29 Jun

How to collaborate on fiction in 2016 using pair programming, Skype, and Google Docs

I just finished a new collaboration. It’s a short story of nearly 10,000 words that will be in Bridging Infinity (you can pre-order here), edited by Johnathan Strahan “The latest volume in the Hugo award-winning Infinity Project series, showcasing all-original hard science fiction stories from the leading voices in genre fiction.”

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The writer I collaborated with was Karen Lord, who currently lives in Barbados (author of Galaxy Games, Redemption in Indigo, you’re reading her, right?).

There are a lot of different ways to collaborate. I’ve done many of them. But for seamless and rapid writing, one method stands out to me that was first introduced to me by Karl Schroeder.

In 2007 Karl and I spent a weekend in Toronto writing a short story called ‘Mitigation.’ The story would eventually spark my time spent on the novel Arctic Rising a couple years later. To write this story, Karl invited me to spend a three day weekend at his home while we worked on the story (also a 10,000 word story).

We spent the first night there drinking scotch and spitballing ideas, and the next morning in a diner scribbling ideas on the backs of paper mats. The fun, world building stuff that could go on and on.

But back at Karl’s office the work started. Karl had a plan, one he said he’d done with another writer before, where we would share the keyboard. One of us would write a single sentence. Then the other would revise that sentence, then write a next one. Other writer would revise that sentence, then write another.

Starting can be the hardest, but with one line at a time, swapping in and out of the chair, we soon had a few paragraphs. In fact, it was starting to get hard to stick to just a single line. Karl commented that once we started being unable to stick to a line, we’d switch to paragraphs.

This had the effect of blending our styles. It also forced us each to check in with each other, live, line by line, on what we thinking and trying to do. Get stuck? Jump out of the chair and usually the other writer could jump in.

We did this until we had 2-3 pages in short order. We broke for lunch and spitballed some outline ideas, coming up with upcoming scenes.

At that point, we then each took alternate scenes, not paragraphs, concurrently. I’d work on my laptop, Karl on his desktop, and email the scenes into a final document and edit them. In three days we had a clean, tight, 10,000 word short story that ended up being in a Year’s Best anthology.

I’ve done many other forms of collaboration. Handing the document back and forth, outlining for others to write, muddling through it on an ad-hoc basis. But Karl’s method really jumped out at me and I proposed trying to use it despite the fact that Karen and I are thousands of miles apart.

The methodology we used is something programming friends of mine indicated were similar to the idea of ‘pair programming.’ According to Wikipedia:

Pair programming is an agile software development technique in which two programmers work together at one workstation. One, the driver, writes code while the other, the observer or navigator,[1] reviews each line of code as it is typed in. The two programmers switch roles frequently.

While reviewing, the observer also considers the “strategic” direction of the work, coming up with ideas for improvements and likely future problems to address. This frees the driver to focus all of his or her attention on the “tactical” aspects of completing the current task, using the observer as a safety net and guide.

Karen was willing to try it. To write the document we used Google Docs as we could both use it at the exact same time, creating that concurrent use atmosphere and live ability I found so fascinating when I worked with Karl.

To get the live Pair Programming aspect, we used Skype. To write like this, I really found the live ability to talk to a partner to be killer. The reason is this, in past collaborations, I’ve found a lot of communication can be lost in text, emails back and forth, and people going around in circles without realizing it.

I found that just talking live to the person, I can see their face the moment I suggest an idea and more accurately assess whether we both truly love it, or whether they really love it and I don’t, or whether it’s something we’re both ‘meh’ on and should keep talking about. There is so much more you can figure out, and faster. You can tell when someone is just spitballing, as opposed to really hung onto something.

Karen and I spent a two hour Skype spitballing ideas on the first day, from which we came up with a skeletal idea for plot, some world building, and what we wanted to accomplish from the story.

The second Skype session was a half day of using the same method I described Karl and I did, but with Karen and I meeting over Skype and using Google Docs. One of us wrote a line, the other edited it and wrote the next. Then the other would come on and edit that then write the next. Soon we were doing paragraphs. Then sections.

The next two days we traded off sections, and then we did a series of revision passes that were not done live on video.

It took about four or five days to create a 10,000 word story called The Mighty Slinger for Bridging Infinity. Calypso singers, hard SF megastructures, idea SF. It was a hell of a lot of fun to write and I’m pleased to see that for a second time this process of ‘pair writing’ in a near-live situation works well, and that fact that it can work over great distances was a pretty amazing experiment, I felt.

Writing can often feel isolating. Being able to spit ball ideas and gain energy from another writer’s enthusiasm over the project made this a great experience.

06 Dec

How do I find focus when writing my novel or story?

Katherine asks me to write about finding focus.

I fear that my answer will be even more subjective than normal. Straight up, my neurochemistry seems slightly different. I’m ADHD. So things I say about focus aren’t necessarily going to be universally adaptable.

Then again, who better that someone who struggles with attention to talk about focusing attention? So let’s see how this goes.

There are two places to lose focus. One: yourself sitting down to do the work. Two: inside the work as the work itself loses focus. I’ll tackle number one, as I think that was what was being asked.

Caveat: I believe most writing advice is only as valuable to someone as it works. In other words, I believe all writing advice is a hack to get you to a finished draft and help you find tricks to get there. You try something. If it works, it goes in your toolbox. If it doesn’t, you mark it as not currently effective and move on.

Some ways to find more focus while in the act of actual writing:

1) Create a structured time that you always write in. We are creatures of habit. Repeat the same time and see what happens.

2) Write when you feel like it and are not pressuring yourself to come up with something.

3) Build a space that is dedicated to writing and where you only write.

4) Go write somewhere new and see if the old space you were writing in has become stale and is becoming associated with negative results. Like a coffeeshop!

5) Write in a new media (switch to paper, use a notebook, get a different laptop just for writing, use a new pen, try narrating)

6) Write in a new style (only write dialogue, skip dialogue and write action, only write narrative exposition)

7) Switch your POV to make it more exciting (you can change it back when revising)

8) Set word count goals that break the project down into smaller chunks to make it seem more manageable, focus only on hitting those

9) Don’t set word count goals, just write whatever you can write on the project

10) Set purposefully small word count goals that are easy for you to hit so that you feel accomplished and keep on writing past them

11) Don’t tell anyone about what you’re writing about before sitting down to do it

12) Tell someone how cool what you’re writing about is right before sitting down to do it

13) Change the tense of your verbs to make it seem more exciting (you can change it later in revision)

14) Write only the bits that seem cool and fun

15) Force yourself to write everything in order, give yourself permission to write crap. Revision can fix it!

16) Listen to music!

17) Sit in dead silence!

18) Make your font larger, it seems like you’re writing faster or change the font

19) Format the manuscript so it looks exactly like a book

20) Light a candle every time before you start writing to create a prewriting ritual

21) Don’t do that ritual crap, just start

22) Go for a run or walk

23) Write with a friend writing nearby

24) Write alone

25) Write really late at night so no one bothers you

26) Write really early so no one bothers you

27) Have a detailed outline for what I’m going to write and accomplish that day

28) Jump in and discover what I’m going to write as I do it

I have used well over half of all these at any given time to help myself, at times using different strategies on different projects back to back.

In general, I find that focus for me comes from having a detailed plan of action, a repeatable time of day, and a small ritual (usually music and noise-canceling headphones) before beginning with realistically achievable daily goals broken out of a rational break down of the larger project into easily achievable small bite sized lumps that I can tackle. For example, one page in the morning of a novel and one page in the evening being drafted.

And yet, I’ve found immensely productive writing sessions coming out of a noisy passenger seat of a car with the family on the way to an event while I was under a tight deadline and convinced I was writing the worst but was just pushing on.

Creativity is messy stuff. I’ve read some very good books about the nature of work as it pertains to creativity. There are certainly strong signs in research that over-expectations and too much time can hurt the quality of a project and that a sense of play and discovery is important. It turns out exercise (like daily walks) before creative work have a big boost. There needs to be a careful balance between trying to tackle too much and flaming out. However I tend to believe the best way to discover yourself is to try different things and log the results and see what happens.

As a result of over 10 years of logging my daily word counts and examining how I work best (clear schedule, clearly defined goals, walks for exercise, writing first before all other items of the day) I’ve figured out my best practices. I don’t always follow them, but I know what has to be done when push comes to shove to nail that certain deadline…

18 Mar

I’m honored to announce I’ll be in Trinidad to be a part of the Bocas Lit Fest

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For a long time I’ve been aware of the amazing Bocas Lit Fest, a gathering of amazing authors and speakers that celebrate books, writers and writing from the Caribbean.

This year I’ve been invited to be one of them.

I’ll be in the company of amazing people. You can see them all here.

Nalo Hopkinson, Karen Lord, and Rhonda S. Garcia will all be attending for a special focus on speculative fiction at Bocas Lit Fest.

There’s a speculative fiction masterclass that we will be hosting (with a meet the authors session), a panel hosted by the four of us, and readings.

I’m looking forward to coming home with many new books and setting foot on Trinidad for the first time. I grew up in Grenada, so there’s a strong triangle of media and people who were Trini, or Bajan. We couldn’t afford to get to Trinidad when I was younger, so now I get a chance to go there.

I’m very lucky.

09 Feb

Chocolate and Vodka talks about Dunning-Kruger effect and publishing

There is so much wisdom at Chocolate and Vodka (both in pro-self publishing and in surveying why the quality of self publishing will always suffer due to the Dunning-Kruger effect) that I just want you to rush over and read, and then read all the other posts around there. I spent an hour poking around and then followed the author on twitter because I want to subscribe to the newsletter!

“So, according to Dunning and Kruger, in order to combat the massive shit volcano, we would need to train every self-publisher who produces shit, and hope that they realise that they aren’t as good as they think they are and need to try a bit harder. Well, good luck with that one.

Now, it’s true that not every self-published author is on the wrong side of Dunning-Kruger. Some are on the only slightly less wrong side: Good writers whose confidence is shot because they understand that they could be better, and are over-sensitive to the gap between the quality of the work they do produce and the quality they want to achieve. Those people are better than they think they are and will publish less than they should.”

(Via Why the self-publishing shit volcano isn’t going to stop erupting any time soon | Chocolate and Vodka.)

01 Feb

Dumas: no, he wasn’t white

Now that the BBC has put a black musketeer in a recent series, a whole lot of people are shown as being utterly unaware that Dumas was not white:

“We like to imagine that in the past (in general, a blanket past) in any region of the world where there was a big white population (Canada, the US, England) there couldn’t possibly have been POCs. If they were, they wouldn’t have been ‘cool’ ones, anyway. They’d amount to servants, the kind of people we don’t want to know about because it’s BORING.”

(Via Black Like Me.)

The book, The Black Count, by the way, is a must read. I’ve been studying up on Dumas for a long while. I’m thrilled to see him getting talked about. Dumas’s father was, in some ways, the inspiration for the Count of Monte Cristo. And his life story is amazing.

03 Jan

Famous Writers’ Sleep Habits vs. Literary Productivity, Visualized at Brain Pickings

Interesting! I tend to be up around 10:30am, so between James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald…

“I reached out to Wendy MacNaughton — illustrator extraordinaire and very frequent collaborator — and asked her to contribute an illustrated portrait for each of the authors.

The end result — a labor of love months in the making — is this magnificent visualization of the correlation between writers’ wake-up times, displayed in clock-like fashion around each portrait, and their literary productivity, depicted as different-colored ‘auras’ for each of the major awards and stack-bars for number of works published, color-coded for genre. The writers are ordered according to a ‘timeline’ of earliest to latest wake-up times, beginning with Balzac’s insomniac 1 A.M. and ending with Bukowski’s bohemian noon.”

(Via Famous Writers’ Sleep Habits vs. Literary Productivity, Visualized | Brain Pickings.)