Monthly Archives: September 2016

Tools for Writing and Thinking

I'm a software developer, blogger, novelist, and catechist; many of my daily activities involve thinking about things, working them out in my head, and then writing or speaking about them. Over time I've tried various software tools that help me to figure out what I think, to organize my thoughts, and to get my thoughts down in print for consumption by others. Some have been more helpful than others. In this series I plan to write about these tools and the tasks I use them for.

Everyone knows about the big three: Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and their clones, so I'm not going to dwell on them. (I have them, and I use them when appropriate, but outside of my day job I don't often find them appropriate.) Instead I'm going to focus on the tools you might not have heard of, and describe how I use them and what I've found them useful for. Or, to put it another way, I'm going to talk about the kinds of tasks I encounter and the tools I use to make them easier.

Here's a preview of the tasks I regularly encounter.

Writing Novels. Word is a great tool for memos and technical documents, but it's unwieldy for composing novels.

Blogging. It's possible to compose blog posts in your browser, and I've done that often enough; it's also possible to lose an entire post because of a browser or blogging platform glitch. I prefer to write blog posts off-line.

Analysis. When you're trying to solve a problem, whether it's a plot point, presentation of a theological concept, or a software design, you have to analyze the problem: figure out what you know and what you don't know, who your audience is, and what the challenges are. It's all about divide-and-conquer.

Brainstorming. Sometimes you have a wild idea and a blank page, and you just want to let your thoughts run wild…and then corral them before they go totally feral.

Taking Notes. For capturing notes during meetings, I find that a simple paper notebook works best most of the time: you can capture what you need to capture, and you can doodle when it gets boring. But when you need to capture decisions, priorities, action items, and so forth in a group setting, nothing beats a mind-mapping tool.

Project Notes. Any software or writing project worth doing will involve a plethora of notes, plans, gotchas, tasks (completed, in process, or not yet begun); it's a real help to have a place to stash them.

To Do Lists. There are lots of tools out there for managing to do lists; I usually like to relate them to a particular project, and so for me this is really a subset of Project Notes.

Knowledge Base. Especially in the software arena, I learn things that I want to be sure to remember later. It's useful to have a place to stash them for the long-term, so that I know where to go look for them later.

This is a wide range of tasks, and as we'll see no one tool excels at all of them. For any given task, though, there are usually a range of options; in future posts I'll talk about the options I've tried and the ones I'm currently using.

photo credit: Tool Rack via photopin (license)

Night Watch, by Sergei Lukyanenko

Sergei Lukyanenko's Night Watch series, recently concluded with the publication of the sixth and final volume, Sixth Watch, is a unique take on the whole "urban fantasy" genre, not least because it takes place in Moscow rather than in London or Chicago.

Urban fantasy has rather been done to death, so much so that it rather surprises me when I find a series that feels fresh and different. Lukyanenko manages it; which I suppose shouldn't surprise me given that the first book in the series, Night Watch, was first published in Russian in 1998, well before the birth of the Dresden Files in 2000.

In Lukyanenko's world, there are two kinds of people: normal people like you and me, and Others. Others are human beings who have supernatural powers ranging from the trivial to the god-like (note the small "g"), and they come in two basic flavors: the Light and the Dark. Light Others are generally more altruistic and Dark Others more selfish, but it turns out that you can't just say the Light are the good guys and the Dark are the bad guys. It's mostly true, but far too simple.

As our story begins, our hero, Anton Gorodetsky, is a young agent with the Moscow Night Watch: the organization of Light Others responsible for policing the activities of the Dark Others. It's the "Night" Watch because historically that's when the Dark Others are most active. And of course, there's also a Day Watch, staffed by Dark Others, who are responsible for policing the activities of the Light Others, and naturally there's a fair amount of friction between them.

The thing is, there's a treaty of sorts in effect between the two sides that requires a balance in the use of supernatural powers. If a Light Other uses magic to make a normal human feel more confident for a job interview, that's an Intervention; and the Dark are now entitled to an Intervention of the same level. For this reason, most Others are severely rationed as to how much magic they can do. And their alternative, should they wish not to be rationed, is to join the appropriate Watch, and use their powers to maintain the balance.

Or so Anton has been told in training.

But, you know, it's all more complicated than that. There are wheels within wheels and layers within layers; and Lukyanenko has managed the difficult trick of pulling the rug out from under the reader in each of the six books, providing new information that changes everything…without it becoming surreal or goofy or really, even, changing what the reader (and Anton) already knew. There's more, and bigger, and shockingly it all makes sense.

From a Catholic point of view, there are some interesting discussions of ethics and morality throughout the series; and the Russian background adds immensely to the moody atmosphere. Highly recommended.

(Hat tip: Julie Davis.)

Academic Literary Analysis equals Conspiracy Theories!

So I overheard my son complaining about his English Lit teacher’s need for him to analyze everything to death.

“If the author is a good author,” he argued, “the meaning of work will be obvious, because they know how to write clearly. It’s like trying to analyze why a fire engine is painted red. The obvious answer is that red is easy to see, and gets your attention. If you try to go any farther you get into conspiracy theory-style explanations. Trying to pull stuff out of a book that isn’t naturally there is like a meme I saw: fire trucks are red because Russians are red, and fire trucks are always rushin’ around.”

I paraphrase.

Now sure, symbolism, yes, levels of meaning, yes, allegory, yes, the author often isn’t aware of all of meaning he’s building in, yes, I get all that. (And we’ll have that conversation.) But at the same time, I think the kid’s onto something.

photo credit: 1959 Crosley Half Scale Fire Truck ‘117773’ 1 via photopin (license)

Riding the Pantser Tank

Famously there are two kinds of novelists, plotters and pantsers. Plotters are those who work out the plot in great detail ahead of time, outlining everything to within in an inch of its life. P.G. Wodehouse, for example, was a plotter par excellence: he'd put each scene on a card and pin them to a board, moving them around until the farce played out just precisely the way he wanted it. And then there are the pantsers, who write "by the seat of their pants" and discover the shape of the story in the writing of it. (If you Google "plotters and pantsers" you'll find an amazing collection of links describing this phenomenon, including self-help guides for pantsers who want to be plotters and (somewhat surprisingly) vice-versa.)

Me, I'm a pantser all the way, as I recently rediscovered all over again while trying to get started on the sequel to Vikings at Dino's.

See, I wrote Vikings at Dino's to find out what was going to happen. I was walking to a local burger joint to get some lunch and do some studying; and on the way I got the yen to start a new novel. I wanted to start with a situation that was bizarre and inexplicable, and then somehow make it all make sense. And I thought…what if a guy was having lunch and a horde of Vikings crashed in, kicking butt and taking heads? What would he do? Where did the Vikings come from? And then what? And I was off. I've spent considerable time polishing that first scene, but quite a few of the original words remain.

And after that initial scene it was all about seeing where it led—and what ultimately happened to Michael Henderson surprised me quite a bit. I often had some ideas about where I was going, but many of the best elements emerged seemingly out of nowhere in the process of composition. I call it riding the Pantser Tank: you're tearing through the landscape, bashing your way through obstacles…and you never know what the treads will uncover.

I wrote Vikings at Dino's several years ago. My family wanted a sequel immediately, but I'd never been able to come up with an idea that I liked. The problem was, I knew too much. I knew the characters inside and out, and in planning a sequel I was trying to figure out what would make logical sense as an extension of the original story. I was trying, in fact, to be a plotter, and figure it all out ahead of time, based on what I already knew; and somehow, nothing every got written.

But then I got Vikings at Dino's into print, and several people immediately asked me for a sequel; and my kids added their voices to that, and I said, "OK, I need to get down to business. How can I do that?"

The answer turned out to be simple. Instead of trying to figure out the plot—instead of trying to be the plotter I manifestly am not—I needed to put Michael Henderson and his friends into a situation…and then let them be themselves, and find out in the writing what the story was going to be. In short, I needed to climb back into the Pantser Tank and let it roll.

At the same time, the new story needed to follow from the old one; I couldn't begin with a completely empty slate. So I picked a problem that Michael was bound to run into, and put him in a scene in which he'd already run into it. I had no idea, at first, how he got into the situation, or how he'd get out of it, but I knew I could ride the tank to victory. And then a new character popped up to help him in the first paragraph, and a couple of chapters later he refused to go away…and there I was, bubbling with new ideas and going great guns. I'm now over 50,000 words into it, and discovering new things about my characters and their world every time I sit down to write.

In short, I'm having a blast.

photo credit: King Tiger via photopin (license)

On Catholic Fiction

This blog is associated with The Catholic Conspiracy family of Catholic bloggers; and as an author I write from a Catholic world view. But what does that mean for my novels? Are they "Catholic Fiction"?

It all depends on what you mean by "Catholic Fiction".

As a blogger I've written extensively about the Catholic faith in a number of venues, and most notably at my Patheos blog, "Cry Woof!". There my goal is to talk about the Catholic faith: to explain, to teach, and to enlighten.

As a novelist, though, my goal is to be a teller of tales: to entertain, to amuse, and, I hope, to make you laugh. In that sense, I hope that my work is Catholic fiction in exactly the same sense (if not in the same degree) that the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and Tim Powers is Catholic fiction: that is, fiction written by a Catholic. I may occasionally touch on Catholic matters in my books (the S'Mary's World project, which I hope to get back to one day, concerns a Catholic colony world) but my intent as a novelist is never didactic.

Teaching is teaching and storytelling is storytelling. Mixing the two is possible, as C.S. Lewis did in The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce; but precisely what these two books gain as teaching tools they lose as stories. My aim is different: the tale well told, and the laugh honestly earned.

photo credit: public domain, WikiMedia Commons