History in Fiction

I’ve been spending a lot of time playing a game I hadn’t played in a decade: The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. I’ve spent too much time playing it, because that’s always been an easy habit for me to fall back into. But I tell myself it’s not a total loss…

I’ve always loved fantasy worlds, where “fantasy” usually means “appears to take place in what I understand to be something like Medieval Europe, except in a parallel universe with dragons and magic and stuff”. I can delve in and theorize about why that was always my thing, moreso than, say, true crime (which is more of a recent fascination), but right now I just want to focus on the features of those stories. And specifically I’m going to talk about what makes the made-up world of The Elder Scrolls series so delicious to me.

The first one of those games I played was Daggerfall, which came out in 1996. It was very ambitious, but the technology couldn’t really keep up: there was this huge world to explore, but a lot of it felt the same because it was generated procedurally, and a lot of it didn’t work properly. I remember lamenting that I loved the concept of the game, and I wished they made a version where the world was smaller but much more detailed (and less buggy).

Then the next game in the series, Morrowind, came out, and I started to worry that Bethesda Software had microphones hidden in my house.

What I loved so much about both Morrowind and its follow-up, Oblivion, is how they both let you wander around a fantasy world doing all sorts of things. They have a storyline, but you can ignore it and find other stories going on in the same world, or just invent your own. I refer to that kind of game as a “fantasy sandbox”, and I think it must be my favourite style: I’ve poured hundreds of hours into these two games over the years.

You could say one of my reasons for writing books is that I finally want to play in my own fantasy sandbox.

The fictional world behind these games—and there are close to a dozen titles in the series at this point, some major, some minor—is incredibly, wonderfully full of detail and history. There’s a creation myth for the game world, and the world is divided into provinces, and each one has a different indigenous race—some human, some not—with their own takes on the myth. There’s this massive history spread over four “eras” that’s accumulated over time from the writing of these games.

As someone who wants to make an immersive fantasy world of my own, it’s breathtaking to see such scope… and incredibly exciting.

So I was thinking the other day (in the shower, where all real thinking takes place) about what gives this fictional history its legs. What makes it compelling, and what, if you’re going to create your own fictional world, do you need to do or avoid doing, in order to make your history compelling?

What you need

If you want to create a history that has some resonance with people living in our world, which has its own history that we tend to be exposed to and understand in specific ways, well, real history is where you start. Our world has this set of information about the past that is generally recorded, preserved, and disseminated. For our purposes, we’re going to split it into two different buckets:

History, and Myth.

This is a deliberate simplification, because we could spend an entire Arts degree debating the distinctions. For right now, I’m going to say “history” tends to have a physical record, a source that’s widely agreed-upon, and “myth” tends to… not have either of those.

Like I said: deliberate simplification. Stick with me here.

Your world’s history, like our world’s history, will probably include “historical” information that is more recent, better agreed-upon, with some physical record (like people who saw it who are still alive, or detailed writings, or actual physical properties like a battlefield or ruin), sitting on top of a background of older, less agreed-upon, less verifiable and probably more fantastic myth.

Let’s start with creation myths. Our world has many, but, given the limitations of reality as we currently understand it, we can neither confirm nor wholly deny any of them. In fantasy worlds, however, the creation myths can play much more direct and literal roles in the ongoing stories in the world.1

One way to build your world’s history is to start at its literal beginning. But having to invent a creation myth every time you want to write about a dragon is a little tedious. So for my purposes, I have some vague, cool ideas about my world’s creation myths… and as I think about the stories I want to tell, I’ll start filling in the gaps.

Once you have an idea for how the world was created, you start filling in how the other stuff got there, too, and the Bible shows how simply you can do that: on the first day God created this, and on the second day, that, and on the last day, he created Man… and then it got complicated.

If you have a few different races of intelligent beings, as many fantasy worlds do, how did they each get created? Were they split off from each other or from some older, extinct race? Does the oldest race have the most advanced civilization? If not, why not? Did they have a very advanced civilization but it was destroyed? Or are there reasons they didn’t develop as quickly as “younger” races, or in the same directions?

Just answering questions like those gives you heaps of story material, and you can drill down and down and down… maybe the ancient precursors of humankind in your world had incredible technologies powered by magic, but they tried to use their technology to ascend to godhood, and the actual gods struck them down, or fomented a terrible civil war that ripped their civilization apart… and now you can make up the details of that war, the names of the two major states or cities involved, who their rulers were, what were a couple of the key battles of that war…

And you don’t ever need to write a whole book about the above, though you can! But it provides you with this rich topsoil in which to grow the stories you’re going to tell in your fantasy world. When you need a reason for why things are the way they are in your story, you can look back at that history: the dangerous cave full of weird magical traps and guardians that the characters have to quest through to find the Sword of Awesome—that cave could be a remnant of the war above.

Again, you never need to mention the history, but its presence suffuses the stories you tell with my favourite word: verisimilitude. It helps you come up with the details that make your world feel real.

The other direction

You don’t have to start from the beginning, either. You can move in the other direction: given the story you want to tell, what is the recent history of the world behind it? For example, the stories I’m working on focus on an empire that is in the midst of expansion. One of the first things I wondered after coming up with this idea was, “Okay, fantasy empire, great…. But how do empires come to exist? Why do you get an empire and not just kingdoms or feudal states?” So I turned again to the history of our world.

I found a great video on what makes an empire viable. It uses examples both from our world and from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Yes, really. If you click that link and go watch it instead of reading the rest of this, I won’t be offended.2

And at a friend’s recommendation, I started reading The Origins of Political Order, which looks at why, exactly, different cultures in different parts of the world achieved “statehood” at different times. We can apply all of those principles to our fantasy world… but, as always, only as much as we need to.

A simple example is, if you have an empire, then it got to be an empire (as opposed to a smaller state) by absorbing some existing states. Now there’s got to be a story there; how did that happen? Often, there was warfare, and even if you don’t need to figure out all the details of that conflict you can come up with, say, a single battle—The Battle at Minotaur Pass—and make a main or side character be a veteran of that battle. How did they end up there? How did they comport themselves? Did they fight nobly? Did they run away? Did they kill people? Did they witness the destruction of people and places they loved? And how did those events shape who they are in the story you’re telling now? This adds so much depth and potential to even a “template” character like the gruff sergeant who has to teach the hero how to swing a longsword.

I’ve said plenty about asking questions to work out details of your world’s history. In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about the dangers of doing exactly that.

  1. In The Lord of the Rings mythology, and I realize the risk I’m taking by saying this off the cuff and probably getting some details slightly wrong, the god or entity that was responsible for creation first created other entities, called the Valar, and then either it or the Valar created a sort of second tier of entities called the Maiar. Gandalf is actually one of these Maiar—so this character that plays a large role in the events happening in the “present” of the story was actually a part of the world’s creation myth. That’s pretty cool.
  2. To be totally honest, I will be a little offended, but I’ll try not to let it show.

Organising Writing with Ulysses

It’s time to talk about tools: I’ve been using Ulysses for all my writing for a few months, after seeing multiple recommendations and, well, never really loving the much-loved Scrivener.

If you want a basic rundown, because there are lots of tutorials and testimonials on the app’s site and elsewhere:

  • Plain-text composition with Markdown / Extended-Markdown syntax
  • Individual ‘unit’ of text is a “Sheet”
  • Sheets can be collected into Groups
  • Groups can be nested inside one another, creating a hierarchy
  • You can set word-count goals, filter, and search at any level of that hierarchy, including at the Sheet level
  • Syncs between macOS & iOS
  • Keeps incremental backups
  • Built-in support for quickly exporting text in a variety of formats, one-click publishing to WordPress or Medium

Okay. I’m going to talk about using this app for everything I want to write down, whether notes or stories. The big thing for me has been developing my hierarchy of Groups.

Groups

Here’s where I’ve landed, so far: I have a top-level “Fiction” group, and I’ll get into that in a minute. Next to it sits “Craft of Story”, which is for this blog. That’s divided into three sub-groups: “Ideaphile” (I’ve been calling my drop-box for ideas by that name for ages, and I’m quite proud of the pun, thank you very much), “Draft”, and “Polish and Publish”.

That third one doesn’t get much use, and I might bin it: once I take an idea from Ideaphile and move it to Drafts, that’s when I write the post. Once I go back to the draft to polish it, I usually just do one editing pass and then immediately move it to Published (see below), so it doesn’t seem like I need a whole group that will probably only have one thing in it at a time.

Then again, I am still trying to get my editorial calendar up and running (so I’m not always writing the thing I’ll post, deciding what it is, on the day I want to make a post… i.e. what I’m doing right now) so there might be something to drafting a bunch of posts and then leaving them enqueued to be polished and published…

Tracking Published Words

Back at the top level, I have a “Published” group. Under that, “Published in 2018”; I’m going to have groups for each year because I want to track how many words I’ve put into the world each year, not just how many words written (there are too many different ways to track how many words you write—per hour, per day, per project—it doesn’t lend itself to one master collection. Words Published is simpler that way).

Fiction

Now, a Fiction group serves as the root for fiction, both long and short. Inside Fiction I have another Ideaphile group. This is for all fiction-related ideas that haven’t yet become a project. Each project gets a Group. I haven’t done much short fiction lately, that might just get a single group for all such stories, but anything where I think it’ll have multiple chapters and have some character and world-building sheets, that gets its own Group, with an appropriate icon (because let’s have some fun).

Projects

In order to avoid over-complicating things1, I usually just dump sheets directly into a project’s group without creating sub-groups, at first. Once I start having lots of sheets of different kinds, then I’ll create appropriate sub-groups. For a novel, I’ve been following the structure outlined by my writing coach Joe Nassise in his Story Engines course, so I’ll create a group called “Scenes” that’s broken down into “Preparation Phase”, “Reactive Phase”, “Proactive Phase”, and “Conclusion Phase”, and then as I brainstorm scene ideas, I chuck them into the appropriate bucket. This makes it quite easy to see how the novel is shaping up and where I need to solidify and generate more ideas, before I’ve even started writing the draft.

Monitoring Progress

If you click a group in Ulysses, the sheets in that group are listed underneath headers for their own sub-groups. So you can get a high-level visual indicator of which groups have a lot of sheets and which don’t. Then, you can right-click the group in the group list and select Statistics, and it will show you the number of sheets in the group. So if I see that my Preparation Phase has 20 sheets but my Conclusion Phase only has 5, I know I need to do some more thinking and planning / brainstorming for the end of the book.

Still talking novels: alongside Scenes, I’ll create groups for Characters and Settings. Those will of course contain sheets that describe each important character and place as I have ideas about them. I do a lot of free-writing here. Whatever ideas for characters and places don’t come to me in the shower usually come by creating a sheet with the header “Sidekick – Talking Turtle” and then just cranking out words until a sketch of the character takes shape.

Now, then. I’ve started drafting a couple aborted novels, and will be starting one again soon (this one’s getting finished!) My plan there is to create a Draft sub-group, copy in scenes from the Scenes group, or just pin a scene in a separate window for reference, and then create a sheet in the Draft group for the actual writing. Once I have scenes drafted, I can easily move them around and combine them into chapters. The Draft group contains the thing that will eventually get edited and produced and published.

I’ll revisit that last bit once I’ve actually written the thing, because I’m sure my techniques will change in practice.

  1. I can see you rolling your eyes over there, quit it.

No Switch to Flip

I posted to this blog for a few weeks and then, like every other time I’ve ever tried blogging, I stopped. I stopped pretty much everything, in fact: writing, working out, etc. Right now, today, I’m working my way back. I don’t know about you, but I always want there to be a switch. When I was a kid I remember distinctly writing in a notebook that I’d had this revelation. Maybe I was thirteen. The revelation was that there isn’t this switch that gets flipped and now you’re an adult, possessed of all the knowledge and capabilities adolescent-you lacks.

You do change, but it’s slow, and it’s not always in the ways you think.

I started blogging in 2011… and 2013… and 2017. But if you look back at this site, the earliest post is from 2018. What used to happen is, I’d make a few posts, excited to be doing this… and then I’d stop. And then, after six months or a year of inactivity, those couple of lonely islands in a sea of unproductive time would fill me with shame, and I’d just delete the thing. Until, a few years later, I’d start all over again.

I was and am jealous of those folks who have a blog for a decade or more; they can look back on this mountain of work they’ve slowly accumulated. The same is true for the fiction side, as I’ve said before: I love the idea of standing on top of a mountain of stuff you made. Not just one or two things breaking through the filmy surface of distraction and laziness once or twice in your life, but regular, consistent production. It doesn’t have to be genius work, most if not all of it won’t be, it just has to be yours. In the world. Outside of your head. Made. Done.

Sometimes, always, there’s no magic switch: the tricky and terrifying thing is that you just have to keep choosing to show up. It’s true in relationships and exercise and writing, anything that slowly builds a mountain one rock at a time. I always wanted there to be a switch that flipped and then I wouldn’t have to worry anymore about whether or not I was going to do the work.

But I’m losing faith such a switch exists—or gaining clarity that it doesn’t.

What I hope instead is that I reach the place where there’s a habit, and, the same way I don’t have to wonder if I’m going to brush my teeth before I go to bed tonight, I won’t have to wonder “will I write today?” But maybe that never happens. What I’ve realized I can do, though, must do, if only to never again feel like I gave up on this, is not mind the times I fall off: just keep showing back up.

Early

So to get back on the horse, I’m doing a three-week challenge: wake up at six in the morning and write at least one thousand words. First thing, before you do anything else. I’m on day seventeen as I edit and post this, and it’s been going pretty smoothly. I’ll say this, though: every time I get up at six I wish I was getting up at seven instead. I’m going to do an experiment when this phase is over: I’m going to try waking up at seven and writing, for, say, a week, and see if I actually feel different upon waking, or if I always feel like “it’s too early”.

I suspect it’ll be the latter: wanting to hit snooze just one more time is merely a passing feeling.

There’s a lot of talk about the importance of waking up early, and, fair enough, but I don’t think it’s magic; look, the point is to do the writing, the thing I’ll otherwise spend all day thinking about but not doing, the thing I’ll feel like shit because I didn’t do. I’ve got to do that first before the rewarding activities of eating breakfast and drinking coffee and catching up on the internet and going for a walk and playing video games, because all of those activities can and do stretch out to fill the whole day.

I still have a nagging voice telling me I’m not writing enough, but at least it’s a start. I did something, and I did it every day. If I write a thousand words a day I can work on pushing it to two thousand. If I go back to writing zero, well, I’m back where I came from.

When you do a challenge like this you have to plan. One thing I did right away was create a little three-week calendar on graph paper, and I wrote in the dates and highlighted the weekend days in red. The red is a warning that weekends are often a break in routine, they require more deliberation to wake up early and to therefore go to bed at the right time.

The red highlights were a reminder to consider this beforehand: instead of realizing it’s Friday night and I’m staying out ’til midnight but, oops, I wanted to wake up at six tomorrow, I’d have to be planning for Friday night that whole day.

Likewise, for going to bed earlier. Once or twice, I stayed up past midnight and then woke up at six. And I did get up at six, because, dammit, I was going to do this challenge. And I could always go back to bed for a couple more hours afterwards. It still feels terrible, though, so most days I started going to bed earlier. Doing this requires planning that rolls backwards through the rest of the day: I wanted to be in bed with nothing left to do but read a bit until ten and then turn out the light. That meant whatever else I wanted to do during the evening had to stop at nine at the latest. And then that becomes easier because you were up at six and you’re tired by nine anyway, and you’ve already had fifteen hours in your day, how much more do you need? When you get up after nine in the morning it’s easy to stay up til midnight; when you get up at six, it gets a lot less easy.

I talked about switches, wishing I could find and flip the switch to shunt myself from the inconsistent writer track to the writes all the time track. But maybe a more apt metaphor for how we really change is, we need to set up roadblocks for ourselves, forcing us to navigate onto the right roads. We’re not Nietzschean super-beings of unlimited and awesome willpower, it turns out: we’re creatures of habit, but that’s fine. The difference between us and, say, a lab rat, is we can become aware of the routines running our lives and change them, maybe not through force of will, but through the deliberate construction of an environment, both internal and external, which slowly molds us into the people we want to be.

That sure sounds a lot less satisfying than just flipping a switch, but my experience is that the switch is a fantasy. The other… well, I’m hoping it isn’t.

It Piles Up

I had this desk in my room when I was a kid, and it became a junk heap. I would never, ever clean it up, just precariously balance more stuff on top. At the time, I didn’t see what the point of all the work required to go through it would be; any other thing I could possibly do seemed more rewarding, totally aside from the fact that the job seemed enormous and impossible.

I’ve got a desk right now, as a nominal adult. It’s not nearly the pile my childhood desk was, but… there’s a dozen things on there that don’t need to be there.

Even worse… my computer becomes that pile. Which is ridiculous, right? Because the windows and apps and tabs don’t take up any actual room, but what happens is when I think about using my computer, it’s this big pile of uncertainty. Instead of knowing exactly what I want to do there are twenty things I could do, so… it’s easier to just not think about it. So I never do any of them, so I have Safari tabs that stay open for six months.

Even my writing app gets like this. I’m using Ulysses as my One True App and putting everything in there, so I have a heap of sheets in my Inbox group… what friction does that impose on me every time I sit down to write?

You can’t spend your time just cleaning this stuff up, because now you’re a janitor instead of a creator. But it is worth some amount of time to periodically say, look, all else aside, the very most important thing I can do with the next half an hour is make this pile smaller.

In fact, I’ve been dawdling on my writing today; I’m going to schedule this post and go do some of that cleanup right now.

Scattered

It never ceases to amaze me: like clockwork, when I think I’m battening the hatches down on one project—I’ve outlined stuff, I have lots of ideas, I’m ready to finally sit down and write the goddamned thing…

I was so committed, I had in my mind this whole picture about how it was going to go, how I was finally going to get something substantial finished…

Every time, no sooner do I start the actual act of writing a corpus of words, suddenly some other project is the one I should be doing.

It. Never. Fails. My attention scatters. I don’t know really quite how to fight my way through this. I’ve been doing alright with my current idea. I had a fantasy novel in mind, and had gone pretty far with planning and characters and scenes… but I sat down and wrote one scene and hated it. Then I had this elaborate idea for, I guess it’s like urban paranormal fantasy, and it’s consumed me entirely. And I’ve actually banged out about 7-8000 words. But even now, these thoughts flicker into being: it doesn’t make sense, and no one’s gonna like it, and why don’t I just write this science fiction idea I have instead?

Like I said. It never fails.

Far as I can tell, it’s the difference between the ideation, which is easy, and the writing, which is not. The writing is a struggle against what Chris Fox has called the Creative Gap, the difference between the awesome ideas you have in your head and the tepid stream of words you drizzle out onto the page. But I do know those words are necessary, you have to produce a lot of shit before you can shape it into manure for your garden, or… some better metaphor.

Speaking of gardens and Chris Fox, he wrote a book called Plot Gardening, in which he conjures up this image of planter boxes for each of your projects, and you just toss some soil into each as you get ideas, and see what starts growing… there’s more to it but it’s meant to be a balance between the necessary structure of plotting, and so-called pantsing, where you just write like the wind and see what happens.

I like the idea, but haven’t figured out how to reconcile it with the problem of being scattered: I do like the optionality of being able to toss some soil into boxes, but nonetheless at some point I have to pick one and finish it. Or wrestle it to the ground until I’m sure it’s the wrong project.

In the Tyranny of Tools post, I was talking about Rabbit Holes and Blind Alleys in terms of playing with tools instead of doing your work, but the same seems to apply to the work itself. While the alleys and holes of tools are to be avoided, falling into them during projects seems inevitable: you have to play with a lot of different things and maybe even finish them before you’ll ever know if they work or not.

This is not a totally thrilling prospect. Who wants to spend the time only to find out the thing sucks?

For now, I’m quite convinced the only thing really fixed in stone is you need to sit down every day and put some words to the page… but here’s the thing: I’ve been doing my writing sprints every day for the past week, but I’ve only been working on this blog… not the novel. The habit I’m tracking this month has been doing at least a five-minute sprint every day, no matter what comes out, because you need to start somewhere.

Next month I will track two habits: a sprint in general, and a sprint specifically on the novel.

We’ll see how it goes. Training myself to write every day is going well so far, we’ll see if I’m more successful than I was in late 2017… and early 2017… and, well, etc.

The Tyranny of Tools

There are lots of things you could do to ignore your writing instead of doing it, one of the biggest for me is playing with the tools. If you’re a writer these days it’s probably about apps; even if you have a vintage-looking typewriter on your desk, you hipster, you, I’m gonna guess you don’t crank out novels with it, not all of them, anyway, and if you do you probably aren’t reading this blog. So, for the rest of us, let’s just admit it: I play with tools.

I bought Scrivener a long time ago, and it’s a great app, but it’s also complicated which means there’s a lot to play with. If I spend time playing with it, on the one hand, it should return dividends because it helps me be a more productive writer… hypothetically. But on the other hand, every minute I spend in a writing app during which I’m not writing is not taking me any closer to my goals. So there’s something to be said for using the simplest tool possible.

Okay, but TextEdit doesn’t give you any kind of organization, you have to organize everything you write yourself in your filesystem. And Macs introduced filesystem-wide tagging a little while ago, which now syncs across devices with iCloud, so you could set up an elaborate series of folders and tags and apply them to all the little files you produce. Since everything would be plain text you could copy that filesystem anywhere (though the tags may or may not come along for the ride).

But in everything I just said, you didn’t see writing anywhere, did you?

Okay. So lately I started using Ulysses, which is the kind of app I like: you can use it in a simple way, but as you get more complex (goals, keywords, publishing formats) it scales up and up with you… which is useful and fun, but, again, beware how much time you spend tending your tools.

Whether a tool is simple or complex, you’re going to spend time feeding and watering it, which necessarily detracts from your writing. Yet the feeding and watering should also enhance your productivity. There doesn’t seem to be an escape from this conundrum, and I love alliteration, so I’m calling this the tyranny of tools.

I’ll be honest: I do love my tools, and love finding new ones, and will probably write about them here. And I’ll be even more honest, that’s an attractive type of content. People like reading about tools, it makes you feel productive… but that feeling, when it doesn’t translate into production, is inherently dangerous.

So my goal here is to establish The Great Caveat: if you’re reading this post, or any future post about tools, you should probably go do some writing instead. I won’t feel bad if you do, okay? Let’s just have a gentlemanly handshake and agree it’s what’s best for us both.

Rabbit Holes and Blind Alleys

There are three big areas where I reach for tools:

  1. Creating: the actual writing bit
  2. Organizing: the keeping track of what I create
  3. Publishing: ultimately the whole bloody point of this enterprise, without which, the foregoing two steps are of limited utility in the world

And I swing back and forth between two philosophies:

Having one extremely simple tool to do one extremely defined task, where each of those tools can talk to each other in a standard way, so you can find the right tool for each job, and then link them together to accomplish the Superjob. This is creatively satisfying if you’re a technology geek like me, and is also aesthetically satisfying in a way, probably for the same reasons.

But it’s fiddly. Even after you’ve found all the pieces, you still need to make the glue to bind them together, and, once again: this is not the real work you need to be doing as a writer.

The other philosophy is to find One Tool To Rule Them All, something in which you can write, organize, and publish all right there in the app. I believe the incomprehensible colloquialism is ‘soup to nuts’.1 I mentioned Scrivener and Ulysses (and will probably mention them again) and there are even more tools than those in this category. But OTTRTA isn’t a perfect solution, either, because you have to learn how this big, complex tool works well enough to use it.

Either way you go, you risk rabbit holes and blind alleys. That is, you risk spending way more time than you expected on something (the rabbit hole was deeper than it looked), and you risk trying out a tool only to discover it doesn’t quite fit your needs or wants (you went down a blind alley). Both are frustrating and expensive.

How do we avoid tumbling endlessly down a rabbit hole, which will not result in a finished novel? After all, how many rabbit authors do you know, exactly? Hint: Watership Down was actually written by a person. How do we avoid putting a bunch of time and energy and possibly money into a tool only to realize the magic was inside of us all along (or in another text editor all along)?

The same way we distracted, disorganized meat sacks accomplish anything in this vale of tears: we make a system.

Make it a System: Tool Time

I first got this idea from Curtis McHale: you set aside specific times where you just look at tools. Maybe an hour every couple of weeks, or a day out of the month, you let yourself spend all that time playing with new things, even if you’re happy with the things you already have. Now, to give us any hope of doing this efficiently, just like sitting down to write, you need to be prepared.

First, know what you’d like to check out. The way I do this is to have a running list. Whenever someone tells you about some cool tool, or you come across it on the web, or on someone’s screen when you’re spying on them at a coffee shop instead of writing, don’t go look at the tool right away. Just add it to the list. Since you know you will eventually get around to checking it out, you don’t have to keep it in the back of your mind.

When your tool time comes ‘round at last, you’re going to pick from the list, and I suggest picking / organizing the list in terms of pain; what aspect of the job are you having the most trouble or annoyance with right now, and what tools will help? If you’d like to find your favourite place to make words come out, look at the writing apps / text editors themselves. If organizing eludes you, focus on apps with a good organization experience. If you’re struggling to put words out into the world, look at publishing tools, etc.

Now, pick an app and go look it up. Maybe it’s on a website or an App Store. Before you get your hands on the thing yourself, go to their site and/or YouTube and look up reviews or videos of people using it. Watch a couple of these. If it still looks appealing, consider how it’s distributed and what it costs: does it run locally on your computer / tablet / smartphone, or is it a web application? Does it cost anything? Do you pay one time, or does it have a subscription? If it’s not free, does it have a trial? How does that work, and what happens when the trial is up? (If you put some writing in there, and don’t decide to keep the tool, what happens to the work you’ve done?)

Once you’ve answered these questions and decided you want to give the tool a try, decide exactly how. You might have a specific series of steps you try with every tool so you can easily compare them. Simple example: whenever I’m trying out a writing app, the first thing I do is put the cursor on the place where the words go and type,

I am the very model of a modern major general, I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral.

Aside from being amusing, this lets me immediately see what the typing experience “feels” like, what it looks like, what kind of auto-correction features it does or doesn’t have, is there formatting, how does it work, etc.

For something more complicated, like an organizing or publishing tool, you may want to have a small set of pieces you’ve already written ready to load into each new tool to see how you can organize them. Perhaps even have a ‘staging’ site where you can publish things privately just to see how a new publishing tool behaves. That’s advanced-level stuff, but if you set this all up beforehand, you reduce the depths of the rabbit holes and the lengths of blind alleys.

If a tool isn’t an immediate bust, you may want to keep using it outside of your established tool time. If so, and if it’s replacing another tool, you’ll want to have a plan. You’ll want to already know:

  • If this is a trial, how will I handle the trial running out if I choose to (a) proceed or (b) stop using it?
  • If I have a bunch of writing elsewhere, do I need to import it into this new tool? If so, how and when will I do that, how much of a pain in the ass will it be? If not, how will I keep things organized between this tool and the others?
  • If this is for publishing, how will I get it set up with all the places I want to publish? If I already have a ‘publishing workflow’, how does this fit in?

If this all sounds too prescriptive, well… like anything else I prescribe, I’m first prescribing it to myself. I try to do the above with tools, but still fall into plenty of rabbit holes and blind alleys. I’m going to continue building a system like the above, and I’m going to link back to this post—with its Great Caveat—whenever I talk about tools here. And if you have tools or a system for trying them… let’s be honest, I wouldn’t mind taking a break from the writing to hear about it. As long as I don’t stay away too long…

  1. I have no idea what this means, and I’m not sure I want to find out.

Getting Unreasonable

I want to publish 100 novels and 1000 short stories in the next thirty years.

What?!

Well, words are easy and actions are something else altogether. But there’s this idea in the entrepreneurship circles in which I circle, Chris Fox talks about this: 10x Thinking; the idea being that, if you have a goal, things change in your mindset in a big way if you imagine ten times your goal.

So, you want to write a book? Okay. Then you’ll do certain things in order to achieve that goal. But what if you decide you want to write ten books? And in less than ten times the time? You’ve got to do different things to reach that goal, and they will by necessity be more powerful things. You have to learn to plan, to write faster, to not spend all your time noodling around with the thousand words you wrote over the past six weeks. You have to open the valve on your own artistic production which is, it appears to me, the only way to ever get better at this craft.

A big part of the shift I’m trying to make is committing to publishing things, not just writing them, because “writing” is an activity that can go on forever, but publishing, like sex, has a definite endpoint (and makes a mess of your sheets).

Amirite?

This may all seem like semantics, but when wrestling with our own brains semantics are really all we’ve got. The difference between saying you’re gonna write and saying you’re gonna publish is the difference between masturbation and sex, and, with that simile out of my system, the difference between “I’m gonna write a book” and “I’m gonna write ten books”: it forces you into a different mindset, and mindsets are the antecedent of action, and action, of course, is the only thing that actually produces books.

Okay. So, if I say I want to publish an output more like Isaac Asimov’s than Thomas Harris’s1, now I can think my way backwards from that: what actions will I need to take in the next decade to get me there? Okay, what about in the next five years? Okay, next two years. Okay, next year, okay, etc., what do I have to do tomorrow?

And from that big vague goal up top, my immediate next action becomes vibrantly clear: you need to write today, you sumbitch!

Well, ~500 words down, 10,000,000 more to go.

  1. Due respect to Mr. Harris, I love his books. But he became conspicuous to me via Stephen King’s On Writing, wherein King points out that Harris writes these awesome novels, but only one every seven years, and isn’t that kind of a shame?