A Pandemic of Opinions About the COVID-19 World Order

What a difference a month makes. Just 30 days ago, the Wuhan Coronavirus seemed like a distraction from the seriousness of the Democratic beauty pageant. Partisans sniped about whether COVID-19 represented an existential threat to the species or a hoax to get Trump. The Dow was looking to crest 30,000 points. Life offered predictability.

In fact, just six weeks ago, I remember sitting on the porch of our rented apartment in Bonaire, overlooking the Caribbean Sea, enjoying rum and a cigar and talking to Dave (who frequently travels to China) about whether he had been to a place called Wuhan, because the news stories out of China were looking scary. He told funny stories about his travel adventures in China and India.

Now? No one’s laughing. No one with working synapses thinks it’s a hoax.

Where to begin?

The Epidemiology

Let’s start with the science. 

The novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan likely originated with a wet market. That’s a market serving slaughtered animals, many of them exotic. The Chinese government made motions to shut them down after the SARS epidemic but let them persist. 

Some terms: The virus, called SARS-CoV-2, sometimes leads to a disease called COVID-19. People can be infected by the virus and, because they’re asymptomatic, not actually manifest the disease. The math about the dangers of COVID-19 are based on reported cases of people whose infections have morphed into the disease. However, some unknown proportion of the country has acquired and defeated the virus without developing the disease. Keep that distinction top-of-mind when you think about population-prevalence statistics. A good deal of reporting has mixed, willy-nilly, cases of infection and cases of disease.

It’s difficult to get a good sense on how wide the disease has spread, in part because people with very mild cases are likely under-counted in the denominator and in part because some of the worst outbreaks occur in countries with regimes that shade the truth (China, Iran, possibly Russia and Venezuela). For people with mild-to-moderate infections, the disease symptoms are so similar to influenza that only a specific test yields a concrete diagnosis. In general, though, the danger signs of COVID-19 include dry (often extreme) coughing, shortness of breath, and fever.

The CDC offers an online symptom self-checker that helps put your mind at ease about what your best course of action may be. In general, if you experience trouble breathing, become confused or lethargic, show a bluish tint to your face or lips, or feel persistent pain/pressure in your chest, seek immediate medical attention. Those are signs of hypoxemia—low blood oxygen—and is caused by, among other things, acute respiratory distress syndrome, which is a serious complication from COVID-19.  Basically, your lungs fill with fluid, preventing oxygen absorption in your tissues, which is why the number of ventilators is important. (If you’re a worry-wort and you merely think you’re having difficulty breathing and then hyperventilate and then generate the same symptoms of respiratory insufficiency … get yourself a pulse oximeter and learn how to use it.)

However, those big-three symptoms everyone talks about aren’t the only ones that manifest with COVID-19:

 

When you consider how COVID-19 differs from the cold or the flu, two statistics matter:

  1. The R0. The R-naught of a pathogen marks its replication multiplier. A pathogen with R0 = 1 generally results in one infected person infecting a single other person, in the long-run average. Diseases with an R0 of less than 1 generally self-contain; not enough people get them to cause a pandemic. Diseases with R0 above 2 spread like wildfire. It’s easy to see why: One person infects two. Those two infect four. Those four infect 8, who infect 16, who infect 32. Imperial College London estimates the R0 of COVID-19 to be 2.4. That’s code for “a lot of people will get exposed to this thing in the normal course of business.”
  2. The case fatality rate. The case-fatality rate is the proportion of people infected by a pathogen who will die from the pathogen or complications related to it. A study published 24 February in JAMA suggests a case-fatality rate, as represented by official Chinese statistics, of 2.3 percent. That rate, however, is highly dependent on the age and chronic comorbidities of the afflicted. Relatively few young-and-healthy people die of COVID-19, for example, although they can and do. In Italy, the official case-fatality rate is somewhere above 8 percent, but Italy’s population skews older and they’re classifying any cause of death that looks like COVID-19 to be COVID-19, so that number is almost surely overstated. In the United States, it appears to hover around 1.45 percent with statistics current as of 26 March.

People sometimes ask: Is all this drama worth it? After all, more than 80 percent of infected people experience no or very mild symptoms. In fact, absent clinical testing, doctors can’t tell the difference between COVID-19 and the flu. So why worry?

The best way to answer that question is to look at the interplay between the case-fatality rate and R0. The flu’s case-mortality rate is around 0.05 to 0.1 percent with an R0 of 1.3. Compared to the flu, it appears COVID-19 kills 15 to 75 times more people and infects twice as many people. Although it’s true that for a broad swathe of people, COVID-19 infection proves utterly anticlimactic, the public-health concern isn’t with the 80 percent. It’s with the 20 percent who require hospitalization. Of those, 5 percent will die, and a proportion will only survive acute respiratory distress syndrome through the use of a ventilator—and many those extreme survivors will never regain full pulmonary function.

If we leave the disease unmanaged, the prospect that 1 million or more Americans could die from COVID-19 isn’t scaremongering—it’s science. Given that there’s presently no vaccination or treatment, the only tool in our toolkit becomes an artificial reduction in R0 through tactics like enforced social isolation. Because even though the virus might have an average “natural” case-fatality rate of 1 percent in optimal-care settings, if a large chunk of that 20 percent who require hospitalization can’t get a ventilator, the case-fatality rate increases. Sometimes dramatically. In an overstretched healthcare system with inadequate ventilator supplies and fewer healthcare providers (because they, themselves, are sick!), that death rate climbs. And climbs. And climbs.

Are these broad shutdowns scary? Sure. Unprecedented? Yup. Necessary? Absolutely!

In a perfect world, by mid-summer, we’ll all look at these shutdowns and wonder if it was all a let-down. Much ado about nothing. If that’s the case, then congratulations to us all—these measures worked. And if mid-summer comes and the world feels like Thunderdome—well, then, they didn’t. And may God have mercy on our souls.

Shining Points of Light

Resist the urge to see only the bad and the scary, though. Use this moment as a ready-made excuse to connect with old friends (remotely, of course) and to practice random acts of kindness. Stories abound of people doing good things—like people who organized a drive-by celebrating a 7-year-old’s birthday. Or the teenager who delivered dinner and offered an impromptu trumpet performance for an isolated elderly couple. Or the students who use their 3D printer to help create face masks for healthcare workers. You can be the hero of such a story, too.

I’ve been eating my own dog food. The last few days, I’ve been sending occasional text messages and emails to folks I haven’t seen in a while, or who I know might be struggling, or who happen to live in a hot zone like NYC. We each enjoy our web of networks. Now’s as good of a time as any to make sure the strands connecting each node remain active and strong.

Some institutions are doing their best and thereby demonstrating their resilience. My home parish, for example, has followed the orders of the bishop and the governor to suspend public services, but the church stays open for private prayer and individual confession remains available. Plus, the parish has called every registered parishioner to check in, and the pastor has been releasing daily YouTube videos with Lenten reflections on the readings of the day plus a blessing. (And the bishop live-streams Sunday Mass from the Cathedral.)

Arts institutions have offered creative online performances. Even Sir Patrick Stewart has been tweeting a sonnet a day. Because Shakespeare. And corporations are helping, too—Xfinity/Comcast is, for the next few months, waiving all Internet usage caps to accommodate work-from-home activities.

When you’re part of the solution, you’re not part of the problem. You can be a shining point of light. And when enough points of light glow in the darkness, the darkness shall not overcome it.

The Problem of Information

Speaking of darkness, let’s turn to the media.

The most significant gut-churning lesson from the last 90 days isn’t about the virus or the economic aftereffects of it. Rather, for me, the big story has been the utter failure of the press to be serious about, well, anything. Consider:

  • Reporters have repeatedly asked President Trump if it’s racist to call the disease the “Chinese Coronavirus” or the “Wuhan Coronavirus” despite that it’s common practice to name new diseases after the location they first appeared. Think about that. You’re a reporter. It’s a pandemic. You have access to the President of the United States. And your primary goal is to try to dunk on him about terminology? Seriously?
  • The conservative media went on, and on, and on, about how COVID-19 is just the flu and complaining about it is like impeachment all over again. Then they decided it was serious and Trump’s response has been perfect.
  • The progressive media attacked Trump for not locking the country down, days after attacking him for locking down the borders, despite that the president has no authority to lock down parts of the interior—let alone the entire country—except in specific instances of armed insurrection. No matter what Trump does, it’s too little, too late, too corrupt. Even Governor Cuomo has found nice things to say about Washington’s response, for cryin’ out loud.
  • The centrist pundits tried to prognosticate their way into relevance, only to be proven wrong (in the aggregate) at every step of the way.

For a long time, China lied about the respiratory illness arising from this virus. Chinese authorities at all levels suppressed information. None of this information is in dispute. As recently as this week, China maintained that a U.S. Army athlete brought the virus to China last November. To mention the duplicity of the Chinese Community Party in allowing the disease to spread isn’t racist. It’s truth.

A Gallup poll taken March 13 to March 22 shows that of nine polled entities, the U.S. news media was the only institution underwater in its approval rates. Overall approval for the media stood at just 44 percent, with 55 percent disapproving. Contrast that to the media’s foil, President Trump, whose approval rate for the coronavirus crisis stands at 60 percent. Even Congress is at 59 percent approval

For an excellent case study in the utter lack of self-awareness “infecting” the media, consider Damon Linker’s March 27 column in The Week in which he wrote:

Over and over again, those who report on and analyze politics at close range have documented the president’s lies, exposed his schemes to enrich himself, taken note of his errors and their consequences, and highlighted his incompetence and cruelty — and at every step of the way they have assumed this would make a political difference. But it hasn’t.
 
Maybe it’s time to recognize that it won’t.
 
Accepting this is hard. Journalists, academics, and intellectuals tend to be idealists. They went into this line of work not because they wanted to be rich but because they wanted to make the world a better place in some way. This doesn’t mean their ideas on improving things would always have positive outcomes if they were enacted, or that their favored policy proposals deserve to take priority in our public life. Not at all. But it does mean they tend to assume that most people will recoil from outright lies, deception, malice, injustice, sleaze, and thuggish imbecility when it is exposed and demonstrated to them.
 
But maybe that isn’t true.

It’s isn’t true at all, but it’s a perfect encapsulation of the tendency of the modern commentariat to loathe Trump and the Republicans so much that bumper-sticker slogans substitute for truth and moral catastrophizing reins supreme. Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines the Intellectual Yet Idiot as “the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking ‘clerks’ and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think and 5) who to vote for.” Sounds a lot like the press corps, from top to bottom, and their fellow travelers in Twitter’s Blue Check Mark Brigades.

I think there’s a lot of truth to Taleb’s framework. And—forget the coronavirus a moment—the prevalence of the IYI crowd in the media and in the commanding heights of academic administration and cultural institutions hints at the weakness of the elite worldview that’s part of the current repatrimonalization of Western institutions. Individual people cannot make prudent decisions about life-or-death choices, let alone inform their economic and political beliefs, when the primary gatekeeper of information is across-the-board corrupt. How much of the populist resurgence roots in some way to a reaction against IYI narratives?

Yet that’s where we’re at. I’ve dreaded this conclusion for a while now, but the systemic failure of the press seems inescapable

Preparing for Tomorrow

Pundits churn out prediction stories like the genre’s en fuego. Every single one of these predictions is utter horseshit. No one knows what lies ahead. No one knows how long it’ll take to get Wuhan Coronavirus under control; no one knows the final death toll; no one knows the secondary toll taken from loss of livelihood in the shutdown; no one knows how long the economy will take to return to pre-crisis levels; no one even knows if the economy will ever fully recover given the presently unquantifiable risk of radical social disruption that renders the Washington Consensus moot.

So I’m not going to offer predictions.

Instead, I do two things:

  1. Hope for the future. Humans tend to rally in the face of adversity. I’m generally bullish on the short-term prospects. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bit of a renaissance in organized religion and in the strengthening of the “little platoons” in hyperlocal contexts. I believe we’ve got it in us to come out ahead. I remain hopeful that human ingenuity will find a way to defeat this virus and that by mid-summer or autumn, we’ll have something like a solution that allows for a significant degree of a return to normalcy. I’m betting that by Thanksgiving, we’ll be giving thanks for the CoronaCrisis receding in the rear-view mirror.
  2. Plan for the apocalypse. I also remain aware that things can always get worse. How much worse? No one knows. But just as the best-case scenario isn’t likely to materialize, neither is the worst-case scenario. That said, if you plan for the worst-case scenario, you’re prepared for everything. So I’ve been slowly working on stocking some non-perishable food items and jugs of water. I’ve made sure all my first-aid kits have been re-stocked and that stuff that’s expired got rotated out. I’ve added recurring tasks to my to-do list to swap and recharge the batteries in my radio and flashlights. I’ve re-inventoried my hiking-and-camping gear. I’ve been making checklists in case I need to get out of Grand Rapids in a hurry—Where will I go? What will I bring? How shall I provision for, and transport, the cats? If I’m traveling by car, what else might I toss in my bags if I’m not sure how long, or ever, it might be before I return home? 

Think about these things. Being prepared for the worst while hoping for the best means that you’ll take whatever happens in stride.

All that said: Stay safe and healthy. 

An Exercise in Plate Clearing

In this year’s annual birthday reflection, I mentioned that I was engaged in a Great Purge. I didn’t, however, go into too much detail about what I meant. That reticence sourced from the practical need to ensure that every major stop-do activity had been fully considered, and relevant people notified before I dropped any bombs. But now, with all the important disclosures having been disclosed, I’m free to be more forthcoming.

I’ll share what’s winding down, followed by what’s continuing or starting in 2020. I will then wrap up with a handful of routine updates.

The Wind-Down/Stop-Do List

Caffeinated Press. Founded in 2014, Caffeinated Press published a dozen books, a dozen issues of The 3288 Review—a journal of arts and letters—and two volumes of the Brewed Awakenings anthology. However, publishing is expensive and time-consuming, and the original business model we developed was more aspirational than practical. The last few years, in particular, have been difficult, with various people coming and going and me, personally, bearing more than 90 percent of all operational costs over the last eight calendar quarters. We did some things very, very well. We also did some things very, very poorly. Caffeinated Press proved to be a tremendous learning experience, but one whose very structure proved an object lesson in how not to run a company. We’ve therefore announced that we’re ceasing business operations effective Dec. 31, 2019.

Write616. I had resigned in October from my board position, at the same time as my colleague Lisa. My understanding is that the organization itself has opted to dissolve.

The Wind-Up/Must-Do List

Delivering MIRACLES. Although Gillikin & Associates—the healthcare consulting company I established in early 2018—appears dormant, it’s not. In fact, it’s how I earn my daily bread! I’ve been working full-time with a New York-based client conducting documentation review. It’s fairly straightforward, work-from-home, set-my-own-schedule kind of stuff. However, my long-term strategy to evolve the consultancy requires a strong “thought leader” approach to programs and services, so as a professional legitimizer, I’ve been working on a book. Titled Delivering MIRACLES: Structuring, Staffing & Supporting a High-Performing Healthcare Quality Team Using the MIRACLES Model, this book addresses what its subtitle asserts. It identifies the industry imperative, then it introduces my own definition about the proper role of a Quality team in healthcare, then it offers a practical framework for both current-state assessment and pathways to arriving at a more ideal future state. I’ve got a ton of plans for growing G&A that have been sitting in reserve for the better part of a year while I complete this book. When it’s released, it’ll set my stake in the ground. But until it’s released, I see no value in chasing the rainbow when I’ve already got a long-term stable client that’s paying the bills.

From Pencil to Print. As of Nov. 30, I’ve written 114k words of this practical guide aimed at helping emerging authors and poets—the very people Caffeinated Press most often worked with—to better level-set their expectations about becoming a commercially viable literary professional. As with Delivering MIRACLES, this book also serves as a legitimizer. It’ll pave the way for ….

Diction Dude. After From Pencil to Print is ready to go, I’m launching a replacement media/publishing company. Something akin to Caffeinated Press, but without the complexity of business partners and the not-very-profit-oriented community service model that CafPress had adopted. It’ll consist of a distribution arm, publishing arm, and author-services arm with a podcast and a paid newsletter. I don’t expect to launch it completely until Spring 2020, when my book is finished. I’ve put some infrastructure in place, but until this last piece of the puzzle is ready, I’m not inclined to launch this endeavor, given that a huge part of it is externally focused. One thing I learned from Caffeinated Press is the value of getting your ducks in a row before you start paddling upstream.

Church. This past summer, I joined Sacred Heart parish and have been attending the 12:30 Missa Cantata of the Extraordinary Form (that’s Catholic-speak for “a sung High Mass, in Latin, from before Vatican II”). I like it. I may start volunteering at the parish; I’ve already been contacted about becoming an usher. With that, I’ve also been re-exploring the structured prayer of the Church. I spent October and November in the 1961 Breviarium Romanum, and now that Advent has arrived, I’ve been back into the current Liturgy of the Hours. From a purely liturgical perspective, I think I like the EF better than the OF for Mass, but LotH better than the BR for daily prayer; regardless, I have printed 2020 Ordos for each. But that’s a topic for a different day.

Sabbath of Books. Beginning in October, I restructured my week to make Sunday a genuine day of rest. My routine is pretty simple. I get up, make coffee, recite morning prayers, read a while, bathe and put on a suit, go to church, stop somewhere for a late lunch, come home, read some more, eat dinner, light a fire in the fireplace, read some more, recite evening prayers, go to bed. I do no work whatsoever—not even light household chores or complex meal preparation—and I don’t touch my computer, tablets, phone or TV. It’s a day of total disconnection. I’m taking a page out of the stricter Jewish tradition. Since the first one of these Sundays, on October 6, I’ve managed to read all three unabridged volumes of The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Face of God by Roger Scruton, and Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality by James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky. Plus, I finished a few other books that just needed a nudge to get over the finish line. It’s amazing how much I can plow through when I have six or seven hours in a day, just one day per week, to rest the body, renew the spirit, and challenge the mind.

Weight Loss. I’m down roughly 25 pounds since my birthday and am doing the things I need to do to not become a tragic medical statistic. Much of the last few months have been quiet and heads-down because in late summer it became obvious I wasn’t on the right track. Now, however, I’m trending in a more favorable direction. With continuing weight loss, exercise, and “forced” occasional hikes and kayak excursions, all of this is a good thing. I’m actually riiiiiight on the cusp of being at my lowest weight since mid-2016, which itself is a stone’s throw from my weight in late 2012. It’s truly amazing what happens when one substitutes distilled water for an 1,100-calorie fishbowl of a martini each evening.

Magic Eight Ball Says ‘Signs Point to Yes’

Vice Lounge Online. The podcast that Tony and I started in mid-2010—”where casino gaming, premium cigars and fine adult beverages genuinely equal bliss”—sees Tony hanging up his Golden VLO Microphone at the end of December. Whether VLO continues into 2020 will depend on whether listeners want to participate as on-air talent. If I don’t receive enough offers, the show will wind down the first weekend in January. But given early responses, my guess is that the show will soldier on. A half-dozen people and counting have volunteered to guest host or do special segments, so that’s good.

Grand River Writing Tribe. My writing groups? Still there. Those aren’t going anywhere.

A Summation

So what am I doing right now? I suppose I could call it, with a touch a mirth, a winter of hibernation. Apart from various wind-down activities for Caffeinated Press, my week is fairly routine. I put in 40 hours of document review, Monday through Friday. Evenings, I sit at my writing desk, working on one or the other of my books, distilled water at the ready and a cat close at hand. Saturdays are for errands and whatnot. Sundays are my Book Sabbath. Every now and then, I get invited to dinner or lunch, so that interrupts the week, but I’ll progress in stretches of three or four days at a time where I never leave the house. Just me and the feline overlords. And now that it’s Advent, I’ve also been doing the full daily LotH.

Meanwhile, the pounds roll off my frame, the words roll onto my books, my stress levels plummet, and my tranquility skyrockets.

Come this spring, when the books are ready—well, I’m excited to pivot my dual-career lifestyle to the next level of intensity.

Miscellaneous Updates

A few other things.

Looks like I’ll be soon giving up my social-media fast. It was fun while it lasted, but if VLO is to continue without Tony—who had been handling the Twitter and Facebook stuff—then I guess I gotta saddle up again.

Thanksgiving was fun. My Indiana relatives and my grandmother, St. Dorothy the Matriarch, all showed up at my mother’s house. As if by a miracle, no one spilled food or wine. A dozen people around the table, and the all-too-familiar scene of the Lions heroically snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, made the day complete.

I had been a bit sad that my long-time outdoor companion, Ziggy d’Cat, had been absent for most of November. I saw him a few days after Halloween, then not again until last week. When he showed up, he was skin and bones. Then he came yesterday, again. Still skinny. But then today, too. I’ve been giving him some shredded rotisserie chicken breast, which he wolfs down, as I sit beside him and give him some gentle scratches. I don’t know if he got sick, or maybe lost one too many territory fights, but the future isn’t looking good for him, so chicken and affection he gets, for as long as he continues to paw at my windows.

Speaking of tragedy: In late September, roughly 15 square feet of my dining-room ceiling collapsed. No major structural damage, but when 40 pounds of plaster comes down at 4 a.m., it’s a rude awakening. Believe it or not, the contractor my landlord hired is still working on it—he decided to simply drywall over the entire dining-room ceiling instead of re-plastering the hole. So for the last six weeks, all the stuff from the dining room has been in my living room, rendering it unlivable, and my dining room is a dusty mess with rock-hard joint compound littering the floor, the cabinetry and my rugs. Amused, I am not. At the rate this work is progressing, I’m skeptical it’ll be done before Christmas. But given all the dust, I’ve learned that when I’m not watching, the cats tread in mysterious places.

Last week, I enjoyed cigars and cocktails with my college friend Matt, who’s now a state representative. It was delightful to get some insight into how the wheels of gummint have been turning in Lansing lately.

Finally: In November I hosted my usual Saturday-morning write-in for National Novel Writing Month. Our stats were pretty good given that I had to cancel two of the five Saturdays on account of region-wide events. We were just a few thousand words short of clocking in at a half-million words earned at this write-in since it started in 2012. I’m guessing I’ll hold it at least one more year—to cross that threshold—and we’ll see what happens in 2021 and beyond.

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Announcing: The expansion of the Grand River Writing Tribe

In 2016, I launched the Grand River Writing Tribe, a collection of West Michigan-based writers who were focused on publication and willing to put in the work that a deeply engaged writers’ group entailed.

The Tribe grew. People got published. Their craft improved. We hit our membership cap. Yet more and more people said: “I want in! I want to join a writers’ group, too!”

It turns out, a lot of people want to join a group, but they don’t know how to find them and they aren’t sure they’re ready to start one. For a long while, not a week went by where I didn’t receive (either personally, or through Caffeinated Press, or through Write616) some inquiry about open groups.

So the Tribe talked about it and we agreed: Expansion is in order. Not just for the heck of it, but because:

  • The region boasts many groups, most of which are disconnected from each other and therefore reducing natural opportunities for peer networking and info-sharing.
  • We’ve got a ton of first-class writers and poets in the area whose need for community is real yet largely unmet.
  • People who are “looking for group” are, in many ways, out of luck given the lack of a directory or clearinghouse of opportunity — driven in part by over-reliance on a byzantine network of Facebook pages.
  • Many groups operate by email, which means that new participants have no insight into the group’s history.

Thus: We’re re-casting the Tribe into a sort-of Tribal Confederation, where many different (autonomous!) writers’ groups may congregate using shared infrastructure to promote discoverability and ease of use.

The New GRWT

The “new” GRWT isn’t just a single group. It’s an umbrella for — potentially — many groups, from all walks of life, who journey partly on their own and partly as members of a larger local literary community.

We think the benefits are many:

  1. The GRWT site runs on NodeBB, a popular forum system, that’s managed on everyone’s behalf at no cost or obligation to participants. With NodeBB, each writers’ group obtains its own set of permissions (so no one else can peek in!) while sharing some space in common with all other groups plus the public. NodeBB supports granular user-defined settings for notifications, email and related matters, thus allowing each user to customize his or her own experience.
  2. Public-facing forums let people sign up to signal interest in joining a group.
  3. Some public-facing content helps to expose new opportunities, events or activities of particular interest to writers and poets in the region — without having to go spelunking in 87 different Facebook groups and 23 different general-purpose event sites.
  4. Periodic newsletters from the GRWT to all registered account holders will promote the craft of writing plus expose a curated list of events and opportunities.

Getting Started with the Tribe

Eager to get going? Visit the GRWT website. The home page includes introductory information.

Writers Looking for a Group:

  • Register an account on the GRWT site, then visit the Looking for Group category within General Discussion. A note about registration — because our domain is very new (June 2019!), some email providers route the account-confirmation email to your Spam or Junk folder. In some rare cases, the provider refuses to deliver it at all. If you can’t see a registration-confirmation note after a few minutes, don’t worry. We’ll swing by once a day to manually verify legit-looking email addresses.
  • Read the How to Join a Writers’ Group post for information, then post an introductory thread.
  • GRWT moderators will actively work to pair you with a group, although in some cases, it may take weeks or months to align the right people in the right cohort under the right circumstances.

Groups Looking for a Home:

Writers Willing to Start a Group:

  • To ensure that new groups within GRWT are positioned to succeed, we’ll meet personally with potential group leaders to set up a game plan and offer resources to promote effective facilitation.
  • Need a place to meet? If your group consists of eight or fewer members, you’re welcome to make free use of the conference room at Caffeinated Press, located at the intersection of Kalamazoo Avenue and 32nd Street in south Grand Rapids.
  • Write616 hosts a five-hour training course for people willing to lead new groups. The next training is scheduled for Sunday, July 14, from 2p to 7p. Registration is $50 and supports Write616.

Writing Update: Post-NaNo '18

National Novel Writing Month came and went. I logged a “win” with my highest wordcount ever, just shy of 52k. This year marked my eighth consecutive year of participating and my fifth overall win, so now I’m batting 0.625.
But this year wasn’t really a win so much as it was a cleanup for several fiction and non-fiction projects. I didn’t work on any single manuscript, but rather revised and extended several things concurrently then dutifully logged my daily word count. (I pasted the exact same number of words from a Lorem Ipsum generator to validate in the NaNo system.) In fact, the only reason I attained 52k is because non-fiction writing, for me, is an order of magnitude easier and faster than novel-length fiction composition. I spent less time writing this November than in any previous year — mostly because I’ve been focused on book production for CafPress. That, and I was out of town for several one-off days as well as a week early in the month focused on prepping for, then speaking at, a conference in Minneapolis.
Here’s what I accomplished on the penmonkey front:

  • Finished not one but two of the erotica novellas in the series I write under pseudonym, one of which I started in 2016 then set aside, three-fourths done. And got a decent amount of sales out of them, too, in just a few days of November.
  • Revised a flash story, which I submitted to the Write Michigan contest.
  • Wrote several chapters in a non-fiction book I’m developing, Introduction to Health Quality Analtyics.
  • Also wrote several chapters in the other non-fiction book I’m developing, From Pencil to Print: Practical Advice for Emerging Authors. Both of these non-fiction chapters mostly went to non-controversial stuff that I can use as samples when I shop the proposals for both, later this month. (Non-fiction books generally aren’t written in advance; they’re researched and planned, then pitched, and if a publisher picks it up, only then does the book get written — exactly the opposite of fiction writing.)

I also learned a few things worth passing along.
First, my recent practice of writing in Visual Studio Code, in Markdown (well, CommonMark), works fine for most straightforward material. But the more complicated book-length content doesn’t work quite as cleanly. For starters, Markdown isn’t so much a standard as a bunch of competing standards that don’t always translate the same way. Second, Markdown doesn’t really handle citations well. And third, Markdown tends to be less strict about some things that, for a technical non-fiction project, probably ought to be strict.
So, as I spin up the next novella, I’m writing not in Markdown but rather in AsciiDoc, using the Asciidoctor toolkit. It’s a different workflow, and Visual Studio Code doesn’t natively support AsciiDoc like it does GitHub-flavored Markdown, but after tinkering last night with a sample book-type project, I think I’m migrating to AsciiDoc anyway, and converting my existing non-fiction projects to it, too. Case in point: E-book construction. Asciidoctor runs on Ruby, so after I installed Ruby (then installed an older version of Ruby, because Dependency Hell), I could install the AsciiDoctor-EPUB3 gem to natively generate EPUB3-compliant e-books. And the rules for developing these e-books are fairly precise — you must use a spine document, specify includes, specify metadata in the spine, declare folders, cite image locations, etc. — but after you get that figured out, then a perfectly formatted e-book awaits with just a single command. I opened the resulting sample EPUB in Edge, Calibre and Sigil and it was flawless, inside and out. So there’s that. And because AsciiDoc supports conversion to DocBook, you can use AsciiDoc to create very complex technical documentation at book length without any interoperability problems.
So “mark me down” as a convert from Markdown to AsciiDoc. And it’s not even hard to parse, either:

So you can convert the AsciiDoc source to HTML5, XHTML5, DocBook5, DocBook4.5, Manpage, PDF, EPUB3 and LaTeX. Plus, bolt-on gems support conversion to other formats, too. Nifty. And because AsciiDoc source is a plain-text document, I’ll continue to sync it with my private GitLab CE repository like normal. Oh, yeah, it natively works with BibTeX files with another plugin, allowing for both unique citekey references as well as bibliographies that can be rendered in any of the major citation styles.
So, good learning. And a good November.

Planning to Write: One Dude’s Approach

At a recent education session of the Grand River Writing Tribe, our merry little band of literary miscreants enjoyed a brief sidebar conversation about planning-vs-pantsing in light of the impending NaNoWriMoPocalypse.

pants. Vt. 1. To write a book without meaningful preparation, letting the story and its major elements evolve as the author drafts them. 2. To “fly by the seat of one’s pants” while writing a work of (usually dubious) literary merit. Colloq.

I’m a planner. I have to be; I tried pantsing it, many years ago, but failed miserably. Suitably chastened by that traumatic ordeal, I’ve honed my planning to the point where I think I’ve got a system down that’s worth sharing.

But first: As a publisher, I can usually tell after the first few pages whether a submitting writer is a planner or a pantser. The biggest tell comes from conflict. Insofar as there ain’t no conflict, hoss, in most pantsed stories. Very many pantsed stories rely on plots that consist of one event after another, with pacing mimicked by the introduction of new events in a linear cadence, until a word-count goal illuminates the finish line and the final manuscript stumbles, sweaty and mildly incoherent, through the denouement victory ribbon. Alas, these new events are not tied to a core conflict linked to the eventual identification and resolution of the protagonist’s frustrated desire. They’re just one damn thing after another until “the end.”

The sublime editors at MiFiWriters honed my sensitivity to conflict as the primary driver of plot. I can still hear Sue Ann’s voice echoing in my head: “What does the main character want, and what’s stopping him from getting it?”

With a question that meaty, how can anyone start with backstory?

Pick Your Purpose

One question must set the stage: Is the story intended for private, creative purposes, or for publication? If the former, then to some degree, the sky’s the limit. Writing for yourself offers myriad opportunities to experiment with forms and techniques. But if you think you’d like to shop the manuscript, stop. Don’t ask yourself what story you want to write but rather, what story you want to sell.

Writing for yourself frees you of the rules of genre conformance, word-length targets and whatnot. Do what you want! Shamelessly incorporate whatever silly, tangential writing prompt lands in your Twitter account that morning. Hone your craft by stretching your limits. But if you’re writing for publication, you must pick a genre, strictly plan for that genre’s conventions, and execute with disciplined precision. Otherwise, no editor or agent will pay you the slightest bit of attention.

Earlier this month, I spoke with USA Today bestselling author Zoe Blake. She writes dark romance, and like any genre writer, she knows that if you’re writing to genre, agents and editors welcome very little deviation from the script — especially by emerging authors. (Her insights into this part of the process made our October Get Pressed! event, which she attended, a much richer conversation.) So if you want to write for publication, follow your genre’s standards with religious fervor.

How I Plan

Every author plans a major work differently, so if you’ve seen one approach, you’ve seen one approach. I encourage you, as you review my approach, to recognize that some parts of it might work for you and some of it might not. I’m not suggesting you should do it my way; I’m merely sharing my well-honed process for the benefit of those pantsers out there who’re lost like a fart in a whirlwind on the subject of novel planning.

Let’s begin, then, with the assumption we’re developing a novel-length work of fiction intended for publication.

  1. Identify external constraints on the final work product. If you’re writing for a contest that features a word-count range or a mandatory subject or theme, those parameters control everything else that follows. In the absence of any word-count constraint, investigate average counts for your genre. Research from a few years ago suggests that the “average” debut author’s work clocked in at roughly 85,000 words. Put differently: That 55,000-word NaNo novel won’t cut it unless your genre generally supports that small of a manuscript.
  2. Catalogue the attributes to be interwoven into the story. At this stage, I don’t know what I want to write, but I’m starting to get ideas about what I want to write about. For example, in one piece, I wanted to work on character development, so I decided that a primary character needed to be bisexual. In another novel, I set the story in Grand Rapids. In yet another, I explored the concept of regret at various stages in a person’s life. In a recent prototype novel, I wanted the protagonist and antagonist to have wildly divergent childhood experiences that shaped their response to the story’s core conflict. I usually collect, over a period of three to six months, a list of a dozen or so completely unrelated aspects or subplot themes that — later in the process — coalesce into something resembling a fully formed story idea.
  3. Settle on a person, story archetype, genre and targeted word count. Think of an archetype as a meta-story, or a story scaffolding. Lists of archetypes vary; a common one, developed by Christopher Booker, lists seven: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. Author Ronald Tobias lists 20 “master plots” that go even deeper into the archetypical weeds. Identify the right genre for the work. A single genre, mind you; hybridizing a story into several genres — a process called fusion — is a kiss of death for metadata and is likely to render your story unmarketable. For the purpose of this step, we’ll consider literary fiction to be a genre in its own right. This is the spot, too, where you’ll pick a voice for the narrative (e.g., first person or third subjective distant or whatever).
  4. Generate a thesis statement of not more than three sentences. This part is tricksy. You’re summarizing the story as if it were a short paragraph in your cover letter, but you’re doing it before you’ve developed any characters, plot or conflict. That’s okay. At this step, you’re still working through a high-level concept. It’s a high-level stab that you’ll revise over time. Address the basics of genre, archetype and market differentiators while remaining sensitive to the external constraints you’ve identified and the attributes you intend to include. For example:
    • Magellan Ascendant is an 85,000-word classic science-fiction quest in which a 300-year-old colony ship from Earth arrives at its destination only to discover that humans have long-since colonized it. The crew of the Magellan must make sense of their new circumstances while forging new alliances with their now-exhausted homeworld and keeping peace among a crew still on edge from tensions that predate their launch. 
  5. Wait two weeks. Let the thesis statement percolate a while. Come back to it in a fortnight with fresh eyes.
  6. Re-evaluate the thesis statement. Tweak the statement and your various required attributes as you like. Then ask yourself: Is it done? Are you happy with it? If you’ve made changes you deem to be significant to the structure or the content of the statement, wrap up your work and return to Step 5. If you’re satisfied that your changes were minor, proceed to Step 7.
  7. Wait two more weeks. Even when you’re satisfied with your high-level concept, you’ll find value in waiting another fortnight before beginning the next, crucial phase of planning.
  8. Sketch a mind map of the characters. You don’t yet know the plot or the people, so start with the people in light of your thesis statement. I like to work with a whiteboard — a physical whiteboard with dry-erase markers. Then I start mind-mapping. A character starts in the center. I don’t know who it is, yet. Then I draw circles around it for other primary characters. Then I start to give the circles names and roles. And then they get lines connecting them in some way, with the nature of the relationship documented on the line. By the time I’m done, I still don’t know what the plot is, but I have a high-level sense of who the characters are and what conflicts simmer among them — in effect, the state of the universe before the words “Chapter One” grace the manuscript. The finished work product from this step in the process includes:
    • Brief bio — No more than a sentence or two for each character, often just a name, occupation, age, body type, personality quirk, etc. Remember, no one’s impressed with complex names that are spelled in goofy fashion and defy the laws of English phonics. No one.
    • Role in the narrative — What does this character do for the story? A main character? Secondary? Does the character warrant a POV perspective?
    • Relationships — How is each character related to every other character? What’s the relevant historical backstory for the relationship?
    • Motivation — What’s the character’s main (and perhaps one or two secondary) goals or motives within the narrative?
    • Conflict — How do these motivations and relationships engender conflict? Do several conflicts arise? A preliminary whiteboard sketch, without the bio/motivation/conflicts explicit, looks like this:
  9. Solidify the period and setting. Identify when and where the story takes place. If you’re inventing a fictional world, jot some basic notes (you’ll flesh them out later) about the mechanics of the universe, including rules of magic, social relationships, levels of technology, etc. If you’re writing contemporary or literary fiction that’s not tied to an explicit place, pick a place anyway just for your own purposes.
  10. Sketch the plot arc. Stick with your genre’s norms. Readers generally expect a three-act story with the first act setting the stage, the second act increasing the tension and the third act leading to resolution. I’ve found that starting the arc with conflict — i.e., starting with what the main character wants, then unfolding how he or she overcomes the obstacles to achieve it — makes the “events” part of the process significantly easier to work through. So with a sense of period, setting, characters, relationships, motivations and overall thesis, I return to my trusty whiteboard to sketch a plot arc:
  11. Create relevant computer files. Now it’s time to use the computer in earnest. I generally write in plain text with AsciiDoc using Visual Studio Code and my own private GitLab CE repository. Most folks will likely use Microsoft Word or Scrivener unless they’re doing something technical like a math textbook or a computer-science manual. Regardless of your tools, a few base files will likely prove handy:
    • 01_chapter-title.adoc to nn_chapter-title.adoc — I allocate one text file per chapter, naming it with a standard logic of a two-digit chapter number offset by an underscore with a hyphenated chapter-title slug. The contents of each chapter go into each file. (A slug is a journalism term; it’s a one-to-three-word abbreviation of a longer title, hyphenated. For example, if Chapter 3 were titled “The Messenger Speaks at Midnight,” a slug might be something like messenger or midnight or messenger-midnight and the resulting filename might be 03_messenger.adoc.)
    • notes.adoc — I create a single text file with reference material, including character sketches, scene sketches and facts about the universe.
    • control.adoc — This file holds the project’s table of contents (annotated at a scene level, in the next step) as well as a manual record of word counts and to-do items.
    • references.bib — (optional) a list for the references. Usually, it’s a placeholder in my non-fiction writing for shortcode ties to a JabRef citation library.
    • spine.adoc — in AsciiDoc, a spine file knits all the chapter files together into a single unit for exporting to different formats including DocBook. The spine includes all the metadata about the story, including metadata you’d need to self-publish the work as an e-book. (AsciiDoc supports natural conversion to HTML, DocBook XML and EPUB 3).
  12. Translate the plot/conflict arc into an annotated chapter-and-scene structure. With the files in place, it’s now time to go into control.adoc (or, if you’re using Scrivener, the Binder/Outliner tools) to set up the chapter-and-scene structure of the novel. My goal in this step is to plot to the scene level, with a paragraph describing what happens in the scene as well as context like who the POV character is, how long the scene is, what’s the status of the scene, etc. Keeping the synopsis at about 1/35th of the scene length (e.g., a 2,000-word scene should have a 57-word synopsis) means you can aggregate the scene synopses into a unified traditional novel synopsis without incurring extra development work. #ProTip
    • Because scenes are generally self-contained units of narrative, I’ve taken to dividing my project target word count (e.g., 85,000 words) into 10 to 15 chapters of roughly 5,500 to 8,500 words, with two to four scenes per chapter. Keeping scenes relatively compact yet balanced, length-wise, helps to not only keep the action going, but also to facilitate productivity. It’s easier to write a planned 2,000-word scene in a day than to just “sit down and write.” Put differently: Plan the novel’s structure not just to facilitate your content but also to match your unique style of writing.
    • In addition to a scene synopsis, I’ll take notes in this file about plot points that must or must not occur in that scene, and enter a placeholder for follow-up tasks that I should address “later” but which I shouldn’t lose track of. When I write, control.adoc is always open in a panel next to the chapter file.
  13. Develop relevant contextual notes about characters and settings. Just as the plot/conflict file found its expression in control.adoc, your various character, setting and universe sketches should find a home in notes.adoc — or, if you’re in Scrivener, as cards in the Research folder of your project. I generally put in some bare-bones basics here (mostly around characters), then I augment the during the writing process so I don’t contradict myself later. For example, I might include a paragraph of description and history about an important character, and then in Chapter 5 when the character references that she’s afraid of spiders, I’ll add a bullet to her character sketch that stipulates that she’s afraid of spiders, so that in Chapter 9 I don’t misremember her arachnophobia as agoraphobia.
  14. Wait two more weeks. Don’t start writing as soon as your prep is done. Give all this literary goodness ample time to percolate ‘twixt your earholes.
  15. Revise. Look at all your notes: Check your files, re-examine pictures of your whiteboard, whatever. Think about the project in its entirety. Does the conflict make sense? The plot? Are the characters compelling? Do you meet genre norms? Most importantly: Are you excited to write this book? Answer no to any of these questions, revise then return to Step 14.

When you’re done with Step 15, you’re ready to write.

My flow works for me. It won’t work for everyone. But I hope you’ve found something to take away that will help you grow your craft.

Writing a Book in AsciiDoc with Version Control

I’ve long enjoyed a love-hate relationship with Scrivener, the all-in-one writing platform for novels, short stories, textbooks and other written endeavors. I love it because it offers excellent outlining and note-taking features, plus it integrates with programs like Scapple for mind-mapping and Aeon Timeline 2 for timeline management. Scrivener supports many different compile settings, so exporting content is never a challenge.

hate it, though, because Scrivener’s full-screen editor is abysmal—the worst “distraction-free” implementation I’ve ever seen in any app that supports this feature—and because Scrivener projects are essentially a giant cluster of Rich Text Format files named by number and stored in a byzantine file-tree structure, separating me from my work by requiring the application to mediate my content.
My preferred approach to writing is to enter a full-screen, distraction-free mode. (Usually after dark, in an unlit room, working with an amber-on-chocolate color scheme, with soft music playing and either the windows open to the breeze or a fire roaring in the fireplace.) Over the years, I’ve played with different approaches to writing in Markdown and AsciiDoc with a dedicated text editor, but these efforts haven’t proven satisfactory because the apps tend to take a single window and full-screen it, cutting me off from my notes.

Until recently, that is—for now Microsoft’s Visual Studio Code allows for multi-pane windows, even in distraction-free mode. I know you can open multiple simultaneous buffers in Emacs or whatnot, but my willingness to learn Emacs or Vim syntax remains too weak to justify the technical debt of mastering these systems just to write. So VS Code, which is much simpler, fills me with joy.

I played with it and got hooked. And because VS Code does a great job of working with the git system, I explored even more deeply with version-control on my text documents. I’m now far enough into the process to have decided that I’m migrating all of my writing out of Scrivener and into my new infrastructure.

I’ll share how I set up this environment in the context of a book I’m writing about healthcare data analytics, and then why I think plain-text writing with version control makes more sense for complex writing projects.

The Setup Process

After initial testing seemed favorable, I created a DigitalOcean droplet with a one-click install of GitLab Community Edition. GitLab CE is a free, open-sourced platform for storing and sharing computer code, with enhancements designed to make the code-writing job easier. I’m paying $10/month for the DO droplet (a droplet is a virtual server, in this case, an implementation of Ubuntu Linux that already has GitLab CE configured on it, so I didn’t have to do any tedious manual installations). I use DO to host this website, and the jegillikin.com domain name, so I mapped the new droplet to a subdomain—code.jegillikin.com. This approach is significant because I can add new users to my GitLab environment with permissions to participate in one or more projects as collaborators, without having to email Word documents back-and-forth. Less tech-savvy collaborators may simply use the built-in Web editor to work, without having to download or install or configure anything.

It took roughly 10 minutes to fine-tune the GitLab installation after the droplet was set up. Perform the usual Ubuntu security-hardening steps, and voila. Good to go.

I downloaded the most current release of Visual Studio Code (the app receives updates monthly) and then installed a few specific extensions to make my drafting process easier:

  • Active File in Statusbar—to show the file path in the status bar
  • Amber Theme—the colors I want, amber-on-chocolate
  • AsciiDoc—adds rich language support, syntax highlighting, live previews and snippets for AsciiDoc files
  • Better Comments—manages specific comment types with configurable formatting
  • BibManager—Manages BibTex bibliography files
  • bibtexLanguage—adds syntax highlighting for BibTex files
  • Bookmarks—ability to mark specific lines and then jump between them
  • Clock in Status Bar—adds a small clock, useful in the distraction-free mode
  • Code Settings Sync — syncs your complete configuration to GitHub (not GitLab) so you can clone your setup on a different computer or a re-installed computer
  • Epub Tools—inserts epub-specific syntax and output support into VSC
  • Git History—views the git log and file history to compare versions over time, within VSC
  • RTF—adds native RTF support to VSC (helpful if you’re migrating RTFs from Scrivener)
  • Spell Right—a lightweight spell checker
  • Todo Tree—shows your comments (todo, fix, cite, etc.) in a project-level tree
  • VScode-Spotify—integration so I can manipulate a Spotify playlist from the VS Code taskbar (so no more getting out full-screen mode just to adjust my tunes)
  • VScode-Timer—a simple configurable countdown timer that sits in the statusbar
  • Word Statistics for Text—runs a frequency analysis by word on a particular file or folder
  • WordCounter—a counter, in the status bar, showing the number of words, characters and lines, as well as the estimated reading time for the file
  • YAML—support for YAML blocks (helpful for ePub files)

I also tweaked a few VS Code stock settings to my liking, including font choice (I’m a fan of monospaced fonts for writing, so I use Liberation Mono) and color swaps for the statusbar.

You’ll also need to down the Github for Desktop client. The Github client works just fine with a GitLab server. The client installs git on your computer. VS Code uses git to push and pull content between your local machine and the GitLab CE server.

With the server and the software configured, the next step was to create a project. More than one way to do it. I opted to create it in the GitLab CE control panel, then I used the Github for Desktop client to clone repository, selecting the URL of my GitLab project and a folder on my PC. (Bonus: I sync the local folder witihn my OneDrive structure, so there’s yet another cloud backup lurking out there.)

Using AsciiDoc

AsciiDoc is one flavor of a text-based markup language. In AsciiDoc, writers focus on the text, not the formatting of the text. It uses a straightforward syntax for noting formatting through coded characters. For example, to italicize text, wrap it in a pair of underscores. To indicate a header level, prefix it with an equals sign.

AsciiDoc requires installation. The most common toolkit, AsciiDoctor, requires installation of Ruby on your local machine, but the stock tooklit requires Python 2.6 or higher.

Writing in plain text with markups offers several advantages over writing with a visual word processor:

  1. You’re not distracted by how the words appear on the page.
  2. Using markup elements like underscores and asterisks permits fine-tuning of formatting moreso than double-clicking text.
  3. Elements like admonition blocks (text call-outs like “warning” or “note” boxes) require no additional work.
  4. The appearance of the final document is governed by a stylesheet, so you need not fuss with formatting while writing.
  5. Plain-text files support version control to facilitate collaborative writing and to avoid 85 differently named copies of the same file.

Some people prefer Markdown or MultiMarkdown for plain-text writing. Although I first started plain-text writing in MMD, I learned the hard way that the Markdown syntax consists of too many competing flavors with too weakly typed of a syntax. AsciiDoc is much more strongly syntax-coherent, and as a bonus, it naturally outputs to formats including HTML and DocBook.

(DocBook is significant. It’s essentially a giant XML file—but one that cleanly imports into Adobe InDesign for layout with the hard structuring work already complete.)

The Writing Process

With a cloned repository, whatever you write on your local computer—as long as the file is stored in the folder you selected when you cloned it—will sync with the server. Unlike tools like OneDrive or Dropbox or Google Drive, syncing with git isn’t automatic, however. You only sync when you want to. When you do sync (in a process called a commit), you’ll be prompted to add optional change notes. I find it helpful to offer a sentence or two summarizing what I just did. Every sync creates a new revision, or current-state snapshot of the project, and all of those revisions are maintained. So if you work on the same chapter over three months and commit changes 36 times, you’ll be able to check all 36 versions and even compare them—like “what’s different between version 23 and version 32?”.

That said, writing is straightforward. Just write. Don’t worry about formatting or margins or fonts: All of those concepts are superfluous during the drafting process when you’re working with Markdown. Instead, just write. And commit changes frequently. Any specific formatting requirements, like headings or bold/italic typefaces or lists, are effected in a straightforward manner using AsciiDoc syntax within the file.

Why AsciiDoc Plus Version Control Rocks for Complex Writing

One thing’s for sure: You must be reasonably comfortable using a text editor (instead of a word processor) to write in order to thrive in this production model. And you must possess some expertise in working with a version-control system, although you’re free to either use GitLab’s free online service or subscribe to GitLab or GitHub so you don’t need to run your own server.
But the benefits to this drafting process are substantial:

  • Although Microsoft Word is a very capable application for writing complex long-form projects, not many users know how to use Word optimally. As such, file corruption and the need for complex reformatting can suck away at precious writing/editing time.
  • Version control means you don’t need to save a billion different copies of a file, each with a slightly different name. And, you can compare those files easily. And because your files are committed to the repository, you don’t run the risk of losing “all your work” if your thumb drive gets lost or your hard drive crashes.
  • A VCS with an online portal—like GitLab CE—opens the door to tightly controlled access to specific files, protecting your intellectual property and facilitating broad collaboration with other contributors, without the need to email drafts back-and-forth and then harmonize them by hand. In fact, GitLab CE contains an issue-management system, so edits and questions remain with the project and accessible to all contributors.
  • Tools like VS Code (and, admittedly, Emacs, Vim, Notepad++, Atom and countless other text editors) support high degrees of customization, so you can write how you want without being locked into the fixed interface options of Word, Scrivener, etc. Don’t be misled into thinking that text editors are only for hard-core computer programmers. Plain-text writing in Markdown is absolutely a valid and supported use case for these software platforms.

Christ's Body, Christ's Wounds; Double Take; Get Published! Conference

Have you yet had the chance to pick up the two books I’ve been published in this year? And have you planned to attend a great craft conference that’s just over a week away?

Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds: Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church

From the back cover:

In every church—in every pew, it sometimes seems—there is someone who has been deeply hurt in the Catholic Church. And yet these people find themselves coming to church, wondering if anybody else can understand their experiences, their questions, and their needs. This book brings together twelve authors who describe the pain they’ve experienced in Catholic institutions—and the pathways they’ve found to healing and renewed faith. In poetry, memoir, pastoral guidance, and practical advice, these authors explore issues ranging from racism to sexual abuse to gossip and judgment. They offer support and encouragement to all those for whom the church has been a place of harm as well as holiness.

Spoiler alert: I’m one of the 12, with my essay “A Moment of Clarity.”
Available from Wipf and Stock Publishers or on Amazon.

Division by Zero: Double Take

From the back cover:
The mirror is just another abyss into which we gaze.

We all wear masks, swapping them out one for another as we move between worlds. Hero. Villain. Teacher. Boss. Lover. Soldier. Healer. Are people truly who we imagine them to be? Are we? Sometimes we wear these roles for so long, we forget. If we let the mask fall away, will we remember? We may not even recognize that which remains.

My story, “Conversion Therapy,” forays into fun territory for me: Genre fiction that’s a wee bit over the top yet carefully constructed to delight readers.
Available from MiFiWriters.

Get Published! 2018 Conference

Mark your calendars for March 10. That’s when MiFiWriters hosts the third annual Get Published! conference at Herrick District Library in Holland, Mich. The event runs 9:50a to 4p and will focus more heavily on craft and writing, with panels and workshops related to voice, point of view and self-editing strategies.
Caffeinated Press is a participating publisher.
The conference is free. Registration is requested if you want to have first-page critiques by the editors.

Writing Tools

I’ve been on a bit of an electronics consolidation tear lately. A few months ago, I bought a new desktop computer rig (7th-gen Core i7 processor, 16 GB RAM, 250 GB SSD, 1 TB HDD and an Nvidia GTX-1060 GPU) to replace my all-in-one machine with aged specs and a failing connection between the integrated video card and the motherboard. That old computer was banished to my writing desk, where it (usually) worked just fine for light-duty activities.
Today, I bought a higher-spec’d Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (7th-gen Core i7 processor, 8 GB RAM). This new device will retire my Caffeinated Press laptop—which, while decent, is a bit underpowered—and several older devices I still intermittently use. Like an HP convertible that was awful from Day One. And like the Surface Pro (as in, “Surface Pro 1”) I’ve been carrying around in my bag. And the iPad Mini 4. And my Surface 3, which I now only use for reading the news on the back porch. Oh, and the old all-in-one PC, which joins its siblings on the storage shelf, its footprint replaced with a gorgeous new 28-inch monitor and a Surface Dock, so I can just plug the new tablet in with a single cable and voila life is good at my writing desk, too.
If you forget the iPhone for a moment, I’m now officially a two-computer household. Instead of six.
As I’m setting up this new Surface Pro 4, I’m reminded of how much stuff I have to migrate among devices. And in particular, of the stuff that’s essential to my writing toolkit.
Here’s what I use:

  • Non-Electronic
    • An old, trusty Cross fountain pen filled exclusively with Montblanc Irish Green ink—it’s my go-to device for editing content on paper
    • Moleskine classic notebooks, black, XL, either plain or squared rules—these I use for notes when I’m away from my electronic devices (often, while hiking or on airplanes)
    • Pilot G2 7mm mechanical pencils—I take notes in pencil inside my notebooks
  • Electronic
    • Aeon Timeline—a simple but powerful timeline tool that plugs cleanly into Scrivener projects
    • InCopy—part of the Adobe Creative Suite, InCopy is the text-editing component designed to interface with InDesign
    • InDesign—one of the foremost document-design platforms on the planet; I use it at Caffeinated Press (duh!) but it gets surprisingly frequent workouts in my personal projects, too
    • JabRef—a bibliography/citation manager (multi-platform)
    • KDiff3—compares or merges files and directories; useful for checking differences with plain-text files like my short stories written in Markdown
    • MultiMarkdown—support files for working in MultiMarkdown
    • OneNote—the godfather of note-taking software; I rely on OneNote to take notes, plan and organize before I’m ready to load things into Scrivener
    • Pandoc—converts between file formats; especially useful for taking Markdown and making it something else (like Word, PDF, HTML or … wait for it … Adobe InCopy)
    • PhraseExpress—a freemium software (I bought a license) that’s like the Windows version of the Mac’s Text Expander, but on steroids; I use it for repetitive phrases or templates
    • Q10—a bare-bones full-screen plain-text editor, optimized for creative writing
    • Scapple—a delightfully curious hybrid between mind-mapping and note-taking software, released by the people who produce Scrivener
    • Scrivenerthe platform for creative writing; I use Scrivener pretty much exclusively for long-form writing and fifty-fifty (with plain-text) for short-form writing
    • Sigil—a powerful ebook editor
    • Sonar 3—a very simple, but quite useful, submission-tracking tool
    • Visual Studio Code—an all-purpose text editor, optimized for computer coding but quite useful for complicated Markdown projects like a novel

Credit’s also due to the tools that aren’t directly part of the writing process but nevertheless support it, including Spotify for the tunes, Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop for the art, and Bing for the research lift.
And, of course, much love to my typewriters, which I actually sometimes use: The Royal KMM and the Royal Safari.
Here’s my toolkit. What’s in yours?

Writing All the Words; Reading All the Words

Well, NaNoWriMo 2017 is officially, as one of our MLs put it, The Year of the Slog. Painful going, mitigated by the good turnout at my Saturday-morning write-ins and the surreal silence of our Day of Knockout Noveling in Holland.
I managed to eke a narrow “win” this year. I did something different for this project. For example, it’s (literally) only half-done. This novel consists of two parts: The first half is a series of 15 chapters dotted between 1981 and 2017; each chapter consists of two scenes, one each from both of the two point-of-view characters. The second half—next year’s project, perhaps!—will cover just six weeks in the late summer of 2017, again with a two-scene, 15-chapter design. The whole project should clock in somewhere between 100k and 120k completed words, if I elect to finish it.
In a nutshell: Liz Thompson, an FBI agent, is temporarily reassigned home, to the Grand Rapids field office, to hunt a suspected serial killer. That killer actually exists; he’s Tyler Parker, a formerly abused and bullied kid who transforms (in his own mind) into a vigilante dispensing justice to abusive men who cross his path.
The first half of the novel relates the touch points, in a series of brief and disconnected vignettes, that led two normal, middle-class toddlers to become radically different adults. The second half is a more traditional agent-pursues-killer plot.
The point of the exercise wasn’t really to write a novel. The point was to experiment with long and complex conflict arcs. I’ve learned that one weakness in my fiction has been my tendency to use plot as a series of events that just happen, with conflict being relegated to the sidelines. With this project, I focused on making the conflicts—between Liz and Tyler, between Tyler and his father, between Tyler and his childhood abusers, between Liz and her mother, between the main characters and the passage of time—serve as the key drivers of the story.
For you stats kids out there keeping track of all my NaNo’ing, that puts me at:

  • Seven continuous years of participation with “wins” in four of those years (a ~57 percent success rate, making me a better bet than a coin toss).
  • Cumulative total of 255,830 validated words.

With all that writing done, I now pivot to reading. I’ve picked up A War Like No Other, the history of the Peloponnesian War as told by Victor Davis Hanson. It’s rather nice to sit in the cozy microfiber recliner in my office, with a feline on the lap and a glass of wine at hand, with some soft Bach playing in the background and the lights dim except for a subtle reading lamp and the glow from the fireplace.
However, I need your help.
I’m working on one of my long-time bucket-list items: I want to compile (and then begin!) a life-long reading list. Not a list of top 10 books or anything that modest. Rather, a comprehensive list of what books are the most worth reading if you have a lifetime to dedicate to the pursuit.
I already have quite a list prepared, although my earlier research is long on antiquity and short on modernity. I am not limiting the list to Western Civ, nor to any time period. Items on the list begin, for example, with the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Book of the Dead and the I Ching and the Odyssey. Also, no genre restrictions.
Share with me what books you think are worthy of the list, either as comments here or in Facebook comments or tweets.

Author Updates: "Christ's Body, Christ's Wounds" & Division by Zero

I’m pleased to share, on this lovely Thanksgiving day, a pair of personal literary updates worth celebrating.
First, I received the soft proofs of Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds: Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church. This volume, edited by Eve Tushnet and with a forward by Elizabeth Scalia, consists of 12 essays (plus and foreword and an introduction) by contributors solicited by Tushnet in 2015. It’s forthcoming from Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers in Eugene, Oregon. I’m not sure of the actual release date—probably not until well into 2018 or early 2019—but it was quite a delight to get the PDFs from Eve last week.
For this volume, I wrote an essay that linked a very specific incident in my spiritual life to the long arc of my years pursuing seminary studies. Eve’s partnership in editing the drafts back-and-forth over early 2016 led to a wonderful final output. I’m honored to be a contributor to this collection.
Second, I was notified (on the same day I received the soft proofs, no less!) that I’ve been accepted into the Division By Zero: Double Take anthology produced by MiFiWriters. Well, technically, I received a notice of preliminary acceptance and solicitation of a bio; contracting and editing are still on the horizon, so it’s theoretically still possible I’ll get a “whoops, we didn’t mean you” note. I expect the book to be released some point in 2018. MifiWriters publish an annual speculative-fiction anthology; this year’s theme, “double take,” governs the content.
My story, “Conversion Therapy,” shares the tale of Connor, a gay vampire nightclub owner whose grandiose plans for world domination hinge upon Nicole, a “ditzy bag of vampire nectar” whose own goals are much more targeted.
In all, a good month for writing. (Says the guy who’s not nearly as far behind as he normally is at this time of the month, for his National Novel Writing Month shenanigans.)

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