The Madness Begins. Again.

Aaaand….once again, it’s that time of the year in which I miraculously blog more frequently than is sane because I’m avoiding doing what I’m supposed to actually be doing: working on my current NaNoWriMo project. That’s right, folks! It’s National Novel Writing Month and I’m descending into madness once again.

I’ve got a pretty clear idea of my plot, my characters, my voice, my world…it should be a fun one to write. Space hobbits. (More on that later.) And yet, what I’ve managed to accomplish in my scheduled window of time this afternoon is setting up the Facebook page I’ve been meaning to set up for a year and a half; messing around with Tumblr to once again ponder whether it’s a good social media space for me; and completely reconfiguring my writing tech.

The last one I’m actually excited about. One of my issues with writing and editing is that I work on two different machines. Most of my writing gets done on my PC because I’ve been using specific writing software and because the keyboard is bigger. Most of my computer time, however, ends up being on my work machine, since I work from home some of the time. Which means that if I want to get writing work done, I have to switch machines and deal with the antique slowness of The Beast. Sometimes that’s good, because I can’t do much else but write without crashing the machine so the distractions are minimized, but sometimes I want to be able to just duck into a coffee shop after work for an hour for a quick session, and not being able to access my files slows me down.

Some of you may be eagerly waving your hands in the air shouting, “Google Docs! Google Docs!” I am, however, distrustful of the degree of control Google already has over my content because I’m a paranoid misanthrope who fears the worst of everyone…which I might be able to get past if I had had anything other than trouble with using Docs in offline mode. I need something that’s reliably workable offline, works across incompatible operating systems, and ideally gives me something like version control.

I’ve been afraid to leave my fancy writing software (FWS) behind, but given that I am not willing to pay for two different versions of any of the FWS, I’ve had to strike out and think creatively. And in the process of chewing over this problem, I’ve discovered a tool that is ridiculously more functional than the FWS for world-building and continuity management. Friggin’ databases. I haven’t gotten comfortable enough with the code to be working sans-GUI, but I’ve been loving AirTable. For those of you who do not hover around the edges of the web-building world, this is basically a series of interlinkable spreadsheets. There are volumes upon volumes of words written on structuring data sensibly in order to avoid shooting yourself in the foot, so I’m not going to try to explain that process here, but I will say that this is hands-down the best kind of tool I’ve found for keeping track of crazy things like fictional species traits, con-lang details, character descriptions, etc. Vastly superior to any of the writing software I’ve worked with to-date, especially for series, because you can maintain a single base that works as a little personal wiki for everything in the series without having to flip between book files or worry about data integrity. Solid gold.

Having figured out the general tracking piece for all of the complex world-building stuff, the FWS had two benefits left: note-tracking and place-finding, and the solution to both is currently the same tool that I was just dissing thirty seconds ago…Google Docs. I’ve been finding that the easiest way to organize the multiple edits coming in from various sources has turned out to be a central “punch list.” This is a term from construction referring to a list of all the little fiddly things that have to be dealt with to wrap up a job, but my company uses it for website construction and I find the principle to be sound in book building. Basically, I start with an outline and just keeping adding to it: thoughts on themes I need to hit more intentionally, places I need to fix, facts that need checking, research questions I need to answer, opinions from other people that require some consideration, and so on. Instead of creating this document for the editing phase (which is what I did initially), I’m filling out the outline as I go. Each chapter gets a quick synopsis once it’s written and includes a notes section on things to revisit and comments for thoughts I want to be able to scan. Now, as long as my manuscript is labeled to be consistent with my punch list, I can use the punch list to keep track of what information is where in the book and just use “Find” to pull up the chapter in question.

That functionality removed, literally the only thing I need my actual manuscript-producing software to do is record characters. That means I can use whatever will output a format compatible with two systems: which means either .doc or .txt. Plain text doesn’t use rich text formatting like bold and whatever, but it DOES save html markup, and since I will eventually need to put a bunch of stuff in html anyway in order to format properly for an ebook, I’m really just forcing myself to produce a cleaner copy of the code while I’m writing. Pretty undistracting for me, since I work with html on a regular basis, and pretty learnable at the level I’m talking about for anyone who’s curious.  (Seriously, shoot me an email if you want a list of html codes you’re likely to need and resources for finding the rest. I have this documented for my own sanity and I’m happy to share.)

Yes, I know, moving to plain text means that I’m losing the spelling and grammar check functions, but that’s no big deal. My FWS currently actually stinks at those checks, so I have to run my stuff through Word anyway, which is just as easy. Either that, or I can buy some proprietary review software (which exists, but which I have not tried and therefore remain neutral on at the moment).

The final piece of my tech stack for this project is key for allowing me to work between machines, and it solves another problem that is easy for any writer to accidentally run into, to tragic effect: backups. (PSA: Back it up daily!) By using file-sharing software with version control (i.e., the ability to upload a new version of the file) and syncing enabled, I can keep both of my machines consistent with one another just by saving the file. I was thinking of getting super fancy and setting up a Github repo, but I looked deep inside my soul and realized that I am a remora in the tech world, not a shark, and I don’t quite have the code teeth to set that up. Still, if you can work with Git at all, the version control flexibility has some darn nifty potential, so it might be worth a try for you codeshark-writers out there.

The endless process of decision-making having been described, here’s a summary of my writing tech stack:

  • World-Building: Database GUI (AirTable, for now)
  • General Planning: Cloud-based word processing (Google Docs, for now)
  • Manuscript Writing: Plain text editor (Sublime, JEdit, etc.)
  • Editing/Review: Best tool for the job (Word, for now)
  • Backup/Version Control: File-sharing tool (Dropbox, Box, Github)

Okay. Enough procrastinating. I’ve got space hobbits to annoy.

  • Thanks for reminding me to back up my story!
    And what are the links to your author’s Facebook and tumblr? Join tumblr so we can be frie–ends!

  • Melissa Walshe

    If you can believe it, my Facebook page and tumblr are still inactive…but I shall take this as a kick in the pants to get my act together and I’ll share the links with you soon. :)

  • Please do. Since you made this post, I’ve been amusing myself on Tumblr imagining your responses to things :)

  • Melissa Walshe

    It’s so nice to be thought of. Now someone needs to keep Tumblr in a time-locked vault for me so I can get some actual writing done today. :)