Month: February 2014

Trackless

sometimes the right track is difficult

sometimes the right track is difficult*

I have lots of tools that I use for planning and staying on track with my various projects. I don’t use all of them all the time, though.

The most powerful tool I have is the burndown sheet, whether in a spreadsheet or a carefully formatted text file. It’s exceptionally good at juggling multiple projects, especially when those projects are comprised of small, well understood tasks. I haven’t been using that lately because the projects I have on my plate are either large and monolithic or reactive.

Another really strong tool is time striping. This is terrific for packing a lot of work into a limited time, such as when multiple projects are coming up on deadline, or when there is an immovable date and a certain amount that needs to get done before. I haven’t been taking much notice of my time stripes in the last few weeks since neither of those pertain.

Word count goals are wonderful when you’re laboring in the word mines, whether in November or during other drafting, but not much use for editing. I know one writer who adds words during the week and trims them on the weekend, but that’s not me.

Next actions are useful for being aware of what you could be doing at any given time to move things forward: when one project hits the buffers for whatever reason, you can go to the next actions list and pull out something you could actually usefully do instead at that time. I’ve been using this more at the day job of late just because next actions are good for managing loosely defined projects or staying on task in a reactive mode. There’s also a stack priority ordering I like to do in the list which I will talk about another time.

The tool I have been using in my writing most recently has been the manuscript itself. Working through a printout of a book gives me immediate feedback on where I am, and a quick restart to return to a working state when I pick it up – almost a self-tracking project, in fact.

Each tool has its time. The trick with using any tool is recognizing when it is not appropriate, and to not feel guilty about not using it when another tool is being employed.

[*] this may be the oldest digital pic I’ve posted here. It’s from July 2001 on Dog Mountain along the Columbia Gorge on the Washington side.

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Shaping Up

my work-in-progress cover. Look how ugly it is!

my work-in-progress cover. Look how ugly it is!

Hello. It has been too long.

In part, I do blame the Olympics with its amazing athletes. It is utterly mesmerising to me even with the disappointing coverage which NBC offers* and the inevitable late nights and general too-much-TV-ness of it ruins my routines. Including, of course, this blog.

I have at least been working on some fiction. I completed the typo edit of Shapes of Chance, my 2013 NaNovel. It is amazing how long it takes to do copy edits on a 100k word book, although it is a 95k word book now after deleting all the bracketed comments. There’s also a lovely idea I have had to strengthen the protagonist which will only slightly radically alter the entire shape of the story, but it sharpens the premise a lot and makes the tale more obviously science fictional a lot sooner.

Now I will be be continuing the drafting of Song as well as returning to blogging regularly.

It’s good to be back.

[*] I often miss the BBC, but most keenly during the Olympics.

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Blame the Olympics

the asterisk Olympics

the asterisk Olympics

Even with all the problems at Sochi and with the Russian human rights record, even with NBC’s atrocious coverage*, I’m afraid I get addicted to watching the Olympics. It’s about astonishment at the prowess of the athletes and the excitement of seeing sport without the forced narrative of the big team sports.

The day job means I don’t see it during the day** so I end up watching it until too late in the evening – certainly too late to be bounding out of bed at five to write, anyway.

So expect posting to be a bit irregular until they’re done.

[*] people in Britain criticise the BBC coverage sometimes, but if those critics ever had to watch what NBC does… A particularly egregious example was showing a gymnastic gala in the prime time evening slot when there was actual sport happening on the track.

[**] there is an irony here which I will spare you.

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Wikis: building a world book

an icy branch

an icy branch

This is part of a continuing series about wikis and how they are useful to writers.

World books

A world book is the description of the setting for a story which a writer creates during the writing process. It could be a literal book, some journal or sketchbook containing notes and drawings. That still works in this modern age, but finding information in a hand-written document like that is going to be a challenge.

Wikis as world books

Wikis are editable web pages with easily created links to new content, so building a world book with one is conceptually simple:

  1. make a page for a subject in your world
  2. write some things down about it
  3. make links for subjects you want to make new pages about
    • people
    • locations
    • artifacts
  4. save the page
  5. click on a link which has no content yet – the wiki will create a new page for it
  6. go to step 2

Once the pages start to accrete, you will quickly find rich details emerging from the interaction of the subject pages.

A public demonstration of this kind of world book creation is the Encyclopædia Morningtonia, a collaboratively created exploration of the lore and personalities of Mornington Crescent.

Read the book

The most important thing about any world book is that it should be read and updated. It’s not a static document, but a record of your explorations of the world. Reading it will remind you what’s cool about your world, and spark ideas for stories and more details.

Tips and tricks

  • create a sub-wiki for the world you’re documenting – the wiki tool I use is Twiki (for reasons to be explored in a later post) and you can create new webs, although the same concept can be applied in other wiki tools too. Isolating a work’s wiki means isolating its name space, so that Amos Fosdyke in your mining drama won’t be confused with Amos Fosdyke, the romantic lead in your Mornington Crescent tournament erotica.
  • use Recent Changes – this is a collection of the pages that have changed most recently. Important memory cues include when and in what order things happened, so seeing which pages were written together may provide ideas for more things to put into your world.
  • look for incomplete links – wikis will often include a search for links which do not have a page to point at. Use those incomplete links to see where more details may be required.
  • use tags and labels – most wikis have a labelling feature akin to tags (tags being free-form text labels). Use these to mark pages as belonging to different categories, eg flora, fauna, locations, groups and group memberships.
  • write index pages – tagging will get you a fair way in grouping your pages, but a useful tool to structure your reading is to make index pages: lists of links which collect in a structured way related subjects.
    For example, you might have an index for all the characters who support the theme of loss in your story, or a chronological list of locations as they are to be used in your story.

Where things break down

Wikis have two primary failure modes:

  1. searchability – adding content to wikis is very easy, and you can quickly end up with an unnavigable mass of pages. This is why so many of the tips I mention above are to do with applying structure to the information, and encouraging grooming of the content. Search features get you some of the way, but having multiple routes of entry and navigation around the content will help you make use of it so much more effectively.
  2. duplication and linking to the wrong thing – when you’re writing a page, it can be very easy to make an error in a link name. “What was the name of the MC’s father?” you might ask yourself, and thus end up with two pages with different names containing the same content. Fixing this kind of duplication is one of the reasons it is important to keep reading the world book even while writing more of it so you can spot these inconsistencies early. Tagging and reviewing recent changes will help too.

In addition to those primary modes, renaming pages can present problems – sometimes a character’s name will change, for example. More powerful wikis support name changes of pages pretty well, but those wikis are also the ones that are hardest to set up in the first place.

Wikis really are very useful though, and they’re worth playing with just to see what they can do for you.

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How is my manuscript bad?

Having finished the corrections read through on Shapes, I thought I would confess as to how this manuscript is at fault  based on this perusal – not the only faults, but the ones I have noticed this time.

Errors of Commission

This read through was mainly about finding errors: things I had done wrong. These errors fall into the following broad categories –

  • typos – misspellings, grammar boo-boos, and other faults of expression.
  • poor word choice – places where I just used the wrong word for the sense I was trying to convey, or where some small restructuring of the sentence would increase the impact.
  • wrong name – sometimes I forget a name (particularly for an infrequent incidental character), sometimes I will re-christen a character I had forgotten already appeared.
  • notes – I often embed [notes in square brackets] which need to be preserved but shouldn’t be in the manuscript any more.
  • deletions – I also [delete things by surrounding words with square brackets], a device specific to NaNoWriMo where the words should be discarded but not lost to word count. There are a lot of these.

Errors of Omission

Things I missed out.

  • missing connective tissue – there are spots where I realised I needed to change direction but I haven’t written the turn yet, or where earlier sections need to be reworked a little to match up.
  • missing scenes – some scenes just got dropped because I ran out of time, and those are keenly missed.
  • missing description.

Errors of Not Being That Good

Things I should have done differently but which I wouldn’t have learned about except by writing this version of the story.

  • wandering scenes – passages where I really didn’t know how I was going to get somewhere and so I trundled around some barren moorland for a few pages looking for the destination.
  • repeated ideas – a necessary bit of explanation which inexplicably appears twice in separate scenes. Or three times. Or even four.
  • missed opportunities – I’ve realised that there are some things I should change about the story which will make it ten times more awesome.

How Much Is Broken?

I can’t give a definitive sense of how many errors there in the manuscript, but looking at the amount of corrective ink (red, black and orange depending on which pen was working) I see between two and ten marks per page – let’s say an average of five for the sake of argument – over more than four hundred pages.

That’s pretty consistent with other manuscripts, I think.

The next version will be better. Time to get on with applying the corrections.

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Heroes, MCs and protagonists

I was following a very interesting conversation about heroes and protagonists, anti-heroes and villains today on Facebook* started by one of my writer friends.

I am not going to recapitulate the discussion. Instead I wanted to present some thoughts on character roles and in particular on central or point of view character roles.

I’ll also be diving into roleplaying, but that will come later.

We Can Be Heroes

Does a story need a hero?

It’s pretty clear that most successful stories need a central focus – or a series of foci for a multi-POV story – whether that central character is the narrator or not. For example, the central human character of Moby Dick** is Captain Ahab but the narrator is Ishmael.

But is Captain Ahab a hero?

The Facebook conversation I mentioned was concerned primarily with the difference between heroes and antiheroes – those flawed central characters who might do the right thing despite themselves rather than out of heroic principles – and from what I know of Ahab he would fit the antiheroic mould quite well.

However, I wanted to go a different way here to talk about central characters and the meanings of different labels we use for them because it seems to me that there is a hierarchy in play here: a hierarchy of agency.

Heroes are larger than life characters who bestride the story rather than merely being in it. Indiana Jones is a hero who is known to his antagonists before the story starts. If we are talking of agency, we must mention Bond – James Bond is well known amongst his enemies*** before the story starts (at least before Connery’s Dr No, anyway). Luke Skywalker is a hero who is undertaking the well-documented Hero’s Journey from apparently humble beginnings to true heroic status.

But not every story has a hero as its central character. Sometimes the protagonist is more normal than heroic. Arthur Dent is hardly a hero – he is an aggressively normal person rather than a hero, someone written to evoke sympathy rather than admiration, but he still has agency.

Many of the stories of Lovecraft have main characters who are ordinary people marked by circumstance rather than capability for their role in the tale****. The reader has empathy with the protagonist because they can identify with them, but in many cases the story happens to them rather than because of them.

So this is the hierarchy, then:

  • heroes have the most agency because they have the drive and/or abilities to do extraordinary things
  • protagonists have agency but have limits also
  • main characters are central to the story because it is they who the story happens to, but they may be victims of the story rather than instigators.

Agency in Roleplaying

There is a mapping here to roleplaying games, and in particular the game systems.

Heroic systems such as Dungeons & Dragons consider the player characters to be heroes: extraordinary individuals with unusual abilities: a highly trained monk, a wizard with magical powers, or a chosen emissary from a barbarian god. Ordinary people in those worlds cannot throw fireballs or carve their initials into an opponent with their sword. Player characters are hard to kill.

On the other hand, game systems like Basic Roleplaying (BRP) – the basis for Runequest and Call of Cthulhu – try to model people a bit more closely. Call of Cthulhu especially is deadly for player characters, and that is not just because of the nastiness of the monsters: getting in a gunfight in CoC is not a good idea at all.

The Savage Worlds system tries to have a foot in both camps. The standard rules talk about PCs as wild cards, unusually gifted individuals with chances to retry failed tasks and more chance of completing tasks in the first place, but the Realms of Cthulhu setting tries to tone these advantages down a little with the gritty vs pulpy axis: selectively removing wild card advantages to put the PCs in more jeopardy.

They’re still quite hard to kill, though.

So, think about how much agency your characters. Where do your characters fit in the agency hierarchy?

[*] every now and then I think about dumping Facebook, but conversations like this wander along and I am reminded why it is still worth using.

[**] which I have never actually read, I’m afraid. For those howling in outrage that I have not opened this classic of American literature, I should note that grew up in Britain and so my English teachers inflicted classics of British literature upon us.

[***] which is a really bad attribute in a spy, although as noted occasionally he is an assassin rather than a spy.

[****] Randolph Carter is a notable exception.

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2014 Goals Post: Imbolc Edition

This first goals post of 2014 seems, as it did last year, a bit abbreviated since the goals were only set a month a month ago. But I like to keep my eye on the road ahead, and I’d rather look now and make a correction than look later and be in a ditch.

Structure

Last year I ran down my plan and updated on how each part was going, then set a next action. That’s more or less what I am going to do this time, but I also want to set a goal for each part too: something measurable, rather than a qualitative sense of how I thought I did. I am going to make these not simple pass/fail but traffic light colours: red for fail, yellow for partial success, and green for completion.

No traffic lights this time, though.

With that, on with the review.

1. Finish Song

Last action: refocus plan based on what I have and where I want to be.

Here is the new plan:

  1. To complete the outline. No work on this.
    Next action: complete the outline once I write off the end of what I have.
  2. To complete the second draft in line with the outline. I have picked up the second draft writing again, although I have also come to realise that most of what I am doing is rewriting the same scenes with different POV so a more productive approach might be to import the text and modify it rather than rewriting from scratch. I am not using a typewriter, after all.
    Still, I wrote almost 11,000 words in January. I basically stopped when I picked up Shapes, of which more below.
    Next action: continue second draft process.
  3. Edit that second draft. Pending completion of steps (1) and (2).
  4. Make submission materials. Pending completion of step (3).

So I completed the action, even if I didn’t do such a great job of applying it just yet.

Goals for next update: hopefully I will be able to work more efficiently on this than I have thus far, but still… I think it’s unrealistic to say I will have the second draft completed by next update – if only because I have about another 60k to write, and I cannot be as monomaniacal as I am during November.

So, my goals for next update are:

  • complete second draft of act two
  • revise outline for the rest of the book

Metric: Yellow for one, green for both.

2. Complete Shapes

Last action: read manuscript starting the second week in January.

Here is the plan for Shapes:

  1. finish reading of draft – once for readability, once for errors. Currently nearing the end of the errors read-through.
    Next action: complete draft reading and markup.
  2. apply corrections from draft read. Pending step (1).
  3. give it to my wife to read. Pending step (2).
  4. restructure outline. Pending step (2) and feedback from step (3).
  5. second draft – make existing material match outline; add new material. Pending step (4).

Goals for the next update: since I am neck-deep in this at the moment, the goals are pretty clear:

  • finish error markup
  • apply error corrections
  • hand off to my wife to read

Metrics: yelllow for one or two, green for all three.

3. Look for an agent

Last action: finish a novel so I have a manuscript to query.

I still feel like Song is the best bet for something actually finished since Shapes is going to need a good deal of new material, but any actual work on this is dependent on having a half-decent manuscript in hand,

So, not going to bother setting goals or metrics for this one yet.

4. Be productive in fiction

Last action: figure out writing time plan.

I don’t have as well-structured a plan to point at here, but here’s the strategy and here’s the first attempt.

How’s it gone?

Not very well. I’ve been having difficulty in getting up in the morning for my required five o’clock writing time which has led to a number of late blog posts (including this one). I have been fairly consistent in working on the Shapes manuscript read-through on the bus, but I’m really not spending much more than an hour a day on my writing.

That may be the new normal on this, to be honest.

Goals for next update: I only really started the time striping last week so I don’t want to abandon it yet, still…

  • get up to write in the morning
  • give time striping another couple of weeks.
  • try something else.

5. Run Hood To Coast

Last actions: lose some weight, and solidify my base.

I do have an actual plan here:

  1. lose some weight. This has been disappointing so far. I have actually put another couple of pounds, what with illness and tiredness and other such “reasons”.
    Next action: actually lose weight.
  2. figure out a team training plan. No work on this yet, but it’s time to do it now.
    Next action: sketch out a team training plan.
    Next action: rally the troops.
  3. races. The first one is the Shamrock Run 15K on 16-Mar-2014.
    Next action: run Shamrock.
  4. injuries. Well, no new injuries yet. I suppose that’s good.
    Next action: don’t get injured, but also do some low-impact exercise to rest existing weaknesses.

Goals for next update: some specifics on all of these, then:

  • lose five pounds
  • have a team training plan
  • complete Shamrock. Goal time here is 9:30 miles.
  • ride to work a couple of times a week.

Metrics: yellow for 1-2, green for 3-4 (because riding to work is especially hard with the loss of writing time). Serious injury will put this on red straight away, of course.

Risks

What’s going to stop me on these goals?

  1. not getting up early – it’s amazing what a difference it makes to get the early morning writing done.
  2. roleplaying – I will probably be running the the New Dawn campaign again in March, and there is another roleplaying group possibly starting up associated with my kids’ school. It’s all time.
  3. other commitments – there are other important things that need to be done and I have been neglecting them.

In other words, I have set goals for this next update period but if I miss a lot of them then the answer is going to be to set less ambitious goals, at least in part.

And with that, it is time to go to sleep so that I can get up early enough to get some writing done!

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