The “no boring bits” rule.

I’ve come to an exciting point in my writing. I’m a fan of the snowflake method, so the initial prep for my novel has been to get the storyline, then to add some details to it, and then start working on the chapters. Once the first excitement of coming up with the plot and the themes had worn off, I entered the “Oh, it’s work” phase. For about a month I had to force myself to sit down and plug away for an hour before bed, trying to put words to paper. Now, however, I’ve come to a third, and exciting phase. It’s the phase where I look forward to that hour before bed each day where I get to write. The reason for this is that I have put my two favorite characters into a very sticky situation, and I am eager to get them out of it, but not before they have faced great peril. So now, every night, I’m like “Man! I gotta write! I can’t leave them hanging there! I gotta get them out!” I find this feeling very refreshing. This only came about, however, after I reread my (incomplete) first chapter draft and said to myself: I gotta open with a bang. I can’t have too much humdrum daily existence in the first chapter. I gotta lure the reader in, tell them that some exciting things are going to happen, are already happening! So I started to write in this sticky situation. And things just took off. So now I have a rule for myself: if I have to force myself to write, then my characters aren’t doing anything interesting or of value. I have bored myself, and therefore I will definitely bore my reader. I don’t have to write about those boring parts of their lives. I should only be writing about the interesting, story worthy parts, where they fight demons, and make hard, life-changing decisions. And when I do that, I will automatically become interested myself and raise the probability that my readers, too, will be excited and interested.

Concealing gender

As part of an experiment I’m doing, I’m trying to write many characters in my story without revealing their gender via pronouns. It’s actually not that difficult and I find it a fun challenge, though it slows me down because I usually do a first draft with pronouns and then restructure without. I might even get used to writing like this. I never thought before about how my writing was littered with pronouns, and how with a bit of care I could work without them. So far, I think it improves the writing, but we shall see in a bit.

Making writing a habit

I would, of course, like to write when I’m inspired. Having a family and a day job means that my writing is adjusted to my real life. This means writing late at night, often when I’m tired. It’s actually not so bad. What I discovered is that having some ambient music going settles my ADHD and focuses me quite a bit. Not everyday is productive – things happen in spurts – but it’s all good. I don’t set myself any word goals for the day, I set myself a time goal. I sit and write for an hour each night. If it goes well, I keep writing. Of course, as a result, it’s very slow. But the thing is: if you want to write a 50,000 word novel that’s just 137 words a day for a year. 200 words will get you 73000 words by the end of the year.

And, even if everyday is not inspired at the outset, once I started to force myself to write no matter what, I think I got inspired more often. Of course the writing needs polishing, of course I need to strengthen the weaker spots, but the main battle is to get some words on the page.

The positive side effect of this is that I watch less TV and I no longer play video games or engage in meaningless arguments on the internet. These unproductive late nights have been transformed into something more rewarding, where I can see something being built little by little each night.

Tooling for writing

I was looking at a list of fine open source software for writers and wanted to mention the tools I use. I use Markdown (#8 on that list) which is a very popular, lightweight markup language. Markdown’s philosophy is that it should look great as plain text and the markup should resemble the kind of hand formatting we use (or used) when all we had were plain text files.

Markdown by itself has two important, relevant limitations: you can not include documents in other documents, and you can’t make an automatic table of contents. Both of these are features of LaTeX that I miss in markdown. Without these you are forced to write everything in one big file, which I hate and to generate a table of contents manually, which I also hate. Never fear! There is tooling for that!

I use VS Code to write. It is an excellent code editor, and it turns out, excellent for writing science fiction too! It has a plugin called Markdown TOC, that can be configured to generate a TOC based on the headings in the document. I use this for research notes documents, however, and not to create a table of contents for my manuscript.

For the actual novel I use pandoc which is a fabulous tool everyone should know about. It is the swiss army knife of document format interconversion. I use it to convert my markdown writing into beautiful PDF via LaTeX. Importantly pandoc allows you to easily combine multiple Markdown documents into one PDF.

My text organization is as follows: I order by chapters by naming them 010.first-chapter.md, 020.second.chapter.md … I learned this numbering trick from John’ MacFarlane’s pandoc tricks page. In addition, I have a preamble file that contains some LaTeX instructions.

I wish to use the SFFMS LaTeX style file but ran into many problems when used with pandoc. I found that someone had made a pandoc style file specifically for this, and found it to be just the ticket. I use the story.latex template.

I use git for versioning (#4 which mentions gitbook, which is a UI on top of regular git). I store a copy of the repository on different online services for safety – if my computer breaks down, I will simply be able to clone my repository and continue working.

Why don’t I use Word? Or Google docs? Or Scribus or some other handily packaged tool with lots of widgets for writing? First, I’ve been burned enough by Word crapping out when the document gets big enough that I just don’t trust it. Second, I will never trust my precious writing to a complicated, proprietary binary format. I know that .docx is some kind of XML which is nominally an open sourced specification, but honestly XML?! I don’t think this is better. Plaintext files with minimal, non-intrusive markup is what I find best, and Markdown fits the bill perfectly. git allows me to revision my work and many online git hosts have beautiful tools to check diffs. VS Code gives a word count.

I’m a computer programmer by day, so I find “compiling” my novel to PDF periodically with a command line invocation to be perversely satisfying. Most people don’t and that is OK. I like the control and freedom that this simplicity brings me. I find that without any complicated formatting tools to fiddle with, I write more. I don’t need any fancy “distraction free” mode in my editor. It’s just me and my plain text.

Astronauts warmed the moon

A fascinating story I first read on CNN. The short of it is that recordings from temperature probes put in the moon by the Apollo missions recorded a rise in core temperature after the astronauts landed that was different from how the moon’s core behaves normally. After some investigation scientists concluded that this was due to the astronauts stirring up the lunar surface. This sifting of the soil changed it’s reflectivity and caused those stirred up regions to absorb more solar heat, causing the moon underneath to warm up more than usual.

The abstract is here and the full paper here.

Fully formed

It’s not that I’m that far ahead, but sometimes a whole event or episode will spring to me. I will be on the train, or at a function, and the whole scene will play out in my mind, vividly. And it will repeat on different days. And then I must write it down. And that becomes part of a chapter.

The waste paper basket

There is a lot of wisdom around throwing away writing. Most of what a writer writes should end up in the waste basket, If I had a longer time, I would have written a shorter letter, and so on and so forth. A pack rat like me, therefore, has it especially hard. Why, just now, I was meaning to get rid of all the older versions of the snowflake document and keep the latest one I was finally satisfied with. As I went to hit delete, I decided to read the older files just one more time. I read them, then I decided that, just in case, I would append that text to the end of my current snowflake. Yes, throwing away things is hard.

So I’m writing a novel

So, I’m writing a novel. My first. I have no prior experience writing, though I’ve had a few short stories published. Folks think it’s over ambitious to just start off with a novel, with no prior reputation. I guess the proper way to do it is to start publishing short stories, then serialize something in a journal and then move on to the novel, but I’m getting on in years. I don’t have that kind of time. It’s now or never. So, I’m writing a novel.

It’s a science fiction novel, and a bit of a mix of science fiction and political/social satire as well as some musing on consciousness and humanity. It’s scope is probably over ambitious for a beginner, but lets see how far we can take this sucker.

I’m using the snowflake method – I’ve distilled the novel down to a sentence, and to a paragraph and am now collecting my notes to make a one page synopsis. The snowflake method suggests that character summaries come next, but I’ve got episodes of the story very vividly in my head, and I’m going to write those down whole. They might get dropped when I work on the rest of the story though. I do have the whole novel mapped out, along with the underlying commentary I want to make with the characters.

So, here goes!