Guest Bloggers

Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt reveals her secrets for tight control.

Guest Blogger Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt shares her secrets for keeping track of plots, characters and their shenanigans.

Hi! Marlene asked me to write about the weird way I write – and I will, with one caveat: don’t try this at home.

In fact, don’t try any of this at all unless you already know you’re an extreme plotter (as opposed to a pantser), and need to 1) have tight control over what happens in your novel, and 2) have a method that you are comfortable with to keep track of all that plot stuff. If you are a true pantser – following your instincts alone – I think the following will strike you as insane.

I do this because my CFS-addled brain makes it very difficult for me to keep everything in my head – more about that in a minute.

I gave up Word for managing a writing project because I had too many files, and no system to keep them under one management. I am good with Styles in Word after I finish writing – and it’s one way of formatting output to look exactly as I want it to.

Scrivener manages my writing projects, and I use all its features to the max. While I’m working on a scene, I have a number of auxiliary files where I do my thinking, and use the synopsis, label, metadata, etc. features of the Inspector – little text files Scrivener provides for you automatically with each file in your main hierarchy. Scrivener will also ‘Compile’ your text from the pieces into an ebook, or a Word file with a lot of formatting control over the output.

I use Dramatica to plot – and I don’t recommend it unless you want to spend years learning what it means (some of the terminology is tricky), but it leads to the possibilities of fiendishly complicated plots that hang together beautifully at the end. Again, I use almost ALL the text boxes in the program that allows me to store bits and pieces of thought – and they can all be transferred to the working files when I need them.

I use Dramatica’s Scene/Chapter list function to set out what goes where, and then copy that structure to my Scrivener project for the writing. I end up easily with an outline of the whole project in either program, and I keep the correspondence between the two up-to-date. Dramatica keeps track of what goes where with checklists, so I can see that everything (called appreciations – apps for short) I answered when creating the story actually ends up in a scene in the final story.

Because I have all this structure in place – which can be collapsed or expanded to any level – when it comes to the writing part, I have a single scene at a time in my workspace with several files containing every little piece of character, plot, or theme that is going into the scene. When I start the writing, I don’t yet know how these bits will be expressed by my characters within a scene that has a short title – “Scene 9.1 – Andrew restless after fight; sleeps at Kary’s house,” but with a solid structure I can have the fun of figuring out how to make the pieces fit – and the knowledge that when I’m done, the scene will fit neatly into its slot in the Chapter and Book.

A scene is about how much I can work with at a time: my brain won’t keep more than that loaded without dropping bits. Since I usually take several naps during a writing session, I’d make no progress if I had to go look at the whole. Within the scene I set up as many beats as I have topics to expand, so that a scene is composed of one to several beats dealing with a small subset of ideas/dialogue/action/thoughts, and segues neatly into the next beat, so that a scene is a set of linked mini-stories with transitions that make sense. Structure within structure.

Once I don’t have to worry about losing that absolutely wonderful Idea I had for a plot bit in Chapter 19 just because I’m writing Scene 9.1 about the fight aftermath, because I stored it for when I get there, in a searchable format I can’t mess up, it frees my mind to concentrate on the scene at hand – and how I want to actually tell the story I’ve invented. It’s like knowing I can bring the red thread from the back of the tapestry to the front to weave in a rose when I want one, because the red thread is there, on the back side, ready for me to use.

Just writing a bit about this makes it seem impossible, but if you are interested in more control, and in some of the tools I use, please drop by, and type into the search box: scene template [8 posts with screenshots of the Scrivener template I’ve created to store my bits; downloadable], Dramatica [for apps and plotting],  and structure [how I use it when writing]. Select Categories such as ‘CFS’ for how my brain works and why I have to manage it to even write at all, or ‘fears’ for the things I do battle with regularly which keep me from writing. Check out the Pride’s Children tab to see the novel being created with these tools posted, a new polished scene every Tuesday – and judge for yourself whether my method produces something you find readable. Or the short story ‘Princeton’s Dancing Child’ – also plotted with the tightest form of Dramatica.

Hard to believe, but this complicated superstructure makes it possible for my writing to be simple: once I get the ideas in order, the writing flows – a topic for an entirely different kind of post.

Note from Marlene:  Click here for 9 reasons why Nina Amir uses Scrivener.

Alicia Butcher EhrdardtI’m Alicia (ah-lee-see-ah). I use: Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt. No ‘B.’ No hyphen. And no, I’m not related to Amelia. My middle name is Guadalupe.

WRITING THE HARD WAY: I am a PWC (person with CFS); I try not to let it have more of my life than absolutely necessary, but it’s something I battle every day for possession of my brain. Sometimes I win. I take a lot of naps.

I cannot NOT write. Fiction is my hobby – mainstream, SF, mystery, ? – and I will e-publish myself when I’m ready for prime time.

I sing, garden, draw a little. I will tackle, subject to energy limitations, any household task short of Heating-and-Air-Conditioning. When my brain balks at learning something new, that’s when I know I have to. It can take a while.

DH is now retired. We share a love of science, a home in suburban NJ, a bird-and-butterfly garden, and a chinchilla named Gizzy. My children, who were home-schooled, consider me opinionated and stubborn; they are mostly on their own, and a credit to their parents. My wonderful family and friends are responsible for my sanity, such as it is.

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  1. Kathy Myers

    Alicia: I envy your ability to use program tools to keep yourself organized. With CFS you need to be mindful and protective of your precious energy and not waste it sorting through a confusion of scene details and structure. I am forced to be slightly low tech with my writing life, since I have mastered barely enough computer savvy to make this blog entry. I am trying my hand at a novel and my process is as follows: 1) Make a strong cup of coffee and a slice of sourdough bread with Irish butter. 2) Return to bed 3) Place my fully charged MacBookAir on my lap and scroll down to the last line written 4) Write until my laptop runs out of juice. 5) Print out what I’ve done and place it in a decorative document size box from Home Goods. At this point I have a wonderful sense of accomplishment and can turn my brain off until tomorrow.

    1. abehrhardt

      Hi, Kathy.

      Be very afraid – and do not follow ANY of my advice (especially since your work method seems to work for you). You sound like a pantser – may it lead you to great novels.

      Mine is more like: Wake up. Swallow B1 with Diet Coke. Fumble around for a while. Go back to bed. Wake up again. Have breakfast protein shake. Write for a while. Go back to bed. Wake up again (this is getting boring, but it also works). 2nd Diet Coke. Write for a while. Have lunch. Back to bed. Repeat.

      When 1-2 comes around, say, ‘The heck with it,’ and quit for the day.

      If I didn’t have structure, I couldn’t keep it up – stuff falls out of my head. With structure, I have a fighting chance.

      Happy writing!


      Your way sounds much more fun.


  2. Ke11y

    Dear Alicia:

    Thank you for offering up your experiences with Scrivener. I took the trial and have since registered my product. I had never heard of this writing tool previously to reading your blog, and now my brain, which has always been a national park of underdone thoughts, has been corralled.

    Thank you sincerely.


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