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Thursday
Sep052013

A tool for writing: Scapple

I write this blog post based on exactly one day of using Scapple. But I'm already convinced it's a fantastic tool. To explain why, let me first describe the tools I've used heretofore. I currently (and probably forevermore) use a Mac, but I've tried to note Windows equivalents where I have personal experience with a good one. 

Treed! for iPad: This is an excellent program for project planning, i.e., goal-oriented planning. Its premise is that you have a final goal, and you add in all the points that lead up to it. Some of them are what we in the business world (well, formerly in the business world) call "dependencies." E.g., you can't put the cake into the oven until you first mix the batter, and you also have to preheat the oven. These are two separate tasks that have to be completed before putting the cake in the oven, but neither one of them has to be done before the other, and each of these in turn may depend on further tasks, like walking to the oven before setting the oven temperature (if you really want to get that detailed). With a little thought, you can see how this method could be transferred to writing a book: John Doe has to die before Bob shows up to investigate the crime scene, but Bob doesn't necessarily have to kiss Alice before Alice buys a cruller, and so forth. Treed! makes building the tree easy, and makes alterations to the tree (which you will inevitably need to do) equally easy.

 

Tree (not to be confused with Treed!) for Mac: Lets you organize text, whether phrases or paragraphs or chapters, into a collapsible tree (the way Windows Explorer lets you view folders with the little plus/minus signs). Great for outlining and all sorts of other note-taking. For Windows, there's a similar program called Treepad I used extensively before switching to Mac.

 

MindNode for Mac: A "mind-mapping" program. Like Treed!, everything ends up pointing toward a single root node. Come to think of it, topologically the two programs are the same, though for a goal-oriented project the more linear Treed! layout is more intuitive (but requires more scrolling). MindNode is an easy-to-use and visually appealing program, but for brainstorming, I need something that imposes less structure, while still permitting me to create structure when appropriate.

 

Index Cards for iPad: An app that lets you create a grid of index cards, rearrange them, and form stacks of cards as needed. Aside from Scapple's ability to draw links and arrows between notes, this is probably the closest thing to Scapple on the list. Unless speed isn't a factor, in which case the closest is...

 

TouchDraw for Mac: A diagramming program. Easy to use, but doesn't support the same level of sheer idiot speed as Scapple does. The trade-off is speed of use versus speed of making things look professional. If you need to show your work to your boss, use TouchDraw (or spend some extra time in Scapple making it look fancy). Similarly worthy programs for other platforms include Grafio for iPad, and SmartDraw for Windows.

 

So, what you get with Scapple is a perfect (or darn near perfect) balance of speed and versatility. At present it's only $15 on the Mac App Store. And there's a ton of reviews out there on the Interwebs, so if you think it could be at all useful to you, check it out.

 

 

Wednesday
Aug282013

The Smelly Planet: That Darn Sociopath

(Minor spoilers may lie ahead. I'll try not to give away too many details.)

 

Chuck Strickland, the narrator of The Smelly Planet, is a sociopath. At least I intended him to be one. But, since I'm not a sociopath (as far as you know), getting it right is tricky.

 

Why did I want him to be a sociopath? Well, they're interesting people. Not good people, but interesting ones. One of my favorite book series, the Flashman Papers by George MacDonald Fraser, has a sociopathic narrator who's hard not to like in spite of his numerous failings. (As Blues Traveler put it, with unearthly catchiness: "There is something amiss; I am being insincere. In fact I don't mean any of this—still my confession draws you near.") And many good people are sucked into sociopaths' spheres of influence without ever realizing what they're up against.

 

In simplest terms, a sociopath is a person without a conscience. On the website "The Sociopathic Style," there's a page detailing the "Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised" (http://www.sociopathicstyle.com/psychopathic-traits/). I was planning to go down the list and discuss each item, but there's no point in rehashing the ones that are obvious good matches. So let's stick to the places where Chuck deviates from the template of a deviant.

 

"Parasitic lifestyle"/"Irresponsibility": As the Captain notes, Chuck has a strong work ethic. But is this because, since Chuck looks down on people who don't have a strong work ethic, he consequently holds himself to a higher standard? No, more likely it's a simple defense mechanism. He's smart enough to know when he's got a good situation, whether he's working for Stancohl Oil or Leisure Strategists LLC.

 

"Shallow affect": Chuck doesn't display "interpersonal coldness in spite of signs of open gregariousness." As Jack notes, everyone loves Chuck. But all this means is Chuck is unusually slick. He does get warm fuzzies from being around other people—because he's putting one over on them.

 

"Promiscuous sexual behavior": As Chuck himself notes, his apparent loyalty to Seren isn't a moral obligation to him. He's just too comfortable to rock the boat. He gets his kicks above the waistline, sunshine.

 

"Early behavior problems"/"Juvenile delinquency": Not discussed in the book, aside from a hint that he has a thing against his mother. Fodder for a sequel!

 

All in all, I'm satisfied with my attempt at creating a sociopath. I think it works. If all goes well, there will be a sequel or two, and Chuckland will get worse and worse. And perhaps—perhaps—he'll eventually get his comeuppance.


Tuesday
Aug062013

The Smelly Planet: Inhuman Wave

I like the idea of "Human Wave" science fiction. A lot. It was introduced by Sarah Hoyt in this blog post: http://accordingtohoyt.com/2012/03/21/what-is-human-wave-science-fiction-3/

 

The Human Wave idea is related to the idea of Punk Writing, presented in the Punk Testament of The Boomer Bible, the book Seren was reading toward the end of TSP. (There's a free online version at http://theboomerbible.com.) They may not be exactly the same idea, but both share the fundamental premise that literature doesn't have to (and generally shouldn't) fit the mold of the type of 20th/21st-century literature that all the toniest critics prefer. Which is to say, Human Wave and Punk Writing can both feature stuff like plot... action... good guys and bad guys.

 

Without revealing too many spoilers, The Smelly Planet probably doesn't qualify as either Human Wave or Punk Writing. Both movements allow for books to be satirical, but I suspect TSP is too cynical to qualify for either. The next book I have in mind (not a TSP sequel) should be a better fit.

 

I thought I'd have more to say on the subject, but I guess I don't. I expect to touch on some related subjects here in days to come, though, so check back later!


Thursday
Jul252013

The Smelly Planet: Origins

Howdy! I thought I might post a few notes about a version of The Smelly Planet you never got to see. I've tried to avoid any substantial spoilers, for the benefit of prospective tourists.

The Smelly Planet was inspired by a dream. I won't bother you with the details, which I don't remember anyway. The bottom line was, there was this planet where all the life turned awful when it got dark. Flowers began to stink, timid cute bunnies became vicious ugly bunnies, and so on. I thought it could make for a neat story so I made a note about it, enough to remember the broadest strokes. The biology of Carter ended up working a little differently, but then, just about everything in TSP turned out differently from what I'd expected.

The dream also featured a pest-repellent device that had the effect of a citronella candle or a bee smoker, but in mechanical details worked more like a "Smoking Monkey" toy. I think the colonists actually referred to it as a "Bredesen smoker" in the dream. Dr. Bredesen himself didn't take shape until much later.

The next piece fell into place when I re-watched House of Cards for the third or fourth time and it occurred to me that that the world needed more stories about Francis Urquhart—even if I had to change the name to respect copyright. That was the original idea for Captain Lionel Vanarsdale; but while he kept the melodious Received Pronunciation accent, the Captain turned out to be a more consistently genial man. From the outset Vanarsdale was going to let a laid-back sociopathic henchman do most of the dirty work, and that much stayed in.

Originally, though, the main dirty work was undermining Governor Snitzky—who'd be Vanarsdale's nemesis, similar in ideology to Archbishop Loveland. The Snitz, in turn, would labor to undermine the goals of the then-unnamed colony. 

I first conceived the colony as a redoubt of sexual conservatism, with separate boroughs for various religions who shared the common goal of not showing too much skin. Parwani was going to be an undercover cop who'd had to get a vigorous male member tattooed on his upper arm, so he could sting Lonan for selling obscene tattoos. If I write a sequel, I might still try to find a reason to give Parwani that tattoo.

The spiders originally interfered with the colony by sneaking in through sewer tunnels and popping up through a manhole in the West Mall. Trying to figure out why they'd do that led me to the idea of some do-gooder meddler from Earth who had a secret and not entirely accurate back channel of communication with them: the origin of the Archbishop. The spiders were even more spidery then, but that body type wouldn't work as well in that early scene outside the West Airlock. 

That's all that comes to mind for now! Hope you enjoyed/will enjoy The Smelly Planet.

Monday
Jul222013

The Smelly Planet; also, formatting Pages documents for KDP

I'm a bit overdue to mention this (or to post here at all, actually), but my first self-published novel, The Smelly Planet, is available as an e-book on Amazon, for any device that supports the Kindle app (like a PC, Mac, iPhone, iPod, iPad), or heck, even a Kindle itself.

The Smelly Planet is a story of smart but somewhat dysfunctional people building a new colony on a smelly planet. It's only $2.99. I originally considered it making $.99, then $1.99, but it turns out that for full-length books, $2.99 is the minimum Amazon lets authors charge. Unless the author makes the book free, which he can do for any five days out of a 90-day period, provided the book is entered into the Kindle Select program... it's a little convoluted.

But not nearly as convoluted as making a book written in Pages (a Mac word processor) look good on the Kindle! Let me tell you the process I finally settled on—this is for my own benefit if nothing else, just in case I lose the index card with all the notes.

1) Change all page breaks to section breaks. Reason: page breaks from Pages don't show up on Kindle.

2) Remove all tabs and use paragraph indent styles instead. Reason: tabs don't show up on Kindle.

3) Add a carriage return after the last paragraph of every chapter. (Which is ironic, because weeks before, I'd gone through the book carefully removing them.) Reason: I don't remember, but something screws up without them. Probably the section breaks.

4) Change all paragraph spacing to 1. Reason: otherwise the Kindle book will be too widely-spaced.

5) Export from Pages to .doc, then import that file into Write 2, then save to .doc again. Yep, Write 2 is a separate product, but very affordable. Maybe I should have written the whole book in Write 2, but at the time I started the book I was dead set on using a light blue background with purple text, and Pages had better support for that. Reason: this step is important because it removes the color formatting embedded in Pages' .doc export (even if you're just using plain black-and white). The thing is, if you don't get rid of that formatting, Kindle's sepia-tone and black-background settings won't work, and Amazon could reject the book until you correct it.

6) Reread the book and verify that every paragraph that contains any kind of italics is still properly formatted. Reason: apparently, if a paragraph contains all italic text and no normal text, some step in the process (I think it was replacing tabs with paragraph styles) will strip the italics right out.

Hope that helps!