Category Archives: Writing Tools

Flying high now!

Outlining Your Story

Outlining Your Story

One of the most daunting tasks a writer ever faces is to outline their work. We’ve spent so much time creating the fictive dream, developing our characters, crafting dialogue and description, that to reduce it all to a play-by-play, point-by-point overview of plot can seem an overwhelming challenge.

Somehow it hurts to boil it all down. And, let’s be honest, with everything going on in your story, it’s hard to know what to include and what not to.

Ya Gotta Do It

Still, outlining is necessary. Agents and Editors will thank you for a good chapter outline. It helps them give you notes, and sell your story to others. You’ll need a clear, tight synopsis when you’re querying agents and editors, too, and without an outline, you’ll be stuck weeding through your text page by page.

So, fellow novelists, let’s roll up our sleeves and learn how to outline.

cropped-margaret_mayo_mcGlynn_tiber_1260x240.jpg

Outlining Methods

A Quick Method for Outlining

  • Put each story element on file cards
  • put them in the order you want
  • go through and tell the story to several people. Voila—story feedback without having written one word of prose! (From Robert McKee’s book Story)

Snowflake Method

Source: Randy Ingermannson at http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/

If you have a limited amount of time and need an outline before you write, this is a great method. I used it myself before my first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).

In 10 steps, The Snowflake Method will give you a wide array of useful tools once you’re done. You’ll have an elevator pitch in the form of a one-sentence log line. You’ll have a full page synopsis. You’ll tackle character description, three-act structure, and you’ll really get to know your characters, including your villains, super-quick. Check out Randy’s website above. He also has a full-length book on The Snowflake Method.

Dan Wells’ 7 Points Method

Dan Wells, (author of the John Cleaver series), along with Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, and Howard Tayler, has a FANTASTIC PODCAST CALLED “WRITING EXCUSES.” He also has a useful method for outlining. You can find it on YouTube here. Using a Star Trek Role Playing game manual, Dan worked out how to outline any storyline in 7 points.

I love this one because it’s relatively easy to remember what the 7 points are, and how they work. It gets complicated when you realize that each of the story lines in your novel should have its own 7-point arc.

Dan Wells 7 Points Genres

Dan Wells 7-points applied to various genres

A Brief Breakdown of Dan Wells’ 7-Point Method

Here are the 7 Points:

  1. Hook – The hero has a sad boring life.
  2. Plot Turn 1 – Hero becomes a NEW ROLE.
  3. Pinch 1 – Bad Guy attacks.
  4. Midpoint – Hero learns the truth about SOMETHING and swears to defeat the VILLAIN/ANTAGONIST.
  5. Pinch 2 – Companions fail the Hero, and Hero is left alone.
  6. Plot Turn 2 – Facing VILLAIN, the Hero discovers the power is within him.
  7. Resolution – Hero defeats VILLAIN

Here are the 7 points, using Stars Wars: A New Hope as an example:

  1. Hook – Luke is misunderstood farm boy who longs to be a star pilot and have adventures.
  2. Plot Turn 1 – R2D2 plays Princess Leia’s distress signal to Luke. Luke brings the ‘droid to see Obi-Wan Kenobi, who gives him his father’s light saber and offers to teach him to become a Jedi. The Force is strong with him, and Luke is now a Jedi in training.
  3. Pinch 1 – Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are killed by Imperial Troops.
  4. Midpoint – Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are dead; Luke decides he wants to rescue the princess and join the rebellion and become a Jedi like his father.
  5. Pinch 2 – Obi-Wan Kenobi is killed in a duel with Vader.
  6. Plot Turn 2 – Luke turns off his targeting computer and uses the Force to drop the proton torpedo into the ventilation shaft and destroy the Death Star. The power is within him.
  7. Resolution – Death Star is destroyed. Rebel base is safe. Time to hand out some medals!

Wait, Didn’t A Lot More Stuff Happen in Star Wars?

Now, obviously, there is a lot more going on in Star Wars, A New Hope than the 7 points listed above. There’s Han Solo needing to escape Jabba the Hut. There’s the ‘Droids plot line as they squabble with each other and try to survive on Tatooine, being captured by the Jawas and sold to Luke’s Uncle Owen. There’s the plot line of the Rebels, and the stolen plans for the Death Star. There’s Princess Leia’s plot line in which she is captured and tries her best to save her home planet, but to no avail. Darth Vader even has a plot line of his own, in conflict with the more modern approach to evil represented by Governor Tarkin. Obi-Wan Kenobi’s plot line is important as he faces Darth Vader in an old school sword battle. He represents the entire world of the Jedi Knights. Star Wars was planned by Lucas to be an epic, so its plot lines are sprawling. But you get the idea.

A Fancy Spreadsheet For You!

I have used Dan Wells’ 7 points to create a Google Sheet. In it you’ll find the 7 points for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Star Wars: A New Hope, The Wizard of Oz (the movie), Pride and Prejudice, Othello, and The Telltale Heart. This shows how the 7 points can work for all genres. The only major genres missing here are Mystery and Suspense. At some point I’ll add those in.

Download the Spreadsheet HERE.

Chapter Outline Technique from the Editor of Harry Potter!

The chapter outline is a useful tool for when you are submitting a final manuscript to an editor. It will help them track all kinds of information in your story, from ages, to dates, to conflicts, to plot points. It will make the editor and the copyeditor your friend. You can also use it as a tool to refine and polish your manuscript before submission.

Plot like this on a spreadsheet:

Column headers:

  • Name of Chapter
  • POV Character – only one.
  • Location
  • Day, Date and Time
  • Conflict
  • One-line synopsis
  • Chapter Question – what question keeps the reader turning pages?
  • Key Plot Points Revealed

Fill in each of these for your chapters, one chapter per row, or, if you have complex chapters, one row per scene. Then go back through. It’s going to be easy to see if you don’t have enough conflict going in a chapter or scene. If you don’t, think about summarizing that section of the story, and saving the scene for the more dramatic moments.

For more on this method, see Arthur A. Levine Books Harry Potter editor Cheryl Klein’s Second Sight and her podcast (with knowledgeable screenwriter James Monoghan), the Narrative Breakdown. Cheryl is a rock star editor, and this podcast has wonderful stuff on all aspects of storytelling.

Best of luck plotting your stories! Do you have Outlining methods you recommend? Share them in the comments below!

Happy reading and writing!

–Margaret

Writing Books - Which Path to Take?

Best Books on Writing: Bird by Bird

So Many Books About Writing

If you’re a writer like me, one of your vices is probably books about writing.

I call it a vice because reading a book on writing is one helluva way to avoid actually doing any writing. I know this from experience.

Publishing companies seem to know that aspiring writers tend to buy books on writing like one of my great aunts liked to buy Hummels. A search of ‘fiction writing’ books on Amazon.com yields a result of 47, 843.

Margaret Mayo McGlynn Books on Writing

Books on writing are a crowded pool

How Do I Choose?

So how to pick your next writing book? I am particularly obsessive about finding the one treatise on plot that can rule them all! I have a number of contenders, but I still haven’t found the one great book on story structure.

In the mean time, I want to know which books on writing my favorite writers recommend, so then it’s internet and another first-class time suck. It’s okay. We all do it..

Great Writers’ Favorite Writing Books

As I trawl the interwebs in search of the best books on writing, one in particular, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, shows up frequently, alongside Stephen King’s On Writing, Natalie Gold’s Writing Down the Bones, Save the Cat, and so on.

I must admit I avoided Bird by Bird because of the title. It seemed overly precious, and I wondered why the author would pick that, since it seemed to have nothing to do with fiction writing. That shows how much I judge a book by its title.

I finally decided to see what the fuss was about, so I downloaded Bird by Bird from Audible.com.

I love Audible.com. I require a steady stream of compelling audiobooks because traffic turns me into a Viking berserker. Unless I have some compelling distraction, I might ram my Toyoto Echo into that douche of a BMW who just cut me off on my way from the 5 to the 134.

This book definitely helped me keep my driver’s license.

Carving Saint Bartholomew, London

Carving Saint Bartholomew, London

Best Books on Writing: The Life

There are many books on technique, on how to build character, how to show not tell.

Bird by Bird has great pointers on plot, character, description, but what it mostly has is relief-giving advice on how to walk through life as a writer, the kind of advice that when you hear it, makes you sigh, feel understood, and, most vitally, feel motivated to go on and do what you are here on the planet to do.

Because if you are a writer, you know it ain’t easy.

Writing is a solitary affair, and the best ideas can be killed by that evil laughing hyena of a critic, that bitter maniac we all carry around inside of us.

The Audible version of Bird by Bird is ably narrated by Susan Bennett (also the voice of Siri!). The prose is precise. The way Lamott describes her own process, the obsession, the procrastination, the ADD, the hypochondria–it’s hilarious. Her narrative voice is strong and encouraging.

Quotable

This quote below made me cry “yes!” as I was hiking up over the Silver Lake hills, listening to it on my iPhone.

“Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.”

Ah, the need to be seen and heard. Thinking about it still brings up an old old ache behind my eyes and at the back of my throat. Yep, there’s my old friend.

So many things are quotable and tee-shirt wearable in this little book.

“Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism.”

“Messes are the artist’s true friend.”

And then, there are the practical suggestions, which I’ve woven into my own writing practice.

“…write down all your memories as truthfully as you can.”

IMG_0936My Memoirs

Now from time to time I have told myself that I will never write my memoirs because my life is not terribly interesting. But Lamott’s book has given me the permission to write down as much as I can remember, and it feels like it’s opened something up inside me. And it keeps my daily thousand word goal going strong. I think it’s making me better. And I can thank Bird by Bird for it.

Here’s Lamott on character:

“…a person’s faults are largely what make him or her likable.”

On just sitting down and pumping out that shitty first draft:

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.”

On truth and using your own voice:

“You cannot write out of someone else’s big dark place; you can only write out of your own.”

Here is how she explains character-driven plot:

“That’s what plot is: what people will up and do in spite of everything that tells them they shouldn’t, everything that tells them that they should sit quietly on the couch and practice their Lamaze, or call their therapist, or eat until the urge to do that thing passes.”

A key point on dialogue:

“…remember that you should be able to identify each character by what he or she says.”

I was halfway through listening to Bird by Bird, and I knew I needed to own it on paper. I knew I was going to want to thumb through it, highlight parts of it, and tab pages.

Lamott is truthful about her own experience, about how overwhelming it can be to sit in front of a blank screen everyday and try to fill it up with something other than drivel. About how the choice to write surfaces massive insecurity.

Her solutions? Shitty first drafts, short assignments, the one-inch picture frame. I’ll never forget those. My brain can latch onto them. They work.

For the record, I still think it would do better with another title.

The anecdote it’s based on answers the question, how do you write when it’s such an overwhelming task? The answer is, the way Lamott’s father advised her brother to write a report on birds he had to do for grade school. “Bird by bird.”

Yes, that is true with writing. You just take it one bit at a time, and suddenly you are in the fictional dream, seeing and feeling it all.

Lamott says:

“Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.”

Her book will help you do that.

Resolve to be Different

Resolve to be Different

Every year around this time, we look back over the previous year, evaluate our successes and failures, and we resolve to improve ourselves. Around this time of year, if you don’t see NEW YEAR, NEW YOU somewhere, on a magazine cover, or as the headline of many articles, maybe you don’t know how to read.

But can we ever really hope to be different? Can people change? Or are we kidding ourselves and wasting all of this New Year’s motivation?

Can we really be different this year?

I want to say to myself and to you, “Of course we aren’t wasting our time.” Hoping to be better people is one of the things that makes us human. And if adding one to the number of the year makes us rethink things, get perspective, set goals, strive for more, then, God bless it!

But I do think there are pitfalls in resolving to be different. I have definitely fallen in before.

The Pitfalls of Resolving to Be Different

  1. Discounting our previous successes, and
  2. Setting ourselves up for failure.

So how can I avoid those?

Honor Successes

The trouble with resolving to do things differently in the New Year is that it suggests that no matter how many great things we’ve done in the past year, it’s somehow not enough. WE are somehow not enough.

To send myself a healthier and kinder message, I am doing this:

List/Mindmap 2014 Wins

Find a way to take stock of 2014’s wins, and appreciate them. Write them down in your journal, and once they are there, re-read them. Then highlight them, maybe draw a mind-map about them. I am updating my list as I think of more wins. Then, when I feel it’s a nice long list, I can take a look at it. Breathe in some gratitude about all that. Remind myself that if I just did as many amazing things as I did last year, I’d have a great 2015.

Reframe the Tough Bits

But what if you look for those successes in 2014 and you have trouble finding them? Not all of us had our greatest year, and that’s OK. If that is you, then, fair enough. Remind yourself that you made it through 2014. When life is tough, muddling through is hard. And it is an accomplishment. So try to make an adjustment inside yourself and see if you can simply be grateful for that. Simply be grateful for being here. Great things can start from the place you are now.

Setting  Yourself Up For Failure

I’m prone to these things that I’ll list. Maybe you are, too:

  1. Committing without examining the consequences or letting my very good instincts do their job.
  2. Just plain overcommitting. Trying to do too damn much, which leads me to another biggie.
  3. Setting unreasonable demands on myself. That leads to…
  4. Denial about all of the above. And that, eventually, leads me to…
  5. Seeking oblivion in shopping, eating, drinking, daydreaming, and awfulizing.

What is Awfulizing?

It’s a weird addictive process in which I start thinking about how other people and other groups of people do many bad things. I focus on all of that, and I can use it not to look at myself. In this way, I can avoid unpleasant truths about my own bad behavior. Or, if ‘bad’ sounds too, well, BAD to you, then I’ll just call it behavior that doesn’t get me where I want to be.

The thing about awfulizing is that it keeps my mind off me and my responsibility for creating the life I choose to live.

So How Can I Avoid All These Set-Ups for Failure?

I have a few ideas. Let’s see how these sound to you:

  1. Delay committing to anything until I can sit down and consider the consequences. A key tool in this quest goes something like this: “Hold on, I’ll have to check…with my husband…with my calendar…with my spiritual advisor…with my Tarot deck…with my Higher Self…with Obi-wan Kenobi’s ghost…with my cat.”
  2. Pick one thing as my primary principle. So for me that would be this: Remind myself that this is the Year of Writing for me. So yes, I want to lose weight. I want to run lightly, like Atalanta before she went after the Golden Apple. I love buying makeup. I love seeing theater, and I love traveling. I love lots of things. But this is the Year of Writing and Full Commitment to Writing. So all other commitments must be judged by this measure: How does this serve my Year of Writing? Will this interfere with my Year of Writing?
  3. Set fewer goals, no more than 3-5 major goals, for example:
    • Write an average of 1000 words per day
    • Finish Second Novel First Draft
    • Get to 140 lbs and love reclaiming my skinny self wardrobe. Hipster black jeans, here I come!
    • Gather more writer friends into my world. Let’s all become awesome and published and giving our full gifts to the universe!
    • Clean out the Hoarders Blue Room (don’t ask).

As I resolve to be different, I’m going to keep those guidelines in mind.

I hope this was helpful. Personally, I feel good about all this. I’ll check in with you around the Spring Equinox and let you know how it’s going.

Thanks for coming to my site and reading this post!

Please let me know what you are thinking about in the comments below. Share your wisdom! Ask questions! Free associate!

 

New Year New You Writers Edition

New Year, New You—Writer’s Edition

Yes, I’m a few days late on this one, but I thought I’d share with you what I’m about as a writer this year.

My Resolutions

  • Writing Comes First
  • Go to Conferences and Events
  • Voraciously read Hero Author’s Blogs
  • Work with a Critique Group
  • The 365K Challenge: This means I write at least 1000 words/day (Excluding NaNoWriMo, in which it is 1667k/day during April, July and November. Does this sound crazy? I know I can do it!
  • Finish Reading Save the Cat, for Goodness Sake
  • Do a Deep Dive into Wonderbook
  • Draw Stuff!
  • Make Music!

Isn’t it amazing how we try to remake ourselves every New Year? You should have seen how packed my Weight Watchers meeting was tonight!

Let’s year it for hope and positive feelings. Now for the daily discipline!

NaNoWriMo 2014 Shirt

Top Five Reasons to Do National Novel Writing Month (aka Nanowrimo)

You may have heard of National Novel Writing Month, an international phenomenon in which hundreds of thousands of writers make a pact with themselves and others to write 50 thousand words of a novel in the month of November.

If you’ve always wanted to write a novel, this is a great way to go. If you are ready to dive in, why not go take a look at the NaNoWriMo site right now, then come back here to finish reading about why I think NaNoWriMo is an awesome thing for aspiring novelists.

Go ahead. I’ll be here. Waiting. For you. To come back.

This way to your dreams! British Museum

This way to your dreams!

1. Support Can Be Beautiful

If you’ve tried to write a novel, or even a short story, you’re probably well aware that one of the biggest challenges any writer faces is the solitariness of the process. It’s scary facing that empty page all by your lonesome. But there is help available.

  • The NaNoWriMo website has a great forum section where you can commiserate, ask for help, get encouragement, get research or plot, or title, or all kinds of other help, and, most importantly, know you’re not alone.
  • Published authors write Pep Talks with great tips on how to reach your goals. Check those out. You may find your favorite author has left you pearls of wisdom that can help you on your way.
  • NaNoWriMo has local chapters that host all kinds of events where you can hobnob with your fellow wizards and participate in write-ins that will help you keep to your daily goal of 1,664 words. One of the coolest involves riding a train from LA to San Fran (see below).
Flying high now!

Flying high now!

2. Critical Mass

  • Somehow just knowing there are so many people out there fighting the good fight every day, flexing their imaginations, and trying to make their dreams come true during NaNoWriMo inspires me.
  • If you can’t make the various local write-ins and events, you can use the forums or work with your local guides to set up a Skype or Google Hangout session with your fellow writers.

3. The Great Train Escape

I’ll describe what it is—you take a train from LA to San Fran with other WriMos (NaNoWriMo participants call themselves this). As you go, more and more WriMos get on the train with you. Apparently the train conductors find you all fascinating, as if you are some species of rare bird with bright feathers. You write and party in San Fran for a weekend and come home. Go here to read more and let the enchantment, and maybe some shots from North by Northwest or Murder on the Orient Express or Risky Business unfold in your imagination…

nanowrimo20144. Accountability

It’s just a personal page on the NaNoWriMo site in which you track your daily word count. It’s got a nice looking bar graph, too, but for me, on each day of the two NaNoWriMo months I have completed thus far, it became a daily obsession. Doing your daily word count and tracking it is simply such a great way to feel good about yourself. And no matter how the rest of your day is going, you have this. You did your daily 1664.

Come on in. The water's fine.

Come on in. The water’s fine.

5. Swag, Discounts, the Tally and the Winner Badge

NaNoWriMo has online badges, special discounts on writing software and other goodies for those who finish, and many other little perks that add up to a big inner grin when you finish your fifty thou. You will feel hella good.

You get a deep discount on Scrivener, both the best and the worst novel writing software I know.

When I finished my first NaNoWriMo I wasn’t even halfway done with my first draft, which ran to 140 thou, but I had a massive feeling of accomplishment, and I knew I would go on to finish the whole dang thing.

So that’s my plug for the wondrous NaNoWriMo. I hope it’s helpful to all of you soon-to-be novelists out there!

 

 

Scrivener Program's Interface Margaret Mayo McGlynn

Writing Tools: My Love-Hate Relationship With Scrivener

What is Scrivener?

For those who are saying, “what the heck is ‘Scrivener?'” here’s what it is, in brief.

For those of you who are saying “Isn’t that what Bartelby was?” your English Lit teacher is smiling in heaven, or in the teacher’s lounge with the burned coffee and permanently stained carpet.

Scrivener is a program, very reasonably priced, I might add, that helps writers of all kinds organize their files however they like.

What’s Cool About Scrivener?

It has various kind of templates, for instance, one for novels. It has a template tailor-made for NaNoWriMo.

What’s NaNoWriMo?

If you don’t know what NaNoWriMo is, then click any one of my links herein. NaNoWriMo is a magical internet land that encourages anyone and everyone to buckle down and write the novel that is aching to be born straight from the head of Zeus and begin slouching toward Jerusalem. It is, in short, a wonder of the modern age.

What’s Cool About Scrivener: Take 2

But back to Scrivener. The program has all kinds of useful templates for writing projects, for research papers, for scripts of various stripes and flavors.

The beauty of it is that it helps you organize your book the way you probably think about your book, that is, in scenes, chapters, and parts. And it’s wildly customizable. You can put all kinds of metadata in there. You can tag chapters and scenes with neat codes, notes to self about them, the which you can search later, when your buzz has worn off. You can import entire webpage contents to your research folders. You can color code the crap out of your text with custom highlighting colors. There’s a template for characters, for places, and you can design your own templates.

I love being able to drag scenes from chapter to chapter, willy nilly. I love that each chapter gets its own little index card on which you can put its synopsis. Love, love, love all of this.

Here’s a picture of the interface:

Scrivener Interface, and yes, that is the prologue of my novel Guardian of the Chalice, as it stands today

What’s Sucky About Scrivener?

But the hate starts when I try to sync it with my iPad. It doesn’t yet have its own iPad app, and the folks at Literature and Latte, who designed scrivener, have been promising and promising that the app will be here, any second.

But it’s not here yet. Oh, this novelist is getting so tired of waiting for it. When they finally deliver said app, they might do well to name it ‘Godot.’ Because, damn!

Compile This!

And don’t get me started on the Compile feature. I don’t understand why it’s even in there. Too customizable, and in a way that makes no sense to little ole me. Say I just want to export my Scrivener file of my novel just to a simple Word doc. Oh, the bewildering options that come up when I click ‘Compile,’ none of which work the way I would anticipate. To me, it seems somehow easier to have Scrivener translate my novel into Sanskrit than just to output it with some simple formatting, a page break in between chapters, sequentially numbered chapters, a header with, oh, I don’t know, my name and my book’s title upon it. Woe, woe to Compile. Fie upon it!

I got started, but now I’m stopping. Because I’ve decided to do a fast on complaining to clear my psychic space, if you know what I mean. And this sister from New Jersey, she can do her some complaining! Oh it is a major vice of mine.

There’s the Rub

In any event, I love Scrivener’s computer self so much that I can’t give it up, even though I want open a can o whup ass on its mobile “features” and its “Compile” excrementiness. Am I in a shame spiral? Possibly. Send your dollars today.

Any-hoo, below is a post I placed upon the Literature and Latte forum in which they innocently asked for feedback on the Mac version. I don’t think they saw me coming, do you?

Do you use Scrivener to work on your writerly stuff? If not, what do you use?

Please do scroll down and tell me all about your travails, and the little moments of your process, won’t you?

Thanks for visiting my blog. Comments more than welcome, if that’s possible in this space-time continuum.

:)Margaret

I have a love-hate with Scrivener, and here’s why:

Nothing else helps me organize and update my novel so well while I’m working on my laptop. But when I want to go mobile, oh then, dear reader, do I end up in a spot of difficulty.

Syncing with Simplenote doesn’t do it for me. The sorting files alphabetically thing would be great except I don’t want to inject extraneous chapter numbers in my chapter titles which I will then have to delete by hand in my final draft. And update manually when I change my order of chapters or add a new one. Over and over again.

I don’t like that when I rename a chapter or add a new one, I then have to go through the long checklist and make sure that I check the box for that new item when I sync. My world moves fast, and again, I wish there were a simple idiot-proof way to sync without all the time-consuming customizable stuff.

And I know this isn’t Scrivener’s fault, but I find that when I make changes to a Simplenote file in a browser, it doesn’t always transfer over to the same Simplenote file on my iPad.

Last night I was at my weekly writing class, and not once but twice I was not able to read the proper file, the most recent version, to my teacher, to whom I am paying a certain degree of cash in exchange for time. I found it to be an untenable situation.

My ideal scene is that the fine men and women of Literature and Latte really buckle down and get that gosh darned iPad app up and rocking. This year.

Or I may be looking for other options. Just sayin.’

And if you, lovely reader, have a bit of advice, an easy fix or even a medium difficult fix, which might solve my woes and result in smiles and relaxation on my part, oh, please do chime in!

Many thanks!



Margaret Mayo McGlynn
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