Modern Attention

“I despise the discourse that says we are all shallow, that we are all flighty, distracted, not paying attention. I am paying attention, but I am paying attention to everything, and even if my knowledge is fragmented and hard to synthesize, it is wider, and it plays in a vaster sphere, than any knowledge that has gone before.” — James Bridle

Strategize Your Writing Session

“Write every day” might be the only advice we ever need to hear. The other advice can be great, depending on who’s doing the receiving and what kind of problems they’re facing, but “write every day” is the one piece of advice that is absolutely true for everyone.

But when we sit down at our keyboards, we don’t always know what to write.

And so we sit, we fiddle with items on our desk, we pick fonts and fonts again, we play with our application preferences, and when we’re not doing any of that, we just stare at that blinking cursor.

It’s just one of those days. Our characters don’t want to move; our tension seems like it’s fizzling; and “Oh god, wouldn’t a warm cup of tea taste great right now? Let me just go make that.”

Next thing you know, it’s bedtime, and you haven’t done any writing today.

What you need is a strategy, a set of methods to keep you writing. If “Write every day” is the only advice you need, the second part of that advice is, “(and remember, revising is writing”).

Whenever the wind of inspiration leaves you stranded in the horse latitudes, it’s time to break out your revising strategies and row.

It’s best, on the “bad” days, to focus your writing session on one particular strategy. “Today,” you should tell yourself, “I’m just going to improve the liveliness of my settings.” Then, for the next couple of hours, just scan through your existing text and do exactly that. Don’t pay attention to your character descriptions, or your dialogue, or your plot developments, or anything else. Just focus on your settings.

On the next bad day, tell yourself, “Today, I’m going to fix all my tense errors.” If your draft is of any significant length, fixing the inadvertent errors that sneak into every early draft could take you an hour or more. After all, you’ll have to correct them anyway, so why not correct them today, when the muse is off porking someone else?

There are any number of strategies you can use for a writing session, from improving character descriptions to revising dialogue tags to doing nothing else but improving the first and last paragraphs of each one of your chapters.

It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re writing, and as long as you remember, revising is writing.

Teaching to the Text Message

Andy Selsberg explores his vision for freshman composition classes in Teaching to the Text Message: “I’ve been teaching college freshmen to write the five-paragraph essay and its bully of a cousin, the research paper, for years. But these forms invite font-size manipulation, plagiarism and clichés. We need to set our sights not lower, but shorter.”

On arriving

Jennifer Lawler pens a beautiful piece On arriving, one that lovingly explores the reasons why “being a writer is a hard, confusing, thankless kind of life, except for the times when it isn’t.”

Idea Testing

In a post about the validity of testing ideas for a novel, Jessica Faust reminds us that creative writing is actually a laboratory science: “Unfortunately there are no shortcuts in this business. You can use your writing group as a sounding board for your ideas, but ultimately you need to sit down and execute the book and then see if it works.”

In Praise of Scrivener

In a couple of weeks, Literature & Latte will release a major upgrade to Scrivener, a market-upending, writing application they first launched back in 2005/2006. The software has received incremental improvements throughout the intervening years (including one major release at version 1.5), but this is the first upgrade the company feels comfortable charging its existing customers for. After years of development, the company is releasing Scrivener 2.0.

Before it comes out, however, we should take a moment to celebrate the wonder that is Scrivener 1.x.

Scrivener was designed to make the process of writing easier. Before Scrivener, most writing applications followed the word processing model, which was, itself, based on the model of the typewriter: writing begins at the top of the document and ends at the bottom. Word processors don’t change that model, choosing instead to make the middle of the document their battleground—”my word processor is better than yours because I can add tables in the middle of the document;” “no mine is better, because I can drag and drop images into the middle of my document;” “no mine is better because I can track any changes people make to the middle of my document;” etc.

The genius of Scrivener is that it tries to model not a typewriter, but a writer’s mind.1 While it contains some of the basic features of a word processor (it shares its text engine with Apple’s pre-installed TextEdit), Scrivener can be more accurately described as a project management application, where the project in question is a large and complex piece of writing.2

Writing is a notoriously messy operation, but word processors assume that the process of word writing is a fairly simple enterprise: a writer has an idea for a story (or research paper, or law review, or documentary script, etc.), so she sits down in front of a blank “sheet of paper” and types it up; case closed. This, of course, is pure fantasy. Writing involves collecting half-formed ideas, turning them into a series of communicable thoughts, and then developing them into an organic and intelligent whole. It’s not a process that lends itself to the linearity of the page—which is why Scrivener 1.x doesn’t even include the concept of the page: pages are for readers, not writers.3 And that’s the difference between word processors and Scrivener. Word processors assume that writing is just like reading; Scrivener knows better.

The feature list of Scrivener 1.x is long and involved, and this is no place to go into it. But each one is the result of a seemingly-agonizing battle (example) in the heart and mind of Scrivener’s chief (and until recently, sole) developer, a “gruff and quirky” chap named Keith Blount. Where Microsoft Word and other “writing” applications often feel like the result of way too many compromises, Scrivener feels like it springs from a single vision. That vision may not always align with your own, but once you give yourself over to it, you can predict (and be surprised by) its actions the same way you can predict (and be surprised by) the actions of a beloved character in your favorite novel. Scrivener is not just software for a writer; it is software by a writer, and it carries the authority that all art—if it’s good art—should carry.

And in just a couple of weeks, we’ll get to experience that writer’s next masterpiece. I am nervous for the upgrade, the same way you get nervous when you’re about to crack open the sophomore effort of a novelist you like, your mind plagued with concerned questions: will this one be as good, but at the same time, be different; will the author give me the same thrill I had when I first discovered his work; will the author be able to overcome any cynicism that may have crept into my worldview during the intervening years; will the work change my life for the better—differently but again?

We’ll soon find out the answers to those questions. But in the meantime, I just want to say thanks to Keith (and his growing team) for all the joy that has been Scrivener 1.x. Good writing software doesn’t do the hard work for you. But it makes it feel a lot less like work.

<

p>Footnotes

  1. Even the name of the program reflects this choice: where Microsoft tries to improve the word, Literature and Latte tries to improve the scrivener.
  2. The best illustration for this is the keystroke ⌘N, which in all Mac applications, creates a “New ___.” In Microsoft Word, for example, ⌘N brings up a “New Document”; in Scrivener, it creates a “New Project.”
  3. It should be mentioned that Scrivener 2.0 will include the concept of the page, but only because screenwriters depend on page counts to understand the length and shape of their movies.