Kirvin on Writing

The journey of a reluctant writer

Friday, June 23, 2006


I just started working on the complete rewrite of Between Heaven and Hell yesterday, and already I'm rethinking just how closely I'm going to stick to the original book.

Certain things have to remain the same, of course. This is still the prelude to The Unification Chronicles, after all, and stuff like the Angelic Jihad and Demonic Crusade still has to happen. The core of the story will remain the same, but a lot of the stuff I thought I'd keep (like the chapter structure and titles) is already falling by the wayside and I'm still less than 2,000 words into the thing (got a lot done this morning though, I think I've found a good time to write).

Reimaginings of previous material are all the rage these days. Not only has the new Battlestar Galactica already run longer than the original, but comics movies like last year's "Batman Begins" and this summer's "Superman Returns" (not to mention at least the first few seasons of Smallville) have been offering us new takes on old friends that manage to freshen the material while remaining true to the original sources. Recently Bryce Zabel (Dark Skies) even released a treatment he and J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) had done for a complete reboot of Star Trek, far more ambitious than what we'll get in the new movie from J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias).

Everything old is new again. But how new?

One of the things I like about the new Galactica and liked about the ideas Zabel and Straczynski had for Trek is the idea that in a rewrite, you can change almost anything. You can make Starbuck (or Scottie) a female character. You can make the Cylons look human. And in the case of Between Heaven and Hell, I can make the story fit better with The Unification Chronicles and make it resonate more to current audiences.

When I started writing the original book, I had no intention of it being at all related to The Unification Chronicles. In fact, I started writing Between Heaven and Hell because I had hit a writer's block on my big space opera and wanted a complete change of pace, so I decided to write a contemporary horror novel. This shows in the first few chapters when we see demons do things that humans clearly can't do, but as the book progressed I backed off and they just became immortal. By the time I was halfway into it and introduced the angels, I realized I was still working on the Unification universe and was really telling the story of how the Terran Republic came to be. I knew what the angels and demons really were, where they came from and what made them immortal, and in turn what that said about humans in general. And that core truth will not change. Where the immortals come from won't change, because that's an important story question and revelation later in Unification. But I have the opportunity to write them that way from the very beginning.

I'm also interested in how much some of the internal politics will change. When I wrote the book in the late 90s, the world becoming a totalitarian theocracy seemed much more unbelievable than it does today. The rise of the Christian Right had not yet bloomed and there weren't as many politicians cynically calling themselves "evangelicals" to pander to the devout. In retrospect, Texas Senator Timothy Phillips is probably a lot closer to Dubya than I'd like to think about, and even though I got there first, I'll probably change this character quite a bit in the rewrite. A holier than thou politician from Texas will play a little differently today than in 1997. But even so, there's fertile ground to explore here. I've been thinking a lot recently about administration mouthpieces like Bill O'Reilly and Laura Ingram and wondering what makes them so ready to defend those in power. Think about how much the Christian "evangelical" right already supports politicians with a decidedly fascist leaning and then consider how they'd react to an authoritarian government actually led by the Archangel Michael.

And people thought The DaVinci Code was blasphemous…

So the more I think about it, the more excited I am to rewrite—reimagine—this book. I've not only changed a lot as a writer in the past decade, but I have the opportunity to improve the story dramatically by making it a more mature tale, with more depth.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Damnable Logic of Rewrites

After some fits and starts, I was making headway re-editing Between Heaven and Hell for print publication. I had polished the first two chapters until they gleamed and was starting on a third when a nagging feeling started to sink in on me. I should know better and ignore these feelings; they never lead to anything happy. As is my usual practice when I want to take something unhappy and make it worse, I IMed Josh Curry, my writing partner:

me: I'm re-editing BHH and for the first half of the book, I'm mostly tightening the prose and updating any tech references. The web was very young when I wrote this book and cell phones were rare.

But starting from Point/Counterpoint on, I'm wondering how much I should polish and how much I should re-write.

The declaration of Martial Law in Crusade and the later totalitarian theocracy of Michael might be richer, writing them now, in light of current events.

Josh: Here's how I see it, you're trying to get this published in today's world, when it comes to tech and politics, if it was just a rewrite to publish it the way it was already published, then I'd say go with your gut, seeing as your trying to sell this as a contemporary book I'd say rewrite anything that gives it a more current feel. It ain't the easy route, but I think it's the better one.

He's right, of course. I just hate that. To really have the best chance at being published, to be the best book it can be, I really need to rewrite Between Heaven and Hell from the ground up. For two reasons.

One, it would actually be easier to write it again set in the 21st century than it would to go back and alter all the tiny details and their consequences. For example, in the first chapter of the book Daniel comes across a horrific car crash. He does not whip out his cell phone and dial 911. When I started the book in 1995, Daniel didn't have a cell phone and neither did I. Now my friend's 12-year-old daughter has one. Susan does a lot of research over the net, but the net was very primitive in 1996 compared to today. And don't get me started on Gmail accounts and NSA surveillance and how Daniel could really stay underground on two different occasions.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I've changed a lot as a writer in the past ten years. As I revised the prose in those first two chapters, I noticed myself changing clumsy phrasing that I couldn't bring myself to write today. I'm not just talking about adverbs, those pesky buggers, but tons of heavy-handed exposition and stilted dialogue. I could scarcely continue to look down my nose at Dan Brown if I published stuff like that myself.

So it's literally back to the drawing board. I'm keeping the same plot and characters as the original novel, of course, and will probably keep most of the chapter structure and titles, but all the narrative and dialogue (basically, the book) will be new. I'm once again sitting down to write a novel from beginning to end.

Fortunately, I have an 80,000 word treatment for reference.

More Proof That Gartner Is Nuts

Office upgrade hard to justify, warns analyst | CNET "Only companies that are signed up to Microsoft's Software Assurance plan are likely to adopt Office 2007 in the near future because IT managers find it extremely hard to justify an Office upgrade to their board, according to analyst group Gartner.

Speaking at the Midsize Enterprise Summit in Paris on Wednesday, Gartner principal research analyst Annette Jump said that research done by the group showed that only about 2 percent of companies that weren’t signed up to Microsoft’s Software Assurance plan had adopted the previous version of the productivity suite--Office 2003."
Sounds reasonable, except that as usual Gartner doesn't do their research (sad that's their job). The differences between Office 2002 and Office 2003 were fairly slight, and I'd expect a low upgrade rate.

Office 2007, however, is a dramatic change from Office 2003. It's the biggest jump in usability in Office since Word moved from DOS to Windows. And if Gartner thinks that doesn't justify a different set of criteria when deciding to upgrade than going from 2002 to 2003...

Maybe I should start my own research firm. "Kirvin Research: We Actually Think."

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Getting My Vista On

Posting will be a bit light for the next few days as I'm still playing with Beta 2 of Windows Vista. So far, I'm fairly impressed. Installation went far smoother than I had anticipated for a beta operating system (although I did install it on a brand new and completely clean hard drive) and so far I've had few troubles. The beta of Office 2007 works perfectly, as does Dungeons & Dragons Online. The fit and finish is excellent and I've noticed quite a few features "borrowed" from Mac OS X. This is every bit as "modern" and polished an OS as Tiger, which greatly reduces my Mac envy.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Google Planner

The PDA is dead.

No, really, hear me out. I use my Treo every day, for eReader, podcasts, RSS, email and of course as a phone. But I don't use it as a planner anymore. Instead, I've moved everything to Google.

Instead the calendar in my Treo, I use Google Calendar. If you haven't tried this yet, it's an amazing bit of AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript And XML, the same language in which Gmail is written) coding. The interface is slick and simple, belying a surprising amount of power and flexibility. I exported all of my appointments out of Outlook and then imported them into Google Calendar. Not only do I have a nice browser-based interface when I'm sitting at one of my desks, but it integrates cleverly with my phone, as well.

If you live in the US, you can register your phone number with your Google Calendar and then interact with your calendar via SMS. If you want to see your schedule for today, text "day" to GVENT (48368) and it will send you back a text message with your agenda. For tomorrow's agenda, text "nday" to GVENT. Want to know what's up next on your schedule? Text "next" to GVENT. You get the idea. But you can also create new appointments via SMS.

Google Calendar supports a feature called Quick Add, which allows you to create appointments via natural language. For example, I can click the Quick Add box in Google Calendar and type "Lunch with Bill Tuesday 2pm" and it will create an appointment for me the following Tuesday at 2:00 pm called "Lunch with Bill". This also works via SMS. If I had texted "Maximum Geek Tuesday 7pm" to GVENT, it would create the appointment for me and then text me back a confirmation.

I use SMS primarily to create appointments because I use alarms to remind me. I have Google Calendar set to send me a SMS message ten minutes prior to each appointment by default, although I can change this for individual appointments at the web interface. The only downside to this compared to alarms in the Palm Calendar is that they don't snooze or repeat. Small price to pay for never having to sync anything ever.

One last thing about Google Calendar. While this kind of SMS interaction will work with just about any phone, I particularly like it on the Treo for two reasons. One, adding appointments is much more palatable with a QWERTY keyboard. But more importantly, the Treo threads conversations in SMS. This means that all of my appointment commands and reminders and confirmations with GVENT are grouped into a single IM-chat-like conversation. It really looks and feels like I'm talking to my own digital administrative assistant (PDAA?).

Okay, so that covers calendaring, and obviously I have all my contacts in Gmail. But what about tasks and memos?

I rarely use tasks anymore, frankly, so I'm not so concerned about them. If I have something that I absolutely must do on a specific day, I create an untimed event in Google Calendar for it. If it's more free-form but still something I must not forget, I'll send myself an email about it and then star it in Gmail so it stays on my radar.

Sending myself email is a big part of my system, especially when it comes to notes and reference material. Gmail is nearly perfect for this sort of knowledge archiving.

In addition to archiving all of my incoming and outgoing email and all of my IM chats on Google Talk, I frequently Gmail things to myself for future reference. For example, if I find an interesting article online that relates to a story I have in mind, I'll send it to myself and label it appropriately before archiving it. I like that unlike categories on the Palm, emails in Gmail can have multiple labels. I can assign these any way I like, and quickly see everything on a single topic in one place. I have labels for projects (Unification Chronicles, Yellowstone, Kirvin On Writing), labels for groups or activities (WOYP, NaNoWriMo) and labels for things I'm not going to do anything at all about just now but want to refer back to at a later date (Reserve, which is where I keep story ideas and background for stuff I'm not writing currently).

I also use search a great deal. After all, this is Google. For example, I used to have a memo on my Palm with all of my software registration codes in it so if I installed something I could have the registration code right at hand. Now I have that in an email I sent to myself and if I search Gmail for the name of the software, the code pops right up.

Again, this is made practical for use on the go by Google's mobile systems. On my Treo, I have a SharkLink set up to and have that mapped to the email button on my Treo. Google's mobile version of Gmail shows up when I press the hard button and the search box is right there for me to start typing. The interface is quick and clean, and displays wonderfully in Blazer on my Treo. And more to the point, I'm not only searching the stuff I had in Memos on my Treo, I'm searching four years and 493MB worth of email as well.

I've also ditched Daynotez and the journaling in Agendus in favor of using Gmail for my journals. I write up an email with Journal as the subject and send it to myself. I have a filter set up in Gmail that then takes any email from me called Journal and does the following: it archives it so it doesn't sit in my inbox and it applies the label "Journal" to it. My journal entries stay out of my way, but they're both searchable and browsable all in one place.

Last, I've started using Gmail for document versioning and storage. For example, when I started on this article I knew I couldn't finish it in one sitting, so I saved it as Google Planner.docx on my desktop. Then I sent myself an email with Google Planner as the subject and the .docx file attached. I starred this in Gmail and archived it, then deleted the original from my desktop. Later in the day when I had time to work on it again I went into my starred items in Gmail, saved the .docx file to my desktop and worked on it some more. Then I saved it, replied to the original message with a brief summary of what I added in the body of the message, attached the updated file and sent it, then deleted the desktop copy again. I can repeat this process at home or at work as many times as necessary until I finish the article, and I don't have to worry about where my most recent copy is. It's always in Gmail, always accessible. As are all my previous drafts and a record of what I changed and when, in case I want to refer back to something.

Gmail's constantly increasing storage and ubiquitous search makes it an ideal system for storing information. I don't worry about not being able to find anything, I spend essentially no time on my "filing system" and while it's not an issue for me currently (I have cable at home, a T1 at work and a smartphone, so I'm never "offline"), Google Desktop does provide a mirror of your Gmail store for offline use.

Next, now that I've explained how I use Google for everything, we'll look at how I "trick out" the most important application on my PC.

Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint 2007 File Formats (Beta 2)

Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint 2007 File Formats (Beta 2): "Exchanging Files Between Previous Releases of Microsoft Office and the 2007 Microsoft Office Release

Microsoft has added new file formats to the 2007 Microsoft Office system to reduce file sizes, improve the recovery of corrupt or damaged files, and improve integration with external sources. To help ensure that you can exchange documents between Office releases, Microsoft has developed a Compatibility Pack for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint 2007 File Formats. The Compatibility Pack (Beta 2) is available for Microsoft Office XP and Office 2003."

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Maximum Geek 63

Maximum Geek 63 is up. Josh and I discuss a fair bit about our hands on experience with Office 2007, as well as why the new Open XML file formats in Office 2007 are so darn cool. Also, I talk about why the PDA is fully dead to me now that I use Google Calendar and Gmail for all the calendar and notes activity I used to use a Palm for (don't worry, I still use my Treo all the time for podcasts, ebooks, web, email, RSS and even games; just not writing or planning).

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Welcome to the New User Interface

Interesting post from a Microsoft developer about how the new Office UI is designed for usability and minimal training...
Jensen Harris: An Office User Interface Blog : Welcome to the New User Interface: "One of the questions people ask about the new user interface is 'how much training is required to get up to speed?'

Well, our design goal was to require no training at all. From the earliest prototypes, we were trying to design an experience so that people could sit down in front of Office 2007 and be effective right away at getting their work done. One of the reasons we didn't go more radical on the overall design was that we wanted to make the product comfortable to use--after all, at the end of the day, it's still Microsoft Office."

Friday, June 02, 2006

Adobe Can't Compete, So They Sue

Microsoft to Adobe: Let's Make a Deal: "Adobe, not content with Microsoft's decision to cut certain PDF functionality out of Office 2007, also wants changes in Microsoft's new document display and printing technology. Will the pair's failure to resolve differences result in more antitrust action?

Following a published report claiming that Adobe Systems is poised to launch an antitrust suit against Microsoft over Microsoft's Office 2007 planned PDF support, Microsoft is going on the offensive and discussing what has led to the impasse between the two companies.

Adobe has been in discussions with Microsoft for the past four months over alleged tying and predatory pricing concerns that Adobe has regarding Microsoft XML Paper Specification (XPS) and 'Save to PDF' technologies that Microsoft was planning to integrate into Windows Vista and Office 2007, said David Heiner, vice president and deputy general counsel in Microsoft's legal department.

When asked whether Microsoft is expecting Adobe to launch an antitrust suit against the company or simply go to U.S. or European Union regulators with their concerns, Heiner said 'they (Adobe) are threatening legal action,' but would offer no further specifics.

Adobe is looking to make a case that Microsoft is violating tying and predatory-pricing regulations with XPS and Save to PDF, Heiner said.

Adobe is claiming that PDF export technology constitutes a separate product and that Microsoft is tying both Save to PDF and Save to XPS to Vista and Office 2007 and is making them available for free, thus undercutting Adobe's ability to charge for these kinds of plug-ins."

Except that OpenOffice and WordPerfect both already provide export to PDF at no additional cost, as does the entire Apple OS X operating system. Why is something that's okay for OpenOffice, Corel and Apple not okay for Microsoft?

This is Adobe making things harder on consumers just because their own business model is obsolete. Makes me sick.