Blaming my tools

I was going to talk about my new sooper seekrit plan to release and market Unification Chronicles today, but I experienced some technical difficulties recently that I just have to rant about. We’ll get to the business plan stuff, I promise. Eventually.


For quite some time now, my writing system has been relatively simple and has served me well. I have a notebook in Evernote for each of my major projects. In each, I have various support materials along with a note for the manuscript itself. In this note, I have the outline for the book in plain text and a .docx file attachment for the manuscript. When it comes time to edit, I open the note, double click on the attachment and edit the document. Evernote is smart enough to update the note/attachment every time the file I’m working on is saved (it’s in a temp folder on my hard drive, but that doesn’t usually matter). I also keep my progress spreadsheets in similar notes and work on them in a similar way.

Until yesterday, this system worked flawlessly. I have Evernote on every PC I use: my work desktop and laptop, my personal netbook, my iPhone. It all works great. Right up until it doesn’t.

A while back, I upgraded my netbook to use the new Evernote 3.5 beta. Keep in mind, here, that I used to be a professional software developer. I would never trust my writing to something in the alpha stage of development, but a beta is supposed to be relatively stable, just not feature complete (see the Windows 7 beta as an example). Evernote has made it clear that they will not be supporting 3.1 very long after 3.5 is officially released, so I figured I may as well start getting used to it. So I installed 3.5 Beta 4(!) and set about my work.

Yesterday, the unthinkable happened. Somehow, as I was opening the note containing my manuscript, the attachment for my manuscript completely disappeared! I wasn’t able to undo, and the desktop synced the change back to the server, so I wasn’t able to pull the attachment from any of my other Evernote clients. It was just gone. Nothing in the trash in Evernote, just gone. 57,000 words of fiction, nearly 60 hours of work.

I scoured my hard drive looking for a backup or copy of the file. In the third place I looked, I found something that looked promising, and was able to get the file back. If that hadn’t worked, I would have been forced to reconstruct it from emails sent each day to my beta readers.

Psst, programmers. Yeah, you. C’mere. You NEVER, EVER screw with the user’s data! A friend of mine pointed out that I was using beta software, but ANY bug that can irretrievably destroy a user’s data should never have made it past alpha stage! I’ll accept a beta program crashing, but I will NEVER be okay with it trashing my data!

/whacks Dave Engberg in the head

So I decided to take my data elsewhere. If I can’t trust Evernote to never, ever lose my data, I can’t trust it at all. What else is out there?

A lot of people recommend Dropbox. So if figured, sure, I’ll give it a go. I installed it on my netbook, and hey, so far, so good. The UI is clean and efficient, and it doesn’t seem to kill my Via CPU netbook (it predates the Atom, we’re talking stone age netbook). Documents saved to folders inside the “dropbox” folder on my desktop are automatically synced both to the cloud and any other PCs I have linked to my Dropbox account. Feels a lot like Microsoft’s Live Mesh, only about a kajillion times faster.

And it worked great until I got to work this morning and tried to install it on my office PC. Evernote works fine over my corporate proxy server. It uses the same proxy settings as Internet Explorer, set up in the Control Panel, so it never even asked. It just worked. And while Dropbox claims to do the same, it doesn’t work. Nor does it work if I manually set up the proxy settings in Dropbox itself, which it does allow for (Seesmic for Windows doesn’t, which is why I can’t use it at the office). No matter what I do, I can’t get Dropbox to connect to the cloud through our corporate network goblins. Stupid goblins.

So that’s two highly regarded file sync solutions blown out of the water by my particular circumstances. I don’t trust Evernote anymore—even after downgrading it back to 3.1, because I know I can’t keep 3.1 indefinitely—and I can’t use Dropbox on the PC where I spend half my waking hours. So what’s left?

Sadly, the only thing that comes to mind is good old Sneakernet. I have a 2GB thumbdrive on my keychain, and for now, I’m just going to put everything on there, and periodically use Microsoft’s SyncToy to back it up to the Dropbox folder on my netbook. That way I can access my files on any PC—well, any PC that uses Microsoft Office 2007, because I’m not giving up Word; I’ve tried Google Docs and found it lacking—and as long as I remember to run SyncToy every so often, they’ll get backed up to both my netbook hard drive and the cloud. It’s an inelegant solution, because it relies on my markedly undependable wetware to remember to back it up, but that’s all I’ve got. Every other solution I know of doesn’t meet my requirements: support my corporate network, run on both the iPhone and Windows, and be safe and dependable.

How do you store your working manuscripts?

A big meal in small bites

I’ve heard it said that writing a novel is kind of like eating an elephant. And how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Same thing for a novel. 80,000-100,000 words seems like a lot, seems insane to write that much when you really look at the numbers, but it’s a lot easier if you take it in small bites. When I first heard that professional novelists like like Stephen King and James Rollins write 2,000 words a day, I thought that was fine for them; they didn’t have day jobs. (Actually, Rollins writes six pages a day, but when you consider that the average double spaced manuscript page in a proportional font like Times or Cambria runs a bit over 300 words, this comes out to 1,800 words, or 2,000 if you average 333 words a page. Close enough.) There was no way I could write that much and still have a job and a reasonable social life.

Actually, folks, it’s not just possible, it’s relatively easy. Here’s how.

I have a spreadsheet that I modified from the one Tobias Buckell uses to track my progress as I write. It has all kinds of useful/encouraging information, but the real beauty of it is that I only have to enter two numbers each day: total word count for the whole manuscript and the hours I spent writing for the day. It calculates everything else for me. In particular, for any given day, it tells me:

  • My current word count for the day
  • My “target” word count for the day, defined as yesterday’s total plus 2,000, rounding up to the nearest thousand. So if I finished at 51,212 yesterday, than today’s target is 54,000.
  • The number of words remaining to get to my minimum of 2,000.

Currently, with a word count of 51,521, those numbers are 309, 54,000 and 1,691. Now, here’s the magic. No matter what I’m doing, one of those four numbers is going to be within a couple hundred words of a multiple of 500. So I don’t have to look at the goal if it’s still far away. I’m 2,479 words away from my goal of 54,000 today. I don’t want to think about that. What I want to think about is that I’m only 191 words away from hitting 500 for the day. That’s it. 191 words. That’s less than a page. I can write a page, can’t I?

And that’s the secret. By constantly updating my word count into this spreadsheet, I always have a quick, easily attainable goal. A small bite. Let’s say I write some more. (brb)

Okay, now the manuscript is up to 51,741 words, putting me at 529 for the day, 1,471 to go until my 2k minimum. Now both of the latter numbers are 471 words away from hitting 1,000, and that’s more than a page. Not much more, but it’s a bigger bite. But hey, I’m only 259 words (less than a page) from hitting 52,000! So that’s the next mile marker. I’ll write to 52,000, then update my word count again and look around. Maybe check the Twitter. I average roughly 1,000 words an hour, though I can double that pace if I close my eyes and just hammer away without worrying about punctuation or spelling, which means 259 words is about 15 minutes. Who doesn’t have 15 minutes to write?

See how this works? Each step is easy. So easy, in fact, that you don’t notice how long the journey is at all. And that’s the key to getting 2,000 words a day, every day, in a life filled with job obligations, family needs, movies to watch, Hulu, Twitter and everything else that takes up your days. You squeeze in these tiny bites of writing here and there, scattered in between all the other stuff. Most days, you have more down time than you realize. I’ve learned that if I mix in a 500-700 word sprint at Chipotle over lunch—a quarter to third of my quota—with a bite here and a bite there, I can get up to 4,000 words in a work day without my actual job suffering at all. I’m still working the day job as hard as always, but I’m spending my down time writing rather than surfing. And if I can do 4,000 before I go home, then there’s really no excuse not to get at least 2,000.

This Excel-based workflow, geeky and accountant-like though it might be, has done two invaluable things for me. It’s instilled a dedication to write every day, but if I don’t there will be a big gap in the spreadsheet, and it’s taught me how to get my words in dribs and drabs, but still get them. I’m not afraid of 2,000 words a day anymore. I know I can do it. I know that on a good day I can double it. And so can you.

Indiana Jones and losing your audience

I got to thinking about “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” recently, because I do things like that. I think there’s an interesting lesson here in how to lose an audience, if you think you’re doing okay. The fourth Indiana Jones movies was panned by critics and fanboys alike, even though lots of people in charge of spending lots of money thought they were sitting on another golden installment of the beloved franchise? Why didn’t it work?

Oh, and there are—obviously—spoilers here for the movie. I shouldn’t have to say this, because if you know who I am and you’re reading this blog, you’ve either seen KotCS or you made a very deliberate decision not to. Either way, you’ve been warned anyway. For the record, I liked the movie, probably because I saw past what most people complain about and accepted it for what they were trying to do. But let’s look at three key elements of the film, why they should have worked, and why audiences didn’t buy them.


Stunt: Nuking the fridge

Why it should have worked: Because audiences in this franchise have bought it before. Not this particular stunt, but consider this. If you love the original movies and thought KotCS was a travesty, that means you already accepted Indy, a civilian lounge singer and a ten year old boy jumping out of a crashing plane without parachutes, landing on the top of a mountain in a rubber inflatable raft, slaloming down the mountain without injury, going off a cliff, falling again, this time into white water river rapids, riding through those all without drowning or Indy losing his hat, before washing up on the riverbank just as the waters calm to find an Indian shaman who would like to speak to them about some missing magic rocks. You bought that, but Indy riding out a nuclear test in a solid steel, lead-lined box is too much to believe?

Why audiences didn’t buy it: Because it was a nuke. Those of us who grew up in the Cold War, or even had parents who grew up in the Cold War, have come to associate nukes with instant vaporized death. Even though we know this was a test, and therefore probably not at full weaponized strength, even though we’ve seen pictures of the rubble at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, proving that there is rubble, ie. stuff that didn’t get vaporized, after a nuclear blast, even though we know the fridge was lead lined and Indy could have escaped with only mild radiation exposure—which we saw him get treated for—it’s still a friggin’ nuke.

Lesson learned: Just because something in your story is possible, that doesn’t mean it’s plausible.


Stunt: Aliens

Why it should have worked: KotCS is set in the early 1950s, when Roswell and UFO hysteria was just starting to build in a big way, so aliens and alien artifacts were completely appropriate weirdness for Indiana Jones to find his way into. The artifacts in question were in South America, where legends and speculation about “ancient astronauts” who helped the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas build their civilizations go back decades, well into Indy’s time.

And frankly, you had no problem believing Mola Ram could reach into that guy’s heart, show it to him, and the guy continue living until he burned up. You had no problem with the Lost Ark of the Covenant melting all those Nazis. And you had no problem with Indiana Jones not only finding the Holy Grail—an achievement missed by both crusading knights and Monty Python, unless you believe the French—but also using it to heal a mortal wound to Sean Connery.

Why audiences didn’t buy it: Because even though aliens were appropriate to the time and place of the story, they weren’t appropriate to the character. We have no problems dealing with Indiana Jones fighting off spooky magic and religious stuff, but we associate aliens with science fiction and high technology. Some characters can get away with genre bending, but the more established you become in something, the more rigid the walls around your characters. If Tom Clancy wrote a novel where his high tech military folks encountered Lovecraftian Elder Gods, it would fail just as big.

Lesson learned: Know your genre and where the boundaries are. This was a big one for me, as one of the biggest changes I’m making to the Between Heaven and Hell books this time around is establishing right up in Revelation that the immortals are immortal because of the nanotechnology in their blood, along with a few adaptations to their DNA. In short, I’m establishing the story as science fiction right up front, so when we end up in space fighting dinosaurs by book four, it’s not as much of a leap.

Stunt: Old Indy

Why it should have worked: Well, we were okay with an older Sean Connery in Last Crusade, right? This was supposed to be a passing of the torch from Indy to his son, played by Shia Lebouf, considered by many to the the next generation Harrison Ford anyway.

Why audiences didn’t buy it: In Last Crusade, Connery did comparatively little actual fighting. We knew he was capable of it, at least those of us who remember his James Bond, but Henry Jones acted more as an advisor and sounding board for his son. But this didn’t work in KotCS. Instead of an older Indiana Jones guiding and grooming young Mutt as his successor, Indy kept doing what Indy does. And that’s take a beating, which means for much of the movie, we got treated to the uncomfortable experience of watching a man in his 60s get beat up.

In MMO terms, Indiana Jones is a tank. His purpose is to take damage, not deal it. Think about it. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, for all of Indy’s bravery and copious damage absorption, what did he really accomplish? He failed at every single point of the story, and the only difference he ultimately made was that the Ark ended up buried in some government warehouse rather than buried in the desert sands. He didn’t really stop the Nazi’s at all. They stopped themselves by opening the Ark prematurely.

And so in KotCS, when Indy continues to fail with style rather than letting Mutt take the brunt of it and teach him the family business, the audience had the same “who are you trying to kid” reaction that we get when we see a gray haired quarterback take the field rather than know when to hang it up. Yeah, you know who I’m talking about.

Lesson learned: Think not about your characters, but how they’ll be perceived. Suspension of disbelief is a fragile thing, and once your audience has a “oh, for cryin’ out loud” moment, it’s very hard to get them back. Think about your story before hand and make sure you’re coaxing the audience into playing along, rather than dictating to them how it’s gonna be.

The daily writer’s kick in the nads

I had a good day yesterday. I had a great day, yesterday, really. I added 4,310 words to Revelation, bringing the total to 32,000 even. Last night I went home, yammered on the phone to my writing partner for a while, and then watched NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles with the complete and utter abandon of someone who demolished their word count goal for the day.

And then, this morning, I got kicked in the nads.

I get kicked in the nads every morning. Because every morning, no matter how well or how poorly I did the day before, I start at zero again. My word count today is zero, at least so far (it’s early still). So as great as I felt about myself yesterday, today I’ve got to start pushing that stupid boulder up the hill again.

And yet, days like yesterday show me that it’s not so bad, this daily kick in the nads. All I need to stay on schedule today is 2,000 words, and I did over twice that yesterday. And I did that without getting up early and writing for an hour before work, and I did it without taking my laptop to Chipotle for lunch. I’m become adept at squeezing the words out of the slack spots in my day, finding time to write wherever and whenever I can get it.

And this is the habit that I’ll take out of this year’s NaNoWriMo, the habit that will enable me to write this seven-book series in a year. Just like my plot and characters have turned out different than I thought, the writing habits I’m developing are different than what I expected. I intended to instill in myself a “get up at 6 and get the writing done, day in, day out” habit, but it turns out my life doesn’t work that way. My life is a chaotic jumble of so many things—hell, even my job in tech support is basically to be interrupted—and I suppose it fits that my writing habit would develop as a way to jam little chunks of writing into that chaos any way I can. To get the words in dribs and drabs if need be, but get them. 200-300 words here and there adds up.

Just so I can get kicked in the nads again tomorrow.

Brainstorming with the hive mind

Yesterday I was floundering a bit in my writing. I still really had no firm vision of act 2 and all I did know—that Batarel was trying to kill Daniel and Jack was trying to catch Daniel and Daniel was trying to be neither killed nor caught—didn’t seem like it was much to go on. The more I thought about it, the more it sounded like a Benny Hill skit. And that wasn’t what I wanted.

It occurred to me that part of the problem was that I didn’t know how Daniel was actually going to kill Batarel. In the original book, the immortals could be killed by reducing them to tiny pieces and then burning the pieces. A run of the mill RPG could do this in one efficient step. But this time around, post-9/11, with grenade launchers so commonly available around the world, that seemed too easy. But because I was too close to the source material, I couldn’t think of another way to do it. So I asked Twitter.

How would you kill something that had nanites in its blood that repair damage (injuries, aging) almost as fast as they happen? #research

@jeffkirvin Petrify instead of kill… figure out what the nanites use for fuel and disrupt it in a definitive, fast way… umm *runs out*

@jeffkirvin suffocation #research

@jeffkirvin Simple. Watch Stargate and see how they finally did it.

@jeffkirvin Computer virus vs. nanites… opposing nanites… remove all blood (if they’re only in the blood)

@jeffkirvin Irradiate the nanites? Large magnetic force?

@jeffkirvin Acid? Emp? Impact? Maybe disable the nanites before you can do anything else? Depends on how drastic an injury they can fix.

@jeffkirvin Trying to figure out how to kill your immortals? I guess the whole "There can be only one" thing doesn’t work here, huh? 🙂

@jeffkirvin Seal them in a vacuum and deny them access to raw materials.

@jeffkirvin the the new Outer Limits addressed this once…shock therapy to fry the little bastards…

@jeffkirvin How about a virus – worked against the original Visitors in V and the Borg. Sounds like you’ve made them too powerful for less.

@jeffkirvin A wooden steak in its heart or a silver bullet.

Not all of these suggestions were usable, but they got me thinking. Some of them, like the EMP idea, were brilliant, but won’t work in Revelation because our heroes don’t know why the immortals are immortal yet. They won’t learn about the nanites until they get to examine some demon blood in Crusade, the next book in the series. But there were enough valid tactics and false positives to give me some ideas on how Daniel could have several try/fail cycles in Act 2.

Thomas Edison once said, "I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work." Daniel and company will be doing the same in Act 2. They’ll be trying to find a successful way to kill a demon. And they’ll be trying not to get killed themselves in the process. Add to that my realization that they no longer have any reason why they have to stay in DC, and get an Act 2 that looks like this.

  • Daniel and Co. go on the run
  • Jack gets a lead that Daniel is still in the metro area, wonders why
  • Daniel and co find Batarel’s house emptied and for sale, seller is some anonymous holding company
  • Batarel follows the RV from his house
  • Jack investigates
  • Batarel attacks, gets beheaded, puts head back on, heroes escape to Baltimore
  • Jack investigates
  • Heroes try to drown Batarel
  • Jack investigates
  • Electrocution in Philadelphia
  • Jack investigates
  • Radiation in New York
  • Jack sees evidence that Batarel isn’t human
  • Blow up, but not completely, in Newark
  • Jack finds Daniel just as Daniel attacks Batarel in a Bethlehem Pennsylvania steel mill
  • Dissolve/Melt/Burn/Vaporize
  • Daniel, Jeff and Jack kill Batarel while Susan films it

There’s still a lot of stuff missing from this. I know that Susan needs to play a bigger part, and I’m thinking she’ll be blogging about the entire experience as well as uploading videos to YouTube as soon as I can figure out how she can do that without tipping off the FBI to their whereabouts (I think this is why they hop from one major metro area to another; it would be too easy to track her signal in a rural environment). I’m also thinking Jack needs to nearly catch Daniel at some point, shades of that scene in “The Fugitive” with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones in the drainage pipe.

I also like a lot of the little touches, like trying to electrocute Batarel in the home town of Ben Franklin, and ending it and meeting the Archangel Uriel in a city called Bethlehem (not far from where I went to high school, as it turns out). Little things like that, which weren’t initially intended, tell me that the story is taking on a life of its own, that it’s an organic thing unto itself. A good outline doesn’t preclude organic writing, it just provides a skeleton on which to base it.

No, really, I should be writing

I’m not blocked, I know exactly where my story should be going, and when I do sit down to write, the words that show up, however grudgingly, are good ones.

And yet, I logged a grand total of 192 words over the weekend, 5 (yes, five, and that only to fulfill the Maximum Geek Ultimate Writing Challenge demand to write something every day) Saturday and 188 Sunday. My manuscript currently sits at 22,616 words, short not only of my 2k per day pace (30,000 as of yesterday) but even the easier NaNoWriMo pace (25,000 as of yesterday). I now need over 2,200 words a day to come in on schedule for this book.

Before I go into the following, I want to let my readers know I already know the solution to my problem. Butt in chair, fingers on keyboard, write. It’s just like eating less and exercise for weight loss; there really is no other way.

But in the interest of showing what not to do—as ever, it seems my primary purpose in life is to serve as a cautionary tale for others—and to take certain excuses off the table for myself and other writers, let’s take a look at why I didn’t get much done over the weekend.

Reason: Too tired.

Explanation: I have sleep apnea, a breathing disorder common in heavyset people, that causes my airway to close off while I sleep and stop my breathing temporarily. This is usually treated with a CPAP, or Constant Positive Air Pressure, device, basically an air pump feeding a hose attached to an airtight facemask that forces my airway open by sheer air pressure, like a balloon. Friday night I experienced a technical problem with my mask and rather than get up to fix it, I just decided to do without it for one night. As a result of the subsequent oxygen deprivation, I was groggy and sluggish all day.

Why This Doesn’t Count: I gorram well know better, and should have fixed my CPAP. I could argue that I’ve been pushing myself too hard for the last two weeks and my body was just insisting on getting some rest, but I’m not sure I buy that.


Reason: So much interesting stuff on the Hulu, Twitter, Google News, Instapaper, etc.

Explanation: While I didn’t get much writing done, I did spend a big chunk of the weekend, when I wasn’t catching up on TV shows I’d missed during the week, reading Twitter, RSS feeds and saved articles.

Why This Doesn’t Count: Do I really need to explain this one? Writing is supposed to come first. Yes, the Patriots/Colts game last night was amazing. No, I had no business watching it until I had my 2,000 words. Same for Twitter, Google Reader and all my other time sinks. I get a lot of useful stuff out of those. But writing needs to come first.


Reason: Fear of success.

Explanation: One of the shows I was watching Saturday instead of writing brought up an interesting point. The character kept stalling in opening his own business because as long as he didn’t actually try and fail, it was still a dream rather than yet another thing he screwed up. I’ve often felt the same about my writing. Despite concrete evidence to the contrary (see previous articles about characters coming up with better ideas than what I had in mind for them), I tend to think that the stories are better in my head and that I damage them, somehow, by writing them down.

Why This Doesn’t Count: This is, of course, complete wooly-headed bullshit. I know damn well that the stories improve during the writing, and then improve more during editing. Getting them out of my head is only the first step in the process. And besides, even if they were perfect in my head, if I don’t write them down, so what? Who else will ever know?


Reason: Expectation that I can catch up.

Explanation: I know I’m capable of 3k days. I know I’m capable of 6k days every so often. So what difference does it make if I take a few days off? I can make it up later.

Why This Doesn’t Count: I’m sure this one sounds damn familiar to anyone who ever had to write a term paper. And it’s largely the same reasoning. I know I’m a fast writer, so I can trust that speed to save me later. Although just like in The Grasshopper And The Ant, this never actually works. Things come up, and Murphy’s Law dictates that the closer you get to your deadline, the more distractions you will have. Yes, mathematically, if I do 3k per day for six days, I’ll catch up on the 21st at 42000 words. Is that really going to happen? Maybe. Maybe not. But I shouldn’t be in this position in the first place.


Ultimately, none of these excuses matter. Either I make writing my number one priority, or I don’t. If I don’t, I’m not going to make it very far as a professional writer. So do I want it, or not?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, this article is 883 words, and while I’m fully committed to keeping this blog going, I really should be writing fiction.