Thoughts on outlining

Question: Should you use a computer for all stages of the writing process or are you actually writing stuff out by hand somewhere along the line?

Answer: Whatever Works For You.

My handwriting is pretty poor. I have had trouble reading my own handwriting an hour after I’ve written a note. I once went crazy over an errand list because I couldn’t figure out what “elim” stood for, only to realize that evening that I’d written “Gym” and it looked so scribbly that I couldn’t read it.

Even if I could read my writing, though, it drives me crazy how slow it is compared to typing. I found out when I was learning Morse code in the early 80s for my ham radio license that people print at ~10-12wpm and write cursive at speeds up to 25wpm. I haven’t been able to write cursive for decades, so I’m stuck with printing when I write by hand. But it’s slooooooow. By comparison, I type at 120-130wpm, so it’s a huge difference in the throughput rates that’s very frustrating.

I’ll use handwriting for some things. For example, when I’m creating my book outlines, I do basic mindmapping (I’ll talk about mindmapping in an article soon) to create the initial outline, but I then start plugging that into the computer and things stay online forevermore. The other place I tend to do things manually is when I hit a snag in outlining: I’ll print the outline in its current form and mark it up. The most recent book required a lot of juggling to get the outline to where I wanted and I went so far as to print the outline and then attack it with scissors and tape to make sense of it. It broke the logjam, but that’s as close as I get to a manual process again.

But whatever works for you, do it. As long as you’re meeting your deadlines and selling stuff, it doesn’t matter if you’re writing everything by on a quad core PC or by hand on yellow tablets.

Writing the current chapter

The computer’s working and I’ve got files copying to backup disks in the background. I’m settling down to writing the current chapter.

Writing is a complex and delicate art, which for me, requires the appropriate background noise. In this case, the appropriate background noise is Disc 1 of 18 of a wonderful Christmas present from the Babe: the 100% Complete Bullwinkle. It’s all 163 episodes of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. This is something that will do wonders for my writing.

It’s always good to have the perfect writing environment.

Day by day, you make your way….

I’m making incremental progress with the computer problems. I’ve got a new DVD drive in my #1 computer to replace the one that toasted with the old power supply and I’ve been able to get the #2 computer’s boot drive reformatted, wiping out the old WinServer2003 installation.

Funny thing, though. This is the computer I’d been using for a few years for my Wonderware work computer. It’d BSOD on me occasionally and then with increasing frequency until by the time I stopped using it, it’d be BSODing 4-5x/day. I’d been thinking it might’ve been the RAM going bad somewhere, but I hadn’t done much about it.

I had it BSOD on me again earlier today when I was installing Windows from the CD. Okay, no problem, I got it restarted and it’s working now, sorta, but I was having some problems getting it to recognize the MS Mouse off the USB ports. I got a msg that the USB ports weren’t being recognized correctly. NOOOOOOOO problem, I’m now up and running and can reboot this computer happily.

While I was booting it, I went into the BIOS to change the boot order so it’d hit the hard disk first and not the CD. Plugged that info in, and hit F10 to save, pressed Y and then ENTER, and BLAM! DOS/ASCII garbage on the screen.

Gee, that doesn’t sound like a RAM problem, I said, that sounds like some kind of a CMOS/motherboard problem.

I tried to change the boot sequence in the BIOS again and at the same point I got EXACTLY the same DOS/ASCII garbage on the screen. Even with the same colors on the characters.

So, I’m going to identify if this is the motherboard or something repairable. If worse comes to worst, I can always buy a new mobo for this tower for $50-60 and plug in the CPU chip and I’ll be in good shape.

What’s nicest about all of this is that I’m now solving problems on the #2 computer, because the #1 computer is actually up and running still. Hot damn!

Decision making and power thinking

I’ve found that my process for major decisions is frequently not trying to find the answer but figuring out what the true question is. Answers are relatively cheap and plentiful, but they all depend (for me) on what question I’m trying to answer. For the big decisions, I frequently have a feeling of digging deeply to come to the right question, at which point the answer becomes obvious… and almost an afterthought.

I’ve sometimes had decisions where, by every possible measure, the two choices weighed the same. I ultimately had to just pick one, like one of two identical flowers. When that happened, it’s always been the case that the one that I didn’t pick seemed to wither and die within a few weeks: something would be revealed or develop that showed I’d made the right choice for me.

I’m an optimist. I’ve always been an optimist. There’s a great deal of serendipity in my life and that’s a good thing. It works for me, too; people have noticed that things just… manifest for me at times. I’d never thought about it a lot for much of my life, fearing that if I poked at it too much, I might spoil whatever the mechanism. But then I bumped into another optimist and we started comparing notes and it turned out our thought processes were much the same on this. And we figured out how to talk about it to other people.

We dubbed our process “Asking the Right Question.” This may sound a little vague, but trust me, this really is the best way we can describe what we’re doing. But we were able to articulate a lot of this after I learned about a technique called “power thinking.”

Credit where credit’s due: I read about “power thinking” 20, 25 years ago in a magazine article. I have tried in vain to find this again. If you can provide any information on it, please let me know. I would love to read the whole article again and see if I’ve missed anything as well as be able to point people to the article and the author.

As I recall the article, the concept went along these lines: Most people tend to think “I want to do A, but B is in the way,” such as “I want a new car but I don’t have enough money to buy one.” This is a statement that really doesn’t move anywhere. It’s a statement of fact and there’s almost a “ker-THUMP!” noise at the end of it. You can’t really get around the B condition, so you might as well quit now.

Power thinking–both as the article described it and I think about things–says that if you come up with a statement of “I want to do A, but B is in the way,” you should change the ‘but’ to an ‘and’ to create “I want to do A, and B is in the way.” The first construction is preclusive while the second merely suggests that you need to come up with a detour or even define an entirely different set of conditions. This changes the example statement to “I want a new car and I don’t have enough money to buy one.” This sentence moves; in fact, it almost instantly transforms further into “Well, how can I get a new car if I don’t have enough money to buy one?” Other corollary questions tend to fall out of this almost as quickly, such as:

  • What other ways are there to get a new car without paying full price?
  • Can I borrow the use of a new car?
  • Are there new car leases available that would make sense?

You can even start wandering farther afield with questions like these:

  • Do I need a new car or would a really good used car do?
  • How much do I drive and would it even make sense to use taxis for local stuff and/or trains or carpooling for longer trips?
  • Could I bicycle?

…and so on.

All these questions help you focus on the true issue, which may not actually be “I need a new car” but “What I’ve been doing for transportation isn’t working and I need to change my transportation options venue and my requirements.” In other words, the real problem for me, once again, it’s getting the answer, it’s burrowing down through the layers until I come to the True Question.

Okay, not everything is a huge enormous life decision. Some things are going to be simple like “Darnit, I could use a new shoulder bag because this one is ripping and they don’t make this model anymore.” The chances of getting to a much deeper level are slim from here. For the things I do, I really do need a shoulder bag to carry things around. But knowing immediately that I should think about other options for shoulder bags lets me find other, potentially better solutions. FWIW, I bought a bag this time that’s a shoulder bag for police officers. It has a slightly smaller main bag area, but there are lots of small pouches around the outside designed for holding ammo, tools, supplies, and so on. It’s also very durable and is convenient to carry. I found it because I didn’t go looking for the same bag I’d had before. But even if your thinking process isn’t the same as mine, the power thinking technique brings up other ideas and helps you circumnavigate the inevitable life obstacles that happen to all of us because we’re not infinitely rich, powerful, and devilishly good-looking.

Agents: a brief thought and a recommendation

After I wrote my first book, I started wondering if I needed an agent. You hear a lot about that kinda thing, you know, so I shopped around. I signed up with an agency that was, shall we say, less than desirable. I ended up firing them for reasons that (comparing notes with other authors years later) are reasons other authors have fired them. I then went without an agent for the next 15 books. I learned a lot about negotiating contracts from Richard Curtis’s essential book, “How to Be Your Own Literary Agent.”

But after 17 books over a little more than a decade, I decided that maybe I really did want to get an agent. It was getting to be a lot of work finding books, negotiating the contracts, and managing things. I knew I could do it really well; I was just tired of it. So I started talking to Studio B, an agency specializing in computer books out of Indianapolis. It took me a long time to decide to sign with them, as I’d really felt burned by my previous experience a decade before, but sign I did and I have never been sorry I did. They’re great people and they do an excellent and very personal job of representation. The key question I needed to answer with them was this: “Will you bring in more business than I can do on my own, even when you figure in the agency percentage?” The answer has been an unqualified “Yes!”

I’m really happy having an agency and this agency in particular. Not every agency works for everyone. For example, I’ve heard of people happy with the agency I won’t name and who’ve been there for years and good for them. You don’t need an agency. You may not want an agency. But if you are doing high tech books and you do want an agency, then you could do far worse than checking out Studio B.

Repost: “Beware of Writer”

Since I’ve been having far too much fun doing system things, I haven’t been able to write articles for this the last few weeks… nor get back to the current book or do anything else to bring money or fame in. To pick things up for the new year, I’m posting a fun article I just spotted on Chuck Wendig‘s blog, Terrible Minds. Chuck’s blog has been around for about a decade and is something for us literary types. It’s very funny and his regulars usually have something interesting to say, too.

The post in question that caught my eye is “Beware of Writer,” which describes what it’s like being around writers. (There is the occasional bad word that may trigger filters if you’re using them, so be aware before clicking on the link.) This is probably more for fiction writers than non-fiction writers (who tend to be good, decent, kind, and pleasant people), but you may know a non-fiction writer who tends to be crabby. I’m sure my wife can think of someone who fits that description. Here’s the opening for this particular post:

I’ve seen a meme bouncing around that reveals reasons why you shouldn’t ever date a writer. It’s true, to a point. But I think it goes even deeper than that. Frankly, you should probably get the hell away from us. Anybody. Not just the people we date. But everybody. See us in line at the grocery store? Run, don’t walk. Escape. Avoid. Awooga, awooga. On a good day, we’re eccentric troublemakers. On a bad day, we’re malevolent sociopaths. And with writers, it’s usually a bad day.

So. Here’s a little post to clarify why you should stay at least 50 feet away from us at all times, lest we sink our vampire teeth into your body and drain you of all the things that made you pure and good. See, the things that make us good writers?

They make us awful people.

Imagine a sign around our necks:


Grinding into the New Year…

I’ve got the system back 95%, though I fear that I have to do a system restore–always a risky procedure–but after about 5 days of reconstruction, my email is back up. (I know, it shouldn’t be but a fraction of that, but the backups I was doing were damaged and I had to go back to parts of early December and parts of late November to assemble a working library.) I’m adding a RAID server to my life soon, which will provide yet another layer of safety. But this is really annoying.

Haven’t been able to poke at the doubled titles yet, though I’ve had a little progress in diagnosing them. That’s something anyway.

Fun game for Friday!

Still haven’t solved the doubled titles problem, mostly because I’ve been busily restoring the computer here (which is up to 80-85% stable and reconfigured).

Here’s a fun game for project managers and would-be project managers. Schedule all the resources to maximize efficiency and minimize expenses.

Doubled titles

Well, I suppose I should be glad that it’s not more computer problems as such… but I’m having doubled titles all of a sudden. Don’t quite know why yet, but I’m mucking about with my PHP code to fix it.

When life hands you lemons, drink more tequila

I just don’t know what it is, but I seem to be having a bad case of disk rot here. I’ve just had my fifth boot disk crash in a year and a half. (Other hard disks have failed as well but the boot disks have been the most painful.) I felt like I’d mined all the satisfaction out of this experience that I was likely to have after just the third disk crash at least, but, nope, the universe seemed to think I needed more experience with this. It’s not been just hard disks; I’m on my third motherboard, too. New RAM, new processors, almost everything. It really sucks.

Okay, so what have I learned from all of this? There are several things I want to pass on to you:

  • Always use an offsite backup system. It’s not just enough to have DVD copies of critical files, because the DVDs are of necessity always out of date. You need to have a good online backup system that automatically backs up critical files whenever they’re updated. I use Carbonite these days. There are other online backup systems that cost about the same and are probably just as good, but I’ve been pleased enough with Carbonite. There’s a referral program, so if you want to do that, I can officially refer you so that you and I get extra free months. Ping me and we’ll do it.
  • Don’t depend on the offsite backup system exclusively. I’ve got my email files backing up with Carbonite every night. This ought to be enough, right? Apparently not: on the most recent disk crash, when I went to recover my email, it turned out that the email had not backed up correctly to Carbonite in the last throes of the hard disk’s life… and the munched information overwrote the good information and ~poof~ no more email files. Fortunately, I had a disk-to-disk backup from November 27th, so I only lost about a week’s worth of responses and had to resift a bunch of email. More time lost, but not a complete disaster. The moral of this particular story, though, is not to depend on one single backup method. I survived because I had things backed up to another hard disk. I’m also considering putting together a small RAID system just to keep a complete immediate backup of everything. It’ll only cost about $400 and will be Yet Another Layer of backup.
  • Have physical backups that aren’t part of something accessible online. I might not have lost nearly so much email if I’d been burning things occasionally to DVD. Normally, I do this every week or two to make a permanent image of email and other job critical files, but the computer was giving me too much grief and I was relying on the more electronic versions. Mistake. But I’m also reminded of my very first hard disk crash ever, back in 1987, when I was writing my very first book. I was copying the current chapter file off to a floppy disk every hour or so (I’d just leave the floppy in the drive and copy when I hit a breakpoint). I’d copy all the files off at the end of the day and carry the floppies upstairs with me when I left the office. And lo! I lucked out: the hard disk I was using crashed and I was able to restore the files on the floppy to the other hard disk and no data was lost and only a few hours of writing time were compromised. Files these days take a lot more than the capacity of a single floppy, but the principle’s the same: for a project you’re working on, copy short-term files to a flash drive or a CD or DVD and carry them with you when you’re away from the computer. For large blocks of files, get a cheap 1T hard disk in an external enclosure and use that to do a file slurp of everything and then save that at a friend’s house. If you’re robbed or your house burns down–and trust me, both things have happened to good friends this year–your files will still be recoverable from the drive at your friend’s house as well as the Carbonite backup.
  • Run a lot of anti-virus and anti-spyware programs. The purpose of most viruses these days is not to randomly damage your computer as it used to be 15-20 years ago, but rather to avoid detection and enslave your computer for use as part of a botnet. Nevertheless, not every piece of software is perfect even if it’s intended to work without a ripple. Anything that tampers with the operating system can cause problems. Spyware is much more common and it’s not nearly as benign, ironically. Spyware can and does slow down your system. It also can be an open door to much nastier software (such as the aforementioned viruses). There are several free anti-virus programs for home users such as Avast, Panda, and AVG. (Panda also has a rootkit detector you may want to try.) Many other programs are available for a free trial, but I stay with Avast and AVG because they’re free and they work fine. For spyware, consider Ad-Aware and Spybot. There’s no reason you can’t have multiple spyware detectors on your system and it’s been my experience that different programs are better at catching some things than others. Do I think that I lost hard disks to viruses or spyware? No, I’m fairly sure that this was all hardware-related. But I’m not absolutely sure. And I know that as soon as I stop testing for viruses and spyware, I’ll get hit by them.

My overall tip is if you find yourself saying “I don’t have time to back up my data,” stop immediately and back up your data. Disks fail for all sorts of reasons and none of them are pretty. Every time this happens, it takes me the best part of a week to recover all the programs, all the configurations, all the settings, and all the links, even when I haven’t lost any actual data. And I’ve usually lost at least some data–bookmarks, links, and so on.

The one thing out of this I have not learned is any really good new swear words, and believe me, I could have used some. (Although I want to be really clear that, now that I am hopefully past all of this problem, I don’t want to have this happen yet again just for the opportunity to learn more words.) I am best reminded of one of my favorite Mark Twain quotes: “Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.”

Believe me, Mark Twain was $%*@#$_)^!!! right.