Monthly Archives: November 2012

Scary technology upgrades: software changes

A manuscript – paper or electronic – represents more hours of a writer’s life than most of us can contemplate losing. But for electronic ones there is a further hazard: having your only machine-readable copy be too old for contemporary computers. The longer it takes from the first word to a published version, in this day of rapid technology change, the more it is possible that your oldest files – the ones you haven’t opened in a long time – are lost.

I have at least one complete mystery novel on 3.5″ floppy discs in Macwrite written on a Macintosh. I have a single bound copy of the finished manuscript, and a box in the basement which may contain another. That’s it. DH tried reading the floppies into a Windows machine with no success. That novel is not a high priority – and I do have two paper copies in the event I want to try to publish it again. And I can read it into text with DragonDictate (since I can SEE the words). Or scan and use OCR software plus hand corrections. I haven’t even really tried reading the floppies – they haven’t gone through computer guru offspring yet.

The WIP is another matter. I’m determined to finish Pride’s Children, and post it on the blog’s free fiction page as I edit each Chapter. The manuscript consists of current edited files for the first chapters, the original revised drafts on paper (filling two banker’s boxes), and, I was hoping, digital versions of the third draft.

I have completed – thanks Scrivener AND MS Word 2004 for Mac – the scary process of getting an up-to-date copy, into Scrivener, of text that I have been creating since early in the century, on at least four different versions of Macs, starting with a Macintosh I named Excalibur (I can’t remember what it was!), an iMac, and a Powerbook.

The files were so old, some of them, that Scrivener couldn’t open them. Eek! Fortunately, I imported them to my then-new Macbook in 2006 (!), and haven’t lost them, and Word 2004 (my default wordprocessor until it doesn’t work any more) successfully opened these files so ancient they didn’t have DATES in Finder – and were Read-only – and created new versions in .doc format which Scrivener had no trouble opening.

All I lost, during the Scrivener import (it translates to .rtf for import), was Word’s Hidden text feature. I had used it to put my structure, in Hidden text so it wouldn’t print or show if I didn’t want it to, into the same files that held the text. I have decided to keep the structure, in Scrivener, in a parallel set of files, so Hidden text isn’t necessary any more. Scrivener, with its capacity to handle large projects with lots of files in one place, now contains every word – text AND structure.

Scrivener even seems to have imported Styles from Word: the files have the same look as they did in Word. I have to dig into that next.

But something I have been avoiding for YEARS, and fearing for YEARS, is now done.

And I didn’t have to OCR or DragonDictate stacks of paper which contain my backup of a novel which now runs at around 350,000 words. Yup. And which will be divided conveniently into a duology, because with Dramatica for structure, the ability to split was built in a long time ago.

Dramatica changes more slowly – I’m on my second incantation (Dramatica Pro 4.0?). There is a more current one which I may upgrade to when I’m finished, but the present version is working fine on the Macbook (I know, I know – ancient software), and I’m assuming (careful there) that the newest version will be backward compatible in reading its files when and if I buy it.

I am a slow adopter of new versions, and tend to make the new version (of things such as Firefox) LOOK as close to the old version as the developers will allow, if forced to upgrade because things don’t work, or work too slowly. Not one to go out and get shiny new objects – because I can’t afford the learning curve.

Unless forced to. I decided to do Scrivener because it comes with the ability to produce ebooks in various formats, and also seems designed to handle future formats.

I don’t object to progress, per se, but I don’t pursue it for its own sake. The cost, to my slow brain, has to be worth it. I can’t often afford the energy and time required to upgrade along with software and hardware, but instead tend to skip as many generations as I think I can get away with. Only this time I almost waited too long.

In this case – adopting Scrivener – I was also conscious of the huge disparity in technology over the last decade. Even my Macbook – Version 1,1 – is an anachronism, regardless of the fact that I doubled its RAM (to 2GB!) and upgraded its internal HD from 60GB to 750GB (all by my lonesome – with help from all kinds of info on the web and on Youtube – yay modern learning).

Now off to do two things with this massive Scrivener project (which BTW doesn’t seem to slow Scrivener down at all – compared to working with my own file system and in Word, I am amazed already): 1) create the file which I may copyright as a WIP, so that I can 2) start putting the edited novel up on the Free Fiction section of the blog.

I am on my way! Comments from writers who have navigated the process of copyrighting novels serialized online especially welcome – after digesting the NOLO Copyright Handbook I can think of at least THREE ways to do it, and none of them sound exactly right.

Thoughts? Advice?

For better dialogue in fiction: write a play

When you can’t depend on interior monologue to get your point across, you lose a huge advantage. As a writer of fiction, you can either be blatant (He felt like death.) or subtle (He remembered med school: learning all the ramifications of the vagus nerve, enervating myriads of gastric components and pathways, useless for pinpointing the source of trouble in his gut, useful only to prove something, somewhere, thought it was wrong. But he’d never expected to feel so many of them. Simultaneously.) when using interior monologue, deep or distant.

But you get to choose.

As a playwright, you work with action and dialogue. Period. And have collaborators – actors and directors – who may aid you or may fight you, but whom you don’t control.

Tradition in the theater preserves the playwright’s absolute control over the dialogue, the WORDS. Many actors and directors will routinely cross out stage directions and the author’s parenthetical instructions on HOW to say a line or move about on stage, but they will not change a WORD of the dialogue.

Even in an adaptation of the play ‘Mary Stuart’ in high school, in SPANISH (I was Queen Elizabeth I, the actual lead – whee!), our director limited himself to crossing out large amounts of dialogue (the play was too long for us), and making the tiniest transitions where absolutely necessary. He would not change the translator’s version of the WORDS.

This is an absolute gift for novelists.

I urge every novelist to go out and write a play*.

Buy yourself $100 worth of playwriting books (buy – so you can write in them). Swallow them whole. Pick a visual story. Write the darned thing (maybe I’ll get back to the how in a later post).

And learn to live within the constraints of the form: you tell your story in the DIALOGUE you give your characters.

Oh, all right. You also have setting, and choosing WHICH of your characters are on stage at a given time, and stage/dialogue parenthetical directions.

But DIALOGUE is your main weapon.

And your written dialogue in your fiction gets much better.

You shouldn’t do ‘talking heads’ or ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue, any more than you should do it in a novel – doing so demonstrates a distinct lack of technical skills.

It’s “I’m going to paint the Mona Lisa with BOTH hands tied behind my back, using only this paintbrush clenched in my teeth.” Because that’s what it feels like when you start.

But it CAN be done. It’s been done since the beginning of time. It can be done WITHOUT a narrator to gum up the works. And it can be done so the audience feels like eavesdroppers, watching something real happening right in front of them, right now.

Heady stuff. Ask full-time playwrights. Ask actors and directors.

Dialogue in plays is elliptical (not the shape – the punctuation mark), at cross purposes, full of innuendo and half-said things. And lies. Lots of lies. But it must tell the story or you are merely doing pantomime. It has to add up. The WORDS matter.

And that is precisely its value for writing the dialogue – and telling the story – in fiction: it has to add up.

Doing it with time constraints – on stage – leads to the most economical method of telling a story, the fewest words. Doing it on stage, intended for a live audience which gets BORED and restless within seconds if the pieces of story it is receiving do not add up immediately, is like boot camp for dialogue.

The audience can neither skip ahead nor go back to review something unclear. And it won’t like being bored. So you learn to leave nothing out, and put nothing extraneous in.

Audiences want stories to make sense, pronto, and continuously. So you learn to feed them the story in bite-size pieces, story beats, so they can put the whole thing together in their heads and follow.

It is an awesome discipline to acquire – and the results, in terms of the ability to do good dialogue in fiction, are equally awesome, so much so that stripping a scene I’m editing down to ONLY the dialogue, and walking through it as if I expected it to be performed on stage, is now one of the basic steps in my process, and a step that often shows exactly where the flaws are.


* CAUTION: Even though they share similarities, movie scripts and plays are ENTIRELY different beasts. I don’t recommend (unless scriptwriting is your form and dream) writing a movie script unless you are a masochist: EVERYTHING is up for grabs in a movie, and even the actors have no compunction about slaughtering your words.

Switching pov character: maintaining coherence with Scrivener

One of the things I will do when I’m finished with the current draft is to use the ability of Scrivener to put out different versions by selecting various keywords. I will put together three separate .mobi versions of the WIP, each including ONLY those scenes from the pov of one of the three main characters – and then I will read those on separate days.

What I’m hoping for as I write, more or less chronologically, alternating as appropriate between the three, is that each character’s understanding of the whole story will be a separate strand in a braided story, and that the only one who will really ‘get it’ will be the reader.

By reading the pieces separately, I hope to pick up any subtle changes in tone that warn me I’m slipping out of a character’s mind. “She would never say that,” or “He wouldn’t believe this,” should appear more clearly, as I read, if I never switch.

Right now, while writing and editing the current draft, it takes me a significant amount of time to switch pov when I tackle the next scene, as I almost never have two consecutive scenes in the same pov. This is by design (make things as hard as possible for yourself – it’s good for you): if the setting and characters don’t change, but some amount of time passes, I have learned how to slip that time loss into a transition paragraph WITHIN the scene. Since the writer chooses what gets words and what doesn’t, anyway, the little time-slip slips by the reader if done with a modicum of skill (“She took forever to come out of the bathroom, but the wait for that negligee was worth it”).

I have found other ways of moving the story along if there is a good reason for staying with a single character, say, over a chapter break.

AND I always make sure the reader is oriented to which character is in possession of the scene with the first line or two. The more distinctive the three voices, the easier it becomes to find something only that character would do/think/say, and confirm it with some subtle hint as soon as possible.

For this novel (Pride’s Children) I chose a tightly controlled close third point of view because I want to show the story from right behind the eyeballs of these very different people. I personally find it annoying when the writer uses three first-person points of view, and switches by chapter, as Margaret Attwood did in ‘Life Before Man,’ mostly because first-person ties me so completely to a character that it feels like having my brain-implant links ripped out when the characters switch.

I also find it inconvenient to have to alternate regularly, or to do a full chapter from a point of view – my preferences – so a scene-by-scene switch follows the STORY better.

Reading the three partial-story versions should also point out several other useful things: plot holes; long periods of time where we don’t know what a character is doing; and something very hard to see: unnecessary repetition of a character’s quirks. Fixing these ‘whole book’ problems should help maintain a sense of flow.


[Thanks to Kate Paulk at MadGeniusClub for the idea.] [Note to self: learn how to link.

Updated 1/27/2013: have learned to do basic links!]

Digitizing reality: the fictive approximation

Even in the most connected and most fluid writing, choices have to be made. Which sentence follows which, which word is best. The basic principle of fiction is that reality cannot be duplicated, merely suggested.

When a painter uses a few strokes of red to suggest a roof, she must trust that the viewer will infer internal beams, two-by-fours, and nails to support that roof from the fact that the roof does not fall. Worse, even ‘fall’ is a suggestion: the painter does not ‘do’ gravity: the unsupported roof will not slide off the bottom of the page when the canvas is hung.

Reality consists of unimaginable numbers of tiny events, linked together by time, infinitely stretching in all directions. Fiction picks the stars in the skies as points, leaves us to connect the stars with planets, deep-space debris, and light.

So it doesn’t really matter which points are chosen, in some sense, because the same writer, on the same day, could select an entirely different set, and still tell the same story.

Beginners to digitization are astounded at how few black and white pixels it takes to express the iconic Abraham Lincoln. But even those few points are a random choice, because starting at each of a million different points, there are a million similar-but-not-identical digital Lincolns.

It is only necessary to cover enough of the central story, at the chosen level of detail. “Wedding dress for sale. Never worn.” is in some sense exactly the same as “Great Expectations.”

What a writer strikes for is balance. For each type of story there are conventions, rough guidelines. An action thriller which spends half of its 300,000 words in interior monologue of its twisted dark protagonist is a deliberate contravention of the genre’s best-selling exemplars. It CAN be done, but must be written exceedingly well, and even then the audience for it will not be all thriller readers – because most of them want taut action-packed, skimpy-on-details, fast-paced writing with its interior monologue limited to “They killed my wife and child and now they will pay.”

Possibly, if done well, the audience will broaden to include readers who like longer stories, who appreciate the extra background, the crossover effect. A gamble. Done deliberately and competently and in a controlled manner, it may pay off. May.

I come by these thoughts today free of charge as a short scene–which had completely halted progress for over a month–suddenly resolved and melted into ink on page. I stopped trying to find better words to do what I was doing. I realized the words already there were a good digitization of the reality I was trying to portray–and that there is not a single perfect version of this scene which I have to locate somewhere out in the ether.

Life, complicated, millions-of-tiny-pieces life, had been getting in the way. I’m amazed at how few words needed changing, how few words I needed to add to what I already had. It is a good-enough version of the story reality. It isn’t missing any key pieces.

Finally, I could experience it from the inside of the head of the character whose point of view it was. In a few places, I added what she thought and felt to what she experienced–just a few touches restored that sense of balance.

I changed the places where I showed through: where her words would be different from mine, I chose hers. Mine were better–hers were hers. She comes from a part of me I disallow sometimes, with my over-educated, over-read self-image. She WANTED–in a way I rarely allow myself any more. I let her speak instead of censoring her–and the scene finished itself.


After the storm: the worst is over

Sandy knocks trees down on our house.

From my various logs, as things happened (with an afterword):

October 29, 2012 3:45 PM

Almost worse than loss of power is being without water. I remember Hurricane Irene, just a year ago.

Unfinished tasks (repeats from Irene): scrub the upstairs tub, fill with water as the wind starts. Move stuff from the back patio to the garage – we don’t need it flying around. Prepare to keep the storm drain grate free of debris.

It is an eerie feeling. All the maps show the eye will go over our house (assuming the hurricane’s track stays as predicted). Hope DH’s school cancels early enough so he doesn’t drive 45 min tomorrow.

And wondering what I will be writing about if we lose power, in longhand.

October 29, 2012 7:34 PM

I write by candlelight – have to find the keyboard somehow. I haven’t used the built-in MacBook keyboard by touch in so long it feels odd. The flashlight is at hand for when I need a mini spotlight. The screen provides enough light to type.

We lost power around 4pm. It is an odd feeling, especially when you know you probably won’t get it back for days.

I have a charged MacBook – good for a couple of hours – but no internet – wonder when that will return.

Immediately went into Scout mode: conserve energy, batteries, refrigerator coldness, heat. Think ahead before opening the refrigerator door – every time you open the door, some of your cold air falls out. It’s a conundrum: if you don’t open the door, you don’t get to eat any of the food you’re trying to preserve; but if you open the door, it may not survive to be eaten.

As the kids say, First World problem. The storm will pass. Crews will work round the clock on fallen poles. We will have cleared roads, access to stores, and eventually the power will come back. Most places. Usually our little area is safe – we didn’t even lose power last year to Irene.

False sense of security: there’s no reason it couldn’t happen, it’s just statistically less likely to happen.

Powerful winds, driving rain. A neighbor’s tree already fell on the house, on our north side. Fortunately, the trees which used to be around the front, south side of the house had to be removed so they wouldn’t interfere with the sunlight hitting the solar panels – so that side is safe unless the gigantic oak across the street comes down. We didn’t even know the tree behind us was unsafe until the neighbor on that side called to tell us that with every gust, the tree’s roots were coming up out of the soil, and the only question was whether, when it came down, it would take out the fence or hit our house. It did both, falling almost perpendicular to the property line.

Am I mean to be happy the cleanup will be the neighbor’s? It is his tree, his fence. And it will be his insurance company’s problem to take care of any siding the tree damaged on our house. Or at least I hope so – and I’m not worrying about it now. [Note: Apparently it is OUR problem, but OUR insurance company only pays for damage to OUR house, not trees.]

The State of NJ has asked people not to go outside, to stay away from fallen trees and possibly wires (though our wires are buried). It is good to comply. At least the tree didn’t take out any windows, so there is no break to be taken care of. The tree isn’t all the way down – and it is interwoven with two of our trees – the wind will have a very hard time moving the trio, and so the problem is secured by default. Will it have weakened the root system of our trees? Probably – but I doubt anything will happen tonight.

Lack of electric light brings languor, a dreamlike state where it is too much work to do anything, since it will be harder in the dark, and will be easier if we just wait a day or so.

I can write, or read on the Kindle for Mac. Cleaning out candlesticks, and making the flashlights actually work, has been done; the tub upstairs is full (in case we also lose water); and all that remains is to play a bit with the chinchilla and make sure she has food – this is her kind of world, dim, crepuscular, except that she hides at the slightest sound, and the constant wind is like a freight train going by but never ending. She may not even come out.

The Mac is already down to 78% power, so that will probably provide the limit to my entertainment. I can set it up to charge from the car battery overnight, but I’m not going out there to read.

The urge to write, to record as it happens, when possible, is strong. But there is nothing I can or should do right now. I don’t usually go to bed until well after midnight, and it’s only 8pm. Those of our friends and neighbors who have switched to phone over internet also have no phone service beyond their cells; we still have a hard-wired Verizon line. I can’t remember when we have received so many unnecessary and accidental phone calls.

I will post this when we have service again, but it is odd to have time and no drive.

No lack of topics, just lack of will to write in the semi-dark. I record what occurs to me in a desultory fashion – it seems important at the time, but there was so much noise. I can’t live through it, unrecorded, can I?

October 30, 2012 3:44 PM

The power is back, Lord be praised! No TV, no internet – and friend says Optimum was snarly when she called – no info on what the problem is or when it will be over.

When I went to the store, I used my knowledge of the neighborhood to make mostly right turns, and to avoid the intersections with the dead traffic lights where bunches of non-locals mess up the crossings. At Rt. 33, I watched for a gap, bulled my way through; I had been prepared to go right, and then make a left from the center two-way turn lane, but I saw the chance and crossed directly while a bunch of other drivers hesitated. I waved thanks. By the time I was back on the local main drive, I knew power was either already back, or close for us: a single house had an outdoor porch light. I was right – electricity was on – on this side of the road. I chatted with the woman next door who was on her way to a sale at Kohl’s. Curious how quickly we go back to normal.

We have heat, light, water – and we still complain.

The in-laws [northern NJ] didn’t even lose power – while 2.7 million households (?) did, and most are still without.

The sun has broken out, and, in the aftermath of the storm, the sunlight hurts my eyes. I went to the store, got cookies, carrot cake, another fire-starter, and bananas. No milk, because I didn’t know we had power to keep it cold. Now I don’t know how much to get, since we leave soon on a vacation that will be oddly affected by the school calendar: NJ requires 180 days in the school year, but we don’t know where they will make them up, as, for some reason, they aren’t allowed to go past June 30.

I called daughter from the supermarket (they had cell bars, we didn’t). Texted the boys. H doesn’t know about school tomorrow yet – no phone call yet.

It is all very routine, very trivial – unless you don’t have it. We have been fortunate – we could have been days without power, now it’s a minor annoyance. Millions of people in NJ don’t have power, won’t have power for days. The other neighbor is already out there with the industrial-strength (and noise) leaf blower.

I’m going for a nap again. With earplugs. Being in a hurricane is exhausting, especially for one with CFS: worrying, not daring to use up the batteries (8 D-cells!) for the portable boom-box radio. The supposed emergency-radio bought at a Christmas, and first tried out for Irene was total cheap made-in-China useless junk – no sound at all; I tossed it last year; somehow never thought we’d need a replacement – hurricanes don’t hit NJ two years in a row, do they? By the time I thought of it, there wasn’t a one to be had.

Now, with the computer charged, my brain decides to wrestle with learning the parts of Dragon Dictate I don’t know. Which keeps it occupied for long past midnight: the lowering of stress has let the exhaustion dominate – and I can’t make the decision to go to bed.

October 30, 2012 5:46 PM

Outside the light is starting to fade. The appearance of sunlight was brief – we’re back to overcast. The rain has stopped, even the light rain we had a few hours ago.

Except for the oddness in the back – where two huge downed trees lean on our trees and touch our back windows, roof, and siding – it could almost be any Fall afternoon. Next door neighbor’s blown some leaves, the across-the-court men were out with rakes. Curiously, even though Fall has begun, the trees did not let go of all their leaves: you can literally not tell that anything out of the ordinary has happened.

October 30, 2012 8:45 PM

The day is mostly lost; the frantic pace of preparing for the storm – things carried and moved like we were preparing for siege; filling the tub with clean water; worrying and planning as well as possible, not knowing what would be the weak point – they all took their toll. Even trying to write by candlelight.

There is a lassitude that wasn’t helped by escaping momentarily to the store, where I couldn’t count on a cart being charged, so I took a regular push cart – and then had to stand in a long line to check out. Some raking. Rearranging food. Worrying about flooding and electricity from the car and not knowing what, if anything, we should have planned.

Definitely, for the future: far more D cells for the radio and the big flashlights.

The phone call came: H doesn’t have to go in tomorrow. How it will affect the end of school, we don’t know – but it means he doesn’t have to worry about roadblocks, problems at school, flooding. He’s lost 3 instructional days – they will have to be repaid at the end of the school year. At the end, they aren’t useful for all the things they have to do during the year, such as AP tests in May, and Science League. He needs the internet to write recommendations, another job he has taken on. Has to take on.

The library is open; and has power and internet access; H makes plans to camp out there for a while.

October 31, 2012 2:45 PM

Suddenly DH appears: he has been checking, and suddenly we are connected to the world – the internet is back.

We have cable again – a TV connection. We watch the governor answer questions – telling people it is more important to have waste-water treatment plants up and running than to worry about next Tuesday’s election, at least for today – and he is right: water, power, food are all more important today. The reporter is annoying even the other reporters by asking; the governor refuses to get pulled into a debate. He looks tired.

And I am unutterably grateful to be in the first wave of people getting back to ‘normal’ – but still not making very good use of time. I take a huge number of photographs of the fallen trees – but can’t get hold of the neighbor whose trees fell on us. It seems odd of them not to contact us – if it had been us, we would have been over there, making plans for cleanup. But I will make no judgments at this point: no data. They have kids, family – I don’t even know where they are.

Afterword (November 1, 2012 12:19 AM)

Hundred of problems, mostly small, that were not even on the to do list a week ago – and now have to be dealt with. This is the kind of thing that is so hard for people with CFS: the energy goes quickly, the decisions take energy I don’t have, the body requires a lot of extra rest – at exactly the same time there are more and more tasks to do.

Lessons learned? You do what you can to prepare for the big ones – and the little details will eat you up. You can never have enough D-cells. Natural light is not really good enough to grade papers by, nor is candlelight – we need a much better source of light for emergencies. Laptop batteries don’t last long enough. Water, clean water for drinking, and water for other tasks, MUST be secured before it’s needed. Take a shower before the storm, enjoy the hot water, and hope you get another one soon – cleanup is dirty work.

Make your own big blocks of ice in your freezer as soon as you know it might be needed: DH was proactive. Big chunks melt slowly, keeping everything in the refrigerator cold enough. With ice, the refrigerator is a giant cooler. Ice was out at the supermarket by the time I got there – I saw a woman carrying what must have been the last three bags.

If you survive, all is good. Governments learned from the disaster of Katrina, from Irene: the NE is NOT immune.

And we are incredibly spoiled and lucky most of the time.