Tag Archives: writing

The Love Affair is Over (with Google)

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About three months ago, I waxed poetic about how Google Docs were becoming an important part of my writing process.

Last night, I told Google Docs that I need to start seeing other people.

Don’t get me wrong — the idea of a robust online word processor appeals to me immensely. However, the main advantage it had was that it was available at both my work and home computer, and I could easily update in either place. I thought that all I needed was something that was more than Notepad but less than OpenOffice, and Google Docs seemed to be that.

But as I started using it more heavily, I began to notice problems. For some reason, OpenOffice exports from Google Docs are badly formatted: they always have the right margin at 0% (though the other margins are fine), and it assumes your default language is Russian. Correcting and reuploading the document doesn’t change this problem, so everytime I get a fresh document I have to reformat it. I thought it was a problem with OpenOffice, but it happened on other computers as well.

Plus, it’s not as simple as it lets on. There’s still bits of code stuck in the documents. When I use highlighting, I can’t turn it back off — I can only turn it to white. But that white highlighting does carry over when you copy and paste it into WordPress. It even shows up on paper (very, very slightly).

Organizing documents is a bear sometimes, too. Even if I have it all tagged and foldered, sometimes Google stays stuck on the master list of all documents sorted by time updated, so I still have to wade around a bit. It’s kind of nice to be able to tag documents into multiple "folders," but in the past three months I haven’t had a need for that feature once.

Gears doesn’t always work, either. A document I updated three weeks ago is still listed as "updated offline," even though I synced it three times. Which means I would be forced to use it only when I have an Internet connection, which is just not feasible. And Google isn’t always available.

(As a side note, I briefly looked in Zoho, but when it took five minutes to export a document, I gave up before I started.)

The solution I now have is pretty simple: I have my entire writing folder on Dropbox. I don’t anticipate I’ll be doing any meaningful writing on a foreign computer (and if I do, Google Docs will work in a pinch), but Dropbox is installed on all of the computers I do use regularly, and will sync files between my computers each time I boot up, so my files are always up-to-date on each. If I’m offline, the files are still there, so I can still work on them — they’re not hosted in a cloud. And Dropbox and OpenOffice are both still free.

Further, I found out that OpenOffice can turn off a lot of functions to give it a simpler experience, so I can free-write for a while, and then turn things on and do heavy editing without worrying if Google Docs will actually GIVE me my fucking file this time.

It was fun, Google Docs, but I think you need to mature a bit before we could look at any kind of serious relationship.

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Writing like a programmer

So on Sunday I got a weird idea to make a small computer game. There are tons of free options to make a variety of computer games, and I figure since I work for a video game company, I should learn something about the process. However, I’m not a programmer nor an artist, so my options quickly got whittled down. I was about to toss out the idea as just a lark when I stumbled across Inform 7.

Now, I’m no stranger to text adventures (or as they’re known as now, “interactive fiction”), both when they originally popular and the resurgence of innovation in the medium in the 90s and early 21st century. I fell out of touch with it around the time I started seriously freelancing, so I missed the release of software that lets you program IF games in English.

PROGRAM IN ENGLISH.

I have been obsessed with this ever since. As I dig into it, it’s not nearly as magical as it first seemed — getting the software to do things like combat requires some heavy coding (or “rules creation” in Inform terms) — but there’s also an active community of people who create extensions Firefox-style that you can plug into a game. The only downside so far is that they’re usually pretty hefty (for a word game — 256k is actually a meaningful amount of space), but for what I’m doing, that’s fine for now.

After going from pointless and random noodling to wanting to making something cohesive, I decided that a wacky pulp story would work well with an unambitious text adventure, so I dusted off my old friend Agent Patriot and started working on an actual adventure. In three days, he hasn’t left his office, but I’m building a lot of the infrastructure.

I can’t entirely explain why this appeals to me so much. I’ve written a bit for EVE Online, as well as another MMO project, and I’ve learned that writing for a video game is very different from both fiction and RPG writing. Playing with Inform 7, I’m getting a lot of that same vibe that I did working on those projects. The big difference for me is that I can compile the program and see my results right away, so I can modify and stretch the story as needed based on the limitations of my software or my knowledge.

But this does lead to situations like last night, when I stayed up until past midnight trying to keep a character from continuing to clean Agent Patriot’s office after he died. I finally figured it out, only to realize that it didn’t matter — the game probably shouldn’t continue if that character died anyhow. But that work isn’t thrown out, because I learned a LOT about how to construct similar situations in future, and I’ve increased my options for later story development.

(I admit that I just cheated and got a combat plug-in. It works almost exactly how I wanted it to, so it was a LOT of work I just didn’t need to do.)

I’ve always liked writing fiction to tell a certain story, and I’ve always liked writing and running RPGs to let others tell a story as well. But somewhere in the middle there’s a range of collaboration between writer and audience that I want to explore more. This is one avenue — I have another one kicking around as well (the elusive “Whitechapel” idea I’ve mentioned) that I want to wait until we’ve moved before I pursue further. And has shown me a third avenue that I like as well. Maybe we should collaborate on a project at some point.

This does mean that my original idea of trying to get back and committing to daily wordcounts is kind of shot, but I think this is all valuable work to improve my skills as a writer overall. As technology continues to evolve, I think there’s going to be new ways to close the gap between writer and audience, and I can’t see how that kind of interaction will do anything but help me to become a better writer overall.

Googling my Writing Process

A few years ago, when I was working on personal projects as well as freelance writing, I found that I needed to write out a zero draft in a journal before I could compose my thoughts into Word. Then I got the job to work on Mind’s Eye Theatre: The Awakening, and from there I got hired by CCP, so I haven’t had time to use a journal to compose drafts (though I do use it for taking notes and initial brainstorming a lot).

As I started working on a short story, I did some initial writing in a journal, but it ended up not working out — it’s just too slow after years of doing everything with a computer now. But using Microsoft Word is firmly equated with “work” in my mind now, so I was looking for something that was had a few more features than Notepad, but got out of the way more than Word.

I tried using OpenOffice, partially because it’s very Word-like, partially because I’m familiar with it, partially because it’s free, and partially because there’s a plug-in that allows you to quickly upload and download to Google Docs for backup. But as I started getting ideas for “Get Over,” I wasn’t at my home laptop, so I composed my initial ideas in Google Docs with the intention of importing them later into OpenOffice. And next thing I knew, I had written most of the first essay in it. I quickly plowed through the next two over the course of the week. I also found it was easy to dump footnotes into the essays as people brought up other pieces of information.

Then I started dumping information for the nextWAVE game into a Google Doc. And now I’ve continued working on the short story in Google Docs directly, as well as starting to do some initial planning for another project in a Google Doc. And I discovered that it works with Google Gears, so I don’t have to be online to access my latest work (at least on my home laptop).

For some reason, Google Docs hits a sweet spot with me in terms of the creative process. I’m expecting that once I get to the heavy rewrite phase I’ll pull it into OpenOffice or Word, which not only helps me to see it a little differently, but also is more full-featured and fits into the “editor” space in my head better. I still expect I’ll use notebooks to jot down short scenes, brainstorming, ideas and plotting ideas, but I’m moving more and more toward working entirely within my computer creatively.

This might seem like a “duh” moment to some (I know , for example, has been using Google Docs this way for years), but it was an interesting revelation for me as someone who used to really worship paper and journals to find that I’m getting more comfortable with creating inside a computer environment as I grow older.

Of course, between this and moving many of my RSS feeds to Google Reader, this means that Google owns more of my soul.