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.

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.

Gone Writin'

Last weekend I enjoyed the sublime privilege of spending a few days with the editors of MiFiWriters at their inaugural open-to-the-public writers’ retreat. The event — held at the Transformations Spirituality Center at the campus of the former Nazareth College in Kalamazoo — began around 4 p.m. on Friday and continued until around 4 p.m. on Sunday. A total of eight people attended.
The MifiWriters produce the well-regarded Division By Zero annual anthology series — the oldest speculative-fiction anthology that emphasizes authors native to Michigan.
Activities:

  • I arrived on Friday in time to check into my room and enjoy dinner with the group in the presence of the retired nuns of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph. The facility, besides offering space for events and conferences, also serves as a retirement home for CSJ sisters. Who were, I must say, uniformly charming. We enjoyed an entire wing of the third floor to ourselves, as well as sole access to the beautiful Sun Room. After dinner, from roughly 6:30 until 11 p.m., we engaged in group critiques. Attendees spent more than 45 minutes on my 2,300-word short story Ashes of Another Life, which has already benefitted from one round of peer review. The consensus comments and suggestions were, alone, worth the weekend’s modest registration fee.
  • Saturday was “writing day.” After our strict 7:30-to-9 a.m. breakfast window, we wrote until lunch. Then we ate lunch. Then we wrote until dinner. Then we ate dinner. Then we did critiques from 6 p.m. until almost midnight. Got some great feedback on a middle-of-the-book chapter from my almost-done novel Six Lost Souls. Of note: Vlad the Bat visited us. He flew into the room and terrified most folks, then he left and we couldn’t locate him. Three of us, I among them, elected to write after the critiques, not retiring until around 1 a.m.
  • Sunday after breakfast was free writing. Then lunch. Then critiques from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. I nominated my flash piece, Regret, which has already been workshopped four times. Nevertheless, I still got some valuable comments back from the group. When critiques were over, we disbanded — with a sense of sadness at how quickly the time had passed. Oh, and Vlad made an unexpected daytime cameo.

I must bestow mellifluous and multitudinous accolades upon the MiFiWriters editors — Sue Ann, Matt, Tim, Kirsten and Steve — for their excellent work. They were uniformly welcoming and helpful — no judgmentalism, no snark, just earnestly helpful support and obvious engagement with pieces presented for critique. I’ve worked with them before, for the Get Published! conferences they’ve hosted the last two years, and this retreat solidified just how decent these folks are as human beings, as well as how skilled they are as wordsmiths. Authors intimidated by peer review will find this group to be a gentle yet helpful introduction to how critiquing can be simultaneously in-depth and enjoyable.
Oh and it was great writing with Dani and re-acquainting myself with Kelli.
And — mirable dictu! — I managed to not only get my personal slush pile into order, but I also wrote a complete 8,000-word novelette. Stretching beyond my ordinary comfort zone, I completed the first draft of Conversion Therapy, a dark horror piece about a modern-day gay vampire whose world-domination plot takes a disastrous turn. The story exclusively follows the vampire’s point of view. ‘Twas a lot of fun. Wrapped it up about 20 minutes before lunch on Sunday.
Some take-aways from the weekend:

  • Taking time away to write, if you’re a writer, is essential to both productivity and good mental health.
  • I like the MiFiWriters approach to critiquing — which is to create a shared Google Drive folder and paste a story into a Google Doc. The author reads the entire piece aloud while everyone makes comments (in “suggestion” mode) as they follow along. No matter how long or short the story, the author reads it in its entirety. Then, there’s a round of open discussion about what did and didn’t work about the piece and, where helpful, suggestions about alternatives to improve the story. There’s no time limit; it goes until it’s done. One story had 20 minutes of post-read discussion; another had 90. Everything else fell in the middle. Per story, per day. Their critique approach differs from what we use at the Grand River Writing Tribe, which requires that the piece be submitted in advance and edits completed individually, either on paper or electronically. Then, we read a very short story or a passage from a longer piece before beginning a conversation informed by the notes we each developed in advance.
  • A deep engagement with the writing-in-progress of others is a deliciously intimate and eye-opening experience.
  • I get more done sans feline overlords.
  • The Transformations Spirituality Center offers a great location for retreats both secular and religious — not only was it an ideal location for the writers’ retreat, but I also got the chance to sit in the chapel a bit on Sunday morning. I even brought my breviary and on Friday night, prayed full Compline.
  • The most frequent lesson reinforced by the MiFi editors is that conflict matters. They emphasize a few things — early hooks, an avoidance of data dumps, logical consistency — but the most significant “craft of writing” lesson I learned is to establish the story’s core conflict early on and to allow the conflict to drive the plot instead of letting the plot hint at conflict. It’s a subtle but crucial distinction. I too often look at plot as a timeline of events rather than the scaffolding upon which the conflict’s long-run evolution unfolds.

This past weekend proved a salutary tonic to this bitter writer’s soul. 🙂 I look forward to the next opportunity.

Gone Writin’

Last weekend I enjoyed the sublime privilege of spending a few days with the editors of MiFiWriters at their inaugural open-to-the-public writers’ retreat. The event — held at the Transformations Spirituality Center at the campus of the former Nazareth College in Kalamazoo — began around 4 p.m. on Friday and continued until around 4 p.m. on Sunday. A total of eight people attended.

The MifiWriters produce the well-regarded Division By Zero annual anthology series — the oldest speculative-fiction anthology that emphasizes authors native to Michigan.

Activities:

  • I arrived on Friday in time to check into my room and enjoy dinner with the group in the presence of the retired nuns of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph. The facility, besides offering space for events and conferences, also serves as a retirement home for CSJ sisters. Who were, I must say, uniformly charming. We enjoyed an entire wing of the third floor to ourselves, as well as sole access to the beautiful Sun Room. After dinner, from roughly 6:30 until 11 p.m., we engaged in group critiques. Attendees spent more than 45 minutes on my 2,300-word short story Ashes of Another Life, which has already benefitted from one round of peer review. The consensus comments and suggestions were, alone, worth the weekend’s modest registration fee.
  • Saturday was “writing day.” After our strict 7:30-to-9 a.m. breakfast window, we wrote until lunch. Then we ate lunch. Then we wrote until dinner. Then we ate dinner. Then we did critiques from 6 p.m. until almost midnight. Got some great feedback on a middle-of-the-book chapter from my almost-done novel Six Lost Souls. Of note: Vlad the Bat visited us. He flew into the room and terrified most folks, then he left and we couldn’t locate him. Three of us, I among them, elected to write after the critiques, not retiring until around 1 a.m.
  • Sunday after breakfast was free writing. Then lunch. Then critiques from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. I nominated my flash piece, Regret, which has already been workshopped four times. Nevertheless, I still got some valuable comments back from the group. When critiques were over, we disbanded — with a sense of sadness at how quickly the time had passed. Oh, and Vlad made an unexpected daytime cameo.

I must bestow mellifluous and multitudinous accolades upon the MiFiWriters editors — Sue Ann, Matt, Tim, Kirsten and Steve — for their excellent work. They were uniformly welcoming and helpful — no judgmentalism, no snark, just earnestly helpful support and obvious engagement with pieces presented for critique. I’ve worked with them before, for the Get Published! conferences they’ve hosted the last two years, and this retreat solidified just how decent these folks are as human beings, as well as how skilled they are as wordsmiths. Authors intimidated by peer review will find this group to be a gentle yet helpful introduction to how critiquing can be simultaneously in-depth and enjoyable.

Oh and it was great writing with Dani and re-acquainting myself with Kelli.

And — mirable dictu! — I managed to not only get my personal slush pile into order, but I also wrote a complete 8,000-word novelette. Stretching beyond my ordinary comfort zone, I completed the first draft of Conversion Therapy, a dark horror piece about a modern-day gay vampire whose world-domination plot takes a disastrous turn. The story exclusively follows the vampire’s point of view. ‘Twas a lot of fun. Wrapped it up about 20 minutes before lunch on Sunday.

Some take-aways from the weekend:

  • Taking time away to write, if you’re a writer, is essential to both productivity and good mental health.
  • I like the MiFiWriters approach to critiquing — which is to create a shared Google Drive folder and paste a story into a Google Doc. The author reads the entire piece aloud while everyone makes comments (in “suggestion” mode) as they follow along. No matter how long or short the story, the author reads it in its entirety. Then, there’s a round of open discussion about what did and didn’t work about the piece and, where helpful, suggestions about alternatives to improve the story. There’s no time limit; it goes until it’s done. One story had 20 minutes of post-read discussion; another had 90. Everything else fell in the middle. Per story, per day. Their critique approach differs from what we use at the Grand River Writing Tribe, which requires that the piece be submitted in advance and edits completed individually, either on paper or electronically. Then, we read a very short story or a passage from a longer piece before beginning a conversation informed by the notes we each developed in advance.
  • A deep engagement with the writing-in-progress of others is a deliciously intimate and eye-opening experience.
  • I get more done sans feline overlords.
  • The Transformations Spirituality Center offers a great location for retreats both secular and religious — not only was it an ideal location for the writers’ retreat, but I also got the chance to sit in the chapel a bit on Sunday morning. I even brought my breviary and on Friday night, prayed full Compline.
  • The most frequent lesson reinforced by the MiFi editors is that conflict matters. They emphasize a few things — early hooks, an avoidance of data dumps, logical consistency — but the most significant “craft of writing” lesson I learned is to establish the story’s core conflict early on and to allow the conflict to drive the plot instead of letting the plot hint at conflict. It’s a subtle but crucial distinction. I too often look at plot as a timeline of events rather than the scaffolding upon which the conflict’s long-run evolution unfolds.

This past weekend proved a salutary tonic to this bitter writer’s soul. 🙂 I look forward to the next opportunity.

Regret (A Flash Story)

I often blog about writing, but I rarely share what I write. So I’ll break the trend by sharing a flash-fiction piece, Regret, that I crafted last summer. The story was substantially improved thanks to the good folks of Phillip Sterling’s flash-fiction roundtable at the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters. I continue to tweak it and to occasionally sent it to various flash contests. Because I want to retool this piece, I’m no longer going to send it elsewhere — so I’m happy to post it here, for your reading pleasure and your opinion.
One note: The constraint from Phillip’s roundtable is that the piece couldn’t exceed 800 words. This one doesn’t, barely.
Anyway — here you go.


Regret

“Kid, ain’t no one ever lay on his deathbed and regret that his credit score weren’t high enough.”
I smile at George—the last patient on my pastoral-care visit list–but mentally I cringe. He’s going to be a talker.
“So, then, what does someone on his deathbed regret?” I ask, without thinking. The question invites superfluous conversation. And, worse, George probably only had a few days left, so my query was insensitive.
He looks up at me, a spark struggling to ignite through the heavy-lidded wetness clouding his eyes. A cannula twists from his nostrils to the oxygen port. Various bits of technology blend into him—a port, IV lines, an oxygen sensor, a pressure cuff—as if he were some sort of elderly cyborg outfitted from parts salvaged from the discount bin at a medical-supply store.
“You have nothing to regret but regret itself!”
“Good point, Mr. Roosevelt,” I joke, positioning myself next to the head of his bed. I raise my pyx and prayerbook. “Would you like to receive Jesus now?”
George’s scowl softens. He chuckles, coughs, swallows, pauses, then mutters, “Look, kid. I know you’re busy. Do what you gotta do, okay?” He gazes toward the ceiling tiles.
I sit next to him, embarrassed that he saw through my impatience. So I say, “George, what do you mean about regretting regret?”
He faces me again, his earlier intensity slipping into a quiet weariness. “Well,” he says, after a moment’s pause, “think of it like this. We all live. Then we die. Along the way, shit happens. Thing is, when you get to the end of the road, and you look back, the more that you regret stuff, the more fuzzy your memories get, ‘til you don’t recognize them no more. It’s like the trip didn’t make no damn difference.”
“So what you’re saying,” I summarize with a nod, “is that people should make good life choices.”
George’s face flashes irritation. “Naw, naw,” he says. “More like, whatever you do, own it. Be okay with what happens, good or bad. Like that serenity prayer.”
“And don’t worry about your credit score?”
He manages a slight smile. “Look at me, kid. All I got with me now is what’s in my head. Not any of the clutter sitting in my house. It’s the life you’ve lived, not the stuff you’ve got, that matters. You know?”
“I get it.”
He raises an eyebrow. “No, you don’t. You’re what? Mid 20s? You don’t get it. Not really. But you will, at some point.”
“So what do you regret, then?”
“Did I say I regretted anything?”
“You’re harping on the subject.”
“Maybe I am.”
I let the silence linger for a moment. “No regrets? Really?”
George rolls his slender frame slightly toward me in a futile attempt to lean up on an elbow. He licks his chapped lips. “Well,” he says, “I ain’t been no angel. But no demon, neither. Been to war and back. Done drugs. Had a kid. All that shit. And none of it bothers me.” He pauses. “But you know what? I’m losing the fight with this damned blood cancer and I know I’m not gonna make it. And the only thing I regret right now is that I can’t say goodbye to Morris.”
“Your son?”
Another flash of irritation. “My cat.”
“So you don’t want to see your kid, but you do want to see your cat?”
“My daughter died in ’76. Idiot girl drove drunk into a tree. Last few years, though, Morris has been my friend. And I didn’t get to say goodbye before the ambulance carted me away. My neighbor will take good care of him when I’m gone. He’ll be okay. But still. It’s hard to focus on remembering the last 81 years while worrying—”
His voice breaks, but I understand. My sister euthanized my cat Pascal just a month before, for feline leukemia, but I was out of town when it happened. No closure. I still miss him, fiercely, and I miss having a feline friend around the house.
After a moment of silence, I begin: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We launch into the familiar litany of the Rite of Communion. I take my time.
When the service concludes, I leave George, who had already started drifting into sleep. I close the door then lean against the wall. I look at my patient list; I spot his address.
Now I know where to find the cat.
I’d regret missing this opportunity.

A Reflection on #NaNoWriMo

The end of the month draws nigh, with tens of thousands of scribblers furiously adding to their daily tallies in anticipation of validating their 50,000 words before 11:59 p.m. on Nov. 30.

This year marks my sixth consecutive foray into National Novel Writing Month. My first two attempts were not successful. My next three, were. This one won’t be. And let me tell you why, by means of a brief history lesson.

The Road So Far

Easy Way Out (2011; mystery; words = 7,725)

My first foray into November’s literary machinations, and my first real attempt at long-form fiction, started two days before the season commenced. As I recall, on Oct. 30, 2011, my friend Duane asked me if I had ever heard of NaNoWriMo. I said, “Na who?” — but he convinced me to sign up and to go with him to a write-in (a group of authors who write together and socialize and sometimes eat) at the food court at Woodland Mall. So I did. I discovered that pantsing (the act of sitting down and writing with no planning whatsoever) is not my cup of tea. I started writing a murder mystery before I even knew who the killer was or why the corpse met his demise. I had a rough idea that I’d try to play off some sort of theatrical assisted suicide motif into it, but … didn’t work out so well. Without a roadmap, all I could do was stare at a blank screen that I was sure was taunting me somehow. Very humbling experience. But, I did go to a lot of write-ins, and being social got me invited into a private writers’ group. That group became my tribe; I still write with, and because of, them.

Magellan Ascendant (2012; sci-fi; words = 14,504)

“Aha,” I thought, one October evening in 2012. “My problem last year was that I didn’t plan my novel!” So I planned Magellan in detail. In fact, it was developed as a trilogy. I still think the story has legs, although I can’t use much of anything that’s already been written. Two core learnings: First, that editing-as-you-go isn’t helpful (e.g., do not waste one full week working through the physics of interstellar travel just to feed a handful of lines of dialogue — although I can authoritatively tell you that you do not want to be hit by a single grain of sand traveling at 40 percent of the speed of light). And second, that a detailed plot really isn’t as helpful as it seems if your characters all act and speak as if they’re cardboard cutouts of the stereotypes they were modeled upon.

Sanctuary (2013; mystery; words = 50,736)

My first win. It’s not a bad story, I don’t think — a murder mystery set in Grand Rapids. I finally developed a cohesive planning approach for developing scene-by-scene synopses and plot/character goals. In this novel, I managed to work through a primary plot (the murder investigation) that included a few minor subplots revolving around interpersonal disputes for several character pairings. A few chapters introduced other point-of-view characters, but my POV strategy was more of an accident than anything. The novel clocked in complete at roughly 51k words. Too short. And the characters, although a bit more fleshed out, weren’t quite complete. Yet it’s done and self-contained. I suspect that if I ever had to go back and rewrite a story for publication, this is the manuscript I’d reach for first.

Aiden’s Wager (2014; literary; words = 52,098)

This is probably my best work, but it’s the last one I’d show to people, because there’s a section in the middle that derailed into torture porn. However, that challenge aside, the rest of the work retains a lot of promise. It’s basically the tale of an arrogant, rich young man who earns his comeuppance by his peer group, but has to claw his way out from a perfectly set trap through (in part) figuring out how he’s going to center his life. The novel was planned to be more didactic than it turned out to be — the “wager” in question is actually Pascal’s Wager, a theme that underlies many of the softer scenes within the plot arc. And, significantly, it’s not complete. It was targeted for 90k words. I know what the end looks like, but I’m not there yet.

Six Lost Souls (2015; literary; words = 50,049)

I crossed the “win” mark, although the work wasn’t complete. Still had probably another 40k to go, to pull it off as planned. The story is an improvement, technique-wise, relative to its predecessors: I deployed several POV characters, more internal dialogue, some extended action scenes (much of my writing is basically people going somewhere to talk), additional conflicts, more fully rounded characters. That said, I was overly ambitious with this effort and I think, ultimately, a few of my characters just weren’t plausible. The overarching theme of family transcending blood and time was dashed on the fact that I made the characters dissimilar enough that the intended third act just didn’t firm up appropriately.

The Catfish in the Shallows (2016; literary; words = 32,517)

So. We arrive at my current work effort. I knew going into Halloween that this one wasn’t really a novel, per se, as much as it was an experiment in designing literary fiction in a less tidy way. My previous novels basically had One Main Plot and One Main Character who advanced linearly through time, without flashbacks or foreshadowing or substantial internal dialogue. Although I introduced a few subplots and even allowed for other POV characters, my prior works were, overwhelmingly, first-person stories told through the artifice of Third Person Limited that shared one big idea from the perspective of one good-but-flawed hero.

With Catfish, however, my goal was to divide POV relatively equally among four main characters, each of whom had imperfect knowledge of the opening scene’s murder, but each of whom has his-or-her own motives and observations about the universe they inhabit and the dramas in their lives unrelated to the murder. None of the characters would re-tell the same scene, but several MCs were in the same scene together at various times, with differing opinions of that scene that the reader experienced as POV shifted.

The goal, then, was to advance a series of intertwined shorter stories, culminating at the end of the third act with the reader — but not necessarily all the characters — understanding the “who and why” of the murder. The problem? I didn’t plot it well enough to tie this together with any hope of success. I’m at 30k words and I realize that I don’t have a plausible go-forward plan; my only real pathway to conclusion requires much of the opening to be completely rewritten. So instead of trying to hit 50k just for the sake of it, I’m acknowledging that I have learned a lot from this experiment but that there’s no intrinsic value in keeping it alive just for the “win.” I’ve already won, in the only sense that matters.

Some Writing Thoughts

The real benefit of National Novel Writing Month, for me, isn’t so much the “win” but rather the chance to hone my long-form writing craft in the social context of friends who are also hell-bent on putting their story to paper.

Writing isn’t easy. Lots of folks — I see them all the time through the Caffeinated Press query system — seem to think that anyone can generate a novel on the first go-around that’s ready for the open market. These one-hit wonders might generate a corpus of words, but such early-career authors are unlikely to find commercial success until they’ve stumbled through a half-dozen or so failed “training” manuscripts. Just like trying to advance from a Fisher-Price trike to a lean Ducati motorcycle in one day is a recipe for disaster, so also is trying to move from your first 50k-word manuscript into a contract with the Big Five.

People approach NaNoWriMo with several different goals. For some, it’s fun — a chance to hang out with fellow writing nerds. For others, it’s an accountability tool. For a few, it’s an opportunity to explore new techniques in a safe way.

As I look back on my earlier works, I can see the evolution. The growth. The challenge of NaNoWriMo, though, is to keep growing in months other than November.

Good luck.

Typing Your Way to Creativity

A few weeks ago I acquired, courtesy of some lovely eBay seller, a vintage 1960s Royal Safari manual typewriter. The original reddish color has faded to an almost spot-on Caffeinated Press orange. Apart from one scrape along the top, the typewriter and its original hard-sized carrying case are in mint condition. Just to be safe, I also grabbed a few replacement ribbons through Amazon. The Safari joins my Royal KMM (a 1940s-era behemoth) as my manual typewriters of choice, although I also have a fairly basic Brother GX-6750 electric typewriter in the office, too.

But here’s the thing.

Once upon a time, authors typed their manuscripts. They may have planned their stuff in sundry notebooks, or wrote longhand and transcribed later, but the final product consisted of one sheet of paper being fed into one iron-and-ribbon device at a time. If you wanted multiple copies, you could always use carbon paper — or hire a professional typist to churn out more.

Despite having been born in the Ford Administration and growing up with computers (I was programming in PET Basic on my Commodore 64C as a middle-schooler in the ’80s), my high-school teachers taught us how to develop term papers using typewriters. As in: Use notecards, outline first, then type the paper. And if you need to revise, grab your scissors to cut out paragraphs and staple them in order. When you’re done, retype the final product.

Nowadays, writers have recourse to word processors and laser printers. Many rounds of revisions may be safely conducted through electronic bits and bytes stored on local drives and The Cloud. Writing is easier. And writers are more prolific. And being prolific doesn’t necessarily translate to being better. It just means there’s more of it swirling around.

As a creative-writing exercise, I recently wrote a flash story the old-fashioned way. I fetched an old Moleskine notebook, planned out the story paragraph-by-paragraph, then fed paper into the KMM and let-r-rip.

Funny thing: Not having an effective backspace or CTRL+A/DELETE capability means you really, really, really need to think about what you’re writing. There’s no word-processor screen to serve as a whiteboard. You must type — efficiently, accurately. And get it right in one pass, or maybe two. Not 27.

I recommend that all writers try the typewriter method at least once in their careers. These devices are fairly cheap on eBay or Amazon. And for the Millennials out there, writing on something that’s not a smartphone soft keyboard might prove to be a good range-of-motion activity for your fingers.

Most importantly, the typewriter method makes you think. It makes you plan. It makes you realize that writing only sometimes features rapid-fire composing then revising, but it always requires getting the story right in your heart so that it fills your head and then flows from your fingers toward the paper — even if it’s through one type hammer at a time.

[Cross-posted to Caffeinated Press.]