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.”


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…

01 Dec

How do I know when to trunk my story or novel?

Today, while waiting for my new office chair to be delivered I asked twitter to send me some questions. Mike Douton on twitter asked:

This is a tricky one to answer. The thing is writers have a variety of approaches and the trick to knowing this is to actually figure out how you work best. I have a pseudo-framework for thinking about this:

I have several writer friends who are what I would call Tinkerers. They write via a method of creating something, then they continue to tinker it into perfection. It’s amazing to watch, and as a result they often have skills for rewriting that are hard to match.

Some, like me, are more Serial Iterators. They do better writing something new, incorporating the lessons of a previous work. They depend on a lifetime of practice and learning. They lean more toward abandoning a project that hasn’t worked to move on.

So to know whether you’re going to abandon a draft, you’ll need to Know Thyself, Writer!

If you’re going to be a Tinkerer, it’s useful to know that about yourself. That means you shouldn’t be frustrated if you sit on manuscripts and keep tinkering. I’d recommend Tinkerers not send stuff in over early until they feel very good about what they have in hand. That’s subjective, but part of an Tinkerer’s genius is that knowing something isn’t working is a huge part of their process. The decision to trunk something isn’t actually something an Tinkerer does, they just park things for different lengths of times.

Serial Iterators are more likely to use the market, or reader feedback, to make this call. They might have a sense something is not quite right, but if they can’t identify it quickly for a fix, will send it out to see if they are possibly wrong or to have something or some one external explain the issue. Serial Iterators will use a workshop (so do Tinkerers) or beta readers or a trusted reader to check their instinct. If that filter deems the story bad, the Serial Iterator will trunk it and move on from the project forever, investing time and effort into something new. If the Serial Iterator thinks the project is not obviously trunk-worthy, they’ll send it in.

Which way is right? I don’t know. There are pros and cons to each.

Let’s say this. Tinkerers will often write a story, tinker until it is amazing, and send it out. A Serial Iterator will write ten stories and the ninth or tenth one might be amazing. Each will sell that amazing story. Who did it right? I couldn’t say.

Cons? Tinkerers can get caught up in Zeno’s Paradox, each draft moving the story 50% closer to perfection like a turtle trying to reach the other side. Serial Iterators can skimp on quality and not learn because they’re iterating too shallowly. I’ve met Tinkerers who stop sending stuff out because they become too critical or obsessed with the perfection of that One Project. I’ve met Serial Iterators who are writing the same basic shit they wrote 10 years ago with just a few tweaks. For iteration to be successful, you do have to learn something each time.

Smart writers of either side steal from the other. I have learned a lot from Tinkerers. But because I really try to not get lose in rewrite hell, I hope I’ve been able to pass on a few tricks about preparation, structure, and swerving flaws into cool things as you go.

When I wrote 150 short stories at the start of my career, I abandoned over 100 of them to the trunk. I did this by knowing I was interested in iteration and not interested in trying to rescue them. I had an intuitive sense of how long it would take for me in hours, manpower, to try and rescue a story, versus how many it would take to make a new one. That came with practice, trusted readers opinions being compared to my own impressions of the writing, and editorial feedback. But I am very aware of the fact that I’m not a Tinkerer.

There are a lot of myths about how to Be a Writer. Sometimes we internalize things. For a long time I hated my approach. I thought I was a shitty writer because I preferred to nail a draft, or hit a story on landing (or within a few drafts thereof, I’m not in any way advocating not rewriting or making drafts better, mind you), rather than go back in and sweat over 7 or more drafts until PERFECTION as I was sort of taught by various lovers of literature in my schooling days.

Once I understood my process, I started becoming a lot more honest. I focused harder on iterating, but while also making sure I learned something so that I didn’t iterate shallowly. I abandoned things rapidly that didn’t work as they gave me no joy. I sent things out as quickly as I could to get feedback and I welcomed rejection as part of the process of iteration (telling me whether I’d done well or not).

It’s harder with novels, the feedback cycle is vastly slower and I’ve had to fold in some Tinkerer practices (can’t toss out a whole novel that doesn’t work), but I’ve learned to iterate chapters and scenes and I’ve learned how I work.

So figuring out when to trunk something is intensely personal, and it depends on your approach and style. Figure out your goals, your working system first, then you can create your own rubric for ‘should I submit this just yet or work on it some more.’

I hope that helps…

03 Jan

Jamie Todd Rubin on 7 Lessons Learned from 300 Days of Writing |

Jamie Rubin has things he learned from 300 days of writing. The most I chained together was last year’s 150, so I’m hoping to be able to get where he was:

“A few days ago, I passed another writing milestone for 2013. I’d written 300 out of the last 302 days. As of this morning, I’ve written 303 out of the last 305 days, and 160 consecutive days. Writing those first 5 or 10 days feels good. When I passed 50 days, I was sort of surprised. At 100 days, I felt like I’d run a marathon. At 200 days, I felt surprisingly calm. When I passed 300 days I had a strange mixture of emotions: incredulity at the notion that I’d written almost every day of the year. (I didn’t start until late February so the first two months were a wash); but also, a surprising sense of confidence. I’ve thought about this over the last few days and have put together a list of lessons I’ve learned over the last 300 days of writing every day.”

(Via 7 Lessons Learned from 300 Days of Writing | Jamie Todd Rubin.)

The last lesson, that small, steady habits of writing build up to large results over time, I’ve internalized for a long time, which is why I track my writing in a spreadsheet very closely. It helps keep the writing habit going.

14 Oct

Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer is just amazing (and not just because I’m quoted in it)

A while back, Jeff Vandermeer wrote Booklife, a book about writing that I recommend to a lot of people. Not too long ago while I was speaking about conflict and characters to students at the Shared Worlds writing camp Jeff helped found, he pulled me aside and asked me if he could quote my words about conflict in a book about writing and creativity he was working on. I said sure.

Jeff also asked if I could talk about revisions via email, so I talked a bit about the work I did on my second novel Ragamuffin.

Since then, I’ve been hearing updates from Jeff and Ann about the project. The amazing illustrations he was having done to illustrate theories about creating books, and it has sounded amazing. Last week I got a copy of the book, a thanks for my having contributed.

And let me say, it’s an amazing book. I’ve barely had any time to read it, but this is going up there with a handful of books I find really illuminating about the creative process. I’m really psyched that Jeff quoted me in this project.

For the curious, here are my words about revising Ragamuffin, illustrated by Jeremy Zerfoss:

05 Buckell 01

Wonderbook goes on sale tomorrow:


I’m a very visual person. I would have loved to have had this when I was starting out. I love having it around right now, and I’m betting I will pick up a number of new techniques and thoughts. Because there’s always so much more we can learn.

20 Sep

Any man who keeps working is not a failure – Ray Bradbury

Snagged via Cory Doctorow’s tumblr:

“‘If you write a hundred short stories and they’re all bad, that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You fail only if you stop writing. I’ve written about 2,000 short stories; I’ve only published about 300 and I feel I’m still learning. Any man who keeps working is not a failure. He may not be a great writer, but if he applies the old-fashioned virtues of hard, constant labor, he’ll eventually make some kind of career for himself as a writer.’


(Via Cory Doctorow: If you write a hundred short stories and they’re….)

08 Aug

This sentence has five words. Here are five more…

via Heather Shaw and Juliet Ulman, a fantastic micro lesson on sentence/paragraph structure:

“‘This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.’”

(Via Quote by Gary Provost: This sentence has five words. Here are five mor….)

05 Jun

Kameron Hurley talks about talent and hard work

Interesting blog post by Kameron (who is on fire when it comes to long form blog content that’s thinky):

“We’ve all met those folks who just breezed through math class like it was breathing, or sat at a piano and figured it out easily and could play in a few weeks what took somebody else a few years. But looking at the bestseller lists in this business, and my peers and colleagues, what I actually see is a lot of hard work. Millions upon millions of words of hard work and discipline. Is it easier for some writers to write amazing stuff or complete a book than it is for me? Absolutely. But you know what that means? It means I just have to work harder to be as good, or as fast, or put together a better sentence. And instead of seeing that as a roadblock or some discouraging shit, I see it as a huge challenge.”

(Via Unpacking the “Real Writers Have Talent” Myth | Kameron Hurley.)

22 Apr

Rejection and Reinvention

A while back I wrote a Facebook comment to someone getting frustrated and giving up on a story after 5 or so rejections. I thought that a shame, as many of my stories have gotten far more than that. Rejection is part and parcel of the game, so I wrote a heartfelt plea for them to reconsider their perception of rejection. The SFWA.com editor noticed it and asked me to reshape the plea as an essay, so they could run it on the website. I did so. Here’s a snippet, the link takes you to the whole essay.

“Don’t lose faith after 5-6 rejections. Or even more.My own record is 24 rejections before selling a single story, and I consider myself to have gotten off lightly.

I sort of view it like a combination lock. A tumbler, where all of the elements have to line up to create a sale. The story has to be right, the editor has to be right, and the time has to be right. I’m thinking of this because I recently sold a short story that had been rejected 18 times before. It has been going out for 13 years, making the rounds steadily for all this time. It’s one of three stories that I haven’t trunked b/c I still like them. It still has a spark of something that keeps my belief in it alive.”

(Via Rejection and Reinvention.)

27 Mar

Suck more, have more fun

Chuck Wendig has the right of it here. One of the hard lessons learned from the loss of being shiny and new, as well as my health issues, were that I had to figure out why I was writing, and how to be happy about it when one of my major goals that made me happy (make a living solely from it and back out of freelancing) was taken away due to health (I’m most of the way back, but it no longer really defines the mission).

Chuck has a lot of wisdom:


You ever get the opportunity to play with an artistic medium in which you have no experience? Photography? Fingerpaints? Erotic botany? When you do that, there exists this level of freedom where you’re like, ‘I have no stake in this, I’m just going to spackle some paint on my fingers and — I don’t know, fuck it, I’m going to draw a turkey on a jet-ski.’ And then you’re there dicking around and fingerpainting like a boss and suddenly you realize: this is fun. And it sucks, but yet, there’s something real in there. Something of value. (‘I WILL BE A CHAMPION FINGERPAINTER.’) It’s a cool moment where by creating art with no limits or no pressure and with jizz-buckets of fun you still managed to do something interesting.”

(Via 25 Ways To Be A Happy Writer (Or, At Least, Happier) « terribleminds: chuck wendig.)