Reader Request Week 2010 #7: Writery Bits

In which I answer some of the writing-related questions:


Do authors (SF especially) ever use any of the massive over-functionality built into modern word processors? Or would they be just as happy with a typewriter that erased words and saved files?

Or, in other words, how much has the tool changed the trade?

Or, do they ever rtfm so they know how to use the damn things?

I wrote The Ghost Brigades on whatever the most basic notepad program that comes with the Mac is called and had no more problems writing it than I would have had on a more fully functional word processing program, so at least in my case I don’t really use most of the bells and whistles on modern word processing programs, and I suspect most other writers likewise use mostly the basic functions to get things done. I think the most useful tool I have for book writing, in fact, is the large monitor I have, which allows me to show two full pages of text at one time. I like that a whole lot. But in general I think the best thing computers do for writers is make it so much easier to edit the document while in process. Really, that’s such an amazing advancement over typing out physical hard copy that I’m still amazed that writing actually got done before computer word processing.

Don Fitch:

Plants. I’m pretty sure you’re not A Plant Person — not much beyond lettuce, tomato, & onion on a hamburger, or grass & a small tree in photos of sunsets — but I’m wondering if you’re as virtually-blind to plants the way some s-f writers/readers I know are.

Well, I don’t think there are going to be the exact trees, grasses, etc. we have on other worlds. But I do think that the ecological niches on our own world exist for a reason, so that if we posit an earth-like world, I think it’s very likely there will be things very much like trees, grasses, etc., filling up the appropriate ecological niches. So, no, I don’t think I’m virtually-blind to alien flora, but I do think alien flora on an earth-like planet (where many of my books take place) will be at least slightly familiar.


Some writers have stories that have been influenced by their kids. Other writers don’t — they deliberately keep their home life and their writing separate. How has your daughter influenced your writing? Or do you keep that part of your life apart? Why or why not?

I’ve noted before that some of the inspiration for Zoe in the Old Man’s War series of books comes from Athena (although only some, since in Zoe’s Tale, Zoe is sixteen and Athena is now only eleven). But by and large at this point she’s not a huge influence on my writing, other than the practical “Now I have to feed and house this small person” influence she wields. It’s not so much a conscious decision to have her affect the books as it is that the sort of books I write don’t generally have much space for an Athena-like eleven year old in them. As she gets older perhaps that will change; I’m not against the idea. But if it happens it’ll happen in a natural way, not by me deciding to drop an Athena analogue into my books.

Alternative Eric S:

Is blogging going the way of chlorophyl gum, channelers and flagpole sitting?

No, but I think the number of people who do “blogging” will probably shrink a bit over time. That because, as I’ve noted before, what most people want to do with their blogs is keep connected to friends and family, and things like Twitter and Facebook let them do that in a far more efficient and headache free manner. Fewer people over time will do what we recognize as stand-alone blogs, because the number of people who want to blog — i.e., write what are essentially little personal columns and/or single-subject sites — has always been relatively small and will continue to be. So they won’t go away, but for most people they’ve already been superseded.

Lisa the Librarian:

Your opinion on the effect of Twilight series on the YA novel industry – it seems to have spawned lots of knock-offs/similar titles.

The same thing happened with Harry Potter series.

So, any thoughts?

I don’t have any great personal affection for either the Twilight or Harry Potter books — they’re not written for me, you know? — but in a general sense I think anything that introduces kids to the idea that books are fun and a fine way to entertain themselves is a very good thing, so in that sense I have nothing but warm feeling for the books. In terms of knockoffs, it’s not terribly surprising but I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with it. As a reader when I find something I like, when I’m done with it I often look for something similar to that experience, and I certainly did that as a younger reader: My fondness for Heinlein is what introduced me to H. Beam Piper and John Varley, for example. That today’s kids are doing the same thing isn’t really a problem.

Paul in NJ:

Can you write about a topic – any topic – without using a commonly-used letter? Say, S or N? (H/T Walter R. Brooks)

Probably but it’s a thing that seems more like work and less like fun, so I likely wouldn’t.

Susan S:

Why do you think writers almost always have pets, and why, in particular, do more writers seem to have cats instead of dogs. (As an aside…even the ones who have dogs seem to often have cats as well.) I tend to think it has something to do with independence – authors are generally independent (occasionally gregarious, perhaps, but generally they’re at least as happy on their own as with others, in my experience anyway).

So: why cats for writers?

I think writers have pets because people have pets, and writers are (generally) people. I also don’t know that writers quantitatively have more cats than dogs; I think it may just be that writers with cats talk about their cats more than writers who have dogs talk about their dogs.

Personally speaking, I’m bit more of a cat person than I dog person, but I’ve had both all my life and at this point we have more cats than dogs simply as a function of stray cats finding us and/or neighbors foisting a kitten onto us because of a misunderstanding. Even my former cat Rex was someone else’s cat before he was mine; I inherited him. The only pet in the household that we went out of way to procure was Kodi. That has to mean something. What? No idea.

34 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2010 #7: Writery Bits”

  1. When you mentioned John Varley, I realized that a Big Idea written by him would be the shit. I know you’re full up on Big Ideas, and he’s probably too big a cheese for that, but I would read the hell out of such a document.
    Just sayin’.

  2. Typo / superfluous “not”:
    Probably but it’s not a thing that seems more like work and less like fun, so I likely wouldn’t.
    should be:
    Probably but it’s a thing that seems more like work and less like fun, so I likely wouldn’t.


  3. The flip side of Paul in NJ’s request (leaving out a common letter) is the book ‘Eunoia’ by Christian Bök. It’s verse poetry, with each of the five chapters only using words that have one particular vowel (the first chapter only uses ‘a’ words, etc.). What’s even more amazing than the fact that this exists at all is that most of it actually makes sense, too. Here’s a link to the ‘e’ chapter:

    Thanks for answering all of these questions – it’s been a fun glimpse behind the curtains…

  4. I’m one of those people who just want to blog – i.e., write what are essentially little personal columns and/or single-subject sites.

    I’d love to get paid to write a weekly column and since I’m no good at selling myself and my ideas (I’m working on it), right now a blog allows me the space and time to write.

    I want eventually to move somewhere smaller and be able to earn enough money by freelancing in various fields to support myself. You are my inspiration.

  5. I write in my text editor first, then when I’m done, I run the spellchecker in there. Once that’s done, I copy the text over to Word and bold and italicize things, run Word’s spellchecker and grammarchecker there, and it’s done.

    Having the spell-and grammarchecker intrude with notices while I’m writing is very distracting.

  6. Technically speaking, the “most basic notepad program that comes with the Mac” is an ancient Unix line editor called ed, and I really doubt you wrote a novel in ed. I suspect you mean TextEdit, which is the most basic OS X graphical text editor.

  7. Tumbleweed…. You can disable those if you’d rather write directly in Word. I can imagine, though, that having the ABILITY to mess with formatting is to tempting to ignore – after all if there are knobs to be twisted, they have to be twisted, right? :)

  8. Well, I built myself a python text editor with tkinter that I use for a lot of internet writing, because my keyboard and the internet don’t get along, and because Word2007 is a pain in the ass copy-pasting to the web. I could probably write a story in there, but the formatting would not carry over to word, so I don’t.

    I think John’s right on the money about realtime editing being the major bonus of computer writing software. Yes, two pages on the screen helps, too. And spelling and grammar check. But that editing ability is number one.

  9. Or, perhaps the not is there on purpose, thus obliquely saying it would be fun and that he in fact did write that answer without using a common letter.

  10. “Really, that’s such an amazing advancement over typing out physical hard copy that I’m still amazed that writing actually got done before computer word processing.”

    It makes the works of those who came before so much more impressive. Imagine how many hand-written edits went into the Lord of the Rings. Or did Tolkein just get it right the first time? :)

  11. MacBlaze–

    From what I’ve read, most writers do the text part pretty much straight. But a number of them have switched to Scrivener and largely seem to love it.

    Scrivener is a novel-writing program (Mac only at this point–it uses interface tools the current Macs have built in). It has corkboards and links and separate reference windows and color coding and so on, which make it far easier to keep track of the story, to storyboard, to move sections around. A number of writers even switched to the Mac just to get it.

    The writing itself is still pretty much “get the text down.” But keeping track of a novel-sized project is reputed to be a lot easier in Scrivener.

    As an ex-copy editor/desktop publisher, most of the Word bells and whistles cause major problems if the text is going to be put in a page layout program–they don’t transfer over. I disable nearly everything.

  12. And right after confessing to having been a copy editor I notice an egregious error (Word is not an ex-copy editor/desktop publisher). Oh well….

  13. Mike Scott @5: I would have a hard time calling ed a “notepad program”. I think being a notepad program implies at least multi-line editing like one has on a physical notepad.

    Also, on a Mac, you can’t really run ed by itself; you first have to open a terminal, and the combination is rather more complicated than just running TextEdit.

  14. Thanks to Don Fitch for asking that question about plants! It’s a major pet peeve of mine too. Not that I’m grumbling about Our Gracious Host. When he writes about an alien forest, at least it feels kind of alien.

    My grumble is that most writers don’t know enough about plants to design a believable alien plant or forest (actually, most biologist film consultants don’t seem to know much, either). Since I do know enough botany, I decided to give it a go (100 K SF manuscript being revised right now), and I have to say, writing alien landscapes that matter is a lot of fun.

    Part of that grumble is that botany has gone through a couple of major revolutions in the last 20 years (evolution and ecology), and most science fiction writers haven’t noticed. There’s a much bigger a world-building palette writers could use if they wanted to bother to become familiar with the science now out there. Instead it’s same old, same old.

  15. heteromeles, I’m fascinated. I do know enough about plants to design an alien plant and an alien forest, and it would be fun. But I’ve never thought that anyone cared enough for me to go to that much work in my fiction.

    I’m writing for the Science in My Fiction blog at Crossed Genres, and one of the things I was idly contemplating was a series of posts on how worldbuilding really works – not from first principles, like needing second-gen stars, or from the physics that most SF writers seem to make an effort to get right, but things like the way global circulation patterns and geography interact to produce biomes, why desert plants and animals differ from jungle organisms, and so on. It sounds like you don’t need it, but would the rest of you be interested?

    And for the writing tools side of the discussion. Scrivener. Or vim. Depends on what I’m doing – I refuse to be parted from either.

  16. John, the only thing better than one big monitor is LOTS of big monitors. Someone did a study where they found that you are 50% more productive with two monitors. I’m not sure if that is BS, but I’d try out that stat when trying to get the purchase past the SO. I find “up / down” a better layout than “left / right” (that is stack monitors vertically rather than horizontally as looking up/down is less distracting than turning your head from side to side.

  17. To follow up on Paul in NJ’s question (and I didn’t know that Brooks had done that; I ‘m most familiar with George Perec’s La Disparition): Do you ever enjoy writing with any specific constraints whatsoever, such as using a sonnet form? I know you had some fun with The Android’s Dream, where you obviously had to work to keep one of the characters’ sex ambiguous throughout.

  18. MacBlaze, if you’re looking for work that requires (or at least encourages) you to use lots of your word processor’s bells and whistles, you might try technical writing. I did layout and design work for several years at a technical publisher, and we were always grateful when our authors had a firm grasp of advanced features, especially type styles and paragraph styles. They gave the author more control over how his information is organized, but made it easy for us drop the text into our preferred templates.

  19. Having seen so many of the ways that people want to “process words”, your modern word processor does all of those things pretty well. If I just sit down and write a document, it’s a very straight forward process; most of the optional formatting is …well “optional”.

    When you start saying to people, oh well let’s remove X and Y, then twice as many rush in to say “but that’s indespensible”. One person’s bloat is another person’s feature. I knew a church organist who considered all those black-keys as completely surplus to requirements, and that they frankly just got in the way…

    Given that so many specialised tools float around in our houses and garages, vastly under-utilised, or incorrectly matched to task, I can only enjoin people to a) think about what you buy, and b) learn to use the tools you have.

    @Tumbleweed: Having the spell-and grammarchecker intrude with notices while I’m writing is very distracting.

    Why not just turn off interactive proofing? There’s a couple of boxes you can just check off, that I think have been in Word for about twenty years.

    @Atsiko: “but the formatting would not carry over to word, so I don’t.”
    I’m guessing you haven’t looked at Word’s paste options since about 1995.

  20. Re: the over-functionality of modern word processing programs… I’ve now worked with a couple of editors who are starting to use MS Word’s “review” function to send revision notes and even do copyedits electronically.

    I can see the benefits of not having so much paper flying around and saving on postage, etc. But hilarity can result if someone hits the wrong button. (i.e. “accept all” or “reject all”)

    It’s kind of a pain in the ass but I’m getting used to it.

  21. heteromeles, I would love a good resource along those lines! And, phiala, I would definitely read your worldbuilding series. I enjoy worldbuilding, and I don’t even have the excuse of being a writer.

  22. Regarding Word processors and the tools they provide- when Dean and I wrote Methuselah’s Daughter Dean insisted on using Word’s Track Changes as we collaborated. He absolutely LOVED it because he could scrutinize every change I made to an established document. I absolutely HATED it because I would have to go through and approve or reject changes, some as small as frakking punctuation changes. For me it really slowed down the process of reviewing what he’d done so we could maintain some level of continuity.

    We’ve compromised on the sequel- if I make a change I highlight the entire paragraph in blue, he does the same in red. In that sense, the Word Processor is seriously helping us out. And like our host said- how in the hell did anyone get anything finished writing by hand or with a typewriter? My respect for those writers on that topic alone is immense.

  23. My company tried to use the revision history/commenting portions of Word while creating technical documentation, and found that for large documents (a few hundred pages) Word becomes nearly unusable.

  24. Heteromeles @#13: I think it’s also a matter of suspension of disbelief. The ecology of Speaker for the Dead bugged the crap out of me. I kept trying to picture ecological scouts setting down there, noticing that there were only three plant life forms on the entire planet, and not getting the hell out of Dodge ASAP. But I loved the rest of the book, so I let it slide.

    Regarding word processing, I use a hell of a lot more than just save and delete. Editing while you go (and without retyping)? Awesome. Track changes and comments? Couldn’t work with critique partners across the globe without it. I can also find certain words (a boon at copyedits), find and replace, I can track if I’m overusing particular pet words, I can make up for my horrible typing skills with auto-correct, and for planning and organization, I adore my Scrivener.

  25. Phiala, I would love to read the posts you’re considering writing. Please do!

    As an editor of non-fiction, these days I do most of my editing onscreen using Track Changes, rather than on paper with red pen or pencil as before. For my purposes, it’s wonderful.

    As a writer, I’m with John on the ease of editing. I can’t imagine retyping the whole manuscript every time one made changes. I’m also addicted to the word count function, thanks to NaNoWriMo.

  26. @14 Phiala: Well, before I write about worldbuilding, I’d rather publish the world I’ve been working on. But yes, I’d love to write about worldbuilding too. I just spent the morning leading a hike where I introduced some of the locals to some of the natives. It’s amazing what happens when people stop seeing the world as setting and start learning the names and what you can learn from them.

    @ 23 Diana: with respect, I don’t think author’s plant blindness has much to do with disbelief. At another blog (not named here out of respect) a published author was going to teach a class of college students about science fiction. He noted that there was “a catch–they’re biology students.” He goes on to lament how they probably won’t understand plot and characterization properly.

    In another writer’s blog (again, no names out of respect), an author recently posted a list of over-used words. Here are some of the words that leaped out at me: was, is, noticed, realized, large, small, beautiful, look, looked, saw, felt, knew, realized, heard, thought, wished, mused, hoped, assumed, figured, supposed, wondered, considered, was curious, as, saw, watched, heard, felt, tasted, smelled.

    Hard to live in a world where you’re trying to MINIMIZE the amount of sensory impressions you’re recording or what’s there.

    I’m a trained biologist, and if I have a religion, it’s awareness and connection. I *like* being aware of the world around me. Like Phiala, I get the strong impression that most current SF writers don’t give a shit about the world, and are advising new writers to ignore everything but the characters.

    I think one strong symptom of this is the prevalence of the undead, urban fantasies, and dying cities. In the past, SF has dealt with possible futures. Dreams of a singularity aside, we’re looking at huge issues with sustaining civilization in the face of climate change. What does SF do? Ignore those futures. Go retro. Or alternate. And while you’re at it, listen to those SF elders who say that SF is about the present, not the future. And also listen to those SF teachers who tell you that every character’s sense is over-used, that plot and characters matter more than the world.

    Come on guys: where’s the dream of a living future? If you can’t get beyond the fear, what good are you to the rest of us?

  27. heteromeles, I wasn’t asking you to write about worldbuilding, though I would be happy if you did. I was using your rare discussion of the poor ecological worldbuilding in a lot of SF as a springboard to ask if others were interested in reading about the ecology of worldbuilding. I’d been thinking about writing one or a few posts, and wasn’t sure if anyone would be interested. (The answer appears to be yes – thanks everyone for letting me know.) I’m an ecologist specializing in agriculture, so I have plenty of thoughts on how systems are put together and how humans (sentient aliens) might interact with them. And I agree, there’s an awful lot of neat stuff out there.

    You might try Peter Watts’ work – he’s a PhD marine biologist, and Blindsight had a bibliography with 103 references, many from Science and Nature. Not all or even most ecology, but he thinks about things. He’s a good example of SF writers drawing extensively from modern biology.

  28. I’m with others who say the best part about writing on a computer is simply being able to edit without retyping. Before I ever sold a story, I was having to type, revise, retype — and if I ever caught an error after the second retyping, I’d often retype that page again to fix the error, sometimes having to rewrite to do so. Of course, the tough part was making sure to work the lines out even with the revision so that the page ended with the same words as before. Otherwise, you had to type the rest of the story after that page, as well.

    I use AppleWorks on my Mac, which dates from the 90s. When I got my new iMac, the newer Apple word processing program (I think it’s called Pages) had gotten some bad press. Plus it was part of an “Office” package which cost more, and had a lot of other features I didn’t need.

    As long as I can open a document and type, I’m good.

  29. @#26: Maybe you aren’t reading the right stuff. I think any fan of a particular subgenre has the tendency to say “why aren’t they publishing more of the stuff *I* like to read?” whether that’s ecological-based SF or urban fantasy or technothrillers or what-have you (I am not immune, and regularly whine about the prevalence of “me and my paranormal boyfriend” books), but SF that’s about the future is definitely available, and SF that’s deeply involved with ecological matters is as well.

    (Says the author of urban fantasy that has a strong environmental bent…)

  30. Steven Brust uses a Unix machine. I suspect that’s more for a political reason than a practical reason. Kind of opposite of using that other Unix machine, the MacIntosh.

  31. Thanks for the thoughts on Twilight, etc. I only hope that they instill a lifelong love for reading that McCaffrey & Heinlein did for me (and lots of other folks). There are certainly more young adult-targeted books in the fantasy/scifi/horror/thriller genre than there seemed to be in the 70’s and 80’s. This can only be a good thing.

    Also, if today’s young people see lots of their friends and peers reading the same kinds of books and thinking “cool” instead of “weirdo”, that is a good thing, too.

  32. @27: I have read Peter Watts’ work, thanks. I got turned on to him by John Scalzi, so thanks to John as well.

    I’m a plant ecologist, so that’s probably where my annoyance is coming from. It’s not the reference density, so much as the way it’s used. Blind Sight is a good example, because Dr. Watts used evolution as a mechanism for generating quirky characters and a very alien antagonist. But at the same time, he used all sorts of black boxes to deal with the inconvenient aspects of living on a spaceship. No one had to recycle the trash, for instance.

    I don’t want this to turn into a symposium on world-building, so I’ll use two examples. One is the connection between fossil fuels and machine guns. The link is nitrogen fixation. Without those huge, energy-intensive nitrogen fixation factories, we wouldn’t have the nitrates we would need to make the huge amounts of explosives and gunpowder demanded by our style of industrial warfare. Something to remember if you’re writing Darkover 2.0–your fertilizer can be fed to the fields or the guns, but not both.

    Second example is the trope of building an asteroid station using nanotechnology. Doesn’t particularly matter whether it’s a dirty snowball or a hunk of olivine. The challenge is to grow a working station using only the elements you find in that snowball or rock. For a plant ecologist, this is a standard problem (every plant deals with it), but most writers assume that by some magic, an asteroid will have all the elements they need. Start working around the lack of specific elements, and the station gets to be a very strange place, very quickly.

  33. heteromeles, I’d even guess you’re a California plant ecologist… If you’re interested in talking about ecology and worldbuilding further, a google search for Phiala will very quickly find contact info for me.

  34. Someone did a study where they found that you are 50% more productive with two monitors.

    I would absolutely believe it. Having one monitor off to the side lets you keep your focus on what you’re doing – you can pull up references, or old versions, or images on the second monitor, without really shifting away from what you’re writing.