Monthly Archives: February 2014
Reading an article about the new remake of Robocop today got me thinking about violence in fiction. The gist of the article, which you can read here, is that movies are getting more violent in some ways–there’s higher body-counts–but that violence is getting more sanitized, so audiences have to think less about it. That feels empty to me. It’s desensitizing. (It’s also the reason that the stormtroopers in the original trilogy are faceless and impersonal–the violence in Star Wars would feel a lot worse if the Imperial grunts all had faces.)
In the last book I wrote, only two people died on-screen (as it were), one of them by the hands of a point-of-view character, the other by a nameless soldier. In both cases, though, I tried to be very intentional about those deaths in some way because lives, even the lives of “baddies” have weight: they have some meaning. Every life has value, and in the case of fiction, it is up to us, the authors, to convey that properly. The first death, early in the book, leaves the two characters who survive that scene shaken. Neither of them had ever shot a person before, and although the man who pulled the trigger had seen deaths before, he’d never been so intimately involved with one until then.
I’m not interested in getting (any more) heavy-handed, here, but I think that it’s important, in fiction as in life, to consider the value of the lives around you. Even the people you dislike have lives, families, joys and sorrows. Everybody is the hero of their own story. Honor their lives. Doing anything else cheapens the narrative and may put some readers off. If a character just goes off and shoots someone without giving it a second thought, it will affect how readers see that character from then on, and depending on what emotional role that character is mean to play, it may well hurt your narrative.
So I’ve done a lot of talking (writing, really, I suppose) about how I have my work environment set up, but pictures/words truism. So.
Yes, this is my desk at work, and no, this isn’t where I do much writing (save banging out the occasional 0.5K at lunch), but it is where I spend most of my time in front of a screen. Well, three screens, but you get the point. Honestly, if I had the time and money to get my office set up like this at home, I probably wouldn’t do much differently, although I don’t think that I really need three monitors at home, nor would having two different keyboards and three pointing devices be as useful there. The point is that I’ve had some time to tweak my space to my liking–what you see in this picture represents about a year of experimentation since moving to a standing desk. Will it always look like this? Maybe not. Will it keep evolving as my needs change? Absolutely. That’s what’s important: the ability to adapt, both in your work space and in your practices and approaches to the craft and business of writing.
Rounding out what I didn’t expect to be a series on the tools and environment of writers, I thought I’d talk a little bit today about the physical aspects of a writing environment. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to assume that you’re writing on a computer, because that’s how I do most of my writing.
As with everything else, there’s a huge range of options available to a writer when they’re thinking about making a writing space. You can go with the sort of stereotypical laptop-at-a-coffee-shop thing that a lot of people think of when they picture a writer at work (or at least what they think of when picturing an undiscovered/”aspiring” writer at work), but I find that coffee shops are a pretty terrible environment to work from for any serious length of time because there are too many variables that are outside of your locus of control. That said, by all means experiment with your setup, because everybody is comfortable with different things.
Rather than going into all the minutiae of an environment in excruciating detail, I think that we can break a writing environment down into three categories: sonic, body-position, and equipment.
I like to write with some music on. In the past, I didn’t have a dedicated space for writing, so having headphones was essential because it let me create my own little writing bubble even when I was in a shared/common space. Sound is a vital component of a writer’s environment, whether it’s background/ambient music, white noise, silence, or something in between those. I have at various points used a dedicated writing playlist of songs that I know well enough that they won’t distract me, and on occasion I’ll change out some of the tracks on it to better suit the mood of the piece I’m working.
Body position is one of those things that a lot of people may not think about as much, which is detrimental to a lot of writers. Being comfortable is important, yes, but you need to tune that comfort to not be harmful to your body in the long run. This does to some extent come down to the equipment that you use, too, but I’ll touch on that part in a minute.
For short writing sessions stolen from otherwise wasted moments, maybe in a coffee shop or on a bus/plane/train/boat, just plonking away on your laptop isn’t too bad, but even as I write this, sitting slumped over on my couch at home, I can feel my neck starting to crick. Ergonomics are key for your regular writing space. Find a chair that’s comfortable, and a desk that allows your arms to stay pretty much parallel to the floor, then get your monitor at the right height so that the top of the screen is level with your eyes when you sit up and look straight ahead. Better yet, ditch your normal chair altogether. Some people like sitting on those big inflatable exercise balls, which purportedly helps work your abs while you sit, but for my money, a standing desk (and a tall chair for those times when you can’t be bothered to stand any longer) is the way to go. I switched over to a standing desk at work a year ago, and although I do still spend a portion of my day sitting down in a tall chair, I find that standing while I work leaves me feeling physically better at the end of the day. (If you’re going to commit to the standing desk route, get a good mat to stand on, too, or you’ll quickly give up on the whole standing thing.)
There are a lot of articles on the benefits of standing desks that you can find if you like, but I’d recommend just trying it out for a little while. You don’t need to lay out a ton of money for a standing desk (though you easily can). I’ve been eying a solution to convert a regular desk to a standing desk that can be pulled off for about $22 and a little bit of work, though I have yet to commit to even that expense at home. What I’m really saying, though, is that you should experiment to find what’s most comfortable for you.
The final part of the writing space equation is the equipment that you use: mouse, keyboard, and monitor. Please, for your own benefit if you’re using a laptop as your only computer, at least get an external keyboard and mouse so that you can elevate your screen to be at a comfortable height, but consider getting another monitor, too. Some people like to have huge monitors so they can have their notes/story bible/wikipedia up on-screen along with their writing without having to click back and forth between windows, while others like a multi-monitor setup for the same reason. Do what you can afford and what feels best for you (honestly, I could just delete all of this and leave it at that, but I’m not going to because this is my blog, and you don’t tell me what to do).
Keyboards alone could have their own post, but I’m not going to bore you with that. (The same likely goes for mice, though that’s often more gamer-focused.) Some people really like laptop-style keyboards with very short key-press distances, while others prefer older-style keyboards which require a much farther keypress. Experiment. Never assume that what’s best for you is what you’ve always been using just because you haven’t tried anything else. I really like my split keyboard (one thing that Microsoft is actually really great at), which I’ve found helps minimize wrist pain when I’m typing for hours at a stretch without a real break. I also changed up my mouse, going for a trackball, because of wrist pain.
Wrist pain sucks, guys. Avoid it. Especially if you want to write for anything resembling a living.
So, I think that’s it (at least for the moment) on writing spaces and tools.
Following on yesterday’s post about the writing software I use, I wanted to say a bit more about how I use tech as a writer. I understand that everyone is different in terms of their process and what they’re comfortable with–some people don’t touch a computer until after they’ve finished a first draft in long-hand or on a typewriter, while others dictate and then transcribe their first drafts.
My own setup is pretty platform-agnostic–most of the tools that I use regularly can be run on Windows, Mac, or Linux (which is good, since I use all of those)–but if I were forced to only use one platform for writing forevermore, I would go Linux. I am probably a special case in this regard because, my profession, I’m a techie, but I think that Linux has a lot of advantages over Mac or Windows, with price (free) foremost among them. You don’t need much to run Linux. My first Linux machine was a 4-5 year old (at the time) laptop which took about five minutes to boot into Windows XP, but which was up and running a word processor within about a minute of my pressing the power button, and although that machine is no longer quite so sprightly, I’m sure that if I were to dust it off and load a fresh OS install onto it, it would serve adequately.
Rather than proselytize any particular software here, though, I want to leave this as more of a general discussion of tech for writers. What do writers need from their technology? I would say there are three essential categories: writing (environments), research (tools), and backup/recovery. Beyond that, there’s also ambiance, both the look and feel of the tools that you’re using (the software as well as the machine itself) and any background noise you may want (I usually like to write with music on, and some people swear by having a movie or TV on in the background, though I can’t see how they wouldn’t just get distracted).
I’ve already talked about the text editors I use to make a first draft, so I’ll skip that and move on to research.
The internet is both a writer’s greatest friend and biggest enemy. On the one hand, Google and Wikipedia can tell you just about anything you need to know, while on the other hand, social media (and endlessly following links on Wikipedia) can shut down productivity very effectively. I’m also lumping note-taking applications and personal wikis into the research section. Yes, putting those thoughts down is part of writing, but you’re often putting those thoughts down to flesh out the world of a story for yourself so you can refer to it later. Often, if I’ve neglected work on a story for which I do have extensive notes or a wiki, reading through that information feels like the initial research I may have done.
Did I say I wasn’t going to proselytize any software earlier? Yes? Well, this is where I break that promise. Backups are the most important thing any computer-user can do, but that goes doubly for writers. The question of hard drive failure is never “if,” it’s “when.” In the past, I was a firm believer in Dropbox, and I still am, but I like to keep my options open. While I don’t think Dropbox or Google are going away any time soon, I like to keep a backup that I control, too–preferably in a different location than my primary device. To that end, I’ve started using BitTorrent Sync, which you can think of as a personal, NSA-proof (or at least -resistant) version of Dropbox/Drive/Skydrive/Sugarsync/whatever-cloud-backup-provider-you-like. To start with, you set up Sync on at least two devices that you control. Once you have it installed, you can select any directories that you want to sync between those machines and generate a key for each one. When you put that key into your other machine and select a destination folder, those folders will link up and then sync their contents (this is a two-way sync by default, allowing you, for instance, to merge music collections on two machines). Setup-wise, it’s not quite as simple as something like Dropbox, but it doesn’t hold the same risks, either (there’s no centralized password that ne’er-do-wells can steal and then use to ruin your life by way of deleting all your data). Of course backing up to an external hard drive is also a good idea.
In the end, I’m not going to try to tell you what to do–writing (any art, really) is very personal, and that extends to your setup–I just know that it’s easy to get stuck in a certain way of working simply because you haven’t experimented with other options.
Two things I read yesterday converged in that wonderful sort of way where your mind starts buzzing on a topic and won’t stop until you get your thoughts down. The first was a tweet by Amanda (Fucking) Palmer:
NO AUTOGRAMMAR CORRECT AUTOCAPITALISATION SPELLCHECK FUCK ALL THESE WAVY RED LINES. JUST LET ME WRITE GODDAMMIT DONT TELL ME WHAT TO DO.
— Amanda Palmer (@amandapalmer) February 13, 2014
While the second was distinctly more long-form: an interview with a copyeditor (here). In the interview, the copyeditor is asked about the idea of “house style” being in some ways destructive to the artistry of creative writing–the idea that at some point a writer must cleave to the style guide used by their publisher at the expense of more creative use of language. In asking that question, a letter is quoted mentioning spellcheck and autocorrect, and that, along with AFP’s tweet, really got me thinking about the way that I write (specifically the tools I use to get a first draft out of my brain and onto the page).
All through college, I used LibreOffice Writer, a free word processor that, as far as I’m concerned, is pretty much equivalent to Microsoft Word. It has all the wavy lines and autocorrect (though at the time no grammar checker) that you would expect from such a software package. When I was in the middle of writing a paper, I would often turn the spellcheck off, but even so, it was a pretty distracting environment when all I needed to be focused on was the work at hand.
After school, I found FocusWriter (thanks to the tech forums associated with NaNoWriMo). As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, FocusWriter is designed as a distraction-free writing environment. When you’re typing, it’s just you and your words, with all the toolbars, and even your mouse, hidden away. Of course, you can still turn on an automatic spellcheck feature that will highlight misspelled words for you, but that’s turned off by default, and I don’t see why you’d want to turn it on. FocusWriter isn’t a great tool to use when you’re editing or formatting your work, but it’s not meant to be. About the fanciest you can get with it is putting in bold, underline, and italic text.
Recently, though, I’ve been doing a fair bit of my writing not in Writer or FocusWriter, but in Vim or on an old Alphasmart 2000. Why? Simplicity. All I need is a text editor when I’m writing a story. Anything else has a greater potential to distract me, and, productivity aside, I find it more freeing. Having the most minimal interface (short of a pen and paper) gives me a sort of permission to try whatever I want, knowing that if it’s really crap, I can get it later in the editing passes. (Also, for those times when I do allow myself to backtrack to change something in the middle of working, Vim is absolutely magical, provided you know the right incantations.)
I doubt that I’ll ever stop using a word processor altogether–they have some really useful functions after all–but I don’t see myself going back to them as a tool for primary composition.
Following on my previous post about self-publishing, this tweet from author Myke Cole pretty much sums up all my thoughts on the subject of “gatekeepers.”
The real publishing “gatekeepers” are lazy writers. They bar the gates for themselves.
— Myke Cole (@MykeCole) February 10, 2014
So, way to go, Myke.
If my Twitter feed is any judge, a lot of authors are talking/blogging/thinking about self-publishing of late, and while I’m not a well-known, award-winning author by any stretch, I wanted to toss a few of my thoughts into the mix.
I recently tried out a local critique group (no, I won’t be naming any names) in the hopes of connecting with some other writers in my area. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot, especially after reading through the pieces that were to be critiqued at that meeting, but I wanted to give them a shot, so I tried to withhold as much judgment as possible until I actually met everyone. This is your chance to call me an elitist snob who thinks he’s better than other people because he has a fancy degree in Creative Writing, whatever that’s supposed to mean. When I got to the group, I discovered that one of the authors whose work was to be critiqued that meeting (and the work with which I was least impressed) had self-published their first book after trying unsuccessfully to get it published through traditional means. (They then plugged the book in what felt like a well-rehearsed way.)
In my younger years, I had a lot of strong, shouty opinions of self-publishing (mind you, this was before ebooks were a big thing), mostly along the lines of “the gatekeepers of traditional publishing are important in maintaining a semblance of quality,” to which the usual counter-argument (because I was shouting about this in forum posts) was “you’re just mad because my stuff’s published.” Most of my objections at the time, especially with print-on-demand publishing, were to do with the idea that the money should always flow toward the author–yes, you could do the PoD thing for free, but if you wanted things like an ISBN, you had to put down some money (and my feeling is that most of the people who went this route only barely broke even, if at all).
Returning to my critique group experience, though, gives me a concrete example of my thoughts on the issue. Now, I’m not an expert on writing, nor am I above a certain level of popcorn books, but those books have, for the most part, gotten past the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. Somewhere along the line, there was an editor who said, “yes, this is a book we can sell,” even if that book was a Resident Evil tie-in novel (don’t judge me). What I read through for that critique group was of course a rough draft to some extent, yet my feeling, especially after the mostly glowing praise that this writer was getting from the rest of the group, was that it was not going to get much better. A friend, or even a stranger in a critique group is usually going to give more positive feedback than negative, and the negative is often couched so heavily that it’s hard to find it at all. This is because most people want to be nice to you, at least to your face. Editors, on the other hand, are not paid to be nice–they’re paid to find good stories that will sell and make money for the author and publisher. If you already have an editor, or if you manage to get an editor on a particularly good day, and you send them something that’s good but flawed, they will send it back and tell you that you can do better. (If you send them crap to begin with, they’re probably just going to send you a form rejection.) The ability to self-publish takes away much of the impetus to make your writing better. I have a feeling that in a few years, if I returned to that critique group, that same author would be flogging the book of which I read a draft of chapter one, and I don’t expect, if I were to lay down my money for that book, that it would be much better than the draft I read.
I’m not against self-publishing (in fact I think it has an important place in the industry), but I ask that it be done well. If you self-published your book because nobody else would buy it, it’s entirely possible that you just got unlucky–selling a book or a story can be as much about right market/right time as it can be about execution–but it’s equally possible, from my standpoint as a potential consumer (and as a snark) that nobody was biting because what you wrote just wasn’t that good, and you’re just taking the easy way out rather than trying to improve your work to the point that some editor/agent will pick it up.