Saturday, July 10, 2010

Mobile Writing Tools: TaskPaper and WriteRoom

Scott D. Parker

As fellow DSDer, Dave White, stated on Thursday, after a time, you can run out of writing things to talk about. I mean, he's right, you know. There is no substitute to sitting your butt down in a chair (or stand, as I've come to do more and more) and just write. A writing utensil and a canvas is all you need. That, and time. And patience to get better. Talent helps.
But in this digital age, we do have options. Shakespeare, Byron, and Twain wrote longhand. Hemingway and Lester Dent used a typewriter. Modern writers have computers that can do more than any lithographer ever dreamed possible. In an age where computers used to take up whole rooms, now, we have laptops that can run circles around the UNIVACs that powered the Apollo missions. I don't know about y'all, but there are times when my slender MacBook Pro is simply too cumbersome to lug around to the office, especially if I'm having to carry the laptop of my day job.

Enter the iPod Touch. I mentioned that got mine in April with the goal of having it take the place of my iPod nano (for music), Palm Pilot (for ebooks), and Moleskine (for note taking). What I didn't realize is that it also subverted my laptop as my go-to, mobile writing device.

There are lots of apps out there for writers. I use a combination from Hog Bay Software: the iPhone versions of TaskPaper and WriteRoom. As I'm conceiving of my next, big novel, I tote around my iPod Touch (iPod, from here on out). If I have an idea for the story, I break out the iPod, launch TaskPaper, and enter the idea. Yes, I don't use TaskPaper as a to-do list, as it was originally intended. I use it as a repository of ideas, sketches, and, very soon, actual prose. Like the maxim that the reader completes the writing process, the user completes a piece of software, even if that use is not what the framers had intended.

The beauty of this method is the syncing. The iPhone versions of TaskPaper and WriteRoom sync with, a website hosted by Jesse Grosjean, the owner/developer of these wonderfully minimal apps. As long as I have a wifi connection, the ideas I jot down in TaskPaper are automatically synched with SimpleText. Then, later, when I return home to my MacBook, I sync the SimpleText site with the actual text files I keep on my hard drive. Voila! All ideas preserved, in more than one place in more than one media. It's almost foolproof.

All of this can be done using the on-screen touch keyboard. I've gotten pretty adept at typing with my thumbs. But these are all short bursts of creativity. What about the time when I plan to make prose. Will I have the patience to thumb chapters into existence?

What tipped the scales in the iPod-as-writing-tool debate was a bluetooth keyboard. I bought the Apple one, not for any slavish devotion to the company but, rather, for synchronicity. It just works with the tools I have. Linking the keyboard to the iPod is simple. Launching WriteRoom (the app I'm using to write this post) is simple. Then, as if by magic (it really feels that way sometimes), I start typing and the letters appear. It's brilliant! And It has allowed me to leave my laptop at home. Now, prose can spew forth from my brain and my keyboard and iPod can keep up.

I haven't start prose creation yet but I will soon. Another great feature of SimpleText is that is syncs (read: imports) with Scrivener. Scrivener can "see" SimpleText and import any and all files into itself. Ever more fun and ease is to be had by this working method.

It's pretty darn nifty, this technology. But it still doesn't compare with Rule #1: Just Write. My own version of Rule #1 is this: Just Write. However You Want To.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Read Out Loud

By Russel D McLean

Recently, I’ve been working some (sssssh, top secret, but keep yer eye on me website blog for more details soon!) events for… well, sometime. In communication with one venue, I got an interesting email that said, in part, “we tend to discourage “readings””

I found that an interesting comment and one I wholeheartedly agree with. While I have done some small excerpts at events, I tend to keep these as short as I can because I feel the audience only has so much of an attention span and I know that I tend to zone out when hearing long excerpts. I also know that when I go to an author event, I’m not there to hear the author because – let’s face it – most authors cannot read from their books. Noteable exceptions of course include Allan Guthrie’s “Jesus” voice from Hardman (I still read the book and hear him) and the mighty mighty James “Devil Dog” Ellroy reading anything because, holy shit, the way he reads is the way you hear that damn book in your head. He’s whaaaacked, brother, and so far goooooone you gotta see him to believe him.

But on the whole, I like writers to give me something… something else. Because in general there’s a reason they’re writers and not actors (of course, Stuart MacBride has read his own book on audio, but he’s had theaterly training and Martyn Waites’ reading of Ray Banks is brilliant, because Waites was a professional actor for many years) Hands up, one of the worst events I saw was a writer whom I like on a personal level who did nothing but read from the book. It was a painful experience, even more so when they started answering questions and suddenly the event came to life. I mean, honestly, out of context excerpts are yawnsville except in small, staccato bursts. When I do read, I limit myself to maybe five pages and two excerpts. And then because mostly I have believed it to be expected of me.

But the more I think about the more I love the events where the author can talk about their life, their work, their reading habits. Iain (M) Banks is brilliant at this – so much that last time I saw he just went straight to the Q&A, and held it for the full hour. I think when we go to see an author, we are not expecting the book to be read to us. Why would we as an audience want that when the book part of he conversation between author and reader is very much a private one and we are going to see them in public? I think as a public spectacle, we want writers to show us something of the mind behind the book. And, yes, some authors are dull, but many are more interesting than they might believe and if they present us with themselves, naturally as they can, many readers will be immensely pleased, as I am, to have seen another side to the process, to understanding the creation of the writing I love.

I’m not saying events have to be intellectual or intensely illuminating, but I am saying that they should always be about more than simply making us aware of a book’s presence. They are, in essence, a form of entertainment, and I have found there to be little entertaining about someone just reading from a book you will later be paying to read yourself.

Of course, I realise I’m setting myself up here… am I as good as my own standards? Goodness only knows, but I try my best to give the audience something that’s fun; a few facts they might not know, some stories I think they might find amusing (ask me about rejection letters; I got a few doozies) and maybe some sense of what they might expect to find in my work if they haven’t read it, and if they have maybe some idea about the thought processes that went into the novels.

And if that fails I just swear in a Fife accent. That seems to amuse people no end…

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Running out of things to talk about

Something odd seems to happen to me when I'm in the middle of a writing piece.

At least, this feels very familiar, so I'm guessing it's happened to me before.

When I'm in the middle of an opening draft, I run out of things to talk about writing wise. If you look at my Twitter feed or my Facebook page it's full of things about my wedding or LeBron James or the latest Bobby Gonzalez nonsense.

But very little writing stuff.

Why is that?

Because I've become sick of updating my word count. How interested are you in the fact that I wrote 1,000 words today? Truth is, you aren't. Or you shouldn't be.

What you should care about is what the book's about. And I'm not ready to tell you that. I don't even completely know yet. So I'm not going to talk about that.

I'm going to talk about anything and everything else.

That's the thing about Twitter and Facebook and the blogs. It's very insular. We communicate too often with other writers, and I feel at times we shut the reader out. The casual reader doesn't care how many words I wrote today. They don't care how you're going to go out and promote your next book.

They care about the story. Do they want to read it?

Writing about how you create a marketing plan, your brand, and your work ethic aren't going to sell a reader on that.

So that's what we as writers need to focus on. Or at least, I should.

And since I'm not ready to talk about the book yet, I'll stick to LeBron.

I only have another 18 hours to do it.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Bridge on CBS

John McFetridge

This week my two sons (ages 10 and 11) and I have gone camping at a provincial park in Ontario. If we don't set the tent on fire or get eaten by bears we'll be back in time to see the debut of The Bridge on CBS this Saturday at 8:00.

I have mixed feelings about this because it was a great opportunity for me to work in the writers' room (I'm credited wth writing one episode and co-writing another), I met some great people and learned a lot but I don't think I did a very good job.

The show is about a beat cop who gets fed up with the politics and hidden agendas of the brass and gets himself elected the union president to try and clean up the force. It's ambitious material and was sold to me as "The West Wing of cops shows" (it's interesting that The West Wing was always a bigger hit in Canada than in the US). It wasn't designed as a police procedural about cops solving crimes, it was going to be about the inner workings of a big city police department.

This is the kind of thing I like to write about. A sub-plot in Everybody Knows This is Nowhere involves a union election and corrupt cops protecting one another. Okay, not breaking any new ground, really, but The Bridge promised to show the details. The way The Wire showed the details of policing and what the cops are really up against.

But with one Canadian and one American network involved there was a lot of push and pull and it did become more of a procedural and less political and even social.

Entertainment Weekly has this to say about the show:

"Another Canuck cop drama imported by CBS, The Bridge is (meager-praise alert!) better than Flashpoint. There's a nifty, Wire-esque exploration of police bureaucracy. As a rabble-rousing union chief, Battlestar Galactica's Aaron Douglas is no McNulty. And the criminals, like the truck-driving killer grandma, are lame. Oh, Canada. (C)"

TV Guide said, "The bureaucratic corruption forces the apolitical and hard-nosed Frank to get his Norman Rae on. His and the show's heart are in the right place but you'll likely predict every beat." The reviewer gave it a 5 out of 10.

The two-hour pilot and the first episode after that were written before the rest of us writers were hired. I think the pilot asks some good questions and raises some good issues (and, frankly, has some holes - how come the cops end up in a chase even though they had the name and address of the guy who owned the truck? Would there really be no lawsuit after the kid dies? Was there really enough justification for the police to go on strike?), but I don't think we were very successful in addressing much of them in the following episodes. Probably why CBS has only scheduled seven out of the thirteen episodes that were shown in Canada.

So, if the bears don't get us I'll be back here next Wednesday and if anyone has any questions about the show (either what goes on in the show or the production) please send them to me at: and I'll answer any I can next week.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

On Writing

By Jay Stringer

I've been thinking a lot about craft lately. Or rather, I've been struggling with it.

I have a few projects that are overdue, with people waiting on me to get my ass in gear, and it's been a fight to try and get them done. It's not block. The stuff is in my head and I know most of what happens to the characters. It's more a lack of form, a lack of the structure that will make the work sing.

I've caught flack before for saying I don't believe in writers block. I still don't. What I do believe in is distraction. And right now I'm cornering the market in that. This month I visit New York and turn 30. I have a couple of health issues and, king of them all, I'm getting married. The gurrl and I are planning the whole thing ourselves, down to writing the wedding service and vows, and that's taken a lot of doing.

So amid all of that, I can cut myself a little slack about all of the work I've not finished. I know I'll get back on track. But in the meantime I decided to explore craft a bit more, to try and give my scattered brain a little more focus. I bought a handful of books about writing, and started looking up more interviews and documentaries on the subject.

Some of the books come highly recommended and I look forward to reading them. There's a King, a Maass and a Stein. Each suggested by people that I trust. The first one I'm reading is STORY by Robert McKee. Here's my first thought on the book; I know you can't judge a book by it's cover, but can you judge one by its size?

I look at the others in my pile, and they seem a decent size. The Stein is 224 pages and the Maass is 250. Okay, so the King is 384, but he does have a tendency to go on for too long. The McKee is 455, excluding the index. 455 pages on how to write a story. That's a couple hundred more than the Stein and Maass books, and almost a hundred more than the King. If your book is longer than the one by the guy who wrote THE STAND, you maybe need to rethink that delete button. The shorter books feel right somehow. As if i can imagine a 250 page book on writing will help be to refresh or learn a few things and then go and apply them to my work. But a 455 word book is time spent away from the blank page.

One thing I notice very quickly in books is whether I think the writer is using too many words. I like to use as few as possible to tell a story (though my agent still finds a way to do it with fewer,) and generally if I feel the writer is overdoing the word count, I stop reading. McKee mentions many times that writers don't get to the point quickly enough, and yet the first 31 pages of his own book don't really need to be there. The same information could have been presented in around five pages of concise writing.

A great example of getting to the point comes in William Goldman's THE PRINCESS BRIDE. In presenting the 'good parts version,' Goldman is giving a running critique on self editing. Each of the scenes he laments cutting are scenes that added nothing to the story. I think a writer needs to be brutally honest with themselves, and if a page doesn't need to be there, then lose it.

I don't want to get sidetracked onto criticising STORY because I've not read all of it yet. There may well be something buried away in a later chapter that blows my mind, and McKee obviously knows more about craft than I do.

But every time I pick up the book and start reading, I feel it's size and weight, and can't help but wonder why I'm reading a book about how to write, when I could be spending that time writing. And it could be as simple as me making a snap judgement, because the Stein and the Maass are much shorter and I'm looking forward to reading those.

But I can't help but wonder about writing advice. This website has been up and running for almost a year, and you'll notice we rarely stray into giving out direct advice. Instead, we review things, we analyse, we discuss general topics and give opinions. Buried away in these posts you'll find tips and ideas that work for us, but that's not the same as giving out direct advice. I do give out advice to friends or via email to the fools....ummm...i mean.....folks who ask me for it. But on a blog like this, it wouldn't feel right. Part of that will be because my books aren't published yet, but I get the feeling that even once I get a deal, I'll still feel wrong to be giving out public advice.

A friend recently asked me for advice on how to get work finished. I write him an essay-length reply with various different tips on how to get his ass into the chair, and how to get work done every day. Just before hitting 'send,' though, I realised it was all irrelevant. The best advice I could give him was to not worry too much about my advice. I told him to find a couple of rules that worked for him and to stick to them. Ignore everything else.

I'm not saying there is no place for books on writing. I'm sure i will find some of the books in my pile very useful. But surely there comes a point when writing is like murder; the best way to learn is by doing it.

So how about you guys, what books have you read that have helped? Or do you avoid them? Do you come to sites like this looking for advice, or for random football and TV talk?

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Cold Kiss: The book that almost wasn't

This week marks the release of THE COLD KISS, a fantastic book from John Rector. He stopped by DSD HQ to talk about it.

By John Rector

This week, on July 6, The Cold Kiss will officially be released in the US and Canada.

For those of you who haven’t experienced it, seeing your first published novel on the shelves of your local bookstore is a surreal and wonderful experience. The stars have aligned in your favor, and the result is right in front of you. When it comes to the writing life, it’s the best feeling you can have. But in my case, that feeling comes with a long sigh of relief.

You see, I almost didn’t write the book.

Seventy pages into The Cold Kiss, I turned my back on it. I didn’t like the setting, too claustrophobic, the characters too dark, and the ending I had in mind seemed far too grim and depressing. I’d just spent several months being beaten up by NY publishers over the first book I’d written, The Grove, and I thought if I came at them with another dark, dread-filled novel, they’d send me packing yet again. So, I closed the file on The Cold Kiss, saved it in a dingy corner of my hard drive, and moved on.

If it hadn’t been for my wife reading a printed version of those first seventy pages and telling me she wanted to know the rest of the story, The Cold Kiss never would’ve seen the light of day.

As it turned out, she liked the claustrophobic setting and those dark, forgotten characters lost in all that snow. She convinced me to give it another try, so I picked it up again, and it didn’t take long to realize she was right.

There was something there.

I went back to work and finished the first draft of The Cold Kiss in sixteen weeks. Along the way, a new and much better ending presented itself, and for the first time I saw how all the pieces of the book would fall into place. That moment when everything comes together and you see your novel, complete and whole, for the very first time has always been my favorite part of being a writer.

At least until this week.


All Nate and Sara want is a new life in a new town, away from the crime and poverty of their past. So, after being approached at a roadside diner by a man offering $500 for a ride to Omaha, they wonder if their luck might be changing.

At first it seems like easy money, but within a few hours the man is dead.

Now, forced off the road by a blizzard and trapped in a run-down motel on the side of a deserted highway, Nate and Sara begin to uncover the man's secrets. Who he was, how he died, and most importantly, why he was carrying two million dollars in his suitcase.

Before they know it, Nate and Sara are fighting for their lives, and in the end, each has to decide just how far they are willing to go to survive.

The Cold Kiss is an everyman psychological thriller that pits a young couple against moral corruption, greed, betrayal, and love. More simply, for two characters who may have used up all their chances, it's the classic final trip down the dark tunnel that might lead to heaven, but drags them through hell. This is A Simple Plan meets The Getaway, with a pulse-pounding plot and a twist ending. John Rector is name that all thriller fans will come to know and love for years to come.

For a solid review of THE COLD KISS, check out what Spinetingler thought here.

Order THE COLD KISS right here from the B&N people.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Independence Day

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Happy Independence Day to everyone in the USA!

Independence Day was always one of my favorite holidays as a kid. More than all the other holidays, I always got the sense that this was a day we celebrated as a community. The town got together for a parade, a huge festival at the golf course and, of course, fireworks when the sun went down. Our neighborhood backed the golf course where the fireworks were set off. Every 4th, we snuck through a hole in the fence, dodged the golf course rangers and watched the fireworks from the closest green possible. I should point out that our parents did this with us. In the finest tradition of our founding fathers, we were rebels.

Everyone always likes to talk about the founding fathers with a sense of reverence. As if they were blessed with a sense of what the future would hold when they put pen to paper and told King George to take his taxes and shove them where only a proctologist would find them. I’m paraphrasing just a tad here, but you get the point. These men had no sense of what the future would hold. I’m guessing that five of signers of the Declaration of Independence who were captured and tortured as traitors might not have been so keen to sign their name had they known what was coming. But sign they did. 56 men made a choice that had huge repercussions for them individually, for their families, their friends, their community and their country.

The best crime fiction (yeah – it’s a writing blog, so I had to circle back) is often created from those kind of choices. A character makes a choice they believe is right hoping they know what the outcome will be. Only they don’t. That choice sets into motion a series of events that they couldn’t have dreamed of leaving us on the edge of our seat while we take the ride with them. In the case of our founding fathers, their choices led to war. Some lost their homes. Some lost their families. Others lost their own lives. Their story contains all the elements from which great fiction is made. Only their story is true.

Happy 4th of July everyone! Be safe.