Changing Toolset


Since my early 20s I’ve completed at least 4 novel-length pieces1. While the genesis of each one was different, the creation of each one differed as well. Some of those differences reflect the technology of the times and some reflect the differences in me.The first novel-length tale grew out of my time at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, written in longhand in a series of notebooks in the late 80s before being transferred to the computer using a DOS-based word processor called XyWrite. I nibbled; rearranged; cut, revised, re-added over and over again until finally sticking that novel in the drawer for good many years later.

The second novel I wrote quickly, almost entirely in WordPerfect (yes, it still exists) with no notes, just a burst of creation that took only a few months to a first draft. With that one, the joy was in the creation and while I have some plans to do a deep edit with an eye towards publication, it was an anomalous blip in how I plan and write my stories.

My third novel — A Call of Moonhart — took me some 5 years from beginning to end. My research started when I read Guns, Germs, and Steel and 1491 but didn’t stop there. I put my notes in OneNote and wrote in WordPerfect (several iterations, since the writing took so long), spending hours and hours at various coffee shops and at the Union Terrace and other places not-home. Most recently, I’ve ported it to Scrivener to begin the self-publishing process which will be finished in Word because that’s how the world works, not because I want to use Word!

My fourth novel, Harmony in Three Voices utilized Evernote for initial thoughts and sketches, Aeon Timeline to try to get all of the stories to line up, and Scrivener for the writing. Not a word of it went into a notebook longhand and very little of it did I write outside my home. I needed the full-sized monitors on my desk, the ability to split the Scrivener screen so I can write one scene while referring to another, and the second monitor to have my notes ready to hand. I would compile the day’s work into a PDF file and do reviews on my iPad using iAnnotate.

I’ve begun the research for my next novel and I anticipate that my tools will stay the same: Evernote for the research and Scrivener for the writing. But as both of those have iPad versions, there may be more writing or researching outside the home, but who knows that the technology of the future may hold for me? I may go back to fountain pen and notebook, for that matter.

Each novel has been different and each one grew differently. I think that’s one of the most exciting things about being a writer. I’ve learned that I know how to write a novel, but do I know how I’m going to write this novel?

  1. That sounds uncertain, doesn’t it? I’ve abandoned the first novel, incorporating many of the events into my third. After completing the first draft of my third novel, I realized that I needed to cut it half because it was too long, so that’s sort of two novels, right? And as stated in a previous post my current novel project is over 150k words but the discards are more than a novel’s worth of words by itself. So how many novels have I written again? 

NaNoWriMo 2014


Back in 2007, I joined and “won” NaNoWriMo with what eventually (like 5 years after that one month) my novel A Call of Moonhart. That time, I knew I had a novel-length idea, I had the world building in hand, and the timing was right to get a jump start on all of it. Eventually, that 50k words formed the basis of two novels (one still more-or-less in draft form) totally nearly 250k words. NaNo was a good way to get all that started.

This time around, I’m in a totally different place. I have two, no THREE totally different projects that I’m thinking about at the same time. One of them, which seems the most commercial, is going to take a whole lot of research that I’ve only just begun. An entire time and place that I’m only passing familiar with. Don’t get me wrong, the research is half of what I like about my writing. Maybe even two thirds. But the story idea is strong for that and I’m excited about the project.

I’m not writing on that for NaNoWriMo this year.

Another project, taking least as much research as the first but with extra added world building required, is a really powerful concept. I LOOOOOVVVVVEEEE the concept, and it includes an expansion of one of the worlds I first began writing in about 20 years ago. But I have a concept, not a story (although I may finally have an inkling of one now) and it takes a story before I can write. Even me, a “pantser” by NaNo terminology. If there isn’t a story, then what I have are research notes, and no one wants to read that.

I’m not writing on that for NaNoWriMo this year, either.

What I’m working on isn’t even a novel. Unless I’ve badly underestimated how long the frame tale is, or I come up with another entirely new idea for a set piece, this is novella length at about 30,000 words. Even so, I won’t know until I get there if this is even a story with a defined arc, or a series of character sketches. You see, these are some of my favorite, most familiar characters. I’ve been writing them, or versions of them, or their friends, or people who hung out in the same area at one point, for at least 30 years. They are comfortable old friends to hang around with. They are all too pretty, too smart, too good to hang contemporary fiction on. To borrow from Ellen Kushner, I love to write about these fine people all hanging around, drinking, and having sex. Fun to write but boring to read and it isn’t commercial. In my case, my NaNo project this year is going to be some very self-indulgent crap that I’m taking the month of November to churn out. But, you see, (and I have the time lines if you’re silly enough to ask for them) there’s this gap where I have my male character making his way alone in the world, nursing a hurt from ten years before when his best friend/sometime lover left without a word. I have a later period where he is reunited with this woman, but not as lovers, for he is with a third woman. What I don’t have is: what happened in those ten years? How did they reunite? Just how awkward was it when the love-of-his-youth comes back into his life just as he’s beginning a very adult relationship with an amazing woman? What happened to make them all friends? More than friends?

I have been doing very little writing while I shopped for an agent for my last novel. At the end of that period, I have no agent and no new writing. Pulling out these old, friendly, comfortable, well-loved characters is a great place to find my writing flow again. I wrote an extended character study in early October, but now I want to know what happened in those ten years, and how it all resolves.

I won’t “win” NaNoWriMo this time around, but that’s not my goal. I want to write. I want to answer these questions. And I want to try out a new set of writing tools. Instead of OneNote and WordPerfect and a laptop and desktop, I’m now using Evernote, and Scrivener, and a tablet and the desktop. Getting to know Scrivener and developing a new toolset seems like it would be a “win” to me.

Book Review: The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

One of the books recommended at the Return of the Rape Panel was Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword. Since I’d also been to the Living the Long Tail panel, it became the first book I’ve read using a Kindle app on my Android phone. The following  is both a review of reading on a phone and a review of the novel.
One of the things I mentioned as a benefit of using Kindle was that, pretty much as soon as someone mentioned a book at one of the panels, I could access Amazon and get a sample of that book sent to my Kindle app. That makes it really easy to keep track of recommendations and then to read enough of those books to see if there’s more I’d like. Buying the book is very simple from the app as well.
Another benefit that I hadn’t realized at first was that all instances of Kindle used by me are linked. I have a Kindle app on my home PC, my work PC, and my phone (no Kindle device yet, but I’ve been strongly leaning in that direction. At least until my home PC became a boat anchor and there may be a new computer purchase in my future). I usually have my phone with me throughout the day and more than once I found I wasn’t able to make it home for lunch. That meant eating out and I had reading material with me. A really nice feature was that Kindle kept track of where I’d been reading across all of the devices. If I read for a bit on my home PC and then went out to lunch, the phone app would ask if I wanted to go to the furthest point read. It remembered where I was on that device and where I was over all. Nice feature.
For the most part, I enjoyed reading on the Kindle app. One of the things that has me more interested in Kindle than the other book readers is that Kindle allows me to make annotations, bookmarks, and highlights. Except you can only create bookmarks with the phone app and that’s not as nice. It makes the app good for novel reading, but not great for research. Good limitation to know.
I’ve read the two other books that Ellen Kushner has set in this universe (Swordspoint and The Fall of the Kings) and enjoyed them both, but it had been several years since I’d read the last one. That meant I felt a bit lost trying to remember if I’d met certain characters before and what they’d been doing when last we spent time together. That was probably a mistake on my part. Ellen (I can use her first name that because I’ve met her a couple of times at WisCon. Spent time in her “living room” at the ‘con several years ago. She wouldn’t remember me at all, but I’d like to pretend we’d be on a first name basis) set this story several years forward from the last one in the series and so the main characters in those tales were secondary to this one.
The story is really good. Let’s get that out of the way up front. I think it may be my favorite of the series but I should re-read the first two before I make that definitive. This review is going to focus on two elements of the story that are either intriguing or challenging. The first is the reason the book had been recommended to me originally. A major element of the plot is the rape of one of the secondary characters. Unlike rape as it’s depicted in shows like Law and Order SVU or the majority of novels, this rape was typical. What’s that? You don’t know what I mean? Rape as it’s often depicted in TV shows and books is most often perpetrated by strangers with violence. Afterward, the person raped is usually totally destroyed by the experience or has put it all behind hir by the fourth act or a dozen chapters later. More to the point, rape is something that happens to move a plot forward and then ignored when the plot no longer requires hir suffering.
The rape in this story is actually typical: the person was someone she knew, it happened more by the way of coercion (social more than physical) than knife point. She then told her family about the rape, but they were more interested in preserving the family name and status than in helping out their daughter. I admit: at first I was put off by the fact that the last half of the novel became about the rape. Despite picking up the book because of how it handled rape, I found the story to be distressing to me because of how much time was spent on the aftermath. Of course, before long I realized that was the point. The violence perpetrated against the character, particularly in the society as Ellen set it up, needed to reverberate across all the other characters and plot points in the novel. Just as promised at the WisCon panel, the issue of rape became central to the character and the story and it has handled appropriately.
The other element of this story that I wanted to touch on is an issue of craft. Ellen used a first person point of view for the main character and third person for multiple other characters. I’ve tried to use that approach in a short story because of the potential for storytelling. The short story didn’t work that well, but that was more because of me than the technique. I liked how the approach helps center the story in the first person character. All the benefits of first person POV can then be used to get us really close to the main character. We’re in her head and experience the world as she does. But the limitation of first person POV – that we will only know what the main character knows – can be sidestepped by having the third person used for the rest of the storytelling. Ellen uses a close third person: each scene is told pretty tightly from one POV during the scene/chapter. But she uses a range of those additional voices, whatever is needed to tell the story. Instead of being a “lazy” way of using the first person POV, Ellen uses those additional voices to add tension to the story of the main character. It brings us closer to her even as it expands the canvas of the story. Not every novelist could carry that off, but Ellen does it very well.
To sum up, the novel is very well told with a wide range of enjoyable characters. The situations presented take this novel off the “casual, summer fluff” list, but that’s ok. I’m guessing that reading it on a Kindle app didn’t take from my enjoyment at all. But if I see Ellen at WisCon again, it’s going to make it damned difficult getting her to sign the e-copy during the Sign Out.

Writing in a Time of Technology

I use a lot of tech when I write. Everything from a fountain pen on notepaper, to a notebook computer, to a desktop computer with dual monitors. Which tool(s) I use depend on where I am in the process and what I’m trying to accomplish. Using a pen or a laptop at a coffee shop is pretty self-explanatory, so I want to spend some time talking about the tools I use at home, especially during the rewrite process, which is where I’m at presently.
To create my world, I used a program called Fractal Terrains. I went through several attempts before the software gave me a world map that had on it a continent that came close enough to my idea of what I wanted for my story. The program even put in rivers and lakes. I found that working with the elements that I didn’t specifically plan or design put some constraints on me that improved the writing. On my own I might have forgotten things like putting rivers in inconvenient places. It’s been awhile since I used it, so I may not do an in-depth review of this program. I then used a companion program called Campaign Cartographer to make a map out of the part of the world I’m using. At some future date I may put in roads, villages, place names, etc. When I’m writing at my desk, I’ll open this program to check distances between points and remind me of where those inconvenient rivers might be.
If you’re reading this online then you’re familiar with web browsers and some day I may review the different sites I use for reference. When I’m writing new material, the web browser is closed and when I’m rewriting or editing it’s open. Closed when I’m creating because it’s easier to do research (or “research”) instead of actually writing. Open when I’m rewriting or editing because it’s then that I’ll need to check facts or be sure of word meanings.
Shot of OneNote showing some of the sections I use.
The map was imported from Campaign Cartographer.
The best program that Microsoft didn’t steal swindle buy from some-one else, is called OneNote. I use OneNote 2010 to keep track of all of my research. If I figure out how, I’ll even post an empty novel writing notebook I prepared for use in OneNote. It contains the same sections I created for tracking research for my current novel: World Building (physical elements like maps and climate), Culture (religion, language, dress, history), Characters, Writing (outlines, reminders, things to do), and Business (agents, markets, tracking). I added a section for Rewrite to track the extensive differences between Draft 1 and Draft 2. For research – or more importantly, for remembering what I’ve researched and what I plan to do with what I’ve researched – OneNote is indispensable. If it’s on the web, Internet Explorer has a Send to OneNote feature that captures the page and provides a link to it in the note. If you have a tablet with pen input, you can add hand written notes.
My novel has two first person narratives running in parallel and the story moves over several weeks. My nation’s history goes back more than a thousand years and I have seven primary characters and several more secondary characters. Each of them have birthdays, events in their lives, places to be and times to be there. It may be that some people can keep track of all of that in their heads, but I can’t. I use Microsoft Excel with several workbooks open: a country timeline, a story timeline, a character timeline, and a history of the rulers of my country. I don’t actually track word count or rising and falling action as I’ve seen some do. I tried and found that it had limited utility for me, but that could always change.

Desktop version of Pandora

Pandora or iTunes. I need music while I write. I discovered Pandora a year or so ago and really love the way I can create different music streams depending on my mood. Instrumentals for writing. I need to have the only words around be the ones I’m putting on paper. Songs distract me too much.
When I’m not using pen and paper, I use WordPerfect for my writing. I know. The world uses Microsoft Word. Even Mac users are being sucked into using that inferior product. I’ll do an extensive review with compare and contrast between Word and WordPerfect, including their underlying word processing metaphor in a later blog post. Suffice it to say, for long form documents like a novel with multiple chapters, WordPerfect is far easier to use and less prone to corrupting files.
To sum up, when I’m writing I’ll have the following programs open. The closer to the top of the list, the more likely it is that the program will be running it comes time to write:
  • WordPerfect
  • Pandora or iTunes
  • OneNote
  • Excel
  • Campaign Cartographer
  • FireFox

Let me get back to that fountain pen. Despite all of the tech – because? – the fountain pen plays a very important role for me. The story always ends up in electronic format, but sometimes I can’t create on the computer. The typing, the compilation of words on screen sometimes becomes an impediment to the writing instead of an aid to it. If I’m creating poetry or lyrics I can’t do it on screen. If I’m working on a difficult section where I know there are going to be a lot of starts and stops, then I’ll go back to paper and ink for the creation. It’s easier for me to draw a line through a written section and start anew than it is for me to select and delete. Not sure why. Delete it and it’s gone and there might be something in that false start that helps point me to the true start. On paper I can cross it out but the words are still there to be mined for the next attempt. When I edit, at some point, I have to go through it pen to paper at some point. I can do some work on the screen, but the close work is always with a pen on paper. Not even an “ink-enabled” tablet changed that.

Besides, if I’m feeling uncertain, an afternoon spent pen in hand resulting in ink-stained fingers is a great way to connect with the process of writing.

What about e-readers? What about my bookshelves!

One thing the Long Tail panel got me thinking about was the electronic distribution of writing. Kindle, Nook, iPad, and other e-readers are increasing in popularity. While there’s a lot of contention over the numbers of e-books sold (are the increasing numbers representing dollar sales or units sold, for example) there is little contention that more and more people are consuming more and more written works electronically.
I discovered that my Android phone has a Kindle reader app already installed on it. I decided to try it out and discovered a great use for it at a ‘con. Many of the panels I went to offered suggestions for books to read. I fired up the phone’s browser and went to Amazon. Nearly without fail, Amazon offered a Kindle version of the books I looked for. Not only that, Amazon offers sample chapters. Downloading a sample chapter not only provides me with a reminder of the books discussed, but then I can read the samples to see if I want to read the whole book.
What remains to be seen is, what will the Kindle (or a device like it … I’m still not sure if Kindle is the format I want) mean for my bookshelves? What kind of reading do I want to be in paper and what kind can be in a more ephemeral format?
My initial thought is that the casual reading would be a good thing for an e-reader. I love medieval murder mysteries, but I never read them more than once. If I move, those are the kinds of books that get purged. So perhaps the casual books are the ones that can be electronic.
On the other hand, e-books can have a search function. Kindle seems to offer bookmarking and annotations (The android version doesn’t and I haven’t used the Kindle itself. Those features don’t seem to be available in any version of the other main readers). That would be really handy. I do a lot of writing in coffee shops and having all, or at least a large percentage, of my research books available without having to lug them all around would be a marvelous tool.
Considering something like the Kindle can hold thousands of books, it may be a both/and situation. I may be in the market for a Kindle or other e-reader. I may have a use for it. It may be that the bigger question is, do I still have a use for my bookshelves?