Plotting, Pantsing, and Game of Thrones

When it comes to writing I am a pantser. That is, I don’t plan my stories out in advance, I don’t outline. I start with an idea and some vague sense of how I think things will end, and work toward that, discovering things along the way. It is the only method that works for me. Whenever I’ve tried to plan things out, say by outlining, I find I quickly lose interest in the story. Once it is mapped out, I know it and it is no longer exciting for me.

I don’t even like to talk about the stories I am working on. I used to do this, but found that talking about them had the same damping effect as outlining. If I described the plot of a story in progress to someone, I found it hard to go back and finish the story. Having told it once, I wasn’t interested in telling it again. The novelty of the story was gone. These days, if someone asks what I am working on, I simply say, “a story.” If they pursue and ask, “What’s the story about?” I say, “I don’t know, I haven’t figured it out yet.”

I was thinking about plotting versus pantsing after watching the most recent episode of Game of Thrones, “The Long Night.” It got me wondering if, perhaps, George R. R. Martin might never finish the book series, and instead, call the HBO series the canonical end of the saga. I don’t know if Martin is a plotter or a pantser, but if he is the latter, I could see how the HBO series sort of spoils the writing of the rest of the series. Why write it now that he knows how it ends?

For that matter, why read it once the HBO series has concluded. Certainly there are divergences from the books and the series, but in those cases, the books were the originally published source and can be considered canonical. This isn’t the case with the final seasons of Game of Thrones. Now, the HBO series, which is appearing before the last two books, has to be considered the canonical source.

If the final two books are ever written, they will appear long after the HBO series has completed. The HBO series has been a cultural phenomenon and its images, actors, music have seeped into our psyche in such a way that I think it would be difficult for books to replace events in the series. It is possible that the books will diverge from events in the series but since the last seasons of the series came first, I think they will be treated as the source of truth, and divergence will only cause confusion. And yet, if the books follow the series, there is no longer any surprise, and so why bother?

It would not surprise me if we see Martin and his publisher announce that, after due consideration, the final two books of the series will not be written and the HBO series will represent the canonical conclusion to the books. It will be a novelty: a mixed-media series that began in book form and ended as one the most popular television series of all time. It is a way for the series to go out on top. This would also free Martin of the stress of having to complete the series, and move onto other projects he is eager to do.

I don’t know any of this for certain. I am speculating, but it makes sense to me. I would certainly accept the series as the canonical end and were books to be published, I doubt that I would continue to read them at this point–not because I didn’t like the first five but because I already have a satisfactory conclusion in my mind and don’t need to muddy the waters with multiple endings.

As a pantser, I couldn’t imagine having to write the books after working with the showrunners to produce the rest of the series and knowing in detail what happens. The job, for me, would be more like writing a movie tie-in than a work of original creation.

Not Prolific

Some truths are harder to admit than others. When I started to write with an eye toward publication, I wanted to be a prolific writer. This should be no surprise to people who know my history. I have been, to a large degree, influenced by unusually prolific writers. Isaac Asimov is perhaps the best example, and greatest outlier, even among prolific writers. But even before Asimov, there was Piers Anthony, whose endless Xanth saga is still producing books (though I stopped reading them 20 years ago) more than four decades later.

Being prolific, in my mind, means producing a great deal of published writing. I say published writing because my goal has always been to write for paid publication. Therefore, what counts is what is paid for, what appears in print (or e-form). For me this is often the tip of the iceberg. Much writing I do never sells, and never sees the light of day. So I may be prolific in the sense that I write a lot, but I have recently come to face the fact that I am not a prolific writer in the sense that make frequent sales.

This is an important realization for me. I grew up reading writers who could produce stories quickly, and I have, for many years, felt that is the way one should produce stories. But it is simply not the way that I work, and I have at last come to accept that.

I started a new story this year, a novelette of around 12,000 words. It has taken me the better part of four months to get out the first draft. I could say this is because I have been busy with work, and family, and the process of selling our house and buying a new one. But the truth is, I work slowly. There is even evidence for this. Over the period of 8 years where I was actively selling stories, I sold just about a dozen. During that same period of time, I sold perhaps three times that many nonfiction pieces. Still, about 50 sales of short pieces over a span of 8 years is far from prolific.

When I started to write for publication, I produced a massive outpouring of stories and submitted all of this. This was during a time in which I had a plethora of ideas and no internal regulator of which of those ideas was good and which was bad. They all got written. Over time, the superfluity of ideas continued, but I became a better judge of them, and instead of writing all of them, selecting only the ones I deemed the best ideas. My production slowly began to decrease, but the quality of my stories increased. My evidence for this is nothing more than the fact that I began to sell stories. (The stories may have been bad, but the point is they sold to professional markets, which is the only objective way I can judge the quality of my own work.)

With story sales under my belt, one would think that I would immediately plunge in with more. The door had opened a crack. Now I needed to burst through. That was, I admit, my intention going in, but that is not how things worked in reality. When I rushed a story, I tended to lose control of it. Despite my deep desire to want to be like my idols and write stories quickly and prolifically, I simply couldn’t do it. That particular talent didn’t reside within me.

That said, I like to think which each story I did complete, was an improvement on the previous. And what I have discovered over time is that while I write my stories more slowly, I do so because I carefully consider the lessons I’ve learned by previous experience and weave them into the story to make it better. For me, that just takes time. I can’t even set a goal: write one story a month, or twelve stories a year. That doesn’t work for me. A story takes as long as it takes, but when it is finished, is the best possible story I could have written at that point in my life.

It is difficult to describe what a relief it is to admit this to myself. I no longer feel pressure when a story takes a long time. It takes as long as it needs to take. I suppose if I depended on my writing for my living, this would be a problem. It indicates that I probably couldn’t make it as a full-time writer. Fortunately, that is not my situation, and I can take my time to get a story right. This discovery has dramatically increased my empathy with someone like Patrick Rothfuss.

How do I know if a story is right? I can’t say. If it sells, I suppose it is right. If, when I complete the last words of the final draft and there is nothing more to do, I suppose it is right. Writing is, as is often said, a lonely business. The first part of the new story I’ve been working on (the story is divided into three parts) is being critiqued by my writers group this week. Their feedback doesn’t necessarily tell me if the story is right, but it does give me my first glimpse of reader reaction. And since I am not as prolific as I once hoped I would be, this kind of feedback becomes ever more valuable.

The Origin of Consciousness and Other Mind-Bending Subjects

Every now and then I encounter a book that is particularly challenging. Yesterday, for instance, I finished reading The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. I probably first heard reference to this book through the science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer. But its title has popped up a number of times over the years and I finally decided to give it a go.

The main premise of Jaynes’s argument is that (1) consciousness, as we know it today, did not emerge until about 1000 B.C., and (2) that consciousness emerged as a result of language. I found both the premise and the book one of the more challenging reads I’ve encountered in recent memory. Even so, I found the book fascinating. (Decades ago, I had the same reaction to David Berlinski’s A Tour of the Calculus.)

Jaynes uses, as much of his evidence, references to the language in literature as it evolved over time, with particular focus on The Iliad and The Odyssey as well as the early books of the Bible. He interweaves this evidence with modern brain and psychological experiments. Where I was particularly challenged was in his discussion of things like metafiers, paraphors, and parafiers, and how they relate to the way we think. Try as I might, I couldn’t get these concepts clear in my head.

It got me thinking about the limits of my own understanding. In college, for instance, I found that I had a weakness for economics. At least, I took a required course on macro-economics, and although I attended the lectures, read the text book, and did the assigned homework, I found the subject impenetrable. I came away with a poor grade that reflected my lack of understanding, as to opposed to my lack of effort. I encountered similar blocks with higher math, like integral calculus.

Still, I’ve often turned to books when I can’t understand something, and with few exceptions, it usually helps. Jaynes’s book, while fascinating, is one of those exceptions where I am left feeling more confused (although more intrigued) than before I read it. I have started to re-read Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden as a kind of palliative to this effect. I remember finding that to be an excellent book on the evolution of human intelligence when I first read it in the mid-1990s. But human intelligence is different from human consciousness. I can’t tell if the failure is on my, for a simple inability to follow Jaynes’s arguments, or on Janyes for being unclear.

I suppose it shouldn’t bother me. I read so much that there are bound to be things about which I read that I simply can’t understand. But reading is my primary method of continuing education, and when I can’t understand something, I feel as I did when back in the macro-economics class, working away at the homework, reading the text, and taking in the lectures–and getting nowhere.

Caffeine Free

I have been caffeine-free for 17 days now. The hard part is over. The headaches and muscle aches of caffeine withdrawal have passed. All that remains is a mid-afternoon weariness that I fight with physical activity, usually a walk to get my blood flowing.

I gave up caffeine during the peak stress period of our house-hunting. I was stressed and anxious that I suspected all the caffeine I consumed contributed to that anxiety. I don’t know this for certain. But I had given up caffeine before, for over seven years, and I seemed to recall feeling less anxious during that time. So I gave it up again.

I have never been a coffee-drinker, although I’ve tried to be once or twice. My caffeine of choice is a can of Coke. For a while, a few years back, I’d also drink Red Bull, but gave that up over a year ago. Still, I drank a lot of Coke–to the point where I could have a Coke before bed and it wouldn’t really affect me. I’d doze off as soon as my head hit the pillow.

When I gave up caffeine the first time, sometime on Valentine’s Day 2003, I recall that I went through withdrawal symptoms (mostly headaches) for about three weeks. That is what I expected this time, and it proved to be slightly less than that. As for the anxiety, that seemed to easy more rapidly than the headaches. Of course, that could simply be a placebo effect, but it doesn’t really matter since I feel less anxious than I did.

Still, I enjoy Coke, and I can only tolerate Sprite in small doses. So, like I did during my first 7-year stint off caffeine, I’m back to drinking Caffeine-Free Coke. As far as I can tell, it tastes no different than regular Coke, just without the caffeine.

I find it interesting how I mentally build up to these changes. I thought about giving up caffeine for months. I knew that I would do it eventually, I just needed to built up enough mental rational to do it. Then, I woke up one day and decided the time was right, and I went cold-turkey. I was probably a bit more moody during the two weeks or so it took for my brain to get used to life without caffeine, but that was mitigated somewhat by the reduction in anxiety as well.

Now, with our house sold and the new house purchased, with all that’s left is the move itself, the stress of that process has also dropped dramatically and I feel a whole lot better. Yet I have no desire to go back to caffeine. I don’t know at this point if I will make it 7 years, or 7 more days. This is a day-by-day thing. But I’m glad I did it. I feel better without the caffeine.

Reading Isaac Asimov’s Memoirs

In the spring of 1994 while preparing to graduate from the University of California, Riverside, I read Isaac Asimov’s memoir, I. Asimov for the first time. I knew of Asimov, of course, but I had read very little of his writing at that point. After reading I. Asimov I began to read everything I could find by the Good Doctor, fiction and nonfiction alike. I loved the FOUNDATION series. I particularly enjoyed the dozens of essay collections from Asimov’s science column in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

But the books that impacted me the most were Asimov’s original autobiographies. They were mentioned early in his memoir, I. Asimov as being out-of-print. I managed to locate some good first editions (one of which was signed) at the Iliad Bookshop in North Hollywood. Unlike the 1994 memoir, which was a kind of topical overview of Asimov’s life, the 2-volume autobiography (In Memory Yet Green, published in 1979, and In Joy Still Felt, published in 1980) totalled something over 1,500 pages wherein Asimov, in his colloquial way, discussed his life in great detail.

It was from these books that I learned how to be a writer. Not how to write, but how to act as a professional writer. I learned about the importance of manuscripts and clean copy, about the relationships between author and editor, about the mechanics of the publishing process, and much more.

Two years later, in 1996, I began a tradition of reading all 3 volumes in the month of April. Asimov died on April 6, 1992, so I would begin I. Asimov on April 1, and try to finish it on April 6. I would then spend the remainder of April reading the two large volumes. I began with I. Asimov because I didn’t want to end my month with Asimov’s death. This tradition became a fixed point in my life, and I eagerly looked forward to the spring because I knew it would be time to read those books.

I never tired of them. I can recall heading over to Swenson’s in Studio City, ordering a chocolate malt, and sitting at a table with In Memory Yet Green, reading it with absolute pleasure while sipping at my shake. Over the years I managed to read these books at least a dozen times, to the point where I had them virtually memorized, but I still sat down to read them each spring. It was like I was sitting down with Asimov, and he was telling me these stories. I could hear his Brooklynese accent in my mind as I read the pages.

The last year in which I read all three was 2007. I had already made my first professional story sales at that point, but my life was soon to change: marriage, followed by the first of my three children. In 2010, I managed to sneak in a reading of just In Joy Still Felt (the 11th time I read the book), and in 2012 I read In Memory Yet Green. But that was it. That was the last time I read any of the Asimov biographies, or any Isaac Asimov books for that matter. My interests had drifted. Between 1996 and 2012 I read Asimov books 137 times. Though I’ve read 400 books since 2012, not one has been by Isaac Asimov.

Until now.

I mentioned that we recently sold our house and bought a new one. It has been an extremely stressful, chaotic and busy 2 months, and I was looking for a way to center myself, now that the hard part was over. I remembered the joy and comfort that Asimov’s autobiographies brought me each spring, and as it happens to be spring now, I thought I’d read the two big books again.

It was easy mainly because we’d packed away a lot of stuff in order to declutter the house for showings. My bookshelves went into storage and the thousand books that rested on them were all boxed up. Fortunately, I had the forethought to record (in Evernote) what was in each box, so it wasn’t difficult to locate what box I needed in order to retrieve the books. The hard part was moving all of the other boxes to get to it.

On Wednesday, cracked open my first edition hardcover of In Memory Yet Green and began to read. It had the intended affect. The years flew away and it was if I was back in that Swenson’s in Studio City, with the book in front of me and chocolate shake off to one side. I am hearing Asimov’s voice again, laughing in all the right places, and soaking in the joy I’ve always taken from those books. I’m only about 80 pages through the first book, but I expect to make it through both of them within the next week or two, and I am so glad I decided to read them again.

Why It’s Been So Quiet Here

If you have been wondering why things have been so quiet here lately, permit me a few moments to explain. We have recently sold the house we’ve lived in for the last 10 years and bought a new house. Our old house is a townhouse. Our new house is a single family home with a yard that backs up to a local park that we frequent. The new house is slightly bigger, has 4 bedrooms, and an amazing room that I’ll be using for an office. It has an updated kitchen, a brand new 350 sq. ft. deck, and is an improvement in almost every respect. This has therefore been a very busy, and exceedingly stressful month.

It turns out that in our area, at least, it is a seller’s market. Our house sold on the very first day it went live. We put offers on 2 other houses, and despite raising our offers, we were still outbid by a considerable amount. This has made things stressful over the last four weeks or so, to say nothing of time consuming. So I have had little time to write at all, let alone here on the blog.

We now have our settlement dates, and while things are still a bit busy preparing for our move, we are at least through the most stressful part and I should be able to write more here.

30 Days Off Social Media

Yesterday marked 30 days off social media for me, and the verdict is in: I didn’t miss it. I opened up Facebook and Twitter on my laptop yesterday and it took all of 30 seconds of browsing to realize that I could easily go another 30 days, 30 months, 30 years without it.

This is not to say that I don’t miss the people I interact with on Facebook or Twitter. I just don’t like the medium anymore, and I’m looking for other ways to interact. I have, for instance, been carrying on a letter-writing campaign with a friend who lives across the country. This isn’t as speedy as Facebook comments, but it is always a delight to get an actual letter in the mail, read through it and reply thoughtfully.

And, of course, it is more difficult to stay up-to-date with friends and family, although my wife helps in that regard. She pointed out, for instance, that my brother and his family were on vacation. She’d seen the pictures on Facebook.

I’ve enjoyed waking up in the morning and not reaching for Facebook or Twitter first thing. Instead, I’ll peruse the L.A. Times for a little while (a paper I still enjoy reading even though I no longer live in L.A.). I’ve also enjoyed not interrupting the even flow of life by the need to make an update. That is perhaps one of the biggest benefits I’ve seen. Many times in the last 30 days, I’ve found myself looking at something–a tree in full bloom, an interesting cloud formation, a brilliantly-colored bird perched on a rock–and thought, this would make a great picture to post. And on every occasion but one, I’ve resisted the urge to take photo let alone post anything. Instead, I take a little extra time to just admire what I am looking at.

(The one time I did take a photo was so that I could print it out and paste it into my journal.)

At this point, I don’t expect to return to social media anytime soon. I am not canceling my accounts, but they are essentially dormant, save for things like the automated posts that get made when a new blog post appears (like this one). You can always reach me here on the blog, or by email, which I am not giving up, and to which I try my best to respond quickly.

Interrupt-Driven

High school is 30 years in the rearview mirror, but I was thinking about the bus ride to school recently. I typically did one of three things on the bus: slept, listened to music on my Sony Walkman, or read. The ride took about 45 minutes and during that time, whatever activity it was I chose, it went uninterrupted. I can remember listening to music, watching the Los Angeles landscape roll by. If I chose to sleep, I fell asleep within a minute or two and slept until the bus hissed to a halt at my stop. If I read a book, I had 45 uninterrupted minutes of reading.

I was thinking about this, because today, aside from sleep at night, I can’t think of any activity that goes 45 minutes without an interruption. I can’t think of an activity that goes 22 minutes without an interruption. On the rare instance that I watch something on my phone–a 22-minute episode of a sitcom, for instance–I cannot get through an entire episode without some kind of interruption. This is true for reading. It’s even true when I work.

For a time, I thought this was mostly related to the interrupt-driven style of social media, not just its notifications, but the desire it creates to proactively stop what you are doing and check what’s going on. However, I am into my third week of a complete social media blackout, and the interrupts are still there: email, text messages, and the need to go down rabbit holes, triggered by something I was reading.

Not all of the interrupts are digital. Having three kids provides plenty of interrupts. If the Internet had never been born, the family-based interrupts would still exist. I generally don’t mind those (although if they happen to pile onto the other interrupts it can sometimes be maddeningly frustrating). I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve given up on an activity simply because it loses continuity thanks to all of these interrupts.

Some of the interrupts are self-inflicted. Often, if I am reading about something, I will pause my reading to go look it up on the Internet to get more information, diving in Wikipedia or other sources. I think that might have seemed like a luxury to the kid riding the bus who was always curious about things. Looking back, however, I was perfectly happy filing the questions away in my mind, and seeking out answers later at the library.

I have been looking for ways to reduce the interrupts. It isn’t easy. I’ve eliminated the social media interrupts, but texts and email still remain. Under certain circumstances, I can ignore them, but as much as I hate to admit it, they are the primary forms of communication I use these days, and can be hard to ignore. When I go for a walk in the morning, I leave my phone behind. This makes phone interruptions impossible, but it also means I can’t listen to my audiobook while I walk. That’s probably a fair trade, as it allows my mind to wander for half an hour or so.

Still, I sometimes miss the days when life wasn’t as interrupt-driven. Sure, there was no streaming video, and TV programs had commercials, but those commercials served as natural breakpoints. You knew you had two minutes to run to the restroom, or grab a can of soda from the fridge. I miss laying on the couch with a book, and reading for hours at a time, the world slipping away, and me with it, to some other time and place, without being yanked back by a Facebook notification, text message, or alert from a weather app telling me that it has started to rain.

Remarkably, perhaps even ironically, I managed to write this entire post in one sitting without ever leaving my editor or pausing for some interruption.

The Diary and the Lens

I. The Diary

I was listening to an old playlist over the weekend, and on it were a few songs that reminded me of my college days. Those days are a quarter century in the past, but the songs drew forth memories like a rod draws lightning. Some of those memories were surprisingly specific. I sat listening to the songs, and thought about my college days, but with few exceptions, all I could were the vaguest of memories, nothing like what the songs could elicit.

For a long time afterward, I thought about those lost memories, and thought about other times in my life where my memories are equally vague. Part of the reason I started to keep a diary back in 1996 was to aid what I imagined would be an aging memory. But there was something else, too. I can remember, quite clearly, laying in my bed as a boy of eight or nine, and saying to myself, “Today is Wednesday, June 19, 19xx…” (the specific date doesn’t matter, it was as arbitrary as the thought) “…Twenty years from now, I wonder if I will remember that I was thinking this, laying here in bed?”

Of course, I can’t remember what the date was, only that I had thoughts like that. Since 1996, I have diaries that I can refer to as an aid to memory. They bring some events into sharper view, but still not as clearly as I’d like. I’ve always been impressed by dedicated diarists like those of the Adams family. What I have seen and read from their diaries seems different from my own. My own entries often begin with, “Up at 6:30 am, my day to take the kids to school, and then started working…” or some variant thereof. Reading through it, I find a good accounting of the day, which helps in knowing what happened when, but isn’t much of an aid in producing clear pictures of the past in my mind.

As David McCullough wrote of John Adams:

Determined to understand human nature, fascinated by nearly everyone he encountered, [Adams] devoted large portions of his diary to recording their stories, their views on life, how they stood, talked, their facial expressions, how their minds worked. In the way that his literary commonplace book served as a notebook on his reading, his diary became his notebook on people. “Let me search for the clue which led great Shakespeare into the labyrinth of human nature. Let me examine how men think.”

My diary is more of a journal in the sense that it is an accounting of events, places, people, without much color, like columns of numbers in an ledger. It makes me confident in timelines, but does little to paint of picture of my life on a given day.

II. The Lens

Thinking about this over the weekend, it occurred to me that a diary was like a telescope lens for human memory. Without a lens, a telescope is nothing more than an empty tube, showing the world as it is today. But add a lens and point it to the heavens and you can see back in time. The better the lens, the clearer the image.

Our house is in utter disarray at the moment. Contractors have been at the walls, slapping on new coats of paint. They’ve pounded the floors, replacing the old carpets with new ones. Shelves have been cleared, books backed into 40 boxes and crammed into our Harry Potter closet (i.e. our “closet under the stairs”). Our living room is crammed with boxes that need to get put into storage. As I write this, my home office is empty, save for a desk, and this laptop. The stress and turmoil of preparing to sell a house and buy a new one has played tempest with my emotions: stress, exhilaration, sadness.

My diary entries for these days are mostly the same as they have always been. I’ve been using a very weak lens, one that allows me to see what happened on a given day, but the image is blurry to the point of uselessness. From the entries I’ve written about the recent contractor chaos, the future me would only know that work was done around the house; he’d have no idea of the mess, the stress, the constant running up and down stairs with armfuls of boxes. So I have decided to create a better lens.

Using 25-years as a guidepost, I ask myself, “How can I recreate the scene in our house these last few weeks in a way that will convey a clear picture to myself 25 years hence? What would have made my college days 25 years past more clear in my head than they are today?

I’ve found that, writer though I am, this is a difficult task, at least at first. I am so used to writing entries the way I do that it is difficult to change. Also, it means writing more, and I am often weary at the end of the day. But I am fighting these difficulties in an effort to produce a better lens through which to view my life.

Why it should be that I am so caught by this desire to document I can’t properly explain. I’m not sure I know myself. Part of it is imitation. People I’ve admired have done the same. Part of it is utility: that “when did such-and-such take place?” thing. Since my kids were born, part of it is a desire to show them what my life was like (and theirs) when they are older. Part of it is the pure joy of writing. But a stronger lens, I think, will help to banish some of the melancholy I feel when thinking of the passage of time.

As McCullough wrote,

They must keep diaries, Adams told [his grandchildren] as once he had told their father. Without a diary, their travels would “be no better than a flight of birds through the air,” leaving no trace.

Writing with Vim

I am back to writing with Vim again. I have been flip-flopping among writing tools, and finally settled back on Vim. For those who are not familiar with Vim, it is a text editor that has been around forever. It is not for the feint of heart. It can be somewhat difficult to learn, especially if you are not used to a modal tool, or not a fan of keyboard commands.

So then why use it? I’ve given this quite a bit of thought over the last week or so that I’ve been back with it, and there are several reasons I think I will stick with it going forward.

1. Future compatibility

A few months ago, I began to try to collect all of my old writing. My intention was to build an archive of my writing from the time I first started, right through the present, and then keep it going forward. I wanted an easy way to see anything I’d ever written with the intent of paid publication. I started to write with the intent to sell stories in December 1992. Believe it or not, I still have those files 27 years later. I used Microsoft Word 5.5. for DOS back then, and these files are all in that format. The latest version of Microsoft Word can’t read them.

This is an example of a compatibility problem I want to avoid going forward. If my writing is going to be stored digitally, I want it to be in a format that is mostly immune to compatibility issues. Plain text is the answer. Vim is a text editor and allows me to write plain text files. I use Markdown in my plain text to get formatting I want in the output, but the files themselves are nothing more than simple text.

There are many advantages to this, a few of which I will touch on later.

2. Separating content from presentation

WYSIWYG just doesn’t work for me the way I envisioned it would when it first came out. I remember the first version of Microsoft Word that had a what-you-see-is-what-you-get interface. Even earlier, I remember AppleWorks, which also had a WYSIWYG interface. It was very cool to be able to layout the document on the screen to appear exactly as you want it on the page.

As I began to write, however, I quickly learned two things:

  1. I spent too much time playing around with formatting options, when I should have been writing.
  2. There are really only a small handful of standard formats that I use on a day-to-day basis.

Scrivener was the first writing tool I used that did a very good job of separating the content form the presentation of a document. In Scrivener, you write content and then compile it into one of many formats. You can move text around easily, and make the screen look however you want it to look, but the presentation–that is, the document that Scrivener compiles–can look completely different from what appears on the screen.

Vim allows me this separation as well. How things look on my screen is completely different from how the document they produce looks, but that is okay, because I still only use a few standard output formats (standard manuscript, letter, etc.). I use Pandoc to compile my Vim markdown into a Word document, or a PDF.

3. Look and feel

I’ve mentioned that my favorite word process of all time was Microsoft Word 5.5 for DOS. Maybe it’s because it was the first word processor I used when I started writing to sell stories, and its look and feel somehow imprinted on me at an impressionable age, but I like the look of white text on that blue screen.I have tried to mimic that look and feel in a variety of text editors and word processors over the years. When I came back to Vim a week ago, I took another focused crack at it–and managed to get as close as I possibly can. The text on the screen looks exactly as I want it to look:

  • White text with a blue background.
  • Show underlines instead of italics in markup–because underline is how you represent italics in a standard manuscript format, and it stands out better on the screen.
  • Not too much else on the screen.
Writing with Vim

I realize that I can come close to this in other word processors. What I have not been able to do is get the look and feel that I want, while maintaining compatibility, and separating the content from the presentation layer–until now.

4. Change history

I like being able to see the evolution of what I write. Plain text makes it easy to see differences from one version to the next. I use flashbake, which is a tool that automatically checks in what I am working on to git’s revision control system every 15 minutes. Everything I write has an automated history of its construction. I tag certain check-ins, like “first draft”, “second draft”, “submitted draft”, “corrected draft”, “published draft”, etc. I can check out any of these and compare to any other.

I learn from these changes. It is interesting to be able to go back into time and look at things I took out, or left in. It also means nothing is ever wasted or deleted. If I write a scene that I really like, but doesn’t quite work in the story, I can remove it and yet the scene is still retained in git where I can always find it.

Here is a recent example of part of the git change log from a story that I have been working on.

Change History

5. One tool for all my writing

Over the years, I’ve found myself using different tools for different types of writing: one for paid writing, another (WordPress) for blogging, another still when writing correspondence. It means having to remember a variety of different key commands (which tend to vary from one tool to the next) as well as differences in the way they function.

I want one tool for all of my writing. I look back to writers in the first half of the twentieth century, doing the bulk of their writing on one typewriter, and using it until the poor machine wore down. Story drafts, letters, essays, everything goes through that one machine. It becomes an extension of the writer. In an effort to simplify, I’d like to be able to use just one tool for all of my writing. Of course, there is writing that I do that won’t get into Vim–mostly email–but there are always exception.

I can do this easily with Vim thanks to Pandoc, which can take my markdown file and convert it to any format I want, using template files. I have a letter template, a standard manuscript template, etc. From the plain text markup, I can produce with a single command, a properly formatted manuscript in Word format, or PDF format. I can do the same for letters, notes, critiques, etc.

6. Searching

With all my files as plain text, searching is much easier. Plus, tools like Vim make it easy to use regular expressions for searching, and I can easily search multiple files at once.


I’ve been using Vim for all of my writing for the last two weeks or so and I’ve gotten more and more comfortable with it. I’m trying hard to stick with Vim’s standard keyboard navigation (instead of the arrow keys) because I think it will make it easier to use with other computers over time. Plus, as I get more familiar with them, I find Vim’s navigation to be a power tool.

And yes, as you can see from the screenshot above, this post was written in Vim.

Revisiting the Revolution

In fifth grade, we learned American history. I lived in New England at the time, and there was no better place to learn about the American Revolution. Upon a hill in my neighborhood was an old graveyard. It had a stone wall, and among the briers and brambles aging gravestones tilted this way and that. Several of them had rusted markers in front of them indicating that the person buried there fought in the Revolutionary War. They fought in the Revolutionary War. You couldn’t get closer to history than that, not in the fifth grade. It left an impression with me right down to the present. I am fascinated with the period of time surrounding the American Revolution, and the people involved.

Last fall, I read Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father by Stephen Fried, a wonderful biography of Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, friend of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and the man who re-ignited the light of Adams and Jefferson’s friendship after many years. You can’t read about that time period without Rush’s name appearing just about everywhere. Reading in the fall reminded me of how much I enjoy that period.

Last week, I read 1776 by David McCullough, and like Rush’s efforts with Adams and Jefferson, it re-kindled my interest in the American Revolution. Yesterday, I kicked off a diversion into that period once again. I started re-reading John Adams by David McCullough, my third time reading that biography. I first read the book in the summer of 2001, the year it was first published. I happened to be in New England at the time, in Maine, and I remember sitting up until late at night, unable to put the book down.

I read it again a few years ago, uncertain if it would hold up to the original reading. I enjoyed it even more the second time, perhaps because I knew more about the history than I did 18 years ago. The book is my favorite biography, the best one I’ve ever read, and John Adams has been my favorite president ever since I first read the book in 2001. (Note: I don’t claim that Adams was the best president, just my favorite.)

Last year I finally finished Dumas Malone’s 6-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson and His time. A few years earlier I read Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington. But there are still some gaps. I’m kicking off this journey back to the Revolution with John Adams because I love the book. But when that is finished, I plan on reading a few others. These include:

  • Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham. Because I believe it’s good to read more than one biography of a president if possible, and Malone’s biography, while fascinating, is somewhat dated.
  • Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. I’ve resisted reading this because Hamilton always came across as an unlikeable character in other biographies I’ve read. Truth is, I know little about him, so I think it’s time to change that.
  • American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham. I’ve read a biography of John Quincy Adams, and it seems that Andrew Jackson is a natural cap to that particular time period. (Also, I visited the Hermitage while on vacation last summer.)

That leaves just two of the first seven president for whom I still need to read a biography: James Madison and James Monroe. I’m sure I’ll get to them eventually.

The other reason I decided to dive back into the American Revolution is to remind myself why there was a revolution in the first place. With all of the craziness going on in the country and around the world today, I feel like I sometimes lose sight why we declared our independence. I have this feeling that if Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hancock, Rush, and many others would be appalled at what we’ve done with the revolution into which they placed their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

Articles I Read – Week of 10 March 2019

It seems as if my little experiment is working. Nearly 50 days ago, I made a goal of reading one magazine article a day as a way with keeping up with all of the magazines I subscribe to. The idea was that in a given month, there was a combined total of about 30 “feature” articles. Tomorrow with be Day 50, and I feel like I’ve been successful. I managed to get through most of the articles in the March issues I’ve received, and the April issues are just beginning to make their appearances. Here is what I read this week. Bold items are recommended. Some articles may require subscriptions for online reading.

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