Update of no great consequence

I do seem to run hot and cold when it comes to updating this blog. The good news (as far as I’m concerned) is that I’ve been neglecting my writing-blog-writing because I’ve been doing a lot of plain old fiction writing lately.

I’ve also been very busy sending out a ton of story submissions (the flip side to tons of rejections is tons of new opportunities to submit!) and also putting in a ton of effort refining my workflow.

Some writers just sit down and toss the words out onto the page. I plan a great deal, and assemble mountains of notes and try to sort through them and apply them into suitable little piles relating to the same subject or project. I have this fantastic new tool called Evernote, which is a way of sorting all your notes, including even note-like stuff such as PDFs, sound clips, images and so on. You can apply multiple tags to each “note” so you can look through all your notes with any given tag, and a single note may appear every time you look by the appropriate tag. So I might have a photo of a weird looking goth chick with blue hair, and I could tag it as “image” and “character ideas” and “Hum” (after the name of a story I’m working on) and whichever of these tags I choose, I’ll see this picture. Pretty handy, for sorting through things all different ways, especially once you have thousands of notes.

I’m also increasingly using this great online tool called Dropbox, which gives you a folder on all of your computers which is kept synchronized at all times, so anything you drop into the “My Dropbox” folder on your work PC, for example, is automatically updated in the “My Dropbox” folder on you iPad, your laptop, and your MacPro at home. So great! I used to carry around 2 or 3 little USB thumb drives all the time, and now I’m done with those. Everything I may need during the day, no matter where I am — reference documents, web links, my story projects, software installers, everything! Dropbox is great and includes a free option, for up to 2gb of storage, and a paid option for people who want to store a lot more.

I’ll be back soon with subsequent SF Academy entries, and maybe a bit more about what I’ve been writing lately.

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How many balls should I keep in the air?

Those of you casually perusing this blog might say “This fella here looks like one of them wannabe writers, who talks a lot about how he wishes he could write some day, but doesn’t actually commit any words to paper.”

I’ve known people like that, more in love with the idea of writing than with the act itself, but I’m not one of them. I don’t write every single day, but I’m pretty productive. No, the reason I haven’t said much about my own fiction yet is a bit of self-consciousness about talking my own ideas and process. Having asked myself “What’s up with that, anyway?” I’ve come to the conclusion it’s mainly due to being unpublished at this point, so I feel more qualified spouting off about science fiction books and writers, since every reader feels qualified to be a critic. I figure, though, if I have enough nerve to send my work to professional editors to consider for their periodicals (a threshold I’ve crossed), I can certainly put myself far enough out on the limb to talk about some of my own creative philosophies and mechanisms.

Rather than starting with something I feel confident about, though, I’ll begin with a question to which I don’t really know the answer. One thing I feel unsure of, and I go back and forth on this question, is this: How many stories should I be working on at any given time?

Over the past dozen years I’ve recorded a lot of ambient electronic music. That’s not what this blog is about, but it’ll come up here sometimes because it’s an important part of my life. I mention it because in all those years, having released a handful of solo albums and another handful of collaborative ones, I’ve almost never tried to work on more than one thing at once. Finish the Griffin solo album, start the Viridian Sun duo album, start the second Griffin album, set it aside entirely and make the second Viridian Sun album, and so on. The process was to start a project and either finish it or set it aside completely before starting another. I never thought about this way of working, but it made sense to me and it seemed to work.

With my writing, I’ve always worked on more than one thing at once, sometimes juggling a really large number of projects and ideas. Last month I counted twelve short stories in progress and another thirty plotted, outlined or otherwise planned (but not yet started). When I have an idea for a story I slowly add little things to the mix during the planning stage, starting from a scribbled sentence or two that could barely be called an idea, into the seed of a story, fleshing it out into a full-fledged anecdote or scene, finally combining elements of plot and character, conflict and drama, until I have something ready to be written into a story. Often I stumble upon elements that fit well only very gradually, and I feel like my best stories have benefitted from being “in progress” for long enough for this to unfold.

Recently I felt overwhelmed by the many long-pending stories hanging over me, and resolved not to start anything new until I could shorten the queue down to just a few. Though I’m not yet entirely sure I need to change what I’m doing, I’m considering this an experiment.

MANY items working at once gives me the benefit of allowing each idea longer to mature, gather a sort of richness or complexity. The drawback is, certain stories get lost in a swirl of too much going on. When I have a dozen stories working, and I’m not able to write every single day, sometimes I’m away from a given story for long enough that it becomes too unfamiliar and I have to reacquaint myself with important details before I can begin working again.

FEWER items working would help me see clearly all the balls I’m trying to keep in the air, and ensure I can give time to each of them every week without spending too long away. The flipside to this, though, is that I can’t take much time away from an idea that seems like it would benefit from being shifted to the back burner for a few weeks, because I won’t have enough other stuff to work on instead.

I’ve been on roll lately, finalizing stories and sending them out, and January’s dozen or so pending stories may be reduced by half before the end of March. This is gratifying because the more stories I have completely finished and off my plate, the more I feel like a “real” science fiction writer and not just this confused guy who’s starting to dabble in a new genre. Also I feel the stories show rapid improvement, which makes me hopeful about getting something published soon, if not with one of the stories already finished and submitted, then with something I’ll finish soon.

In Stephen King’s wonderful book On Writing (and no matter what you think of King’s own work, this really is a useful book on writing that any fiction writer should own no matter what style they’re working in) he suggests an approach not too different from my own, involving sticking a first draft in a drawer for several weeks until it can be seen more objectively, and working on other things in the mean time.

If my focus were on novels this wouldn’t even be a question, as novelists usually just hammer away on their one novel at a time, or at most take a little break to work on a short story before getting back to it. Nobody’s juggling a dozen novels in various stages of completion. I’m curious how other writers focused on short fiction do this. I suppose I’ll just try narrowing it down a bit this spring, and see if that’s better or not. If it doesn’t feel right, I could always just start a few new stories… toss a few more balls up in the air and try to keep them up.

Internet, enemy of creative focus

Television was originally seen as this great technology to allow people all over to keep informed of world events, and to find all kinds of free entertainment in the home, only to turn into the world’s great motivation-sucking-time-waster. Something similar, and more modern has evolved, a sort of interactive television. I’m talking about the internet.

TV set

On one hand, the internet is an incredibly powerful tool. The advent of near-ubiquitous internet connectivity has allowed all kinds of great efficiencies like paying bills or doing research or communicating with friends online. On the other hand, though, it’s a potentially detrimental distraction or time sink. It can be so much fun, you almost don’t realize, or maybe don’t care, how much time you’ve wasted.

I don’t care about the loss in business productivity from all the people browsing fantasy football leagues on espn.com, or gossip on thesuperficial.com about Paris Hilton’s latest pix, or any of the many blogs, forums, facebook profiles, youtubes, tumblrs or tweets. I mean, business owners should care (and any corporate IT manager can tell you most people’s work computers are used a lot more for screwing around than for work), but that’s not what interests me here.

Paris Hilton making an adjustment
Paris Hilton making an adjustment

I’m talking about people like myself sitting down to the computer for my own reasons, to work on a project that’s important to me. Let’s say I’m trying to work on some music or graphic design for my record label, Hypnos Recordings, or in my downstairs office trying to get some writing or editing done. Often I’ll think “I’ll just do this little bit of research about which street the UN building is on,” or maybe, “It’ll take two seconds to find out how many moons Neptune has,” or perhaps, “I think I’ll check out that little Russian record label and listen to some of their mp3 sample clips.”

The next thing I know ninety minutes have passed and I’m somewhere deep in web-land, nowhere near where I started out.

The internet has really made a million things easier, sometimes to benefit the user, and more often to benefit a business providing web content, deriving profit from the continued attention of your eyeballs. In other words, the web started out as a way of getting interesting information in front of people who wanted it, but it has evolved into mostly just a way of getting you to look at stuff with advertisements embedded in it. Some web sites, such as Amazon.com or Netflix.com or Youtube.com have spent a lot of time and money developing tools that let them say “We see you are interested in this thing you came here for… perhaps you may also be interested in these many other similar things you didn’t know about?”

How many times have you gone to Youtube to look at a clever video link someone sent you, only to end up watching a half-dozen or more other videos you arrived with no intention of watching? There you are an hour later, watching that dumb kid ride his BMX bike into a brick wall, or an old lady smash a folding chair and fall on her ass, or this.

Something I’ve tried recently is using an old laptop as my writing computer, an old IBM ThinkPad. I don’t particularly like the keyboard, and I hate the lower-resolution screen which makes it hard to fit a whole page on the screen at once. But this machine has no wireless, and it’s nowhere near an ethernet plug, so it’s effectively just a word processor. I’d rather write on a newer computer with a nicer monitor and a keyboard with better touch, and yet I get a lot more accomplished on this IBM because I have no distractions. I just sit down with this thing on my lap and I listen to the music playing from the other side of the room, and I write just like I used to write in the years before the internet came along.

The IBM ThinkPad -- it sucks so much, it's wonderful!
The IBM ThinkPad -- it sucks so much, it's wonderful!

At first I hated this old machine, but then I remembered its very limitations are why I chose it. I’m getting a lot more done, this past few months since I started using it. I’ve often thought of getting an old OS7-era Mac laptop for this purpose, but what I have is working well enough for my needs. I wouldn’t want this to be my only computer, or even my main computer, but again, in this case the limitations constitute the whole point.

Today I stumbled upon a blog entry by someone using an old Mac in a similar way.

Mac Color Classic setup (see SystemFolder blog link below)
Mac Color Classic setup (see SystemFolder blog link below)

Visit Vintage Writing Corner on systemfolder.wordpress.com

My first response upon reading this blog entry, unavoidably despite my own success using an old, “crippled” machine, was to focus on all the things the machine couldn’t do. Gahhh, what about USB?! Again, that’s the point, taking away options and especially removing the temptation of the internet, in the name of a more direct approach to creativity.

I wouldn’t go so far as an old typewriter, as the word processor’s ability to save and edit without having to re-type revised drafts in their entirety is something I really couldn’t do without. I’m a fast typist but who wants to waste that much time?

Another option I stumbled upon, via the same fantastic tumblr/blog incidentally, Minimal Mac, is this simple application that allows a user to voluntarily lock themselves out of any internet connection for a pre-determined period of time.

To me, this seems like it could allow the best of all worlds. I could use my preferred machine, with the best possible monitor and keyboard, and whatever software I choose, without any temptation (during a set writing period or other creative “window”) to screw around online. I wonder if others have had the same amount of frustration at their own time-wasting, or if most people just don’t mind hours spent on wikipedia or amazon. Maybe everyone has a lot more discipline and self-control than I do, but having looked over a few shoulders in my day, I’d say not.