Thursday, December 1, 2011

Organize your data with a PIM - EfficientPIM

A PIM used to be a blackberry-like device for keeping information handy while on the go. But, I have recently discovered the power in writing a novel by using a PIM, or Personal Information Manager. One of the simplest and easiest that I have found to use is EfficientPIM from

I used to have both ACT and Maximizer on my computer, and I've had access to Goldmine in the past, but I've always used them for contact information -- publishers, agents, addresses, events, etc. For my needs, they are all like trying to kill and ant with a sledgehammer. What I needed was something that was lightweight in the KBs, but heavy on information management...something that would provide the power I needed without slowing me down. EfficientPIM seems to be just what I've been looking for. It's...well...just as the name implies...efficient.

EfficientPIM is even more robust than I expected. Yes, it gives me the ability to still store information about those blood-sucking literary, I mean my very best friend Jason in New York. But, EfficientPIM also allows me the flexibility to literally create a character as one of my contacts. I can create birthdays for my character, personality traits, even their business activity. All of that information is stored in a neat card-file presentation, so that I don't forget that a particular character has blue eyes and gray hair - not the other way around. Unlimited note taking allows me to write down random thoughts about characters so that I don't misplace them among the mountains of notes and papers on my desk. There's even a diary, so that I can track my writing time each day, or record ideas for later development. Customized fields allow me to record minute details about my characters. It's a neat piece of software, and I'm quite glad I ran across it.

One very cool feature of EfficientPIM, is the ability to have different databases for different projects. So, in order to keep my characters and stories straight, I develop one database for one book, but a different database for a different book. There's no mixing of characters or the accidental confusion of stories. When I open one of my saved databases, there are all of my characters showing as unique "contacts", with all of their information complete. When I'm done working on that project, I close the database, and open an entirely different one. Very cool, and very compartmentalized for busy writers who have multiple projects underway.

In the past, I've done a great deal of my character note-taking on a word processor. While I have no idea what closing of synapse made me think of using a PIM instead, I'm certainly glad that I did.

If you've become stumped on keeping track of plots, characters, chapter outlines, and the pittance of royalties that flow into the "incoming" basket each day, you might just want to consider a PIM for a new approach. At $39, EfficientPIM won't break the bank, either. And, if the only record keeping, character development, and book outlining that you've done is on a yellow pad or sticky notes, then you owe yourself a huge favor of considering a PIM. offers a 30-day free trial. However, I think you'll be so pleased that you won't wait until the trial ends. You'll own it right away.

That's it for today. I'm still at work on "Mandate", but with my new PIM, I believe I will be far than I have in the past.

Write On!

Jack Riston

Friday, March 5, 2010

Stuck for a storyline? Pitch that idea

If you are sitting in front of that blank computer screen or empty sheet of paper once again, then welcome to the club. We all get “dry” of ideas from time-to-time. Here's a tip that grew out of a conversation with a retired literary agent, and a bit of Googling about scripts and how they are “pitched” to movie and TV producers. I employ this technique frequently as I'm thrashing about for some interesting storyline to write about. I pitch story/script ideas to myself as if I'm the publisher/producer. Here's an example of what's frequently flowing through my mind when I'm off doing something totally unrelated, like kayaking. I find that trying to do this while sitting in front of the computer is often fruitless. I'm making this one up right as I type this blog entry, so it's not a plot spoiler. Plus, if you can take it and make something out of it, then just remember me when you are sitting on your ranch in Montana.

-It's Executive Orders meets The Manchurian Candidate
-Rogue AF General plots coup to takeover US Government
-Finds “like mind” in charismatic, ambitious US Senator
-Senator is elected president and seeks to implement takeover
-Now president seeks to cut out powerful General from plan
-General turns against president
-General's newly found loyalty to US, although growing out of sense of betrayal, leads to armed conflict between forces loyal to new president and those loyal to Constitution, resulting in near loss of the United States to rogue foreign forces who come to aid of traitorous president.

I do this little scenario around 40 – 50 times per week, until I find something that begins to “click” and which sounds plausible. Those few lines are turned into a broader, usually 1-2 page, outline. If I still feel that it's plausible, then it goes into my “projects/ideas” folder for later development. That way, I always have a few ideas that are out there on the horizon.

My major source of ideas however, is still the flow of daily news. My file cabinet is full of interesting little clippings of information that could easily be “color” or “background” for a story. And, I use “favorites” on my computer a lot...sorting websites and stories into folders for later use.

However you do it is up to you, but although I'm a proponent of writing...something...anything...every day, I'm also a proponent of writing with a purpose. If you are constantly churning ideas around in your head, “pitching” them to your own "inner producer", then you will eventually hit on a combination that inspires you.  Just remember to be passionate about your "pitch".  Don't be your own "inner critic" at the same time you are trying to be the idea proponent, or you will shoot down your own ideas before they fully blossom.  Hope this helps you find your next great book idea.

Write on!

Jack Riston

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Chapter transitions: Consider the movie "Cut" technique

I'm not any sort of classically trained writer. My website at describes me just the way I see myself, as just a story teller. My training, if you can call it that, came from years of writing volunteer articles for one base newspaper, or another, where space was always at a premium. As a result, my style developed into what might be called the “cut” in movie parlance. I just don't have the interest (or, seemingly, the ability) to write a lot of exposition in the beginning of a chapter. Rather, the reader's own ability to “fill in the blanks” is important to me.

This doesn't mean that the story can be written like a screenplay. As Mr. B. pointed out in another article, too little information will leave your reader adrift, while too much information may put them to sleep, or worse yet, insult them. I want to give the reader total credit for being able to figure things out, while still providing some clues to help them along if they missed something in an earlier section of the book.

In the snippet below, for example, from “Mandate” (You can read the first full chapter at my website) Grace Dakan, wife of a US Senator, and heir to her family's fortune, has come to the offices of Arlo DuPlesser, prominent Washington, DC private investigator. She has told him what she thinks about the circumstances surrounding her husband's death, which has been presented by Russian authorities as a sex-drug-murder-suicide while the Senator was on a trip. During that conversation, she has given permission for Arlo to talk to the corporation's counsel, Jacob Kunis.

As she leaves the PI's office, the reader must know that the first call the PI is going to make is to the attorney. So, rather than do a lot of expository stuff about the law firm, or picking up the phone to call the attorney, or talking to the receptionist, or the time of day, etc, I just parachuted right into the middle of the conversation between the PI and the attorney, as Chapter 2 began, doing my exposition as I moved along.

It might not be the correct form. Did I mention earlier that I grew up in the TV-Movie age? I'm mostly visual. But, it's a technique that my “test” readers have found effective enough that they can't seem to stop reading. Sounds like a good thing to me.

“There's something else?”

“Yes, there is. I have seen the pictures taken in the Moscow apartment. There’s something you should know about Hugh. He was left handed.” Then, in a voice that said she didn’t think Arlo was convinced that he should take her case, she also said, “...and I think someone is following me!”

Chapter 2

“No, I don’t think you could classify her as a paranoid. Still in shock? Yes. Under a great deal of stress? Most certainly.” The voice on the other end of the phone connection was Jacob Kunis, senior partner at Kunis & Dowd, probably the largest, but certainly the most prominent law firm in all of Washington. Their list of corporate clients looked more or less like a photo copy of the Fortune 500. There were reportedly over 200 partners in the firm, and Arlo didn’t doubt it for a moment. With offices sprinkled among the major US cities and a half dozen foreign capitals, Kunis & Dowd cast an amazing shadow in the corporate world. “We’re not even certain that she is being followed yet. Her driver was the one to notice what appeared to be the same dark gray sedan on a number of consecutive days. Under the circumstances, we felt that it was prudent to investigate this, but as discreetly as possible.”

Hope this will help you as you make your transitions from chapter to chapter.

Write on!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Is Your Story Expertise Lacking? Make It Up!

A "writer's block" moment from "For All The Marbles" might be illustrative of a problem you may have faced in the past. And, the problem was:

"I don't have experience in that area. I don't know what should/would happen there."

The issue was the main character who was being rushed to Offutt, Air Force Base, where he would be sworn in as President after a terrorist attack on Washington. I did get "stuck" here for a few weeks, and finally had lunch with a friend of mine who had recently retired from the Navy. When I told him of my predicament, he asked why that stumped me. My answer was that I had no idea how that transition would go...what would happen...what would be said.

His response really stopped me cold and opened the door to completing that section in record time. His response was, "Neither does anyone else! Just write your story. Less than 1 percent of the public will know whether it is accurate or not." Case closed.

Do you run into blocks like this where you feel your expertise is not great enough to write accurately? In fiction, we're very lucky as writers. We can just make it up. Get some facts...get some information, certainly. But, if you wait until you are an expert in every subject area before you begin writing a book or a section or a scene, then you will be waiting for a very long time. Non-fiction is different. But, in the world of fiction, you get to create your own world. Surely there is a base protocol officer out there, who if they ever happen to read my book, might laugh out loud at that particular section. However, for the vast majority of readers, they will read my "transition" section and assume that's exactly the way it happens.

This bit of advice was particularly helpful to me, and I hope it will be useful to you, if you happen to be stuck at some point in your writing just now.

Write On!

Jack Riston

Hide Your Clue In Plain Sight

I was told once that Clues for the readers should a lot like a woman's dress: Veiled enough to keep the plot covered up, but revealing enough to keep up interest.

How do you go about slowly revealing clues to your readers in your books? If you remember watching "Sixth Sense" the second time around, you probably managed to catch almost all of the clues that the Bruce Willis "Psychologist" character verbalized to you, sprinkled all through the movie. I used that pattern to some good effect in "For All The Marbles". Those who have gone through the manuscript the second time have all said, "Ah, now I see what he was up to. It was there all along!"

In my next book, currently titled "Mandate", the only "clue" that is presented at the outset of the book is a picture, taken from a spy satellite, of the airplane boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, AZ. And, on the picture, someone has scrawled a single word: "ANTS!!!"

I will be very deep into the book before my detective/investigator will discover through a casual conversation with an intelligence technician that hidden among the countless aircraft in the picture is a small fleet of Antonov-124 Russian transport aircraft, which the technician will explain are commonly called "ANTS" at the NORAD Command Center, where they track all foreign aircraft: Foxbats, Floggers, Badgers, Bears...and, of course, ANTS.

In the story, the previous owner of the picture was murdered. He was an ex-Air Force pilot, and it was his hand that had scribbled ANTS on the picture. When the detective stumbles across the true meaning of the word, he suddenly picks up the trail the victim was on when he was murdered. Of course, now being on to the same information, the detective's life becomes threatened, and we will move toward discovery of just who is behind this murder, and just what ANTS means....why there is a group of ANTonov-124's hidden in plain sight in what is supposed to be a scrapyard?

Have fun with your clues. If you can, put them out there in plain sight and tease your reader. It will keep them turning those pages, one after the other!

Keep writing!

Jack Riston

New Novel? Write The Ending First

A successful trip usually starts with a destination. We seldom just pile into the family automobile and pull out of the driveway or head down to the airport to board a flight without a known destination in mind. It could be something as simple as a trip into Shasta to the supermarket, or it might be that we're starting out on a trip around the globe. The fact is that those directionless Sunday afternoon drives that the family used to take when I was a child are things of the past. Today, with time and gasoline so precious, we usually know exactly where we are going and have a MapQuest printout right beside us.

If you are stymied a bit with your story writing, I'm going to suggest that you consider starting your next book with your “destination”...the ending...the last chapter. There's nothing quite like knowing the final outcome of your the main characters solved their issues, how the plot resolved, etc. If you have a clear understanding of the resolution or conclusions you are planning to reach in the final moments of the book, conflicts will often be clearly evident between an earlier chapter you are writing now and the ending of the book that you wrote earlier. You won't find yourself going back to an earlier chapter and changing the look or action of a character due to a major difference in the final chapter. You will already know where you are going, and this will assist you in avoiding major (or even minor) conflicts between sections of the book. You may not spot these conflicts easily, but your readers often will, and an obvious or major discrepancy will probably spoil the entire story for them.

I'm worked on the final chapter of “Mandate” last night, for this very reason....and, now I have the entire rest of the book to write. It was such a powerful and touching ending, IMHO, that I only hope I can do justice to the chapters that will lead up to the final moments of the book.

Good luck on the “destination” of your next book.
Write on!

Jack Riston

What Time Does Your Book Start?

The rain and wind has moved out of Shasta for the moment, and it's just cloudy and mid 40s this morning, with no snow in the forecast. In fact, tomorrow should be sunny. However, even without snow, the damp cold gets to the bones, and today is a day for staying inside and writing.

As I get down to the business of starting “Mandate”, I always come down to that point where I have to decide just where in time to begin the story. This one involves the murder of a US Senator in a very compromising situation and the subsequent investigation that eventually leads to the Oval Office. But, does it begin while the Senator is still alive and trace the steps that lead to his murder? Or, should it begin with the grieved spouse pleading with an investigator to take on a case that everyone is convinced is just another sleaze-bag example of how money, power, drugs, and sex will corrupt anyone, once they reach elected office? Another possibility is to begin with the impeachment of the President and then use flashbacks to tell the story. Ahhhh, decisions!!

In “For All The Marbles”, there really was a small bag of marbles that played a critical part to understanding the story. In order to underscore the importance of these marbles, I allowed my reader to arrive right at the end of Custer's Last Stand, where the marbles are found on the body of a dead soldier. At the end of that first chapter, however, I raced forward through the generations, depositing the marbles into the 15-year old hands of my protagonist. Chapter two then snapped forward to present day, and the story was off to the races, as they say.

So, just how do you begin your stories? Do you always use a linear progression from event to event? Or, do you throw something at the reader in order to make them wonder....”what happened before this?” The answer probably comes down to what you believe will involve your reader the most, and also what allows you to tell your story in the most intriguing possible fashion. If you've seen “Law and Order” episodes on TV, let's use that story line as an example for the moment. It's always the same: someone discovers a body; investigation begins. Fairly effective the first time I saw an episode, but quite boring in the syndicated episodes now. But, just how would you as a writer use this technique in your next story?

Here's just an “off the top of my head” first page opening couple of sentences for you to play around with this morning. First, look at the structure as a reader. Does it pique our interest? Then, look at it as a writer. Would you do it differently? And, if not, then how would the rest of the story evolve to give the back story to the characters in these opening phrases and set up the reader for the remaining pages?

“He was dead all right, as were the other two gunshot victims...just about as dead as a 58 year old Air Force Ace-turned lawyer-turned US Senator could get. There wasn't even a trace of blood where the bullet had entered between his eyes. The exit area at the back of his skull was quite different story, however. A small amount of what appeared to be cocaine was smeared just under his nose, and the remaining residue was sprinkled across the face of a small pocket mirror just to the side of his body. He was sprawled naked across the bed of this hapless motel room on the outskirts of Tucson, AZ, no more than 30 minutes from his multi-million dollar estate in the Ranchitos De Los Saguaros estates area that lies at the foot of the Milagrosa Mountains east of town. Every local knew that the late Senator, Hugh Dakan, was a party boy, going back as far as his high school days at Dunham and Eastside High schools. And, he had cut a record size swath through the coed ranks of Arizona State back in the 70s. So, few would be surprised to learn that drugs, money, or sex had finally caught up with him. What might be surprising to some, however, was that the two other dead bodies on the bed appeared to be those of two 12-14 year old boys, both of obvious Mexican heritage.”

As a writer, you've decided to start your story here. Now, the challenge will be to go backwards and forwards to fill in the blanks for your reader. How will you do it? Or, is this the place you would start? Just food for thought.

I'm off to throw another chunk of wood on the fire and pour myself another cup of coffee. Have a great day of writing!

Write on!