Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Tools Shape Writing... So I Use Many

Use the best tool for the job.

It's a simple saying, and one many writers ignore.

Paper and pencil, while often my preferred tools for writing, have not been the best tools for writing for at least a century. Typewriters are better, if you are concerned with speed and legibility. Typewriters with correction tape gave us another reason to prefer the mechanical to graphite sticks and wood pulp.

I remember my sense of awe when I saw the earliest word processors. These were typewriters with memory, and sometimes a disk drive. Not quite computers, but certainly something more than a manual typewriter, I wanted one… but never owned one. Instead, I upgraded from a blue Smith Corona manual typewriter to a brown Brother electric.

Even after receiving an early home computer, a Commodore VIC-20, the typewriter was the best device for writing quickly.

My first real computer, a Tandy 1000, included a simple suite called DeskMate. I used the text editor to write stories, saving them to 5.25-inch floppies. I later bought AlphaWorks (which became LotusWorks) and used that suite for many tasks. I also tried WordStar, but found XyWrite better — and you can still buy Nota Bene 10, which is based on XyWrite. Finally, moving up to WordPerfect 4 changed everything, including how I write.

WordPerfect was fast and easy to use. For a week or two, you needed the little cheat sheet template that came in the box, but once you memorized the function keys, anything was possible.

How did my writing change? With WP for DOS, I wrote in chunks that were easy to move about and revise.

I've always created an outline, and then moved back and forth throughout a work to ensure some continuity of thought. With paper, I use legal pads, starting new ideas on new pages. Shuffling yellow pages of paper is okay, but tedious with a longer work.

WP let me indulge in the over-writing I do so easily, too.

Using page breaks and my own notations, I could organize an online, over-write each section, and then reorganize a story or paper endlessly. And write I did. I still have documents I wrote in high school and college, having migrated them from DOS to Windows, and then to my Apple systems.

I can't explain how much WordPerfect changed my writing habits. I upgraded from 4.x to 5.x, and to the 6.x version. I always preferred WP for DOS, too, not the Windows version. I did have a copy of WP 3.x for the Mac, and was saddened by the loss of WordPerfect for other platforms as Microsoft came to dominate… everything.

Yet, for all my love of WP, I have always used a mix of tools for writing.

On DOS, I did use Microsoft Word, and it wasn't a bad program. I also used a number of specialized text editors. But, my final manuscripts were always WordPerfect files, through college and well into the mid-1990s.

Today, my "chunk" writing is supported by a long list of tools, including:

  • OmniOutliner Pro for planning;
  • Scrivener for writing drafts of stage and screen scripts;
  • Final Draft for final formatting of screenplays; and
  • Microsoft Word for stage plays and other manuscripts.

I also use Apple's Pages, Movie Magic Screenwriter 6, Dramatica Story Expert 5, Contour, and few other writing tools.

Outlining in Word? Get serious! You can't outline in Word like you can in OmniOutliner. There's no comparison. None.

Scrivener for final manuscripts? Sorry, I absolutely prefer to write all drafts in Scrivener, but no editor or director accepts Scrivener projects as final output. Yes, Scrinener can export Word, ePub, PDF, and Final Draft documents, but those always need a few little tweaks before sending them along to colleagues.

I don't write drafts in Final Draft or Word because I can reorganize a document much faster in Scrivener. There's some aspects of Scrivener I dislike (too many options buried in too many confusing menus), but it's perfect for moving an outline to a manuscript and then moving chunks around.

Writers, let's be honest: when moving things was difficult, and when revision meant hours of retyping a text, we settled for "good enough" at times. Today, there's no excuse not to revise and improve a manuscript.

I've been asked why I don't live in Final Draft or Screenwriter, which could do much of what I do in Scrivener. The screenwriting applications lack the easy folder and binder metaphor I like in Scrivener. Moving things in Scrivener feels natural to me. Plus, Scrivener holds all my notes and random chucks of text nicely, while not including those chunks in the final export to Word or Final Draft.

While I still miss WordPerfect, and I do still use paper and pencil for a lot of my writing, using the best tools for various stages of the writing process helps me produce better scripts.

We often become trapped in one tool, unwilling to learn others or to experiment. I still try new tools and seek out better ways to compose my words. I encourage other writers to the same. What works for me might not work for you.
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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Computer "Feedback" as a Writer

As a writer, I use technology to help me navigate past the gatekeepers of scriptwriting. Few people realize that when you send a script for stage or screen to any production company, the "Readers" (a job title) tend to come from MFA and Ph.D. programs. These aspiring writers earn a living determining what scripts move to the next stage of consideration (pun intended).

The "Coverage Sheet" used by film and some theater companies represents a grading rubric. If a work adheres to the formula, it has a better chance of being advanced in the process. I'm not claiming that the readers know best, but I am admitting that you need to get to the next step or your work is dead.

Based on feedback from producers, I developed Word VBA and AppleScript macros to analyze my scripts and mark potential red flags.

Some of the "rules" my macros mark are mistaken knowledge the readers insist is accurate. We know they are wrong, as writing instructors, but that does not matter to me as a scriptwriter or playwright. Readers repeatedly mark sentences like "The rose has wilted" as a passive sentence, instead of a "perfect" verb tense. My macros mark verbs to avoid, based on such feedback. The complete list of words and phrases I remove totals about 60 strings in the macro.

Other rules they enforce? The 25-word maximum sentence. The 4-line narrative block. The readers insist these "rules" represent the "right" way to compose a script. After running my macros, I know what to "fix" for the overworked readers so my script might move ahead.

Does this method improve my writing? I doubt it. But, with several productions underway, it seems to help me get the desired result. Adhering to the rules, I have plays on stage and royalty agreements signed… however mercenary that is. (Considering the topics I address, I'm fine doing what I must to get social commentary advanced.)

Reading the conversations about assessment, it's curious that as a professional writer, I find that software helps me follow stupid "rules" to earn the "grade" I want on the coverage sheets. While I am arguing to my students that we should be encourage new approaches to writing, I'm embracing the same approach to writing that they learned for the SAT or ACT essays.

Cracking the code of the rubric seems to be lifelong pursuit for some writers.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Using a Database to Manage Writing

I encourage writers, including my students, to imagine creative ways to use technology to support writing. Many aspiring writers keep logs of what they have written, to where they have submitted works, and when works have been published or produced. 

My magazine columns for one publisher are listed in a basic Excel spreadsheet. Sure, this is using the system as a database, but a list of almost 100 columns doesn't require a database. The spreadsheet column headings are: Column Number, Date Submitted, Date Published, Title, Slug, and Notes. The publication dates trail the submission dates by a month to three months. I thought about adding a "Word Count" column, since I'm paid by the word, but the columns are consistently 1000 words, give or take a few. 

Tracking scripts, however, requires more than a spreadsheet. That's because I might have nine or ten works submitted at any moment. Acceptance or rejection might come six months to a year after sending a work to a production company. Many producers prohibit multiple submissions of a work, so you can't send a script to three producers and hope for the best. As soon as a producer does reject a script, though, you want to send it out to the next possible producer. 

FileMaker Pro "Manuscript Tracker 2.0"

Scripts have complex contractual agreements that make traditional publishing look simple. Yes, there's an author's royalty, but there are also residual payments to the first production company, residuals to any dramaturg, flat payments to designers, and more. 

When I said that you need basic algebra skills to make sure royalties are accurate, a colleague laughed. How hard can calculating a percentage of ticket sales be?

The traditional royalty is 5 percent of 90 percent of the weighted average ticket price, assuming an 80 percent box office sales through (whether the theater fills 80 percent of seats or not). Remember that "subscribers" and "educational" ticket holders pay lower admission rates, too. You need to know the ticket prices, the number sold at each face value, and other variables. 
Other royalty rates include a flat percentage on gross ticket sales, a percentage of net ticket sales (which leads producers to claim all sorts of expenses), and a flat fee per performance. There are mix-and-match approaches to these royalties, too. I like to have a guaranteed minimum per show, but also the five percent royalty on gross, whichever is greater per show. 
If a show is being performed at more than one venue, and that is every playwright's dream, you have to track these agreements for every performance. Or, if you get lucky, your agent and publisher handle the royalty collection. 
Because I assign residual rights to others, including the first production company to develop a work, I have to track what I am due, then calculate how much of my royalty must be shared with others. Again, too much to track (for me) on paper. I'd lose the paper, anyway. Instead, I have a table of residuals by work. 
My database design links works to producers and publishers. It then links those business relationships to contract terms. There's more, but overall the system makes my life (and my wife's life) much easier. With a few mouse clicks or touches on the iPad, we can see a summary of all the complex terms and agreements associated with a script. 

Technology… letting me focus on writing instead of the business of writing. 

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Using a Spreadsheet to Write

Beat sheets, outlines, storyboard, and other tools help me organize my thoughts when writing. Too many writers stick with word processors as their sole "digital tools" when many other great applications exist — and "applications" for various applications, too.

How can you use a spreadsheet to write? And why might you try this?

A spreadsheet's columns and rows, a reflection of the ledger books they replaced, make an ideal way to track your pages, words, minutes, or other metrics. My writing spreadsheets range from simple checklists to complex sheets with calculations reflecting how much I need to cut or add to parts of story. (Scrivener's outline view is similar to this, so allow me to plug Scrivener yet again.)

My basic story sheet resembles the chart on our website page "Plot and Story" [].

Some plot points should be reached at specific pages, especially early in a story, while others should be reached within ranges of pages, as a percentage of the overall work. Using a spreadsheet helps me track these personal ideas.

For example: I like to have the "perceived problem / challenge" and the "real problem" within the first ten pages of a 90 minute screenplay or stage script. In a book, I might want those within the first "ten percent" of the work. Express each plot point in 25 words or less.

Major Beat 3 -> Perceived / Immediate Challenge -> Bomb ticking in a subway tunnel
Major Beat 4 -> Real Challenge -> Corrupt leaders creating the chaos to gain powers

Using Excel or another spreadsheet, I include columns reflecting page counts, minutes, real time, literary time, and more. These metrics help me pace my stories.

Do you have a checklist? If not, create one. Every creative writer using narratives should have a beat sheet, because it forces you to recognize when things are missing from a story.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Blackboard Bungle

Earlier this semester, there was a "glitch" with the Blackboard shell for my writing course. I had spent hours and hours uploading content, organizing the shell, and trying to perfect the course. And then it was gone.

The Blackboard team eventually restored most, but not all, of the content.

It was a tough reminder that online systems are, like all computing systems, imperfect. Systems crash. Databases get corrupted. Things go wrong and you need a contingency plan.

The Blackboard bungle left my students frustrated and has cost me more than few hours. While I had copies of all materials, they were scattered about my hard drive. I didn't want to duplicate files, which I thought would waste space. I sometimes used "links" (aliases) to original files, as a compromise.

On my computer, which is backed up to three external drives and mirrored to another computer, I now have a directory system that aligns with my Blackboard shell. There are folders for each weekly unit, a folder for all assignment prompts, and a folder for additional readings. There are now duplicates, but Word documents are only a few hundred kilobytes. If I use a file for a course (not a specific section of the course), there will be a copy in the course directory tree.

In an emergency, I can now upload the items to recreate a course shell.

I've also exported the shell for the course that choked, which I will do again towards the end of the semester. Yes, the exports are huge compressed files with complete directory contents, but it is easier to re-import a shell than to upload the files.

My students rely on Blackboard in a way I can't imagine doing. They trust it to have their grades, assignment files, and other materials. When things went sideways, I was stunned that some students don't keep copies of their work. The good news (for them) is that I do download all student files to my system — and I make backup copies.

Teaching with technology means remembering that tech fails.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

What Online Education Cannot Do

Online education is an accommodation to life's realities.

For years I denied that online education was in many ways inferior to physical campuses. But, now that I'm working at a research university, my views are evolving. There simply are things that online education cannot do. Denying the differences, the strengths and weaknesses of various "locations" of education, can lead us to become promoters of either online or physical campuses. We should instead admit the space in which an institution exists matters.

I once argued that online degrees awarded by leading universities could improve a regional economy. Now, I admit that the most a handful of degrees can do is improve the lives of a fraction of residents.

A quick tangent: most online degrees aren't from leading universities. I've taught in an online program at a regional university and online was not equivalent to the on-campus degree. I don't blame the instructors who did all they could to maintain academic standards. Online students tend to be non-traditional students, and that is complicated.

No matter how many people could be given the opportunity to earn degrees online in my native Central California, businesses would not migrate to the San Joaquin Valley. It isn't the educational credentials that matter: it is what a research university does that alters an economy. We have state universities in the Central Valley. We have a Christian college. We have community colleges. What we lack is a sufficient concentration of major research universities. Online education isn't going to offset that missing ingredient to financial stability and even growth.

A research university does things locally. It makes discoveries and creates things. A research university attracts… researchers. These are people with advanced degrees and above-average incomes. A university seems to create a culture, as the researchers, teaching professors, and students demand cultural outlets. Businesses come to cluster around a research university, offering internships to students and hiring graduates. There is an economic ecosystem around research universities.

Where I teach, the buildings are named for some of the most successful people in the world. Some are alumni, certainly, which also leads to a cycle of success. Alumni networks are powerful and important aspects of major universities. Online universities? You are not going to have the same social network form online.

There are many things you cannot do online. A robotics lab? Energy research? Medical research? Online education works best in the least valuable disciplines. STEM require physical space for advanced projects. Online universities are not going to be research universities, and even if they evolve to support some research, that work will be based in cities that already have other research centers.

The research at the university attracts millions of dollars in research funds. There are grant specialists, all working to help research professors and tenure-track faculty obtain funding support for yet more research. The university also sells intellectual property rights to private industry. Money matters in education, and successful research universities attract money.

You can overlay a map of major universities with median incomes and other measures of economic stability. San Francisco and Los Angeles depend as much on their universities as other qualities. The Bay Area would not be what it is without its impressive number of universities, including several leading research universities.

Online degrees will not revive, stabilize, or improve the Central Valley.

The problem is, I have no magical proposal to build the type of institution that would be a catalyst for change. Another college or second-tier university isn't sufficient. We need research centers and they need to be in Fresno and Bakersfield. Sadly, U.C. Merced is unlikely to be the top-tier U.C. campus we need. It is a step, though. A small step that is too far away from the urban centers.

Just some thoughts shaped by the limits of online universities.
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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Back to School, Blackboard and All

Back to school means back to Blackboard.

My frustration with most learning management system (LMS) platforms is well known. The administration of a class, depending on your institution, is often left to the instructor. This includes layout and design choices that I have long believed should be standardized, at least minimally, at the institution level. Because instructors can do everything from the "massive single page" dump of materials to atomized folders by week or topic, students end up trying to relearn navigation of the system with each new course.

I'm now teaching at a top university with the best Blackboard install I've used. It still has problems, of course, but it is much better than any previous version and installation I've used. I theorize that part of this is streamlining the tool choices and layout options. Requiring few choices of the instructor lets me focus on the course, not the website.

There might be a model shell at the university, but I haven't found one. There is a good portal to the Blackboard manual, which I am going to encourage my TA to visit.

I have seen course shells that resemble the computer "desktop" of my nightmares: dozens, if not a hundred or more, icons for everything from handouts to quizzes. There are a few folders, but most items are just "dumped" onto the desktop. This is not my ideal approach to course design.

My shell is designed as follows:

On the lefthand side, I have the text menus for students. The menu includes three sections, marked with divider bars. The top links are: syllabus, calendar, announcements, and discussions. The middle links are labeled "Week 1, Week 2…" and so forth. I don't include dates because I copy the shell for each section of a course and reuse the basic design each semester. The bottom menu section links to the tools, such as the gradebook.

Each week is a content folder. At the top of the folder's contents is an outline of the week's activities, new assignments, and due assignments. Under the outline, I create items in the following order: lecture notes, handouts, new assignments (not yet due), and due assignments.

Students tell me that they love the week-by-week approach. They can look at the course calendar, which indicates week numbers and the class meeting dates, and quickly locate any materials they might have missed or misplaced.

I do create two "super folders" that link to course materials and assignments. A student had suggested this idea, something like the "Smart Folders" in OS X and Windows. If you want to find an assignment, you can visit the appropriate week's folder or you can jump to the all-inclusive "Assignments" folder.

As I said, the system isn't perfect, but I'm uploading documents quickly for the first time since 2004. The system isn't crashing, which is a pleasant surprise. The handful of minor annoyances are nothing worse than any other CMS or LMS. Overall, I have been able to get a nice shell up and working in under a week.

I never thought I'd write these words: Blackboard Learn+ works well at my new academic home. No crashes, no demands that I download Java's JRE, no fighting to fix my own sloppy mistakes. It I could force a permanent reordering of discussion threads (instead of defaulting to date), I'd be thrilled, but that's the smallest gripe I've ever had about the system.

From Apple's Keynote, I was able to quickly export a slideshow as HTML and upload it as a "package" into Blackboard. My students can now watch the slides for lectures anywhere, on any device. That never worked well for me in the past. I'm able to create other interactive content, too. From crossword puzzles to quizzes, everything is working… as it should.

What a nice way to start a new job. I can focus on teaching, not the tools.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Technology Black Hole of Free Time

Back to school means back to the battles with Blackboard (I've posted on that plenty of times). Even if BB was the perfect learning management system, there would still be the days spent planning and organizing online content for a new course. This week, I'm gathering the reusable materials I will upload and preparing new materials. By next week, the shell for the writing course I'm teaching will be reasonably complete.

My summer was meant to be spent learning to program in Objective-C. It was also meant as a time to finished a research project and revise an academic book chapter. None of those things happened. Life in the digital age doesn't seem to give us more time, but it does give us more potential tasks. My to-do list kept growing faster than I could complete projects.

Maybe it is a time management issue. I completed a lot of tasks in the last few months, many of them creative writing projects. I also am preparing a new website complementing my creative interests. But most of the projects on my list are incomplete.

I have four different website projects I wanted to complete. No progress on most of these projects. I wanted to spend time programming. Progress made, but abruptly stalled and it is difficult to get back to coding without reviewing the materials I read earlier this year. Use it or lose it seems to apply to programming. It's just overwhelming how much isn't finished at the end of this summer.

Computing technology makes it easier than ever to create calendars and task lists. Unfortunately, someone like me spends so much time organizing and planning, that there's actually less time in the day. My wife and I love lists, but the lists start to feel like a crushing weight.

I have to remind myself that finishing the projects I did finish would be more than enough for many people. But, I have projects that are years old on which I want to make some progress!

We created a blogging schedule. I wasn't able to maintain it. I'd start to get into a routine and another project would appear. Blogging, which pays a little but not a lot via ad revenues, gets pushed aside by gigs that pay more. Working on our writing website was pushed aside for academic work years ago.

If there's a better way to use technology to manage time, and output, I need to discover what it is. For now, life just seems overwhelming.

To start a blog, a website, or a coding project is easy. Too easy. How many sites are "stale" or "zombies" that haven't been updating in months or years? How many are forgotten? I don't want to neglect our sites as badly as I have seen others neglected. But, keeping online projects alive is overwhelming. Maybe blogs and websites aren't the future anyway. If that's the case, why do I have so many Web projects on my to-do list?

Back to school means that the online aspects of teaching will consume a fair amount of my time. If anything, the online course content takes more time, more energy, than teaching the old "face-to-face" way. Technology has a magical ability to consume hours. Those hours slip by even faster if you happen to feel "inspired" to create or update online content with new tools.

Technology is a black hole for "free" time. Especially for a geek like me. In the end, it leaves me feeling disorganized and out of control. So I update my calendars and my to-do lists.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Video Games as Writing

Video games are written, before and during the coding process. They are, after all, stories — from the simple story of a hungry "Pac-Man" avoiding ghosts to the complex stories of modern massive(ly) multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). Yet, some of the aspiring game developers I've met don't quite appreciate how important storytelling is to game success. Blood and guts in high-def will only carry a game so far.

During my early years as a computer geek, I'd sit at my VIC-20 keyboard and create text-based adventure games in BASIC. I continued to do this well into college, because there is something about writing a text adventure that forces you to consider the storyline of a game carefully. While text adventures have declined in popularity, graphical first-person games are still constructed as stories beneath the fancy rendering.

The tool I've used in the classroom to teach video game writing is Inform []. The Inform website has a great history of modern interactive fiction [] (IF), which is the foundation for gaming. There is also a good Wikipedia entry on the topic of IF []. There are a handful of other IF writing tools, including TADS [] and ADRIFT [].

Students imagine you create a world, some simple rules, and then let people play a game. They don't always realize the complex storylines behind the games they enjoy. Teaching students the art of creating IF leads them towards appreciating the storytelling aspect of game creation.

Another benefit of teaching students to create IF is that they learn about programming, without always realizing how much they are learning. Some IF systems are more "natural language" than others, but they all require programming skills.

I wish more teachers would embrace IF. For a few years, it seemed that interactive stories would gain in popularity. The classic "Zork" certainly was popular with many teachers and students when I was in college. But, the trend faded quickly. That's a shame. Maybe we can revive this useful art.
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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Social Networks and Students

University instructors have it somewhat easier than K12 teachers: accepting "friend" requests from our students, especially our adult and non-traditional students, isn't much of an ethical quagmire. Still, you have to be careful and have some guidelines or you'll risk trouble.

1) I only accept "friend" requests from former students who are 21 or older, so nobody can claim I have favorites or suggest anything untoward. Connecting to young students is, in my opinion, always a bad idea — especially for male teachers, but we've seen female teachers have "problems" online, too.

I explain to students that it isn't that I don't like them or want to be friends later in life, but it is important to maintain professional standing while they are in my courses.

2) LinkedIn is the "safest" social network for teachers to remain connected to former students. It is a professional, career-oriented network that is more about employment than sharing beach photos.

3) You can't stop students from "following you" on some networks, but you don't need (and usually shouldn't) follow current students in return. Twitter and Google+ feature "follow" options and Facebook has a "subscribe" feature. I know students follow my writing Twitter account, and I keep those postings professional and focused on writing.

4) Parents might want to "friend" or "follow" — and that's more complicated. Some parents are also educators or writers. If someone is a colleague or friend, I'm not going to "unfriend" him or her simply because a child is in my course. We have to be realistic, especially in smaller communities. Your social life and professional life will overlap, especially among parents.

5) Be careful to adjust privacy settings! Students can and will search for you online out of curiosity. You don't need students, parents, administrators, or some colleagues seeing the pictures of your wild vacations in Mexico. I set most posts on Facebook to "friends only" and post relatively impersonal things to Twitter or LinkedIn.

6) You cannot control what friends (or former friends) post online. Remember that anything you email  or share with friends might end up online. In fact, the more embarrassing or personal something is, the more likely friends will feel compelled to share it.

The best advice I can offer: imagine the worst consequences when you "connect" online or "share" posts publicly. I know that some blog posts might offend colleagues, but I try to keep as professional a tone as possible. Sometimes, obviously, I do post personal opinions and my theories on a number of topics, but I try to maintain a certain level of decorum.

I do email and message friends. I'm sure some of what I have shared online in private would be embarrassing in public. That's why you should always consider the "friends" you have online carefully. Nobody has 1000 true friends, and it isn't a contest to collect the most followers — especially among your students.

If you write a great blog on screenwriting, then you might have thousands of followers, including your students. That's acceptable. Having 1000 "close friends" on Facebook is probably unacceptable.

Think ahead. Especially online.
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