Current workflow

I like sharing this from time to time, in part to illustrate how fluid a process it is, in part to share what’s working for me now in case it helps someone else.

Over the last few months, I’ve found my writing – and in general, non-work activities – are typically browser bound. I blog in a browser, I email in a browser, and I’ve even taken up writing in a browser (90% of the time any way). When I got paid for my NewMyths story, I already had a plan on what to do with the money. While not a princely sum (this is short fiction, not NY Times bestseller material), the check was enough that with a little saving, I could afford a Chromebook.

I know, a Chromebook must seem like an odd choice for a self professed Linux guy who works on servers all day, but the fact is the simplicity appeals to me. I owned an ASUS Netbook when they were just coming out and loved that little thing to death. Quite literally. I wrote a novel on that thing while sitting in the back of a commuter van in what now seems like another lifetime. A Chromebook spoke to that time in my writing, as well as a desire to have something light and simple I could carry around. When it comes to battery life, simple is better – the less there is to power, the longer the power lasts.

So with no trepidation at all, I bought an ASUS Chromebook. The stats aren’t bad (or great) – 4GB of memory, 16GB SD, plus the usual features (camera, usb ports, etc.).

First Impressions

It’s just as light and easy to use as I’d hoped. It weighs in at less than 2 pounds, and took only moments to integrate into my Google profile. The specs say that it can last for 13 hours on battery. Truth is less than that – that’s 13 hours if you don’t have wifi or bluetooth enabled. I don’t do bluetooth typically, but wifi is typically on, so my battery life is typically closer to 11 hours.

Still. That’s ELEVEN hours of battery life before it needs a charge. That’s more time than I ever get to work on writing, so that’s just fine.

The Bad

It’s a bit slower than I anticipated – my Google Drive pages can take a while to load, even when charged, plugged in (because experience is that wifi signal is weaker on battery for most devices), and near a wifi source. But the only place speed really matters – sitting inside a Google doc, writing – there is no problem, so I’ve got no complaints. If I wasn’t so impatient, I’d have saved up for the more expensive Intel model – I’m positive that the chipset is playing a factor in performance speed.

That said, that’s my entire list of bad things.

The Good

I’m a Chrome user anyway, so it was nice that once I logged into the Chromebook, everything was already there. Bookmarks, plugins, the works. I haven’t found a site yet that fails to work on the Chromebook (the same cannot be said for Chrome on Linux 🙁 ). Since getting the Chromebook earlier this week, I’ve written a few thousand words, edited another 10k words, and started a new short story. Not shabby for a few days work.

So In Conclusion

Do I see myself writing on the Chromebook all the time every time? Eh, maybe. Probably not, though. There are a few things that Google Docs won’t do for me (certain types of document edits, etc.) that I need a real computer for. I know there are services that let you edit word and openoffice docs, but the ones I found (like Zoho) are a bit cost prohibitive for me.

I do expect to see at least the next few short stories start life on the Chromebook, as well as the edits for the novel WIP.

My #nanowrimo workflow (so far)

As mentioned yesterday after an exhausting 4k writing session1, I finished the first draft of my #nanowrimo novel with three words to spare, 2 days early, and after missing 4 days this month because of, well, life. 50k will not be the length of the final form – I’m actually going to aim to add another 25k before all is said and done (I hope) – but for that first draft to myself, it’s a good start.

I’m not the first person to say this, but the first draft is all about telling the story to me. It’s about me finding my way through the story, discovering who the heroes and villains are going to be. In the case of Chrysalis, it was also about me being surprised to discover that a character I thought I knew wasn’t the villain, and another I thought I knew, well, was. I write without an outline, and so far that has served me well. I let myself leave random comments and items lying around as I write, namely because I find even when I’ve consciously forgotten about them, my big old organic computer hasn’t. In the end, everything fits nicely together, Checkov’s gun at least gets held again if not used as a blunt instrument for cracking walnuts, and all is well. The first draft is my version of an outline – a very thick, wordy outline with many of the blanks filled in already.

This time, though, I tried something new (for me). First, I turned off the spellchecker completely – no squiggly red lines telling me I don’t know how to type or spell. Save that for later. The first draft was about getting words out, no distractions. If I see that red squiggle, I know me – I’ll pause, fix, retype, and ultimately break the flow.

Secondly, no going back to add/change major bits. I used to do this all the time, and trust me, this path leads to madness. I’m not sure the new approach is any better (yet), but instead of going back, I’ve left myself copious notes as I went forward. “Fix this.” “Change this.” “If she didn’t say this, go back and make sure she does.” But as a rule, there was no backtracking. Why? Because my goal with the first draft was to keep moving forward.

Except that the result is a messy, hairy, nasty beast. Hence the second draft, the fill in the blank, fix the reference, shimmy and shove process of getting everything into their proper order. I’ll remove a bit, add a chapter, change names, etc., during this second draft phase. That’s what I have ahead of me.

Also different this year was the tools I used. In year’s past, I had been a Scrivener devotee. I couldn’t imagine working with any other tool for my writing. Scrivener let me add scenes as needed, work with them as discreet units, but still produce a cohesive whole. Other writing applications are more linear, something I’ve always shied away from. Except despite claiming that “my brain doesn’t work that way”, I actually do. Yep. With very few exceptions, when I write a novel length piece, I start at the beginning and plow forward. So besides some accountability (i.e., words per scene, per chapter, per day, etc.), what was Scrivener buying me?

Nothing, as it turned out. So this year, I wrote the entire novel in Markdown using FocusWriter (I’ve even donated, to assuage my guilt at using a tool that fits me so perfectly).

Why Markdown? If you’ve followed some of my blog posts this summer and fall, you’ll know I’ve fallen in love with this markup language. For the price of learning a few syntaxes (ie, just the ones I use), I can write in a plaintext editor anywhere on any platform, knowing that when I’m done I can easily convert it into RTF, DOC, ODT, PDF, etc. There is something magical about that.

Why FocusWriter? Because it makes awesome clicky noises when I type. The sound effects aren’t 100% perfect, but for a freeware software that runs on so many platforms, it’s perfect. FocusWriter doesn’t support markdown, and I opened a ticket with the developer about that at one point. But then it struck me, it doesn’t need to. FocusWriter supports plain text, and that’s all I actually need. Plus, FocusWriter gives me a way of seeing scenes (you can set what the separator should be and it will make a pseudo TOC for you – not applicable for printing or anything, but great for navigation), as well as a word count tracker complete with streaks. Yes, I continue to use my bastardized version of Jamie Rubin’s word counting scripts for in the background tracking, but this isn’t a bad feature. Plus, in the last few days while doing sprints, I’ve learned to really appreciate the timer and alarm function, which also give you how many words you write during a run.

And that’s actually the entire toolset for NanoWriMo this year. What’s nice is that the file I’ve produced (and backed up both in Dropbox and git) can be worked on no matter where I am or what kind of machine I’m using. Or, I can use a tool like the markdown converter or pandoc to transform it into another file format (ebook for reviewing? RTF for submission?) and continue working on it.

What I’m not looking forward to is that at some point after the second draft, I need to find gamma readers (despite my best efforts, it will still be pretty raw). That means sharing. That means other people seeing the story and commenting and ingesting the words I put together.

That means other people evaluating whether my heroine is worthy of the title.

The first draft was written in a month (28 days). I expect the second draft will take until the spring to get to a point where I’m comfortable sharing it. Or at least the end of winter.

  1. Thanks again to my amazing wife who endured my using what precious free time I had this month for writing instead of everything else. Also to my kids, who had to listen to me apologize frequently for not having the time to watch a show with them – our bonding moments – because Dad still had to write for the day. Finally, thanks to my online writing group, the great folks of RoTaNoWriMo, especially for the word sprints the last few days. You folks know who you are. Fist bump. 

Procrastinating, or How I Almost Paid for What Was Already in Front of Me

Shock and surprise, the novel isn’t moving along as smoothly as I’d hoped. Writing a long piece of fiction, at least for me, requires a certain level of investment. When I have that investment, it isn’t a chore, it isn’t a task. It’s a way to let go and release myself.

Unfortunately, the last two weeks at the office have been a little unrelenting.

I won’t dwell on details, but there has been a distinct lack of both free time and sleep in my life lately. That makes for a brain not interested in working on a longer piece of prose, not when it can barely retain one thought to the next. So of course, I did the only natural thing – I started looking at other writing software packages.

In particular, I took a look at Ulysses, an application that has popped up again in my feeds recently. Ulysses’ claim to fame is that it is supposed to be on the simple end of the spectrum. Get rid of the toolbox of random, largely unused tools packaged in other products, and just focus on getting words down. What takes it one step above just being a text pad is that it supports Markdown (and it’s own variation of Markdown) so that you can take plain text and apply formatting to it.

So, never afraid of a challenge, I downloaded a demo, transferred some short stories and the novel in progress to it, and began to play around. Like many products adapting the simple is better philosophy, everything looked very pretty. But as I used Ulysses more and more, I began to realize that it was little more than a well skinned MarkDown editor with a few bells and whistles (chiefly, iCloud and goal tracking). Sure, it has an iPad version, making it a somewhat portable solution, but was that enough?

That’s when I realized that A) I liked using MarkDown for writing a lot, and that B) I didn’t need to pay $45 + $20 for the iPad version to get that experience. Some time ago, and I don’t even remember the specifics of why, but I paid $5 for a MultiMarkDown editor (which supports regular MarkDown too) called MultiMarkdown Composer. On my iPad I already had a free MarkDown editor, and on my Android phone there was already a plethora of free MarkDown editors. In fact, since Markdown files are really just text files (the formatting happens while reading the files, translating *’s, #’s, and other symbols during “compile”), basically what I was looking at was an already existing infrastructure for writing on the go, at my desk, everywhere, with anything, and it was already available to me.


So what about word count tracking and other metrics? Sure, I’d have to roll my own to some extent. But after all of the scripting I’ve done to manipulate and mangle word counts out of programs like Scrivener and Storyist in the past, dealing with plain text files is child’s play.

Maybe this won’t last. I’m notorious, at least in my own mind, for changing out writing software and workflow’s almost as often as I am for switching out what my primary web browser is. But given the flexibility of this approach, I might have finally found something that meets all of my portability needs. And it’s even platform agnostic.