I’d heard about for quite a while, but hadn’t really given it a try. My latest craze has been using Backpack, which has been quite successful for all sorts of random note-taking. But when it came to putting together lists of links that I wanted to keep track of, even Backpack’s light-weight easy editing wasn’t quite there. I didn’t want to have to copy-paste the links and format ’em up. I just wanted to hit a button and be done.

And that’s pretty much what does. With a single click (via a nifty bit of javascript in a bookmark) it’ll post the current page to my, prefilling the URL and description for me.

The big deal about, though, is the tagging. I’ve found that part interesting, but I barely have time to read the stuff I gather together, let alone follow other people’s tags.

Anyway, my page can be seen at Links ahoy!

The List

I’ve decided to do is make a list of issues that have been coming up in critique group. Most of these are related to grammar and diction–certain patterns that I overuse and a tendency to use a big word when a diminutive one would suffice 🙂 I’m hitting the point where it’s hard to keep track of all the things that have been pointed out before. This should help since I don’t want to hear the same problem over again, no more than the group probably wants to read the same problem repeatedly!

Anyway, I’ve got a Backpack page, and whenever I notice a particular comment being made multiple times I’ll be adding it to the list. Then I’ll do at least one pass through new chapters with the list in hand. Hopefully this will help me to be more aware of the persistent issues, and gradually they’ll disappear to be replaced with new, different problems.

Word Delta: -550 editing changes (haven’t done “the list” pass yet).

Hand-editing: The Typing

Like a lot of the world, I use Word as my primary editor. It is the first word processor I really used (Word 6.0… I did some writing in a DOS-based text editor the name of which I can’t remember. I do have a soft spot in my heart for orange text on a black background, though.)

In any case, my time in Word when editing is split between typing in hand-written changes and actually doing the editing right there in the document. Mostly I try to do the first–I work slower on paper, so I think more about what I’m doing, which is a good thing.

Since I work with computers all day, I’m also pretty keyboard driven. Mostly my writing is just plain text, so there isn’t a lot of crazy formatting work that needs to get done. The following short-cuts and tactics help speed me through my typing work:

  • Ctrl+arrow keys — This is my primary navigation in the doc. Right/left moves you over words, up/down moves paragraphs. Hold down Shift while you’re at it, and selecting the text you want becomes a breeze. It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard for me watching someone move around with just the raw arrow keys.
  • Ctrl+S — Save! I hit this without even thinking about it. Pause for any reason? My fingers blindly hit save without me having to get involved.
  • Context menu key — a lot of newer keyboards have a key that essentially does a right-click. This is hugely useful, since it means I can get a context menu without having to touch the mouse. In Word specifically, it’s really great in conjunction with the red squiggles under misspelled words. When I see that I’ve typed something wrong, rather than fixing it myself, I just back up a couple characters, tap the context menu key and generally the first item will be the corrected word. Because of this, I rarely if ever actually run the full spell-checker.
  • Grammar check — now I know, the grammar checking is rather basic and often gets confused. However, when I’m editing I’ll often change tense or shuffle words in other ways that make it easy to mis-type and screw up a sentence. I leave the grammar checking on since a lot of times if it highlights a sentence I’ll have dropped a word or changed something I shouldn’t have.

That’s the round-up of the most important things I use in Word.

Word Delta: -250 from editing, +3200 rewritten

Hand-editing: The Page

I find that my most productive editing is done by hand–sitting with a printed copy in front of me and a pen in my hand. I don’t know if this’ll always be true, since it used to be the only way that I drafted material, and that isn’t exactly the case anymore. Either way, I’ve got my own pen-and-paper standards that I typically use to speed up working through the text (which can take anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes per page, depending on the changes).

First off, I always print double-spaced with 1 inch margins all around. I write relatively small, so this means I can revise sentences in the blank line above them. The top, bottom and sides allow for larger edits too. I print duplex (love my “new” printer that my wife convinced me to buy), so I don’t have blank sides to use.

Removing text is almost always demarcated by parentheses and a straight line through. If it’s a whole paragraph (which of course never happens 😛 ) then I’ll just cross-hatch through it. Single letters, often for tense changes, can be done with a slash through (/).

Inserted text normally gets written immediately above where it’s going. If things are getting a little cramped, then a simple ^ beneath takes care of the placement issue most of the time.

I write a paragraph mark something like an R with two vertical lines–don’t know if that’s standard, but that’s what I do. If I need to remove indentation (i.e. scoot two paragraphs together) I write an arrow like <=.

I’ve got a variety of abbreviations that I use commonly. w/ for with, w/o for without, single capital letters for primary characters (if their name is longer than four or five letters at least).

Can’t think of much else at the moment, but that’s how I do it. Next time… moving from ink to bytes.

Word Delta: +105 words over ~10 pages of edits. Leaner, meaner and more descriptive!

Software vs. Fiction

A lot of people are surprised by the fact that I’m a software developer who writes fiction. I know all about the stereotypes of my profession, and I’ll be the first to admit that they aren’t without basis. What puzzles me, though, is how diametrically opposed people seem to think the two things are. “It must be nice to have a creative outlet like writing after using a computer all day.” I even get this from people that I work with in the software industry.

In my mind, the two things aren’t really that different — both are opportunities to build interesting things, to express my thoughts about the world. They’re just different languages for communicating. In one case I’m building a story in the reader’s mind one word at a time. In another I’m constructing a user experience for someone who runs my program or visits my website.

I guess the bottom line is that you can’t assume that because you don’t understand something, that it is devoid of art and creativity.

Word Delta: hand-editing at the moment, so no word counts.

Fruits of time

Last post, I was lamenting a couple pages of lost writing. While I won’t necessarily claim that I think the restored text that I wrote in the past day or two is vastly superior, there was at least one good thing about the loss. In the time that I spent re-writing, I had an idea for something to work into the next scene.

Earlier, I talked about cutting a whole huge section of flashback from the novel. Pieces of that story do have their place in the novel, and one particular scene I’m still trying to figure out where it’s going to go. I had tentatively planned on putting it in a later chapter, even drafted out part, but I can’t honestly claim that I was totally happy with the transition.

Anyway, during that extra little bit of time I had because of rewriting those pages, I happened upon the idea of working that flashback into the next scene. Once I realized it, it became clear that it had a much better connection to the action here than where I originally planned to put it. Hurray!

Word Delta: +3025 words

The editing process

There’s a number of different ways that I edit my writing, often depending on the intensity of the changes that need to be made.

It used to be that I did just about everything on hard-copy. The computer was just for convenience, spell-checking and printing multiple copies. Not so much anymore. If I have a chapter that I’m pretty happy with (or if time’s short!) I’ll often do an edit right in the Word document itself. This allows me to fuss with things quite fast (you get pretty quick on the keys when you type for 8+ hours a day) and making plenty of minor revisions in a short period of time.

The second option is good old print editing. This is generally best for me if the piece needs a bit of work, but has some sound bones to it. One thing about hand-writing is that it forces you to slow down. This is both its attraction and its drawback. There’s more time to think, more vested effort in each word that I write on a page with a pen in hand. I consider more fully where I want to go before I commence. For this reason, all of the novels I’ve drafted (I’m on number five at present) have been written by hand. I do it in unlined sketch pads because I’m masochistic…

The last option for editing is something that I’m finding myself doing a lot more since I’ve gotten into the critique group. More often than I like, I’m confronted with the need to make major plot adjustments. In the past, I would likely have tried to salvage what I had, print it off and tinker with it trying to make it better. Whole-sale replacement, though, isn’t always that bad of a choice anymore. It’s actually easier in a lot of cases than trying to edit something into a shape that it just didn’t match to begin with.

That’s been the latest bit of work–I had a couple chapters that just needed some quick in-document editing, but then there’s a stretch that needs to be done fresh. Open a blank document and have at it!

Word Delta: +840 words

Temporary files… arg!

I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but I lost data on Friday. I’d finished with my work, and since it was going to be a while before my wife came to pick me up, I decided to peck away on the re-written chapter I’m currently working on for the group. Opened up my Backpack page, clicked the file and instead of doing what I knew I should have, I just started working in the open copy. I thought, ‘I’ll save it off in a moment,’ and got thoroughly involved in the scene.

Phone rings, and my wife is downtown to pick me up. For good measure, I hit Ctrl+S (which I press compulsively… wouldn’t want to lose anything) then hit Alt+F4 to close. Motor over to my Backpack to upload the file I just modified and… D’OH!

I searched briefly in my temporary files, but it seemed to have vanished. With the time crunch of getting down to meet my wife (we had somewhere to be) I soon had to admit defeat and just pitch it.

This evening, I will see if I can “recreate the magic.” Should be fine, but it’s annoying to have to do it.

Word Delta: + 2.5 pages… – 2.5 pages


Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m addicted… to Backpack.

This is just about the smoothest web application I’ve ever seen. It’s AJAX’d to the hilt (which means no page refreshes for all you non-techies). It has a great balance of features for creating lists, taking notes and packing your files around to different machines. I used to e-mail reminders between my work and home machines. No longer. Backpack’s my homepage both places, so I see what I need to remember. You can share pages too, so my wife and I can pass lists of, for example, groceries, back and forth during the workday.

Backpack has also carved its way into my writing process, but I’ll scribble down more about that another time.

I really admire their design philosophy — they don’t put in features or settings simply because some people ask. They really consider what they’re doing, and are committed to doing it one way and doing it right.

That isn’t to say they don’t add features, though. In the time I’ve been using the service, they’ve made substantial strides in the ordering for lists and notes, and then just today bumped up the size and page counts for paying accounts. Hurray!

Anyway, I can’t say enough good things about it. Go check it out.

“I want him to fight back!”

In a recent chapter I had critiqued, my main character, Kyle, gets abducted by a group of less-than-stable people. Not a bad idea that — peril for the character, chance to work in some different psychos into the book. Because of the world the book takes place in, though, it wasn’t enough for them to just capture Kyle. They needed a way to incapacitate him. My solution — they drug him up to the gills.

Perfectly realistic. It fit within the rules of the world I built, took care of keeping Kyle under control, even allowed for some nice hallucinations… but I had this sneaking suspicion something was wrong. The chapters felt like they were dragging, that not enough was happening in them. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it was there. You shouldn’t have to worry about things getting boring while your main character is being held by a bunch of loonies!

Then in critique group, she hit it right on the head — “I want him to fight back!” By drugging him, I had taken away Kyle’s ability to act. I had turned him into a piece of scenery, and people don’t (typically) get that attached to scenery. It doesn’t matter if he succeeds in his fight or not–probably better if he doesn’t quite a bit of the time–but he has to at least try.

In one form or another, I’ve been fighting similar battles throughout my novel. To some extent, Kyle falls into his situation. It’s outside his control, he didn’t choose to become involved. But there’s a big difference between that and just letting him drift along through events like a wet piece of cloth.

Your character may not be in control, but at least he needs to fight back!

Word Delta for the Day: +270