Hi everyone, and thank you for tuning in to another episode of the We Make Books Podcast - A podcast about writing, publishing, and everything in between!
This week we have another vintage episode from Rekka's previous podcast, The Hybrid Author. Rekka sat down with author Jennifer Mace to talk about how you deal with all of those loose ends and dangling plots while finishing your story and the answer is both straightforward and awesome: Murderboards. We really don't want to give too much away here because this episode is just that awesome, so give it a listen and get ready to add a giant post-it covered bulletin board to your life!
We Make Books is hosted by Rekka Jay and Kaelyn Considine; Rekka is a published author and Kaelyn is an editor and together they are going to take you through what goes into getting a book out of your head, on to paper, in to the hands of a publisher, and finally on to book store shelves.
We Make Books is a podcast for writers and publishers, by writers and publishers and we want to hear from our listeners! Hit us up on our social media, linked below, and send us your questions, comments, concerns, and a maybe a story about when you once had to take one of your darlings out behind the chemical shed.
We hope you enjoy We Make Books!
You can (and should) check out Macey on Twitter @englishmace and check out her Hugo-nominated podcast 'Be the Serpent'.
Episode 37: Jennifer Mace and Murderboards
transcribed by Sara Rose (@saraeleanorrose)
K: Hey everyone, and welcome to another episode of We Make Books, a show about writing, publishing, and everything in between. My name’s Kaelyn Considine, I’m the acquisitions editor for Parvus Press.
R: And I’m Rekka, I write science fiction and fantasy as R.J. Theodore.
K: So this is another throwback episode, a throwback to even before We Make Books. This is another—what do we call this? A relaunch? A re-release?
R: Yeah, we just wanna make sure this episode’s out there where people can access it because it comes up every now and again on Twitter, people asking a certain author how they go through the process of creating an outline for their novels. And the person that I interview in this episode, Jennifer Mace, who goes by Macey, always has this great process and, rather than force her to explain it over and over again, I wanted to make sure that, since the Hybrid Author episodes are no longer available, easily, to find that there was a way for people to get this information and so, I will continue to relaunch this interview no matter how many podcasts it takes.
K: So this is an episode, as Rekka said, sat down and talked with Jennifer Mace, goes by Macey, fantastic author, fantastic person. One of the cohost of the Be the Serpent podcast, the Hugo nominated Be the Serpent podcast—
R: Twice now!
K: Twice now!
K: So, yeah, absolutely check that out. Fantastic show, fantastic people on it! But Macey has a really great and interesting take and perspective on how to plot and outline your book, and what you’re working on. It can be complicated. And it’s like, “Oh, I’ll just sit down and make an outline,” and then that even sounds easier than it actually turns out to be!
R: So, in this interview, I was using this to create a new outline, but what Macey often does is use this to fix drafts that she’s already started. So she uses this to track the outline of what has been written in a draft, and then use it to find imbalances, visually, and then adjust. So she hadn’t usually used it to create a new outline, but that’s what I was using it for in this interview.
K: Yeah. So, anyway, great episode. A lot of good information, especially if you are struggling with the pacing or story issues or even some story development issues, I think, in this. Macey’s technique can certainly help you. So, anyway, take a listen and enjoy!
[intro music plays]
R: We have, today, Jennifer Mace. We’ll call her Macey for the rest of the episode, but she writes under Jennifer Mace, so once you hear how brilliant she is you are going to want to go find her under the proper author name. I met Macey in 2017 at the Nebulas and we have held a light acquaintance over Twitter for about a year and a half, and then suddenly I got know Alex Rowland, who you’ve heard on the podcast before, and they story of, you know, congealed the whole thing together. As they do.
So, you’ve heard, as I mentioned, Alex Rowland who is one third of the perfect trifecta of the Be the Serpent podcast, who you should all have voted for, if you were capable of voting for a fancast, in any of the awards nominations going on right now and, in perpetuity, for people who come back to listen to this later.
Macey is, as I said, another third of that podcast. And, listening—I’ll have to get Freya on here at some point now. Now I can’t go on without completing the set. So, yes, you’re going to love Macey’s accent and you’re going to love what she has to tell you about today. Because I was gonna try to explain this on my own, but I think it’s really gonna be better that I have the professional here to tell you about it.
But first! Let’s talk about you! You write as Jennifer Mace.
M: I do!
R: But what do you write, how long have you been writing? What have you got in store for us?
M: Sure, so, I write mostly fantasy and I’ve been working on some short stories lately, but for a much longer time I’ve been a novelist. And I started writing longform by doing NaNoWriMo back in 2008 and I’ve completed eleven(?) NaNoWriMos. I’m doing another one right now, in fact!
R: Yes, you don’t follow any of the rules—
R: —because you’re here in January, and you started—No, it’s February now, who am I?
M: Well, it’s February now!
R: You started a month of your own NaNoWriMo!
M: Yeah! I’m like—
R: Because you just couldn’t be bothered with that online community thing, right?
M: Well, I got a book to finish, you know? I’ve got my fake-married Renaissance lesbians to finally, finally convince that they actually like one another.
R: Yes, I’ve been seeing little clips of your, well, they’re fake-married, they’re not fake lesbians. Just to be clear where the commas fall in that description. So tell us a little bit, if you want, about this project? Or send readers after something else to check out?
M: Well, I think this one’s fairly representative because I am known for always writing queer women. It’s kind of a thing. So this project is called Catalyst and it’s a high fantasy set in Renaissance Naples that follows what happens when a punchy Disaster Bisexual blacksmith accidentally wifes a Slytherin duchal heir and many hijinks ensure. They’re about to foil a magical bioterrorist, international plot.
R: I am there for all of those things you just said! This is fantastic! Now, you are—remind me, because I know you have a book under contract, is that correct? Is that this one?
M: No, not yet.
R: Oh! Okay, I’m sorry.
M: So I have a Young Adult contemporary selkie YA that’s a queer selkie YA set in Edinburough that we’re actually just about to go out on sub with, with my agent again.
R: Oh, okay. That’s the one I’m thinking of, yes!
M: Yes! I love my selkie babies. Yeah.
R: All right, so if you’re a publisher and you’re hearing this, let me know if you’re interested and I will put you in touch with Macey.
M, pleased: Aww.
R: Or you can find Macey at the links we give you later. She is, I’ll tell you know, on Twitter @englishmace.
R: So follow her because she has lots of awesome stuff to tell you all the time about various things.
M: And lots of photographs of me pulling faces at the weather.
R: Yes! Weather is a whole thing. So, you’ve got YA, you’ve got fantasy. And you said you have short stories?
M: Yes. I have a couple of short stories out. I have a piece called “Cradle of Vines” that’s out with Cast of Wonders and I have another piece called “Thou Shalt Be Free as Mountain Winds” that is currently in an anthology, but keep your eyes peeled because it may be forthcoming somewhere online very shortly.
R: Fantastic! So I will get those links from you and put them in the show notes so people can go find whichever ones are available online now and links to anthologies, et cetera, for purchase.
R: So, aside from queer women and disaster everything, what would you say is the direction that your writing normally takes you? Everyone’s got a thing.
M: Hmm. I did figure out that I accidentally always have magically transformed characters. I love me a selkie. I love me a kelpie. I love magical tattoos and people grafting on wings and all sorts of cool things. I think the short story that is easiest to find involves a small girl deciding to turn into a plant.
R: Oh, fantastic. And you are known a bit for love of plant knowledge.
M: Just… just a little bit.
R: Just a little bit. So that’s more of something you can look forward to on Twitter. I won’t let her go off in that direction too much, except when she starts talking about the process and how things grow as stories.
M, laughs: I promise not to overly abuse that metaphor. I know a lot of craft books really dig hard on the story-is-growth and story-is-seed idea. But, I will resist.
R: Well, you almost go in the other direction because the process you created that we are going to talk about today is called murderboarding.
M: Haa! In my defense, I did not name it that. In my anti-defense, I did post a picture that looked exactly like one of those serial killer boards that you see on all of the NCIS and CSI TV shows.
M: Like striiing and targets and pins and dripping blood—there was no dripping blood, I promise.
R: Well, maybe in the future.
M: There we go, goals! It’s important to have goals.
R: Well, if you’re holding the tacks wrong, then you’re bored.
M: I have stabbed myself with the map pins on several occasions.
R: Alright, so, we’ve teased this enough. Why don’t we get into this. WHat is murderboarding? Why do you use it? And why did it make everything so much easier?
M: So I am an inveterate pantser. I had a chat with my agent recently. I sent her the first act of Catalyst a year ago. And she was like, “It’s so well put together!” And I’m like, “I have no idea what happens next!”
R, giggles: That sounds very familiar.
M: Yees! And she’s like, “How are you doing this? Why are you doing this? Stop.” So, what generally happens for my process is that I will cough up a book over the course of maybe three months of intensive writing. I’ll do a couple of NaNoWriMos back-to-back or something like that. And I will have 70 to 100 thousand words of book. And then I’ll be like, “This is made of lots of pieces, which of them go where and why?”
M: So I tried, when I was editing Hagstone—which is my previous book—to figure out how to piece it together using Scrivener or using spreadsheets or just using my computer in general. What I found for me is that I spend so much of my time on computers that it’s kind of a tired method of thinking for me?
R: Sure, in fact, I’m experiencing myself. And the reason, as I mentioned, that I brought you on is because I am going through the process of murderboarding, only from the opposite direction. But the habit of being on a computer and the computer screen, you do things the same way because you’ve created a streamlined process for how things work in your brain, related to interacting with the computer.
R: So you’re not looking at things in a different way when you do things the same way every time. So that’s been my exact experience. I’ve always outlined the same way, but I’ve never written the third book in a trilogy before and I sort of felt like something had to change because I’ve always written toward some nebulous future ending, but never toward a specific goal.
R: And now I’m in need of a way that I can change the way I think about things because I need to: one, get over myself, because of course I’ve got two books and I’m like, “These are locked in! What the Hell do I do now?” You know? I know there’s an ending. I kinda know what it’s gonna be but I don’t know how to get there.
M: It’s kinda like the difference between setting out on a road trip and setting out to go to a place.
R: Yes! Yes.
M: Right? You know where you need to be. So, my idea when I was starting the murderboarding stuff was, I have a lot of friends who love plotting on note cards and that’s fairly common. But for me, I can’t keep track of the order. I want to see a shape. I’m very visual. So what I did, and how the murderboarding process works—which is a very grand way of saying I really wanted to stab some things. Basically, you break up your book into whatever pieces make sense for you. For me, I use chapters. If you really like using scenes and don’t have too many scenes, that might work, too.
So I broke it up into chapters and I wrote on a little piece of card, just a very brief summary. Enough to remind me of what was in that chapter, and then I laid them all out in order, in their acts, in the four quartile structure that works well for me. And I kind of pinned them on a board so I could see them all in one place, with lots of space around them to add more detail. And then, once you have everything kind of situated, I start asking myself, “What am I trying to do in this edit?” What am I trying to highlight or rearrange or make sure makes sense.
So the first time that I was going through with Hagstone, one of the main thread of Hagstone is a bunch of interpersonal relationships that the main character kind of discovers themselves through. So, I took a color of map pin and I stuck red map pins in every chapter where Graham, one of the other characters who’s important shows up. I stuck another color of purple in every one where Viv, who is a romantic interest, shows up. And then you can take a step back from the board and look at it and see these patterns of color and see where you have frontloaded or forgotten an entire character, if the character pass is what you’re trying to do.
R: Clumps and gaps.
M: Exactly! And, on a later one, when I was trying to figure out a balance between the magical and mundane worlds, I went through and I tagged every chapter that was set in the magical world and saw that I had a big gap in the middle and there was one scene in there that really didn’t have to be in a mundane setting, so I just lifted it and moved it to a magical one and everything balances better.
R: Yes. And in this—when you say balance, you know, generally we’re thinking pacing and all these other terms that we’ve been taught, in terms of a long narrative. But when you’re looking at it on like a 24 x 36 corkboard which is how you set this up—and we should get into a little bit more of the physical set-up, since this is an audio podcast—
M, laughing: You mean I can’t just gesture and everyone will understand me?
R: I mean you can, you can, but we’re just gonna have to—I’ll illustrate it later or something I suppose. It’ll be stick figures of Macey’s arms just in the air, flailing.
M: There we go.
R: Okay, so, when you’re looking at it on a 24 x 36 board, everything’s within, say, 18 inches of everything else, and suddenly you’re not just trying to remember in Chapter 12, now that I’m in Chapter 36, have I remembered to include this character anywhere else in the book?
R: So, and you mentioned the notecards thing, and people who listened to the last episode will know that I just tried notecards for the first time, too! And I always avoided it because I was not a fan of this concept of these loose sheets of paper and one, laying them out seemed like the best way to trigger anxiety—
M: Oh, yeah!
R: And then walking over them. No, it was too stressful. But I was able to do it in my new office because it’s a very confined space, no one else is gonna go in there if I don’t want them to, and it has a hardwood floor.
M: Oh, nice.
R: I think the last time I tried it, it was a carpeted floor and I think that makes a huge difference because you can’t just lay the cards where you want them on a carpet floor. So, I’m trying all sorts of new things. So, now that I’m already willing to look into the physical, now I’m looking at Macey’s Twitter threads from a few months ago about murderboards and I’m going, “Okay, so if I just chop this up into smaller pieces and get sharp things and get some string, I can do this. And maybe it would help me.”
You use it, Macey, to look backward at a plot that you’ve pantsed.
R: And I’m doing it exactly the opposite, to not pants a book, because I’m on a short timeline, and to do it from the ground up. Where I don’t exactly know the details of the book, I don’t know what each scene is going to contain, and I’m trying to build these things from nothing. So let’s—what I always do when I outline is to write down everything I know about the story. So now I’m writing down everything I know about the story on these tiny little cards and I’m putting them in columns where they fall in the story.
So, as you mentioned, it’s the 25 percentile structure, so Act One is the first column, Act Two there’s a build-up and even more build-up in the middle for your next two columns, and then Act Three, your climax and your denouement come in column four. So as I’m writing down all these things I know, I’m putting them approximately where in the story I think they’re going to happen. And then, what I start to see, is I”ve got the denouement locked in, but I don’t know anything else. And, of course, I’ve got the starting point because I’ve just finished the sequel that comes before this new book.
M: But there’s this whole, like, Fog of War in the middle section.
R: It’s a very foggy spot in the middle. So, yes, in these four columns, immediately, I could see that I needed to build out the flesh of a full plot versus just: get them straight from A to B. I cannot do that because that is not a book.
R: So, when you look at your four columns, you’re doing something similar but you have all the pieces, you’re just moving them around. Whereas I’m filling them in. So, comment on how you decide what goes where and, if you have gaps where you see, literally, a gap in front of you. Whereas, I had a chasm. So speak to that. From either side of the process.
M: Sure. So, one of the things that I find really helps me, from having this all laid out in a physical way, is that I can look at the proportions of my story in a way that I can’t get a sense for when I’m writing a list. So one of the ways that—And I mean, I do plot a little bit, right? I will have maybe twelve bullet points of what I know happens in a book. And the ones that are near to where I’m writing right now will be pretty good and the ones that are further out will just be like, “And they foil a plot of some kind??? Maybe stabbing??”
R: Because I need them to!
M: Question mark. So, when you’re weaving together enough plots to make a novel. You’ll generally have more than one, and you may have one that’s the main plot and others are the subplots. But I like to think about it as a series of sine waves that are interacting. One is going up and another is going down. So when you’re trying to fill the middle of a book, particularly, if I know that these three things have to happen to advance the main plot, and this one has to be roughly at the midpoint and that one has to be at the 22-percent-through-the-book mark because it has to feed into the swap between Act One and Act Two.
I can put all of those in the right position on my board, based on the proportions and I can kind of tell myself when I’m writing, “Oh, this needs to be within that chapter.” And then, conversely, when I’ve done the writing I can see, on my board, whether those plots are kind of clustered in the wrong places and whether I can rearrange scenes to do that. But I know, in the past, I have—the last time I edited Hagstone, no two times ago that I edited Hagstone, I took the entire third column and I reversed the order of all the chapters.
R, blinking: Okay. Because you saw something happening, in other words?
M: Yeah, because—and this was in part with the advice of my agent—the arc of one of the relationships was wrapping too late, and it gave it too much significance, when it needed to wrap earlier so that the character’s self-discovery took more of the weight, which was the actual weight of the book. And I did that by putting it all together like a puzzle, back on the whiteboard. So it’s kind of like what you were saying about how you plot. You know that you have these gaps here and you need to have something that goes into them. I had all of these pieces, but it was like a pile of Scrabble tiles.
R: Right, yeah. Absolutely. That’s very much what it feels like. That, or a five hundred piece puzzle. I walk by the board, where it’s sitting on a table, and all of a sudden I catch myself leaning over it like people who are on their way out the door, walking past a puzzle. Like, “OH! I know what I see there.”
R: What I’m finding, as I’m trying to fill in these gaps, is that I’ll start, on a separate sheet of paper, to just write down some notes of things I’m seeing. And by the time I’ve gotten a few lines into it, I’ve recognized that there’s a parallel that I can build into this book to the first book.
R: So that it’s going to feel like this event is book-ending the entire trilogy. And these are the kinds of things that I very, seriously doubt that I would’ve caught on to if I were just writing everything I knew in Scrivener and then going between those and New, Return, and fill in something else.
M: It’s just too much information, is the thing. For me, when I’m looking at my Scrivener file and all of my worldbuilding folders and all of my character sheets, I can’t keep it in my head.
M: And I know more than I think I do, about these scenes and about these chapters. So when it’s really boiled down, and there’s nothing distracting me around it, I can remember those things. But when I’m looking straight at them, I can’t compare them to other things. There’s just too much going on.
R: Right. There’s also word phrasing that we’ve got, if we’re looking at our draft. You know, all of a sudden we’re in the weeds of: how is this paragraph structured? And we’ve forgotten to be watching the information that we’re communicated to the reader. We’re more concerned about how many times did I use the word “that” in that paragraph?
M: Oh god.
R: So, I wonder if there’s also something—and I’m sure you’ll agree—to the psychology of taking your scene and literally putting a pin in it, and sticking it to a board and saying you’re there.
R: Like, you’ve—we talk about using map tacks and I will link to Amazon for the best set of map tacks I was able to find, 15 glorious colors, and a set of flags as well. [M laughs]
Just in case you’re tracking more things. But actually, and I’ll come back to this in a second, when you are taking a piece of metal with a pointy tip and you’re sticking it through the paper, you are making a mental decision.
M: You’re making a commitment, right? And I find this particularly, because I’m doing this at the edit phase, the first thing I will do is go through and decorate and understand my chapters, and say, “Oh, this chapter has lots of magic in it!” or “This chapter is the one with the Guild plotline, versus this one is the Espionage in the Church plotline,” but—
R: And when you say decorate are you referring to the colors of the pins?
M: Yes, so I’m referring to the color of the pins. So,, like, you might use a colored sticker in a planner? On the pinboard you use these map pins. But once I’ve done all of that, I then make an edit plan. For me, that means adding more little note cards in handwriting next to the typed, neat chapter headings. And every time I pin one of those in place, I’m saying that I’ve decided to make this change to my book.
R: Mhm. And it’s kind of empowering.
M: Yeah! It really is. And any time that I’m not sure what I’m doing, or I’m not sure what has to happen next, I can go back and look at my board and be like, “Oh! I pinned that here, that’s the next thing to do. Okay.”
R: Yeah. The amount of decisions that I’ve made just by looking at this board are impressing even me because a week ago I still wasn’t even sure where this story was going to end, and now I have all these decisions. Not only that, but, like I said, I’ve closed openings that I set up two books ago without even saying, “I want to do it in a way that parallels this,” or “I want to do it in a way that satisfies this.” And suddenly it’s paralleling and it’s satisfying and it’s visibly in front of me that I’ve done this and, like you said, you go back and you see that you stuck a piece of metal through that paper and you committed.
R: And it’s really satisfying to do. And it’s not just satisfying because it’s called a murderboard, but—
M, laughing: That’s a large part of it.
R: Yeah, it does help.
M: I think it’s also kind of like seeing your city on the street level and then seeing your city from a plane as you take off. Right?
M: They’re different things, and you need both of them, but when you’re seeing your city from however many miles above, you can see, “Oh, this is the pattern of the streets, this is where that park looks like that park.” One of the things we haven’t mentioned yet that I love is using string to tie things together. Physically tie them together.
M: So when I’m focusing on a particular plot line or trying to add a new plot, one of the things I’ll do is go through, make all of my notes, and thread this new plot through the whole novel which is really how I think about it. Like embroidery. But then I take a piece of string, and I wrap it around the first of those edits and I then, in turn, take it through every pin that is connecting that plotline together. And then I can see, on my book, the path that the plot takes through my novel.
M: Which is super satisfying.
R: Yeah, no doubt! So, I have a question about that! You referred to sine waves before.
R: Are you placing things on your board in the order that they happened, or are you placing them in a position that is relative, say, to an emotional arc or to a plot arc?
M: I’m always using word count as my measurement. So, I almost never plot things based on timeline. If we’re having flashbacks, if we’re having characters with overlapping points of view, to me, in the reader’s mind, those happen after one another on the timeline and that’s really what I’m looking for, is the reader’s experience. That’s what I’m trying to create.
R: So in the order that you present it to the reader.
M: Mhm, exactly. And in the amount of text.
R: Okay, so word count is a fantastic way to use—that’s a great metric to use. So, you would say, the first quarter, if it’s 25,000 words, the top is word one and the bottom is word 25, 000 and then the second column, the top, is 25,001—
R: —and the bottom is 50 thousand. Okay, that’s fantastic. That’s really straightforward. From my point of view, I’m trying to figure out where these things—not only where do they go in the story, but what position on the board is going to signify what’s happening. For instance, right now, because I’m still sort of planning things out, things are grouped by POV. So I’ve got a cluster of things that all happen to the POV A in Act One, but it’s not necessarily the order that I’m going to present it to the reader, word-wise. So that was my next step, was to figure out how to make this a chronological reflection of how the story’s going to go.
M: Right. And I think for me that that’s crucial. The book that I’m working on right now is dual point of view and I got kinda weird with it because I wasn’t intending for it to be. So the first act is all one point of view, and then it kind of splits off into the second one afterwards. But it’s been very important to inweave those chapters on the board, as well as in the book because it doesn’t matter to the reader that one character has spent 20,000 words working on this guild plotline. If the reader is getting 5,000 words, every 5,000 words swapping back and forth with another character who’s doing the church plotline, it feels to the reader like they’ve been getting a mix of things happening. It doesn’t feel to the reader like they’ve been isolated and doing only one plot.
R: Sure. I was even thinking of that. I’m like, “Oh, I have four plotlines, I have four quarters of the board…” and then my concern was if I did take the string and lead it from one plot point to the next, it’s not going to be great for the reader if it jumps and it takes 25,000 words to get back to that next plotline, so that the string goes directly across the board, as we’ve been describing it. That means the reader’s forgotten, probably, by the time that plot point comes up again.
So the mix of POVs, to me, is important. Although I know there are plenty of books that do a part and the entire act is one character’s and then maybe there’s some sort of event that helps you orient yourself to where you are in the timeline of things, like a parade or some kind of holiday or a meteor crashing or whatever. But until you get to that moment, you don’t know where you are in relation to the other characters that you’ve already been visiting.
M: I have far too much fun using this kind of point of view structure and decision-making as another metaphor within the book, right? So this book, Catalyst, is a fake-marriage book and so we start with a single character who has a goal and decides that they are going to take this step of committing to this other person, but not really, just to reach their goal. And so we start in one, very selfish point of view. And then, once they join together, we get a bit of the other person’s point of view, but it’s still very disjointed. And then, as they become more in sync and paying attention to one another and actually acting as partners, we start to get a real balance of points of view.
R: Mhm. So you’re playing with the tropes from two directions.
M: Yeah, exactly, but also the nature of the relationship is reflected in the structure of the book.
R: Right, right. That’s awesome. I’m looking forward to reading this book!
R: I’m just trying to—Oh, and then you said you decorate your board when you first lay all your cards out. You’ll start putting the pins in that reflect everything. So you’re pretty certain—I mean, obviously, you start this as a revision, but if you stick eight pins in a card, if you need to move that card, you’ve got to pull out eight pins.
M: Oh, yeah.
R: So is there, do you have any advice for how deep into the weeds of identifying things should someone go. Or should they say, “Okay, right now I’m tracking this and there’s four aspects of that. I’m gonna stick to these four pins,” or if you have fifteen pins *cough cough* should you just assign them all and stick them all in there?
M: I would not assign them all because the goal with the board is you’re trying to have something you can hold in your head.
M: I think, for me, the point at which I can’t remember which pin means what, means I’ve used too many pins.
R, laughing: Fair enough, okay.
M: Like if I need a map or a key for myself, then that’s no good. Also, you may have fifteen pins, how many of those colors can you tell apart?
R: Right, yes. I remember you mentioning that on Twitter once and I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna have to check that before I start using them.” But then I was thinking, am I going to figure out how to lock these into a position on the board through the story, chronologically, if I can’t see what the trails are. But if I pin everything, fifteen pins on one card, I’m gonna hate myself if I have to move it, because it’s basically perforated at this point.
M: Right. Yep. But also, I feel like authors track a lot of detail when they’re writing. But readers are not going to track that level of detail. Readers are not going to notice fifteen levels of symbolism and different narratives and all of the different plotlines and subplots as distinct.
R: This is why writers drink.
M: Yeah, right? So, I feel like the exercise of boiling it down to the half-dozen things that are really important to you, at least in this round of revisions, or this round of drafting, is actually a really good exercise on its own. Like, what are the things you really want to get across?
R: Okay, so pulling back from… yeah.
M: Yeah, exactly. What’s the impact? Because then you can have other things in there, but you can kind of have made the decision in advance, like we were saying earlier, by committing. Other pieces of the book are there to serve the ones that you decided are the important bits.
M: Right? They’re there to echo and reflect and enhance.
R: Right. Don’t tell those other pieces of the book, but they’re not as important.
M: Yeah! Right? I mean, we joke, but it’s kinda true. You can’t do everything in every book.
R: Right. Okay. Now she’s getting harsh, folks.
M, meekly: I’m sorry!
R: I’m uncomfortable now. No, no this is fantastic because it is something where, as you mentioned, we get super wound up, super deep in the weeds to bring it back to plants. When we are finished with a draft and looking back, or in my case, we’ve got two books of details behind us, and we’re looking to wrap it up and stick the landing on a series, too much of this becomes precious to us.
R: And on this board, even though I got the biggest corkboard that I could find at Staples, almost immediately, as I started to write things on it, I was running out of room.
R: And I think that’s the most important thing. One, buy a couple extra decks of index cards that you’re gonna cut up into tiny pieces, but, two, be ready to go through this process of realizing that I can’t hold everything on this board that I think is important to this story.
M: Right. And you can’t hold it in your head! I mean, they’re almost more pneumonic devices than they are actual edit notes, right? If I was to give my board to someone who knows my writing style and be like, “Please go implement this edit on my book,” they’d be like, “What the fuck are you talking about? That’s nonsense.” Right? It just doesn’t work.
R: Yeah, yeah. And I like to tease my family members as I’m walking around with this enormous board that I can’t hide and that I refuse to drape over. And I’m like, “Watch out, there’s spoilers on here!” But the fact is, if anyone looked at this, they would probably have zero clue what’s going on, based on what we’re doing. So this is very much a shorthand and I just love how suddenly I’ve gone from being the person who does everything, absolutely everything, in Scrivener to now I’ve got this physical object.
And I said this last week, I was carrying around these index cards. I had one of those index card boxes and it was in my pocket of my sweatshirt all the time and it was like an object of power. It was showing that I was doing the thing and it really changed the way that I went through that process. And now I’m doing that again. And, so—okay, we’ve talked about setting up the board in four columns. To the nitty-gritty of that, you have just a thumbtack in the top and bottom and you run a string around it to create the column.
R: Note to everyone else: save yourself the trouble, artist’s tape is not going to stick to corkboard very well. [M laughs] Especially if the weather changes on you and the humidity and suddenly you’ve got a curly thing. Okay. Covered that.
M: When it doubt, string. Always string.
R: String is very well-behaved unless the person who was previously in charge of your embroidery floss was not very good about separating it into individual strands and you have lots of knots.
M: Oh noo.
R: Yeah, that was actually me. So I had a tangle of string and uncurling artists’ tape and I got through it somehow.
M: We’re very proud.
R: It was, yes, it was worth the struggle because now I’m on this side of it. So then you have index cards, I don’t know how big yours are? It looked like sometimes you had computer printouts of your scenes, to start with?
M: Yeah, so, I have for Hagstone—which is the one that I’ve revised six times now—I have a Google doc that’s just a single letter-sized piece of paper that I print out with all of my chapters on it. And that’s the size. So it’s like a quarter of the width of landscape mode of that piece of paper, is the size of my corkboard pieces. I’m actually looking behind me because I have my corkboard propped up against a wall over there, that you can’t see.
M: And I’m trying to remember, “How big are those?” They’re like maybe three inches wide.
R: Okay, okay. So depending on the size of your corkboard, obviously, you are going to have room—
M: Yeah, I mean generally the idea is what you want is the chapter or scene summaries to be no more than half the width of the column. You wanna have enough space to add notes and revision notes or other such things, if you’re plotting.
R: Right. So whatever your corkboard is: four columns; your cards that you’re going to pin to it are effectively one eighth of the total width of the board, if you can fit two to a column as Macey just said; and then if you do not have tight, neat handwriting you are going to have to get really good at shorthand because now as you look at the pieces that you’ve printed out from your spreadsheet, or wrote very neatly, very carefully, now you’re going to see where the gaps are. Then what goes in the second column?
M: The second column is the first half of Act Two. Oh!
R: Oh, I’m sorry, I mean the second half of the first column.
M: Well, so for me my first half is what is in each chapter. The next one is basically edits and changes that I need to make. So once I’ve inventoried what I have—So the first step of this operation is: what is actually in my book?
R: So if you open the draft that you just finished, or the revision that you just finished—
M: Mhm! Literally what’s there. And then—
R: —without any changes.
M: Without any changes. Just what exists. And then the next step is, “Okay, well, what do I need to do about that?” What needs to change or what needs to be brought out, maybe not changed but just enhanced in some way. Though I could see that if you were doing this as a plotting thing,you might have whatever core scenes, like action plot stuff, you might have that in your first column. In the second column you might have Character Notes and Echoes Back to the First Book and other, like, detailed pieces you need to remember to fit in there, but aren’t really defining those chapters.
R: Okay. Alright, cool. I’m cheating here. I’m using Macey to work out my own plot. So you have these notes for just space purposes, generally? Because it’s not gonna fit on the piece that you printed out from your spreadsheet?
M: Um, well—
R: Would you say that’s roughly fair?
M: Also for movability. And I can change my mind easily. I find that having them as separate units—I’ll have like a separate piece of paper for every different planned edit that I have so that I can decide that I don’t like one and remove it—
R: And just tear it off and it’s not half of a sheet that you already put there.
M: Yeah, exactly. You can do very similar things with a whiteboard, it’s just a lot easier to accidentally wipe things off on a whiteboard.
R, laughing: Yes.
M: Whereas with a pinboard it’s a lot harder to discombobulate.
R: Mhm. Okay, so, if you were to decide, for example, that Chapter 2 belongs after the existing Chapter 8, would you write that and put it to the right of your existing Chapter 2, or would you pick up the pin from Chapter 2 and rearrange the chapters?
M: Let’s see. What I would probably do in practice is put another piece next to the existing Chapter 2, or even on top of it with a big X mark on it.
M: Put the bits of Chapter 2 that I still wanted, after Chapter 8, because it’s gonna have to change a bunch. Write the scenes, the plot elements that I want to bring over on their own little pieces, and put them between Chapter 8 and Chapter 9 as a new chapter, and put a big piece of paper in the first column between Chapter 8 and 9 called Chapter 8.5.
R: Okay, fair enough.
M: There needs to be a new chapter here, you’ll name it when you get there.
R: And you do make a good point that, in this example, Chapter 2 probably still has some pretty structural worldbuilding going on, so you’re probably not going to be able to delete all of Chapter 2, you’re going to have to work that information into either Chapter 1 or Chapter 3… now Chapter 2, renamed. So that’s a good thing to—
M: And when I’m doing that with the five chapters that I reorganized in Hagstone, I definitely did have to break the chapters up and some pieces of each chapter went to different places. So what I did for that rearrangement was, one the left-hand side I had the existing chapters and then on the second column, on the right, I put where the scenes would be and then I tied strings from each chapter to where those scenes were going, so I could see how the pieces crossed.
R: Oh, okay. Right, again, we have this ability to get layered and really deep into the physicality of how these things are gonna connect.
R: So, I haven’t gotten to the point where I’m hooking string between things yet on my board and now you’ve got me super excited.
M: I love the string!
R: And I also have a lot of, again, embroidery thread is great because it comes in so many colors. So I’ve got a string for each color in my map pins. Not even on purpose, just because I used to do cross-stitch. But now I have the embroidery floss, so I would recommend getting a starter-kit of embroidery floss if you don’t have a collection already because you can get a bunch of different colors. And, as Macey said, don’t put fifteen pins in your card right away. So you don’t, maybe, need fifteen colors of thread. So, do you do this—do you go through this process, for the example of character arcs, will you figure out what you need to do and then take out the different pins that you’ve got and then put in another set for a different problem that you’re going solve?
M: I generally do all of the problems I’m trying to tackle in a big revision round at once. And so, generally, each time I am convinced that that will be the last revision round.
R, laughing: Of course!
M: It’s all there is! But by the time that I need to do it for the next round of problems—this is not something, or an amount of effort, that you would do for a small edit. This is like a big revision. Some chapters will be getting rewritten, a lot of things will be changing, maybe characters will go away. Otherwise it’s not worth the effort. So, if I need to do another round of revision after that, the first step, the survey-what-you-have-in-your-book is going to be incorrect. Because it’s all changed.
M: So you have to start that again. And this is why I advise keeping your chapter outline in a document online because then you can kind of tweak that in place without having to rewrite it from scratch, which saves a lot of time. But you will have to tweak it. You will have to say, “Okay, well, this chapter once was like that, but now it’s like this!”
R: That definitely helps. I’m wondering, Scrivener has like an index card view. I wonder, does it export into any sort of spreadsheet from that? I don’t know the answer to that, but I’m gonna have to look into that because that’d be pretty handy. Because you can have a little note card-size worth—I mean, honestly, you could write the entire novel in the note card and they would let you, but there’s a certain amount that it will show on the screen if you’re looking in the index card view, or in the outliner view, so if we could export that, then this would maybe help with that.
So, I was just trying to think of—so I’ve worked with it a little bit, so I have little bit of understanding, and we’ve tackled my questions that I would have for you. I just want to make sure that we’re leaving the listener with the full view of this process. So, you’ve mentioned that when your pins are all in place, then you’ll start to fill in the lines between them and tie things through and see—does the way that the string cross ever seem to create any patterns for you, between different interaction sections? Does it reveal anything or is it just too much of a mess and you can really only follow one string at a time?
M: Well, I don’t tend to use a ton of strings and I won’t use strings for everything. It’ll really be about the piece that I’m trying to trace through the whole book. One of the things that it does highlight, when you’re tying it, almost the action of tying it, will show you how frequently you’re using that plotline or not and show you where the gaps are. So that’s something I find really valuable. Another note that I realize I forgot to say explicitly: when I’m adding—so let’s go back to when I was having a problem where there were too many mundane settings in my book and too few magical settings.
M: So I chose the black pin for my main magical setting. I went through, put black pins in everything, I’m like “Oh, there’s a gap in the middle here! I’m going to move this scene to be in the magical setting.” I wrote myself a little note, I put it in the second column, and I used a black pin to pin it in place because this is an edit that is about that setting. So you use the same color coding that you used for assessing your novel to annotate the edits and remind yourself of the purpose of those edits.
R: Okay. Great. So one thing that I have done in the past is use highlighter on cards, where I make changes and whether that change is related to a certain POV or maybe whether that change is related to setting, et cetera. Do you ever find yourself making edits about, say, magic and realizing that it also ties up a character arc situation. Would you put two pins in that edit, then?
M: Definitely, yeah. I would put two pins in that. And I prefer using the pins to colors on my note cards just because you can change them. And I can change my mind about whether I wanted that edit to actually have that character in it, or whether that spoils it in a second thought.
R: Right, so if Joe is represented by a green pin and you decide that Joe doesn’t belong in that scene, you take the green pin out and you don’t have to write a whole new card because you used green highlighter on the card.
R: Perfect. It’s funny, we’re talking about committing, but then we’re also talking about, “But you can change it!!”
M: Yeah, I feel like decisions are not permanent, right? Hm. How to put that better. There is a—
R: That there’s a gradient of decisions.
M: —strength to making a decision, but there’s also a strength to reevaluating that decision, right? I mean, it’s all the process that works for you in the end.
R: Right, right. So anyone who is listening to this and it’s making them want to try this process, there is no rulebook. I mean, maybe that will be a release that Macey out with someday.
M: Oh God!
R: But there’s no hard-and-fast set of rules for exactly how this works, or else you’re doing it wrong. It’s going to be: is this tool useful for you?
R: Is it almost useful for you? What can you change that will make it the tool you need right now? And that might change every time you go back in to use it. Or you may, you know, use it once, it helps tremendously, but then next time something else works. I mean, this whole thing is all about the impermanence of our writing process. And I’ve talked before, I think a couple episodes ago, about how it’s okay if your writing process changes.
R: Like, there’s a lot of stigma around: are you writing correctly? Is your process—does it match Stephen King’s? Does it match Delila S. Dawson’s? Does it match N.K. Jemisin’s? It doesn’t matter because yours is interacting with your brain, not that author’s brain. So, as people, I think we all can agree we change pretty frequently. Something that we liked two weeks ago, we’re sick of today. Something that has always worked for us can’t get us through a block. So, maybe as important as finding a system that works for you, and trying something new, is also: be willing to let go of a tool if it’s not working for you one time.
M: It’s like standing on the deck of a ship, right? You’ve gotta keep your knees loose, you’ve gotta adjust your stance, otherwise you’ll get thrown overboard.
R: Yes, yes. And keep your eyes on the horizon or you’ll get a tummy ache.
M: There we go!
R: Yes, absolutely. Alright, so is there anything that you can think of that we haven’t really covered about this process, or any notes you thought of before and skipped over because you do it so automatically now?
M: Um, make sure to have a good cup of tea with you while you’re doing it? It takes a while. It takes longer than you think.
R: And maybe one of those little hotplates you can get from the electronics gift shop where it keeps your tea warm for you, while you’re working on this. Because you look up after a while and you’ve been tying a lot of knots.
M: If you have a kotatsu, then I am jealous and you should use it.
R: Yes, okay. Absolutely. Oh my gosh, that’s very true. Cats, I will warn you, do not like when you are sitting on the floor and your lap is smaller than usual. But, I don’t know, maybe feed them and then hurry. Before they come back to get you.
All right, this is awesome. I know people are going to want to take a look at the murderboard examples that you’ve put on Twitter, so I’m going to find permalinks to those threads or maybe steal the graphics just in case. And put that in the show notes so people can find their way to you. And I’m sure this is going to be something that at least a few of our listeners are going to want to try because I put this on Instagram and I had people that I didn’t even know were writers telling me that they wanted to try this!
Even John Adamus, who’s been on the show before, was my first editor for my series and he even approved and he never hits Like on anything so—it is John Adamus Approved,f or anyone keeping track.
M: There we go!
R: So I know that we’re gonna get some great feedback from this and I will put your contact information, that you’re willing to share, in the show notes for anyone who wants to follow along and chat with you about murderboards, or maybe show you theirs once they try it out for the first time!
R: Alright, so, if someone is looking for you can you let us know where to find you and, again, remind folks what they’ve got to look forward to from you as a writer.
M: Alright, sure! So you can find me most easily on Twitter as @englishmace and these days my most popular piece of output is my podcast, Be the Serpent, we did actually spend a whole episode a few months back talking about our process. The episode is called The Room Where It Happens because we are Hamilton nerds. We talked a little bit more about murderboarding there. And on the writing front, there will be more stories and more poems forthcoming, and I will post about them on Twitter when they exist!
R: I believe you! Alright, awesome. Thank you so much for joining us today, Macey!
M: Thank you for having me.
R: Thank you for creating this process because I know it’s helping me right now.
M: Well, I’m glad that more people can get some joy out of stabbing things.
R: And if anything is the takeaway from this episode, it’s please, go stab something. Not a person.
R: Thanks, everyone, for joining us for another episode of We Make Books. If you have any questions that you want answered in future episodes, or just have questions in general, remember you can find us on Twitter @wmbcast, same for Instagram, or wmbcast.com! If you find value in the content that we provide, we would really appreciate your support at Patreon.com/wmbcast.
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