Category Archives: Thoughts on Writing

General Thoughts and Tips on Writing Technique

Yarny

Every once in a while I come across a writing tool that is actually pretty cool. Yarny is a web-based editor that has some nice features like auto save, a place to put down notes like character names and other research stuff, and a place for writing snippets that you may want to use later at a different part of the document. All in all it seems pretty neat.

BTW, I’m in no way affiliated with Yarny.

Advertisements

Writing an App vs. Writing a Book

photo credit: noricum via photopin cc

photo credit: noricum via photopin cc

A few years ago I developed a couple of Android apps as a hobby. They were niche apps that did barely ok; the free one had about 9,000 downloads while the paid one had about 300. A few weeks ago, I self-published The Natural Victim, my first book (a mystery novella). As of today it has about 600 free downloads and a single sale.

Thinking back about my app experience and comparing it to my writing experience, I realized that there were a surprising number of similarities and a few crucial differences. Differences that, if I had known them then, might have convinced me to write a book instead of an app. Maybe this post will resonate with some of you and help you decide between one or the other.

Designing vs Plotting

Designing an app definitely takes more effort. It involves not just the logic of the app, but also wireframing the UI, picking a color scheme, and adding sounds effects and maybe some music if it’s a game. I love doing the logic part of it, but I’m not very good at the other aspects of design, and hiring a designer can get expensive fast. Plotting, on the other hand, is like doing only the logic part of app design, mainly identifying all the elements you need to get the overarching story to hang together and then figuring out how they can be put together to achieve the best possible result. There is still some design to be done (the cover and the layout, for instance), but these can wait till the book is nearly done. And of course, you can hire someone to do the design work for you (possibly for cheaper than you’d pay for an app).
Advantage: Book.

Coding vs Writing

A lot of people, myself included, like to write the first draft of a novel before doing any editing. The goal is to pound out those 60,000 or 80,000 or 100,000 words before worrying about refining the book. Coding the app (like all coding that I do) was exactly the opposite. I started small, compiled frequently, and iterated until I had the app done. I would not code the way I write and I would not write the way I code. I think I like coding slightly better because I get to see the app taking shape. Plus, there is the occasional coder’s high when I solve a particularly problematic bug.
Advantage: App.

Debugging vs Editing

Debugging is easier than editing in two ways: You know what the exact problem is and you know when you have solved it (mostly). The deterministic nature of debugging makes it very interesting to me. It’s like a little puzzle I have to solve. But once I have figured it out, I lose interest and it becomes a chore to actually implement the changes. In contrast, when you’re editing, most times you know that what you have doesn’t work, but you aren’t sure why or what will make it better. You just have to try it a few different ways before you find the best one. Editing doesn’t have the same highs and lows as debugging. Mostly you are never satisfied with what you have, though every once in a while a passage stands out to you and you feel it is perfect — even if you are the only one who notices.
Advantage: Even.

Marketing

I’m good at marketing neither the app nor the book. So far.
Advantage: Even (or maybe none).

After Sales Support

I’ll take writing a book anytime. In fact, this is the single biggest reason why I love writing: I DON’T HAVE TO SUPPORT IT! I hate support, and I have enormous respect for those who continue to provide such good service on their apps. Sure, I’ll fix a typo if it comes up, change the cover if I have to, add a dedication, etc. All of this is trivial compared to getting an email a year after you release the app about some obscure thing that is broken. What’s worse is when it isn’t your fault, like when a new version of Android comes out. I also don’t care much for “renovating” the app, adding features and generally keeping up with the times. I want to move on and solve another problem instead of making incremental changes to something that already exists.
Advantage: Definitely book.

Things You Can Screw Up

When I developed my app, I released two versions: a free version initially, followed a few months later by a paid version with extra features. I decided that I should make it easy for the users of the free app to transfer their data over to the paid one. So I released an update to the free app that I thought would make the data transfer easier. You can tell where this is going. I woke up the day after the update to a slew of error reports. This was before Android started doing automatic updates, so the damage was minimal, but it was a nerve-wracking 3 hours while I recreated the problem, figured out the solution and then worked on limiting the damage. Thankfully, only a few users had updated the app overnight and I offered every one of them a free copy of the paid app. That episode taught me a few things, including the fact that just because a bug goes away when you reinstall the app, it doesn’t mean that the problem itself is resolved. As for writing, chances are negligible that you will crash someone’s Kindle when you release a book or update it (*knocks on wood*).
Advantage: Definitely book.

Reviews

Getting reviews is much easier with an app. It could be because the rating system makes it easy — just pick a star and write a few words about it. Book reviews, on the other hand, are more elaborate, which dissuades people from writing them. I didn’t ask a single person to review the app, and it easily had 20-some reviews within a few days. I only have three distinct reviews for the book so far. In the book world, you have to work much harder for your reviews.
Advantage: App.

Competition

Both the app and book markets are saturated, and getting noticed is very hard. But here’s the difference: No one wants 10 different planners or clocks or note-taking apps. It doesn’t matter if your note-taking app is just as good as the others; people just don’t need another one (the exception is games). On the other hand, people will keep buying books, especially in the genre that they like. So if you write a good book and make a sale, you get a repeat customer. Besides, people aren’t nearly as loyal to app companies as they are to authors. I can’t even tell you who developed most of the apps on my phone, and I was a developer!
Advantage: Book.

Ease of Publishing

I think the publishing process is easy in both cases. However, as a quirk of the way Google runs the Android store, you have to collect and pay sales taxes yourself. If you develop apps for iOS, you don’t have that problem. And of course, you don’t have to worry sales tax when publishing your book on Amazon.
Advantage: Book.

Making Money

So far, the app is definitely winning in the profits department. And if I had to choose between writing an app and writing a book to make a living (which, at this point, I don’t), I would definitely go the app route (or maybe hire myself out as an Android developer). However, that is partly to do with market demand (there are plenty of writers out there but not enough Android developers). Besides, I haven’t given writing a fighting chance yet. In publishing, the more books you have in your catalog, the more likely you are to succeed. That’s because people buy books from familiar authors. Compare that to the app store. You run into a familiar problem —  no one remembers the developer. There are a few big names most of us have heard about — Zynga and Rovio, for example — but unless you are in the app business, it’s unlikely you’ve heard of (or remember) many more.
Advantage: App, for now.

Tallying up the advantages, it’s clear that writing books wins for me. The process has been everything I wanted in a hobby: the creative energy, the thrill of publishing, the excitement of getting that first download/review/sale. And all without having to worry about when something is going to break or how the new Kindle is going to make the book unreadable.

But I’m only one data point in this world of app developers and writers. Have you written an app and a book? If so, do you prefer one over the other?

 

Emacs

photo credit: mrbill via photopin cc

photo credit: mrbill via photopin cc

Everyone has their favorite editor. Some use pen and paper. Many use Word, or a text editor like Notepad or Notepad++. Others use online tools like Google Docs. I have tried all of the above and finally settled on Emacs. For those who haven’t heard of Emacs, it’s a highly customizable editor that is used for a variety of tasks from writing text to writing code and everything in between. As the late Billy Mays used to say, “But wait! There’s more!” You can use Emacs to read, write and send your Email. You can use it as a calendar, a journal, a planner, a debugger and even a news reader. And it is open source. Completely, 100%, free!

But this flexibility comes at a price. It is not as simple as opening up a Word document and typing away. Well, you could, but to get the full benefit of Emacs, you should customize it and that takes some tinkering. I’m not going to go into detail about how to use Emacs, at least in this post, but there are lots of tutorials out there if anyone is feeling adventurous. What I’m going to do instead is talk about a few of the features that I like about Emacs.

Emacs uses the term buffers to areas of the screen. So if you writing a document, it will be in a buffer. You can have a single buffer in a Emacs window (called a frame), or split the window (vertically or horizontally) into two buffers. And you can keep splitting till you have a patchwork of buffers each showing a different document. It’s kinda like opening up multiple documents in Word and lining them up side-by-side but way easier to do. Anyway, Emacs buffers also have modes associated with them. A mode affects the buffers behavior (whether it is wrapping words or highlighting/coloring parts of the text). I write in Org mode. Org mode is great for (straight from the horse’s mouth) “keeping notes, maintaining TODO lists, planning projects, and authoring documents with a fast and effective plain-text system.” In short, it’s great for writing. The best part is that you can expand and collapse your TODO lists and notes by pressing the TAB button. I keep all of character sketches, timeline, plot ideas, chapter breakdowns as these expandable lists right in my document so I can refer to it when I write. If I need to keep referring back to something while I’m writing, I can simply create a new buffer next to my document and load the information up there.

You can also customize Emacs to include version control. You know that thing you do when you save your drafts as “Draft-1.doc”, “Draft-2.doc”, “Draft-2-newchapter3.doc”, “Draft-3-stellagetskilled.doc”, and so on. Except with version control you can do it a whole lot better and without cluttering up your hard disk. Caveat: some expertise required.

The one drawback with Emacs compared to something like Google Docs is that your data is not automatically backed up. I use Dropbox and that takes care of that.

If you are feeling adventurous, or you are a technophile, or you are familiar with Emacs but never thought about using it for writing, check it out.

Now, what editor do you use to write your books?

Why write every day?

One of the first things that new writers are told to do is to write every day. There are a lot of really good posts that explain why this advice is true. I agree but I want to do a different spin on it and approach it from the perspective of human physiology and neuroscience. The human body has three levels at which it can perform a task – the very specific but completely autonomous level which includes functions such as breathing and keeping your heart beating, the specific but semi-autonomous level which includes walking and driving your car, and the very general but completely non-autonomous level which includes anything that involves thinking and paying attention. When you do something new, you often start out doing it at this last level, by paying attention to the each step and slowly but surely working your way through the task. As you get more proficient at this new task, you start to push more and more of the steps down to the semi-autonomous level which does two things – it speeds everything up because you do less thinking and you get to do more than one thing at once. A perfect example of this kind of transfer is driving. When you first learn how to drive a car, you have to pay close attention to every single detail. But, just a few months later you can drive and listen to the radio or carry on a conversation without any problems. The only way to get from this slow top-level to the faster mid-level is experience or practice. That’s why it is important to write every day, so that you can stop thinking about all the peripheral stuff and make writing nearly automatic. Besides, if you can push the mundane aspects of writing to the lower levels, it frees up the conscious part of the brain to do more creative stuff.

And no, there is no way I can think of to move a skill from the mid-level to the fully-autonomous low-level. At least, not in normal humans. Savants are a whole other category. Savants can often multiple really large numbers without thinking (the answer just pops into their head) or tell what day of the week from any date past or future, and they can do these things because somehow their brains are hardwired to do it, just like breathing. So it is possible there is a savant out there somewhere who can’t help but compulsively write books just by sitting down in front of a computer. But, if you can take the time to read this blog, I’m pretty sure you are not one of them. 🙂

Then and Now – Part 1 – Changing Mores

 

Then and Now is a series of blog posts in which I talk about the differences between present day mysteries and those written 50 or more years ago.

Something that stand out to me when I read classic mysteries is the casual racism woven into them. That is not to say the writer’s themselves were racist or sexist or other -ists, just that their characters exhibited behaviors considered normal enough for that time. For example, in Christie’s Peril at End House, the lead character casually remarks “He’s a Jew, of course, but a frightfully decent one.” simply as an afterthought during a conversation. Similarly, Erle Stanley Gardner, one of the champions of immigrants especially the Japanese, often showcase the casual racism of the times in his books; times when being Asian was automatically a reason for being suspected of a crime and where being accused of being half, or fourths or eights Asian was insulting and often dangerous to the character.

I don’t read very many modern mysteries but I don’t recall encountering any casual racism in the ones I have read, unless it was the author’s intention to portray the character as racist. That is not say that everything is ok now, just that it isn’t considered ok like it used to be. Like other genres, mysteries distill and stereotype characters into easily understood archetypes. The fact that we encounter fewer racist stereotypes in our books is one sign that we are moving forward.

In case anyone is interested:
Top Ten Racist Moments in Agatha Christie’s Novels

How to write in airports

After another interminable set of delayed flights and long layovers, I got to thinking about how to make writing comfortable at airports. Et voila, Six steps on how to write better in airports

  1. Silence is golden – Find a quiet spot. I know this is easier said than done at most major airports but there are a few things you can try. Find an empty gate. Even the busiest terminals have one of these. Be sure to keep an eye out for your flight though. If that doesn’t work, try to find a corner in a large cafeteria. Finally, if all else fails, break out your noise cancelling headphones and hack away.
  2. Look outside, not in – Find a seat with a view. It could be the tarmac or it could be something else but I find I write better when I’m not staring at the throng of humanity in front of me.
  3. “Write drunk; edit sober” – Hemingway would have done well at today’s airport bars. On the plus side, you get to have a drink while you write. On the minus side, these places can get rowdy (by airport standards) especially when flights are delayed. Also be prepared to answer questions from nosy people. Some airports now have upscale wine bars with a quiet, discrete atmosphere. Be prepared to pay for the privilege though.
  4. Planning makes perfect – Are you stopping first at an airport with free wifi and then doing a layover at one that doesn’t? Consider doing your editing, blogging and blog-reading at the first airport and writing at the second one. Make sure you take into account walking between gates and changing terminals into determining how much time you will have for writing.
  5. Become a method writer – Have you ever wanted to have an airport scene in your next novel? Well, you are right there, might as well start writing. Immerse yourself in the environment, and write an authentic airport scene.
  6. Imagination not required – Having difficulty describing a character. Look around you. Write short sketches of the people around you and use them in upcoming books. As I write this I see a college girl chatting on the phone about her missed flight while simultaneously twirling her hair, playing with her ipod and holding a book. I know who is going to get murdered in my next book! There is also the older couple sitting with an empty seat between them. The gentleman looks around with his arms crossed while the lady reads a book. There is an asian lady reading a Christie but she is too far away to tell which one, and on and on and on. There are all kinds of people, from all over the globe and of a wide variety of ages.  I see businessmen busy with their cellphones and laptops, a African lady in her vibrant native dress, young lovers holding hands, the stern looking policeman walking around, TSA agents looking busy, an overly hipster guy in his skinny jeans and retro glasses. Pretty much every type of person you would ever want to write about is in front of you.

Do you have a special trick you use while writing at airports? I’m also starting a new series of posts on the best places to write at airport X. These posts will focus on a particular airport and maybe even a single terminal and will consist of my personal experiences while traveling through these airports. Stay tuned.

Estimating Novel Length

I spoke too soon when I said I have another 10 to 15000 words easily before the novel is finished. Well, as of yesterday, the novel is finished but it is just shy of 27,000 words. I’m not sure if my story is just a novella or if I’m just a really spare writer. I’ll need to read through to get a better idea. From what I can tell though, this is the opposite of the usual problem of 100,000 or 200,000 word novels that the authors have to pare down.  In any case, I need to get better at estimating how long a novel will be before I start writing or I need to write better (if the problem is the way I write). As I write more, either or both of these problems will go away. But until then, anyone have any tips for estimating how long a novel will be just from the number of clues and suspects? Of course, it depends on the author as well, but I’m looking for some personal stories and heuristics.

 

Day 27

Like I said, the novel is done. Lots of plot holes to fill. Protip: If you keep adding suspects as you write the book, you’re gonna have a bad time editing. 🙂 It’s not all gloom and doom though. I finished a NOVELLA! Just need to add more stuff to get it novel-sized. I think the biggest mistake I have made is the lack of a backstory in many places and adding those in should bring up the word count. I think I’ll keep tracking the word count so I have a better idea of how the novel size rises and falls as I switch over from writing to editing. It should make for a very interesting graph at the end of it all. This is also the first day that I have fallen behind in my overall word count. I had a zero day a few days back but I had enough of a lead that it didn’t matter too much. Besides, I have been traveling for the past four days, so that’s my excuse.

Time:  4:45p-5:30p

Word Count: 890 (26739)