Month: January 2013

How To Keep Track of Everything

A friend of mine once told me that I suffered from hypergraphia – the need to write down everything.

Guilty as charged, m’lud. Some people think through problems by talking about them, and that sometimes helps me, but I think most clearly with a pen in my hand or a keyboard under my fingers.

I have a system for tracking what’s going on. It’s based on text files in well-defined locations and with specific purposes. It may seem arcane, not as frictionless as something like Evernote for example, but frictionlessness is a bad thing for organisational systems in my experience – if I don’t mindfully copy things from one place to another, I end up forgetting that either place exists and then I am doomed.

But, here is my system as it stands today, evolved over many years (a decade and a half? Crikey!) into something that at least allows me to keep my head above water most of the time both in my home projects and my day job. I would not expect anyone to want to replicate this system exactly, but maybe it will give you some ideas.

Always Open

I have mentioned in passing that I use vim as my text editor. One of the things I do with it is to have a set of specific windows open at all times. These windows are:

  1. a weekly log file
  2. project files
  3. next actions

These windows are opened with a command script that cleans up old files and then edits the files themselves. These windows are always open and are always available for me to put notes into*.

Log It

The weekly log file gets created by a Perl program I wrote called weeklog. It takes events from a file and a template to generate a new text file with slots for each day, a summary of known appointments, and so on. This is the file I write in first, and for short tasks and one day projects this may be all that ever gets recorded.

Tasks get tick boxes, and those tick boxes are hierarchical to allow for sub-tasks.

Here’s a day layout for Monday just gone:

07-Jan-2013 (Monday)

    + complete plot cards
    + 1930 Brave on the Page reading @ Powell's

Day Plan

    [ ] complete plot cards

        < > figure out nemesis

        < > how does it end?

    [ ] Brave on the Page reading

        < > bring blog business cards

        < > bring my copy of book


As each thing gets worked on, I make notes (with timestamps – I have vim key mappings setup to insert date and time) and then when a task is done I put an ‘x’ in the box.

And thus progress is made.

Well Projected

Once upon a time, the weekly log file was the only tracking file I maintained, but it tended to get rather large and cumbersome to navigate. I took a hint from Getting Things Done (GTD) and created files for each project I was working on. These files are opened in a different window from the log file.

For example, here are some of my project files for home:

  • p-blog – notes for this blog
  • p-clojure – I like programming in Clojure
  • p-finance – oh dear, tax time again
  • p-kissiltur-bluehammer – book one of The Trilogy
  • p-song – A Turquoise Song

I use the same hierarchical todo item structure as I do in the week log, and then periodically archive finished tasks to a “completed” folder so the active project file stays manageable.

What’s Next?

The last file is called “next” and it contains a list of next actions. Each line has context and action, nothing more. If I was following a strict GTD methodology I would have just one action per project, but I like to get some small amount of lookahead in the interests of efficiency, so I often have two for the project I am working on most actively. This is fed into from figuring out what I should work on next, of course.

For example, in my home next file the first two lines at the moment are:

@p-song figure out plot
@p-song write outline

I will add lines for reading Bluehammer and developing an edit plan once its six weeks are up.

As each action is completed, it gets deleted from here and marked done in the log file where it is being tracked.

This next file shares a window with the weekly log, a little letter box strip at the top, so they are always visible.


So, that’s what I do. Do you have any particular approaches to task tracking that you like to use?

[*] in previous iterations of this process, particularly on Windows XP or Linux, I have these windows on a particular desktop space, but that is harder to manage in OS X and Windows 7 so I don’t do that any more.

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Charles Stross

Some time ago there was a Facebook questionnaire going around about your reading habits. One of the questions was about writers who were most influential, and a friend of mine challenged me when I did not mention Charles Stross in my influences. There was a good reason I didn’t include Mr Stross at that time – I had only read a couple of his books.

He’d be on the list now. More than anyone else at the moment, Charles Stross is the writer I stay up too late to read.

The first book of his that I read was Halting State, a highly engaging story of the near future (which I’ve mentioned along with its eventual sequel in talking about the perils of writing about the future). I loved the Scottishness of it (Stross lives in Edinburgh) and I enjoyed its being written in second person – a trick I’ve only seen successfully employed before in one of Iain Banks’ books, Complicity, and then only for a portion of it.

After that I read Glasshouse, a novel set in the post-singularity Universe. That was a mind-blower, that one – hard SF reminiscent of Greg Egan but with characters that I found vastly more compelling.

It’s not just that I enjoy his writing, or that his work is thought-provoking and entertaining, or that his speculation is vigorous and rigorous both: it’s all of these things to be sure, but it is also his prolific output and his great versatility. His first novel was published in 2003 and he has seventeen novels in print – that’s an almost Pratchettian level of production.

Here are some more of his books.

Cleaning Up

As I have noted before, I am a fan of the Cthulhu Mythos – he has a Mythos-themed series called The Laundry Files which relate the adventures of Bob Howard, a member of a British secret service organisation nicknamed The Laundry and tasked with suppressing and thwarting the intrusion into our Universe of malign entities which look an awful lot like Cthulhu and his colleagues.

They’re pulpy, but they are a lot of fun.

Parallel Parking

Another series, now complete, started as an effort to publish a fantasy story: The Merchant Princes are a set of families from a parallel universe who can walk between worlds. It starts wearing the trappings of an urban fantasy, but becomes a story of economics and what happens when fantasy meets a belligerent and paranoid government.

If we are talking about parallel worlds, I should also give another nod to Palimpsest which I talked about before in a post about multiverses.

Singular Sensations

Stross made his reputation as someone who wrote about the technological singularity, the point where the rate of change of technology is so fast that it becomes impossible to predict what happens next – this is where he demonstrates his chops as a rigorous writer of hard science fiction, with Accelerando especially being one of the most densely imaginative pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered (this is the book that precedes Glasshouse).

He also has a two book series, Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, which deals with a different version of a post-singularity Universe featuring the Eschaton. Wildly imaginative, and thrilling to boot.


On top of all this, Charles Stross has an interesting blog.

So, if you haven’t encountered Stross before, go and read his stuff. He’s really good.

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Loose Plot

Last week I talked about shaking loose the plot for A Turquoise Song. Today I wanted to talk a bit about where that process was.

I now have several dozen cards with characters, relationships, and other elements of the story. Many new things have been discovered by writing these cards. I have also made a good start on fitting these elements into a basic story structure – the kind of structure which can have additional complexity layered onto it, to be sure, but this is a relatively straightforward story so elaborate structure is not required.

One of the things which has emerged very strongly in this process is the underlying theme. I didn’t have a firm idea of what the story was about before – it was just a guy and his friends who happen to be synaesthetic running around fixing AIs. I now have a more well-defined opposing force for these people to struggle against and some interesting new elements which make the story fit together more cleanly.

What I don’t really have yet is an ending, or a clear sense of what the stakes are for the MC. These will come this week I think, and then I can get down to building the outline of the story.

For that outline I am primarily working in a Scrivener* file at the moment, although I am thinking a Freemind map may be a more efficient way to work since I am still moving things around.

What outlining tools do you use, if any? How do you hunt down a plot in the story forest**?

[*] I’ve been trying to use Scrivener’s outline mode, but it doesn’t seem to fit the way I think when I am still searching for the shape of the story. It’s fine once I have the story, so the outline I have for Bluehammer is pretty decent, but during this fluid phase I do not find the Scrivener outline helps me much.

[**] “story forest” as opposed to “word mines”, both terms which I have added to the Glossary.

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Shaking loose the plot

I am currently engaged in writing an outline for Song, and I have realised that almost all of the actual plot is in the second half. So, before I can come up with a plausible outline (and I really want a full outline for the story rather than just chapter summaries this time) I need to come up with some plot.

My usual approach is to stare at a blank screen until some ideas pop into my head. This is supplemented by unstructured thought and subconscious noodling: the unstructured thought is usually me talking to myself, trying to figure out the shape of the world, while the subconscious noodling is thinking about a problem then deliberately stepping away from it to let my subconscious do its thing.

None of those have been productive this time, so I have started making up some index cards to capture elements of the setting in hopes of shaking loose some plot I can use.

I have five categories for index cards: character, relationship, location, object, and plot. Each card gets the initial letter of its category in one corner, then the title is the item name or summary and there is a bulleted list of the qualities of that item. I have a lot of cards recording things as they have been written, but there are a goodly number of plot cards which document possible ideas. It’s been effective so far.

Are there any particular techniques you use to build up your narratives?

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Getting the Word Out

design for business card for Identity Function

There are lots of reasons this blog exists. The largest part of it is because I love books and the process of making stories to go into books so I enjoy talking about those things. Another very important part is keeping myself accountable to my own goals. However, I also want to pimp my words occasionally – the primary purpose of this blog is not marketing, but it may occasionally be used as part of my marketing toolkit.

To that end, I have been designing a new logo for the blog (which is now the site icon) and have been designing business cards which I can hand out when the opportunity presents itself. Here’s the colour image I’ve been working on (the black and white image is the same, but with a white ‘I’ bordered by a thin black line).

When it comes to marketing my books proper, I will be taking a lot of cues from the successes that Laura Stanfill has had with Brave on the Page.

What about your own marketing efforts? How do you encourage people to read your stories?

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