Tag Archives: writing

Twenty lousy minutes on the Freewrite (review)

Less tool than fetish, and disappointing.
Funded on Kickstarter, the new Freewrite is a solid, lovingly-crafted device that promises to return writers to a place of distraction-free spontaneity. From its low-power e-ink screen to the aluminum case – with handle – to the deep-traveling satisfyingly-clicky Cherry keys, the Freewrite consciously recalls early computers, manual typewriters, and a more physical, engaged time. I love touching it. Really.
freewrite-blog-1
Alas, none of those keys moves the cursor.
“Distraction-free” writing is not a method like touch-typing, but an ideal. For some, it means paper. For others (like me), it means starting my work in a text editor, not a print-oriented word processor like Word or OpenOffice. For still others, it means gimmicky apps that literally delete your writing if you pause too long. Whatever works, right? And if it doesn’t work, you can do something else.
Not on the Freewrite. For the Freewrite, “distraction-free” means, and only means, a weirdly oppressive no-turning-back mentality, like Allen Ginsberg’s “first thought best thought” warped from liberating ideal into blind diktat without recourse.
You can only keep keying. You can’t go backwards, save to delete – and that has the acceleration of a Tesla, one word, two words, a paragraph whoa! You can’t go up three lines and add a header. You must go forward, only forward, like Orpheus leaving Hades.
I don’t even write that way on paper.
The Freewrite also requires a better computer to finish one’s work. Just getting text out of it – set up a special account, to either e-mail the work as an non-editable PDF, or to push it into Dropbox folders as Word .docx files – is a ridiculous kluge, a giant chicken-wire afterthought that makes the whole Freewrite process feel like something out of the movie BrazilContinue reading

Merge and purge (writing and language)

My first draft was 220,000 words of symbol-laden passages and over-described locales. Over years I steadily replaced sets of words with smaller stronger ones, refining the language to heighten the story and the emotional viewpoint. The never-quite-articulated goal was for the words to hold more weight relative to their size thanks to their structure.
In four passes I got down to 120,000 words. I cut few complete scenes. Mostly I just kept redoing the language, finding slenderer shorter beams for each bit of structure, abandoning ideas that were less essential. It was like starting with an Art Deco skyscraper and renovating it into a geodesic dome, bit by bit.
Now I hope to write less in the first place but I am not sure it is turning out that way. At least I outline more, or more frequently, nothing grand but enough to guide me. Still, once it’s prose, my process scales to it. Less is an asymptote. Even a small post like this, I write and rewrite, in layers, questioning the questioning.
Yesterday going through the magazine pile for something to read with my soup, I stumbled upon an article discussing linguist Noam Chomsky’s controversial recent ideas about the beginning of language. Chomsky theorizes early humans created the foundations of language by developing a new ability Chomsky calls Merge, the ability to group mental objects and work with them as a unit.
I’m no judge of linguistics theory but as an idea Merge resonates with me. Something in my process also looks to merge, or at least more densely encode, meanings – and wants a lot of meaning to encode. Just as we care about both increasing bandwidth and compressing data, maybe the drive to merge is tied in with communication in multiple ways, a circle of acquiring and optimizing we have yet to map out.
I also confess a happy feeling about my own fiction’s truth. One of the angels to appear late in my novel is of_clumping, which I felt was a driving force in our universe, from stars to black holes. How nice to think this is an angel of meaning as well.

Big news – and some thanks

I am thrilled to announce I have signed a contract with WordFire Press to publish The Demon in Business Class, my first novel!
I am so excited about this! But it’s some months away, with a lot to do between now and then. I’ll talk about it much more as the book launch approaches, and I hope you can be part of it.
I’d like to thank Kevin J. Anderson, Vivian Trask and WordFire Press for the warm welcome and the hard work ahead.
This novel is years in the making, and I have pages of thanks. I here want to acknowledge the people who worked on this most recent stage, with the final draft manuscript and the marketing plan. Thanks to Jackie Dobranski, Kate Yonkers, Jessica Epperson-Lusty, Laila Sultan, Joshua Essoe, Jennifer Brinn, Melissa Cox, and Adrian Bryant for their invaluable help and feedback.
Thanks also to Wayland Smith for inspiring me to up my professional game.
I have written a beautiful book, of its time, for times ahead. I want to share it with you and the world. I’m pleased to have an excellent publisher to help me do that.

Robots vs. androids in fiction (go robots!)

Among the characters in my new novel is a collective of former package-delivery drones that, after a war, evolved themselves into a taxi service for their damaged city.
From the earliest drafts, I saw them as small flying saucers, with only a central trunk/harness to carry goods or a seated cross-legged person. It took a little time before I saw the plot and character possibilities of robots without hands or appendages. It meant that they had continued to evolve themselves to depend on people, both as customers and even as mechanics, like Thomas the Tank Engine.
I also gave them a limited vocabulary of green and red lights, suitable for bargaining over fares, but akin to the radiation-wounded Christopher Pike on old Star Trek. This made for a stranger, more labored interaction, but one familiar to anyone who has set a digital device.
It also made it easier for the taxibots credibly to be taken for granted by the people around them while they — well, you’ll read it one day. 🙂
This is a less common take on manufactured beings. Continue reading

NaNoWriMo recap (winner!)

National Novel Writing Month was a huge personal success for me, and a big confidence booster. I will miss my silicone NaNoWriMo bracelet tomorrow.
By the numbers, 50,028 words, finished in the wee hours of November 27. On the twenty-three days I wrote, I averaged 2,175 words a day, due mainly to a big push in the first two weeks that had me writing close to 2,500 a day.
As a project, I reached the end of the draft narrative. I kept control of the pacing so I landed it roughly as I intended. It was an active effort, matching my word count to the outlines, planning scenes ahead in 500-word increments, fleshing out passages still short of their part of the total.
However measured, when I could write, I did, at speed and with some level of consistent craft throughout. I’m not sure I believed I could do it. I am glad to no longer have to rely on belief.
I don’t think I have universal advice, but for me it started well before November 1. Continue reading

Markdown lets any text app do more work

For grabbing ideas when inspiration strikes, or trying to make a long wait into useful work-time, an Internet-connected smartphone is a great device. It’s already with you.
Word-processor apps still aim for completeness of function, however, which makes them labored to start – just opening a file can scare a good idea out of one’s head. Text editors are cheap and light, but even for printing, text needs layout and formatting.
If you use Markdown syntax, you can quickly reformat any text into any electronic publication format.
Markdown, invented by John Gruber, is a set of punctuation-mark tags that tell an app reading the file how to format and display text. With Markdown you can tag your notes with headings, emphasis, images and links, all using single or paired punctuation marks.
You can write Markdown in any text editor, from Windows Notepad or Mac TextEdit to word-processors and programmer’s editors. For a long work, it’s convenient to store the file in a cloud folder, but you can write Markdown in an email. To convert it to other formats, it must be saved as a text file, with, by convention, the extension .md.*
To write in Markdown, separate each paragraph with an empty line. Use single or paired punctuation marks for formatting. For example:

  • Asterisks (*) and underscores (_) around a word or phrase of text emphasize that text.
  • Begin a line with one or more hash marks (#) to make it a heading. One hash mark is Heading 1, two is Heading 2, etc.
  • Begin a line with a right angle bracket (>) to indent it.

Other simple marks indent, make formatted lists, and insert links and images. There are variations on Markdown for technical needs, but for a prose writer, Gruber’s original syntax is easy to use.
Gruber’s own command-line converter, written in Perl, will turn Markdown text into HTML. Many other text editor apps on all desktop and mobile operating systems read and convert Markdown. In another post, I’ll discuss Pandoc, a quick document converter that can turn Markdown text into any current text or publishing format.
For more details, visit Gruber’s site Daring Fireball.
Markdown is designed for prose writing. For a script-writing text syntax, look into Fountain.
*If you have an option for encoding, which tells apps how to handle accented characters, most English-language writers should use UTF-8.

Catching up to success and building on it

For the last month now, what writing time I’ve had all belonged to my new serial novel. I regret losing energy both on social media and on my first novel, but I can return to them. The experience of the serial is unusual and worthy of attention. By starting this in partnership with a media provider and basing it in the history of my own neighborhood, I had wonderful resources to draw on. The Forest Hills Connection organized a history lecture and reading, and the Northwest Current printed an op-ed about the history behind the novel. It was a huge privilege to start off strong, and a great leap of faith on the part of my media partners. I am lucky and grateful.
I am still writing weekly, but it’s leveling off its ascent so I can get the other parts of my booklife in working order. I’m hoping that my quick bath in media will give me a new way to look at my first novel. The style is still fresh but my approach to selling it is tired. To get past the exhausted ADD TL;DR eyes of the publishing community, I have to dance around the complicated mixed-genre and real world elements, and the flawed less-than-heroic characters, that were the things which most interested me as a writer. The people who are my audience are maybe not the people who make a living selling many books to publishers. Self-publication in this light is like touring is for a band, a way to get the word out and find an audience. It would be a huge effort that looks very scary now, and not something I can enter into seriously before the fall.
Put another way, though, every special event I got for the launch of Scientists was a missed opportunity to market my self-published novel in a public forum. As the serial proceeds and gets more attention, there are more opportunities. This is not a reason to rush an unfinished book to printing, but it is a reason to hurry an unfinished book to finishing.
 

Posture for writers (standing desks)

For a decade now, I have worked at a standing desk: first on boxes and books piled on a seated desk, then on hasty constructs made from scrap lumber. Now I stand at a custom-built desk, my bare feet on a thick gel mat. There is an obvious and immediate ergonomic benefit for any computer user* — straighter back, continuously engaged body, deeper and easier breathing. I also believe it helps my prose.
Most writing advice goes to helping your plot or consolidating characters, to making things more identifiable. No one ever suggests posture as a tool for writers, the way it is for musicians and actors, so, let me.
Writers play a lot of roles in their heads, and it helps to stand while acting them out. If I want to write a sexy dance, or the discomfort of injury, or a shallow-breathed panic, the freedom of movement gives me more freedom to imagine, to act and to feel.
Writers tend to like cafes, as a balance against the solitude of writing. I wonder if the ability to study other people casually, their looks and movement and ways of being, without the distraction of, say, a film narrative, doesn’t play a role. But cafes are often distracting too.
If you’re looking to liven up your prose in the productive quiet of your garret, why not pile up some boxes and get on your feet? It takes a few minutes to measure your own ideal heights, and possibly some configuring – the distance between hands and eyes is greater standing than seated, so laptop users may need an external keyboard and mouse.
It also opens up some possibilities you might not have considered. I use my monitor portrait now – in fact, I use two!
standingdesk
Of course, you can still sit down from time to time. I don’t stand to pay bills.
*You can write longhand at a standing desk too, but I find it’s better to use a sloped surface so you are not staring straight down. These are less easy to find than they used to be. Search “writing slant” or “writing slope,” or try back sites, calligraphy sites, and of course auction sites.

Performance anxiety (Facebook edition)

If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise. — William Blake, “Proverbs of Hell”
I noted recently that writing has become a performing art, one where we writers all have to be promotional and public. I’ve been mulling that over in regards to social media. Specifically, Facebook.
I made my first business career developing the consumer side of what we once called “cyberspace,” but I was quite late to Facebook. Most close friends who wanted to keep up with my personal life soon wised up and Friended my wife. My main reservation was Facebook’s awesome store of personal data (even now, my Facebook account is still under a different computer login than my work or personal logins), but it seemed harmless enough — shared humor, family updates and the occasional expression of political dudgeon by people whose politics I knew well.
When I signed up for the Superstars Writing Seminars, I joined their very active private Facebook group for news and updates on the seminar, and by extension, on the writers’ individual careers. To my great surprise, a lot of those people Friended me on Facebook — most before ever meeting me, and the rest after a very limited interaction (though you learn a lot playing Cards Against Humanity, and none of it good.)
I was bemused. Why on earth would these people want to Friend me? Did they care about my son’s new style of dancing to 80’s pop? Would they be as thrilled by the new retaining wall we’re getting as I am?
My folly was in not recognizing that Facebook has become a public space to the exact degree that one is a public person — and performing artists are public people, and writers now performers. This for me makes Facebook an increasingly staged and risky place. In Soho where she lives, a major fashion model can go shopping without makeup and in sweatpants — but when that same model hits the stores at Mall of America, she is not shopping. She is making an appearance, as rehearsed and planned and calculated as any Oscar Wilde bon-mot.
Thing is, I have plenty of friends, and extended family, for whom Facebook is not that space, and whose socializing there is more honest, more mundane, and in some ways more substantive. If I actually become a successful writer, commenting to me on a Facebook post will be the equivalent of meeting your friend for coffee when your friend is on a reality-TV show and has a camera following everywhere. Little-f-friends, are you ready for that? Am I? Continue reading