Shelving Automaton

Years ago, I embarked on an ambitious quest: Make my 1920s clockwork-meets-Frankenstein novel ‘Automaton’ into something I’m not embarrassed to have people read. I planned to accomplish this via Holly Lisle’s “How to Revise Your Novel” (HtRYN) on-line, self-paced course, and started the manuscript’s transformation from sad lump of coal to shiny diamond. Sadly, it was a slow-motion disaster.

First, the book was fatally flawed—the MC was a passive kite, tugged to and fro by every ally and villain who entered the story. Stuff happened to him, but he never had any agency. I wrote one hundred and twenty thousand words of him bouncing from location to location, never making a decision of his own. The book is excruciatingly boring.

The second, third, fourth, and a few other lessons from HtRYN required a full read-through, most of them requiring that I take notes about people, objects, settings, plots & subplots… it was a Sisyphean undertaking. I was nearly crushed under the weight of it all.

By the time I had gone through the first fourteen or so lessons of HtRYN, I had produced more pages of notes on my novel than I had pages of my novel. One of the last lessons I finished directed me to create a “revision outline,” which was supposed to help me re-use my existing scenes, rewriting portions of them as needed. I was to color code these scenes on index cards, with each color representing how much “new” work I expected to do for each of these scenes. I ended up with eight “blue” scenes (I’d have to rewrite at least 75% of the scene to pull it into line with my desired revision), and over seventy red scenes. The red color meant I was writing entirely new material, with no previous work to base the scene on.

My revision outline was essentially a plan for an entirely new novel.

I haven’t touched the manuscript since about a week after my last blog post on the topic, so very long ago. The notes and marked-up manuscript just sit there, taunting

I’m tempted to burn it all.

With some time away from the manuscript, I’ve learned a couple of things. First and most importantly,I have to push character motivations and conflicts to the foreground of each scene. She must want something and be working toward it. People and events have to be preventing her from accomplishing those goals, most of the time at least. Secondly, I need to stop “pushing through” as they encorage you during National Novel Writing Month. I need to be excited about each scene at some point; if I’m not—if it’s a dud and I’m bored while writing it—then I need to figure out what’s wrong then and there.

Another thing I learned was that I need to plan a thorough outline, one that I’m excited to write, one that uses character motivations to push the story forward, and personality flaws to make them stumble. Without that detailed map (aka: an outline), I’m too focused on the logistics of getting characters from a to b. And that makes for some really flat story telling.

So you’re unlikely to see much more about Automaton in the future. Sorry if you were hoping that it would come to something (I know I was). I’m going to work on some character designs, write some flash fiction to see if I can bring those characters to life on the page. I’ll be seeking out advice and lessons on how characters create and drive plot, and I will avoid fleshing out any idea that doesn’t have a compelling personality at the center of it.

I’ve wallowed in that disaster of a manuscript for long enough; it’s time to apply what I’ve learned.

It’s time to start making better art.

Scrivener for Smarties: Backups

I hang out on the Scrivener forums a lot. Some might say I’m a little compulsive about it, but the forums are where I’ve picked up pretty much all that I know about Scrivener. Today, I’m talking about backups. It’s usually only after a disaster that people get serious about backing up their work, and then they only do it in a haphazard mishmash of thumb drives and email attachments. Yet lost work is a preventable problem for all writers and creators of digital content; how to protect your work from hard drive crashes, theft, and the dread were-badger? Well, I’m here to help, at least with regard to Scrivener’s various features that keep your writing safe.


Scrivener’s first line of defense against data loss is the auto-save feature. While this is getting more common in traditional word processors, typically the only way to prevent the loss of your work is to constantly hit CMD-S (CTRL-S on Windows) which is analogous to using the File->Save menu.

But not so with Scrivener. By default, when you pause for 2 seconds (not typing or dragging things around in the binder), it will save any changes you’ve made recently. This means that habitually hitting the save menu won’t (normally) do anything. Auto-saving means that you never have to worry about a dying battery or power outage destroying hours of work. Well, you still have to worry; a sudden power loss or computer crash can still corrupt open files, but auto-save reduces those risks considerably.

Auto-save also means that you can’t back out of all of your recent changes by not saving at the end of an hour or a day. By the time you close a Scrivener project, it has already saved the vast majority of any changes you might have made over the course of a day’s work, and will go ahead and commit any remaining alterations to the hard drive the moment you quit. For that kind of reversal of your work, investigate Scrivener’s snapshot feature.

Automatic Backups

The most effective kind of backup is the one you don’t have to think about making; backups should just happen. This is true of computer-level backups like Mac OS X’s “Time Machine” that makes hourly backups to external drives without your intervention, and to a lesser extent, it’s true of Scrivener.

By default (we’ll get to these ‘defaults’ in a bit), Scrivener will create a copy of your project every time you close it, and will keep five such copies before it starts deleting the oldest. Each project gets its own set, so there’s no need to worry that your Sherlock/John slash-fic backups will overwrite your Bigfoot erotica backups. Each project gets five… wait for it… “by default.”

I’m awfully paranoid about losing my work though, and five seems like such a paltry number—five good backups can so easily be replaced with 5 bad ones before you realize what you’ve done. If you’re similarly paranoid, go to Scrivener->Preferences->Backup (Tools->Options->backup on Windows) and increase the “keep only” value to 25, the maximum, non-infinite number of backups that option allows. Or pick another number; I’m not the boss of you.

You’ll also notice, while visiting that preferences pane, that you can have the backups triggered when you open the project, or even when you do a “manual save”, which means invoking File->Save, or using the equivalent keyboard shortcut. Beware using the later if you are a habitual saver, as you can obliterate good backups with unnecessary minor backups.

Finally, you can change where those backups are saved to.

Use the ‘Open Backup Folder…’ button to find your current set

Manual Backups; aka “Back Up To…”

Under the File menu, there’s a “Backup” option to choose, and under that, “Back Up To…” This is what I recommend that you use instead of “Save As”, which I will address in a moment. It’s a way to create backups separate from the automatics, and provides you with the opportunity to rename that backup to something meaningful. It’s a great way to create milestone versions that won’t be deleted when you hit the “Keep Only” limit set in Preferences/Options.

You can use a different folder and/or name with Back Up To…

“Save As,” The 21st Century’s Floppy Disk

While there are still legitimate uses for using the File->Save As feature in Scrivener, backing up your work is not one of them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people come to the forums complaining of missing work, only to find that they saved a new copy of their project as a backup, but kept editing that version rather than the original. When they re-opened the original project later, the work they had done just done simply wasn’t there, sending them into a panic.

If you trust my advice (and why wouldn’t you trust your writing to a stranger on the internet?), then start breaking yourself of the “Save As” backup habit. You already have two ways to generate backups without any chance of confusing your working copy with them: manual and automatic. You don’t really need a third way (from within Scrivener), do you?

No, you don’t.

Compile Your Work In Progress

While it may not come out formatted prettily until you fiddle with the compile settings, creating a single document of your manuscript is not a bad idea. I recommend compiling to Rich Text Format, which is Scrivener’s native document format, and can be read by almost any other word processor in the solar system.

Visit File->Compile, and at the bottom of that window, choose “RTF” as the output type, then pick a spot for it to be saved to. Scrivener should remember what you chose and present you with that location from there on.

Some (Too Many?) Notes on “Cloud” Storage & Backups

The main advantage of using cloud storage for your backups is that they will be located in at least two places automatically. One place will be the folder where software monitors for new, deleted, or changed files; this folder is on your hard drive, not “in the cloud” as so many people seem to misunderstand. The other copy will, of course, be “in the cloud,” which is just market-speak for “on a computer on the internet somewhere.” This ‘cloud’ copy is just that; a copy. It’s still going to be on your hard drive too. (Some people have a hard time with this concept, so I feel obligated to emphasize the distinction here.)

Once you’ve got the cloud software installed on your computer, revisit your Backup pane in Scrivener’s Preferences/Options. There you will find a path to the folder where your automatic backups are being saved. You’ll also see a handy button to choose another location. Use this option to put your backups into your brand new cloud storage folder! Just do it. You’ll thank me later.

Also, and this can be very important in some situations: Use the option to compress your backups to .zip files. Do not use cloud storage for your backups without turning this other option on. Most of the cloud storage companies out there seem to have some issues dealing with Scrivener’s project format [1] (it’s a bunch of files and folders in reality; Mac users only see a project as a single file). It also will save some space, which is at a premium on cloud storage servers, but primarily I’m advising the .zip option for maximum safety.

The .zip compression option has other benefits too; you can’t email a scrivener project without creating a .zip file out of it first; there are just too many internal bits, and email is just not equipped to deal with it all. Another benefit; you can’t accidentally edit a Scrivener project while it’s .zip compressed; you have to extract the .zip file’s contents using your operating system’s tools. This prevents you from accidentally opening a backup and thinking it is your “real” project.

Synchronizing projects between computers

I’m not covering the related, but distinct issue of synchronizing your Scrivener projects from one computer to another—I’m saving that controversial topic for another day. There are a whole set of other issues you need to pay attention to, including which cloud storage service you use. More on this in a later post.

Megabytes for the poor, sir?

If you want to help me out with my own cloud storage, and you like the looks of Drop Box, please consider using this link to sign up; I get an extra 500MB if you do. Drop Box is also likely the first (and perhaps only) cloud solution that will work with the upcoming iPad/iPhone version of Scrivener, so if you’re looking forward to that release, you’ll want an account anyway. It’s got enough space for you to store a goodly amount of backups on it.

I have no pride.

Final Wordy Words

Wow, that was a lot of information. I hope your brain didn’t go all ‘splody! Let me know if this was helpful, or what you might like me to cover next.

  1. Technically, this probably isn’t a risk to worry about with backups, since you’re not changing any files; merely creating a lot of new ones. Still, better to be safe.  ↩

Scrivener for Smarties–Recommended Reading

Scrivener for Smarties–Recommended Reading

FYI: This is merely and introduction. Later installments will feature actual Scrivener tips.

Scrivener; many people love it and use it every day. Some people want to love it but are baffled by it. And the rest don’t want or need it. This series of articles is for the first group who know most of the features of Scrivener, but don’t have the time or brain power left over from shaping worlds to apply Scrivener to their own writing and revision process.

If you are merely curious about the software, then head on over to Literature and Latte’s website, and click around. There are introductory videos, screen shots, and a 30-days-of-use demo you can download for Windows and Mac. If the basics give you trouble, go through the tutorial under the Help menu (in fact, do it even if it all seems to click for you).

Still not enough? Try Gwen Hernandez’s website and book Scrivener for Dummies. David Hewson also has tips and a book: Writing a Novel with Scrivener. Dive in to Literature & Latte’s user forums to find some very helpful people, and the occasional bit of Tom-foolery.

The Internet is lousy with people providing introductory and intermediate advice on using Scrivener, the above being the creme which rises to the top. My goal is to help the few people who have sampled that creme and want more; people who want to clog their arteries with the stinky cheeses of Scrivener Keywords and Saved Searches, colored index cards, robust backups, recovering from Dropbox synchronization catastrophes, and the vast jungle of options known as ‘The Compiler’.

So sample the creme, chomp on the curds, and then come back here for answers to cheesy Scrivener questions you haven’t thought to ask yet. Also, feel free to ask the ones that you do have—I’ll do what I can to point you to good resources or answer your queries myself.

A revival, of sorts

Wow, it’s been a long time, hasn’t it? The intervening year has not yielded any appreciable progress on my Automaton novel (more on that in a later post), and I’ve discarded dozens of writing related ideas on account of my not being any kind of authority on authoring; it seems bad form for me to be doling out advice on writing at this stage.

But today I have decided to refocus the Ambiguous Antecedent. There will still be posts about the editing lessons that I’ve been slow to pick back up this last year, but I’m also going to cover things that I hope are helpful to those who are on a similar path to my own. I’ll be trying out a variety of topics, ranging from grammar tricks that I’ve learned, to my growing awareness of sexism in the spaces I hold dear, and a range of things in between.

Stay tuned.

A Boy and his Mac

I’ve been a very busy beaver the last few weeks, though it has had nothing to do with editing Automaton. For your reading pleasure, an Old Yeller style tale of the events that lead me to finally getting that Macbook Air I’ve been eyeing for over a year…

It happened the day before I was to go out of town for a cousin-in-law’s wedding, and a smidge more than a month before NaNoWriMo. I was on my lunch break adding items to my list-of-things-not-to-forget-to-pack-this-time on my trusty old 2006 model Macbook Pro. Just a few minutes before, I had marveled at its longevity and its ability to deliver LOLCATS to me at near the speed of light; lovingly, I had admired the dents and scratches that marked near-catastrophes; we’d been through so much together, Mac and I.

I glanced at the battery icon. “Sixty-one percent? Odd, I charged the damned computer all night… I mean amazing marvel of modern technology,” I corrected myself and stroked the edge of the screen. It was then that I recalled the amber light on the end of the charging cord, a baleful point of light telling me that despite almost eight hours of charging, the battery still wasn’t full. Something must be wrong. But what? I had been in too much of a rush to investigate that morning, but now…

A minute later, I glanced back up, and the battery icon said, “fifty-nine percent… jerk.”

“I’m sorry, Mac. I didn’t mean it. You’ve been my faithful companion, through 2 marriages, 3 hard drives, 4 OS upgrades, and 2 used-up batteries. You know I think you’re the best.”

It just stat there sullenly, while another percentage of battery power ticked off. Thirty seconds later, the “jerk” bit was removed, along with yet another percent of charge. At that rate, the battery would be dead in half an hour. It was time to take more drastic measures.

I looked up how to reset some arcane power management hardware settings, contorted my fingers in the appropriate magical gesture, and rebooted.

“Apology accepted! Just don’t shut me off. I’m the only one who will ever compute you…”

I maintained the key presses for 10 seconds as instructed, and then released it. Once my hand stopped cramping, I hit the power button.

A jet engine made a low pass over my head and then hovered there. Actually it was just that the computer cooling fan had ramped up to a ba-jillion RPM for no good reason. I hit the power button, and the jet engine went quiet, then powered it back on… Jet. Off… quiet. On… Jet.

My lunch break over, I decided to deal with my ailing computer when we had more time to be alone together. Once home, I plugged the power adapter in and waited for the little light to glow orange. And waited. I checked that the outlet was working, I jiggled the adapter’s various connection points. Nothing.

Desperate to find any signs of life in the silent machine, I powered it on. A choir of Jet engines screamed to me that my trusty Mac had electrons flowing through it’s circuits, and the familiar gong sounded, barely heard above the din. The screen came on, I logged in and everything was as normal. Except for the jet engines, and the lack of the amber light. Also an unfamiliar, arcane symbol had appeared in the menu bar: an ‘X’ was drawn over the otherwise familiar battery icon. Hovering the mouse cursor over it told me that there was no battery. Just like the spoon in The Matrix.


I lifted it up and checked; the battery was indeed still there.

Despair overtook me, and then a single thought floated to the surface of my mind: When was the last time I ran a backup? I scrambled for the right cables, hooked the drive up, and plugged it in. I was
sure it was a race between the invisible opponents of an unknown battery level and the backup software. Would the electricity run out first, destroying the half-finished backup and possibly corrupting the
entire backup drive? Was the power adapter even doing anything? I checked it for heat, but it was barely above room temperature.

A weak voice, barely heard over the din of the fans croaked, “I’m done for, Dale. I may not last through the hour, but these 6 years have been the best years any Mac could ask for. Just promise me this: you’ll move on when I’m, gone.”

I looked up from my phone, where I had loaded “Oh. I don’t know if I can, Mac,” I said, slipping the phone into my pocket.

“You’ll finally be free to take up with that Air-hussy…”

I wanted to defend her, but my I hadn’t exactly been discreet about the newer, sleeker machine. Mac had earned better treatment by me, so I stayed silent.

“Don’t worry. With my last megahertz, I will copy your latest bookmarks, the last few words you tapped out for your novel that you won’t let anyone read, and the most recent videos your

“WELL! Mac,” I said, “that’s very generous of you. I’ve… um… always been able to trust you with so much of my life. We’ve had a good run, but I’ll miss you none-the-less.

Just then, the external drive spun down; the backup was complete. I sat there staring at the familiar screen, the little dents and the speaker grill with some of it’s holes clogged with schmutz, and I said my silent goodbye. Silent except for the scream of Mac’s fans.

“Dale?” Mac said as I reached for the off button.


“Don’t forget… your dentist appointment next Tuesday at 8:30 am.”

I pressed the power button, and it’s screen when dark. I patted the now silent lump of metal, plastic, and memories.

“I won’t Mac… I won’t.”

Lesson 2

About a week and a half ago (that long!?) I finished lesson 1 in the How to Revise Your Novel course work. I’m terribly far behind. While it’s not uncommon for lesson 1 to take a month or more, the lessons are doled out once a week. I’m now about 22 weeks in. The whole course is effectively within my reach, if I want to peek ahead, but I’m determined to keep focused on what’s in front of me, and that is Lesson 2.


Lesson 2 requires that I read through my book for the second time, but now I’m looking for “promises” that I’ve broken to my (entirely theoretical) readers. These promises take the shape of objects or minor characters, who by the way they’re introduced/described, carry far more weight than I intended them to. They look, to the reader, like something that’s going to recur in the story, or that’s going to be used in a key point later, while looking like window dressing to me. To do this, I assign points to descriptors for each character or object as they’re being introduced for the first time, and then weigh that against a scale that tells me if I’ve over done it, or sometimes even under-done it.

Also in there are examinations of how strongly or weakly I introduced the handful of truly main characters that I have. Around page 100, I introduced a main character of my story, who sticks by my real main character for the rest of the book.

I’m moving quickly through the lesson, as I don’t apparently describe that many objects or introduce a lot of main characters for ten to twenty pages at a time. Not sure if that’s a good thing.

My feelings on the quality of the lesson are mixed. There are some very specific examples of how to score each thing at first, but the further along I get in those explanation, the more muddy the scoring gets. At one of the very last categories of scoring, related to the unusualness of the number of an object, the example is so muddled with other kinds of points-earning description, that it’s unclear what the ‘number’ of that object contributed to the tallied score. Imagine that a character enters a room, and there is a ventriloquist’s dummy sitting in a chair, staring at the entrance. That might score as a significant object that you’ll have to do something with later. But it’s completely unclear what I should add if there were 3 identical dummies in the same kind of arrangement. Or 10. Or 100…

This might not be a big problem if the scale by which these things is judged was more expansive as the scores increased, but it’s not. Typically, 15 is the number at which you just stop counting, as there’s little point to continuing to add numbers at that point.

I do, however, see the value in the lesson, and the scoring. It’s a potent technique for revealing what might catch a reader’s attention, so that I can evaluate if it should have caught their interest.

The Mechanical Duck Keeps Him From Writing

I’m about 100 pages away from finishing the first lesson, wherein I mark passages in my manuscript for later attention. What’s taking me so long? Over the last several months, E & I have been planning, and then finally executing our 1-year anniversary party. We had about 80 guests for an informal get-together, where we were the center of attention, playing host and hopping from group to group to welcome people and all that jazz.

Not my favorite thing, but I survived, and despite the AC in the facility intermittently failing, I think the party was a success. We’re finishing up the Thank-You cards soon (I hope), and that will be the end of that epic time and money sink.

Through it all, I’ve marked up a few pages a week, making slow progress. And have actually started daydreaming and note-taking on my next book. More on that in the months to come.

There are other personal things standing in the way of me paying full attention to my writing, but I won’t get into that for fear of turning the post maudlin. Instead, I’ll sign off with an image that inspired some of my writing on Automaton.

People make the wierdest things.

I, for one, welcome our robotic duck overlords.

Yes, it’s a mechanical duck. That poops.


Progress report: The half-way mark

I haven’t done much on the writing front these last couple of months. I am planning a big post-wedding party thing that may be the death of me. I’m also finally recovered from a nasty cold that had me lying on the couch for about 4 days, and feeling generally crappy for a handful more before and after that. But last week, I re-started my stalled attempt at getting through Lesson One of Holly Lisle’s on-line novel revision course. I’ve been averaging about 12 pages a day (weekdays only), and have just reached a mile-stone: I’m 50% of the way through my manuscript. Here’s what that looks like:

281 pages down, 280 to go!


Nothing to see… moving along

I’m finally at page 100 of my first pass through Automaton, about four days later than I’d have liked. I think this mostly has to do with my being past the part of the book where I was still finding my story. Sixty pages where two mostly boring people acting like stars instead of the supporting cast that they’re meant to be, while my main character has very little of interest to do but to observer and sometimes to react. Oh, the agony!

But all that is past. Now I’m almost one fifth of the way through my manuscript, and about a quarter of that was done today!  I know it’s going to bog down later, but I’m finally at the part of the story that I care about, and it’s all a big romp from here on out. Whee!

For the next month or two, there aren’t going to be a lot of updates since my current page number will be all I have to report.  But I promise to stop by from time to time and comment on something, even if it’s completely unrelated to writing.

Editing Automaton

I’m just beginning to edit Automaton, but I thought I’d give you a peek at Holly Lisle’s system, and how I’m using it.

The bottom ring binder is my manuscript. You can barely make out some red squiggles in the left margin of the left page. Those are a code that tells me which page in my notes to go to in order to see what I had to say about the passage of my book at that point.

My notes are in the ring binder above my manuscript, as you have no doubt guessed. The notes are worksheets that ask particular questions regarding my story, most of them are “what went wrong here, and why?” though a couple of them are set aside for noting what when right.

At the top, stuck to my magnetic marker board, is a flow-chart, reminding me not to just look at my plot problems, but also to consider characters, world building and other aspects that I’m supposed to be taking notes on. There are five categories, so it behoves me to address them all as I go, rather than running through my story five times over. It’s quickly becoming clear to me that I just need to remember what the questions are; I don’t really need to follow the lines through the process, since most of it is: Read; find something to note; mark it in the manuscript, flip to the correct worksheet; write your thoughts down; if more pages are to be read, continue at the top. It was helpful at first to see the whole process, but it’s actually pretty simple.

My biggest issue is that I’m having to not just read, but to look for specific issues while I’m reading. I was never any good at picking out the plots of stories in my English classes in high school, and I think the focus I bring to bear on stories is partly to blame for that. I enjoyed reading, and didn’t necessarily want to pick apart a good story. Now however, I think I am enjoying seeing the structure of stories, of noting how I might have changed the particulars of someone else’s work. It’s educational, and kind of fun, like seeing back-stage at a theater production.

That’s it for now. I’m on page 18 out of 561, so I don’t know if there will be many in-depth thoughts to share while I work on Lesson 1 of How to Revise Your Novel.