Tag Archives: science fiction

459. Steampunk Research, 2017

I’m offering a look at the nuts and bolts of how I organize my writing, in four posts. 456 explains the system I used for years. 457 tells how I keep order while writing today. 458 gives the gory details on why this system works and 459 shows you how to keep track of your research. Take what you can use and ignore the rest.

The best thing about doing novel research on a computer is that you have access to the world, instantly and right on your desktop.

The second best thing about doing research on a computer is that you don’t have to copy things down longhand.

I am very careful to respect the rights of other writers, especially on copyright issues. However, those rules don’t necessarily apply to copying into your own research notes to be considered, modified, used for inspiration, and not quoted.

You can’t copy everything you find on the internet, no matter how useful. Sometimes you have to bookmark. I found an 1868 map of London which I returned to a hundred times. It lives on Safari, along with bookmarks for thirty other websites I have used. A few of those which would be of general interest to steampunk fans and authors are: Beyond Victoriana, All Things Victorian, Historical Emporium (even if you don’t buy the clothes they sell), and The Victorian Web. That doesn’t even scratch the surface.

Another map from Wikimedia Commons was available in jpg. It lives on my desktop, along with a number of maps, coats of arms, and photographs whose jpgs could be snagged.

Whenever I copy from the internet into a word processor program, I always also copy the URL.

Most of what exists in the folder for The Cost of Empire consists of things I have written myself. I would guess that my character, historical, and world building notes probably run about half as many words as the novel itself.

So how can we keep track of all this?

I explained about keeping track of the chapters two posts ago, and about the nitty gritty of ordering last post. Now let’s tie it all together.

Here is a low-fat version of what my folder looks like, with 11 files instead of 77. It starts with important research files, then has chapters, and ends with less important research files.

  changes (notes on changes planned)
 Delhi Durbar Ebook ( excerpts from an Ebook)
 Final Timeline
 Sleeves, color (on uniform sleeves, color denotes rank)
0.1 chapter outlines
1 “Tick tick”
20 “Death of an Airship”
American submarines (notes)
Naphtha engine (excerpts on the real thing along with how I modified them)
The German War (I made it up, but I had to write a history of it to keep track)

You may not see it, but there are two spaces before “  changes”, and one space before each of the next three file names. The three file names after that begin with numbers. The last four begin with letters.

Here’s why it is done that way. The computer puts numbers (in numerical order) on the top of the stack. Letters (in alphabetical order) come next. However, a space comes above anything else.

If you want your most important files to be above your chapters, put a space in front of their titles. If you want one of them to be at the very top, put two spaces in front of that title. Once a file is no longer a priority, don’t throw it away. Put a “z” as the first letter in the title and it will drop all the way to the bottom.

“zTimeline” is an early attempt; I didn’t want it at the top where I might use it by accident, but I also didn’t want to lose track of my original thoughts on the order of in which things happened.

It’s amazing how simple this is in practice, and how well it works.


458. Alpha-not-betical

I’m offering a look at the nuts and bolts of how I organize my writing, in four posts. 456 explains the system I used for years. 457 tells how I keep order while writing today. 458 gives the gory details on why this system works and 459 shows you how to keep track of your research. Take what you can use and ignore the rest.

I wrote my first six novels on a typewriter, keeping notes in a card file. If I had to go back to that, I wouldn’t write. Thank you Steve Jobs.

The way I work today depends on having multiple files in one folder, each with it’s own function, while making full use of copy-and-paste between the files. This requires placing all the files in a manner that makes sense visually, and for that you have to have a deep understanding of how a computer orders files. Buckle your seat belt, it’s going to be a nerdy ride.

For my most recent project, a steampunk novel titled The Cost of Empire, I have 77 files in one folder. From the beginning I had imposed an organizational structure on it, so I never lost anything. I explained the chapter organization last post and I will explain the research organization next post. For now I’m gong to concentrate on the structure behind the structure.

The following is based on Mac. I can’t guarantee that it transfers totally to another platform, but it should be at least close, and you can find any differences by experimentation.

The files in your folders are an order that is not quite alphabetical. The words go in alphabetical order, the numbers go in numerical order, and special characters like tilde and backslash have an order of their own. Mixed units go where their left-most letter or digit directs. That is, 13b would be placed among the numbers and ordered numerically, but B13 would be placed among the words and ordered alphabetically.

Bear with me. This is a powerful organizational tool you can learn in about twenty minutes. I have tried to write this out, but this is one case where words don’t work. So let’s look at examples instead. The following numbers occur in numerical order.

1, 2, 7, 11, 23, 2514

Now let’s put those same numbers into alphabetical order. We get:

1, 11, 2, 23, 2514, 7

If this doesn’t make sense, let’s replace each numeral with the corresponding letter of the alphabet.


There you have it, pure and proper alphabetical order.

Decades ago, I had a night job teaching spreadsheet to my fellow teachers. I would read a group of numerals such as the first example given here in random order, to be placed one per cell in vertical array. Then I would tell my teacher/students to let the spreadsheet put them in order. They would get what is given in the second example.

Once their minds were properly blown, I would show them where the program gave a choice of sorting numerically or alphabetically.

Alphabetical order takes all the words with A as the first letter, then all the words with B as the first letter, and so forth. Then it looks at the second letter in each word, then the third, and so forth. It also follows the rule that nothing comes before something, so that A comes before AA.

Numerical order takes all the numbers with one numeral to the left of the decimal place first, then the numbers with two numerals to the left of the decimal place, and so forth. It assumes that whole numbers always have an invisible decimal at the right. Then it puts things into 0, 1, 2 … 9 order, and it doesn’t care how many places lie to the right of the decimal point. That is, it assumes that all numeral groups to the right of the decimal point end in an infinite string of zeroes.

Am I wasting your time? Do they teach this in ninth grade now? I had to learn it by experimentation after I got my first computer in 1986.

All this is the key to the orderly arrangement of a complicated folder, and that is the key to my method of keeping track of both chapters and notes in one folder.

I number my chapters and use word titles for my research notes, then use the mixed system my computer provides to make it all easily retrievable. We’ll put this all together in the last post on Thursday.


By the way, if you know ASCII, forget it. This isn’t ASCII. It isn’t a pure system at all, but a mixed system designed to produce a result that is intuitive to humans, not to computers.

457. I Don’t Write Novels Any More

I’m offering a look at the nuts and bolts of how I organize my writing, in four posts. 456 explains the system I used for years. 457 tells how I keep order while writing today. 458 gives the gory details on why this system works and 459 shows you how to keep track of your research. Take what you can use and ignore the rest.

The actual writing of novels before computers was a royal pain in a dozen ways, but there were a few advantages. The rough drafts — 300 to 500 sheets of actual paper — could be carried around, rummaged through, and sorted as needed. Several times I brought a long 1 x 12 from the wood shop as a temporary table to hold a row of single chapter stacks.

In the mid-eighties I quit writing full time and went to work as a teacher. I could finally afford a computer, and I never looked back. Symphony in a Minor Key and Raven’s Run, the first two novels I wrote on a computer, each ended up with a single file 80,000 to 100,000 words long. Finding something in that mass worked well enough if I remembered which page it was on, or if what I wanted contained a distinctive word cluster that allowed me to use the find function. You’d be surprised how often neither worked and I was left scrolling, scrolling, scrolling.

Cyan was written half on typewriter, decades ago, and half on computer. I used word recognition software to convert the first half to digital. All in all, Cyan called out the best and worst in both systems.

When I recently sat down to write The Cost of Empire, it was clearly time to reinvent and streamline my process.

First of all, there was the issue of manuscript length, and how to keep it under control. I have no trouble with writing too much; I learned the trade when novels were fifty to sixty thousand words long. That wouldn’t even be publishable today. I tend to write tersely and reach the last page under modern length requirements. It struck me that it would be a lot easier to correct that as I went along, if I knew where I stood on a daily basis.

For The Cost of Empire, I set a goal of 100,000 words. I divided that into twenty chapters of 5000 words each. That seemed a good chapter length for a novel that progressed in a linear fashion with a single viewpoint character and almost no flashbacks. It set a stately pace.

Another novel, just begun, has multiple viewpoints, confused chronology, and a ton of explanatory matter dropped in a word here and a sentence there. It seems to be all transitions. For that novel I have chosen 1000 word chapters, and lots of them.

I use the chapter break-down to keep from having to scroll through long chunks of text. I don’t write novels any more; I write chapters, and copy them into a single file only when the writing is done. Each chapter gets its own file, named (number)(space)(title in quotes). Here are the first four chapters from The Cost of Empire:

1 “Tick, tick”
2 “Unit A”
3 – 6
3 “First Mission”
3.1 rewrite
4 “Field of Fire”

When I began to write, I had placed a few numbered, blank files to receive the first few chapters, and had a dozen files of notes which I will explain two posts from now, on January 31. Chapter one went fairly smoothly, with a rough draft finished in a couple of days. The first draft of chapter two followed, also fairly quickly.

After that point, things were less clear in my head. The next chunk of writing stretched out with no obvious breaking points, and went through several rough re-writes. That piece of writing finally spanned pieces of several chapters. Now the value of the multi-file system came in to play. I simply re-titled that chunk of writing 3 – 6 and left it in place. I moved on to 3 “First Mission” and started writing again, copying and pasting large and small chunks of 3 – 6 as needed.

Note: copying, not cutting. 3 -6 is still unchanged today; nothing in it was ever lost, even though everything in it eventually found its way to a “real” chapter in the final book.

At first, there were days of research, days of invention, and days of writing. Or more likely, two hours of research, fourteen minutes of inspired writing, forty minutes of planning, thirty-two minutes of organization, twenty minutes of writing something to fill in a hole left in a previous chapter, and so forth.

Later in the process, I sat down every day and wrote, starting where I had left off the day before, and proceeding in a reasonably linear fashion. That is, I did what non-writers think writers always do.

Initially, that was not possible. I was inventing my character, inventing the plot, and inventing the world everything took place in — all at once. That process never stopped, but the amount of invention went down and the amount of linear writing went up all through the production of the book.

Even when I was a beginning writer following Whitney’s procedure, I didn’t do planning followed by writing. They always went on as simultaneous, semi-independent tracks.

There were a number of plot complications in 3 “First Mission” which had to be worked out. It took several iterations. I knew what I needed to do, I did it, and I didn’t like the results. This happens; it’s just part of the process. Sometimes you have a plan, you execute it, and the result just lies there, smelling like something that dropped out of a cow.

That, by the way, is the difference between an experienced writer and a beginner. The experienced writer recognizes the smell — from past experience — and reaches for his scoop shovel.

I copied (not cut!) out a big chunk and placed it into 3.1 rewrite. I took a new tack on some tricky points and wrote an alternative version. Again, this is where the multi-file system shone. I brought 3 “First Mission” up to standards, but kept the alternatives filed as 3.1 rewrite, for future reference.

I wrote two versions of chapter 7 because it was a critical introduction of a character that would be an important adjunct to my main character, and it had to be just right. A sizable chunk of chapter 13 was heading the wrong way and got pulled. It was titled 13.1 Pulled, but it was retained so that its content could be mined, if need be.

When I got to chapter 20 all was done. I was only seven or eight percent short of my goal length because I had kept track of my chapter lengths. I needed an Epilog. To keep it immediately after the last chapter in the folder, I titled it 20.1 Epilog. I could have called it 21, but that would have implied it was a chapter, and it was quite short.

I also needed for some ancillary material to stay with the chapters, so they were titled 0.1 chapter outlines and 0.2 introduction. That put them in order just before chapter one.

The really nerdy stuff comes next post.

Ursula K. Le Guin

January 23, 7 PM.    The post I promised you, regarding how I organize my writing, is postponed until tomorrow.

I just learned that Ursula K. Le Guin died yesterday. It occurs to me, given how young the people who read this blog tend to be, that you may not know her. That would be a shame.

My years teaching middle school also leads me to a suspicion, that she may have passed into that limbo of forced reading. If a teacher makes you read it, it must be dull, right?

I have no power to tell you what to read, but I can make two suggestions.

Ursula Le Guin was the greatest fantasy writer in the history of fantasy. No exceptions.
A Wizard of Earthsea is her masterpiece.

Of all the writers who moved me, inspired me, and taught me how to write by example, Le Guin is the one I most would have loved to bump into at a convention just to say hello, and thank you. That it didn’t happen, is one of my regrets.

456. A Map is Not a Journey

I’m offering a look at the nuts and bolts of how I organize my writing, in four posts. 456 explains the system I used for years. 457 tells how I keep order while writing today. 458 gives the gory details on why this system works and 459 shows you how to keep track of your research. Take what you can use and ignore the rest.

I don’t outline, and failure to do so has gotten me into a world of trouble over the years. If you don’t know where you are going, you are likely to drive off a cliff.

When I do outline, that gets me into a different kind of trouble. All the fun goes out of the writing. I can stare at blankness for hours, unable to force myself to begin something that, in my heart, is already done.

Someone, Vonnegut I think, wrote about a character that read novels just “to see what happens next.” That makes sense to me. I write novels to see what happens next. If I know too much, too soon, I lose interest.

On the other hand, starting on page one without a fair idea of what you plan to write will result in a lot of uncompleted novels.

All this is very vague and has been said a thousand times before. What a new writer need is nuts and bolts, so let me give you some, first from Phyllis A. Whitney.

Whitney died in 2008 at the age of 104, having written over a hundred novels. She wan’t someone I read, except for one article, A Map is Not a Journey, which appeared in the magazine The Writer and was reprinted in the 1972 Writer’s Handbook. That book was fresh and new in 1975 when I started writing and it is still a good source for learning writing as a humane art. You wouldn’t want to go to it for marketing advice.

Whitney’s article provided the organizational backbone of my first half dozen novels, all written before home computers. It still works. She used a notebook and I used a card file, but the structure was the same. I will give you a tastes of the categories of information she used, then send you to Whitney for detail.

Work Calendar: deadlines and daily progress.

Title Ideas: self explanatory.

Situation and Theme: what is going on and why.

Problem: what is the hero(ine) trying to solve.

Development: a catch-all to write down miscellaneous bits as they are thought of.

Outline: Whitney makes the point that she can’t outline too far ahead. She starts with a rough outline, and refines it all through the writing process. The full outline, in all its detail, can’t be written before the book is finished.

To Be Checked: things Whitney needs to know.

Additional: things Whitney needs to change. Remember, this was pre-computer, when making changes in a paper ms. was no small chore. The idea is, make a note as as you think of the change, then deal with it later.

Bibliography: self explanatory.

Research: self explanatory.

Diary: here Whitney lets recalcitrant characters make diary style entries to help her come to understand them.

Of course, I modified this scheme to meet my own needs. Cyan had sections on Cyan’s solar system, Cyan’s fauna, the Cyl before and after, Terrestrial politics, and Lassiter drive/core ships. It had a biography section with mini-biographies of the ten original explorers. There were also categories that fit Whitney’s personality and genre (mysteries) which I didn’t need and didn’t use.

Stripped to a summary, Whitney’s system doesn’t look like much. My recounting misses the charm of her writing and the details which won’t fit into a short post. You should go to the original.

I tried to find a copy of Whitney’s article online to link for you. No luck. I did find that its title is now one of the great and widely appreciated quotes.

If you want to know more, I do have a source for you. Whitney wrote a Guide to Fiction Writing in 1988. I just found it today. I haven’t actually seen a copy, but Amazon has a LOOK INSIDE which showed me that the article is there in the form of a couple of early chapters. You can get it used for under two bucks, and I’m sure it is worth a lot more than that.

Next post, how I work today.

451. The Blurb

Every writer hates blurbs. If the term blurb is unfamiliar to you, it refers to the written material on the outside of a paperback novel that ostensibly tells the reader what the story inside is  about. It is supposed to be a way for the reader to judge quickly whether or not to make a purchase.

However publishers have no intention of telling you why you shouldn’t buy one of their books, so looking for an accurate blurb is a bit like Diogenes looking for an honest man. Thomas Anderson of Schlock Value, whose quirky reviews I never miss, wages an ongoing war against dishonest blurbs.

Yesterday I ran across Robert Bloch’s The Opener of the Way in a used bookstore. I’m not a fan of Bloch, nor of horror, but I bought it because I had to have a copy of the back blurb. I’ve reproduced the top half of it in the scan above. The bottom half, in extreme fine print, says:

(Actually, the Opener of the Way is a first-rate collection of ten terrifying tales of horror and the macabre, including some of the finest ever written about Ancient Egyptian curses, vampires, pacts with the Devil and others. We hope you ‘enjoy’ them . . .)

The fine print was more honest than most and the top part was downright clever. It isn’t usually that way. For example, the blurb on the back of my first novel Jandrax says:

As a scout he’d tamed four planets — and more women than most men ever see . . .

Now in truth, there is only one sentence in the novel that mentions, in passing, that first-in scouts are famous for being rowdy when between assignments.

The back blurb on Jandrax is in three parts, each flamboyant in the style you would find on old westerns. Setting aside the gosh-wow tone, the first and third section are accurate enough in content, but that middle section makes Jandrax sound like astro-porn.

There are two problems with this. Anyone who buys the book expecting a sexy, racy delight, will be terribly disappointed. And anyone who wants a serious portrayal of how space exploration might actually look will probably turn away. Based on the phrase more women than most men ever see, I wouldn’t buy the book myself.

True cliché: You only get one chance to make a first impression. The blurb is where authors make their first impression, and if the publisher blows it, authors are the ones who suffer. 

My second novel A Fond Farewell to Dying has a front blurb that says (in all caps):


Yech! Sorry folks, that also has nothing to do with the story inside. Neither does the angel blowing the last trump over four zombies in boxes, but bad cover art is a subject for another post. FFTD is about an atheist who tries to come up with a mechanical version of immortality, and succeeds without the universe taking revenge on him for hubris. The front cover, both art and blurb, gives a very different impression. In fact, I saw FFTD for sale on a spinner rack of Christian paperbacks in a supermarket. Someone there certainly got a surprise.

The back blurb was lengthy, given in three paragraphs. The first two were reasonably accurate, but the third was wildly misleading. That inaccuracy irritated me no end, but most blurbs are much worse. They often look like they were mixed up and placed on the wrong book.

I challenge you to take a handful of science fiction paperback novels which you have already read, look at the blurbs, and decide if they have anything to do with the novel as you remember it. If you get one match out of five tries you’ve probably won the jackpot.

Still, the opening statement in this post may be an overstatement. Perhaps every long-time writer used to hate blurbs would be more accurate. When Cyan was being prepared for publication, the folks at EDGE asked me to write my own blurb, and I have to admit that compressing a novel into a sentence or two is hard. I appreciated the chance, but now I have no one to blame.

450. Centuries Are Nothing to India

It is a new year, and once again I find myself in India. Metaphorically that is, in my latest novel.

I went to college as a biology major and quickly switched to Anthropology. Everyone in the Biology department wanted to study DNA and I wanted to study ecology. It was 1966 and I was about ten years too early.

Once in the Anthropology department, I quickly found myself drawn to Indian studies. That is, South Asian studies, not the study of American Indians, as they were called before the days of political correctness.

I also found that common terminology doesn’t fit the larger world. What Americans call the Middle East is neither middle nor eastern. It is West Asia. East Asia is China and Japan. South Asia is Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka I fell in love with all the parts of South Asia, and never made it to any of them in the flesh. The Viet Nam war got in the way, and then novel writing got in the way.

I have visited variant Indias three times now in novels. A Fond Farewell to Dying (Pocket/Timescape, 1981) was set in a future following nuclear war and rising of the waters, in which India is the last nation having a modern, scientific culture. America is reduced to backwardness while Europe and northern Asia are blasted by nuclear fallout. David Singer, having renamed himself Ram David Singh, has left America to become a scientist in India, where he perfects a type of mechanically derived immortality which gets him into no end of trouble.

During my years of Indian studies, I ran across Rabindranath Tagore’s poem Sunset of the Century. I was so taken by it that I quoted part of it when I wrote A Fond Farewell to Dying, and quoted a shorter piece of it as the sub-title of this website.

Here is what I quoted in Fond Farewell:

Be not ashamed, my brothers, to stand before the proud and the powerful.
With your white robes of simpleness.
Let your crown be of humility, your freedom the freedom of the soul.
Build God’s throne daily on the ample bareness of your poverty.
And know that what is huge is not great and pride is not everlasting.

That last line is probably my favorite quotation of all time. I posted the complete poem two years ago. Tagore wrote it on the last day of the nineteenth century, looking back at centuries of oppression and forward to a new century of freedom.

India showed up again in Cyan but I won’t give out any spoilers on that.

My latest novel The Cost of Empire is a look at an India just beginning to push for independence in a steampunk flavored alternate universe. Rabindranath Tagore is an off-camera character, as the cousin of one of the main characters who has a habit of quoting him. I’ll let you know when it is finished.