A misapplication of NaNoWriMo powers

At the beginning of the month, I laid out my plans to use the month of November, in which I usually participate in National Novel Writing Month. This time I wanted to spend the time editing my first Guineawick Tales novel, Hester and the Kookaburra King.

The result: I hardly made any progress, and not for a lack of trying.

I thought I could use the energy of NaNoWriMo, the community of writers and the dedication to crossing the finish line to make a serious dent in my editing. Didn’t happen.

But, I think I have a much better understanding of what makes NaNoWriMo work, and how horribly misaligned I was to attempt to bend it toward editing my novel.

First, the goal is to write 50,000 words, and everything, all the help and support of the website and community, is bent toward making that happen. Every moment you, the writer, have an immediate measure of your progress. The charts and the status updates; they nag you when you’re behind, give you props when you’ve made quota, and give you permission to stop for the day and unwind.

Editing doesn’t have that. There’s no way to evenly divide the work into predefined daily chunks, no word-sprint or prompt equivalents to make quick progress. My progress is measured in chapters, kind-of, but each is unique and there’s no rhyme nor reason toward estimating how much work still lies ahead, or how much work I just did.

Some chapters need just quick-and-easy stylistic updates, others take weeks to reshape, or require painstakingly returning through the text to update little details to avoid inconsistencies.

What it means is it’s hard to find a quantitative measurement on an editing session’s success. The end result of a great editing session can be one chapter polished off, or ten sentences spread across five chapters that get me out of little plot snafus later on.

I had a three hour session that resulted in one tiny paragraph being rewritten, but that I felt was a huge victory for the story.

Not to mention the plans for future books that I have to keep in mind, keeping an eye out for those innocuous, but often important, details that might be difficult or impossible to live with in later stories.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to complain about editing; this is what editing is all about. Nothing worth doing is easy, and I think this story is worth doing right.

The big mistake I made was in trying to shoehorn the energy and excitement of NaNo into editing a book. Don’t do it, it’s a bad idea. The site, write-ins, they’re made for rocking out that precious first draft.

Now, to be fair, I did make some progress editing: pushed through some difficult chapters, made a lot of world building decisions I’d been on the fence about. It wasn’t a bad month, just slow. And I’m not giving up on Hester.

But… it might be time for a short editing break, to recharge those creative juices. In a couple chapters I’ll be at a good pausing point, then I think I’m going to mini-NaNo a couple weeks and maybe write a short story or two, vent off some fun ideas that don’t fit into Guineawick.

And for the future, I’ll use NaNo for what it’s good at: jamming out first drafts in record time.


Something different for NaNoWriMo 2012

It’s 12:01, and for many writers on the Pacific Coast, National Novel Writing Month has begun.

I’ve done NaNoWriMo for four years, starting with 10,000 Butterflies back in 2008, and I’ve won every year I’ve participated. But this year, I plan on doing something different.

Not-really-only-kind-of participating.

You see, I’ve been editing the first Guineawick Tales novel, Hester and the Kookaburra King, since I wrote Draft 0 during NaNo 2010. Last year I peaked at 20 hours a week of editing, a part-time job in its own right, and ended with a fancy new Draft 1. After NaNo 2011 my life got pretty packed though, and so it wasn’t until May of this year that I began work on Draft 2.

Since then I’ve gotten a third of the way through Hester, not far as I had originally hoped for, but still pretty impressive, considering everything that’s happened in the last 12 months.

So here we are, the start of NaNoWriMo 2012, and what the heck am I doing?

I have been tempted to start something new. I’ve had brainstorms on a half-dozen other writing projects. They’re all very tasty, very promising little universes.

But they’ll have to wait, because I can’t stand the thought of not finishing Hester. Minus a final once-over sanity-pass, I fully intend Draft 2 to be the final draft of Hester and the Kookaburra King. It’s not that I’m tired of the story- it’s that I’ve finally captured its essence, its purpose, and I’ve seen how the next two novels will play out. Not in exquisite detail- we’re talking high altitude here- but I finally know how each must end, and why, and Hester is the first act in a story I can’t wait to finally read.

I have to see it out of my head, and making progress on that is more important than any other story idea I have bouncing around my skull.

NaNo 2012, I’m going to keep editing Hester. I’m going to take advantage of the energy of NaNo and the community of writing peers for whom setting a entire month aside to writing is perfectly understandable. I won’t claim to have participated in NaNo this year; I can’t even fathom how I’d munge the add/change/delete of editing into a plausible word count, but I most certainly will be working my butt off.

Now I don’t think I’ll be able to finish editing by the end of the month, but I do hope to get over the halfway hump at least.

Anyway, best of luck to those really participating this year. Just keep writing!


P.S. It’s both odd and kind of funny that I refer to the text as Hester. Odd because I’m 99% sure the next two books will also start with “Hester and the…”; which will just be confusing if I refer to one particular book as Hester. Kind of funny because at home, Hester is what Girlfriend Anne and I use to refer to the book, and given the long time that I’ve worked on it, it sometimes feels as if it’s a real person with a life all it’s own that we’re talking about. Well maybe not a person, but at the very least like a mostly unruly pet that sometimes does the most amazing things.

What I use in 2012, Part 2: Software

I like to see how people work; especially for those whose work is mostly on the computer. In part 1 of this series, I listed all of the tech hardware I use at home; now I’ll list all of the software I use on a regular basis.

Note: I don’t endorse anything here beyond the implicit “this is what I actually use at home.”

The Basics

OS: Ubuntu w/ Gnome Shell

I played with Linux as far back as high-school, but despite multiple partitions and many early distributions, I always came back to Windows. In college I realized that if I was serious about learning Linux, I needed to use it exclusively. I liked Debian, but it was always just a bit out of date, and I hated that it installed a lot of redundant stuff (ten text editors, five desktop environments, etc).

Then I found Ubuntu.

I started with Ubuntu 5.10 “Breezy Badger” and Gnome with it; and despite some early dalliances with Ubuntu’s many derivations, I’ve been an Ubuntu user ever since. I was skeptical of the trends post-Gnome 2; Unity was slow, customization-poor and untested, while Gnome 3 was taking a risky move away from the Windows-clone icons, desktop and taskbar. I loved the abandoned pre-Unity “netbook launcher”, so I understood that a new UI paradigm might not be a bad thing- so I buckled down and tested both Unity and Gnome 3 extensively to see what fit.

I fell in love with Gnome 3 and the Gnome Shell. It lets me manage all of my personal work effortlessly, all from one laptop screen. Multiple virtual desktops, with previews exposed by the Super key, along with search and a preview of my open apps. I prefer it over every desktop UI that I’ve ever used. (Sounds like something worthy of discussing in its own post).

Browser: Firefox

I have jumped around from browser to browser over the years. In the early days I evangelized about Opera– but then everyone copied their feature set, and opened themselves in ways that Opera just couldn’t keep up with. I lived in the extension-heavy hell of Firefox for years, then leaned down with a focus on bookmarklets, then jumped to Chrome as the hot new thing.

I switched back to Firefox at the beginning of the year, wondering how far they’d come since I jumped to Chrome. I was very impressed. I have very few extensions; five in fact, and I sync all of my computers with the same settings. It’s not a memory hog anymore, and as far as I can tell, it’s no slower than Chrome. Chrome is extensible too- but Firefox has just the right set of tweaks that I want.

Productivity: LibreOffice

I started with OpenOffice.org even before I switched to Linux full-time; who didn’t want a free office suite with MS-compatibility and PDF export? I’m a big supporter of open formats, and OOo gave us the Open Document standard. One of my most popular software projects is my weight-tracking Open Document Spreadsheet, Weight Tracker ODS. When the majority of the development group moved to LibreOffice, I went with them. I use it for all of my regular Office needs.

Productivity: Microsoft Office Web Apps

I prefer open-source but I’m not evangelical; all I care is that I have the tools I need to get my work done. I use Microsoft Office often enough when I’m on Windows machines, but with the exception of OneNote (don’t get me started on how much I love OneNote for note organizing) there’s nothing about Office that really enables me beyond what LibreOffice offers.

However I have come to be blown away by the Microsoft Office Web Apps. I keep a few documents saved to SkyDrive (namely a couple OneNote notebooks), and it amazes me how much I can do with them in a browser. Plus I can access those docs on my phone. (Sounds like I need to write a post about how awesome OneNote can be).

Email: Gmail

I’ve used Gmail since college, primarily though the web interface, though occasionally I’ve used IMAP clients. I love its features, I love its hacks, and I couldn’t live without its spam filter. It maybe misses one or two emails a year- and I put my email address up everywhere, without obfuscation.

Chat: Google Talk

I don’t IM as much as I used to, but these days when I do, it’s on Google Talk. I think Jabber is a pretty sweet protocol- and having a Google account nabs this for free. I’ve also found that it has the absolute best AV stack I’ve ever used; it sacrifices clarity for faster frame-rates, which in real-life, low-bandwidth conversations, is a much better trade-off. I don’t need to see every pore to read someone’s facial expression: a smooth frame-rate without skipping or audio hiccups means I can follow all of the non-verbal communication and everything feels much more natural, even if it’s out of focus.

File Sync: Dropbox

I use Dropbox for syncing a select few files that I want on every machine, like my encrypted password database, or when I’m lazy for a quick transfer. I don’t trust them for anything else, as they don’t encrypt user’s files well enough. (They save space by not duplicating files that multiple people have, which they know because they keep a copy of the keys so they can decrypt your files.)

Password Management: KeePass

I’ve been using a password manager for a decade, and I use KeePass because it works well and has clients on a ton of platforms.

RSS: Google Reader

I read a lot of things via RSS, and I’ve used Google Reader for years. The web client is great on the PC, and pretty much every mobile ecosystem has a compatible client, so I don’t have to keep track of multiple subscription lists.

Finances: GnuCash

I have OCD when it comes to balancing my checkbook, and for years now have been using the free GnuCash to do so.

Social: HootSuite

I’m on Twitter and Facebook, and believe me, I’ve tried every possible app on every platform I have access to. Right now I live inside HootSuite. It lets me see only the columns I want, and most useful, it lets me space out my posts with AutoSchedule so I don’t flood my followers every time I hop on Google Reader and start sharing links.



Management: Calibre

Calibre is an amazing piece of software. It works with practically every e-reading device, lets you format back and forth between formats, pull down metadata, create new ebooks; the list goes on and on. I keep it running almost all the time, because then I can browse my library remotely with my phone, and pick and choose what books to download when I want to read them.

Really, once you have Calibre, you don’t need any other ebook software on your PC.

Store: Smashwords

I prefer to buy my books on Smashwords whenever possible. You can’t beat DRM-free with access to every format. It’s why I chose to sell my own ebooks through them too.

Store: Kobo Books

When I need to buy more “mainstream” books, I typically find them on Kobo for the same price as everyone else, but with the “benefit” that their DRM (though DRM is always a middle finger to paying customers) is the standard “every device can read it and it’s really easy to make go away” Adobe DRM. Nothing fancy.


Playback: VLC

VLC has handled every media file I’ve thrown at it for a decade. No extra codecs to install, no hoops to jump through- it just works. If you’re new to computers, and the web, you have no idea what it means to have a video player that can, you know, actually play video files. It was the wild west a decade ago.

Encoding: Handbrake

I rip digital backups of my legally-owned DVDs for easy searching and playback on all of my devices, including my Xbox 360. Handbrake enables me to do that perfectly.

Streaming: uShare

I keep all of my video files on my Ubuntu-based home server, and with uShare, I can play those videos on my Xbox 360. It’s wonderful.


Playback: Rhythmbox

Though my music lives on my home server, I do keep a full copy local to my laptop so that I can disconnect and still listen to my music. I’ve used Rhythmbox for years and love it for organizing and playing my music.

Encoding: abcde & lame

Yes, I’m one of those few guys that still buys CDs. And when I do, the very first thing I do is rip them to my hard drive and throw the disc into a box in the closet for safe-keeping. I use abcde because it’s set to the lame settings I like, and it’s one command from CD to MP3s.

Tags: EasyTAG

Everyone has their own rules about MP3 tags, even if the rule is “don’t care as long as they play and I know what they are”. I’m very meticulous about my collection (read: OCD), and EasyTAG rocks for getting those unruly music files under control.

Streaming: Subsonic

Subsonic runs on my home server, and the free version provides a web interface that lets me to browse and stream my music, create playlists, from any computer with a browser. Even from multiple computers at the same time, and with auto-transcoding for different file types and for different machines (if say you want to minimize bandwidth at work).

There are even a bunch of native clients on different platforms to let me access my Subsonic server, and even video support via flash (ala YouTube) if you pay for it. Sometimes, a paid program just really is worth it, and I’ve never regretted the purchase. I’ve tried all the open-source alternatives, but none come close.

Store: Amazon MP3

When I do buy digital music, I buy MP3, and I buy from Amazon. No special client, just give me my files. Like I said above, I usually buy CDs, but every now and then I see an album I’m on the fence about, and the MP3s are usually cheaper. It’s been a slow acclimation for me to buy digital files without the backup of a physical item, but Amazon does a good job.

Software Development

IDE: MonoDevelop

Working in the software industry means I have to use a certain set of technology for my job, and a certain list of programming languages. I also program way more at work than I do at home, so those languages tend to take precedence for me to know. And for a while now, the language to know has been C#.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining- in fact I love C# and the .Net stack. It just doesn’t seem very Linux.

The real problem is, despite all of its power tools, especially for developers, I have never been happy with any of the IDEs for developing in any language in Linux. It seems either you use some variant of Eclipse (which I hate), or a text editor plus a bunch of command-line tools.

Then they made MonoDevelop… and it is just glorious.

I live in Visual Studio at work, and in MonoDevelop I feel right at home. It makes compatible binaries, uses compatible project files, has Intellisense and nUnit and a real debugger- it’s basically everything I need in one place with nothing I don’t. It makes cross-platform development fun and not a game of “find the tool”.

Text Editor: Gedit

When I’m in the GUI and I need a quick edit, I use Gedit. It’s got just enough spunk for what I need.

Text Editor: Vim

When I’m working in the command-line, I use Vim to edit text files. Emacs users… to each his own.

Source Control: Bazaar

I plan on writing more in the future about Bazaar, but essentially it’s a cross-platform VCS that works in any workflow configuration, or several all at once. I use it for my little projects on my machine, then when I want it on my own server repository, and then again when I want to show off to the world on Launchpad. And every time all I have to do is copy the repository over, then pull down a new branch, a checkout branch, whatever makes the most sense for the project.


Note: I plan on writing about the open-source software I use for writing in greater detail at a later date.

Writing: FocusWriter

Once a year when I sit down to write a new manuscript, I send the developer of FocusWriter a donation. It’s customized to look exactly how I need it to, with progress bars and word sprints and timers and statistics- all of which melt away when I actually write, giving me a distraction free zone to get the words down.

Editing: Geany

Geany is technically an text-editor / lightweight IDE, but I can’t use it for that anymore, cause I’ve customized it so much to support my writing. I may spend a month in FocusWriter to get that first draft, but the next year is in Geany making it shine.

Notes: Zim

I mentioned OneNote above for note organizing, and while it’s true I do use it for some initial story brainstorming, any big writing project eventually makes its way into Zim. It’s cross-platform, uses plain text files, and even uses Bazaar for version control. Right now the entirety of my Guineawick Tales notes and plans are in one giant Zim wiki. I find it indispensable for keeping track of everything.

Web Services

Hosting: WordPress.com

I started using WordPress in the early days of blogging, installed by myself on hosting I paid for while I was in school. I’ve been in and out of its code, and customized the hell out of it for previous websites. Nowadays, I let WordPress.com handle all of the dirty work, pay for enough customization to make my site pretty, and let them take care of the rest. Which they do really, really, well.

Domain Registrar: Namecheap

I’ve been buying domains from Namecheap for years. They’re not always the absolute cheapest, but their dashboard gives me everything I want, with no funny business.


OS: Windows Phone 7.5

It surprised me that Windows Phone 7 really lived up to its “you don’t need apps, everything is built-in” mantra. In fact I have very few apps on my phone, nowhere as many as I did on Android or webOS. Email, Facebook, Twitter, photos, music, video, whatever- the base OS does pretty much every single thing I need it do, with just a couple of exceptions, which I list next.

Ebooks: Freda+

Freda is the new standard by which I hold all mobile ebook reader apps. It’s silky smooth to use, customized just how I like it, and lets me grab books over the net from my laptop running Calibre. I’ve read a dozen books on it this year, and I love it.

RSS: Nextgen Reader

I need my RSS fix, and Nextgen Reader gives it to me on the go. It syncs with my Google Reader account, so I don’t have separate lists of (un)read content to maintain. Fast and easy to use.

Twitter: Twitter

I’ve tried every single Twitter client on the Windows Phone platform, paid and free, and every single one was either slow, bloated, had a funky UI, or was way too power-user for what I need. I’m not a social media maven, I just want all of the Twitter functionality in a fast client that looks good. Surprisingly, the official Twitter client works really well for my needs.

Everything Else

Most pieces of software are specialized tools (especially in the Linux world), the use of which depends on the kind of work you do regularly. I could write a post ten times as long with every piece of software I’ve used at one point or another for specific, one-time tasks, but that would be tiresome and probably a waste of time. (Of course, who knows if anyone even read this far).

“Too Long, Didn’t Read” Summary

I run Ubuntu at home, and I prefer to use open-source, cross-platform software whenever I can. I don’t like paying for software or services unless the value they provide clearly outstrips any free or roll-your-own alternatives. I avoid vendor lock-in like a plague, preferring file formats that I can crack if the software stops working.

And just like in part 1, remember: this is just what I use at home, not necessarily what I use in my job at Microsoft.


P.S. So what do you use at home? Leave a comment below!

The evolution of Pawsgaard

It’s been several months since I published Pawsgaard, the first story in the Guineawick Tales universe. Since then I’ve been heads down editing the third draft of its sequel, Hester and the Kookaburra King. I got to thinking about all the drafts I go through before publishing, and thought it might be fun to revisit some of my earlier Pawsgaard revisions.

Here’s how the story started in the original draft back in 2009:

Autumnal clouds blanketed the skies over Guineawick, thick and white and holding back the valiant efforts of the midday sun. The town bustled with a crowd of farmer-mice: the squeaks and chatter announced harvest time had come at last. A steady stream of strapping young mice marched in from the outer fields, passing through the heavy doors of the East Gate. Some carried bundles on their backs, others pulled wood carts; but collectively they bore the smiles of a good day’s work and the promise of a comfortable winter.

In the next draft, I dropped the occupation-mice formation, and massaged some of the sentence structures, but not much else changed.

Thick white clouds blanketed the skies over Guineawick; holding the midday sun at bay. The town bustled with a crowd of mice: their squeaks and chatter proclaimed the beginning of the harvest. A steady stream of strapping young farmers marched in from the outer fields, passing through the heavy doors of the East Gate. Some carried bundles on their backs, others pulled wood carts; but collectively they bore the smiles of a good day’s work and the promise of a comfortable winter.

And here’s how the final draft of Pawsgaard started:

Thick white clouds blanketed the sky, blocking the hot noon sun. The walled mousetown bustled with twittering whiskers, bouncing tails, and the rapid chatter of hundreds of mice. Merchants shouted from the shade of their stalls; mothers ran errands with little ones circling their feet. A constant stream of farmers returned from the fields, marching in from the East Gate with carts overstuffed. All bore the smiles of a good day’s work and the promise of a comfortable winter.

Harvest had come to Guineawick.

This time, I focused on smoothing out the flow of the scene, and as well as boosting the  imagery with the shouting merchants, the mothers and the children. I also push mention of harvest and the name Guineawick to their own single-line paragraph. This helps emphasize them, without requiring the reader to remember those details from the dense first paragraph.

It’s just a peek into the process; but I know I enjoy reading about how others write and edit their work, so I hope someone else finds this interesting. You can download Pawsgaard for free at Smashwords and wherever finer ebooks are sold.


The next great HatKK edit begins

In February of last year, I started editing my Guineawick Tales novel “Hester and the Kookaburra King”. It took me until October, but I produced a functioning draft before NaNoWriMo. Starting a couple of months ago I re-read the entire story end-to-end, and took extensive notes as to what still needs to be done.

There aren’t a lot of major structural changes, though I will be moving a couple of chapters around and dropping some unnecessary subplots. The majority of the work will be aligning the first half’s style with the second (where I made more concrete style decisions to change the feel of the work).

I’ve also begun planning out the sequel (you can never start too early), and as such have a short list of things I need to change in HatKK. The plan is to get HatKK ready to publish well before this year’s NaNoWriMo, so I have time to wrap up the sequel’s planning, and maybe even work on the interim short story “Aman”.

Let the editing begin!