Sunday, June 26, 2011

When all you have is a hammer...

Every problem starts looking like a nail.

And I'm guessing - just a small leap of intuition here - that you wouldn't be too impressed with a carpenter turning up to fit your kitchen cupboards with nothing but a hammer in his toolbox.

You expect him to be equipped with a range of quality tools to tackle various stages of the task in hand. Likewise if you engage a plumber, or a gardener, or any other professional.

Why would writing be any different?

This series of posts has so far explored just a small corner of the warehouse of tools that writers have available to them. I've mentioned some specific examples along the way, but the main aim of the posts has been to offer guidance in how to choose your own toolkit to suit you.

Some of you are tool enthusiasts, some are dedicated pantsers who either scoff at such constraining discipline, or yearn for it but despair of ever improving themselves. These next few posts are aimed at the enthusiasts, the scoffers, and the yearners respectively.

Kids in a sweetshop

First, advice to the enthusiasts out there: don't gorge yourself, you'll make yourself sick.

There's no need to use every single tool in your toolkit on every story. Tools are there for a purpose, and it's important to use them appropriately. Note that I'm back to using the word "tool" in its conceptual sense, i.e. things like character sheets, outlines, timelines etc.

I used to work as a software developer, and I used many conceptual tools to help describe the features of complex business applications. I had a large repertoire to draw on, but I used different ones in different situations depending on what made sense.

What made sense depended on various characteristics of the application.

For example, an ordering system might have many flows of information from one business entity to another: from customer order to service delivery unit, to work order, and on to customer invoice and payment. In such a system, many different departments and business objects are involved, so data flows and process diagrams will be needed to capture the key features of the application.

On the other hand, in an incident management system the data more-or-less stays in one place, but actions by various people take an incident through its lifecycle from open, to assigned, to work in progress, to resolved. Here, a data flow diagram is not likely to convey any real insight into what's going on, but a state change diagram sure as heck will.

The point is that in software development there are many different diagramming conventions to capture different concepts: flowcharts, swimlanes, use cases, data flows, state transitions etc. Which ones are useful depends on the dominant characteristics of the system you are trying to describe.

Does this start to sound familiar?

In writing, different kinds of stories have different characteristics that are important.

Some tools, such as outlines and character sheets, are likely to be common features. But if your story is heavily character-based, for example, then detailed character notes become far more important than in an all-out action story.

In a murder mysteries or political and spy thrillers, logical connections are vital so you are more likely to depend on detailed timelines, and swimlanes that help you track who's where, when, what they can see, and what they know. Your character sheets are also likely to focus more on connections and motivations and you might need stakeholder maps to keep track of who is "friends" with whom.

In both science and historical fiction, setting consistency is important so you are likely to need detailed setting notes, whereas in contemporary settings, especially ones which you know well, you are writing from innate knowledge.

Do you get the idea?

Different kinds of stories present different kinds of writing challenges, and require a variety of different tools to help meet those challenges.

So, just because you've seen a nifty new technique doesn't necessarily mean that it's right for your purposes in this story.

If you're an enthusiast, you might be itching to try it out. Do so, by all means, you need to get the measure of new tools and understand their strengths and shortcomings, but don't feel you have to use it in every situation.

The best hammer in the world might be great at hammering nails, but it really sucks at driving screws.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A sensory commute

Sun...rain...sun...rain...will it make its mind up? But it's too little to matter and too warm for a jacket.

Fine drizzle falls, but I'm on the trail. The trees give shelter.

It is so quiet, the drops on the leaves sound like distant surf. The only other noise is my own. Tyres on grit, rhythmic creak of handlebars, chuckle of chain through derailleur.

Bump through the potholes where trail meets road or bridge. A rumble felt more than heard along the boardwalk of the trestles.

Cheerful greetings with passing travellers. The sight of a deer grazing on the hillside cheers my heart.

On the road through sleepy housing, glimpses of sea over rooftops. I tinkle my bell to warn pedestrians of my approach; I try to make it a cheerful "hello", not a curt warning.

Out into farmland, scent of mown grass and manure.

Shift position in saddle. It's starting to get sore. I haven't done enough trips this year to harden myself to this distance.

Just a few kilometres left. Long slog uphill. Salt sweat stings my eyes.

It starts to rain again, real wetting drops. Welcome cool on my arms and legs.

The steamy fragrance of fresh rain on hot ashpalt. Aah! Mist rises from the fields.

Nearly home. Still that last hill to climb. Legs ache from exercise earlier this week. Hit my lowest gear and keep my eyes on the corner at the top.

Cold beer beckons.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Writers tools - content v. medium

Earlier this year, I started a series of posts on writers' tools. My theme up to now has been looking at desirable outcomes (things you might be trying to achieve) and picking a suitable tool for the job.

This series is woefully incomplete, and I'll try to peck away at it from time to time, but I want to take a few diversions into some other topics around the use of tools.

I'll start with some clarification the use of the word "tool" itself.

When you talk about tools, you might think of things like MS Word, or Scrivener, or Snowflake Pro. My posts up to now have not been about these, but about conceptual tools. Things like flowcharts, timelines, character sheets.

In other words, I've been concentrating on the content - arranging ideas to reveal insights. But the medium is important too, because that is how you expose your content to view.

First off, let's look at some of the media you might use to contain your conceptual tools. Most of these are computerised, but not all.
  • Word processors, such as MS Word. Great for manipulating text, including lists and tables.
  • Spreadsheets, such as MS Excel.
  • Specialised diagramming tools, such as MS Visio.
  • Pen & paper.
  • More specialised physical media such as index cards, Post-It notes, whiteboards.
  • Specific writing systems, such as Scrivener.
  • Your own head - don't overlook the manipulations you do mentally without necessarily committing anything to a more durable form.

Yet again, my advice is simple: choose the right tool for the job, using whatever measure of "right" makes sense to you.

In the rest of this post, I'll touch on some of these measures of "rightness" that you might want to consider.

Can the medium carry the content?

This is clearly important, for example you'd be daft to try drawing a complex diagram using something with no diagramming capability.

This consideration is especially important for the computerised tools. General purpose office tools such as Word and Excel have their obvious strengths - manipulating text and numbers for example - but they can be pressed into service in many less obvious ways.

MS Word can produce tables and diagrams, so if you are most comfortable with Word then you might use it more extensively for these purposes. Word's paradigm is the written page. You can have as many pages as you want in a document, but there are practical limits on how wide you can go so I find it works best with tables of only a few columns. However, for small tables I find it offers much more user-friendly flexibility than Excel.

MS Excel has tables at its heart. It is much more two-dimensional than Word, so is easier to use for large tables. I also use it for simple diagrams, those that are little more than boxes of colours or text placed against one or two axes.

Here is an example of a timeline with dependencies:

It might not look much like a diagram, but for cases like this you can strip out the pictorial fluff and what you have left is the essential core of the conceptual tool.

If you want sophisticated diagramming capability, you might want to consider a specialised tool such as Visio.

I have no experience with specialised writing software. Maybe someone can help out in the comments. I understand that they usually contain a number of tailor-made tools, such as outlines, scene lists, and character sheets. All I'll suggest is look at what conceptual tools they offer, and think about how you want to employ them.

Is it the right strength for the job?

Are you trying to crack a nut with a sledgehammer? Or trying to steer a yacht with a teaspoon?

Think about the size of task you are trying to accomplish. The same conceptual tool might require different approaches depending on how much information you are trying to capture.

For example, think about a logic diagram used to untangle plot dependencies. If you are only trying to order a handful of events, you might do this in your head. That's fine. Just remember that you are still employing a conceptual tool to assist you.

If you have a more complex scenario, then maybe pen and paper would do. Or you might order the events in a list in MS Word with notes about the dependencies.

But if you are trying to order the events of a whole novel, then maybe you need something more industrial strength to help you out.

If you need to lay out a complex timeline with many threads and dependencies, then you might even consider project management software - designed to achieve exactly that.

Does it fit with your way of working?

This last consideration is all about you. What works for you? Do you enjoy the discipline of having everything in one electronic repository? Are you OK with a folder full of Word documents? Do you keep everything straight in your head? Do you prefer the feel of pen on paper?

If you are a highly structured top-down thinker, then maybe a writing tool like Snowflake Pro will work for you. If you are a dedicated pantser then trying to use a tool like this might put you off ever writing again.

There's no right or wrong way to work. The only right answer is to do what works for you. Whatever you choose, the most important thing is that you feel comfortable with it.

A final thought...

This series is called "Writers toolkit" for a reason. A carpenter or plumber doesn't carry just one tool around, so why should you? There's no reason not to make use of a collection of tools, as long as they work effectively together, and together they work for you.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Oh deer

Last week I hoped to bring you digital venison, but had to content myself with "another day." Well, it's another day, and this one grazed obligingly in someone's front yard a few feet from me, while I wrestled with my backpack to retrieve my phone.
This was just one of five that I cycled past today!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Children! Please!

I went to bed last night extremely saddened.

Because the Canucks lost? Not really. A home win would have been nice, but Boston proved they could win away as well as on home ice, and for that they have my respect.

No. I retired sad and angry because of the scenes afterwards. This is not the British Columbia my family and I chose as our home.

Children! Please!

It's a game.

The better team won.

Grow up and get over it.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Camping season

The family came back from a combined Guide & Cub camp today. The last of the summer term. Ali's been off on five camps in the last ten weekends, with either Megan or Matthew in tow. This last one involved both of them so I had the house to myself.

Things I've learned this weekend:

1. Being alone and able to plan my day without planning around other people, there's still not enough hours in the day.

2. Even so, when I'm on my own, the house seems to get progressively tidier as if of its own volition.

3. Little jobs, like tightening the handle on the oven door that's been bugging me for weeks, get done.

4. Even with no distractions, I still didn't do any actual writing. I did a lot more critiquing, admittedly, but I've concluded that I can't critique and write or revise in the same week. These processes seem to engage my mind in different and mutually exclusive ways and they simply don't mix. Does anyone else find that?

5. Steak, fries and salad washed down with Cabernet Shiraz Merlot doesn't taste half as good eaten alone.

Friday, June 10, 2011

My cycling commute

Earlier this week, I read about a fellow blogger's daily trials on the New York subway. I threatened to counter with an account of my own commuting experience. And here it is.

The drive between home and work is about 25 minutes and pretty stress-free. But even so I like to get on my bike whenever I can in the summer months. And here's why.

I have about 4km of quiet roads around Saanichton, before crossing over the highway and onto the bike trail.

The trail runs alongside the highway for about 2km. This is the noisiest part of the ride.

Then I leave the highway behind and travel 3km of virtually deserted roads through farmland. On the way, I pass Michell's model airfield, site of a fabulous annual airshow. When I ride past in the evening there's often model enthusiasts flying their planes.

Off the paved road, there's 3km of dedicated cycle path, overhung with trees. Welcome shade for the return journey on a hot summer's day.

Back on the road for 3km through quiet suburbia. Oddly enough, this is the stretch where I most often see deer, completely oblivious to human presence, grazing on peoples' lawns and hedges.

Then it's back to the tree-lined trail for another 3km, with the occasional picturesque trestle thrown in for good measure.

The last 3km is through the outskirts of Victoria, across a few busy roads (but with strategically-placed crossings).

But even through this built-up area the trail is well-protected from traffic, with yet more trestles...

And glimpses of Swan Lake sanctuary...

Total distance: 21km.
Cycling time: 1 hour, give or take.
Conditions: Quiet and flat. You'll notice most of these pictures don't show much in the way of traffic. Yes, it really is like that.

I hoped to show you some deer too. Sadly none around in the morning. Saw two on the way home, but by then my phone was out of battery. Ah, well, another day, eh?

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Signs of life

The Bald Patch wakes. Slightly.

I've enjoyed a break from blogging, it really brought home just how much time the online world can soak up if you let it.

OK, I did weaken before the end of May to take part in a blogfest, and I have been lurking and commenting occasionally, just not quite as obsessively as previously. And it's been good not to hear the siren call of blogger and comments and visitor stats for a while.

This isn't quite "normal service" resuming, because I still have lots in the Real World to do, but I will endeavour to post once a week or so.

Meanwhile, here's a quick check-in on what's been going on behind the scenes.

By far the biggest chunk of time has been spent critiquing. I'm pushing novel chapters through CC's queue one every week or two. And so are some of my regular critics. The main limitation on throughput is how well I can keep up with critiquing other people's work in return for critiques on my own.

The answer is, not very well at all. It is a struggle.

I wrote an entirely new scene for Ghosts, to replace an ugly slab of summarisation at the start of one of my chapters. Wow, that felt good. It's been well over a year since I did any real new writing and I'd almost forgotten what it feels like.

I also roughed out an opening for an entirely new novel, or rather a series. It's aimed at younger readers, which is strange because I've never tried appealing to that audience before. I know I won't have time in the forseeable future to expand on it, but the idea came out of nowhere and I just had to get something down on paper for future reference.

I signed up for a series of exercise classes twice a week after work. That's limited the amount of cycling I can do, but that's something else I've not done for years and it feels good.

Now we've got some decent dry spells, it's time for outdoors maintenance. The big task this year is to repaint the deck.

Look at all that woodwork...

And more around the back...

The tarp strung up is to shield the painting from all the crap dropping from the arbutus.

Arbutus: Lovely tree. Pain in the butt when it overhangs a deck.

And I've found time for some reading. I'm getting near the end of the Darkglass Mountain trilogy by Sara Douglass. Mind you, I almost stopped in exasperation when I reached the end of the first book, 600+ pages, to find it just stopped in mid-story. I assumed each (rather thick) book would be a self-contained story. No such luck. Not even a secondary resolution like the battle of Helm's Deep in LOTR.

It caught me by surprise and annoyed the heck out of me. But it had caught my interest enough that I went back to the library and took out the others. I think if I'd bought, rather than borrowed, the first book I'd have felt rather more cheated and this would have tipped the scales from curiosity to anger. As it is, I will be more cautious before starting anything else by this author.

Moral: don't piss off your reader!

Now back to writing...
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