I had the opportunity to attend my first convention as an author this past weekend, with many thanks to Bar Harbor Batman and his cohorts in setting up the first ever Bar Harbor Comic Con. I got the invite to participate in January, and John was an absolute champion of putting together graphics to make our booth look all shiny and professional.
The most exciting work John put together for me was a bookmark based on the preliminary art for the cover of the third book in the Sidhe Diaries, Autumn’s Exile. (It’s almost ready for beta readers, so if you’d like to help me fix it, let me know!) I’ve enjoyed both of the covers John has done for me so far, but I think I like this one the best. What do you think?
Participating in the convention itself was a delightful experience and I just can’t thank the lovely people who bought my books and the people who organized the con enough. It was a day of firsts for me, and I kept thinking I needed a scavenger hunt list or a bingo card of experiences that make a con lovely for an author. So here’s a list of lovely things that happened to me:
Got asked for my autograph for the first time
Got to enjoy some amazing cosplay. (An absolute standout Hera Syndulla had the table across from us.)
Got to watch multiple dance-offs between Batman and other cosplayers.
Sold physical copies of my books for the first time
Got to connect with some other Maine authors (Shout out to the Horror Writers of Maine, who were pleasant table neighbors, and Carrie Jones, who is a delight and whose YA feminist twist on gothic romance is definitely now on my to-read list.)
Sold my books to people who are not related to me
Got to listen to Gigi Edgely talk about working on Farscape and her upcoming movie
Sold books to my target demographic (Who are, by the way, THE BEST. I’m not just sucking up. I just loved how, when I explained that beta reading means telling me what they hate about my books so I can make them better, their eyes just lit up.)
Had some fun conversations with people about costuming and building props
Sold books to people I would not have expected to be in my demographic (Internet high-five to dudes who spend money on books about strong female protagonists–you’re fearlessly riding the wave of positive change.)
Was sought out by someone who had actually read my blog and liked my writing enough to put all her raffle tickets on my donated books and decided to buy my stuff anyway. (That flattery will sustain me for YEARS. You have no idea.)
Just nothing but good times, all day long. And the kick in the pants I got organizing for the con means that, (a) we’ve got our act together (the other in the “we” being John, since I would not have pulled this off without his essential help) to sell books at other cons, and (b) I’ve got my act together to offer signed books through my website. So…
I’ve been trying to avoid chewing my fingernails with increasing difficulty as the news piles up. It feels like everything coming out of the new administration requires petitions and phone calls to officials and rallies and marches…and it’s exhausting. It’s hard work to sort out the issues that are absolutely essential from the issues that are the result of the Other Party being in charge, which is probably the point of the onslaught of absurdities. It’s hard work to avoid getting swept up in the vicious polarization that makes communication across party lines fruitless, which makes the situation worse. And it’s hard work to bear in mind that political and social change happen in a historical context and over an extended period of time, which means that we have to think strategically, not reactively.
For myself, I think one of the most sanity-preserving tactics in my toolbox is crafting a reading list. My goals in putting this list together are as follows:
Gain some perspective by reading about historical situations that have some relevance of similarity
Reinforce my ability for empathy by reading about experiences that are different from my own, especially those of people who currently feel threatened
Remind myself that it’s okay, and in fact preferable, to Not Panic
This is obviously not a comprehensive list of valuable reading material, so further recommendations are heartily encouraged in the comments. Topics I would especially appreciate recommendations on are effective peaceful resistance and what’s needed to depolarize the nation. Also: please feel free to recommend topics.
For whatever it’s worth, here’s the list of books (in no particular order) I’ve bumped up the reading queue or decided to revisit.
Books to Read While the World Seems Intent On Burning
Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie is an author I would generally recommend right now. Particularly Step Across This Line, The Satanic Verses, The Moor’s Last Sigh, and Haroun and the Sea of Stories, in addition to Midnight’s Children. I’m reading Midnight’s Children because it looks at early post-colonial India and the birth of Pakistan. The other books I listed also pay attention to the political context of religious conflict in India, and it is a situation we really ought to (have) learn(ed) from. Beyond the thought-provoking value, which is high, I love Rushdie’s writing because his wit sets the example of the essential relationship between rage and compassion.
The Origins of Totalitarianism – Hannah Arendt
Arendt was a German-born Jewish political theorist who escaped Europe during the Holocaust. Her work doesn’t exactly qualify as “fun,” but it seems important right now to think more deeply about how racism plays a role in the rise of totalitarianism in order to effectively fight the repetition of history. Also worth reading by Arendt: Eichmann in Jerusalem (in order to consider how a person who sees himself as reasonable and decent comes to perpetuate impossible evil) and The Human Condition (for a broader perspective on political action).
Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi
I read this graphic novel and its sequel for the first time last summer and was immediately struck by the parallels to Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale (more below). I would consider this absolutely essential reading right now, if nothing else to remind us that (a) prosperous, modern societies can actually be dragged disastrously backwards by bad government to the harm of all and (b) the refugees fleeing from religious persecution and bad governments are JUST LIKE US in all of the ways that matter.
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
The recommendation to read this has been going around lately, but not quite for the reasons it makes my list. Everyone has been saying, “It could happen to us!” And so it could, I suppose, but the focus of the book is on how the main character and the women around her end up accepting the situation with minimal resistance because they value safety over freedom. It’s a lovely consideration of the psychology of living under a rising tyranny and offers worthwhile insight about what we might watch for in ourselves. For similar reasons, I’ll add David R. Blumenthal’s “The Banality of Good and Evil,” which looks at the Holocaust and psychology experiments in the last century to ask how decent people can become the unresisting instruments of monstrosity.
Finding George Orwell in Burma – Emma Larkin
Yes, yes. We all think of 1984 every time someone mentions “alternative facts” and “fake news” and the fact that Trump has inherited a worrisome capacity for surveillance. But I think there’s more to be learned from reading about Orwell’s inspiration for 1984: his time as a British military officer in Burma. Reading about it in the context of Myanmar’s modern police state is a powerful experience that lends a prophetic quality to 1984. But looking at Myanmar’s progression in recent years after reading this book, one has to take some hope in the notion that tyrannies fall because they don’t work.
Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance
This one was just recommended to me this week, and I’m glad it was. It’s not that easy for me to relate to people who are spewing fearful vitriol, at least in part because my life has been pretty safe and relatively stable, economically speaking. There are, however, pockets of the U.S. where the culture and economic reality is quite different, and even if, no, especially if, I disagree with the politics coming out of those pockets, it seems important to acknowledge that many of the people who are endorsing fearful nationalist attitudes are probably scared and hurting…and they are part of the fabric of our nation that needs to be cared for too.
Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
I’ve had this on my “to read” stack for an embarrassingly long time. It’s a Pulitzer Prize winner about gender identity. We’re living in a world where gender identity is still a fraught issue and the rights of transgendered people are not sufficiently protected. The current administration will probably make things worse, so it seems more important than ever to listen hard to the stories of people who are at risk. (On a related note: High five, Boy Scouts of America!)
Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
Another one on the list of books I’m slightly embarrassed not to have gotten around to years ago, Invisible Man is highly praised for its literary merits. Ellison specifically wanted to avoid writing just another protest about racism, but of course, the way race colors (no pun intended) one’s existence is deeply at the heart of the narrative. I often feel at a loss about how best to make the world more equitable, but one tiny thing I can absolutely do is take more time to listen to the stories of people who are not treated as equal.
Good Poems for Hard Times – Garrison Keillor, ed.
The title pretty much speaks for itself. The intro uses the words “bracing and courageous” to describe the content, and I think it’s just nice to have a ready dose of “bracing and courageous” on hand right now.
The Better Angels of Our Nature – Steven Pinker
I saved this for last because it’s the one I would most encourage you all to read. Looking at statistical data over time, Pinker makes a compelling argument that the world is becoming a safer and more educated place. When we’re dealing with immediate, short-term potential disasters, it’s easy to feel like the world is irreparably on fire, but it’s more likely that we’re in, at most, a little downward blip on a long upward slope. Of course, historical trends are not an excuse for inaction in the face of immediate injustice. Also of course, confirmation bias is something to watch out for. BUT: we can take heart from the historical data and use it to reign in our less productive tendencies to catastrophize.
We’re wrapping up another whirlwind work tour of Philadelphia. I couldn’t have been more delighted that WordCamp US was held in the same city for two years running. Even though I have stellar bosses who are dedicated to providing time and financing for enriching experiences and incredible food, there’s only so much that can be seen in the time available around soaking in the professional development stuff that’s actually our real reason for coming down here. Last year, I was left wanting more. This year, I got to hit several of the places we ran out of time for last year.
I’ve got a lot of work and personal action points coming out of WordCamp, but the crossover relevance with my blog audience is probably a bit limited, so I won’t get into the weeds here. I do, however, want to point you to the resource page for Dennis Hong’s talk “The Dark Side of Democratization.” He has a very functional perspective on the challenges of misinformation and communication outside of our own belief bubbles, and he put together a reading list and set of tools that is well worth a deep read and deep think for every single human being.
If you’re never going to travel to Philly, you may as well skip down this section and head right to The Sights. If you’re planning a trip that involves staying near city center, two notes: (1) Getting good, non-chain coffee before 7am is pretty much impossible. (2) Walking into a restaurant with less than a 30 minute wait is not likely to happen.
Jamonera – Tapas bar. Papa fritas were superb. They put floaty herbal bits in my cocktail that kept coming up the straw, which wasn’t my favorite. Solid tapas, but not amazing.
Old City Coffee – Small batch hand-roasted coffee in Reading Terminal Market. Best decaf I have found pretty much anywhere to date.
Beiler’s Donuts – Fresh made donuts in Reading Terminal Market. Especially good if you catch them warm. If you buy less than half a dozen, you will end up waiting in line a second time.
Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House – Awesome noodles in Chinatown. Slippery chopsticks and massive noodle piles make this a tricky thing to eat tidily, but well worth the mess.
The Happy Rooster – Accidental find that we ate at because it was literally the first place we found with a free table. Top-notch Brussels sprouts, and generally good bar menu.
Foods on First Diner – Freshest breakfast sandwich I’ve had in a while. Super friendly service, more spacious than average, good decaf. Good sausage. Homefries were a weird hashbrown/homefries mutant.
El Vez – Rumor has it the bathrooms are worth a visit, but we forgot to follow up on that rumor. the Mexcal margarita was awesome. Guacamole, mole enchilada, and mahi mahi taco were outstanding.
Good Dog Bar – Adorable dog photos everywhere. Their signature burger (with a cheese pocket) is supposed to be really good, but we didn’t try it. The spicy tofu was our general favorite.
Elixr – So hipster it would be painful if the coffee (pourover) wasn’t phenomenal. The door is flush with the wall in what’s barely more than an alley, so don’t give up if you think your directions are wrong. Great wifi.
White Dog Cafe – Very diverse dog art, including some crazy detailed dogs in human military uniform paintings. One of the oldest farm-to-table restaurants. Brunch was generally stellar, but the Bloody Marys were the standout.
Barbuzzo – We managed to get a reservation for this, and it turned out to be a great final dinner. Great Mediterranean food. The ricotta, the gnocchi, and the budino were the highlights.
Federal Donuts – This came highly recommended: the cake donuts are made fresh in small batches. I tried the Strawberry Lavender. Best cake donut I’ve ever had, but being a raised donut person, I’ll stick to Beiler’s.
Night at the Museum
WordCamp rented out the Academy of Natural Sciences for the after party this year, and while it wasn’t easily possible to study many of the explanations of exhibits around all the networking and free food and booze stations ;), it was still incredible. My favorite section was far and away the animatronic dinosaurs. You could say the display approach is a bit goofy or kitschy, but it’s also fascinating to look at how the display creators thought through join articulation, musculature, skin texture, and choices of hair and feathers. Maybe I shouldn’t, as an adult, be quite so wonderstruck by being roared at by big plastic dinosaurs, but the whole thing just tickled me pink. I mean, look at the custom-knit gloves on this Doctor-scarf-sporting dapper gent: how can you not respect the attention to detail that goes into this stuff?
A Morning in Prison
Last year, we hadn’t managed to make our way over to the Eastern State Penitentiary. This is the world’s first penitentiary and served as the model for hundreds of prisons around the world, representing a shift from temporarily jailing people in appalling conditions while awaiting trial and sentences of various corporal punishments to a model of jailing people in solitary confinement as punishment, to supposedly give them the gift of silence and solitude to rediscover their better selves.
The tour is brilliantly curated to take you through the evolution of the prison system, pointing out the problems they were trying to solve and noting the ones the solutions created. Looking at the prison population in the U.S. and, in particular, the spike in that population since the 1970s, the educational experience presented by this museum is incredibly relevant. We were there for several hours and I still only scraped the surface of the stories being told–this one is worth multiple visits. If you can’t make it to the museum, it’s worth reading up on.
Medicine and Monstrosity
Our last stop of the day was another one we ran out of time for last year: The Mutter Museum. There is a strict no photography policy in the exhibit out of respect for the dead displayed there. This is not a place for the weak of stomach. Lots of bones, weird deformed pieces of corpses, and various pickled organs. What stood out for me was the struggle between the human need to know more about the body in order to practice better medicine and the human taboo against screwing around with decomposing flesh. On the one hand, you’ve got people with crippling medical issues begging doctors to use their bodies to help find a cure for others. On the other hand, you’ve got the brain of Albert Einstein being taken from his body and dissected without the family’s permission. In between, you’ve got a doctor taking rare saponified corpses from a building site where they were unearthed under a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” pretense of being requested to deliver the bodies to their kin, who could not possibly be known. And somewhere on that scale, you’ve got writers of medical textbooks robbing graves and storing corpses in their own bedrooms for weeks at a time. (I’m looking at you, Vesalius. That’s pretty damn weird even if you did help democratize medical education.)
What has moral precedent: the gathering of information to inform the healing of countless future generations, or the squeamishness of a grieving family?
Christmas Fair at Dilworth Park
I don’t know what Philly is like the rest of the year, but at Christmas time, it is adorable and garlanded and sparkly. We’ve been staying right near City Hall, so we’ve been walking around this little craft fair, complete with a skating rink and a fascinating variety of buskers, all weekend. We finally puttered through the crowds today, and while there’s only so much Christmas shopping I’m willing to do given that I have to shove my bag onto a plane to get home, it’s a festive environment. I particularly liked the reindeer in the generously named America’s Capital Garden Maze, and I think this one captures my sentiment precisely.
It’s hard to be thankful when you’re worried and afraid, but it’s also harder to be afraid when you can see the good things that surround you, so…a few thoughts on things I’m grateful for and how I’m showing gratitude.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
Tomorrow, we celebrate the kindness of the Wampanoag confederacy, who taught our ancestors how to survive in a strange land when they arrived fleeing religious and political persecution. I am thankful for that kindness. About a century ago, one of my ancestors fled political persecution in Ireland and was able to build a prosperous life in Boston. Not long after that, one of my ancestors came from Quebec looking for economic opportunities and was also able to build a prosperous life. I am grateful for the opportunities they found here. I am going to honor the kindness of the Wampanoag and the open door policies of the U.S. by advocating kindness for immigrants and for the descendants of this land’s original inhabitants, who are fighting hard battles for a decent life.
Going through my feed this morning, I came across an article about making food affordable in the U.S., and this statement gave me hope:
“Despite our political differences, most Americans are united in the belief that our children should not go hungry.” – Mark Bittman
I’m grateful for that hope that we are all united by the desire to see children fed. It’s a very low bar for what civilization should look like, but common ground is something to be thankful for. This is common ground we can all work on, because kids are hungry, even in the U.S. Here’s a small thing John and I are doing:
We put together this silly little design and slapped it on some mugs. (Dan, I theoretically put it on a bumper sticker, but CafePress is being buggy, so for now: mugs.) Every single penny that we get from sales on this (plus some of our own) will be going to the Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine. If you want to join us in supporting their work of reducing hunger but want to do so in a more effective way and don’t care for another mug, donate directly to the GSFB. If you want your donation to have a more national impact, consider donating to Feeding America.
We must get up and take that in, the wind that lets us live.
When I got a puppy, who is high on my obvious things I’m grateful for list, I did not expect to find myself grateful for the difficulty of owning a dog. For every manic greeting, for every snuggle, for every game, there is twice as much boring waiting. Waiting for her to poop, waiting for her to get tired of playing fetch, waiting for her to be done playing at the dog park. I’m willing to do the waiting: sometimes because I know it’s important for her well-being, and sometimes because I just want her to be exhausted enough to let me watch Outlander without interruption. Whatever the reason in the moment, these periods of waiting are necessary and routinely inconvenient. They have taught me the value of inconvenient boredom. This year, in the course of waiting for Ivy to poop, I have seen more stars and more fireflies and more sunsets and more sunrises than in the last ten years combined. At least. Being stuck there between the scatalogical and the cosmological, I’ve been learning to better appreciate the little vacations from mundanity that pop up in unexpected places. Of all the things about my dog I’m grateful for, that one takes the cake.
This might get second place:
I don’t have a nice, linkable action point on this one, but I guess…I’m trying not to talk myself out of a chance to grow just because a thing seems hard or time-consuming or tedious or scary.
Each of us can work to change a small portion of events.
I’ve been feeling powerless watching the bad news stack up, but I got an email yesterday from the parks director in my town. I had done a little research this summer about creating a dog park here and approached him about the idea. He was very receptive, but had been quiet for a while, so I wasn’t sure where we stood. But today Ivy and I went with him to look at a lovely site where we will have a dog park next summer. He got the right of way permissions squared away, has approached some sponsors for fencing, and has put the plans in motion to complete the necessary infrastructure to access the spot. I’m grateful for the affirmation that sometimes, sometimes, making changes to our local communities can start very effectively with the simple act of saying, “Hey, wouldn’t it be nice if…”
There’s a lot for me to be grateful for today–this is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope the same is true for all of you. Happy Thanksgiving.
I offer no defense for this country in light of the election results last week. I’m wrestling shame myself because I can’t help but wonder where else I should have spoken up or acted to change the outcome. No one is ever happy to see their candidate lose, of course, but when the winning candidate has been endorsed by a hate group, chooses a known hate-group leader to lead the building of his cabinet, and is supported by full-party control of the house, senate, and inevitably Supreme Court majority…well. The worry goes beyond fear for the strength of the economy. Everyone who is not a cis-gendered straight white male of moderate prosperity is justified in being afraid for their civil rights and their safety in the world this government could conceivably shape.
None of this is breaking news. I’m saying it here only by way of laying the groundwork for what I hope is useful to my friends who have been expressing a sense of helplessness and despair. “How do we stay informed as citizens without going crazy?” That’s what I’ve been hearing in the middle of everything. “How do we get through this?” I don’t have a definitive roadmap, but I’ve been listening hard over the last few days, and I have gathered a small collection of ideas from wiser people. Here they are, for what they’re worth.
Say “We’ll stand together,” but please don’t insist “It’s going to be okay.”
Unless you’re the above mentioned white dude, it just might not be okay this time. (Remember the Trail of Tears? The Japanese internment camps? Bad administrations can literally kill their own citizens and legal residents.) If you are a white dude, or anyone who is in a decent position to potentially weather the oncoming storm, be an ally, not a tranquilizer. Listen to why people are afraid, and in the course of listening, keep an ear out for things you can do to help people know that they’ve got support. The immediate fear that’s been emerging for many folks is personal safety, and I mean right now, not in some hypothetical worst case doomsday scenario. Here’s how you can help:
The Safety Pin initiative is a simple way to visually identify yourself to strangers in public if you have the courage to be available to people experiencing harassment.
Let’s take a moment to consider non-complementarity.
The anti-harrassment guide linked above is based on the idea of non-complementary behavior having power to shift an interpersonal dynamic dramatically. When we, as humans, meet violence, the complementary (and instinctively easy) response is to push back in kind. This pattern tends to escalate confrontations, making a bad situation worse. If someone comes at us with aggression, however, and we have the strength of will to not react with fear and anger, we have a better chance of finding a peaceful path through a confrontation. Some ideas to get the non-complementarity thought process churning:
When you want to rage at a family member for voting for bigotry, instead, try to figure out what they’re afraid of that led them to think voting for Trump would be in their personal best interests. Remember: people who feel safe and well-fed are a lot less likely to lash out against those around them, so there might be some genuine basis of fear behind the willingness to either endorse bigotry or pretend it’s no big deal.
When you see stupidity and violence in the media, don’t react with angry Facebook posts. Instead, figure out what can be done to help the victims or prevent a repeat of the incident (whether it’s finding out which non-profit is set up to make a difference or writing to your representatives or showing up to form a supportive wall around someone who is at risk), and then talk about that on social media instead of spewing forth more angry fuel for the rage-fire.
Look for the helpers.
You’ve all seen this before, I’m sure, but let’s take a beat and watch it again:
Whether you’re watching the news in shock during the aftermath of a disaster, or whether you’re bracing yourself for a possible fight to simply maintain civil rights at the current level, this advice is good. Don’t waste your precious self on shouting insults down on the people whose actions infuriate you. Instead, look for the people who are doing good work and sing their praises loud and wide. Support them as you can. Emulate them as you can. Take heart and take hope from good actions. Yes, you need to be informed of what’s going on, and I’m sorry that sometimes being an informed citizen is painful, but you can make the situation a little better for yourself and others by putting as much energy as you can into hunting down the evidence of the helpers and shining light on them. Here’s one concrete idea:
Christmas time is here: the annual season of spending every last penny and (for some folks) borrowing a few to make the holiday special. Is there a better way to give hope and shine light on the helpers than to save a human life from terror and deprivation in the name of a loved one?
Speaking of shining lights on folks…
There’s no wrong time to champion beauty. Everyone’s day is made better when we share wonderful art, music, literature, humor, anecdotes of human goodness…you get the idea. Minorities always have to work harder to be heard, even in good times, so why not show support and solidarity by making a point of looking for great art, etc. by threatened minorities? When you find work you love, don’t be quiet about it–signal boost the evidence that these people who are in danger of being kicked to the curb are people who make the world around them better. They enrich our lives. Be the shoulders they can stand on to let their beautiful voices be heard.
How do you stay sane while staying informed right now? Be an ally. Practice the hell out of non-complementarity. Focus on the helpers. Amplify the voices of the vulnerable. A complete solution? Of course not. But I’d bet good money that you’ll feel a little calmer and a little more empowered if you work some of these ideas into your coping strategy.
Enlightened self-interest, people. It all comes back around to enlightened self-interest.
I’ve been light-handed with how much I talk about politics online this election cycle because I don’t want to get into the mud with complete strangers on the internet, but before the Election Day, here are a few things I’ll take a stand on.
You’re voting for more than the president, folks.
Laws and policies that impact you are set by your town, county, district, and state. Folks who enter politics at a local level and do well can go on to be elected for jobs with more widespread influence. Don’t half-ass your voting decisions for the small potatoes.
The information age makes educating yourself easy.
If you still don’t know what’s on your ballot, you should educate yourself: http://www.vote411.org/
If you don’t know where or when you’re voting, you should educate yourself: https://www.rockthevote.com/get-informed/elections/find-your-polling-place/
If you’ve been relying on click-bait headlines to shape your opinions, you should check the key facts informing your vote: http://www.politifact.com/
And now, for my soapbox.
I am a firm believer in what I’ve taken to calling the church of enlightened self-interest. The single pillar of my belief is that we all do better when we help one another do better. Compassion warms the giver and the receiver alike. This is not a revolutionary concept, but it’s not an intuitive one for our lizard brains, which want to see life as nothing but a zero-sum struggle for resources. Even so, I think it’s the most important belief to cultivate in ourselves, so I’ll just ask you to run your voting choices through the filters of “Who might this hurt?” and “Is this the most compassionate choice I can make?”
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)