Sunday, January 27, 2013

On Tracking Your Work

I've written a few times that I work best under a deadline. Deadlines are awesome. They focus the creative mind wonderfully. An author without a deadline can pick at their work and keep polishing it until they're old and gray. An author with a deadline mailed their manuscript out at 11:59 p.m. last night, and got a receipt so they can prove it when rabid wolverines devour their work halfway to the publisher.

The only problem with deadlines is that they need to be... toothy. Bitey. A deadline set by an outside agency is a ravenous monster that will eat you for your failures. And they can smell failure. But a deadline you set yourself can be more of a tame pet. You can stroke it, give it a few treats, scratch its ears, and before you know it you're two months behind and your deadline is fat and sleeping on your sofa.

This is not helpful.

I've been trying to reckon a way around this problem for awhile now. My first instinct was to go the NaNoWriMo, Stephen King, every-damn-writer-who's-written-a-book-on-writing route: set a word count every day, meet it, repeat. And that worked. For a bit.

"Authors live or die by their word count." I'm certain somebody's said that at some point. And if you're a full time writer it's true. Every word you write is another nickel* in your pocket to, say, pay your rent, or buy that medicine for your sick kid, or, y'know, eat.

So I respect the word count. 1,000 words a day, 1,667 words a day, 2,000 words a day, whatever target you can reasonably shoot for, go for it! And when I'm writing a first draft I'll go for my own target (1,000 words per day). It's respectable. It's The Tradition.

But let me ask you something, if you happen to be a writer out there.

What about all the work that doesn't include a word count? What about sketching out a map of some Godforsaken island your story takes place on? What about figuring out the names and backgrounds of that pantheon your protagonist worships? What about the hour you spent in a library (oh let's be honest, on Wikipedia) digging up names from some obscure language so everything sounds like it fits? What about the photos you pulled off of TMZ so you know what your cast looks like?

What about the stuff that only gives you a piddling little word count? Outlining, jotting notes on index cards and pasting them to a wall? Hell, how about the time you spend staring at said wall and rearranging those fucking cards? (Bob gets to Chicago here, but he meets the Mayor here, and that can't happen under the laws of physics so he has to fall in love here, and that means his car breaks down just outside of Chicago and I have to introduce a rabid wolverine here...)

In short, a fair amount of the work in writing isn't measurable by word count. The majority is, absolutely, but not all of it. And if you try to measure your work solely by word count, you're going to write a first draft in a very respectable amount of time and then end up feeling at loose ends, feeling like you're not getting anything done, when you find yourself facing the editing process. I know, I've done it.

So I've refactored my goal setting. Rather than track my daily word count, I pick a goal every night before I go to bed. If I'm writing, it'll be a word count. If I'm editing, maybe it'll be a page count to review. If I'm outlining, I'll set a chapter count to summarize, or pick a chapter and break it down by scene. If I'm brainstorming, I'll pick something I want to flesh out and... well, flesh it out.

The point is to set a goal I can mark as Done or Not Done, every day, and then get it done. Then get it done the next day. And the next day. And the next day, too. Pretty soon you've got a Seinfeld calendar going and all you've got to do is avoid breaking the chain. I keep mine on my Google calendar.

I broke the chain a few times.
Am I overthinking this? Maybe. But I'm getting more writing done, too, so I'll live with it. Now excuse me, I need to get this rabid wolverine off my leg.

*I suspect I'm inflating the figure here.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Night Writing and Unexpected Victories

So this is a weird post. See, a few days ago I tweeted this:

And that attracted the attention of Nick Kyme, author and all around good guy (also the first editor I ever worked with, in conjunction with Alex Davis). Nick used the tweet as the jumping off point for a rather nice blog post about his writing habits.

Nick is a morning writer by preference. I'm usually most productive at night, after my wife has gone to bed and I've walked the dog. The house is quiet, I don't have any chores left to do, and I can pop something on for background noise and go to it. (A movie I've seen repeatedly with a lot of narration can be excellent for this: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Goodfellas work well for me. Music also works well depending on my mood, but podcasts are a bad idea.)

I can write in the morning, if I'm up early and I've had enough sleep and I'm not at work. These factors rarely line up well for me, but when they do I can get a good amount of words down before lunch and still be up for a second session later in the day.

Afternoon writing rarely works for me. Life likes to keep me busy in the afternoon, and if I'm running errands or visiting friends or cleaning house, I'm obviously not writing. Worse, knowing that I'm going to do these things a half hour or even an hour in advance acts like writer's block for me; instead of getting words on paper (or into Scrivener) I'll piddle around with other things until it's time to go.

Conversely, I love to write right before a meeting, or in a waiting room. Give me an uncomfortable chair, a notepad, a pen, and a few strangers and I can knock out a few hundred words with ease.

So broadly my schedule is do most of my writing at night, and get a few words in where I can the rest of the day. If I hit my target (usually 1,000 words, if NaNoWriMo isn't on) early, I'll let myself have the evening off, unless I've got a scene I'm looking forward to in the queue.

But that's all beside the point of my tweet, which is that fatigue ate the last few hundred words in my quota one night. Believe it or not, this doesn't happen all that often. Either I'll make my word count (good), or I'll come to a grinding halt trying to hit my word count well before I actually fall asleep on my keyboard. This is usually accompanied by repeatedly browsing useless websites, checking my manuscript, and then going back to the useless websites again. I guess you could consider it creative fatigue (or just having too many distractions, if hitting the router with a hammer stops it - but it doesn't always).

When I find myself at a dead stop, sometimes I'll switch to a different scene to jar loose a few thoughts. If I can't do that for some reason, I'll just jot down a few extra words to get myself to a good stopping point.

Today was one of the latter cases. I'd just finished writing the climactic final battle of the book, and wanted to be able to say I was done with the first draft, today, no messing around. But I had an epilogue chapter planned that would wrap up loose ends with most of the extended cast and see the main character set out for more adventures...

...and I'm getting fatigued again just writing that. I wasn't going to get the whole chapter down. So to let myself say I was satisfied with the day's work, I wrote just enough to establish that the main character was alive and safe, if a bit banged up. I had him say good night, I had his potential love interest say good night...

...and then for no reason I wrote the biggest Wham Line of the whole book for the last sentence. Totally unplanned on my part. And the damn thing works, much better than a lengthy closing chapter could have.

Fatigue: it's not always a bad thing.

And that's all a roundabout way of saying that I managed to finish the first draft of my NaNoNovel in just under two and a half months. 80,000 words as it stands, with a fair bit of expansion likely as I flesh out descriptions, move scenes around, and try to turn the slog of a plot into something a bit more interesting. I don't even want to try and predict how long that's going to take, but I find I'm looking forward to it more than usual (read: not at all) this time.

Fetch the red pen of doom, and let us away!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Triage! Recovering Scrivener Files From Dropbox or Google Drive Errors

There is nothing worse than writing tens, hundreds, or thousands of words and then losing all of that work.

A while back I did a comparison of Google Drive and Dropbox, and briefly discussed the issues you can run into with Scrivener, the writer's fancy-pants friend. I didn't really focus on Scrivener because I was comparing cloud storage solutions (and I really should take a look at SkyDrive sometime I suppose, now that I'm running Windows 8).

Anyway, reader Chaim recently got in touch with me to ask for help. He was using Scrivener with Google Drive, and somehow his work across two computers got out of sync. The result? Lost work.

I've had the same thing happen to me more than once working with Scrivener on Dropbox. It's a problem that afflicts anyone using Scrivener with either cloud product. And it sucks. Simply put, you must make sure that you've closed out of Scrivener and let your project sync to the cloud before you open it on any other computer. Period. If you don't, your project file will get screwed up and you will appear to lose work.

I say appear because, hey! All is not lost. And I'm here to walk you through getting your files back.

Step 1: First, copy your Scrivener project out of your cloud storage and onto another location on your local computer. This is like isolating a crime scene, or quarantining a patient: you don't want Dropbox or Google Drive to do any more futzing with your files while you're trying to recover your writing. Scrivener stores projects in a folder with the .scriv extension (on Macs this will look like a file, but trust me, it's a folder). This is what you need to copy somewhere - your Desktop will work just fine.

Step 2: Next you need to open the .scriv folder and take a look at its ooey-gooey contents. On Windows this just means opening the folder. On a Mac, you'll need to change the folder name and get rid of the .scriv extension, so the operating system will know to treat it as a folder instead of a file.

Either way, once you're inside the folder you want to look for the Files folder. Open that, then open the Docs folder inside it. You'll be greet with a big old list of numbered RTF files. (RTF is like a Word document's handicapped cousin.) These are where Scrivener stores all of your writing... and odds are that writing you "lost" is still there, even if Scrivener can't see it.*

Open up the RTFs, one by one, and look for your lost writing. If one of the RTFs is labeled "conflicted" or otherwise numbered oddly, that's probably the one with the missing text. Once you've found it, open up your original Scrivener project (the one that's still in your cloud storage folder) and paste the missing text in. Voila, done! This is what worked for Chaim, and hopefully it worked for you too. If not, move on to Step 3.

Step 3: Is your text not in the RTFs? Then it's time to check your patient history... I mean backups. One handy feature of Scrivener is that it automatically backs up the last five copies of your project file for you, by default. The problem is that it can be hard to find out where Scrivener is storing the backups if you just go looking for them. Fortunately, Scrivener has made this easy for you.

Open your project and select the "Tools" dropdown at the top menu, then "Options...". Click the "Backup" tab in the window that opens up. Along with some other options, you'll see your backup location and a button that says "Open backup folder...". Press the button and voila! Backups.

Now, with any luck you'll see a ZIP file named after your project. Copy the most recent one to a convenient location and unzip it. Then, open the unzipped project in Scrivener and look for your lost text. If all is well, you'll see it. If not, you'll want to go to Step 4.

Step 4: At this point your lost work isn't in your current project or your backups, and it's time to get serious. Get out your scalpel, fire up your web browser and browse to your cloud storage solution's website. We're going to check your version control system.

What's version control? Basically, when you save changes to a file to the cloud, Google Drive and Dropbox will both keep the previous version of the file for 30 days (by default; you can pay to extend this to life). If you make an error ("Whoops! I deleted 3,000 words and hit the Save button by accident!"), you can pull up the previous version and recover your work. The details vary between Google Drive and Dropbox, so look them up in their respective manuals.

What if you don't save that often? Well, Scrivener is your friend here too. It has an auto-save feature that fires off every two seconds, to keep your work up to date. If you're editing your project while you're hooked up to the cloud (i.e. you have an Internet connection), you're fine. If not, well... maybe go back to Step 2 and take another look?

Hopefully by this point you've got your work back (voila!), so let's consider leading a healthy lifestyle for a moment, and move back to...

Step 5: Backups. As nice as Scrivener's default backup configuration is, you can and should be able to do better, especially if you're using cloud storage already.

Open up the Backup window again and take a look at the options. First, make sure "Turn on automatic backup" is checked! Then, tell Scrivener when to back up your work. I use "Backup on project close", but if you're paranoid you can select "Backup with each manual save". I also like to compress my backups into ZIP files and add the date to backup file names, just in case I need an easy time stamp reference to some colossal revision effort.

Finally, there's the big two options I recommend. First, for the "Retain backup files:" option, I recommend keeping ALL of your backups in perpetuity. For modern computers the space cost isn't going to be a big deal, and you might be grateful for the option to look back at your work months later (say, if you want to harvest a discarded character for some new project).

Second, create a folder in your Dropbox or Google Drive for your Scrivener backups, and change your "Backup location:" option to point to that folder. You should only have to do this once, although if you work on both Mac and Windows computers, you will have to do it twice. I'd also recommend using a separate backup folder for Windows and Mac under those circumstances. I don't know that the different operating systems will clobber each other, but I also don't like to take chances.

Once more, voila! You now have a Scrivener configuration that will silently back up all of your work to a separate folder, time stamp every backup, and upload them to the cloud one by one. Your work should have a long and healthy life - but maybe hook an automated backup drive to one of your computers, too. Just in case.

Hopefully you've found this useful. If you've got any other tips on how to keep your writing safe, post a comment and share!

*The dirty details: Scrivener uses a .scrivx project file to tell it which RTFs contain what text. If your .scrivx folder gets screwed up during a cloud storage sync, Scrivener won't be able to "see" the file, even though the actual RTF is probably still there. As far as I can tell this is the most common file syncing error that Scrivener runs into.