New tools

“Don’t blame the carpenter. Blame the tool.” –Howie Long in a new Chevy commercial

Am I the only one who thinks he’s calling that guy a tool? Anyway, I’m not going to complain about my tools today, so much as document one more step in my never-ending quest to find better tools for writing.

My grand Google Docs experiment lasted all of two chapters into Crusade, the second book in the Unification Chronicles series. It’s entirely possible that this has nothing to do with Google Docs, but when I hit a slump one of my first impulses is to mix up how I do things. As it happens, a major improvement to an old friend happened along at just the right time.

Evernote

Two days before Christmas, Evernote gave us iPhone users an early gift. Evernote for the iPhone version 3.2 fixes most of the problems I had with the iPhone version. Syncing is no longer modal, meaning you can search and do other things while syncing to your database, and you can store selected notebooks locally on the device, meaning you can always access them offline even if you’ve never opened that particular note on your iPhone before. While Evernote for the iPhone still doesn’t allow you to edit rich text notes directly, version 3.2 does allow you to make a plain text copy and edit that rather than just appending to the rich text note. This allows for revisions I couldn’t do before.

These changes make Evernote vastly more useful to me for writing on the go. And of course it doesn’t hurt that the latest build of the 3.5 beta—yes, I know I said I wasn’t upgrading, I have a sickness—is pretty solid as well. These changes are so impressive, in fact, that I’ve gone back to Evernote for my actual drafting. I keep each chapter in a separate note, tagged as “draft” and in the Unification Chronicles notebook. I really like having all my stuff in one place again.

BTstack Keyboard Driver

Of course, writing on the go with just the on-screen keyboard on my iPhone only works for relatively short passages. For any kind of speed, I’d still need my netbook, with the additional five pounds—3 for the netbook, 2 for the AC adaptor and cables—to lug around that this would entail, right? Not so much. The BTstack Keyboard Driver also appeared on Cydia last week. This is part of the overall BTstack project, intended to provide an alternative Bluetooth stack for the iPhone that handles profiles Apple chooses not to support. The keyboard driver, as you might expect, allows the iPhone to use external Bluetooth keyboards using the Bluetooth HID (Human Interface Devices) profile.

I still have my ThinkOutside Bluetooth Stowaway from my Windows Mobile days, so I paid my five bucks, downloaded and installed the driver and set about testing it. It’s definitely still a work in progress, but it’s very promising. Not all of the ancillary keys work, and sometimes I get a string of garbage characters, but overall, it works for getting text into the iPhone fast and easy on a full-size keyboard (my Stowaway is actually marginally more comfortable than my 92% full size keyboard on my netbook). So add this to Evernote and now I don’t have to take my netbook with me to Chipotle for lunch. My back and shoulders already thank me.

Enso Words

Writing in Evernote has a few disadvantages, chief among them that Evernote has no word count function. How do I track my progress without work count? Enter Enso Words. This is a small utility program that runs all the time in your Windows system tray and waits to be called either by holding down the Capslock key like a second shift key, or as I prefer, tapping the Capslock key and entering a command and enter, or esc to go back to what you were doing. When you have Enso Words activated, you can have it perform a variety of functions on whatever text you have selected in virtually any application.

So to get a word count on my current note in Evernote, I:

  1. Hit Ctrl-A to select all text
  2. Tap Capslock to invoke Enso Words
  3. Type “wo” to narrow down the command selection to “word count”
  4. Hit Enter

Enso words then pops up a little box on screen with my current word count, and that box fades away automatically as soon as I type something or move the mouse. With a little practice, this becomes second nature. I could even shave off a keystroke if I used Enso in “quasimodal” mode and just released Capslock after typing “wo”, no longer having to hit enter to send the command. Enso is also great for looking up definitions and synonyms, spell checking in any application, changing case, searching Google and more. It’s free, and takes up very little system resources, even on my netbook.

WriteMonkey

When I want to get hardcore, though, I break out the monkey. WriteMonkey. This is a text processor for Windows inspired by the popular WriteRoom on the Mac. While it works windowed—and that’s how I use it at the office—it’s really intended to run full screen. In full screen mode, WriteMonkey takes up your entire monitor, hiding even your Windows taskbar and shows you just what you need to see to write. It’s small, fast, portable and keeps a running word count at the top or bottom of the screen so you can see how you’re doing. The idea here is to remove all the distractions and just write.

WriteMonkey doesn’t integrate automatically with Evernote, but it’s not all that hard to get them to play together. I select all the text in a note like I would with Enso, but then copy it, fire up WriteMonkey, paste and start writing. When I’m done, I select all and copy from WriteMonkey and then paste back into the note in Evernote. Pretty simple.

Google Docs

I still use Google Docs for one thing: spreadsheets. I keep my word counts there in a simple sheet that holds the word count for each chapter and then sums them to tell me the word count for the overall novel. And hey, I can even update Google Docs spreadsheets on my iPhone! (Now I just need Enso Words for the iPhone.)

So that’s it, my new system, designed to be the simplest I’ve come up with yet (since it can’t really handle formatting, there’s no temptation to spend time making it pretty). How do you take your writing on the go?

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2009-12-28

  • UC Blog: No, apparently he can’t be taught http://bit.ly/7EG8FA #
  • RT @FakeAPStylebook: zero-base budgeting – A method of writing a state budget so that zzzzzZZZZZ… #
  • RT @JhonenV: if you're my kinda nerd, you were distracted by James Horner's incessant self-cannibalizing of his previous themes in Avatar. #
  • @crimsonsky76 WTF? I mean really, WTF? How can they stop selling Word? in reply to crimsonsky76 #
  • ProSwitcher is the MFing bomb. Worth jailbreaking just for this. #iphone #latetotheparty #
  • @aslapintheface <whisper>sometimes they don't even know they're stupid…</whisper> in reply to aslapintheface #
  • Just got done listening to George Carlin's "Last Words" on Audible, and now @mikecane's tweets sounds like Patrick Carlin to me. #
  • RT @Ali_Davis: OK, teabaggers, FINE. BUSTED. There are death panels. What wussy anti-war liberals want MORE THAN ANYTHING is to kill people. #
  • @aslapintheface I try real hard not to think about that. in reply to aslapintheface #
  • Oh, look, another Blackberry outage #havingonlyonedatacenterisstupid #
  • @aslapintheface I have never seen any such people. Just lonely copies sitting untouched at the supermarket. in reply to aslapintheface #
  • @PhilippaJane And yet, a whole herd of cattle will follow a llama… in reply to PhilippaJane #
  • RT @OTOOLEFAN: When are they gonna repossess Carrie Prejean's tits? #
  • RT @stinginthetail: i see Palin's book's called "going rogue"—funny, i thought that was to do with elephants trampling the poor ppl—oh wait… #
  • Good morning, tweeple. In case you were wondering, it's snowing in Denver. Again. At least it's technically winter this time. #
  • I have completed my Christmas tradition of reading "The Stupidest Angel" by @TheAuthorGuy Christopher Moore. #
  • I should probably start my Xmas shopping at some point soon… #
  • UC Blog: Missing something http://bit.ly/6PNYkv #
  • @rcartwright Way ahead of you. Will complete my shopping EXTRAVAGANZA with a single trip to the grocery store for gift cards&greeting cards. in reply to rcartwright #
  • @maureenjohnson is giving away FREE copies of her book Suite Scarlett for the holidays! CHEER! http://tinyurl.com/mjmysterygift in reply to maureenjohnson #
  • Outline for UC book 2 is shaping up nicely! http://bit.ly/6PNYkv #
  • ATTN Subway, some advice: http://bit.ly/7keFWA #
  • @rcartwright But why even have isosceles cheese if you're not going to take advantage of it? in reply to rcartwright #
  • @rcartwright Also, "Isosceles Cheese" would be a great name for a rock band. in reply to rcartwright #
  • @nlowell @sethharwood eInk devices will be a curious transitional device in ten years. I already read everything on my iPhone. in reply to nlowell #
  • I'm pretty sure Howie Long just called that guy a tool… #
  • Got one page today after a holiday dry spell. It's a start… #amwriting #
  • RT @vg_ford Breaking news: glaring at word doc does not, in fact, produce words in said document. Damn. #amwriting #
  • RT @BroncosStable Show of hands… who has Gaffney in the fantasy lineup today for the playoffs? (crickets… crickets… Bueller) #Denver #
  • #Broncos have a chance, but they've got to get stronger on the o-line #
  • And for the second game in a row, the Broncos watch helplessly in the final minute as the opposing team scores the winning points. #

Focusing on what’s important

It would seem I’m destined to do this writing thing in bursts over time. I don’t know how much I’ll be posting here and on the Unification Chronicles blog in the near future, nor how much fiction I’ll actually get written. But unfortunately, I have other priorities that usurp writing.

Last week, my mom had her thyroid taken out because the doctors couldn’t tell whether or not it was cancerous by biopsies alone and figured it was safer to remove it. We now know that it was cancer, and that the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes nearby. We don’t know if the lymphoma has progressed any farther, which of the 35 kinds of lymphoma it is, or which of the four stages it progressed to. They’re still testing to determine those things. My mom could be cancer-free because they already removed all the cancerous tissue, or it could be much, much worse.

So for a while, my top priority is to be there for my family, to support them and help out as much as I can. I’ll try to find time for writing, will have to find at least some time to prevent going crazy. But my grand scheme to write seven books in ten months has been thoroughly derailed by real life.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2009-12-21

What writers can learn from Avatar

I saw Avatar over the weekend, and loved it. I’m naturally inclined to like James Cameron movies. I think he’s one of the best storytellers working today. Not the most innovative writer, but the best storyteller. It’s an important distinction.

A lot of talk around this movie centers around the special effects, especially in 3D. Yes, they’re amazing. Yes, the 3D is used subtly, almost never throwing things “at” the audience, and provides an additional solidity to the CGI that you’ve never seen before. You feel like like you’re there, on the moon Pandora with the characters. And as Chuck Wendig points out, the 3D and CGI compensate for each other’s weaknesses, making everything seem just, well, real.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today.

A lot of the reviews and even snide comments on Twitter about the film mention is that the story isn’t anything new. They misunderstand something fundamental about storytelling and assume that this means Cameron is just “mailing it in,” using new visual effects to dress up a tired story that we’ve all seen before.

They don’t understand that the very best stories, by definition, are stories we’ve all seen before. That the very reason why certain stories have been told over and over and over for thousands of years is that they work. They resonate with us, down to an unconscious level. Was the plot of Avatar predictable? Sure. It’s basically “Dances With Smurfs.” But think for a second. How many times have you seen a story about a broken soldier who finds first companionship, then purpose, in the company of his enemy? Dances With Wolves? Pocahontas? Enemy Mine? How far back can you go?

If you really think about it, thousands of years. This story is one of the timeless tales you’ve heard before and will hear again. It comes from myth. Just like “coming of age”, or “the hero’s journey” or “pride goeth before a fall”, or any of the other fundamental structures hardwired into our primate brains. The story of Avatar was told around cooking fires in central Europe 10,000 years ago. The details change, but the story is eternal.

And that’s why the movie works. Because while the CGi gives you a sense of awe and wonder, and helps in the suspension of disbelief, it’s the story, and the characters of Jake, Neytiri, Gail and the rest that make you care. I was welling up several times during the film, a difficult thing when wearing essentially two pairs of Ray-Bans, and it wasn’t because of the CGI. It’s because I was caught up in the story, totally engaged and rooting for the characters.

Don’t mistake the simple for the inferior. All too often the best stories are those we know by heart.

Having written

“I hate writing, I love having written.”

—Dorothy Parker

I finished writing the first novel in the Unification Chronicles series today. This is the first time I’ve actually finished a full-length novel since the spring of 1997, when I finished Between Heaven and Hell. Sounds like a big accomplishment, right? So why don’t I care more?

I used to completely identify with the Dorothy Parker quote above. (Hardly surprising, as she’s one of the godesses of snark.) I was all about the destination, in a hurry to get the journey out of the way. But in the last dozen years, a funny thing happened.

I became a writer.

Yes, technically, I was a writer in those early years, in that I wrote things. But I was always more concerned with what I was going to do after the book was written than actually writing it. In no small way, this is why it took me a dozen years to finish writing another book (even if that book itself only took six weeks to write). Because my focus wasn’t really on the writing. It was on other stuff. On what my life would be like as a best selling novelist, on quitting my day job, on getting to hang out in coffee shops all day.

Now, things are different. I’m older, and I’ve spent the last fifteen years writing consistently. Mostly nonfiction, but writing. Putting words together. In that time, I’ve developed a feel for the English language, taken a talent for writing and turned it into a skill. I still have a lot to learn, as evidenced by my already growing lists of things I need to fix when it comes time to revise the book, but that’s okay. The journey’s okay.

The fact that I’m not more excited about finishing my first novel in a dozen years could be best thing I could ask for in my writing career. Because the biggest reason I’m not more excited about finishing the first book in the series is that I’m already working on the second book. And the fact that I now derive more pleasure sense of accomplishment from writing every day than finishing a novel means I’ve learned to love the journey. I’ve become a writer.

On making ebook piracy inevitable

Simon & Schuster have announced that they will be delaying the ebook releases of at least 35 of their big name releases in 2010. Doyce Testerman has said pretty much what I have to say on the matter, so why don’t you go see what he has to say.

This decision, which I fully believe is grounded in nothing less than a toddler-like desire to cling to the once-profitable but entirely outdated publishing structures of the past, actually creates an environment where, from a ebook-pirate’s perspective, it is a good idea to steal from them, because there is no legitimate competition in that space.

via The Future, the Past, Willful Ignorance, and Simon and Schuster – doyce testerman.

Basically, Simon & Schuster (Stephen King) and Hatchette (Stephanie Meyer) are forcing users who want–or need–to read books via ebook format to either do without or turn to P2P networks and download pirate scans. For me personally, this means nothing. I haven’t bought a paper book in a decade. If it’s not available from Amazon or eReader.com, I simply don’t buy it. I have hundreds of books that I can read instead. But the author won’t get my money, either, and that’s a shame.

I think it’s worth noting that I just bought a copy of Earth by David Brin on eReader, even though I’ve had a pirate scan of it for years. Why? Because the scan sucks as a reading experience. It’s badly OCRed, meaning the line and paragraph breaks are in the wrong places and it’s rife with typos. Even though I could get the story for free, it was worth $8 for a professional presentation, and cleaning up the scan would have taken up far, far more than $8 worth of my time.

People will buy ebooks if they’re priced to provide a good value for the content, but you have to give them the chance in the first place.