Writing Software and Writing a Novel: Magic

This morning, I was struck by one of the similarities between working on both a well thought-out software project and a well thought-out novel, and why it feels like magic.

When you’re designing a piece of software (I mean the information design and architecture, not the visual design), you can’t foresee every possible implication and use of it. You can take a guess. But at some point, you have to apply what you know as well as you can, trust the process that got you this far, and just write the thing. You’ll encounter problems along the way, little details that you didn’t consider, but you’ll work your way through it. Then, you launch.

Here’s a practical example. At work, I wrote a task management system, because the ones we had available didn’t meet my needs, and we weren’t allowed to use popular third party systems. Now, about a year later, about 1,000 Googlers use my software to manage their projects and day-to-day tasks. They think of ways of using the software that I never considered. They have needs that the original design didn’t take into account. They show up at my digital doorstep asking for features that will help them do a better job.

Here’s where the magic happens.

Quite often, I’m able to go into the existing software and add the feature with very little work. Here’s this problem I had never considered (I need the software to do something it doesn’t do), and yet the solution presents itself as soon as I look at it, nestled nicely within the original architecture and design. I write it, and launch a new version. The software is better than it was before, and it’s because of a collision between good design and the real world. When that happens, it feels like magic.

What it actually is though, is a good original design.

How does this relate to writing a novel?

Well, right now I’m in the synopsis stage, where I write a fairly detailed synopsis of each chapter, following the story beat cards that I detailed Writing a Novel: Part 1.5 post last time. As I add detail at this level, and later on when I go to write the actual book, problems pop up. Things I hadn’t considered at the story beat level. Somehow, almost like magic, those problems resolve themselves. And when they resolve themselves, it’s in ways that actually make the story stronger. The feeling is exactly like the “new feature” feeling when writing software.

When either happens, it’s a rush. Like you won something.

Like magic.

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Writing a Novel: Part 1.5

Way back when I started this blog, I wrote a “Writing a Novel” series of posts. In step 1, you got your concepts, characters and images together. In step 2, you wrote a summary of each chapter. That’s how it worked out for me when writing Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog.

Now that I have my Step 1 materials in place for Transformational Paraphysics, I found that I had a gap before hitting Step 2. I had everything I thought I needed, but as I was planning the pacing of the book I realized that I needed more action in key places. The plot, while interesting, logical, etc., necessarily had a non-action based resolution. Well, there was some, but not enough for a good literary/adventure novel climax. This book is not supposed to be some moving pastorale, so I needed a change. Well, not really a change — I just needed more. The story itself was solid from a character and theme perspective.

I need a B Plot. LFBD did not really have a B Plot. It was a straight-through story. TPOAP has a different pace, and the action isn’t always being driven externally. A lot of it is the team figuring stuff out, which can be a little boring if done wrong. Enter the B Plot. I found something that made sense thematically, spurred off as a logical consequence of the A Plot, and had tie-ins throughout the story.

The problem now was in exactly how to weave the A and B Plots together. It wasn’t necessarily straightforward.

So, I’ve found myself at Writing a Novel: Part 1.5. Before I was able to start the chapter summaries, I needed to make sure that everything worked and that the right pacing was maintained. I try to maintain an even/odd cadence of chapters where we do Action, then Rest, then Action, then Rest, etc. It doesn’t always work that way, and maybe leading up to big Action you have two Rests.

I knew all of the story beats of the A Plot, and all of the beats of the B Plot, so I used one of my favorite organizational tools (Trello) to write each one out as a movable card (check the software to see what I’m talking about). I made two lists, one for each plot line. Then I made three more lists: Act I, Act II, Act III. Then I started putting the cards into the acts and shuffling them around until it all made sense.

As I did this, the great thing happened where opportunities started to present themselves. Like “Oh, if this happens after that, then this person could go _________ and it would be awesome!”

With all of the story beats for both plots nicely interwoven on the Trello board, I was able to start writing up the chapter summaries with confidence.

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Weapon of the Week: American-180

This thing is hilarious. It’s a machine gun that fires .22LR at up to 1,200 rounds per minute. Just, stupid stupid stupid. Rimfires are unreliable, and I get that they’re better than nothing, but still. Look at this:

From the Wiki article (which I usually don’t quote but this shit is funny):

“…testing demonstrated that automatic fire could penetrate even concrete and bulletproof vests from cumulative damage. However, the target would have to remain still for an improbable amount of time to allow the cumulative damage to amass in the same area to achieve this.”

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Dog Pic of the Week: Schipperke

These are great dogs, and they remind me a lot of my favorite: the rat terrier. Schipperkes are small (11-18 pounds) but not annoyingly miniature. They’re feisty, brave, intelligent, shttps://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/ef/0f/40/ef0f4019f35a98f9214ad473afbf76ea.jpgocial and full of personality. The first pic makes them look like one of those dangerous attack-type dogs, but the second shows how sweet they are. And a huge bonus: they are sometimes referred to as “LBD” — Little Black Devil. The denizens of the LFBD universe would be proud!

 

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Pittsburgh Pic of the Week: Something Rotten

Pittsburgh has a thriving theater scene with a nice number of high quality local troupes (PMT! CLO!). Something Rotten did the second stop of their post-Broadway tour in Pittsburgh and I had the chance to see it earlier this month. I love the music and the book — it’s so funny. I just learned that one of the writers also wrote Chicken Run, which I consider a cinematic masterpiece (not joking). Mind blown.

Here’s a shot of the show:

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New working title for “The Inversion Mechanic”

I stated in my last “Writing Process” post that I didn’t really like The Inversion Mechanic as the title of the next LFBD book for a variety of reasons. I’ve found that I end up with a bunch of impressions in my head, and that they don’t end up with detail until they either come out of my fingers through typing or my mouth through talking. When I’m at this stage in the creative process, typing is too slow and “permanent” for me to really workshop things. I need to talk it out.

I also can’t allow worry or the editing impulse to kick in yet, so I can’t really talk it out with anyone else. Even if I trust them completely and believe they are unbiased, etc., some part of my brain will still be tuning my outputs toward them, and I don’t want that. I need to talk it out with myself.

So, I hitched up the dog and went outside to “walk the grounds.” It’s about 1/8 of a mile to walk the perimeter of my property and with time for wandering and dog-sniffing, it only takes a few minutes. But that was all I needed. As I walked, I talked through the major points of what happens in the book. Similarities emerged among threads that I hadn’t noticed before.

I said a bunch of stuff, trying out how things sounded and how they felt actually coming out of my mouth.

By the time I was done, I’d settled on something. I don’t think it’s perfect, but I like it a lot better than The Inversion Mechanic. It’s more in keeping with the offbeat nature of LFBD. Not sure how it will market, but I like it and for now that’s what is important.

The new working title is:

Transformative Paraphysics and Other Alchemical Phenomena

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Weapon of the Week: Wakizashi

The wakizashi is the Japanese short sword.

Seen here is the crappy one that I own. I say it’s crappy, because this is the kind of thing that you can spend infinite amounts of money on, and this one was the cheapest possible one I could get that met my weak criteria. Those criteria were: full tang, carbon (not stainless) steel.

I’m not going to go into the history of the wakizashi, because other web sites do that just fine and people get #cra about their Japanese sword trivia and I don’t need them writing letters, you know?

What I will tell you is this. You can impressively cut through full gallon jugs of water with it, leaving them “in place” with the water pouring out on all sides. You can saber a bottle of champagne with it. It’s sharp enough that if you got in close quarters with someone and the edge got pressed against either you or them, it would quite happily make a new hole in your body with hardly any force behind it.

Here’s something you won’t read on other websites. It is entirely possible that last year someone was involved in an office prank at Google, one component of which was that during a particular meeting, someone joined that meeting via videoconference from their backyard, wearing a tuxedo jacket and a full-head bunny mask. They had a wakizashi in hand. Maybe even this very wakizashi you see before you. For the length of the meeting they engaged in various shenanigans, without comment, steaming it live into the meeting, including blindly throwing fruit into the air and cutting it to pieces with the sword before it hit the ground.

This may or may not have happened.

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Dog pic of the week: Boston Terrier

Looks at this magnificent creature. Just look at it. This is the Boston Terrier. In trying to decide on the right picture to represent the breed, I was at a loss. The breed has so much personality and it shows on their faces and the way they carry themselves. It means that each one of these dogs has something unique about the way they look. I’d find one pic and think “Oh, yes, this one is perfect,” but then I’d see the next and think the same thing. So you get this goober. Is it the best? Not sure. But to me, it shows the enthusiasm and personality of the breed, and that’s good enough.

Don’t even get me started on the puppies.

Check out this image search link.

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Starting a sequel

I’ve been not-working on the sequel to Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog for several months now. I think it was in August that my brain finally started to clear from publishing LFBD in February of 2016, giving it space to start chewing on the themes for the next one.

I had a working title (The Inversion Mechanic), based on some stuff that happens in the book, but I never really liked it. “Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog” is admittedly an odd title, and I didn’t feel that TIM was sufficiently unique. I wanted them to be different, but to match in strangeness.

In trying to take my own writing advice (see Writing a Novel: Part 1) I resolved that I wouldn’t even start plotting until I had the three recommended attributes. I mean, I had some very broad strokes in mind for the plot, but no details. The three things, if you’ll remember, are:

  1. Memorable or interesting character
  2. An idea that sparks the imagination
  3. Some scenes that are awesome/will stick with the reader

I already had #1. Lincoln, Fox and Babd are all interesting. Gwen is back. Some other folks from LFBD are dead, so they’re not coming back. Char plays a much bigger role, and we meet some new people, good and bad.

I’d also already come up with a couple of new things for #2. Big ideas that will be interesting when they are introduced and that will play an increasingly important role as we move through the longer story.

It was #3 that I was sticking on. It was tough. Without detailed ideas about the plot, I was finding it difficult to visualize the arresting moments and cool images. Of course, trying to do it that way was stupid, and doubly stupid because that’s not even how you do that and I know it. It’s easy to forget things.

What I needed to do was to look around me and find things that sparked my imagination outside of the context of my story and characters. That’s the kind of stuff I’ll be able to write about with passion. An image that comes to you after a random train of thought. The thought of “No! That’s not the way to do it!” when watching/reading someone else’s work and they almost land it, but not quite. Stuff like that.

I’ve managed to collect a nice handful since then. So I think I’m ready.

Buy Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog on Amazon.com right now, or get the first half for free right here if you're still on the fence (.epub download to read in iBooks, Google Play Books, etc.)

Technical Self-Publishing Pipeline: Part 4

You’ve worked your book to within an inch of its life with an editor and your beta readers. You’d like to put the whole thing together. The goal is to come out of this process with a single document in the .epub format. You can load an EPUB doc straight into Apple Books and Google Play Books, and you can now use it as a direct content source for Kindle books.

You’ve been working in Google Docs, with each chapter in its own doc. This is because working with a single, monolithic doc can be a real drag on the performance in Docs. Fortunately, a kind soul wrote a Docs add-on that will grab up all of the files in a Drive folder and merge them into a single file appropriate for export as an EPUB.

If you want to just install and use the add-on, hit this link.

If you’re more careful and want to examine the source code to make sure it’s not slurping your banking information, you can get the source here and add it as a script in your own doc.

To use it, put all of your individual chapter docs into a single drive folder. In that same folder, make a new doc that house the merged text. The add-on will make an entry in the Add Ons menu called Collate Document. Select that, then select Collate for Export. Depending on your internet connection speed and what kind of computer you’re using, it can take a while for the script to chug through your whole book.

It collects the files in the directory in alphabetical order, so it would behoove you to name your files like:

Chapter 01: Millie Gets a Wombat

Or somesuch.

The “01” part is key though. If you just make it Chapter 1, when the script goes to order things, you’ll get chapter 1, followed by chapters 11 through 19, followed by chapter 2. That’s because computers are dumb.

It will also stick page breaks between each of the docs it inserts.

When it’s finished, you can add front matter — title page, credits, dedication, copyright notice — whatever you want. Just make sure that you insert page breaks for each new piece you add so that they don’t all just scroll together once they are a digital book.

Finally, click the File menu, then Download As… and choose EPUB Publication. This will do exactly what it appears to — provide you with your entire book in EPUB format.

In the next piece of this series, will look at how to use that EPUB to get your book up and running on the Kindle platform.

Check out the first three parts of the series at the links in this very sentence!

Buy Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog on Amazon.com right now, or get the first half for free right here if you're still on the fence (.epub download to read in iBooks, Google Play Books, etc.)