Month: October 2013

NaNoPreMo 2013 – Characters

a network of relationships  driving character development

a network of relationships driving character development

This is the second post in a series about preparing for NaNoWriMo. If you want to attempt NaNoWriMo without any preparation, then you are in the wrong place.

You have an idea for a story, but do you have any characters?

There are as many approaches to character development as there are writers – from character quizzes to writing vignettes – but I have been having good luck with the Fiasco method. The origin of the method is for generating immediate story from the tensions between characters at the story’s focus, but you can also use it to flesh out other aspects of a character, for example with relationships which do not play directly into the narrative but affect a character’s behavior and motives.

I’m going to be talking for the rest of this post about how I am using the Fiasco method with my story.

Do The Relationships First

Other character development approaches have you think about relationships once the character is already well-formed, but this is where the Fiasco method starts: describe the relationships that will drive the story, and then fit characters into those relationships.

For my story, I have a marital relationship between the protagonist and her new husband, I have an antagonistic relationship between the protagonist and the mercenary who mistakes her fascination with dice for interest in him, and I have a dependent relationship from the villagers onto the protagonist.

Where Do The Conflicts Happen?

There will be primary locations where the story is going to be driven most actively. In a classic Fiasco story, this will be two or three gathering points for the characters – there can still be other incidental locations, but the most significant action is going to happen in the main locations. These are going to be places like a local bar, or a junkies’ hang out, or a bank lobby, say.

At the start of my story, I have a handful of locations in the village where the novel opens. I will need to expand this quite a lot, because the story doesn’t stay in the village for very long…

What Motivates Each Character?

In Fiasco these motivations are termed “needs” and “objects”, but the basic idea is present in many character development approaches – what is it that the character wants? What is it that they are trying to avoid?

Next, what are they prepared to give up in order to obtain what they want? This is something that may change through the story – at the beginning the protagonist may be willing to sell something small, but as the narrative progresses and the stakes rise they may need to give up more than they want to – perhaps more than they can really afford.

My protagonist loses something hugely important near the beginning of the story, and it is that loss that drives her narrative through the rest of the book. She also feels responsible for the villagers, which colours her choices.

Other characters have much simpler motives at this point: the husband wants to protect his wife, while the mercenary just wants to get to the battlefield to earn his wage.

Describe the Characters Themselves

I generally avoid detailed character questionnaires. I’ll fill in meme quizzes sometimes, but I like to keep the descriptions of characters fairly fluid before the starting gun is fired on NaNoWriMo. Partly this is a function of not wanting to spend the time needed to fill in intricate character sheets*, but mostly is it a desire to have something to discover about the character in the full flood of writing.

But – you need some description. I lean heavily in the direction of laying out personality rather than physical traits, since that is what drives the story. Does the character like being in the relationships that they are in? What are they unhappy about? (drifting a little into needs there, but…) Are they conscientious? Do they have the kind of diligent personality that suits a career as an actuary?

My protagonist has been content with her unremarkable – even boring – life up to the point where the story opens. She is clever but relatively uneducated (it is a peasant village: few are well-educated). When that content life is torn away from her she is angry.

Finally, Name Them

Now you know your characters, you can give them names.

Now, it may be that the character’s name came first and that is of course fine, but the chances of coming up with an appropriate name are much higher after you have thought about how the character fits into the story and what their personality is like.

I am not at a stage where I can name the characters, though. This is part of what I will be working on next.

So – do you have characters? How are you going to develop them?

[*] which is also one of the reasons I don’t care for D&D these days.

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a 45 MB hard disc, the first one I owned (now sadly deceased, but backed up first)

a 45 MB hard disc, the first one I owned
(now sadly deceased, but backed up first)

I mentioned a backup device in passing in my technology post last month, but I wanted to have a more detailed discussion about my philosophy on this aspect of living with technology.

The Value of Backups

As the noted technology blogger Daniel Rutter says, data you haven’t backed up is data you do not want.

And in these modern times, everything is data: photos, documents, books, video, music… if it’s represented or manipulated by a computer, it is data and if you care about it then you should back it up.

I always try to be sympathetic when I hear tales of lost data – I have a few of them myself – but fundamentally, if you don’t back it up you really should not be surprised when some of it disappears into the æther.

Multiple Backups In Multiple Places

What is a backup?

A backup is a copy of the state of your data at some known point in time.

So, whenever you save a copy of your document with a different name, or copy your photos onto another spot on the disc, then you are taking a backup.

However, a backup is only really useful if it is available when catastrophe strikes. If the only backups you are taking are on the same hard disc as the original data, then the backups won’t be available when that same hard disc goes to the Great Spindle in the sky.

You mitigate this risk in two orthogonal ways:

  1. copy the data onto multiple forms of media
  2. put the copies in different places

Doing these two things will maximise your chances of being able to recover the data when you need to.

Automate It Or It Doesn’t Happen

Any backup process which relies on a human typing a command or pressing a button to trigger the backup will inevitably fail.

In other words, if there’s no automatic backup then there is effectively no backup at all.

Trust But Verify

Do the backups you are making actually work? That is, can the data you have saved on these multiple forms of media be read back?

I’ve been bitten by the assumption that they could. I had a fault in the motherboard of my PC which prevented it from calculating checksums accurately. I knew that fixing it would require at least an attempt to format the hard disc and reinstall the operating system, and so I backed up all of my data onto zip archives which spanned multiple floppy discs*.

… except that all the zip archives were corrupt, because the PC couldn’t calculate checksums.

That was not a good day.

Anyway, it is a phenomenally good idea to occasionally check that your backups are real rather than notional.

What I Do

There are basically two classes of data which we care about backing up:

  1. laptop state – what the individual machines have on them which we would need to restore if they suffered a hardware failure.
  2. shared data – irreplaceable files, particularly family photos and the like.

So, with those points in mind, here are the levels of backup which we have:

  • Time Machine – we are, for reasons explained in the technology post, a Mac household and so it is a trivial matter to set up backups to a Time Capsule device using Time Machine. Once you have that backup, you can use it to restore your computer to its original state***.
  • external HDs – we have a pair of external hard discs which I alternate between to perform manual backups on all user machines. As noted above this is not a reliable process because it is human-driven, but this is the form of backup which is stored in the fire safe (and which is therefore safe from network intrusion too).
    One friend of mine also puts the unused external HD into a safety deposit box at the bank, which seems like a pretty sensible thing to do.
  • shared network storage – the Time Capsule can act as shared network storage, but I prefer to use another device so as to avoid overworking the storage drives in the Time Capsule. Also, the Time Capsule does not apply any redundancy to its storage.
    Hence we have a Synology Diskstation with two matched drives in it which are configured in a redundant array. This is where we put common data, since there is some chance that we would still be able to access it even if one of the RAID discs died.
  • shared storage backup – there are a number of network storage devices out there, but the reason I picked the Synology one is that you can attach an external disc to it and have the data backed up occasionally to that external storage.

I’m pretty happy with this backup system, inasmuch as there are multiple copies of everything in multiple forms. The only thing I would wish to add would be some kind of cloud backup.

My Writing

In addition to the primary backups, I also backup my writing.

Firstly, active projects are stored on Dropbox so that I can share the manuscript between those machines that I use – in point of fact, the sharing is in fact the reason I do this but having a cloud-based backup does not hurt. And of course this is regularly verified by my using the project on the other machine.

Secondly, at the end of any writing session, I will archive my Scrivener project and email it to me GMail account. Again, this serves as a cloud backup.

Finally, a lot of my notes are in Evernote – not exactly backed up under my control, but at least in the cloud and therefore supposedly backed up by the company****.


So, that’s what I do – do you have a backup strategy? How redundant is it? And do you have any terrible lost data stories?

[*] the 3.5″ kind, which were neither floppy nor circular**.

[**] yes, yes, I know – the medium inside was a flexible plastic disc.

[***] my only hesitation with this is that I do not know how to test this backup without another Mac to overwrite.

[****] now I come to think about it, I need to revisit this.

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Wordstock Round-up

the Wordstock bag containing words and other mysterious things

the Wordstock bag containing words and other mysterious things

I hadn’t realised until it was mentioned in a panel, but this was Wordstock’s last year at the Oregon Convention Center. There will be no Wordstock festival in 2014, and then the next event will be in spring 2015 at Portland State University.

It’s an intriguing move, with the reasons cited for both the venue change and the calendar change seeming pretty appropriate for the festival’s goals. I haven’t been inside any of the PSU buildings, although it’s a nice campus so I am quite looking forward to seeing how Wordstock works in its new home. I also like that I will only need to get a single bus: no hopping onto the MAX for the last section.

Of course, given this year’s collision with the Portland Marathon, it seems inevitable that the new date will collide with some other well-established Portland running event – I’m betting on the Cinco de Mayo run, since that route passes right through the PSU campus.

But, enough of Wordstocks to come – what about the Wordstock just past?


I attended on the Sunday and booked three workshops. My thinking in booking these was that three workshops cost the same as two, but the effect was of an excessively busy schedule – it reminded me more of my week at OSCON back in 2005 than a literary event. One effect was that I only attended one panel, which I regret.

Still, the workshops were interesting and useful.

“How to Write Stunning Sentences” was a very rapid overview of sentence structure and how to expand a sentence to achieve certain effects. The ideas of left-, mid-, and right-branching sentences were new to me, and when the discussion drifted into rhetorical devices I knew this was a workshop I had made a wise choice in attending.

“Outlining It Might Not Kill You” was less information-dense, but still engaging. The discussion of different levels of complexity in outlining was fascinating, and although I didn’t necessarily learn anything which really changes what I will do it did give me more context to think about rising and falling tension, action, jeopardy, and other elements. This was also the one workshop where I ran into someone I knew, a colleague from the day job.

“Writers and Social Media” was the workshop which most changed my way of thinking, however. Obviously I am not a complete neophyte when it comes to Teh Intertoobs since I have this blog, and I use Facebook, Google+, and Linked In for their appropriate strengths, but my Twitter account has sat largely unused.

This will change.

I’ll post my Twitter handle once that change has happened.

Book Fair

I talked to a few folks in the exhibition hall, but I was mostly wanting to collect information on editing services for comparison purposes. I’m not at a point where it’s worth employing an editor, but I will be soon I hope.

Good conversations and good information.


Of course I bought books.

“A Simplified Map of the Real World” by Stevan Allred was one I wanted to pick up from Forest Avenue Press. It’s published by a friend and I’ve talked to the author a couple of times so obviously I want to support that, but I am very much looking forward to reading it. The design is gorgeous, certainly. I’ll write more about it once I have actually read it.

“The Productive Writer” by Sage Cohen is one I meant to pick up at last year’s show after attending the author’s workshop, but I have it now. I also found out that Laura Stanfill had it in her stack of writing guides which she talked about in the panel she was on.

“Burn Wild” by Christi Krug was also in Laura’s stack, and in fact I picked this up because of Laura’s association with Christi. Anyway, this looks like an inspiring that I am looking forward to reading.

The one that got away this time is “The Writer’s Notebook” from Tin House – I bought “The Writer’s Notebook II” last year and devoured it.

So, that was my Wordstock. How was yours?

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NaNoPreMo 2013 – The Idea

bow down before me, puny human.

bow down before me, puny human.

This is the first post in a series about preparing for NaNoWriMo. If you want to attempt NaNoWriMo without any preparation, then look away now.

Today I am writing about finding the idea for your novel.

Ideas are evanescent things. They can be with you for a fleeting second, and then the shape of them tumbles like a sandcastle in the waves, the sand ready to form into new shapes.

There are two approaches to dealing with ideas: write them down as they occur, or only work with the ones that stick in your mind. I’m definitely in the former camp – I carry a notebook with me most of the time, and keep notes in Evernote to capture and hold the thoughts that drift by. Other writers (notably WIlliam Gibson) only write things down if they stay in the mind – the reasoning is that only the good ones stick around. And it is important to remember that there will always be another idea along in a minute.

So what kind of idea are you looking for when going into NaNoWriMo?

Ideas for stories come in many forms. It could be a setting concept (what if we travelled using floating trees?), or it could be a character situation (this guy loses his job, but finds a magic bag that gives him whatever he asks for as long as it is for someone else), or it could just be an opening scene or line (“The train tracks buckled in the heat.”).

Maybe you even have more than one idea.

I’ve had this happen a few times now going into NaNoWriMo – I don’t really know exactly what I want to write, but I have several plausible ideas. This is where I work on what amounts to a competitive process: I write a treatment for each story idea and then pick the one which seems to have the depth to carry a novel-length story.

Whatever it is, don’t worry if it seems too big or too small: there’s no right or wrong here, and if the writing doesn’t go well you can always have another go later. Don’t worry about it too much or fret that you’re not ready to write the amazing concept you come up with – you have to write something, and it might as well be something you’re interested in.

Do you have your idea?

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Wordstock Addendum

Further to my post about going to Wordstock on Sunday, it transpires that Sunday is also the date for the 2013 Portland Marathon: large parts of downtown and surrounding area will have people running on them for the morning and even into early afternoon.

In particular, TriMet sent out this bulletin:

Due to the Portland Marathon, 15 bus lines will be detoured this Sunday, October 6th from 6:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. or when the event clears.

The 15 lines affected will be:

• 4-Division/Fessenden

• 6-Martin Luther King Jr Blvd

• 12-Barbur/Sandy Blvd

• 14-Hawthorne

• 15-Belmont/NW 23rd

• 17-Holgate/Broadway

• 19-Woodstock/Glisan

• 20-Burnside/Stark

• 33-McLoughlin

• 35-Macadam/Greeley

• 44-Capitol Hwy/Mocks Crest

• 54-Beaverton-Hillsdale Hwy

• 56-Scholls Ferry Rd

• 72-Killingsworth/82nd Ave

• 77-Broadway/Halsey

Some buses will experience sporadic delays as they stop for runners. Before heading out on Sunday morning, please check for information about your particular bus line.

So, plan your trip accordingly.

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My Writing Library

some books about writing

some books about writing

There is a wealth of writing about writing available, and I have a fair chunk of it on my shelves. These are all the books I have about the craft.

  • Spunk & Bite (Arthur Plotnik) – what a grand, fizzing romp through English this is!
  • Word Up! (Marcia Riefer Johnston) – genuinely helpful and relevant advice on writing that people will read
  • Writing Fiction For Dummies (Randy Ingermanson) – I really dislike the branding of these books (along with the Idiot’s Guides – I don’t want to be told I’m stupid) but this is a well-structured approach to the novel.
  • Between the Lines (Jessica Morrell) – so far unread.
  • The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises (James Scott Bell) – uses the Art of War as a launch point for direct and tightly focussed nuggets of advice.
  • The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer (Sandra Scofield) – so far unread
  • How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy (Orson Scott Card) – so far unread
  • Line by Line (Claire Kehrwald Cook) – so far unread
  • Fondling Your Muse: Infallible Advice From a Published Author to the Writerly Aspirant (John Warner) – highly whimsical
  • The Elements of Style (William Strunk Jr.) – short, unsubtle and often wrong
  • Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anne Lamott) – good books, time to reread
  • The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers (Betsy Lerner) – a mixed bag, from what I recall: interesting, but not essential
  • On Writing (Stephen King) – a classic
  • A Writer’s Time: Making the Time to Write (Kenneth Atchity) – useful advice on fitting writing in
  • No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days (Chris Baty) – the handbook of NaNoWriMo!
  • Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Natalie Naimark-Goldberg) – fascinating read, but doesn’t quite connect with me.
  • Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life (Natalie Naimark-Goldberg) – as with Writing Down the Bones, this is an interesting book but not quite for me

These next few are ones I picked up when I was first trying to write, before my decade-long hiatus. Most of them are book club editions.

  • Solutions for Writers (Sol Stein)
  • Plotting the Novel (Michael Legat)
  • Elements of the Writing Craft (Robert Olmstead)
  • How to Write a Novel (John Braine)
  • Revision: An Author’s Guide (Michael Legat)
  • Writing for Pleasure and Profit (Michael Legat)
  • An Author’s Guide to Publishing (Michael Legat)
  • Fiction Writer’s Workshop (Josip Novakovich)

I also have these books as references –

  • Usage and Abusage (Eric Partridge)
  • Descriptionary: A Thematic Dictionary (Marc McCutcheon)
  • The Describer’s Dictionary (David Grambs)
  • Random House Webster’s Word Menu (Stephen Glazier)
  • The Writer’s Complete Crime Reference Book (Martin Roth)
  • The Economist Style Guide: 9th Edition (The Economist)
  • “Guardian” Style (David Marsh)
  • Garner’s Modern American Usage (Bryan A. Garner) –
  • Fowler’s Modern English Usage (R. W. Burchfield) –
  • Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary: Fully Revised and Updated (Webster’s) – my American dictionary
  • The Meaning of Liff (Douglas Adams) – there are genuinely useful terms in here. I use “sturry” all the time.
  • Chambers Dictionary – my favourite dictionary

Overall that is a rather larger collection than I expected, and isn’t even getting into books on general creative advice like Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit.

Are there any writing books you swear by?

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Wordstock 2013

wordstock-logoWordstock is this weekend and I nearly forgot to mention it.

Like last year, I am going to attend on the Sunday. I’m planning on going to three workshops that day as well as mooching around the exhibition hall –

  • How to Write Stunning Sentences
  • Outlining It Might Not Kill You
  • Writers and Social Media

I’m particularly looking forward to the last one because there was a social media panel last year that was too full to get into.

Unfortunately, I didn’t check the panels before I booked the workshops – my friend Laura Stanfill is doing a panel at 1pm which overlaps with the social media workshop.

Anyway, I will be wandering around with an Identify Function card in my hat so feel free to say hello.

Do you have plans to attend Wordstock? If you’re not a Portlander, are there literary festivals in your neck of the woods you like to attend?

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