The Extra Window

November 2nd, 2007

Technorati Profile What’s your favorite [tag]writing trick[/tag] — something that makes things a little easier for you? Here are a few of mine.

The extra window: When I’m working, I open an extra window in my word processor ([tag]Open Office Writer[/tag], which eats Word’s lunch and is free to boot) and just leave it there. Let’s say I’m writing scene three and I suddenly have an idea for scene five, or a fix for scene two. I jump over to the extra window and write it down there. One keystroke later, I’m back in whatever I’m actually writing. When the session is over, I go back to the extra window and either make the changes then and there (if it was something for a previous scene) or save it with a name that’ll help me find it easily when I need it. This is just ridiculously useful, and involves almost literally no extra effort.

The baby namer: I don’t know about you, but [tag]character names[/tag] don’t come easily to me. When I’m stuck, I just go to Google and type in “baby names,” and bingo, I’m looking at 2,143,987 sites that are just jammed with first names. This works with last names, too — key in “American last names” and see what comes up. Oh, and you can also use it for non-American names. I just named a character from Gabon by finding lists of first and last names common to that country. You can find them all: Thai names, African names, Inuit names.

Rhubarb: Stuck in a scene? Can’t find the next line of dialog? Want to describe a woman’s dress but can’t think of one you like? Been sitting there so long you need a manicure? Just pick a word you’re not likely to use much and type it in two or three times, in caps, and move on to the part you do know how to write. I use “rhubarb” because it’s what people used to say in radio crowd scenes to create the hubbub of a bunch of people talking at the same time. When I hit the wall, I type RHUBARB and then I keep on writing. When it occurs to me, usually two or three days later, to fix the problem, I tell my word processor to find “rhubarb.” There it is, the little bit that defeated me. And you know what? Ninety-nine times out of a hundred I look at it and think, “Why was I stuck?” and just write the line, or the description, or whatever it was.

[tag]Plot-O-Matic[/tag]: This is a great little program from Nom de Plume Software that plots your book for you. You enter the name and age of your protagonist, what he/she does for a living, what country he/she is in, which time period, and the character’s sexual orientation. Do the same for the romantic interest, the best friend/confidante, a maximum of three expository characters, and the antagonist. For each character you enter, specify whether he/she should be alive or dead at the end of the book. Then enter the number of crises you want the book to have, and push the PLOT button. You’re done. All you have to do is flesh it out a little. (The deluxe version — which costs an additional $175 — will pump the plot up to about 70,000 words, making it even easier.)

Okay, I made up Plot-O-Matic. But the other ones actually do work.

Send me your favorite tricks. I’ll steal all the ones I think might help me, and you can steal mine.
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7 Responses to “The Extra Window”

  1. greg smith Says:

    Plot-O-Matic. Damn, Tim, you had me going. I’d whipped out my credit card so I could buy the little sucker online. Are you sure someone isn’t offering this; after all it’s just a variation of painting by the numbers. (you supply your own velvet and we’ll throw in a picture of Elvis)

    Thanks for the chuckle

    Greg Smith

  2. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Actually, Greg, if you’d like to send me your credit card number, and if the limit is high enough, I’ll plot your novel personally. Although you could probably do a better job.

  3. Dana King Says:

    Whew! It makes me feel much better to see someone who actually knows what he’s doing, doing some of the things I do. I use a variation of your extra window, and have leveraged Google searches for names for a couple of years now. lists the frequency of names for a full census. (The One I use is for 1990.) Baby names are good (and often provide the historical background for the name, which can be fun), but there are a lot of baby names today that don’t really apply to characters 50-60-70 years old. The census list doesn’t separate by age.

    I love the rhubarb idea. I’m stealing that one today, and might use it for more than a word at a time. I sometimes get stuck in a scene, knowing where it needs to go, but not sure how to shift direction. A day or two thinking of something else while that percolates might be just the trick.

    Thanks, and good luck with the current WIP.

  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Dana — and thanks for the census link. It’s actually a much better source than the ones I suggested. I tend to write books set in the present day, but even so the current baby sites are a wee bit heavy on Tiffanys and Crystals (or Krystals or Kristels or whatever). Not to mention the current obsession with “J” names like Joshua, Jake, Justin, etc. You don’t see a lot of Marvins these days,and sometimes a writer jut needs a Marvin.

  5. Sphinx Ink Says:

    All your suggestions are excellent, but I’m bitterly disappointed to discover that Plot-O-Matic is imaginary. Durn. Plotting’s a real bugaboo for me.

    Maybe you should look into developing such a program–you could make serious bucks. There are millions of wannabe novelists in cyberspace.

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Elora –

    Plot-o-Matic ™ is my next project. The site will give you a demo by re-plotting the book of your choice, although the one I recommend is Moby-Dick. The last third is hilarious.


  7. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    If I buy the Plot-o-Matic within the next 39 minutes, will you throw in the modules for Character-on-Call and Spin-a-Setting for half price? Are operators standing by if I call now?

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