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 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 event 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 writing 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.
  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 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. You’ll need to 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 as of Page 1 of 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, etc. Remember, no one’s impressed with complex names that are spelled in goofy fashion.
    • 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 Markdown using Visual Studio Code and my own private GitLab CE repository. Most folks will likely use Microsoft Word or Scrivener. Regardless of your tools, a few base files will likely prove handy:
    • 00_metadata.yaml — A small file consisting solely of a YAML block with technical metadata about the project. Mostly of interest to self-published writers who incorporate metadata into their ebooks the old-fashioned way. If you’re writing in Word or Scrivener, skip this one unless you know for sure you’re going to self-publish an ebook.
    • 01_chapter-title.md to nn_chapter-title.md — 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.)
    • 98_reference.md — I create a single text file with reference material, including character sketches, scene sketches and facts about the universe. Because I use Visual Studio Code and my files are written in Markdown, VS Code presents a handy foldable outline of the file, so I can jump anywhere with no searching or drama.
    • 99_control.md — 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.
  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 99_control.md (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, 99_control.md 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 99_control.md, your various character, setting and universe sketches should find a home in 98_references.md — 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 Markdown 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 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, when Microsoft’s Visual Studio Code allowed for multi-pane windows, even in distraction-free mode. Whoa. Yes, 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.

Work in progress.

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—gitlab.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
  • Anaconda Extension Pack—tweaks and settings optimized for the Anaconda Scientific Python distribution
  • 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
  • Markdownlint—a linting/style-checking tool for Markdown
  • Markdown TOC—auto-generates a table of contents based on internal headings
  • Spell Right—a lightweight spell checker
  • 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
  • VScode-YAML—a linter for YAML
  • 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

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.)

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 Markdown syntax within the file.

Why Markdown 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.
  • Markdown makes you focus on your content, not on how the content looks on the screen. Text in Markdown converts to anything by means of tools like Pandoc. Plain text is the one file type that will never become obsolete.
  • 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.)

An October Update

After a brief stretch of unseasonably warm weather in late September, West Michigan has unambiguously slipped into autumn. I look out my home-office window—the air is nice, with that charming mix of cool and moist that suggests “tailgate season”—and I see more and more orange and red amidst the green. Squirrels scamper with earnestness. Bugs are vanishing. Things slow down.

“Winter is coming,” I’m told. And I hope it does. I’m excited for this year’s holiday season. In my head, it kicks off with my mid-September birthday, which marks for me the end of summer (Labor Day doesn’t do it for me) and the beginning of “winter Lent.” Then October sees the tree transitions and sweater weather and writing prep that culminates in Halloween—holiday season kickoff!—and the beginning of National Novel Writing Month. Thanksgiving re-grounds me with family and marks a pivot point for NaNo. And as soon as the mad-dash of writing is over, I pivot to Christmas and then take two or three weeks off from the day job to recharge, etc. It’s a great time of the year, even in years when I’m not “feelin’ it.”

So today seems like as good of a time as any to offer some updates, offered as usual in no particular order, but as always under the watchful gaze of my feline overlords.

VLO’s Summer Vacation. Tony and I took a half-vacation (i.e., work slowdown) in late July and throughout August; as of September, we were back to a normal weekly podcasting schedule. The upside to VLO now rolling in its sixth year is that we’re stable and mature. And, of course, that we have thousands of downloaders and hundreds of engaged listeners on Twitter, Facebook, the blog, etc. Given that we don’t monetize this program—it’s a hobby and labor of love—the response by people all across the world has been fantastic. And for almost all of the shows for September and October, our alcohol segments came to us free of charge courtesy of gifts from our listeners. It’s a ton of work, but it’s a joyful thing.

NAHQ @ Cincinnati. On my birthday, I flew to Cincinnati for the back-to-back board meeting and educational conference for the National Association for Healthcare Quality. It was a professionally rewarding experience. Being a board member means that the conference is tightly scheduled for us. Six days, five nights. But what made it personally rewarding was the deep camaraderie among the current members of the board and the great cadre of seasoned, senior volunteers who work with us. NAHQ is about to go into a very tight period where the organization pivots from an association-management model (i.e., a separate company “manages” the association, hires the staff, provides the office, etc.) to a fully stand-alone model where the association itself handles all its own operations, leases its own offices, hires its own team, stands up its own I.T., etc. This is a huge deal. We’re bigger than most groups that make the independent pivot and we have only about a quarter of the time the average group enjoys to make the move … but our staff are awesome (almost all are leaving the management company to be hired by NAHQ outright) and our finances are rock-solid. It’ll be a heavy lift, but it’ll be done with finesse and—we expect—utterly transparently to our thousands of dues-paying members.

Jot That Down. I’m pleased to share that Jot That Down: Encouraging Essays for New Writers has been successfully released. I worked with A. L. Rogers, the book’s editor, to get it produced in print. It’s a great resource for new/aspiring writers, covering a variety of topics and genres in an easy-to-digest manner. Currently available for purchase for $14.95 from Caffeinated Press or by special order from your local independent bookseller.

Other CafPress books. And speaking of Jot That Down, I’ve wrapped up Isle Royale from the AIR, an anthology edited by Phillip Sterling that collects stories, poems and art from former artists-in-residence at Isle Royale National Park. I’m also in the production phase of Brewed Awakenings 3, our annual anthology, and Off the Wall: How Art Speaks, a collection of poetry and art co-developed by Elizabeth Kerlikowske and Mary Hatch. And final edits are due from the advance review copy for Ladri, a novel by Andrea Albright. Barring disaster, each of these books should be in-scope for a boost event we’ll host at the end of the month. Two more novels await this year—Kim Bento’s Surviving the Lynch Mob and Barbara David’s A Tale of Therese—plus Jennifer Morrison’s local-history book The Open Mausoleum Door, then I’m caught up with production across all of our lines of business.

NaNoWriMo. NaNo’s coming, so that means that I’ve had to (a) re-curate my author page and (b) think about what I’m going to work on. I think my technical focus will be on sharpening conflict and using that conflict to be the primary driver of the plot (instead of my usual, which is to let the plot drive the conflict). The story itself will be another bite at a Jordan Sanders murder mystery because I’m well-acquainted with the characters in this universe. But I still have three weeks to nail down my idea.

Grand River Writing Tribe. The Tribe has been together for 10 months now, and it’s been going gangbusters. People are participating. Getting published. Supporting each other. Without a regular, focused critique group, a writer stands at a significant disadvantage. GRWT meets twice monthly for three hours, combining critiques, focused education and dedicated writing time. And we still welcome potential new applicants!

Juicing. So this happened. On October 1, a scant week ago, I began a significant diet program. I had purchased a juicer and accessories. For several days, I had nothing but fruit and vegetable juice. Then, on the advice of clinicians at work, I’ve migrated to a part-juice, part-good-food regimen. So it’s been juices with a little bit of, e.g., shredded chicken or sushi or carrot/celery sticks. The thing is, I’m avoiding all processed sugars, alcohol, refined carbs, etc. Not even doing my traditional Lean Cuisines. It’s either juice I prepared myself, or plain shredded chicken or sashimi without the rice. (Tonight, I’m making a salmon fillet with asparagus.) Already down five pounds in a week. And although the diet part isn’t hard—I really like what I’m consuming—what’s been more interesting is the level of planning I’ve had to do. Actually preparing a shopping list (“I need this many swiss chard leaves, this many pears, this many ounces of blueberries …”) and planning my evening schedule around my dinner schedule has been both illustrative and challenging. And now that I bought an elliptical, which just got set up in my living room—whoa! Credit to my friend Tony who did a 30-day juice diet in May (and lost a ton of weight!) and who remains incredibly supportive even when I mock him unfairly for becoming a vegan.

The Great Outdoors. Tomorrow, a half-day kayaking trip beckons, with Jen, Brittany and Steve. Next Saturday, I’m doing a day hike on a section of the North Country Trail in the Manistee National Forest.

Home Shopping Spree. With the annual management bonus we received at the day job, I was able to pay off some bills, pay other bills early and invest a bit in both Caffeinated Press and my own home front. Of note, with the mid-summer swap of my bedroom and my office, I had to buy all new bedroom furniture. That’s done: Dresser, headboard, vanity with bench. Then some odds-and-ends, including the aforementioned elliptical, some knickknacks like candles and new lamps, a full-length mirror and a stool for the bathroom, and a replacement computer. My “normal” all-in-one home computer is very old and has been intermittently hostile, so it’s been retired to be a dedicated writing machine at my dedicated writing desk. The new machine—the first upgradeable tower PC I’ve owned since, I think, 2005—is an iBuyPower box with a quad-core i7-7700 processor, 16 GB of RAM and a 3GB GPU (GeForce GTX 1060). In all, a decent if not bleeding-edge machine. The only real hesitation I had with it is that it appears to have been designed by a 13-year-old boy, with proliferating LED lights (that I covered with electrical tape!) and a keyboard that looked like a l337 toddler toy. Picked up a 27-inch monitor for it; almost got two but I’m glad I didn’t because with it and the 17-inch aux monitor I already had, I’m literally out of room on my desk. I literally cannot fit two 27-inch monitors. Anyway, Duane, if you see this: “SIXTEEN GIGS OF RAM.”

Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters. It’s an exciting time at GLCL. The board has been discussing a very, very robust programming schedule for 2018 as well as rebranding and an expansion of the board. A ton of work, to be sure, but I think it’ll help focus the organization and promote local literary citizenship. More to come.

All for now. May your autumn Winter Lent warm your soul even if it chills your toes!

On a Book-Makin’ Tear!

Deep, cleansing breath.

Folks, it’s been a crazy two weeks. Crazy in a good way. I took a five-day weekend over Labor Day to focus on Caffeinated Press stuff (as well as this past Friday). I managed to get done:

  • Advance review copy of Ladri, a dark urban fantasy novel.
  • Interim and final copies of Jot That Down: Encouraging Essays for New Writers — an anthology of essays by published writers, about the craft of writing. (Which will be released this coming Friday!)
  • Advance review copy of Isle Royal from the A.I.R. — an anthology of poems, short stories and art by people who have previously served as the artist-in-residence at Isle Royale National Park.
  • Contracting and editing assignments for the third installment of our annual Brewed Awakenings anthology.

These things take time. Lots of details. Lots of cross-checking. Lots of back-and-forth with the author. It’s a double-buttload of work, but it’s great to see such wonderful material being prepared for readers in West Michigan and beyond.

I have a few more projects to wrap up over September and October: An art/poetry collection. My contributions to issue 3.1 of The 3288 Review. Production for the third installment of the Brewed Awakenings anthology. Two other novels need ARCs by October. Fun stuff!

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