Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

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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Day 21 total: 3,041 words      Total: 64,682/~23,500 (in progress)

Two big goals yesterday: working on the first two chapters of Act II, and reworking the outline for the last half of the novel. When I made some big decisions about the character arc, it ended up more or less invalidating the original climax of the story. At the time, I decided not to worry too much about mapping that out in detail. I just tried to finish whipping Act I into shape and get an idea of how Act II would progress.

Now I think I have an equally dramatic, less byzantine, and somewhat more satisfying conclusion outlined. In addition, I think that the plot twists I discarded for this manuscript can serve as the heart of a sequel. You know, just in case. 🙂

On a lesser note, I went back into a couple earlier chapters and added or replaced a few paragraphs of setting-oriented material. This had the effect of hopefully making several scenes both less generic descriptively and more exciting. This is a process I plan to continue throughout the drafting stage. For other writers, it might work better to lay out the setting in exhaustive detail before beginning to write. For me, all I ended up with in the past was large setting documents full of details that were interesting to me as facts but not tied clearly to characters or stories. So I’ve gone with a broader picture that I’m filling in as things suggest themselves to me. The risk with that approach, I’m guessing, is inconsistencies in the manuscript.

So far, Scrivener has been very helpful in tracking this process. I’m hopeful that by using meta-tags, I’ll be able to  identify all the instances where I’ve referenced a key character, location, or concept. My current plan is to review the manuscript on a weekly basis and do some book-keeping to keep those tags as up-to-date as possible while highlighting or resolving discrepancies that arise (depending upon how readily a solution presents itself).  I always have some days where I feel blocked on the story front and that would give me a useful task to pursue while staying engaged with the story as a whole.

Hopefully these posts are remaining somewhat lucid as I plow forward. It’s amazing how tiring this whole manuscript process is. I hope that one builds up endurance with writing the way you can build up physical endurance.

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Day 19 & 20 total: 3972 words      Total: 61,641/~21,000 (in progress)

Busy weekend as predicted. Saw the Avengers with the family yesterday, had a blast. On the writing front, finally wrapped up the major changes to the six chapters that comprise Act I, wrote the first chapter of the next Act, and am about halfway through the following chapter. Still maintaining a solid daily average, though the past five days have really bounced up and down.

Happy to be moving forward again. Kind of weird to be exploring brand new scenes instead of revising what’s already on the page. I hope that I can build some new momentum with these chapters. Have finally gotten my total words written to current manuscript ratio down under 3:1 at last. It would be nice to get that down to 2:1 or less. Looks like the manuscript might be headed for about 75,000 words total, but that’s subject to change as things develop.

On another note, this is the halfway point of my original time frame. I feel like things are going better than I anticipated they would at this stage. I’ve written more in these 20 days than I did in the previous year.

Edit: The paragraph below makes it sound a bit like this has been an easy transition to kick start my writing. It’s more accurate to say that I’m generally happy at the moment with the sacrifices that I’ve made to focus more on writing. I’d like to do some more volunteering at elementary school, but that’s been difficult to fit into the schedule. And I’m sure I’m losing some of the physical conditioning I built up in the past year. But though I’ve been tired as a result of the writing, I feel like my overall mood has also been more positive and that my family has benefited on the whole.

Most critically, I’ve been keeping up with my usual school duties plus extras like added music practices and new sports activities for the kids. I admit I haven’t volunteered as often as in years past, but that’s largely a side effect of having a child in junior high. I’m not working out quite as frequently, but I feel like I’m getting a lot out of my efforts–I set a personal best in a Crossfit Workout called the Cindy yesterday (22 rounds of 5 pullups, 10 pushups, and 15 squats in 19:32). There are definitely some areas I can improve upon, but I’ve got another 20 days or so for that. Then it will come down to trying to hold onto a solid hour of writing time each day and being productive with that.

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Day 18 total: 5,076 words      Total: 57,669/~17,500 (in progress)

I tell you, if I had just done one draft of every chapter without revising anything, I’d finish the whole novel in 30 days! Well, probably not, though it feels like it some days. And I’m pretty sure I’d end up with a manuscript I couldn’t bear to read through afterwards, because that has happened before with a shorter effort.

Anyway, yesterday I got a lot done by one set of metrics, not so much by another. Once again, I probably need to learn how to revise my chapters without rewriting things wholesale, but usually what happens is that I look at the earlier draft for a bit and a bunch of changes suggest themselves and by the time I get started moving bits around and reframing scenes and so on, it’s just easier to start writing from scratch.

Nearly done with all the revisions I wanted to do for Act I. Reworked one chapter that I had originally planned to skip and probably should have in the interest of forward progress, but it was one of those things where I was reviewing the narrative leading into the following chapter and I felt inspired by a few ideas.

Act I is probably going to come in at just under 15,000 words at this point; the higher total given above is my estimate of what I can salvage from chapters that got cut from Act I but have content that is likely to show up later in the newly reconfigured storyline.

Today promises to be quite full with family activities and household chores, so I’m not sure how much I’ll get done. At least I have an idea of how I want today’s scenes to go, so hopefully I can hit the ground running. Sunday, if all goes well, I’ll finally be charging into Act II. Then will come the real test of whether I’ve learned to write first and then revise or if I’m still stuck in these habits of going through three drafts of a story arc sequence (two-three chapters) before pressing on!

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Thought I’d mention some of the music that I enjoy listening to when I need to write a descriptive scene, have a peaceful background when I’m researching, or am writing in the evening and need to keep myself from getting too excitable. (I’m not an extreme morning person, but I am the type that falls asleep before 11 pm on non-game nights and is up by 6 am most days.)

Among my current favorites are the two albums featuring a collaboration between Brian Eno and Harold Budd:

The ethereal piano playing and ambient sound effects on these really evoke a contemplative mood. Makes me thing of beaches in autumn, forest streams, and so forth. I also love the track An Ending (Ascent) from Eno’s album Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (listen to it at the link). I always visualize myself floating in space above the surface of the Earth as I listen to this piece, with the blue oceans and white clouds below me and the stars and void behind.

Another favorite of mine is Gustavo Santaolalla’s Ronroco. Excellent acoustic guitar compositions. You can hear the track Gaucho here. Santaolla also composes music for films. This music makes me think of the southern New Mexico landscape where I grew up.

From a very different part of the world, I’d like to mention an odd collection of folk songs by Scandanavia women that has a lot of tracks that serve as a great, moody background for writing certain scenes. It’s called Wizard Women of the North. My favorite song on this album has got to be “Heiemo og Nykkjen (Heiemo and the Water Sprite),” but I can’t find a version of it online sung by the same artist (Kirsten Bråten Berg). Here’s a sample of the album’s sound, the song “Vallåtar från Gammelboning (Herding Calls from Gammelboning, Sweden)” attributed to Susanne Rosenberg on the album.  {Not sure why the YouTube video creator calls this Witches Calls; maybe they know what’s actually being said.}

Finally, though the movie was more visual treat than engrossing story, I find Daft Punk’s soundtrack to the movie Tron to make for a good background when writing scenes that require a sense of grandeur or expansiveness. I particularly enjoy Finale. (I also like to throw a few of these songs into the background when running games in my irregularly scheduled sci-fi RPG campaign.)

Looking up, that seems like an odd gathering of songs, but I’m sure something like Pandora would identify the underlying musical DNA that makes this music appealing to me. Maybe later I’ll refer to some more reflective albums or else list some of the music I like to listen to when I’m working out or getting jazzed up to write scenes with a lot of energy. (That list is heavy on the hard rock and techno genres.)

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