Category: Blog (page 3 of 3)

Scrivener for non-scriveners

I suppose writers had it pretty bad three or four thousand years ago, when chisels and stone tablets were the only writing implements to be had. We must have breathed a collective sigh of relief when parchment and ink came around, and then (for the handwriting-impaired among us) the mechanical typewriter. And for the last thirty years or so, we’ve been able to write and revise on-screen with word processors, instead of having to retype everything anew with each draft. “Progress,” wrote Robert Heinlein, “isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.”

Then God bless the lazy men and women at Literature and Latte, the makers of Scriviner. They’ve spent the last several years trying to perfect the task of writing, and they’ve come damn close. At this point, you may as well go dip your quill in ink and grab a length of foolscap as use something as antiquated as Microsoft Word. Word is fine for shorter-length stuff (anything up to ten thousand words or so). It’s got a great revision-tracking system, and since it’s the standard format for editors and agents, you’re going to be using it to share revisions at some point. But I shudder at the thought of trying to use it to actually write a full-length novel.

Folders and Sub-documents

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One of the things that Scrivener does an amazing job of is letting you break your manuscript up into folders and sub-documents. With Word, you either put everything into a single file (which makes navigating difficult) or you break each chapter or scene up into a separate document (which makes it hard to join it all together again).

With Scrivener, you create a ‘project’ for each manuscript. The project is like a miniature, self-contained file system. You can create folders and subfolders to organize all your various scenes, chapters, and notes, which means that you don’t have to wrangle the herd of separate-but-related Word documents that make up your manuscript. I like to have a folder for each major draft of a novel, with each chapter in a draft broken out into a separate document. That makes it easy for me to navigate between chapters in my current draft and see the word count for the chapter I’m working on. I can also easily find a particular chapter in an older draft if I want to resurrect some bit of description or dialog. Some people break their manuscripts down even further, with a folder per chapter and a document for each scene in the chapter. Scrivener will let you do things like search and replace or word counts across an entire draft, so it never feels like breaking your manuscript up into sub-documents ever becomes ‘too much.’ It’s really just about whatever is most convenient for you.


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Snapshots are a way of keeping older versions of a particular document around in case you want to go back to them. Snapshots are astonishingly, wonderfully, awe-inspiringly amazing, and once you get used to them, you won’t be able to write without them. I create a snapshot of whatever I’m working on at the end of each writing session. That gives me the freedom to hack apart a chapter and put it back together again without worrying about losing my work. You can restore a document back to a particular snapshot if you want, or you can view the differences between an older snapshot and the current version to see what’s changed. Some people even use snapshots as a way to work with writing partners or editors, by taking a snapshot of their original version and then comparing with the new version.


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Compiling is at the heart of what makes the project-based, folder-and-document structure of Scrivener work. You can keep your manuscript broken up into whatever chunks make the most sense to you when you’re writing—scenes, chapters, sections—and when you’re ready, you compile them all back together again for output to a printer, exporting to a Word doc, or even generating a ready-to-read Kindle ebook. Scrivener can automatically add chapter headings, page breaks, and title pages to make the output look exactly the way you want.

There’s another great benefit to compiling. After my years of using Microsoft Word, I’ve gotten used to good old Times New Roman. More editors are accepting drafts in roman type, but some still require fixed-width fonts like Courier. I like 1.5 line spacing with a little extra between paragraphs, but submission formats often ask for double-spacing. In a regular word processor, you’d have to constantly change back and forth between different options in order to generate a printed or digital copy with particular formatting.

In Scrivener, the font, spacing, and styling that you use in the editor have nothing at all to do with how it gets compiled. If I need traditional typewriter-style printouts, I can choose that option when I compile for printing, and the editor never needs to know that I’d been working in mushy old Times New Roman the entire time. You can set up headers, page numbers, fonts, and spacings to exactly the format that a picky journal or magazine asks for, and then re-use those settings whenever you’re ready to submit.

Scrivener can also compile your project to the Kindle ebook format. I’ve written before about how useful it is to read your own work in a ‘realistic’ setting. With Scrivener, it’s easy to take the latest draft of your manuscript and export it to your Kindle (or the Kindle app on iOS/Android) and read it over. While I don’t suggest that you use its output format for actual self-publishing—you’ll want an app that’s designed specifically for that—the Kindle output is a great way to share with friends, family, and beta readers.

The details

Scrivener does a lot of little things well, too—it has an excellent tool for setting word count goals, which I use for making sure that I’m on track to get to a particular manuscript length by a certain date. It has a solid ‘distraction-free’ composition mode, and great tools for outlining, cork-board-style organization, and note-taking. It can back up your entire project to a timestamped zip file, which you can easily back up to an external drive or cloud file service so that you can go back to older versions even if you really cock things up.

There are probably a dozen other great Scrivener features that I hardly use but other people will swear by. It does a good enough job at everything so that I’ve never felt like I was leaving anything behind by abandoning Microsoft Word. I even have a Scrivener project for blog posts, so that I don’t have to worry about the internet eating my latest draft. I still have to do a little formatting once it gets into WordPress, but all of the basics like bolding/italicizing work properly with a simple copy-paste.

Best of all, Scrivener is reasonably-priced: $40 for either Mac or Windows, and you can sometimes grab it on sale for half that. Do yourself a favor and check it out. I’ll bet that after a week or two using Scrivener, you’ll look back at the bad old days of regular ‘word processors’ and wonder how you ever got anything done.

from the I-made-my-word-count-for-the-week-dept.

SpaceX sticks the landing, again

Okay, so you can’t really see all that much in this video, except for a big white flash and then suddenly there’s a rocket ship sitting there on the landing pad. But holy crap this is cool. For the second time, SpaceX has landed a first-stage rocket on a boat in the middle of the ocean.

I don’t like to be too fanboyish, but it’s hard not to be when it comes to Elon Musk. Between SpaceX, Tesla, and stuff like the HyperLoop, the guy is larger-than-life in all the right ways. I remember reading about Edison and Tesla when I was a kid. I’ll bet if there are still anything resembling ‘books’ when my grandkids grow up, they’ll be reading about Elon Musk.

filed under robert-heinlein-would-be-proud

The eyes have it

For me it’s all about the eyes. Specifically, where they’re pointing. In any scene I write that has more than two characters, I end up with at least three or four ‘looks.’ She looked at him oddly. He turned to look at her. I looked up from what I was doing. You can’t pull a fast one on any of my characters, because whatever is happening, they’re looking at it.

Their conversations, though, are full of momentary pauses. Someone will often refuse to answer someone else for a moment. Or they’ll be silent for a moment. Or they’ll do anything except speak—but always only for a moment.

As soon as they get outside, though, it’s the sun and the horizon, preferably combined. Suns really like to ‘hang low on the horizon’ in my stories; apparently my characters live in a world where it’s always late afternoon. If the sun does happen to end up in a different part of the sky, I’ll definitely let you know about it. The sunlight will filter through leaves, gleam on the hood of a car, or shine in someone’s eyes.

I’m guessing you have them too—words or phrases that you overuse. They’re like your own special spice: whenever you’re making dinner, you pull them out and sprinkle them on. You know what this casserole needs? A sun hanging low on the horizon.

The number one rule of drafting is don’t stop, so if you’re in the flow and the time seems right for a character to look oddly at someone or refuse to answer for a moment, then let it flow. Who knows? Maybe this will be the one spot in your story where you let that phrase shine. Maybe all of those other uses are the extraneous ones, and this one right here is the whopper that you let ride.

But when the time comes to start revising, you have to be on your guard for your little bon mots. I find it’s handy to build up a list of words that I overuse in general, and then a separate list per manuscript of phrases that I’m pretty sure are popping up too frequently. My first novel is set on Mars, and the color of the sky shows up a lot. It’s an important thing to describe—if you were suddenly transported there, the color of the sky would be one of the most striking and memorable elements—but I have to make sure I don’t describe it the same way each time. So sometimes, when I’m writing a particular bit of description, I think to myself I bet I’ve used this somewhere else and so I jot it down in my note-taking app. Then later I do some project-wide searches to whittle my descriptions down so that each one is as unique as possible.

It’s late afternoon here in Pacifica, and the sun is hanging low on the horizon, so I’m going to look up from what I’m doing here and go see if I can refuse to answer someone’s question. For a moment.

filed under david-bowman’s-retina

Let your characters own your plot

Plot is a tricky thing. It’s like being popular back in high school—the best way to get it is to not care about it too much. If everyone sees you trying too hard, then you’re going to spend your prom night in the Piggly-Wiggly parking lot throwing donuts at passing cars.

What’s so hard about plot? Why it’s it just ‘deciding what happens?’ A follows B follows C, right? So all you have to do is come up with that sequence: A then B then C, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am.

That’s what makes plot at tricky thing, because that is absolutely, positively, without a doubt not the way to develop a good plot.

The problem is that by coming up with the sequence of events directly, you, the author, are sticking your big meat-stick of a hand into the story and arranging things how you want them. In order to get your big climax, your hero has to sacrifice herself here, and your antagonist needs to be in position over here, so you just pick them up and move them where they need to be. But people don’t want to read stories where the author is moving characters. People want to read stories where the characters move themselves.

And this is the crux of the problem: as a writer, you obviously need to have some idea of what will happen. If you keep your big sausage-fingers out of the pie, so to speak, won’t that mean anything can happen? Are you going to write your fantasy epic and then find out halfway through that your protagonist just doesn’t want to face the bad guy, and so she just gives up and goes back home? Are you going to write a historical romance where your main characters decide that society is right and they’re not a good match for each other?

Fortunately, no. Even if you stay away from directly manipulating your characters, you have quite a bit of control over the plot, because you get to decide the answers to two key questions: who are the characters, and what are the obstacles? Your answers to these questions produce a plot that is owned by your characters, rather than the other way around.

The reason your fantasy-epic protagonist is going to push all the way to the end to face your bad guy is because she has guts and determination. It’s because she’s highly motivated and because she has the skills and knowledge necessary to make it all the way to the end and save the world. You know that’s what she will do, not because she’s a puppet on a string, but because you know who she is.

Conversely, the reason your fantasy-epic protagonist isn’t going to figure out that the real bad guy is actually the crown prince is because she’s trusting, perhaps to a fault. It’s because her best friend told her an innocuous lie that turned out to hide a critical piece of information. You know she’s not going to short-circuit the whole story and defeat the bad guy in chapter four, not because you manipulate her into taking the long route, but because you manipulate her surroundings.

Imagine a sailboat race around a series of islands. The ships go from point A (the starting line) to point B (the finish line). Each ship is self-motivated—there’s no gigantic hand dragging them every which way across the ocean—and yet the race is ‘determined’ in advance by the quality of each captain and ship, by the weather, and by the obstacles that appear in each ship’s path. Because you, the all-powerful god of sailboat races, control these factors, you don’t need to drag them where you want them to go. They’ll do it because of who they are and because of the external events that happen to them.

It’s certainly possible to go too far with this sort of manipulation, even if you stay away from directly ‘moving’ your characters where you want them to go. A character’s reaction to a particular obstacle might be perfectly natural and believable, but if the appearance of the obstacle is too obviously designed to control the plot, then readers will see your authorial process ‘at work.’ In other words, it’s almost as bad to make an obstacle conveniently appear that makes a character do something as it is to just make them do what you want them to do in the first place. Make sure that when you manipulate the environment, your manipulations are believable and as minimal as possible. It’s not credible to have a freak storm blow out of a clear-blue sky to blow a sailboat far off course. It could be perfectly credible, on the other hand, to have a storm blow up on a dark and blustery day. It won’t be believable if your protagonist’s friend withholds a crucial bit of information for no apparent reason; it might be perfectly believable if the friend was angry or jealous, and didn’t understand how important the information was.

The world of your story is your own. Your characters belong to you. But the plot belongs to the characters. It’s in their hands—let them sail.

filed under they-know-where-they’re-going-better-than-you-do

The Flying Spaghetti Monster is not an acceptable deity in the eyes the US District Court for Nebraska

When I first saw this mentioned over at Ars Technica, my reaction was, oh, hey, another conservative judge deciding that only Judeo-Christian religions are ‘real’. But after reading over the decision, I have to say, the guy has me persuaded.

This is not a question of theology: it is a matter of basic reading comprehension. The FSM Gospel is plainly a work of satire, meant to entertain while making a pointed political statement. To read it as religious doctrine would be little different from grounding a “religious exercise” on any other work of fiction. A prisoner could just as easily read the works of Vonnegut or Heinlein and claim it as his holy book, and demand accommodation of Bokononism or the Church of All Worlds…Of course, there are those who contend—and Cavanaugh is probably among them—that the Bible or the Koran are just as fictional as those books. It is not always an easy line to draw. But there must be a line beyond which a practice is not “religious” simply because a plaintiff labels it as such. The Court concludes that FSMism is on the far side of that line.

If I were to try to argue that I was a “Pastafarian” and entitled to religious protection for it, this argument would have me bowing my head and mumbling an apology for wasting the court’s time. Since I’m certainly aware that FSM is a satirical statement, I can’t claim to at the same time believe in it as a religion.

It’s funny that (if you accept the court’s argument) this puts the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Pastafarianism at a disadvantage to Judeo-Christian religions specifically because of the effectiveness of the parody. If the humor wasn’t quite so broad, it would be much easier to argue that it was ‘believable’. Though I suppose that getting equal protection as a religion is exactly the opposite of what the FSM was created to do–skewer the concept of (and protection of) established religion–and so its creators are probably not too unhappy about the plaintiff losing this case…

Also, it’s hard not to love a judicial opinion which quotes Vonnegut and Heinlein.

filed under equal-protection-from-his-noodly-appendage

Sending microprobes to Alpha Centauri

Apparently Stephen Hawking thinks that we can send interstellar micro-probes to Alpha Centauri. I’m not going to argue physics with the guy, but…wow. The probes themselves aside, we’d need a laser array that could generate 100 gigawatts of power for two minutes. An entire modern nuclear reactor generates 1-3 gigawatts. So you’d need to string together a few dozen of those, and have a way to transmit the power, and then focus the laser, and then hopefully not melting your face off in the process.

I’m all for interstellar exploration, and I suppose could be the most efficient way to get it started. Clearly nobody on the project is thinking that this is going to happen anytime soon, and probably just trying to get it done will generate lots of good technology. The most dangerous bit of it is probably how most sites, despite trying hard to communicate the scale of the proposed project, probably make it seem as if this is something on the scale of, say, the Space Shuttle, or Facebook.

The second most dangerous bit of it is how, if it ever does get built, Stephen Hawking will have the worlds most face-meltingest laser.

filed under revenge-on-grade-school-bullies

Essential Liberties and Begging the Question

Any time an argument comes up about civil liberties versus government security, you’ll find this quote from Benjamin Franklin:

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

It’s a brilliant quote, but really, it’s meaningless. In fact, it’s a brilliant quote because it’s meaningless. It begs the question (in the classical sense) because the only thing it argues is that if the arguer is already right, then their argument is right.

Hrm, sorry, let me back up.

Liberty versus security is a tradeoff. Everyone recognizes that; nobody argues that people should have infinite liberty or that the government should have infinite power to enforce security. Arguments about liberty vs. security aren’t about black and white generalities, but about specific tradeoffs:

  • Is it better to let the NSA snoop on our web traffic to help catch bad guys, or is it better to let people use the internet without fear of being monitored?
  • Is it better to let the FBI unlock phones from suspects, or is it better to let people keep the contents of their phones private if they choose?
  • Is it better for the government to have ways to decrypt personal data, or is it better to let people encrypt their data using algorithms that are unfeasible to break?

In each of those cases, you could apply the word ‘essential’ to either side of the argument. It’s essential that the NSA be able to snoop on traffic; it’s essential to let people use the internet without being monitored. Same goes for ‘temporary’: any security that comes from the FBI unlocking phones is only temporary; the liberty of keeping your phone private is a temporary one.

In other words, the quote just adds a couple of adjectives to the sides of the discussion that the arguer prefers, and then wraps the whole thing up in a pithy, memorable sentence. If you want to argue the other side, you can just reverse the adjectives:

Those who would give up essential Safety, to purchase a little temporary Liberty, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

This is what begging the question originally meant: to make a statement in support of an argument that is only true if the arguer is already correct. Which makes it a wonderful use of rhetoric–at least, if you’re Benjamin Franklin, arguing over a tax dispute with the Pennsylvania General Assembly, which was the original context of the quote.

So the next time someone whips out this old mathom of a quote and tries to shout you down by quoting a Founding Father, just tell them: “hey, asshat, all you’re doing is begging the question.” They’ll spend so much time trying to figure out whether you properly used begging the question that you’ll win the argument by default.

filed under you’re-welcome-internet

If there is a junkyard in hell, this is apparently the bench you sit on while you wait for service

I live in Pacifica, near a pleasant little beach-side trail next to Mori Point. There are a number of benches along the trail, mostly established as memorials for Pacificans who have passed on to the Great Surf Spot in the Sky. Judging by the dates inscribed on the benches, the length of the trail, and the number of benches,  in a few years they’ll be clustered so densely you’ll be able to hop from Highway One to the beach without touching the ground.

There’s one bench in particular that always confuses the hell out of me. It’s inscribed  If there is a junkyard in hell, love is the dog that guards it.

What, in the blessed blue blazes, does this quote mean?

Is it a memorial to the owner’s late dog “Love”, who is now apparently believed to be guarding a scrap-heap in the netherworld?

Is it a comment on love itself?–perhaps engraved by a jilted partner who wanted to suggest that hell hath no fury like a guard dog chained to a junkyard?

Was it put there just to confound passers-by looking for meaning, truth, and beauty in the panoply of seating that lines the trail?

I have no earthy idea. But if I ever find myself in front of Satan’s flaming gates, my first question is going to be is there, by chance, a junkyard here?

filed under language-is-a-mind-virus

Blue Sunsets

So there are a million cool things about Mars, but one of the very coolest is that sunsets on Mars are blue. When the sun starts to set, the sky is a deep red, and the sky around the sun glows a pale blue.

The explanation has to do with wavelengths and dust particles and air density, but does it really matter?

Watch this video and just try to tell me you’re not inspired to write a novel about kids living on Mars who run away and get stranded during a massive solar flare. Except don’t, because that’s what I’m working on.

filed under mars-is-more-awesome-than-you-think

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