Tag Archives: writing

Writing in the Digital Age: An Introduction

Writers of old had it easy. Take sportswriters, for instance. When it came to actually sitting down and writing, their biggest decision was which brand of typewriter to use. Some of those manual typewriters could be tiring, but the stories were rarely that long. They filed their stories by wire, and then went out for steaks with the players, or each other.

Writers today have a lot more overhead. At least, this writer does. Few of us write on typewriters anymore. The Royal QuietComfort that sits here in my office has a broken A key, which would make writing difficult. Instead, I have to make a series of interrelated decisions that impact my ability to produce copy:

  • What platform should I write on (Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS)?
  • What tool should I use for my writing (Word, Scrivener, Notepad, Vim, Google Docs, etc., etc.)?
  • Where do I store my files (locally on the hard disk, in the cloud, and if so, which ecosystem to I align myself with: iCloud, Dropbox, OneDrive)?
  • How do I manage revisions to my writing?

For those turn-of-the-Twentieth-century sportswriters, these decisions were relatively easy: A Royal typewriter, paper and ribbon, a filing cabinet, and some carbon paper could handle all of this. Why have things become so much more complex?

This question has fascinated me for a while now, perhaps because I can never seem to settle on the right combination of options. I suspect this is because there is no “right” combination, and that makes things more difficult. I thought that technology made things easier, but the longer I’ve been writing, and dealing with technology, the less certain I am of this. 

In some areas technology does make things easier. It is amazing what I can do with the Alexa that sits here near my desk. But there are other areas where the choice of technology can lock you into ecosystems that may not fully align with your workstyle.

In this series of posts, I plan to explore the question of technological complexity from my own perspective as a writer. I’ll start by talking about tools specific to writing, but over time, I plan on running the gamut of tools I use on a regular basis. I want to explore not only the complexity of these tools, but look for ways to simplify. As a writer, I naturally want to spend my time writing. More and more I see tools getting in the way of writing. If that wasn’t the case, why do so many tools now add a “focus” or “distraction-free” mode? What choices can I make to simplify my writing ecosystem?

Writing is not the only area which tools add complexity. I see it in how I manage communications (email), and media (photos, books, videos, etc.). Even something as simple as contact management has grown inordinately complex.

I’ve been reading Jerome Holtzman’s classic book No Cheering in the Pressbox, and when I think about these sportswriters and the tools they used to get their jobs done, and compare them with my own, the complexity of my systems seem out of all proportion.

I’m attempting a top-down approach here starting with the choice of ecosystem, then the tools. And since I come to this through the perspective of a writer, that is the lens through which I will examine this question.

Busy lately?

So here’s the deal:  We moved.

This move culminates a series of (wonderful) events that have taken up the better part of the last two years.  Now that the move is over the unpacking has begun and this takes time and meanwhile, the house is in a fair amount of disarray.  I don’t work too well in disarrary and so we are working hard to get things unpacked in proper array.  This includes the office.

The office/library is a pretty large room and once it is completely unpacked and organized, it will be a wonderful room.  Bookshelves line the wall, filled with something on the order of 1,200 books and old magazines, including rare signed books, rare editions, and a complete collection of SCIENCE FICTION AGE magazines.  Unpacking and then organizing those books in the proper order on the shelves is a slow and complicated process.  In an ideal world, I would arrange the books alphabetically by author, and then chronologically within each author.  However, given limited shelf space, this isn’t currently practical and the best that I can do is alphabetically by author.  To do this, all of the books must be unpacked and then arranged around the room in roughly alphabetical order.  Once that is done, I can start loading up the shelves, using my LibraryThing collection to help guide me along the way.  In an ideal world, I would get the books on the shelves and the office completed this weekend.  For three reasons:

  1. It would be nice to have it done.
  2. I’d like to use the office in the early mornings next week to complete a short story by Halloween.
  3. NaNoWriMo!

Meanwhile, there are still other things to do.  I’ve anchored to the wall 4 of the 7 bookshelves in the office.  This is to ensure that when Zach is old enough to roam around and pull on things, he doesn’t pull a bookshelf down on top of himself.  (Incidentally, I did this the right way:  I got some corner mounts, pieces of metal bent at a right angle with a screw going into each end.  I used a stud-finder (jokes welcome) to align the mounts to a stud and then drilled a small hole in the wall (and the top of each bookcase–though it pained me to do so) and screwed the mounts tight.) 

Since we have an eat-in kitchen, we’ve converted our dining room to a kind of TV sitting room.  We removed the chandelier and put in a light that makes the room look less like a dining room.  We put a new 27" Vizio HD TV in there (the big TV is down in the family room).  Still, the room can use a little work.  As can the kitchen.  And don’t get me started on the guest room, which is a complete mess at this point.  And I still have to put the grill together, although I agree with strausmouse about grilling between November and April on the east coast.  We have to mount all of the art work on the wall–which in turn will clear out space in one of our storage closets to put our bicycles.

And in between all of this there is a baby to take care of, a wife’s birthday coming up (tomorrow!!), Game 6 of the ALCS (and ultimately a Yankees/Phillies World Series), finally finishing the Stephen King novel that I’ve been reading for the last month, and of course my day job.

So yeah, things have been busy lately, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel that I can just barely see.  But it is getting closer and closer…

Where do you get those ideas?

At some point, every science fiction writer gets asked, “Where do you get your ideas?”  I got asked the question this past weekend and I thought I’d answer it here.  This is a question that has been answered and blogged about by writers, perhaps more often than any other.  But it is also different for each writer.  What works for me, may not work for others, but it may give some insight for other new writers, like myself, and therefore prove helpful.  So, where do I get my ideas?

The very general answer is: anywhere.  I think this is true for most writers.  As a writer, and in particular, a science fiction or fantasy writer, we look for ideas in everything we see and do.  I find that my mind is always on the lookout for ideas, even when this might prove inconvenient, as when your wife is asking you to do some chore, or you are in a meeting with your coworkers.  Someone will say something, and that will trigger a chain of thought that usually begins, “I wonder what would happen if…?”  Many of these ideas are fleeting and a large number of them are cast away.  But some of them stick in my mind, sometimes for a very long time, and it is those ideas, the ones that feel most compelling, that tend to make their way into my stories.  So, just as Isaac Asimov once said, I think and think and think and think and that’s how I get many of my ideas.

Thinking is good, but for me, at least, there has to be some raw material that feeds the thinking process.  I get this raw material from a number of places, but perhaps most frequently from these four:  (1) the news; (2) science fiction stories; (3) science magazines, (4) flashes or images

Often time I will watch the news (or back when I lived in L.A., listen to the news on the radio) and hear a story that piques my curiosity in some way that starts the thinking process and gets me wondering, “what would happen if…?”  The germ for the idea of my first published story, “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer,” came about in this way.  I was driving into work listening to the news on the radio and the Osgood File came on.  In this particular episode, Charles Osgood recited Walt Whitman’s poem, “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”.  I’d never heard the poem before, but I loved it.  While the poem is about a romance with the stars, my mind jumped to a romance with an astronomer, and a small alteration to the title of the poem gave me a title for the story.

New writers trying to break into the science fiction field often feel that their ideas have to be completely original, but ask any seasoned science fiction professional and they will tell you that original ideas are almost unheard of.  New spins on old ideas, however, can be very useful.  And so in my reading of science fiction stories, I occasionally get an idea that is based on something I read.  Sometimes, it challenges the notions in the story; other times, it extends them.  Perhaps just about every professional writer has attempted to write a story in defense or opposition of Tom Godwin’s famous story, “The Cold Equations”.  I wrote a story of my own in reaction to Godwin’s, one called, “Wake Me When We Get There” which I used to illustrate the phases of loss in a person doomed aboard a malfunctioning spacecraft.

More often than not, these day, I get my raw material from the science magazines that I read.  I have subscribed to SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN for close to 15 years now.  And I’ve been a subscriber to NEW SCIENTIST for almost a year.  SCIAM is monthly, while NEW SCIENTIST is weekly, making it hard to keep up sometimes (the photo above shows my current backlog of science magazines, that I am diligently working my way through).  I read these magazines cover-to-cover, letters and all.  Not only am I educating myself on all areas of science and technology, but I find a wealth of story ideas within the pages.  Still, you have to be able to identify the real nuggets.  I try to find one good story idea in each issue of a magazine.  Often times there are two or three useful ideas–ideas that can help to better explain a technology that I use in a story–but that don’t form the basis of the story itself.  But one good idea per magazine means roughly 64 good idea each year.

With 64 good ideas each year, am I producing 64 stories each year?  Of course not.  For one thing, I work fairly slowly at this stage of the game.  While I wish I were as prolific as Isaac Asimov, I’m not.  In the past I’ve been lucky to produce two or three stories each year.  This year I’m aiming for 10-12.  Having a lot of ideas to choose from is helpful to me, however, in several ways.

First, I can’t write a story based on one good idea.  I have found that my best stories require the merging of at least two good ideas.  In “Learned Astronomer” I had the idea for the title, and the romance with an astronomer, but I needed something more.  A few years earlier, I’d read an article in ANALOG about how one would go about finding a starship.  Many s.f. ideas focus on “first contact” with aliens.  Using the science of the article as a basis, I wondered, “what would happen if we discovered a starship going from star A to star B?”  Clearly the ship would be so far away, it wouldn’t be aware of us.  Furthermore, we don’t yet have the technology to talk to it.  Finally, at a distance of hundreds of light years, what we are seeing now took place hundreds of years ago.  There would be nothing we could do, but we would know someone else was out there.  I merged this idea with the romance with the astronomer and the two ideas formed the basis of “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer”.

Second, some ideas take a long time to develop.  I might have a list of 50 or 60 ideas, and I might be eager to work on one or two of them.  But I sometimes struggle, and usually that tells me that I’m either not yet ready to write the story, or I don’t yet have the ability I need to properly tell the story.  It is, therefore, good to have other ideas to turn to.  This year, at least, it has helped me keep writing, and avoid getting stuck on any one story or idea.

Last, but not least, I occasionally get ideas from an image I see either in the real world or in my mind.  The idea for my second published story, “The Last Science Fiction Writer“, came from something I saw in a Baker’s Square restaurant in North Hollywood.  There was a sad old man in a wrinkled, periwinkle suit, sitting all alone, scribbling all over his napkins in microscopic print.  That was the germ for the narrator of my story.

So, where do you get your crazy ideas?

Originally published at From the Desk of Jamie Todd Rubin. You can comment here or there.

Final draft complete!

I wrapped up the final draft of the February story this evening.  The last pass through stood at 6,300 words and in doing line-edits tonight, I managed to cut it back to 5,500–more than 10% of the whole.  It’s going through a final review by some critical eyes before I send it off, but overall, I’m pretty satisfied with the story.

Now I can get back to work on the March story.  I have the whole story mapped out in my head and I only need to write it.  I’m guessing 13 scenes.  If I can do a scene a night, I have have the first draft done by the end of the month.

Originally published at From the Desk of Jamie Todd Rubin. You can comment here or there.

Deleted scenes

I did a little bit of work on the March story last night.  As I see it, there are 13 scenes in the story.  I rewrote the opening scene, cutting it from 1,300 down to around 1,000 words, but I think it is still too long.  If I learned one thing in the Gunn workshop it was that you have to get into the story quickly.  So I think I’m going to do away with the first scene completely and start later in the story.

I have always had a hard time doing this because I often find myself really liking the writing of a particular scene, even if it doesn’t fit well and I do my best to keep it in the story.  I’m learning to back away from that, but I hate throwing anything away, so I came up with this idea for keeping my “deleted scenes”.  Since I use Scrivener for my writing, it’s easy.  I create a folder in my story project and call it “Deleted Scenes”.  Then, rather than blowing the scene away (which is what I used to do), I move it to the Deleted Scenes folder.  Think of it as a kind of retirement home for scenes that won’t get used in the final product.  (And I configure Scrivener not to include that folder in the compiled manuscript).  It makes me feel better about not losing the scene entirely, even if it doesn’t get into the story.

The story also has a new title, one that is much better than the previous working title of “Funeral Day”.

Originally published at From the Desk of Jamie Todd Rubin. You can comment here or there.

Writing today

 I did nearly 1,400 words of a new story, "Funeral Days" this evening.  It represents the first scene of the story, but it is way to long as a first scene and needs some severe cutting and tightening.  But at least it’s on paper and I’m happy to say that I know where the restof the story is going and I think this is going to be a good one.

Thursday writing

I finished the second draft of "Depression Baby".  It took me 90 minutes to rewrite the last 660 words or so.  The story now stands at 6,200 words, longer than I was intending, but I think it works.  I’ve got some cleanup to do, but I think I might be able to get it out in the mail next week.  And that means I can get started on the March story.

Half day at work today because we had a doctor appointment this afternoon.  I was cramming on PowerPoint slides for the training sessions I’ll be running mid-March.

For dinner tonight, I made chunky broccoli soup with a side of cornbread.  And I made the cornbread from scratch–that is, without buying a cornbread "mix".  Both came out good.

I’ve been tired most of the day, but at this point, I still plan on getting up by 4 AM to go to the gym tomorrow.  Going to read now and then it’s off to bed.

Wednesday writing

I just added another 400 words or so to "Depression Baby".  Half of that was in a scene added to the beginning of the story which I think better sets up part of the conflict in the story (and thanks go out to mabfan  for his suggestions on that point).  The rest was scatterings throughout the story to tie in better with the newly introduced conflict.  Things are falling into place and I am definitely feeling like this draft is much better than the first draft.  At this point, the story stands at 4,200 words and I’ve got three or four more scenes to go to finish the second draft. 

Incidentally, the wording of the new first scene came to me at lunch, just as I put my head down for a lunchtime nap.  I pulled out my little black Moleskine notebook that I keep for just such purposes and jotted it down word for word as it came to mind.  It served me well this time because I really like the opening scene.

Monday writing

Just completed more revisions on the second draft of "Depression" baby.  The edits totaled about 300 words.  I’d guess I’m about 75% of the way done and it’s possible I could finish up this draft tomorrow evening.  Still likely to be close to 5,000 words when all is said and done. 

Sunday writing

Just finished about 700 words on the rewrite (second draft) of "Depression Baby".  Some of the time was spent cleaning up the first couple of scenes, which actually read better than I remembered them.  I’m breaking the longer scenes down into smaller segments because I think it helps with the pacing of the story.  Regardless, the story is going to likely grow in the revision, probably to somewhere around 5,000 words or so.

I’m going to aim for another hour of work on it tomorrow evening and see how far along that gets me.

Protected: Upcoming reading list and writing plan (so I don’t forget)

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If they asked me, I could write a book…

I started the rewrite of "Homecoming" this evening.  In two sessions totaling 1.3 hours, I did 903 words.  The rewrite will likely be longer than the original because I’m trying to bring forward more of the setting, which helps to set up some motivation for the activities of the protagonist in the story.  Even so, I managed to eliminate a scene that was completely unnecessary and so things may be a wash so far.  (In the ultimately unnecessary scene, I was trying to put to use some of my experience as a pilot, but I decided that it didn’t add one grain of value to the story and so it’s gone.)

At this pace, I hope to have the rewrite finished by Friday night, get it out to a few people to look at over the weekend, and then get it into the mail Monday or Tuesday of next week.  I’m eager to start on the February story, but not at the risk of sacrificing the quality of this one.