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.


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).


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?

Scenebook: What It Is

If there’s a reason this blog exists, it’s because they say write what you know. But that’s a slippery expression because it’s vague: “know”… meaning what? Some people interpret it to mean you shouldn’t write stuff you don’t have first-hand experience of, but i hope it’s obvious that’s ridiculous advice.

I propose an alternative, that we side-step the whole “know” thing as not very helpful. Instead:

Write what you want.

That is, write the thing that you wish existed. There’s almost certainly something like that, for everyone. Maybe there’s already lots of fantasy stories with dragons in there, but they don’t do dragons the way you want to see them done. So write the dragons you want to read about.

Okay. More on that topic later, probably. Here’s what I want: it’s 2018 and it’s much easier than ever before to share our lives with the world. And what I want as a person learning to be a professional novelist is not more advice on how to write—because I’m buried under a heap of it even as I type this, send help—but a glimpse of what it looks like for someone to do this, to struggle against the forces, almost entirely internal, that make “being a writer” so difficult.

So “write what you want” means I’m writing about the journey. Not because what I did yesterday or today or tomorrow is so goddamn interesting for its own sake. But because, hopefully, someday I can point to this pile and say, there. You want to know what it was like for me to become a writer? That’s what it was like. And it might / will definitely be different for you, but there’s at least one thing in that pile you can relate to.

That’s a mission statement, if you like, for why this blog exists, and maybe I’ll edit it for style and length and put it on an About page… another day. For now, I want to describe this idea I’m calling a Scenebook.

Put it all out there

It mostly happens when I’m taking a walk. And nothing else, not looking at my phone, not listening to music or a podcast, just walking. My mind wanders, and I always come up with ideas. Sometimes just one, sometimes plenty, and some of them are these ideas for scenes that just pop fully-formed into my head. But they aren’t necessarily related to the projects I’m working on at the moment, they’re just these isolated bits of narrative or dialogue or description, and I think, “that’s cool, I’m going to write that down.”

I’m planning a post about the power of publishing versus just writing; if you spend years sometimes writing stuff but never finish projects, never ship, then you’re not really getting very far from where you started. Actually publishing stuff is powerful: it creates a pile, like I said above, a heap of accomplishments, and you can look at that heap and draw strength. Alongside that, I’ve said I want to share the journey, show each of the steps along this path by which an author is grown.

So what I’m going to do is, when I have these great ideas for scenes, write them out. Don’t worry too much about if there’s a story around them, if they ‘work’, if they’d get dropped in an editing pass. Write them, and publish them, and organize them into something called a Scenebook. Other people can see ‘em, and comment on them, and get ideas from them, or even copy them—though hopefully not word-for-word, because then they’re not growing themselves.

This is all in the service of making the thing I wish existed. Wouldn’t it be cool if your favourite authors had a Scenebook? Just a public set of outtakes, and, sure, they’re curated: this isn’t just shovelling every random ejaculation out the door because I think it’s so terribly special, no. It’s about sharing, but also about building the habit of publishing instead of hiding, and maybe it turns into something interesting in the bargain.

So now I’ve put the idea out there, and it’s on me to execute.

Blood, Sweat, and Then What?

There used to be a billboard in my old neighbourhood, I don’t even remember what it was for, but the slogan on it, in big blocky black type on bright yellow, always grabbed me. It said


Let’s talk goals. There’s the nebulous desire to “be a writer”, yeah, but imagine what that looks like: not just a big pile of words on your hard drive, but a big pile of words out somewhere where everyone can see, whether it’s on a blog or Barnes and Noble. What could you do with blood, sweat, and ten years?

Yeah. Me too.

But the problem is ten years is too far away, it’s a fantasy, and, honestly, even this Christmas is just a fantasy, too. Sure, I’ll have written a novel by then, sure. I’ll probably start tomorrow.

Pretty sure I said that in October 2017. And, look, let’s be honest with each other: I’m pretty sure I said it in October 2007, too. But here we are. Well, here I am. How about you?

I spent the last few years working with people who have among their hobbies the desire to run really far; did you know there’s a thing called an ultramarathon? The funny thing about it is, it’s considered any distance run of 50 kilometres or more, which means if you run 50 or 150, it’s an ultramarathon both ways. Do you think the person who runs 150 feels kind of ripped off? Maybe not.

Imagine how it feels to wake up the next morning, hopefully not in hospital, and realize, “I ran a hundred fifty kilometres, for fucksake!” Imagine! It takes deliberation to even drive that far. Here’s the thing, though: your car is probably up for grinding out a quick 150 any old time, if there’s some gas in the tank and it’s not a total wreck. But a human being can’t just get up from the desk you and I are sitting at right now and run 150 klicks… or fifteen…

Even five will be a struggle, until you practice.

And that’s the crazy thing: I can maybe run five K, maybe, if wolves are after me and my loved ones. But I can’t run 10 K without stopping, let alone a marathon, and yet… there’s no physical reason why I can’t run a marathon if I trained for it.

See, novels are like that. Only took me twenty years to absorb that analogy. You figure, I love LotR and R.A. Salvatore’s stuff, and people are always telling me how imaginative I am, I’d love to write a novel! And then you try and don’t get anywhere, over and over again, and you feel bad about yourself and give up. Who knows why we think writing a hundred thousand words of coherent, structured, exciting narrative is the kind of thing a person should just be able to do with no training when even a goddamned toaster oven comes with instructions, but if you think of a novel as a marathon a lot falls into place.

I reckon you can train for a novel the same way you train for a marathon. A marathon requires a whole bunch of running, packed into a small time frame. You run and run and run and run, a lot, before you get to recover. Same deal with a novel, if you have any intention of cranking out more than one a decade.

And be honest: if you think you want to spend a decade carefully crafting your novel, but you’ve written pretty much nothing in the previous decade, especially at length… well, you’re probably fooling yourself. You’re saying you want to do the following with no training: thinking about what should happen next and what happens after that and after that and after that and after that in the form of a three- or four-act structure that may or may not dovetail with the Hero’s Journey but definitely needs a satisfying denouement that wasn’t telegraphed at the beginning but nonetheless follows inevitably from everything that came before…

I’m exhausted just describing that, let alone doing it in ten thousand words, let alone a hundred thousand.

See, I’m out of shape.

So, we gotta train.

The same way you can’t run a marathon in a single step, you can’t just sit down and write a novel in one sitting and if you throw at me that spin-off of National Novel Writing Month where people crank out a first draft in a weekend, or tell me anything about Kerouac and Benzedrine, you and I are through, ok? Corner cases are like lottery tickets: fun to fantasize about but let’s not peg our retirement plans on one.

You can only run a marathon by putting one foot in front of the other, over and over and over, and you can only write a novel by sitting down to write in the same iteration. If you’re anything like me, and God knows how you got through eight hundred words of this if you’re not, the place you fall off is not sitting down. Not every day, right? And not for very long. And the mind wanders. And the web browser is right there.

I decided at some point that I don’t want to run a marathon, but 10 K seems like a reasonable goal for a relatively healthy human being: I want to be able to run ten kilometres without stopping. So I looked up a plan, and the one I found basically goes like this:

  • The first day you get your shoes on and you walk for four minutes, and then run for one minute
  • Then you walk for four, then run for one, again
  • Repeat until you’ve done that four times, i.e. you were “running” for twenty minutes and you only spent four of them actually running. Because you need to condition your body.
  • You do what I just described three days in the first week.

The next week, you walk for three minutes and then run for two, repeat. And the next week, you walk for two and run for three… and on, and on, until you’re running for, say, eight minutes with two minutes of walking in between, for a total of forty minutes, until, after thirteen weeks, you are running for one hour without walking and without stopping.

Thirteen weeks is a long time, but it’s also not that long. Just like any slice of life. You might think, ugh, “can I wait thirteen weeks?” or “do I want to spend thirteen weeks?”, but the real question is, do you want to become someone who runs or remain someone who does not?

The thirteen weeks, the ten years, they pass regardless.

Replace runs with writes, and here we are.

I’ll tell you where I’m at, specifically, right now when I’m drafting this post (August 27th, 2018): I’m still not writing every single day, but I’m working on it. I’ve got a habit tracker taped to my wall, and the goal? The ultimate goal might be to become a novelist, but the right now goal is to tick the box today. And tomorrow the goal will be to tick the box. And the day after. And maybe it takes thirteen weeks or a hundred and thirty, but the same way you might realize you’ve put a hundred kilometres of pavement behind you in the past few months, and that’s a hundred more than you ran in the preceding decade, maybe you look back and there’s a pile of words behind you, and once you’re sitting on that pile… stacking up another pile of words in the form of a novel seems not just possible, but inevitable.

Not Writing is Nobody’s Fault But Ours

There was a time when I blamed my partner, the time I was spending with them, for keeping me away from the work. But the fact is, I wasn’t doing the work and thank God for my ego I had the excuse.

Today was tough, because I have gotten in the habit of spending weekends with my current partner, and so it would be easy not to write. And I didn’t go near it this morning, we were busy. But instead of not writing and then retroactively blaming them, while we were relaxing after our afternoon and planning our evening I said, before we go out, I need 20 minutes to do some writing, because I’m trying to build the habit of writing every day. And she thought that was a wonderful idea, and encouraged me to do it. Even brought me a glass of water.

So it’s good to be with someone supportive, if you’re gonna be with anyone. But the critical point is to be honest with yourself. If you want to write, and you’re not doing it, are you chained up in a cage without a way to even scratch in the dirt? No? Then no one else is keeping you from writing but you. It’s taken me a lifetime to even begin to acknowledge that and act within “I don’t feel like writing / I don’t know what to write / I’m afraid / know for certain that it won’t be good enough”, and instead of using those feelings as excuses… to give them a curt nod and then sit down and move my fingers anyway.

I’m not good at it yet, I’m bad at it. But at least I’m doing it at all, and that’s something. Stephen Pressfield talks about the decades—decades—it took for him to even begin to conquer what he calls the Resistance. If he can plunge himself into the shadows again and again and eventually find a way to win, well, so can we.

It’s easy to look at your life in your mid-thirties, let alone your forties and say, well, that’s it: I had my shot, and I fucked it up. Guess it’s all downhill from here. This is something Gary Vaynerchuk talks about a lot lately, and he’s right: God willing and the creek don’t rise, if you’re thirty-five you could easily live for another HALF A CENTURY, same if you’re forty. Giving in any time is a mistake, in my book; giving in now is downright insane.

It’s not insane, though. It’s that Resistance. The death wish. The little voice that’s always been there, since Junior High, anyway. Telling you: No. You’re bad. Lie down. Stop breathing.

How many years have you spent secretly believing that liar? It doesn’t help that our culture has mobilized an ever-growing engine, a Lovecraftian tentacled horror, dedicated to grooming and caring for those voices. Maybe your twenties and your thirties are nothing more than an exercise in learning to live with them, like a barking dog in the next yard you somehow learn to ignore, or move house. But you can’t move away from this, you can only medicate it with drugs and bad relationships (or even good relationships?) and beer and social media and hipster restaurants and posting what you eat there on Instagram, and thank God some day you’ll be dead. And then the voice will stop, sure.

But so will you. And where will be all the art you could have made?

It’s not, “don’t listen to the voice”. I spent years “not listening”, it just made me crazy. It just made me wonder, if I’m living life the way you’re sposeda, why am I sort of miserable all the time? No. The voice is there and you can’t shut it up. But there is something you can do, not about it, but in spite of it: you can learn to act anyway.

And find someone supportive. Someone who doesn’t say, come down here and watch Netflix with me instead of sitting at your computer doing whatever. That’s not their fault, you picked that relationship. Ask yourself, why? Maybe hold out for someone who’ll kiss you on the mouth and say, I’ll see you after you’re done your writing, babe. Good luck. ❤

Being a Writer

Imagine we’re all sat in a circle, and the question is asked: “Do you want to be a writer?” And you raise your hand, and you see I’ve got my hand raised, too, and the follow-up: “How long have you wanted to be a writer?”

I don’t know what you’ll answer, but when it’s my turn I’ll say, “almost twenty years.”

I was in high school. I liked writing stories and I loved reading stories, but it never really occurred to me that, you know those authors you love to read? You could be one of them, until my English teacher told me, “you should be a writer.”

Like, the thought just hadn’t occurred to me. Obviously some people are writers, else I’d have nothing to read… but I could be one of them?

So then I got a degree in Computer Science and worked as a software developer for fifteen years, because that’s just how the story goes.

And now I’m thirty-five (well, almost thirty-six) and I still find myself wanting to be a writer, so… this is what I’m doing. I find myself thinking about someone who’s a teenager now, just imagining this for the first time. I don’t think, “well, it’s too late for me, but maybe…” No. It’s not too late for me, and if your answer to the question was “fifty years”, or your answer was “five years, but I’m already seventy”, it’s not too late for you, either.

But it doesn’t seem there’s anywhere you can look and see just what it takes to make all these writers we love into writers. If you ask them, it’s usually, oh, I’ve been writing since I was five, something something rejection letters and now I’ve published six novels. Okay, but… in between being five and writing five million words… you must have done something, right?

Well, I’m going to show you what happened. Starting with this: I’ve been dreaming about being a writer for twenty years. I don’t write regularly. For the last year or so I’ve been trying to build the habit of writing every day… and I haven’t done it yet.

If this turns out to be the only post on this blog, I guess you’ll know I failed or got eaten by carnivorous beetles. Otherwise, here’s how it works. Worked. Is working.

Join me.