Quick Post-Prandial on Manuscript Maintenance

I did some time-and-motion monitoring in terms of getting changes to a manuscript fit from Scrivener to Word and cleaned and ready for The Agent to use.

Fine-cleaning two scenes (~2.5k words). That means reading them aloud, copying the pieces to a word file, then reading that to ensure it’s clean: 75 minutes.

Compiling from Scrivener to Word and cleaning up the resulting mess, adding a TOC, etc.: 75 minutes.

2.5 hours for each revision change, assuming a total copy of manuscript from Scrivener to final.

Lesson learned: Get the frickin’ manuscript done and fully cleaned ONCE before moving it into Word. Agh. Double agh.

A Writer’s Primer on Computer Care and Feeding

We’re in the midst of National Novel Writing Month, and I’m reminded of several instances where the moan of “I just lost everything!” was heard over a coffee shop table. I’ve talked with writers who’ve lost entire manuscripts. Others that lost hours or days of work due to various issues. So, a quick technical primer and keeping “lossage” down to the minimum.

Work stably.

Make sure your computer works, that the operating system is patched regularly, and that you aren’t filling it up with “cool stuff I downloaded.” If you have a desktop computer, make sure it has a battery-backed UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply). A flicker in the power is long enough to throw a desktop into memory chaos. Or, worse, corrupt the storage device. UPS’ are heavy, cost about $90 (here’s the one that I’ve used for years), and, if everything’s plugged in correctly, you have enough time to close up everything and power down normally. (Pro tip: plug the desktop and your primary monitor into the battery-backed AC sockets so you can see what you’re typing as you shut things down!) To avoid mumbo and its twin brother jumbo, a 650Kw UPS will hold everything up and running for at least the five minutes you’d need to cleanly power things down. If you have a laptop I still recommend a UPS, but you’d be served well by merely having a serious power spike protector. Looks for power strips with circuit breakers that will “pop” if the power suddenly spikes.) Nothing will stop a lightning strike, but it should keep minor disturbances of the force–I mean, the AC power-, my Lord Vader-from messing with your laptop’s power adapter. If your devices charges from a USB-C plug and you want to skip the boxy power adapter and buy a power strip that has that built into it, doubly ensure there’s a strong power protection for anything you buy.

Work safely.

Think of your writing environment the same way a chef looks at her or his kitchen before starting work. Bad ingredience, sloppy prep, and insufficient cleaning habits can and have ruined a restaurant’s business.

At a minimum, have a real anti-virus product that (a) scans files for infections, and (b) can safeguard your network connection. It doesn’t need backup (I’ll get to that below). It doesn’t need to check each web site you go to to assess its safety.

Check for viruses on files on your disk and incoming, and make sure your computer’s connection to the internet is safe. There’s a bunch of vendors, but I’ve been happy with Symantec’s Norton Security, for that, as well as for managing my passwords.

Work securely.

That means being secure that the story you’re writing will be there when you need it (or especially if you accidentally delete it!). Get software that copies what you write to the cloud. The goal is that if your computer goes up in smoke, your writing, at least, is safe.

The cloud is the vague, amorphous thing that we old-timers know as “a server with a disk somewhere else on the planet.” Microsoft offers it. I use Dropbox because it’s easy to recover a manuscript I’ve accidentally mangled but good. Some are free with a cost for more storage. I have a free Dropbox account because, frankly, manuscripts just don’t take up much room. I use Microsoft’s OneDrive for my non-writing documents and other files. Apple’s iCloud also works, however its integration with your computer is smoothest when you’re on Apple hardware/OS.

Optional: Work secretly.

I don’t like Google and Comcast and their ilk tracking my research. I can’t help but think that there’s a profile of me as a bomb-making, murder-planning, gun-crazed psychopath based on my book research. (Along with another profile of me as an astronaut interested in biological warfare and kinetic weapons.) Ads get targeted based on what you look at. The solution is a two (or three)-parter: hide your activity from your internet provider, and then hide what you look up from your search engine. So:

  • Look at a commercial, for-pay VPN software package. They’re simple to install and use, and usually one license gets you three computers to cover, which include phones. NordVPN and IPVanish (which I use) are two of the currently popular ones, and you’re looking at ~$75 for the subscription for the first year or two. They’re both offering discounts and sales all the time. If you want something that doesn’t encrypt your text, but still hides where you go, go to and get a free setup that at least hides what you do from the company providing you network access. Without it, Google, for example, knows about each site you visit (and then links that to your google profile).
  • Every time you search, the query and results are integrated into your “profile” that the search engine sells to advertisers. Or, who knows, maybe even to the black-hatted shadow, deep-state government that’s watching you from its black helicopters spraying chem trails! Regardless, there’s easy ways to look things up without having your searches tracked. I use duckduckgo.com, which is simply google but with a filter that doesn’t allow your computer’s activity to be linked to your searches. On mobile phones Firefox has the Focus app, which wipes all cookies and traces of your work.
  • For extra special paranoia (and I use this when I want to ask really awkward questions or research the nasty stuff), use the Tor browser, instead of Google, Safari, Firefox, or Edge browser. Tor encrypts everything everywhere to everyone from everyone. It’s a lot slower than a normal browser, and it doesn’t block ads like other browsers can. But those ads aren’t tied to you or your machine.

Work silently.

Not you, your environment. So:

  • If you can handle writing with music, keep that app up. Close all other apps, including your browser if you can. You can always put research into its own block of time.
  • Windows has an irritating notifications “capability.” It’s the ultimate in interrupt-driven information. If you’re afflicted with Windows 10, go to the notification settings and turn off everything that doesn’t need to be on. And that (especially) includes Facebook, twitter, and their ilk.
  • For browsers, get an ad blocker for it. That keeps distractions down to a minimum. I use AdBlock Plus, which is free. There are others.

Work succinctly.

(All right, that was a stretch usage of “succinctly.) Use the minimum tools to get the job done and distractions at the minimum.

  • One writing tool to bind them all.  Choose Word ($$), or OpenOffice (free). Or yWriter (free). Or Scrivener ($). Heck, or Notepad (free). But the fewer the better. Moving text from one app to another is a sure-fire way to lose or scramble hard-written words. I use Scrivener, FWIW.
  • Helper tools:
    1. I use Aeon ($$) for timelines (don’t recommend much), and Freemind (free) for sketching out plot directions and consequences and most other mind mapping needs. Google Earth Pro does my geographic research. Fun fact, it works on the Moon as well.
    2. Put interrupts into a parking lot. I use Trello (free) to write down “ooh, I need to do this…” things. It’s free, good for putting a to-do list together for multiple topics and projects. Has a mobile app. Did I mention it was free. This eliminates the “I’ll just do this one thing…” that sabotages your writing commitment.
    3. Other story ideas, chunks of writing, or notes? Consider either having a separate [word processor of your choice] document open just for snippets and other story ideas. That way they don’t derail you. Or use Evernote (free), for as long as it’s still in business. Oh, and Windows 10 offer the OneNote app. It can be very helpful, but I’m not a fan.

There. A longer post than I expected. Hopefully it’ll help you keep a stable, clean, calm, and productive environment in which to focus on your Writing.

WWI: A Century’s Past / Veterans Day

World War I was hideously expensive and wasteful in terms of talent. A generation of young people, of talent, of possibility–gone. The hope and potential of growing their lives and cultures mowed down, gassed, and slaughtered. And that lost of hope and potential kept the survivors from the social buoying that youth inevitably bring to the world. From its misery the clock to WW II was wound. My parents were born less than five years after this war, and lived to suffer through it’s implacable, inevitable, tsunami. The senselessness was compounded by the misery of the civilian survivors. And the tens of millions who died in The Great Influenza, a confluence of virus and circumstance putting so many young people, the virus’ prime target, in small, enclosed, and inescapable places.

Vietnam Vet in PTSD therapyVietnam Vets in the media were portrayed as unhinged, crazed people whose demons nipped their heels from acts one through three. And given that depressed and anxious people were told to “get over it,” or “cheer up,” or “leave that in the past,” I can’t say I blame them for being crazed (which they were and are not). PTSD’s stamp on the soul is so deep that epigenetics show it transmits to future generations. Generations of Holocaust survivors. Generations of Palestinians. Generations of African-Americans. Generations of people traumatized by the very government they look to for protection from want, from fear. From living (ahem) in pursuit of life and liberty and happiness. We’ve not learned this lesson in today’s America. We’ve backslid decades in years. If we ever really had that progress.

In my military service I learned many things. One of the big ones was: be nice to the support folks. Your food, your uniform, your mail, your weapon… your life… is in their hands. Eating manot krav (the Israeli equivalent of “C” rations) in a reeking uniform, trying to fix a damn machine gun some armorer hammered together the wrong way at T-20 before a live fire night exercise sucks. So everyone helps. In the moment you need the social worker so you can cry on her shoulder, she’s the most important person keeping you combat-ready.

Writing about ex-military is writing about people. Good ones, bad ones. Good ones in dark places, bad ones in a place they can find, for lack of a better term, grace. And while the military makes distinctions between combat soldier and not, the experiences, traumas, and acts of truck drivers, cooks, and anyone who wears the uniform as a target, must be acknowledged for their level of service and sacrifice. To write the soldier today is to dig into not just their history, their POV. It’s to understand how they process their military experience that’s never a Hurt Locker, and never a Wag the Dog (although…). M*A*S*H had it best: scared, frightened, and determined people with no more control over their lives than the combat soldiers they treated. But in it together, helping one another, in service of their comrades in arms and country. When writing, keeping the characters nuanced, conflicted, and real trumps the simplistic portrayal of veterans in our media.

So today, whether you moved paperwork in a Mississippi Air Station or did five tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, I salute you. Your sacrifice in blood and treasure, or “merely” losing four years of youth being told what to do so someone, somewhere, had the clothing, toothpaste, AvGas, or ammunition to do their, more dangerous, job.

POVs and Trunking

Steamer trunk (for novels)I’ve been wrestling with getting my next novel started before getting a full-time, paying gig. And score is trunk novels: 5, Shlomi manuscripts: 0. It kept coming across lifeless, a narration of facts and events that even extensive external and internal dialog didn’t help. I’m a pantser, so I wasn’t worried about “where the book was going.” But the main character motivations, their plate tectonics… that I was winging.

So I went back and did what I’ve done in the past: write a preface. Only every time I wrote something, it was in the Q&A style of an interview. engaging, casual dialog, casual narrator… first person. I’ve done almost that with 3rd person limited. And 1st person with a fourth wall intact. I’ve stuck to a single person’s POV as well.

Meh. Who needs walls. If John Scalzi can do it, if William Goldman can do it with The Princess Bride, then I, unpublished unjeered at, can make a go of it.

Hopes, Dashed

Novella "Stardance" coverI’m already several thousand words into my latest, but had to stop for some research. More research. Interviewing dancers research. (Okay, my daughter, but still…) And then I remembered Jeanne and Spider Robinson’s book “Stardance.” Well, I actually remember the original novella. It was a bit odd delving that far back into SF writings. Winced at casual misogyny in cover, in character descriptions. (The blog featured image is the cover of the original novella and it’s the least “Astounding Gran Tetons” cover of all the editions.)

And I’m gonna have to retool this baby from scratch. Zero-gee and low-grav dancing is possible—read said novella, which left me a little wetter-eyed than I expected at the story’s hook. But I’ve a new appreciation for the challenges that mooners—first generation moon-born people—will face.

We earthborn can scamper across the surface, glibly bouncing around in 1/6th earth gravity. And we have the musculature and bone density and tensile strength to torque and shove masses we’d never be able to heft on terra firma. But for people on the moon for five years, or ten, it’d be a different story. It’s a better tale than the same time in zero-gee, but the body does adapt to the “new norm.” And the Robinsons had astute visions of long-term zero-gee.

By my research the moonborn would have thinner bones, much thinner muscles. These aren’t zero-gee-adapted quaddies as described in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Falling Free. These are frail beings without the force necessary to create torque with their hands, their bodies.

Dancing would be interesting for the muscled earthers, as they’d have to learn how to tread more lightly, spin more softly. But yet another lethal barrier for those born under 1G in a 1G world.

An Author Moment

Just finished hand edits of Last Run, a monster novel (originally 185k or closing on 800 pages). I’ll have a much lower word count when I’m done, if for no other reason than most post-apoc manuscripts are best salable when they’re under 120k. Or so I’m told. This month, at least.

I find the act of writing on paper validating, as I immediately see what I’m changing. In Word, or Scrivener, old words disappear, and are seamlessly replaced. (Yes, edit tracking in Word. Also yes, it makes it really hard to read.) It also gave me some more practice at writing in cursive. Because we all know that’s the next New Thing.

What I didn’t expect was the emotional impact reading the book. I hadn’t picked it up in a year, so while I knew what was happening, I was rediscovering the phraseology and tension. (Especially after pruning all those extraneous words…) So I had the tear-jerker moments, the tension-filled suspenseful ones. The chuckle at the narrator’s subtle wit. It was fun, damn it! I enjoyed it. And after re-reading it, I’m sure an audience will as well.

Unlike my Shmuley Myers books, this one’s going to go to a professional editor for cleanup, then straight to alpha (beta? gamma?) readers.

Hope my agent doesn’t mind hawking two manuscripts at once…

Leonard Cohen: Yahrzeit

Photo courtesy University of Toronto. Click to see full article.

Leonard Cohen’s music and lyrics have been my life’s soundtrack. Not the theme, just as background, mind you. I sang it out loud in an empty room while waiting in hospital after one of my father’s aneurysms. It was playing on loop in my head after he died, sitting shiva in New York City.
And it was a friend, a mentor even, as I wrote the first two novels (so far) of a series starring a religious homicide detective. “Who by fire,” indeed.

Baby Novelist Issues: Writing Myself Into a Knot

I’m 116,000 words into a SF novel. It’s got great tech, interesting characters, action and thrills… and no motivation for bad guy actions. Well, it did, when I started. But the pitfall of pantsing is getting pulled off course, one degree at at time. (And when writing about matters aeronautical, there’s three dimensions to those degrees. But I diverge from the point.)

Part of how I got here is because of the aforementioned fun aspects. It takes time to tell those complicated battle scenes, the points where relationships change, key threads weave a novel together. And writing little notes to myself on the virtual margins on what to change on the first draft edits kept up my velocity. I just needed to remember all the facts and events changing in their later retelling from their initial description earlier in the book.

For instance, I realize in scene thirty that Maura’s got to have combat experience. She’s already written in with anger issues, but when her background was discussed in scene five, that big deal didn’t come up. No problem: write a note to rewrite history.

However, when “change requests” for the manuscript get past a certain point, the rewrite gets uglier and uglier. Which brings me to a pile of actions and plot twists now blowing in the breeze of a torn zeppelin at forty thousand feet, as the gore of two shootouts and two bombings dry in the thin air. What was worth their conflict, their deaths? What drives them to continue, at so high a human cost?

Oh, you don’t know either? Some fourth wall you all are!

I need to bite the bullet, put in all the noted changes (84, from trivial word or location replacements to “why’d they do it” types of changes), and then take a look at character motivations and see how it all fits together. {picks up chainsaw, chisel, flamethrower, and flyswatter and heads back in…}

A Progress Tool

Recently I posted a graphic showing words per day. (I’ve used it before: you can see posts here and here.) It’s part of my musings about writing velocity and general “feeling like an author.” I’ll tee up a few posts on that in the future, but for now I wanted to provide a Google Sheet, called Writing Progress, open for anyone can copy, then modify on their own account as they see fit. Once you’ve got it you can try exporting it to Excel (see pix at end of post.) The Microsoft version needed tweaking, especially on the timeline sheet, with might not be worth fixing vs. recreating, provided you have basic pivot table skills.

The goal for the sheet is twofold. First, to share something folks have asked about, because that’s what some authors do.

Second, it does for free, and with little grief, that thing that I paid Aeon Timeline $ome $illy $um of $50 to have and then to puzzle over. It integrates with Scrivener, which I (very reluctantly, see here, here, and here) use, but has been too much trouble to set up and keep linked. And if you don’t use Scrivener, I don’t see much reason in buying Aeon.

So head out to the Writing Progress sheet and see it for yourself. (No login required to check it out, but I’m guessing you need Google Drive to copy it.)

Screen Shots of Writing Progress Sheets

Novel Progress page

Timeline Entry Page

Screen shot of Excel Export

Progress page as an excel export

Can’t have 4k EVERY day!

Yesterday was a word count bust: under 500 words. But! I spent a good three hours doing some (don’t tell folks) plotting to complete Zepps, my sci-fi novel in progress. After that an excellent workshop with the White Gold Wielders. Ain’t nothing like feedback and encouragement from folks who Know What They’re Doing.

Today’s another olio day: reviewed the excellent Deana Roy‘s presentation on Indie publishing. Meeting Jack Conner for lunch to translocate his very successful publishing strategies to my brain. Then I can get down to the business of getting to the thriller at 40,000 feet that is Zepps.

On a separate business-of-writing note, I’ve noticed that my hours per day of writing and editing have skyrocketed over the past month. I’m averaging 7-9 hours per day, seven days out of eight. Just like writing’s a muscle—the more often you write, the more you can write in a day—editing works the same way. I can knock out 20-30 pages of line editing (mowing through the 765-page monster:my post-apoc novel Last Run). And 5k of another two or three stories for other writers.

Austin’s a great place for writers, and I’m lucky to count several as friends. There’s something really cool to see a published author in their new-book-release glow. Wanna. Just… wanna. ArmadilloCon is less than two weeks away!