Clue was relieved to know there's no actual math involved in this book. Photo by Kate Ota 2020
The Story Equation by Susan May Warren is a short book (144 pages in paperback) about how to plan a story based on one starter question. The book offers a step-by-step type of equation for stories, and offers some other advice along the way. It breaks the story apart into the internal and external journeys of the character and describes where to place certain elements using a 4 Act structure (Act 1, 2A, 2B, and 3).
My copy had extremely thin paper for the pages, so when I highlighted useful bits, it showed through on the other side. The title and author name on the spine are also not centered and spill onto the front cover. Based on that, I was concerned this wasn’t going to be very high-quality advice. And for the first few chapters, I thought my first impression was right. The book kept hinting at The Question on which the whole book would be built, without telling me what the question was. It kept talking about The Equation, and various elements of it, without explaining. Finally, when the book got to these elements, and defined them all, things got rolling. It was less helpful with plot elements, but extremely detailed about character arc. It’s true that the character arc builds off of one question, and then many more subsequent questions. It basically boils down those giant character-building sheets to the bare essentials and tells you why they’re essential. I’ve already applied what I learned from this book to two of my characters and found things I can add or enhance to nail the character arcs.
The book offers access to an online mini-course about the same topic, which I haven't watched yet. I'm not sure how much more information it will offer, but if I watch it, I'll update this post.
Is It Worth It?
I received my copy as a gift, so for me it was automatically worth it. The book goes for under $10, which you can feel in the quality of the paper and printing. It's short and offers a quick read, which is a plus. The detailed instructions for building a character and achieving the growth arc were very helpful. If writing a satisfying character arc is what you struggle with, I highly recommend this book. If your goal is to strengthen the external journey plotting, I think there are better options out there. Since that’s not what I was looking for, I was very happy with this book.
Have you read The Story Equation? Have you tried the methods? What did you think? Let's discuss in the comments!
Wilbur also enjoyed this book. I could tell because he wouldn't stop rubbing his cheek on it as I read. Photo by Kate Ota 2020
Kindred by Rebecca Wragg Sykes is a non-fiction book covering everything we know (as of June 2020) about our extinct relatives, Homo neanderthalensis, aka Neanderthals. It covers the gambit, from their appearance to their disappearance in the fossil record, their births to some of their deaths, and their rediscovery in the 1800s. And yes, it was a rediscovery, because, as many of you know, Homo sapeins (aka modern humans) interacted with Neanderthals many-thousands of years ago and now a good percentage of us contain Neanderthal DNA.
This book also discussed what we’ve been able to discover about their lives. Different types of stone tools, pigments, possible jewelry or other ornamentation, and even possible art or math. Of course, so much hasn’t yet been discovered. One of my favorite mysteries is the disparity between the number of found male and female remains (where the ladies at?)
I read this book as research for my WIP and it was exactly what I needed. It compares and contrasts Neanderthal and modern human bodies and, as much as it can, development and daily life. I highlighted so much of it! Honestly, this book made me want to go dig around and find some ancient bones to study myself. (As a kid, I wanted to be a Paleontologist until I learned they camp near the dig site a lot. I’m not outdoorsy.)
Positives: The book was extremely thorough, which is what I wanted. It also had some amazing footnotes. My personal favorite was about an old timey duel where the weapon of choice was sausages. (If only Alexander Hamilton had thought of that!) I also liked how it was organized, moving from appearance/early Neanderthal life to extinction/individual deaths, having the life of the species be discussed along side the life of individuals. On the inside cover, there's a map of where all the discoveries referenced were made, which I loved. I'm a sucker for maps.
Negatives: I didn’t have any complaints, but I should warn potential readers that others did. Some reviews complained about technical language. I didn’t think it was too jargon-y, but depending on your background, you may end up doing some light googling. Each chapter opens with a literary style section, often imagining the world from Neanderthal perspectives, which I didn’t mind. Some reviewers whined about this. If they're not your cup of tea, you can skip them.
Overall rating: 5/5 This is exactly the book I needed, exactly when I needed it!
I’d recommend this to fans of science non-fiction, anyone with an interest in ancient hominins (especially, obviously, Neanderthals), and anyone with an interest in the history of science (particularly the Victorian era, as it covers events from that time with specificity and later discoveries in more general terms.) Not for people who don’t like non-fiction, or those who seek short chapters or short books (hardback was 385 pages).
Side note: The author also co-founded the TrowelBlazers project and the website is bursting with really awesome archaeologists/earth scientists who happen to be women. If you love women in STEM stuff, check it out!
Have your read Kindred or any other science non-fiction recently? Let's discuss in the comments!
Milanote is an online idea organizer, which can be used for things like worldbuilding, character building, story planning, or even things outside of writing like class notes or graphic design planning.
There are three tiers:
Free (the one I tried) allows up to 100 items (notes, links, or images), 10 file uploads, and unlimited shared boards (screens on which you organize info.)
Paid per person ($9.99/month billed annually or $12.50 billed monthly) offers unlimited notes/images/links, unlimited files, unlimited shared boards, and a search feature.
For a team ($49/month billed annually for up to 10 people) offers unlimited notes/images/links, unlimited files, unlimited shared boards, search feature, and priority support.
I mapped out my WIP in the free version. I have near future scifi with a sizable cast and easily used 75 of my 100 items before I included everything from my previous notes. However, I really liked the visual aspect when it came to the characters, as I could map their relationships (and even label the lines between them, which was a lovely surprise!) It allowed me to change the layout on my screen easily and quickly. It allows random notes on the screen, captions on photos, areas to organize similar notes, and it’s very intuitive. There was also a little bit of help at the beginning with dialogue boxes popping up and explaining buttons and likely next steps. I also like that there can be multiple editors, if I was collaborating. And especially, I love the fact there is no time limit! I can leave my Milanote page there and come back to it whenever, rather than powering through a timed free trial. It also has a built-in connection to the free photo site Unsplash, so you can easily search for inspiration images within Milanote.
It wasn’t all daisies, though. If you make a character profile in one place, but want it to also appear in another (like organizing by family tree on one board, but wanting that character to appear on another board based on setting, for example) you can’t do that, you’ll just have to make a copy of the profile. And that’s a waste of your free hundred items, which isn’t as many notes as you need for an entire novel worth of information. Exceptions may include books with small casts, contemporary settings with minimal outside worldbuilding, or shorter projects like a novella, picture book, or even MG. If you make something nested within a lot of other boards (ex. In the world building board you can have a location board, within that location board you can have a character board, which contains profiles boards for each character) things can get lost. This is why the paid version includes a search feature.
Is It Worth It?
The free version is 100% worth it. It’s fun to play around, and it’s great for anyone who is very visual or creates in a more abstract way. A lot of times, planning tools are word heavy and linear. Visual writers may prefer printing things and organizing on a cork board. This is the perfect digital way to do that. Paid versions may be useful for people with big series or epics who need to keep track of a lot of places, characters, and arcs. Paid versions also may benefit those who collaborate, whether as co-authors or an author/illustrator pairing.
Do you use Milanote? What do you think? Let's discuss in the comments!
A very handsome lion enjoying a little sun and a little traffic jam in Kruger National Park. Photo by Kate Ota 2011.
Safaris, in their traditional sense, bring to mind a Victorian/Edwardian era gentleman in a khaki outfit with a pith helmet. He’s got a rifle and is out to capture a trophy. He’s usually surrounded by lots of local people who do all the work for him, except pulling the trigger. Then he travels back home with the heads of his prey stuffed and mounted and hangs them on his wall.
This is not what a modern safari experience is, although I’m sure if you’re rich enough, you can do that whole horrible thing. I know many people for whom going on safari is on their bucket list, and it was absolutely on mine. There’s this cheesy Christmas movie on That One Streaming Service that is about a safari, except it’s not at all how safaris work. I figured, as one of the privileged people who has gone on a modern safari, I could clear some things up and help other writers, just in case you’re thinking of including one in your next novel.
My safari experience included Kruger National Park in South Africa, Chobe National Park in Botswana, Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary in Swaziland, and a private reserve where I volunteered in northern South Africa. My trip was in July/August of 2011 and doesn’t apply to everyone’s experience.
1. Traffic can be very bad in the parks, especially the main roads
The roads in the national parks are often paved. While you may think that takes some of the fun out of it, don’t fret. The black pavement warms in the sun, attracting the lion prides for some good old fashioned cat lounging. It’s also a favorite spot for other predators to run a herd, as the herd’s hooves don’t have great traction on pavement and animals will often slip, allowing an easier kill. This means you’ll often have some great animal sightings from a car. However, you have plenty of heads up if animals are near, as traffic will slow to a crawl. This may be logistics—if there are animals blocking part of the road, then only one lane may safely pass at a time. It may also be people taking their time looking at the animals. (This is also true in American and Canadian National Parks: I’ve seen traffic back up for miles for a single big horn sheep.)
2. Guides are a thing, but you can sometimes go in a private car
While Kruger allowed private vehicles, I was always with guides. Not only do they interject with fun facts and spot animals for you, they have radios with which they communicate where to see animals. If one guide in the park sees a leopard, every guide is going to know and take you there. Private vehicles don’t have that advantage. If you’re writing a safari scene, a guide is a great method to inject exposition, while a private car is a great way to highlight one of your characters being knowledgeable.
3. Don't forget the danger
I still think about the advice I was given in Chobe—stay in the car, and never squat outside of a campsite. The parks have wild predators, including those who would potentially hunt you. While many think of lions first, the bigger problem is leopards. Stealthy, solo hunters, they can climb trees, and will even leave dead prey in the branches. If they see you squat (for bathroom purposes or anything else) they’ll see you as a small enough target to attack. Inside the giant vehicle, you’re one giant lumbering creature they’d never try to tackle. Therefore, never have your characters relieve themselves willy nilly, and make sure any guides emphasize the risks of exiting the car. This is great for adding tension and accuracy!
4. Cameras are the hottest accessory
The new goal of safaris is not to shoot the Big 5 with a rifle, but with a camera. The Big 5 are elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos, and water buffalo. Other exciting animals are giraffes, cheetahs, crocodiles, hippos, porcupines, pangolins, mongoose, hornbills, zebras, and impala. Basically, if you saw it in the opening of The Lion King, you’re going to be excited to see it. Some people invest in very expensive cameras, others rely on camera phones, and everything in between. However, digital SLRs are the most common, with zoom lenses as the most frequent feature. (I also recommend a strong zoom lens if you’re going on safari in real life, because that will make a huge difference!) Often, you’ll see professional photographers with giant lenses. I saw one nearly three feet long!
5. Poachers are not likely to be seen by tourists
If you’re writing about safari, the odds are high you’re planning a dramatic run-in with poachers. In the popular parks this is less likely, as there are too many other people around. However, if they were to make an appearance, helicopter was the preferred method of transport. Regular people were told to go in the opposite direction and not to engage. There’s often security that will handle the situation.
6. Include details
Some random details to help you paint the scene: Most trees and bushes have thorns, ranging from tiny pricks to finger-length harpoons. Scat (aka poop) and tracks are easy to find and unique, which helps when tracking specific species. There’s an attitude summed up by the phrase “This is Africa” which is something along the lines of “of course something crazy/weird went wrong.” Kill sites are very noisy between the predator(s) who killed and the various species of scavengers who show up. There’s a lot of KFC restaurants in Botswana for whatever reason. Markets in most places allow and expect haggling. The best way to speed along a border crossing is to offer the border agent snacks.
That’s what I’ve got for now. Have you been on safari and want to share our experiences? Have more questions for a safari scene/novel or an upcoming (post-pandemic) trip? Let’s discuss in the comments!