have had issue getting them to coalesce of late.  And that, my friends is what twenty minutes of riffing looks like.


As often occurs with writing off the cuff, there are some nuggets in the middle section that, if I was producing a polished piece, I could pull out and build around.  However, since I had pretty much reached a conclusion of sorts, feeling like I wanted to stretch out for the second period that week, and inspired by another member’s poetry work, I next embarked on kicking out some haiku infused with the flavor of the place in which it was written.


A coffee shop’s sounds
espresso tap, blender whirrs
conversation bits

A coffee shop hour
few regulars sit and work
others come and go

Conversation, crossword
many computers in use
coffee shop Sunday

How can that guy nap?
I would find it way too hard
Couch must be comfy

When this was a bank
probably not this busy
on Sunday morning

This is space transformed
Once a bank, now there’s coffee
The vault’s for study

Waxing poetic
while others drink their coffee
They’re none the wiser

Amidst the chaos
of this coffee shop today
I write poetry

This place is eXtreme
no really that is the name
not hyperbole

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An introduction to Scrivener


scrivener-outline (Photo credit: ChrisL_AK)

From time to time, the tools we use as writers evolve.  While William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrought their works on the classic Underwood typewriter, in this day and age there are a plethora of options in the digital space.  One such tool that I am embarking on making my goto is Scrivener[1], a $45 Mac OS application (a $40 Windows version is now available as well) that aims to fulfill the tagline of “Outline. Edit. Storyboard. Write”.[2]

The application has a 30-day trial that is fully featured and truly for 30 days of use (which means that if, for some reason, you only use it once a week it would last for 30 weeks).  There is an excellent interactive tutorial that is itself a Scrivener document which makes it very convenient to be up and running quickly.  It took me about an hour to go through the tutorial and immediately afterward I created a new project which eventually became this blog post.

Scrivener is designed around the concept of the Draft which is all of the textual elements of your work, with each granular section being an individual file.  This allows the author to visualize the work in progress as an outline, as index cards on a cork-board, or as individual chapters.  The work can be fully annotated, footnoted, and categorized so that locating a particular passage or finding all of the items that you wished to revisit for cleanup is easily accomplished.

Power, close at hand

While going through the tutorial, it became quite apparent that Scrivener is a tool with a lot of powerful features that are close at hand when you need them but not in your face when you don’t.  One powerful feature is the full-screen composition mode.  When you engage this mode, it’s just you and your page: no desktop, no other application windows, in short no distractions.  Great for cranking out the words.

Several features are aimed at providing the writer with the ability to customize the experience to their individual taste.  Once you’ve got it to your liking, it will feel like a comfortable pair of shoes, the ones you can walk miles in without chafing.

Another powerful feature is the ability to save snapshots of your work and then compare revisions in a visual manner.  Rework a paragraph to your heart’s content, safe in the knowledge that you can return to a previous version if things just don’t work out.

From working draft to publishable manuscript

Once your draft is ready to move to the next level, Scrivener offers the compile phase of the lifecycle.  This is where your draft is transformed into a completed manuscript.  Working on a screenplay that you want to send out in Final Draft format? No problem.  Ready to e-publish your latest novel? No problem. Pretty much any final format you desire, Scrivener’s got you covered.
For this blog post, I compiled to plain text and then posted from that resultant document.  The initial draft is four sections (this is the third) which I could have re-arranged per my whim.

It’s a wrap

So far, my experience with Scrivener has been great.  I am looking forward to using it for longer works where flow and layout come into play, but I appreciate its simplicity when that is all that is called for.  About the only knock that I can give it so far is that they don’t have an iOS version.  I sometimes like to just take my iPad to a coffee shop and write.  It would be great to have the same seamless experience on the mobile device, and I know that it is something the makers of Scrivener are working on.

[1] One of my absolute favorite short stories of all time is Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener.
[2] http://www.literatureandlatte.com/

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