Thursday, November 20, 2014

File Backups and Writing on the Cloud

Image courtesy Comindware.

As a young writer, I was obsessed with portable word processing.  Being able to work on *.doc files while on the go was why I continued to use Palm OS devices long after their heyday, and why to this day I'm still fascinated by anachronistic devices like the sadly now-discontinued Alphasmart series.  But one of the main reasons these technological milestones of yesteryear are no longer around is because they've been rendered obsolete, like so many other devices that serve specific purposes, by the ubiquity of the do-everything smartphone.

If you have a smartphone, you can write, edit, and process documents with 99% of the functionality of the full-blown MS Office suite.  Even redlined edits and footnotes, long ignored by mobile document apps and the bane of editors and legal professionals everywhere, can be utilized by apps like Textmaker Mobile.  And if you pair that smartphone with cloud storage accounts like Dropbox (my personal favorite), Google Drive, OneDrive, or iCloud, you don't need to fumble with USB cables or worry about keeping up-to-date between desktop and mobile versions of your files.  Every time you save your changes, they'll be uploaded to every device linked to your cloud account.  You can spend your 30-minute train commute drafting a new scene on your phone, and that draft will be waiting for you on your computer when you get home.

All that being said, storing your writing on the cloud isn't foolproof.  If you accidentally delete a file, you might find it also deleted from every other linked device.  (There are steps to recover those files, but it's not always a sure thing.)  Sometimes the cloud service itself may make a mistake and delete your files by accident.  The bottom line is, relying solely on cloud storage is still putting all of your eggs in one basket, no matter how widely distributed that basket's contents may be.

So while your writing should be on the cloud - and is made incalculably easier to pass from smartphone to desktop to laptop and back again because of it - it shouldn't only be here.  As with all vital data, it should be backed up in more than one way.

The main backup I like to use is on removable media, like flash drives or USB-powered hard drives.  I use the free version of SyncBack to copy the contents of my Dropbox to removable media on a weekly basis.  I'd suggest that mission critical files be backed up on at least two redundant mediums, so that if one fails, there's still a backup available.

The final backup is one I use rarely, but is a great fail-safe for those who don't completely trust their work to electronic devices (and, so long as most digital storage media remain susceptible to strong magnetic fields, perhaps none of us should):  paper copies.  I try to avoid printing things out whenever possible, but for your most important pieces of work, keeping hard, physical copies ensure that, short of a cataclysm that divests you of nearly everything you possess, you'll never lose the fruits of your labor.  

Thursday, November 6, 2014

How to Organize Your Story Notes: Should You Keep a Story Bible?

In some ways, organizing story notes has never been easier.  The old mainstays of pen and paper are available in innumerable forms, including regular sheets of paper, post-it notes, notecards, notebooks, steno pads, and journals.  A personal favorite of mine is a pocket-sized Moleskine (or Moleskine-style notebook), which is the perfect size for portability, usability, and cutting and pasting in snippets or printed sheets.

But as far as portability and ease of use goes, it's hard to top free cloud services like Google Keep - which essentially functions as an ever expanding wall of digital post-it notes.  Or if you prefer keeping a tighter rein on your digital files, organizing your doc or txt files in a Dropbox folder will make them accessible anywhere with an internet connection.  Bottom line is, if you carry a smartphone, you already have everything you need to keep as many or as few story notes as you want.

So the question becomes:  Should you?

The simple answer is that it depends.

At the very least, as a writer, you should have some record-keeping method on hand at all times just in case inspiration should strike.  A random story idea, a sudden moment of clarity regarding a particular difficult plot point, a unique insight - these vital notions are prone to effervescence like an elaborate dream upon waking.  Having Google Keep only a few taps away on your smartphone means that you can record these ideas within moments of their occurrence, but I'll admit to also carrying a low-tech contingency for the odd situations where batteries run out or internet connections fail: a Midori Memorandum card in my wallet, which is the size of a credit card and contains 31 tracing-paper-thin sheets:

And a PicoPen on my keychain:

That's about as unobtrusive a note taking setup as you can get, though writers with larger hands may find the PicoPen a little small, in which case a Fisher Space Pen may be an ideal if slightly less convenient upgrade.

I've taken random story notes while riding a train in Tokyo, walking the streets in Portland and flying high above the clouds over Hawaii.  Your brain is always working on problems even when your attention is elsewhere, so learning to be receptive to those sudden strikes of inspiration - and having the means to record those revelations while they're still coherent enough to be recollected - can save you hours of staring blankly at a blinking cursor, trying to reconstruct your thoughts after the fact.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Fictional Matters Returns this November!

Fictional Matters will return with fortnightly blog posts every other Thursday starting November 6th.

There's a whole lot on the way, so stay tuned!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Can a Story Change Your Life? - Resonance Squared: Pluto, by Naoki Urasawa (x Osamu Tezuka)

Astroboy, or Tetsuwan Atomu, will always occupy a special place in my heart.  It was - albeit in English-dubbed version - my introduction to the world of anime.  It's a story that centers around a human-like robot - which, as mentioned in my C.O.L.A.R. CASCYL review, tends to put me in a story's corner from the get go.  It is the most famous work by the effective "Godfather" of anime and manga, Osamu Tezuka.  Nevertheless, though it occasionally touches on bigger, more philosophical issues, it's a series aimed primarily at children, and adopts a certain degree of silliness that, though endearing, erodes its inherent verisimilitude.  That really isn't a fair critique for a work that purposefully doesn't take itself too seriously, but from a storyteller's point of view, it's a valid one.  Nevertheless, Astroboy's popularity and longevity have given it a certain degree of global cultural status.  To the extent that it has, it was perhaps inevitable that it would be remade or re-imagined in the way that other dramatic icons have been in recent years, from Sherlock Holmes to Batman.  Not all such reworkings add something to the original, but as Stephen Moffat and Christopher Nolan has demonstrated, when they do work, people sit up and take notice.

The characters of Pluto juxtaposed with their original Astroboy counterparts.

As mentioned in the last CASCYL post, Naoki Urasawa blew me away with his Monster series despite having none of my favorite tropes to lean on.  His achievement was one of masterful storytelling, particularly his use of the trappings and devices of the mystery genre.  In Pluto, he takes that tool set and applies it to one of the most popular story arcs from the Astroboy canon - "The Strongest Robot in the World" arc - resulting in a murder mystery story that builds on his success in Monster and yet also manages to pay respectful homage to the original Astroboy source material, all the while elevating the story to something truly paradigm shifting.  The story's revelations and resolution echo long after its ending.

Like Monster, Urasawa's deft pacing compelled me to read all of Pluto in one sitting.  (Though since it clocks in at eight volumes to Monster's eighteen, it thankfully didn't take me a nearly unbroken 24-hour span to finish it.)  But for me, the most poignant aspect of the series came after I'd set down the final volume.  What ensued was a sleepless night of quiet introspection, and resulted the following morning/afternoon with the very rough first cut of a short story that is intended for submission to the Writers of the Future competition.  While other stories have influenced and inspired my own work, never have I experienced such a rush of creative urgency as I did after finishing Pluto.  I was physically and emotionally exhausted, but was compelled to channel what I felt into story form before allowing myself to rest.

(The fact that I also went without eating for that period also spurred on the change in diet and lifestyle that allowed me to shed nearly seventy pounds.  So in this case, it could be said that reading Pluto literally changed my life - or at least set me down a path that would lead to a profound lifestyle change.)

Monday, June 24, 2013

Can A Story Change Your Life? - The Meaning of Plot-Driven: Naoki Urasawa's Monster

If I remember correctly, a suggestive piece of fan art by the Canadian artist kurot was what originally put Monster on my radar.

There's a certain amount of irony to that fact, as I have to admit, on the basis of the series's own art alone, I probably would never have taken the time to look into it.  That isn't to say that it's poorly drawn; the art is perfectly serviceable and suits the story's demands.  It just doesn't call out from the page like a siren's song, compelling readers' (or at least my) attention the way, say, the precision of Takeshi Obata's work in Hikaru no Go or the sheer moeness of the character designs in Kamichu! or K-On!  Worse yet, Monster touches on none of the usual genres or tropes that populate my fictional wheelhouse.  Yet, like all well-crafted mysteries, it poses a single question at the onset that is tantalizing enough to compel its reader to continuing reading long enough for several other questions to be posed - and in turn, their answers sought.  Before long, the unsuspecting reader is barreling headlong through a 18-volume manga series, unable to turn away until the final scene is unveiled and the mysteries - at least the ones that will be answered outright - are revealed.

In my case, I read through all eighteen volumes in a roughly 24-hour period, only pausing to attend classes.  (I believe this was the Fall or Winter quarter my third undergraduate year.)  The urgency with which I consumed each volume was only matched by the profound impact that another Urasawa work would leave on me, several years later.

Aside from being an exemplar of the mystery genre - albeit in graphic form - Monster also reveals how the plotwork and devices of the genre can be used to enhance the plot of non-mystery stories.  The layering of questions-to-be-answered is, at its core, the most elemental function of plot in storytelling; the audience's interest in "what happens next" is the true impetus behind any story.  That interest can be fostered and maintained with beautiful turns of phrase, depth of character or milieu, or fascinating ideas and events, but the most fundamental motivator is the question that cries out for an answer.  When a story's opening compels its audience to read on, it has posed its preliminary question - "what's going on here?" - with enough intrigue to drive readers past its unfamiliar trappings.  And, by the time that the preliminary question is answered, and the audience knows enough about the characters, milieu, and events to understand the story's context, other questions have been raised which demand their own answers:  "Who is she, really?"  "What will they do?"  "Why is all of this happening?"  And "How will it all be resolved - if it's to be resolved at all?"

Posing and answering these questions involves striking a delicate balance.  Too many questions too quickly threatens to overwhelm an audience, while too few or answering them too linearly may cause them to lose interest.  There is also a danger in tying up every loose end so that the story's resolution is so neat and tidy as to feel manufactured, yet too many loose ends left undone makes things seem unfinished, ill-plotted, or simply leave the audience unsatisfied.  It takes a masterful hand to handle plot in a way that satisfies but never seems  contrived.  Monster helped me to realize that much of the trick lies in carefully managing the seed-and-answer cycle of the questions that your fiction raises along the way.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Can a Story Change Your Life? - The Bevelled Edge of Love and Hatred: The Tamir Triad, by Lynn Flewelling

I came across Lynn Flewelling's The Bone Doll's Twin - the first book in the trilogy that she calls The Tamir Triad, succeeded by Hidden Warrior and The Oracle's Queen - via, as those who've been reading this series may be able to guess, a review by OSC.  (While his recent works seem to fall short of the stories he churned out in the 1980s - Ender's Shadow being the exception - and I share very little common ground with his political polemics, the man remains a consummate judge of the storytelling art.)  He would later call it "[p]erhaps the deepest psychological novel I've ever read - the fantasy makes the unconscious issues real.  Gorgeous but dark," and "brilliantly original and moving. This story still haunts me, months after reading the books. . . . Th[ese] book[s] drag[] you through so much emotionally painful territory that you're almost relieved when it's done and you can escape to your safe regular life."

I agree completely with his sentiments, yet for me, The Tamir Triad isn't so much about darkness and pain as it is about their polar opposite.  It's about love in all of its forms - family, fellowship, and romance - how fine a line separates it from hatred, and how subtly a relationship can shift from one mode - or extreme - to another.

The premise of the books is certainly a dark one, and Flewelling doesn't shy away from exploring the grimmer corners of her own magic systems and milieu, or the human psyche in general.  What struck me the most - and haunted me long after reading the books - wasn't the dire acts and situations, but how genuine, wholesome, and loving the relationships that evolved between the principal characters were.  Despite the complications that necessarily flow from the opening acts of The Bone Doll's Twin, the main character's childhood is one surrounded by caring and invested adults, and - as the story progresses - is further enriched by peers of approximate age, and a best friendship that comes to define the course of the story later arcs.  True, many elements of those relationships serve to deepen the plot and punctuate the conflicts; in fact, the corruption of the familial love between the protagonist and a cousin into an embittered hatred between rivals to a throne is perhaps the most tragic aspect of the entire story.  But it is also the strength of those bonds that serve to carry the protagonist and other principal characters through the pain the plot demands - and to emerge from it whole.

While right and wrong may never blur together, there are no one-dimensionally good or evil characters.  Even the nastiest actors are given touch points of understanding, so that even if the reader cannot condone their actions and roots for their downfall, he or she at least can perceive where they are coming from - or, perhaps, where they went wrong.

As with most stories worth discovering, The Tamir Triad leaves you not only with a greater and satisfying understanding of the characters and events in its own world, but imparts greater insight into your own.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Writing Resource: Writing Excuses Podcast

Well into its eight "season," Writing Excuses is a podcast put together by storytellers Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells, and Mary Robinette Kowal.  Each episode is approximately "Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart," and chock full of first-hand advice and wisdom from three successful creative content creators.  Not only does Writing Excuses offer guidance to the scores of one-day creators out there, but it also provides a peak at the perspectives and parlance of those who have made successful inroads into the industry.  Of particular interest to those who - like me - have trouble confining their storytelling to shorter lengths, is a recent episode that focuses on short stories, with Kowal deservedly serving as the topic expert.