Archive for October, 2012

VNW’s comment on an earlier post got me to thinking about how I’m trying to utilize Scrivener’s features to help organize my novel manuscript. I thought I’d explore that a little bit.

Scrivener has many features, but four tools that I’ve been trying to use to help me organize and revise my work are Snapshots, the split screen, Comments, and Keywords.

Snapshots are useful because they make it very easy to access multiple drafts of a chapter (or scene) even when you move that chapter around or rename it. For example, I have a few chapters that are flashbacks and I’ve been puzzling about both the sequence in which these should be revealed to the reader and where they should fit into the overall structure of the narrative. So they’ve not only been edited to make them work more effectively as scenes, they been edited to fit more cleanly into the surrounding narrative AND they’ve been moved around. With Scrivener, once I save a Snapshot of a particular chapter draft, that Snapshot follows the chapter around wherever I move it and stays associated even if I rename that chapter. Very convenient for a larger project.

The Split Screen is a feature I typically use when I’m (a) adding large-scale notes for a chapter, (b) conducting a broad editorial overview, or (c) referencing a research document while writing a scene. Split Screen allows me to put the manuscript in the top window of Scrivener and the other doc I need to look at in the bottom screen. This is a simple feature but very convenient for this sort of work. I can associate a sub-document full of notes with any given chapter for ease of reference.

Here’s a screen capture showing both the split screen and the Snapshots for a chapter.

Here’s a chapter showing the split screen I use for the manuscript and any broad editorial commentary/notes, plus a look at the snapshots of various chapter drafts

As you can see, I’ve gone through a lot of drafts on this particular chapter. I have them all arranged by date and I can scroll separately through the text of an earlier draft in the little pink column at the bottom right of the screen. This is really handy when I want to pull some language out of an earlier draft and reinsert it into the current manuscript.

I don’t really like to write for extended periods using the Split Screen, as it gets busy for me when I’m trying to be creative. When I’m writing, I tend to use a feature of Scrivener called Compose that blacks out the whole screen and lets me see just a paragraph or so of text. Great for removing distractions (hard for me to capture using my screen capture tool!). However, Split Screen is useful for editing. In fact, having the different visual input to work with helps me distinguish my editorial role from my writer role, so I can switch hats with a bit more cognitive ease.

I also use the Comments feature a great deal. This isn’t that different from turning Comments on in Word, except that I find Scrivener’s implementation to be cleaner and easier to use. You highlight text, make a note in the Comment field that appears in the sidebar, and that’s it. Easy to delete Comments, easy to add them.

The Comments feature is straightforward but useful for specific text notes.

Finally, I am finding that Keywords are a useful tool for a long manuscript like this one. Using Keywords, I’m able to create a list of key categories such as Characters, Locations, Concepts, Factions, and so forth that appear in the book. Then I can add those keywords to any chapter or scene. Here’s what it might look like:

The main keyword list is in the middle, keywords associated with a specific chapter shown on the right, and the results of a search for a particular character keyword are in the column on the left.

In the example above, I searched for all instances of the keyword for a certain character. That character shows up a lot in the current outline, but that could change. In any case, I can click on the entries in the list on the left and see every place where that character appears in the manuscript. Great for keeping tabs on continuity issues. If I change the name of something in the master keyword list, all the tags I’ve added for that will change as well. (The manuscript text won’t change; if you change the name of a major character, you’ve got to do a search and replace.) It’s also handy if, like me, you inadvertently described a minor character the same way every time they first appeared in a scene. Easy to miss but kind of embarrassing when discovered.

I usually toss a couple keywords into a chapter or scene when I first create it, then go back and refine those during later drafts, perhaps when I’m feeling a bit blocked and still want to stay engaged with the story. In an early outline, this process brought to my attention the fact that I’d left a character out of a dozen chapters before dropping them back in for a dramatic scene without much foreshadowing.

I suppose you could use these tools to create a very detailed, well-organized outline before you begin writing. But I’ve learned that you can also employ them after the fact to help wrap your head around a manuscript that threatens to spiral out of control. I appreciate that Scrivener seems flexible enough to support both approaches.

Hope this helps to illustrate or clarify what I mean when I reference some of these tools in the blog posts.

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I find game theory interesting even though I am, at best, a mediocre player of board games and simulations. I’m much stronger as a participant in role-playing games, where the goal is to produce shared entertainment and have fun as much as it is to achieve a specific goal.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a staple of game theory models. Wikipedia has a good summary of the concept here. In essence, two sides must choose whether to cooperate or not. If both cooperate, they each benefit. If neither cooperate, both suffer. But if one side cooperates and the other side betrays them, the side that betrayed gains the greatest benefit and the cooperating side suffers the greatest loss. This being the case, what’s the best strategy?

In a single-move Prisoner’s Dilemma scenario, the best option is to betray your opponent. You’ll suffer, but you’ll suffer less than if you cooperate and get betrayed.

Of particular interest is the Iterative Prisoner’s Dilemma. This simply means that the same decision must be made over and over, usually for an unspecified number of turns. In this situation, the strategies change. It becomes advantageous to cooperate at least some of the time. For many years, the default, go-to strategy for the Iterative Prisoner’s Dilemma has been the Tit-For-Tat approach: begin by cooperating, then simply copy whatever your opponent did on the previous turn. If they keep cooperating, so you do. If they betray you, you punish them immediately by betraying them the following turn. By adding a slight chance of forgiveness, say a few percent, you can do even better.

This strategy doesn’t always win, but it produces the best results in the most efficient manner. It also rewards an essentially “nice,” altruistic approach.

Recently, William Press and Freeman Dyson published a paper offering a new set of strategies for the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma that performed better than Tit-For-Tat and seemingly fool evolution. The original paper is far too technical for my limited abilities. However, there’s an excellent summary on the EDGE site by William Poundstone, complete with a brief Q&A with original paper author William Press. There’s also a great, two-page summary of the import of the original paper written by Alexander Stewart and Joshua Plotkin and available as a PDF download here.

In essence, what the authors are arguing is that there is a way to extort your opponent by being more clever than they are. In particular, if you know that your opponent is following a basic, evolutionary, maximize-short-term-gains approach, you can not only beat them, you can even take steps to dictate what their score will be. Moreover, if two players adopt this same strategic approach, called zero determinant, then it will become necessary for them to make one of three choices:

  • One player has to choose to accept some benefit but lose the game to the player who gained the initial advantage
  • One player has to choose to sabotage his own score in order to exact punishment on the opponent–the only way to get back at the other guy is to harm yourself as well
  • Both players need to agree to terms that will allow them to dictate each other’s success but not their own

It’s hard for me to wrap my head around this last option, but it’s one of the more powerful conclusions stemming from the initial research. If both sides are aware that the other side is a thinking, strategic player, it should be possible for them to agree on the most mutually beneficial outcome and then entrust each other to enforce it. Neither side can improve their own score by cheating at that point.

So using these new strategies, you can in theory either dominate an unaware opponent who is behaving in a mechanistic fashion, or you can mutually destroy two clever opponents, or two clever opponents can agree to maximize their own gains. The first option produces more head-to-head wins than Tit-for-Tat, while the last option produces more mutual benefit.

I suppose this offers some hope for diplomatic efforts in the future. For me, having read Peter Watt’s novel Blindsight, it offers some hope that, unlike the bleak vision proposed in that science fiction story, being a self-aware species competing against aliens driven by purely evolutionary, instinctive strategies might not be the automatic losing proposition he makes it out to be.

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Status as of Day 28

Day 28 total: 5,096 words      Total: 83,650/~34,814 (in progress)

Wow, I had not realized how long it has been since my last update.

Much of the past week was spent dealing with real life issues. I replaced a broken garbage disposal, dealt the fallout from my son’s first fight at school, am working on getting my daughter transferred to a math/science magnet school after the semester has already started, and got sick (which I’m still recuperating from). Knock on wood, all of those things either went well or are in the process of being resolved. Today has been a total loss in terms of writing time, but I may be able to get some done in the evening.

From a writing perspective, I had three very good days, including yesterday, two average days, and two terrible days over the weekend where I wrote 1,000 words combined. I now have all or most of 15 chapters written, plus portions of another three chapters, with about 16 chapters to go. I’m adjusting the setting to fit the dramatic needs of the story in some places and creating a more detailed setting in others.

I had hoped to have more of the main manuscript complete by this point, but overall I’m satisfied with how this has gone. I’m learning by doing. The real key is going to be completing this work, and that’s going to take a few more months, most likely.

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