Book review: Following

Following: A Marketing Guide to Author Platform by David Gaughran

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David Gaughran’s latest on helping writers is a short volume on creating an author platform. With his usual wit, Gaughran cuts away the marketing hype and reassures the reader that an author platform is basically having an established presence online, not some great convoluted thing that would require a team of experts to assemble (though he does suggest outsourcing some aspects). He offers a mix of general and specific advice on what to do, ranging from what social media to focus on (to no surprise, he says Facebook is the one essential due to its reach, even if you may dislike Facebook as a company) to recommendations for hosting and content management systems (CMS)–and again, he not surprisingly recommends WordPress, which is to CMS as Facebook is to social media, though perhaps with less imperiling of modern democracy.

Much like his fourth (and now free) edition of Let’s Get Digital, Following also comes with a link to online resources that Gaughran promises to keep updated, extending the book’s usability beyond what is contained in the text.

For a beginning author, this is a welcome and even gentle way to introduce the idea of establishing yourself on the internet as a writer, even before you have completed your first book. Gauhgran’s advice is sensible and much of it is based on his own experience–learn from his mistakes so you don’t make them yourself! I especially like the tips that seem small or simple, but could have a profound effect (and may come as a relief to the starting writer), particularly in debunking some common beliefs, such as needing a robust presence on every social media platform, or needing to keep an active blog going. For those who have read Gaughran’s other books on writing, it will be no surprise that he pushes hard on building a mailing list.

Gaughran teases the possibility that Following could be expanded in the future (and this would not surprise me, he has an admirable devotion to this set of books), but as is, it is still an excellent and recommended resource to the aspiring author.

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Book review: Let’s Get Digital, Fourth Edition

Let’s Get Digital: How to Self-Publish, and Why You Should by David Gaughran

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For the most part you can just check out my review of the Third Edition of the book–everything I liked about it has been kept in the fourth edition, so I’ll mainly focus on the changes.

The biggest is that the entire book has been rewritten, so it is not merely updated, but now reflects the market as of 2020, with Gaughran offering additional wisdom he’s gathered in the years between editions.

The comprehensive resources have now been moved from the book to a specific area of his website, which allows Gaughran to continuously update them–a welcome improvement that ironically makes the book more useful even as you set it aside.

Gaughran does make a few assertions that he had not previously (or at least that I don’t recall). The biggest, for fiction writers, is that he flat out says you should write series. It’s just the way of fiction now, and unless you’re already a well-established author or writing non-genre fiction, he maintains it pretty much cannot be avoided. He presents clear arguments for this, but it still makes me sad, because I love one-off stories and prefer them to series. He softens the blow a bit by saying that a series does not have to be literal sequels, but can simply share the same setting or characters.

As with previous editions, Gaughran keeps the tone light but the advice is serious, well-researched and backed by his own experience and the experiences he has heard from other authors.

If you are interested in self-publishing or have just started dipping your toes into the experience, Let’s Get Digital is and remains an excellent introduction to new authors. As before, highly recommended.

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Scrivener 3.0 for Windows: A puzzling non-release

For awhile Scrivener was my favorite writing application. It does pretty much everything you could want in a writing program and has excellent organizational tools that really help in planning and plotting out novels (or other projects).

A major new update to version 3 was released for the Mac in November 2017, with an equivalent Windows update arriving in 2018, then by end of Q2 2019, then for absolute sure by August 30, 2019. All dates were missed, with contrite apologies from Literature and Latte.

After the last missed date, they stopped saying when it would release and version 3 for Windows has existed since then as a perpetual beta and now, a perpetual release candidate. Users talk about how stable it is, how perfectly usable it is, but it’s still not officially released. You can’t buy it.

I am not a developer so I can’t speak to the challenges the duo working on the Windows version of Scrivener is facing, but it does seem to me that as we draw ever-closer to three years since version 3 came out for the Mac, that the Windows version ought to have been ready by now. I mean, if you originally project a release in 2018, re-calibrate and say, okay, second quarter 2019, then re-calibrate yet again and say August 30, 2019, then finally go silent on a release date and then still have not released almost a full year after the last offered date, I would submit that you are bad at estimating software release dates, and also very slow at developing software.

I will buy version 3 when it eventually comes out, and I might try it again (I have version 3 already for Mac but I have switched mostly to using Ulysses for my fiction writing), but I must admit, the pace of the Windows version’s development instills me with little confidence in the product or the company. One of the main points of the version 3 release was to bring feature parity (as much as possible) to the Mac and Windows versions. That cannot happen if the Windows version is constantly lagging well behind. I have every expectation that should version 4 come out for Mac, it would be years before the same version released for Windows. I might be wrong. I hope I am wrong!

Anyway, I do hope the Windows version releases at least before the anniversary of the version 3 release for Mac. Looking over the current issues in the forum thread on beta releases, it feels a bit like they are striving for perfection and holding up release indefinitely as a result. They report a single crash bug:

We are aware of one bug (listed below) that can hang Scrivener, and zero bugs that cause data loss, so if you are aware of any other bugs that can hang Scrivener, or cause data loss, please let us know. The only crash bug we know about is:-

Merging cells in table can crash under certain conditions

I can’t speak for all writers, but I have very few tables in my novels, apart from the actual furniture in various scenes. This doesn’t seem like enough to hold up release. I mean, what if they can’t track down the cause of this bug? Just hold off release for another six months? A year? At some point you have to accept that you’ve done all you can and put your work out there–like any good writer would.

Goodbye, Ellen

For many years I had the following quote by Ellen DeGeneres on my website in the top-right corner, to underscore the absurdity of writing (especially writing for publication):

You know, it’s hard work to write a book. I can’t tell you how many times I really get going on an idea, then my quill breaks. Or I spill ink all over my writing tunic.

I like absurd humor, so this quote resonated with me.

In recent years Ellen has come under fire for cozying up to George W. Bush, for treating guests and crew on her show poorly, and for generally seeming to be the opposite of the nice, wholesome image she presents.

So I’ve changed the quote. I still wanted something funny and my search will go on, but for now I’m going with this from Gene Fowler:

Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.

Not quite as absurd, and darker, but it will do for now.

Review: Save the Cat! Writes a Novel

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Save the Cat series of books is aimed primarily at screenwriters, but in this case Jessica Brody has reworked the formula for novel writing.

The book, as befits one concerned about plot, is well-structured, with sections designed for easy reference after the initial read-through. At its core, Brody puts forward that there are 10 core plots that are used in pretty much all successful stories (note that this success is oriented toward readers more than critics, hence the inclusion of novels that have received what some might call unkind reviews, such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

In the first chapter Brody describes how we are wired to respond to certain types of stories and covers the usual concerns over “How can I be daring and original if I’m following a strict plot outline?” by saying nothing is really original, but all authors have their own voices and style that separate them from other writers.

The next ten chapters are devoted to an explanation of the specific plot type, covering three essential requirements for each, followed by a “beat sheet” (beats are a big thing in the Save the Cat world) for a specific novel, explaining how it conforms to the particular plot type in question. This is followed by an even more precise summary of the beat sheet, handy for quick reference.

The final chapter is a general set of common questions Brody has addressed in related workshops, along with answers, ranging from the basics of “Where do I start?” to handling multiple narratives. Brody also provides templates on a website that serve as virtual corkboards for plotting (for those who don’t want to use actual corkboards). In all, the information is detailed, but presented in a light, informal style that will be easily accessible to young or new writers, as well as those who have yet to plot their way out of the proverbial wet paper bag.

You can get an idea of the tone of the book by observing some of the plot types discussed:

  • Whydunnit
  • Dude with a Problem
  • Buddy Love
  • Monster in the House

All of this may sound very rigid–and it is. Brody does allow that some bending of the rules may be allowed, but that overall these plots, their associated acts, scenes, and overall beats, must be followed to achieve the effect they are meant to have on that primitive part of our brain that responds so well to structured tales.

If you believe in the power of plotting, this is an excellent primer on how to write a novel using any of the ten specific plots discussed. As Brody mentions, it also works well for those trying to fix a work in progress.

For new writers or those who have a tendency to send their initially sound novels upon the rocky shoals of “I don’t know what happens next”, this is recommended.

P.S. “Save the cat” is a reference to how an unlikable main character should do something to show they have a good side or some merit, such as…saving a cat.

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February shmebruary

This month started out with a fizzle, but is ending on a mostly better note, or series of notes:

  • My weight is down. Yay.
  • I am exercising again. Also yay.
  • I think I’m sleeping better in general.
  • My writing is…well, more on that below.
  • Work is [redacted]

On the poop side of things, my writing has gained no traction at all, whether it be fiction or this blog. I fell way behind on my usual one-post-per-day average, just as I did last month, and despite a few posts today, I will still come up short, unless I post ten haikus or something. I’m pretty sure I won’t do that.

I have also fallen behind on my modest reading goal this year. To meet it, I need to read a book every two weeks. To date I have read three this year, so I’m one behind. This is due to a combination of wanting to veg out during my commute and often not getting a seat because the [redacted for adult language] SkyTrain car will be standing room only at 6:30 in the [redacted] morning. It’s insane. I get on at the fourth stop on the Expo line. After my stop, Sapperton, there are 16 more. I’m pretty sure it’s SRO by the second station, Lougheed. It’s silly. Does everyone work in downtown Vancouver? Yes. Yes, they do.

For the writing, I’m not sure what to say. I think about it, sometimes I start, but nothing much happens. The latest book on writing (I’ve read oodles of them now) has the author assert there is no such thing as writer’s block and technically that’s true. Unless you are in a coma or otherwise physically incapable, you can always write if you have some time. So it’s not that I can’t write, I just don’t. And I’m not entirely sure why, because I’ve read some of my stuff recently and while I’m not trying to toot my horn (heh heh), I quite like some of it and think I should write more.

And maybe I will. Soon. I do actually have some additional thoughts on this and will spill them out of my head in another post.

(I’m not talking about work on a public blog. You’ll need the key to my heart diary to find out more about that.)

Laptop Quest 2020: Maybe a better keyboard

I have two laptops currently:

  • A sixth generation (2018) ThinkPad Carbon X1
  • A 2016 MacBook Pro without touch bar

I got the ThinkPad because I a) hated the MacBook Pro’s butterfly keyboard and b) worried that it would fail out of warranty, leading to a $600-700 repair bill, given Apple’s insane (or insanely clever?) design that necessitates not just replacing the faulty keyboard, but basically half of the entire laptop.

Apple then started its keyboard repair program, which covers every model with a butterfly keyboard (this is every MacBook released since 2015, not counting the MacBook Air prior to its 2018 redesign). For four years after purchase, Apple will repair or replace a defective keyboard for no charge.

I bought the MacBook Pro in December 2016, so I am good for 10 more months, after which the cost of repair will again rise to about $700. Or maybe even more, because Apple has never been shy about raising prices.

This whole thing is further complicated by a couple of things related to my writing:

  • I went back to Ulysses, which is Mac-only
  • I still really hate the butterfly keyboard. I find it uncomfortable on my finger tips, and that’s even when I’m not applying my usual “fists of gorilla” approach to typing

I’m wed to macOS, but have begun looking for other writing app alternatives again, because the tool is really secondary to the writing itself.

But wait! In October 2019 Apple updated the 15 inch MacBook Pro to a 16 inch model and brought back the more traditional scissor switch keyboard. Instead of having half a millimeter of travel, it now has one entire millimeter of travel! I tried it out in an Apple store and it’s better, but it’s still not great.

The ThinkPad keyboard feels luxuriously deep and satisfying in comparison (my partner is using the ThinkPad now, as his $200 HP laptop is not running anymore so much as hobbling along intermittently).

So my current options are:

  • Hope that Apple comes out with an equivalent to my current MacBook Pro this year with a “good” keyboard and a price that is not any more outrageous that what it is currently. Rumors suggest the possibility of this is pretty good, but Apple is notoriously unreliable for updates on anything other than the iPhone and Apple Watch. And they have treated the Mac line pretty shoddily post-Jobs.
  • Get a Windows laptop and find other software to use. I’ve been trying out a bunch of new writing apps, as well as noodling around in some old standbys, like the perpetually-in-beta version 3 of Scrivener for PC. For the actual device, the Dell XPS 13 and ThinkPad (7th gen) both seem like strong candidates. The Surface Laptop 3 can be had for a decent price, too, and I’m not concerned about its relative lack of IO.

It’s early, so I’m not really leaning in one direction or the other yet. On the one hand, Ulysses is a really nice app. On the other, I resent having to pay a subscription for it (the updates have clearly not been enough to warrant the cost, which I’ll go into in a separate post). I’m also not a huge fan of macOS. It’s fine and for writing it does everything I need, but I am both extremely comfortable with Windows 10 and really like some of the native features of Windows (it may come as no surprise that windows management is really good, where in macOS it is just short of a disaster).

Anyway, I’m typing this on the MacBook Pro now and my finger tips are starting to hurt, so unless I switch to voice dictation, I am going to end this post here. More to come!

Book review: Dear Writer, You Need to Quit

Dear Writer, You Need to Quit

Dear Writer, You Need to Quit by Becca Syme

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have read so many books on writing without writing that I feel it’s become my official career to write about books about writing.

Dear Writer, You Need to Quit is a good book about writing and manages to put a bit of a unique spin on the usual advice. Instead of addressing story structure, plot, characters and other mechanics, or providing the nitty gritty about finding a good agent or other specifics of the business of writing, Becca Syme instead tackles the things a new or indie writer needs to quit doing–including up to the possibility of not writing anymore.

It’s a light read and the tone is conversational–perhaps a bit too much at times–and the way Syme repeats key phrases, like “QTP” (Question The Premise) makes sections of the book feel more like a transcription of a class or talk (which it is, more or less, based on material she uses in coaching sessions and classes). On the plus side, this lends a kind of authenticity to the topics, as Syme isn’t just writing what sounds good, she’s providing advice based on her own experiences with authors. As a bonus, she is not afraid to point out where she has plainly blown it herself.

A lot of the book is built around tempering expectations and looking after yourself while pursuing the dream of making a living as a writer. Syme flatly states that for most people that this will not happen. Don’t quit your job is not a cliché here, it is a repeated mantra. Chapters are spent framing writing as a hobby you might make a little money from, but that’s all. Do it because you love it, but work it into your existing routines, don’t forfeit your job, time and money pursuing a dream that is unlikely to come true.

That sounds like a downer, and Syme admits as much–that if you don’t have the drive, it’s perfectly fine to just quit writing altogether.

She does address more specific topics, too, taking on the idea that you must plot out your story first (or just improvise and never plot), pulling back to essentially say what works for one writer may not work for you. Do what works for you.

In all, this is a breezy and eminently sensible set of tips on how to tackle the writing life. While it seems aimed at indie writers who have a few published novels already, new writers will benefit from at least considering the advice on offer.


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National Novel Writing Month 2019: I could still win

Yes, I could still win NaNoWriMo this year, with just four days left. Let me use this handy computer calculator to see what my daily word count would need to be to pull off the feat:

12,500 words per day.

This is due to having written no words at all this month.

On the one hand, there is a perverse sort of temptation in trying the impossible to see how far I’d get (my guess is maybe 10,000+ words, though the last day is a Saturday, which would lend itself to binging, were I so inclined). On the other hand, the only thing of value I’d get would be to simply exercise the ol’ writing muscles.

Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Words are words, after all. Not to be confused with “Deeds, not words,” the credo adopted by Ace Hunter and his elite group of freedom fighters as featured in the all-time classic Megaforce, of course.

But on the third imaginary hand, if I was going to do something like that, it would probably be a better use of time to revisit one of my existing stories, or work on something new that wouldn’t be subjected to NaNoWriMo’s hellbent-for-metal approach of write now, edit later (maybe never, after looking over what the NaNo method produced).

Realistically, I’m probably not going to writer much over the next four days, but life is full of surprises and one of those surprises could be me writing stuff over the next four days. Who doesn’t love a surprise, except for maybe someone with a heart condition standing next to a giant fireworks display, not knowing it was about to suddenly explode?

NaNoWriMo 2019, Negative Day 2

Here it is, the second day of NaNoWriMo and I haven’t written a thing.

It feels great. So much time to do other stuff. I went to Costco today and bought a 20 liter jar of mayonnaise.

I am thinking I should keep up on the drawing now, because it’s fun and relaxing. But what to do? Possibilities:

  • Finish that book on learning how to sketch
  • Go back to one of the earlier Inktobers and do all of its prompts, either one per day or following whatever whimsical order I decide
  • Go back to my 2019 prompts and fix/rework the ones I’m not happy with or just try coloring all of them like Ted Turner
  • Start a gum gum person comic
  • Something else
  • Or maybe write something, just not something for NaNoWriMo

A lot of possibilities. I will choose by…tomorrow.

‘Twas the night before NaNoWriMo…

And all through the condo I was breathing a sigh of relief over not taking part this year.

Honestly, I’m looking forward to having a bunch of free time for other stuff in November. There may be a cure for my writing ills, but the last few years suggest to me that the cure is not National Novel Writing Month.

It feels a bit weird sitting out for the first time in ten years (!), but it also feels right. And nice.

Now to maybe write something without the pressure of 1,667 words per day…