The kind of sentence I like

From Song of the Vikings, by Nancy Marie Brown:

They brought home bright-colored cloaks and tunics and hose in the brilliant scarlets and leaf-greens of the alum-fixed dyes that were all the rage in twelfth-century Europe; an ell of scarlet wook sold for six times the equivalent length of undyed gray.

Alum is what is called a mordant (a lovely word that, according the Griffin Dyeworks, comes from the French "to bite"): something that gets dye to actually stick to the fabric. I love the detail because it relates to culture, fashion, and technology, and, of course, status, which depends on all of those.

The "home" here is Iceland. The subtitle of the books is "Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths". It is a biography of Snorri Sturluson, the 13th century literary and political genius who seems to have given form to a lot of what we now accept as the standard Norse myths, even as his political machinations contributed to chaos in Iceland, his murder, and the eventual loss of Iceland's independence and its rule by the King of Norway.

His era, called the "Sturlung Era" after his family, is when family and regional sagas were written down in the form we now know--13th century views of events and personalities in the 10th and 11th. Snorri seems to have written Egil's Saga, one of the longest and best known. A story does not tell itself. It says something about both the teller and the listener. The people of the contentious and threatened Sturlung Era looked back to the Saga Era and tried to understand how they had ended up where they were.

This is all research for the book I'm working on. It is not set in Iceland, but is definitely inspired by it. Brown does mention, among things, that Iceland's climate does not allow honeybees to survive. I definitely have bees in my book (growing out of my story "The Forgotten Taste of Honey"), so there you go: not Iceland.



Laying rails for the locomotive

Some writers are able to think of stuff while they write.

I sure can think of stuff, but it is almost always clever, glittery distractions from whatever it is I am trying to accomplish. Pointless flashbacks, cool devices, elaborately describe it, I've done it.

In order to actually write a scene, something unified in space and time that has a structure and focus and conflict and a decent ending that kicks you into the next scene, I have to already know all of those things before I actually write it. I've learned this through long experience.

And all that is hard for me, and takes a long time. Sometimes I start writing, with a good amount of planned material, and tear through it, and run out of plan. It really is like driving a locomotive off the end of the tracks. No progress, and a lot of frustration.

So I always have to make sure I've excavated, distributed the ballast, built bridges across particularly perilous obstacles, dropped the ties, and nailed the rails on before I get going.

I'm working on a novel just now (a hefty expansion of my recent novella, "The Forgotten Taste of Honey") and ran out of rails. I got to a location, looked at my notes, and realized they were entirely too vague, lacked conflict, and in general were lazy generalities. Who wrote this crap?

So I just spent almost two weeks (I'm not fast) really getting into it. Now I think I have what I need to get through it. Can I actually work ahead in enough detail to keep my locomotive from burying its nose in the mud again?

I'll let you know.

A few podcasts I like

One of the most influential cultural figures in my (part of) my world is Mike Duncan. Duncan pioneered a deeply researched, perceptive, snarky style for presenting longform history podcasts in the History of Rome, and then in Revolutions.

The first history podcaster with a high profile was probably Lars Brownsworth with his Twelve Byzantine Rulers, many years ago, but I think it took Duncan to really show how a regular person, working hard, could do it.

Robin Pierson, with his imposing The History of Byzantium is the most obvious successor, since he took up where Duncan left off, with the intention of going all the way to 1453.

But lately I've really liked The History of the Twentieth Century by Mark Painter, who, from his biography, also writes science fiction. No wonder it's good. He picks interesting music of the period (he had a particularly funny run of playing "A Hot Time On The Old Town", which seems to have been the sound track to America's introduction to overseas military intervention. He really seems able to pull out the interesting and significant points from any incident, character, or situation. I'm a big fan.

Many podcasts are self-indulgent, unedited, and focused on whatever happened in the last five minutes. I like a couple of those (like the Slate Political Gabfest and Slate Money). But, by and large, it takes a lot of work and editing to get a podcast worth listening to.

I'd love to do a podcast myself, but have trouble getting done what I need to already. I have a concept, topics, and everything. Someday, maybe....

My anti-akrasia tools III: credible commitment to long-term goals

Worthwhile long-term goals, whether losing weight, learning a foreign language, or becoming the kind of person who writes blog posts consistently, are the product of small, incremental, consistent decisions. If you're the kind of person who can intuitively translate a distant large goal into a sequence of immediate, small actions, I am jealous of you.

For the rest of us, there is Beeminder.

I used to scoff at Beeminder when I would see it promoted in the right sidebar of Slate Star Codex: set up a fine to keep myself motivated? How does that make sense?

Compulsion makes me kick against the traces--even if is a compulsion I decided on.

But, as it turns out, the fine is by far the least important feature of Beeminder, at least to me, so I've learned not to lead with it when describing it to others--my friends have much the same response to it that I did.

Beeminder lets you think through a goal, break it down into small, doable segments, and then let you track those segments, and how well you are doing on your path to that long-term goal. It shows you the path graphically through time, warns you when your rate is low, and then, if you fall below the goal path, called "derailing", fines you (and the fine doubles with every subsequent derailing, up to a maximum you can set).

But to me, it is more a game, kind of  like a really slow game of Tetris. You know the piece is falling. But the game is only a small part of your life, and it's easy to neglect while you are focused on other things. Beeminder turns long-term goals into a game that you can play and track.

I started beause my friend Jeff Carver always tells me to turn my books into e-books, as he has done so successfully with his own. I had all my old books scanned, but there were lots of errors, which required proofreading, which....I didn't do. In any given week, there was just too many other things to do. Even though the goal was important, I didn't do it.

So that was the first goal I Beeminded. I assigned myself a number of times a week I would do a 25-minute session of proofreading (can you tell I use the Pomodoro Technique? I'll cover how that works for me in another post). Worked like a charm. I can look at my phone, see how many days I have before I drop below the line, and find time to do a session. I've done one book and am into the next.

Since that, I've added a lot of goals, some near-term, some bigger. I want to play the piano more, read and keep up my Russian more, improve my marketing analytics abilities, so all of those have tasks per week. It also makes sure I call my mother frequently (I'm a bad son, but a better one with Beeminder), and a few more private goals as well. A lot of people use it for losing weight, but I don't.

And, yes, my blog writing Beeminder indicates that I only have one day until I derail, why do you ask?

It's free for two goals, as long as you never go below the line. But I wanted more, so I paid them a yearly amount.

Beeminder essentially makes me more like the automatically productive person I mentioned in the first paragraph, and less the neurotic procrastinator I actually am. I wish it had been around earlier in my personal history.

Do you have some goal that you never seem to find the time to move toward? Give Beeminder a try. You might be surprised at how much progress you can make, after years of stasis and avoidance.

Earlier anti-akrasia posts

I: minimizing distraction

II: to-do lists and next actions

My anti-akrasia tools I: minimizing distraction

My name is Alex, and I am a procrastinator. I avoid emotionally charged, tiresome, or long-term tasks, and have bad emotional relationships with them. When I am avoiding an important task, I am easily distracted.

"Akrasia" is the term us fancy-ass people use for when we deliberately and knowingly act against our own best judgment. It's from ancient Greek, and so gives our blog-post reading a retrospective air of classical severity.

I'm not alone in being a procrastinator, certainly, but I do have certain behaviors that have been a burden on me since at least junior high school.

As our modern interactive environment has provided more, easier, and more satisfying distractions, it has also provided tools for structuring our mental processing so that we can more successfully achieve our goals.

Note: there are a variety of procrastinations, and some of these may work better for you than others. I will list the ones I currently use, why I use them, and what effects I think they have.

Distraction elimination: Cold Turkey, Leechblock, StayFocusd

I work on a computer that is connected to the internet. To prevent myself from randomly surfing, which I am more likely to do when I'm tired or the task is challenging, I use Cold Turkey. I know which sites I am most likely to try to distract myself with. Cold Turkey lets you make a "block list" of those. When I want a block of working time, I turn on the block, and can no longer get access to any of those sites, on any browser.

I have the paid version, so I also have a more severe list, which blocks every site, with a few whitelisted exceptions (mostly things related to my freelance business, so I can still work with leads, schedules, or invoices). It also lets me block specific applications. There are a few games on my computer that are good distractions, so I can lock myself out of them for a specified period.

Sometimes I forget I've blocked sites and try to goof off using one. Cold Turkey will give you an image of a nebula and an inspirational quote. "Either you run the day or the day runs you" is the one that just came up, because I have it on right now, to get this post done.

 I've also used Leechblock, which is Firefox-specific, and StayFocusd, for Chrome. Leechblock will let you set how many minutes per hour (or whatever interval you specify) you can goof off, which can be a bit less harsh. StayFocusd also lets you browse for some limited time, but has the additional feature that sites you get to by clicking on a link in a block list site will count against your time--it warns you about this. So, if you've said you'll only be on Facebook five minutes an hour, and you click on one of those news stories, that story will still count against your time.

I used to rely entirely on Leechblock, but am currently finding Cold Turkey both more flexible and more severe. It has various more severe options, like locking you out of your computer completely for some specific period of time, that I don't use.

And that's where you need to make your choices. I find that once I put a blocker in place, I am not tempted to circumvent it. My urge to goof off is everpresent, but a bit of resistance reminds me of what I am supposed to be accomplishing, and I usually accept it. Your urge to distract may well be stronger.

Some people wanting to lose weight can leave a box of cookies on the counter and not be tempted to eat them until after dinner. Some might need to hide the box in a drawer, but won't open the drawer. Some need to put it in a container that takes some time to open--I've seen food safes with timers. And some may need to ban cookies from their house for the duration of their diet because they'll find themselves breaking into the safe with a hacksaw (in which case a diet is probably not the best long-term solution to a weight concern, but that's a different issue).

So the severity of a site and application blocker will have to match your own self-control profile. I use mine daily, and it makes a difference to my productivity. Actually, it just dinged to tell me I can goof off online again, so I'm done with this post.


On being involuntarily messy

All my usual channels are singing the praises of Tim Harford's new book, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives , including the usually reliable Tyler Cowen, at Marginal Revolution, who said "it is Tim’s best and deepest book".

Maybe. Most of the reviews spend a lot of time telling me that messy people are more creative than neat people, and that, in fact, being neat is a gigantic waste of time. They may just be seizing something between hard covers that validates their own impulses (there are only two kinds of popular nonfiction books: "everything you know is wrong" and "what you've always believed is absolutely the only sensible thing to believe": this is the second kind). Maybe the book is more subtle than that.

All I can say is, what I've read about it has nothing to do with my life. I am a naturally messy person. Does that mean I'm creative?

No. It means I'm a slob. Or I was. I had huge piles of paper on my desk. My bedroom floor was invisible under books, clothes, record jackets, plates, whatever. I could never find anything. I lost or forgot important things. I bought replacements for things I already had. My library books were always overdue. Because the physical mess reflected my internal mess: I was a disorganized procrastinator. I didn't like it. It didn't make me happy. And it didn't in any way help me to be creative.

Gradually, over some tough years, I became neater. As anyone who knows me can tell you, that doesn't mean I'm some kind of obsessive neatnik. But I don't have huge piles of paper, my inbox doesn't have many emails in it, various documents are in folders that I can find and retrieve. I no longer use checks as bookmarks (and thus lose them), and I make my bed every morning.

I like it. I like it a lot. My organization, hard won though it is, is what keeps me productive, and, yes, creative. It has made me a calmer and less anxious person.

As I said, maybe the Harford book is more subtle than the reviews indicate. But it more sounds like one of those Gladwell-ish "everything is divided into two categories, and the category everyone has always thought is the desirable one is actually the one that is awful, and the one you should abhor" magazine articles blown up to book length. To his credit, while Malcolm Gladwell has committed a couple of books, his best work (and, don't get me wrong, he is genuinely entertaining, and often enlightening) is at magazine article length. Almost anything, including the Thirty Years War, can be dealt with most effectively at shorter length.

Going on too long is its own sort of mess. So I will stop right here.

Sometimes things do get done: my story in the Oct/Nov Asimov's

I have a story in the upcoming Asimov's, the October/November 2016 "Special Slightly Spooky Issue". The story is called "The Forgotten Taste of Honey", and is a fantasy novella.

I don't write (or read) a lot of fantasy, so this is an odd one for me. And it's vaguely medievalish, with ponies, fortifications, and limited technology, which is even odder, because that is the kind of fantasy that least appeals to me. In part, the story was a way for me to examine why many people like that kind of setup, what they get out of this kind of story, and what it says about me that I don't get the same kind of charge out of it.

The underlying mythic/magical system is what came first, which is probable common for a science-fiction writer essaying fantasy. The system had some nice plot-generating elements, and, indeed, it did generate this story, about a woman of middle years who, through now fault of her own, gets stuck in a location she desperately needs to get out of.

What Tromvi does to get out of her predicament, and to rescue someone else she finds there, turns out to have serious consequences that eventually reverberate throughout her world, a mountainous island called Scarpland.

I didn't really think about this while writing the story, just happy to get her on her way home, but it became more and more clear to me as I thought about it afterward. So Tromvi may well end up in a novel, one called Icecliff, after the location she made her necessary, but dangerous decision.

Which is find with me. I wouldn't mind spending some more time with Tromvi.

Writing and rewriting

"Writing is rewriting" is a common phrase in the writing business, in forms like "the best writing is rewriting" or "the only kind of writing is rewriting", attributed to various famous writers. Some thoughts occur multiple times, writers steal from each other, and famous names collect attributions to things other people said, so it doesn't matter who first wrote it.

For me, this is more true than for many other writers. No matter how hard I work to get a workable, clear, and functioning structure for a story (and I do spend a fair amount of time at it), what I get when I'm done with my first draft is something that doesn't make much sense.

It doesn't help that my inherent cast of mind is twisty, complicated, devious, and somewhat illogical. The plots that vibrate with energy in my mind tend to be baroquely extravagant, not episodic or straightforward. I wish it were not so. I love reading many things where the plot is clear, and something you could explain to someone else without diagrams.

But in writing, at some level, you take what you have been given. Some ideas just have more energy than others, even as you pick them up out of the muck of your mind to see if they are even possible to work with. To get anything done at all, you have to take the ones that will help you turn them into stories. For me, anyway, a simple, uncooperative idea is still harder to finish than a complicated, "please write me" idea.

I write slowly, and revise even more slowly. So it's no surprise that it takes me a long time to get something done. I write story. I reflect on it. I revise it. I send it to my workshop. My workshop is perplexed, but professional, so they tell me what works and what doesn't. I reflect some more. I rewrite it. Sometimes, with a particularly troublesome story, I go to another workshop, and they (usually unaware of how much work I've already put into it) assume it is a confused first draft and give me more useful information.

Then I sit and really reflect on each part, and prepare to rewrite, taking comments into account. That's what I did this last week, on a novella that is the first of a planned series. Yesterday I spent nearly all day getting things to make sense.

And that's before even starting to do actual prose.Today Faith and I are off to visit her brother Simon in New Hampshire. Tomorrow, Labor Day, the actual prose goes into the furnace. That's good, because, though I haven't been in school for decades, Labor Day, when the first cool days return, is what I feel is the true beginning of the year for me.

And an editor would like to see that story, but has a tight deadline on when. Wish me luck.

My Worldcon

It's been years since I've gone to Worldcon, but my life is quite different these days, so, after an indecent amount of waffling, I decided I would go to MidAmericaCon II, August 17-21.

And I actually have a pretty full schedule. So, if you haven't seen me in a while, stop by.  I'm always up for a beer. Plus, I'll be heading out to do tourist things (I've become oddly interested in the Union Station Massacre, for example) and would be glad of company.

My events:

Reading: Alex Jablokow

(Yeah, they've gotten my name wrong throughout. Happens)

Thursday 12:30 - 13:00, 2203 (Readings) (Kansas City Convention Center)

I'll probably be reading part of a fantasy novella I have coming out in a couple of months, "The Forgotten Taste of Honey".

SF as Protest Literature

Thursday 16:00 - 17:00, 2502A (Kansas City Convention Center)

Science fiction has a history of political and sociological undertones. The genre is the starting point for dystopian fiction, among other forms of politically engaged fiction. How has SF become the literature of protest? What are examples of historical SF protest books and who is currently writing SF literature that protests (religion, gender inequality, gender identity, technology, politics, capitalism, etc.)? 

Bradford Lyau, Mark Oshiro, Jo Walton, Alex Jablokow (M), Ann Leckie

Autographing: Jeanette Epps, Alex Jablokow, Lyda Morehouse, Lawrence M. Schoen, Mary A. Turzillo

Friday 13:00 - 14:00, Autographing Space (Kansas City Convention Center)

Jeanette Epps, Alex Jablokow, Lyda Morehouse, Dr. Lawrence M. Schoen, Dr. Mary A. Turzillo Ph.D.

Economics vs. Technology in SF

Friday 18:00 - 19:00, 2502A (Kansas City Convention Center)

One of the benefits of science fiction technology is that brilliant innovations can be manufactured and used with ease in fiction without the messy question of "how do we finance this?" What happens when economics enter the picture? Is SF technology sustainable in the real world? Or would this brilliant technology from the bright, shiny future end up gathering dust?

John DeLaughter PhD (M), Alex Jablokow, L. E. Modesitt Jr., Luke Peterson, Rob Chilson

The Future of the City

Saturday 13:00 - 14:00, 2209 (Kansas City Convention Center)

As part of "The Future of" series we look at Cities. We consider what makes a city, whether it is a place of 350,000 people (Utrecht, the Netherlands), somewhere with a cathedral (Chichester, UK - population 27,000), or something else entirely. Over the centuries and throughout the world, cities have been defined and understood very differently, so what changes do we expect to come in the next decades or centuries?

Gary Ehrlich, Alex Jablokow (M), Luke Peterson, Renée Sieber, Brenda Cooper

SF words, generic and otherwise

The modern world is reworking its use of gendered pronouns and other references. While I am, in most circumstances, what David Foster Wallace's family called a "SNOOT" (in his essay "Tense Present"), intolerant of any Trotskyite deviationism in usage, it's surprising, at least to me, how latitudinarian I am about it: I go for the singular "they" in circumstances where the referent's biological sex is unknown or irrelevant, rather than the once-standard "he", the alternating "she" and "he", or any deliberately created new pronoun, like "ze".

Is part of the issue that "they", "them", and "those" are actually Viking in origin, unusually intimate examples of loan words from another language? I hardly think so, but it would be fun if opposition to the usage coalesced around a specifically anti-Viking, pro-Anglo Saxon axis, going for my personally favorite combo of pedantic and perverse.

That will at least give you context for some of the issues I am facing in a story I'm currently trying to wrap up.

It's the first in a planned series of stories set in an city on another planet inhabited by a wide range of intelligent species, and I'm feeling the lack of certain easily used words. Now, SF's history is long, and a vast critical, responsive, and fan literature exists in which these issues may well have been resolved, but if it has, I have not found the answers.

One problem is simply how to refer to these various species. You can already see the slight strain of not using "alien". None of them is alien...or rather, they all are, since none evolved on this world. And how about the other side of the relationship, "human", which is making a kind of tribal, exclusive claim? What is a term a member of one intelligent species uses for all other intelligent species, or for all the species including themselves? And what do Earth-evolved humans call themselves as a species? That might well be a formerly pejorative term used by some other species, which they now use for themselves.

Right now, I'm pretty much avoiding that issue, though am toying with humans calling themselves Oms, or something like that. Part of the issue is how much overhead to impose on the reader, who already has a lot of context to grab in this complex setting.

Then there is the issue of those pesky pronouns. What is the generic pronoun for a representative of an intelligent non-human species (sheesh, you can see how much I need that easy replacement for "alien")? Biological sexes are either different, or manifest in a way that's not clearly read by humans. But "it" seems wrong. Any attempt to use something like "they" brings our current transitional moment into distracting relief. "It" is certainly ungendered, but has a non-intelligent feel, since it's the term we currently use for objects and animals, or for newborns, if we're apprehensive that assuming a sex will let us in for criticism. For now, I'm using "it", albeit uncomfortably.

Finally, and less importantly, what do you call some squirmy segmented thing?  "Bug", while generic, really seems to imply something with an exoskeleton. "Worm" implies something really squishy, without visible segments, at least to me. And I do think a lot of smaller creatures throughout the universe will be segmented: that allows your developmental program to pump out a series of standard parts that can then be modified, adding legs, antennae, wings, or whatever, as arthropods do. "Pest" or "vermin" is more about their role in the consciousness of various intelligent beings, rather than about their appearance or biology. "Larva" or "parasite" make judgments about biology or ecological role. "Millipede" is too specific.

But I think I am supposed to be revising this story....  I was hoping that writing through my issues, I would come up with a snappy solution, but that hasn't happened. I don't want the reader to have to do extra work puzzling out non-standard terminology or pronouns, when that really isn't the point of the story.

What is the point of the story? The answer to that will only come when you read it--which you never will if I spend too much more time doing this!


I'll be at the Cambridge Public Library on April 20, 6:30

Anyone who lives around Cambridge and Boston can pop over to the Cambridge Main Library at 6:30 pm on Wednesday April 20 to hear me, M. T. Anderson and Gary Braver talk about science fiction, writing, n' stuff.

Books for sale too, and a prize for the best question, so work on something that will annihilate our very sense of self. We writers love that kind of thing.

The satisfaction of solving a tiny problem

I'm a long-time Windows user, and, unlike some people I've encountered, I like Windows 10 just fine. It seems fairly efficient and stable, and I have no trouble finding out how to do things.

It does have one pesky thing, as far as I am concerned. I like autohiding my taskbar. It might seem silly, but I like the clean look it gives the screen when it disappears. The problem with Windows 10 is, if there is some notification, somewhere, even one that doesn't actually show up for you, the taskbar pops back up, and stays there. And since it is officially hidden, it covers up the bottom parts of various program windows.

I fiddled with it and cursed for weeks, and searched for a solution. Most involved a lot of thinking and analysis. I hate doing those. At least, I hate doing them for something as dumb and minor as this.

Then I found someone on Reddit who had the solution: got to Task Manager and restart Windows Explorer. Boom! Works every time. I always have Task Manager open anyway, because some of my programs disappear but still have a process running somewhere and thus can't be restarted unless I hunt down and kill that process, so this is easy, and, actually kind of fun.

Yeah, somewhere a program is frustrated and eventually puts out another unread notification, but I'm not going to figure out which one it is. So, if you have my "clean workscreen" fetish, and have had this problem, this will make you happy.

Back from the Tetons

A few weeks ago I went on my annual hiking trip with my friends. We did the Teton Crest Trail, which winds around behind the iconic view of the Tetons above Jackson Hole that you always see.

It's a fantastic trail, and had the great advantage of being accessible by an aerial tram, usually serving skiers, which let us skip 4000 feet of what sounded like a strenuous but uninteresting climb up Granite Canyon.

I look forward to our hiking trip all year, and then look back at it with fondness, so, in a real sense, it is part of the structure of my life. I've had to miss it a couple of times, and still regret what I missed those years. I mean, how many trails can I manage to hike in what is left of my life?

Enough of that. We're already discussing what we're going to do next year. Meanwhile, here are just a couple of pictures of 2015:

Beautiful sunny weather, except for that last day, as you can see. But still beautiful.

Dystopian slipstream pornography!

This is no place to learn about the recent Hugo award kerfuffle (Sad Puppies, oppressive gynocrats, etc.).  There are plenty of thoughtful people writing about it, and I won't point you to any one.

But, I just need to point out a comment on George R. R. Martin's post, Me and the Hugos, from Lou Antonelli:

Whether there is an organized blacklist or not, the fact remains literary science fiction has become a boring repetition of dystopian slipstream pornography. (emphasis added)

I believe this is a movement. It needs a manifesto and an anthology, at the very least. I feel like I have regained my faith in speculative literature. Who's with me?

(HT to my friend, writer Olivia Hall Fowler, who pointed this term out to me)

Best sentences I read today, post-mortem edition

From a great article, DeathHacks, in the online magazine Medium:

You should know that for unattended deaths the cops will show up and remove any prescription drugs stronger than Advil and they will not return them. If you are a newly-bereaved family member looking for something in the medicine cabinet to take the edge off, you’ll be out of luck.

It's of a techie woman dealing with the elaborately programmed house left behind by her even techier father.

Aside from the advice that all of us should have

a will; durable power of attorney; healthcare proxy; and a way for your loved ones to access (or not) your things, both material and digital

She tells an interesting detective story, of trying to reverse hack her father's oddball programs.

I suspect SF editors will be seeing a bunch of stories based on this article in the next couple of months. It has a lot to offer: mysterious motivations, interesting technology, and the relationship between a daughter and her now-dead father. There are a number of ways to take it, from suspenseful to emotionally revelatory. I may try it myself, but by the time I get to it, editors will be heartily sick of this unasked-for subgenre of competitive hacking between generations and across the abyss of death.


Starting with Scrivener

Someone always has a piece of software that will make your life better in some way. And you know the kind of person too: bright-eyed, evangelistic, full of tips and tricks, obscure menu items, time-saving keystroke combinations...

And sometimes, they are right. They just need to overcome my suspicion first.

All writers, at least in my field, at some point talk about Scrivener, the program from Literature and Latte. It's a program that gives you a variety of ways to outline and plot, as well as write, compile, and submit manuscripts.

For a long time I had it, and didn't do anything with it except contemplate how much of a pain it was going to be to learn to use it. How much more productive would I need to become to make up for the time spent learning it? A got a couple of books, because that is how I prefer to learn, and then didn't read them.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I set aside a day to dig into a vast mass of notes and discarded drafts of a book I once worked on, set on the partly terraformed Venus of my novel Deepdrive.

First off, it was a dismaying experience. There were a lot of notes, on various sizes and colors of paper, in various notebooks, and even included a file I generated by Dragon Naturally Speaking after I had had my eye surgery and could not use my eyes to read or write. It was a bit like something you would have expected to find stuffed into a drawer in the Unabomber's cabin.

There was a lot of good stuff there, but it had no organization, and there were several sticking points that kept not getting resolved, the reason I had never managed to move things forward.

I decided to see if Scrivener could help me with this. Scrivener has a feature called the Corkboard, which is an image of notecards on a corkboard. Each notecard can actually be the top card of a stack of cards, if they all relate to the same thing.  And you can move them around and reorganize them. These cards are just a way of looking things, and this information can be viewed in other ways in the program.

So I spent one long day taking my notes and pouring them onto notecards. It was actually a transformative experience.  I created Plot cards, each of which was a scene, with groups gathered into sections, Character cards, one for each, cards for locations, organizations, and other important facts that needed to be decided.

When I was done, where I needed to work and make decisions became much clearer. And it wasn't actually that hard at all to do. I'm sure there is a lot of functionality that I haven't yet managed to get access to, but the liberation of being able to move cards at will, and scan over the plot at a high level, has already showed the program's value.

I have one set of cards called Open Questions. These are issues I have not yet resolved. How does someone escape from the situation they are in? How did this character learn this particular essential fact? Which of several possible characters does something important to the plot?

Having each question on a single card means I can sit down and focus on one clearly defined problem at a time.

Now, to solve each Open Question, I still write on my pads. It's the way I think, and I don't think that will ever change. Scrivener has let me clearly define the problem, though, and then I can focus my mind on it. When I think I have solved it, I write an underlined Good under the solution, and then delete the Open Question card, and put the solution in its proper place in the plot cards (what happens) and character cards (who does it, how this relates to their personality and goals).

Now, I can't say yet that I have solved the problem of the book, but Scrivener has allowed me to make way more progress on it than I have in years. So, score one for the clever software that helps me do my work.



Can a "mad annotator" be female?

I'm fiddling with a story that has an annotator. You know,one of those secondary unreliable narrators who add notes to what purports to be the main narrative, arguing with it, subverting it, sometimes amplifying it. Just to make it more complicated, the main story is itself a lexicon, a collection of entries on an alien culture.

In my original thoughts, both the lexicographer and the annotator were male, two standard types of literary academics, one more flamboyant and fraudulent, one more nervous and obsessive. But I always like to try out different alternatives, and one would be to change the sex of one or both of these characters.

But, somehow, the obsessive annotator seems to naturally come down as male. At the moment, I can't figure out if that is just literary convention, or actually says something about the male neurophysiology. I'm inclining to the "it's just convention" position, since there are certainly many autism-spectrum women, obsessively detail-oriented women, narcissistic "this is about me, isn't it" women, etc. But, in my experience, while they certainly act as unreliable narrators, they more rarely appear as annotators. Maybe Amy Dunne, the wife in Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, can count as an annotator, though not in a strict technical sense.

Could Kinbote be female? This is the kind of thing I think about when I can't sleep, which was certainly true last night.

"Feral Moon" on StarShipSofa

My story "Feral Moon" came out in Asimov's last year. It's a work of military SF, somewhat out of my usual line, and I was pleased with it. It had been a long time since I'd written a solid novella. It dealt with the specific tactical issues of fighting your way through an inhabited asteroid (moon, really, this taking place inside Phobos) as well as the strategic issues of a too-long series of wars and the emotional issues of a recently dissolved marriage.

StarShipSofa has done an audio version of it.  Check it out.