Category Archives: the writing process

To Vim

I see that Apple has updated its word-processor Pages again. The new ver­sion has some sweet fea­tures, but if you open a doc­u­ment cre­ated in the pre­vi­ous ver­sion, you will be asked if you wish to upgrade the file format. On click­ing ‘yes’, the pre­vi­ous ver­sion of Pages will never again be able to open the file.

That, in itself, is not a prob­lem. But, let’s say, you don’t upgrade your ver­sion of Pages imme­di­ately. Let’s say you wait until the ver­sion after that. Will that ver­sion open the files you have right now? Possibly not.

When a file format is updated, you get new fea­tures. I under­stand that and I applaud. But there are dis­ad­vant­ages. Once you’ve been writ­ing for a few years, and you look back for your floppy, your ClarisWorks files, or even your Kindwords files, you real­ise that file format change is the krypton­ite of longetivity.

Check out this art­icle by Charles Stross on Microsoft Word, entitled ‘Why Microsoft Word Must Die’. Now, we all hate Word, don’t we? Come on. You do.

I hate Word from a pos­i­tion of some expert­ise, because, back in 2003–2005, I used it to write my PhD thesis. That was a single doc­u­ment con­tain­ing mul­tiple con­tents tables (some for chapters, sure, but oth­ers for psy­cho­lin­guistic examples), cross-references, a bib­li­o­graphy, and a great deal besides. I learned the hell out of that pro­gram. Thus did I learn to hate it. It is buggy, poorly designed, and over-featured.

Going back to the point made by Charles Stross, it is a real shame that the pub­lish­ing industry relies on Word as its workhorse.

Stross men­tioned another pro­gram that he some­times uses. It is called vim. I also use it.

Format Wars: A New Hope

Back in 1976, the year I was born, Bill Joy wrote a text editor for UNIX. That editor was called vi. It was designed to work over a com­puter ter­minal (i.e. a text-based inter­act­ive inter­face). It had two modes. In the first mode, whatever the user typed would be entered as text in the cur­rent doc­u­ment. In the second mode, the key­board became a way of nav­ig­at­ing around the doc­u­ment. You can read more about the pro­gram over at Wikipedia.

The pro­gram was updated by Bram Moolenaar for the Commodore Amiga, a com­puter I used as a kid. Moolenaar called his pro­gram vim. This stood for ‘Vi improved’. The year was 1991.

What’s It Like Using Vim?

Where I grew up, we often bought fruit from the vil­lage shop. The apples didn’t come from China or South America. They tasted good, but were a bit small and occa­sion­ally bruised. Later, we bought fruit from super­mar­kets. They were never bruised and they all looked the same. Didn’t taste as good, but by then I’d for­got­ten what non-supermarket apples tasted like. Nowadays I eat ponsy ‘organic’ apples, and they tend to come from Kent, where I live. They’re smal­ler, more bruised, but the taste real.

Where am I going with this? Is Vim some kind of home-grown product? No, it’s American.

Is it tastier than Microsoft Word or Apple Pages?

Well.

It’s like this. When you write in Vim, it doesn’t pre­tend that you’re look­ing at a book. It’s text. The notion of ‘present­a­tion’ is off the table. Layout can take a run­ning jump.

Vim presents you with the text at a much sim­pler level.

If you—by which I mean ‘me’—write a story in Word, or Pages, and print that bad boy out, the product you hold in your hand is some­what disin­genu­ous. It mas­quer­ades as a fin­ished product. The imper­fec­tions and short­falls of your prose are very slightly obscured by the lay­out and present­a­tion, both of which are telling you, uncon­sciously, that the work is already like the work you see in books.

To Vim (verb): To remove super­fi­cial present­a­tion in order to reveal substance.

Example: ‘We were lar­ging it at the Time Piece last week until the last tune, Get Lucky. Then the main lights came on, the music turned off, and the boun­cers moved in. The place was totally vimmed.’

Every imper­fec­tion jumps out. It’s just you, your eye­balls, and your text.

Stop Being So Arty-Farty. What Is It Actually Like To Use?

Vim is Fast

When you’re typ­ing text into the com­mand line, the com­puter is not ren­der­ing graph­ical gub­bins. Letters appear slightly faster. Not so much faster that you notice it in Vim, but fast enough to notice that text ren­der­ing is slower in most other places, not­ably Word and Pages.

Vim as a Learning Curve

Vim has key­board short­cuts for:

  • Deleting sen­tences
  • Moving the caret to the start/beginning of a sentence
  • Moving x words for­ward or back
  • Jumping to the top of the doc­u­ment, to the bot­tom, to the middle, and so on

These take time to learn. I’m still learn­ing them. But, even after a few minutes, it becomes much faster to nav­ig­ate a doc­u­ment using the key­board than using the mouse.

Rock-solid

Vim is used by a lot of geeks (mostly for pro­gram­ming). I’ve never encountered a bug or had it crash.

How Do I Start?

Every jour­ney starts with a single jump, grasshop­per. From Engadget, VIM 101: a quick-and-dirty guide to our favor­ite free file editor.

Happy vimming.

vim

Writing ‘Red Star Falling’: Part Three

I heard back from my editor yes­ter­day. He’ll be tak­ing a look at my final­ised manu­script on the bank hol­i­day week­end (next week). Ahead of those edits, won­der­ing what they might be, I thought it would be use­ful to post another instal­ment of my writ­ing journal.

In the last excerpt, I had fin­ished the first draft of the story, which came in at 15,000 words. I next turned to the prob­lem of deal­ing with an editor.

Thursday, 4th April

For my next trick, I’ve been in con­tact with an editor. A few things are rolling around my head on this sub­ject. First of all, the cost. It’s expensive.

As I’m going to pub­lish this short story (call­ing it a novella, now!) to the Amazon Kindle—i.e., in elec­tronic format—it needs to be in good shape. That means edit­ing. What does an editor do? Well, there are dif­fer­ent types of edit­ing. There’s noth­ing about these types that a writer can’t do alone (indeed, many writers edit the work of oth­ers, too), but they usu­ally find it dif­fi­cult because they lack per­spect­ive. The editor gives a kind of ‘san­ity check’. They work as a pro­fes­sional, exper­i­enced sound­ing board. I liken them to record pro­du­cers. They don’t fun­da­ment­ally change the text itself, but they lend it a cer­tain per­spect­ive that can be help­ful. They sug­gest dele­tions, addi­tions, and so on.

Is it worth it? Undoubtedly. As a writer, I feel it’s my duty to get my work into the best shape pos­sible. If my story were a boxer, this would be about hir­ing the best trainer.

Friday, 5th April

It’s a struggle to make the story as alive as it can be; what is the best way of present­ing it?

I’ll need to increase the ten­sion in cer­tain parts. I’ll prob­ably do this by set­ting the char­ac­ters against one another rather more. The final scene, in par­tic­u­lar, is a bit too friendly.

I go on to write:

There’s a char­ac­ter I’ll prob­ably delete, and another I need to be very care­ful about. His iden­tity is

(Redacted.)

For that [redac­ted] to work, his motiv­a­tions need to seem con­sist­ent dur­ing the ini­tial read (when the reader thinks [redac­ted]) and also when the reader goes back over their memory of his actions and thinks, ‘Aha!’ My model for this ‘Aha!’ moment is the reveal at the end of The Usual Suspects. That is to say that I aspire to cre­ate the same effect.

Good luck with that.

During this stage, the story tends to dog my thoughts and give rise to that faraway look that friends often com­ment on. The story is a multi-piece jig­saw puzzle where I’m allowed to change the size of the pieces as well as their arrange­ments. There’s no way this can hap­pen con­sciously. You have to let your uncon­scious percolate.

One more thing is hap­pen­ing. As I become more famil­iar with the story—dream about it, pon­der about it dur­ing idle moments—I think of cer­tain meta­phor­ical con­nec­tions that could be made. For instance, I’ve decided that Saskia should be ‘awoken’ at the begin­ning of the story by a vase of flowers fall­ing over. Not entirely sure, at this stage, whether the flowers should be red or white. Anyway, it com­ple­ments the end­ing of the story, where [redacted].

Sunday, 28th April

I often recall some­thing that Steve Jobs said about design­ing a product. Good design, he claimed, is about leav­ing things out. By elim­in­at­ing what is not great, you leave the great bits. I’m often reminded of this when I read stu­dent work, like an essay. I’ll look at a para­graph and think, ‘You should have left that out,’ because the other para­graphs were writ­ten at the top of your game; they work well. Only leave in the stuff that works well. If some­thing doesn’t work—a char­ac­ter, scene, metaphor—then you can try to fix it, but must always remem­ber that dele­tion is also a fix.

Structurally, I’ve decided not to include some flash­backs (of the future, where the main char­ac­ter comes from). This should give the story a tighter, more focused feel. You can’t have too much focus.

I’m aim­ing for this story to work in the same way that a third act works.

The final draft was 20,000 words. That’s the ver­sion I sent to the editor.

Writing ‘Red Star Falling’: Part Two

In this second part of excerpts from my writ­ing journal, which out­lines my thoughts while writ­ing Red Star Falling, I’m assem­bling the first draft and think­ing about the revi­sion process.

Saturday, 30th March

So the theme today is a some­what tech­nical. I’m try­ing to get myself out of plot knots that I’ve become ensnared in. For this story, I’ve given myself a gen­eral view of what goes on—a high-altitude ver­sion, if you will—and relied upon my unpar­alleled writer’s brain (sar­casm alert) to fig­ure out the fine details dur­ing the pro­cess of com­pos­i­tion. This is one way of doing it; it’s also a way of cre­at­ing panic. That said, the panic is prob­ably neces­sary. What it means is that I must solve prob­lems as I go along. It makes me focus much more. They aren’t really dif­fi­cult prob­lems, to be hon­est. They’re prob­lems like ‘Character A needs to do X because oth­er­wise things will be bor­ing; but why would Character A do that?’ and selling them to the reader.

The theme of ‘selling’ is cer­tainly one that I keep com­ing back to. The story itself might be mundane, but it can give the impres­sion of being a crack­ing story if it is sold well. A magi­cian will have only a small staple of tricks—misdirections, etc.—but they can be sold as things like mind-reading and lev­it­a­tion. That’s why you can para­phrase a story like Hansel and Gretel and it sounds like a piece of crap. In selling it, in put­ting it together as a story that the reader can almost exper­i­ence, almost touch, you cre­ate some­thing like fic­tion. So much of my ‘prob­lem solv­ing’ is really about doing up with solu­tions that the reader will ‘buy’. Not to have the char­ac­ters be clever but seem clever. Much the same applies to the writer, I’d suggest.

Sunday, 31st March

The struggle con­tin­ues. Since I fin­ished the writ­ing ses­sion last night, I’m bugged by the little uni­verse in my head. The story has reached the point where sev­eral inter­est­ing things have to hap­pen sim­ul­tan­eously. To be spe­cific for a moment…

Redacted!

Last night in bed, and this morn­ing in bed, I’ve been think­ing over the mech­an­ics of what needs to happen.

In my last ses­sion, I left Saskia…

As the Fonz says, redactamundo!

I did that accord­ing to Hemingway’s prin­ciple that one should always leave some­thing in the tank for the next ses­sion. That is, you should always be able to pick up where you left off.

But once I’ve writ­ten the next bit—which is fairly easy—I’ll then hit the murder-wall of the com­ing action scene, where all things come together. I know I’ve writ­ten good action scenes in the past, but it does, at moment, seem dif­fi­cult to scope out.

As ever, the best way of get­ting the thing done is to do it. Let’s rock. (Pun-tastic!)

Wednesday, 30th April

Well, I’ve fin­ished the first draft of the short story.

Came in at about 15,000 words.

The idea now is to let it mellow—but not too much! The first draft works, essen­tially, as a rough map of the final ter­rit­ory. It now needs to be fin­essed in a couple of ways. The first is a ‘devel­op­mental pass’. I’ll need to read through the thing in its entirety and check that there aren’t any major errors of geo­graphy, motiv­a­tion, and so on. Next, I’ll do a ‘research pass’, where I’ll ensure that visual descrip­tions, etc., are accur­ate. Finally, I’ll fin­ish the text itself; this will involve re-writing the story from the ground up. I’ll prob­ably start with a blank doc­u­ment and have the ori­ginal open to one side.

Developmental pass

This comes first. It’s about a high-level over­view. Here, I can change struc­ture to max­im­ise things like pace, clar­ity and parsimony—but how­ever it’s described, it means pro­du­cing a struc­ture that is the best way of telling the story. In a sense, when you change the struc­ture, you change the story, but there’s a dis­tinc­tion between plot and story. (There might be a tech­nical one; but I’m using my own dis­tinc­tion here.) The story is what the text is about; the plot is what hap­pens, and in what order. What is the story about? This is a ques­tion I don’t like to ask before­hand, because it stifles the cre­at­ive pro­cess. It’s import­ant for me that I don’t really know what it is about to start with. This needs to be dis­covered dur­ing the writ­ing. In the case of Red Star Falling, I guess the story is about a woman going…

Redacted.

Research pass

This is quite good fun, though there is a per­vas­ive anxi­ety that I’ll uncover a cru­cial detail that renders implaus­ible a key aspect of the story. What I need to do in this stage is identify loc­a­tions, the weather, sound pat­terns, smells, fashion—anything spe­cific to the situ­ation of the story that I’ll need to men­tion or imply. Red Star Falling is set in Switzerland in 1908. It begins in a mor­tu­ary and fin­ishes on the Eiger Nordwand, or ‘north face’. I’ve been look­ing up descrip­tions and pic­tures of Edwardian mor­tu­ar­ies and drop­ping them into an applic­a­tion called Evernote. I’m not sure how much of the detail I’ll need to use, but I want to have it at my fingertips.

It might be worth say­ing some­thing about the inter­ac­tion between the research pro­cess and the first draft. I’ve learned, over the years, that the story-based ele­ment is quite inde­pend­ent from the research-based ele­ment, even though they may appear to the reader (and the ama­teur writer) to be tangled inex­tric­ably. The prob­lem for the writ­ing pro­cess is that you’ve already got a ton of stuff rolling around your head. Essentially, you are try­ing to sim­u­late an inde­pend­ent real­ity in your head. The less you need to think about research the bet­ter. If you write peri­pat­et­ic­ally, the flow of the story will suf­fer, and it will be very hard to write. It’s bet­ter just to crack on. So, these days, when I write (and this is true of the draft as it stands today), I’m writ­ing the let­ters TC (stand­ing for ‘To Come’) whenever I need to write some­thing that I would need to look up—time of dawn, name of a minor char­ac­ter, or street, and so on. This means that I can crash through and get the draft fin­ished. However, it’s not easy, because you’re well aware that what you’re pro­du­cing reads like a god­damn lub­berly mess. (It doesn’t help that prose is shot full of cliches, either, but you’ve also got to post­pone beauty to a later draft.)

Finalising the text

This will be lay­ing down a new bed of prose that is all-guns-blazing, pos­sibly over­blown, and cer­tainly purple. It’s when I’ll start to think: What is the abso­lute best way, aes­thet­ic­ally, to describe a night/mortuary workbench/lake lit by moon­light? The draft will prob­ably be much longer than the first draft. Decisions of tone, pace, and all that will need to be made. Then it will be draf­ted a few more times. Probably, that’ll involve print­ing the thing out, cor­rect­ing the lan­guage, and doing it again.

The fun you can have. Next time, the journal will look into issues like the cover for the book.