Which makes for less scary bedtime reading? The first Dexter novel? Or debate articles?
Dave is my blogging spirit animal. I like blogging, and I like sharing on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Tumblr, and Medium. Of those platforms, I get the most return from Facebook. But blogging AND sharing to Facebook and Google+ are just too much work. So I’m going to start focusing mainly on the blog, and just automatically share links to Google+ and Facebook, until those platforms become easier to deal with in conjunction with a blog.
I’m working on figuring out a way I can share short updates directly to those services and to the blog simultaneously. This will involve automated email and plenty of duck tape.
You’re welcome to leave comments here, or on Facebook or Google+. Or just stop reading, even if you’re a close friend or member of my immediate family. I do not require other people to participate in my peculiar hobby.
I will revisit this decision when it doesn’t seem to be working for me, or when the tools for sharing blog content to social media get easier to work with.
I’ll keep mirroring my posts to Tumblr and Medium because that’s easy.
And I’m still trying to figure out what to do about Twitter.
I’ve been reading “These Are the Voyages,” an obsessively detailed history of Star Trek.
I don’t mean it’s a history of the fictional universe of the Federation — I mean it’s a history of the classic 1960s TV show. It’s utterly fascinating (see what I did there?). It’s nearly an example of microhistory, placing a small event (a single TV show) in a larger context of the history of its time.
I haven’t been rewatching the episodes. But I’ve seen them all many times. So it’s as if I were rewatching as I read.
I had somehow picked up the idea that it was common wisdom that the first season of Trek was the best, the second season was nowhere near as good, and the third season was drek.
But I’m a couple of episodes into reading about Season 2, and I’ve reviewed the episode list. Now I think that was classic Trek’s best season. It had found its stride by then.
Sure, there were a couple of episodes in Season 1 that were Trek at its best, but Season 1 was often pompous (A Taste of Armageddon, The Alternative Factor). And at least one episode that was acclaimed in the past just doesn’t hold up today (Devil in the Dark — we did watch that one recently, it was the first and only episode of what was intended to be a ToS rewatch).
In Season 2, Trek was hitting on all cylinders: Drama (“Amok Time”), high opera (“Who Mourns for Adonais”), and campy fun — pretty much any episode where the Enterprise visits an alternate history Earth.
Yes, Season 2 was Trek at its best.
We’ll just pretend “Friday’s Child” and “The Omega Glory” never happened.
That surprises me. I find Markdown quite natural, which goes a long way to explaining why I do most of my writing in Ulysses.
I’m writing this post in Markdown, and if you’re reading it on Facebook or Google+, that’s how you’re reading it. But I’m not writing this post in Ulysses; I’m composing it directly in WordPress, which is how I do most of my writing for the blog and social media.
Via the Mac Power Users podcast, which compares Scrivener and Ulysses. I’m listening to the episode now.
866 words total. I’m just getting started.
Rather, I’m just getting started for the third time. I made a couple of false starts.
Then I read this essay from Michael Moorcock on how to write an adventure novel in three days.
I do not plan to write this novel in three days. If I can finish it in a year, I’ll be satisfied. But the essay got me thinking about outlining.
Moorcock doesn’t outline exactly. But he does have situations and locations worked out in advance, at the ready, like a metaphorical briefcase into which he can dip and pull out whatever he needs to keep the writing going.
I’ve never tried creative writing with an outline. I always thought outlining was the opposite of creative, and looked down on it. But after reading the Moorcock essay I realized that’s just a silly prejudice. Some excellent writers work from outlines. Others work freestyle. It’s just a matter of what works best; outliners are no better than non-outliners. Maybe outlining would work for me?
I did some research on outlines and came across the snowflake method. You’re outlining your novel by starting from the center and working outward. Like a snowflake — get it?
You start with a one-sentence summary, build that to a paragraph, expand further to studies of your secondary characters, and so on. I started with the snowflake method but abandoned it immediately after the one-sentence-summary stage, because it wasn’t working for me. But outlining was working for me.
I don’t mean a formal outline, with roman numerals and all that. I mean I just started writing down notes about the novel, in sequence. Who were my main characters, what was their problem, how were they going to solve it?
I also remembered a tip from Cory Doctorow on how to structure a novel: A character gets in trouble, does something intelligent to solve the problem but that only makes the problem worse. Repeat that several times until all is very nearly lost, and then the character does one more intelligent thing to solve the problem, and this time it works
Or something like that. I can’t find where Cory said that; the closest I can find is this article on InformationWeek that I wrote nine years ago but have no memory of writing. (That happens sometimes. I write a lot of articles.)
I worked on my outline for a couple of weeks and ended up writing 3,178 words, which I think covers the whole novel.
I think an outline is great for me for a couple of reasons: First, it allows me to forget about the big picture for a little while. I don’t have to hold the whole novel in my head every day, just whatever bit I’m working on at the moment.
The outline is also helpful because the novel I’m working on is a cross between a caper story and urban fantasy, in a fantasy city resembling 1970s-80s America in some ways, and drastically different in other ways, with a lot of background that needs to be explained in a lively fashion and moving parts to keep track of.
I’m not going to claim “aha! I’ve solved the problem of creative writing and will just keep plugging along and producing one novel after another!” I’ve thought that was the case many times before.
The opening of the “The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North, finds the main character dying of cancer in his old age in 1996, when he’s accosted by a seven-year-old girl.
“I nearly missed you, Dr. August,” the girl says. “I need to send a message back through time. If time can be said to be important here. As you’re conveniently dying, I ask you to relay it to the Clubs of your origin, as it has been passed down to me.”
I tried to speak, but the words tumbled together on my tongue, and I said nothing.
“The world is ending” she said. “The message has come down from child to adult, child to adult, passed back down the generations from a thousand years forward in time. The world is ending and we cannot prevent it . So now it’s up to you.”
I found that Thai was the only language which wanted to pass my lips in any coherent form, and the only word which I seemed capable of forming was, why?
Not, I hasten to add, why was the world ending?
Why did it mater?
She smiled, and understood my meaning without needing it to be said. She leaned in close and murmured in my ear, “The world is ending as it always must. But the end of the world is getting faster.”
That opening pulled me in like jerking a leash. And the rest of the novel pays off on the promise.
Soon enough, Harry August finishes up dying and, just like the other ten times he died, he finds himself reborn as a baby in 1918 England. Quickly, all the memories of Harry’s previous lives come back to him. He’s an adult mind in a child’s body, until the body grows to adulthood in the usual way. He’s immortal, but it’s a peculiar kind of immortality, bound to repeat over and over the same swathe of the 20th Century. (One time he makes it all the way into the 21st Century. He decides he doesn’t care for it).
The novel wanders pleasantly for its first half, as Harry goes through his first few lives, learning how to be an immortal and exploring the world of the 20th Century. In the second part, Harry confronts the cause of the oncoming end of the world, and devotes several of his lives to preventing it.
“Fifteen Lives” is a thrilling, thoughtful, and well-written science fiction novel that explores moral responsibility and the 20th Century. I hope you love it as much as Julie and I did.
Word processing has transformed the way writers work, a transition from typewriters to electronic writing that happened in a few short years, starting in the mid-70s and ending by 1984 and 1985. The transition has been largely overlooked by literary historians, but now Matthew Kirschenbaum, an English professor at the University of Maryland, has written a history, “Track Changes” (great title!). He talked with Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic: How to Write a History of Writing Software
Writers of genre fiction — particularly science fiction — adopted word processors long before literary writers. That’s not necessarily because science fiction writers are technology focused (I’ve been surprised myself by how Luddite science fiction fans can be in their real-life use of technology), but because genre writers need to work fast, and turn out a lot of work at high volume.
[Kirschenbaum’s] new history joins a much larger body of scholarship about other modern writing technologies—specifically, typewriters. For instance, scholars confidently believe that the first book ever written with a typewriter was Life on the Mississippi,by Mark Twain. They have conducted typographical forensics to identify precisely how T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland was composed—which typewriters were used, and when. And they have collected certain important machines for their archives.
One day, a similarly expansive body of work may exist for writing software—and Kirschenbaum will be one of its first builders.
In the interview, Kirschenbaum addresses the question of which author was the first to write a novel with a word processor.
We can’t know with absolute certainty, I don’t think, but there are a couple of different answers.
If we think of a word processor or a computer as something close to what we understand today—essentially a typewriter connected to a TV set—there are a couple of contenders from the mid- to late-1970s. Notably Jerry Pournelle, who was a science fiction author. He is probably the first person to sit and compose at a “typewriter” connected to a “TV screen”—to compose there, to edit, and revise there, and then to send copy to his publisher. That was probably a novella called Spirals.
But there are earlier examples. Len Deighton, a highly successful author of British high-tech espionage thrillers, bought an early IBM word processor in the late 1960s. It wasn’t recognizably related to the word processors of today; the user typed on an IBM Selectric MS/ST typewriter that simultaneously recorded text on magnetic tape and conventional paper.
Kirschenbaum notes that secretaries, usually women, were the first to use word processors. Indeed, I remember that in the 1980s and well into the 1990s, successful men couldn’t type — typing was clerical, menial work, something that most men simply did not do. The transition to personal computers led to a brief bloom of typing classes — although the word “typing” had girl-cooties, so these classes were called “keyboarding,” or even “executive keyboarding.”
Me, I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a writer, and even in the late 70s it was obvious to many of us that personal computing was the future. I taught myself to touch-type when I was about 12 years old, and I took a typing class in high school to brush up on those skills, along with a few male friends who were also active in the computer club.
Back to Kirschenbaum: Even though the MS/ST lacked a screen, he calls it the first word processor because it stored the text electronically.
Your “screen” was the sheet of paper you had in your Selectric typewriter. You did your typing on the Selectric—which is the same typewriter, for example, we see in Mad Men; it’s a famous ’60s-era electric typewriter—and if you made mistakes, you would backspace. You would get a mess on the sheet of paper that was currently on the Selectric, but the correct sequence of character strokes was being stored on the tape. Then you would put a clean sheet of paper into the typewriter and it would automatically print out, sort of player-piano fashion, the text stored on the tape’s storage.
This unit sold in the 1960s for $10,000. That’s obviously quite a lot of money, and IBM used the term word processing as a marketing device.
Deighton wrote on a conventional Selectric, then handed the typescript to his secretary, Ellenor Handey, to retype it using the MS/ST. Therefore, I call shenanigans on Kirschenbaum’s classifying Deighton as the first author to use a word processor, simply because he wasn’t the one using the MS/ST. Still, it’s an interesting anecdote — Deighton was on the edge between non-word-processor users and word-processor users.
And importantly, Kirschenbaum says the essential thing about the word processor isn’t the screen, it’s the fluid, electronic nature of the text.
Microsoft Word is still the gold standard for writing software; even people who write primarily for the Internet — including most of the technology journalists I know — use Word. That absolutely flummoxes me. Even today, Word seems to me to be software designed primarily to produce printed hardcopy, often ornately formatted in ways that writers don’t care about. It’s not designed for articles, blog posts, or books; it’s designed for corporate annual reports.
Until recently, I preferred to write in text editors designed by and for software developers. Now, there’s a new generation of word processing software developed primarily for people who write electronically; Ulysses for Mac is one of those apps, which is the one I use. Scrivener is a more well-known example.
A lot of writing today gets done in email applications and web browsers — specifically the text entry box of Facebook, Twitter, etc. I’m writing this post in the composition window of WordPress. I’m writing on a plane (Kirschenbaum discusses how word processors have changed WHERE we write, as well as how), and I don’t currently have an Internet connection. I really, really hope I don’t lose my work, but WordPress is pretty good about that.
And of course, writing on mobile phones is hugely popular. Maybe the people who are toddlers today will never learn to keyboard; they’ll just thumb-type.
Kirschenbaum also talks about writers he calls “refuseniks,” who were adults in the 70s and 80s and who refused to use word processors. Harlan Ellison is possibly the most outspoken example, still pounding away at a typewriter. Cormac McCarthy is another example.
Another example, not mentioned by Kirschenbaum in this interview: Our friend the science fiction writer Joe Haldeman, author of “The Forever War” and a couple of dozen other, excellent novels. Joe is no refusenik; last time I talked tech with him he was a user of a Mac, iPad, and iPhone. But he likes writing his first drafts in fountain pen on bound, blank books. He says he just writes better that way.
I’ve added Kirschenbaum’s book to my Amazon Wishlist. And, hey, there’s another idea for a book: How digital technology changes the way we read. When I was a teen-ager back in the 70s, I could easily read two or three books every week. Now, I read a half-dozen books a year, if that. I have to make a conscious effort to set aside some time every day to read books. Most of my reading time is taken up reading articles.