Technical Difficulties

Like a normal tech podcast, but broken.

We're thrilled to welcome Helene Wecker to the show this week. Helene recently published her debut novel The Golem and the Jinni. On the show, Helene discusses how she got started as an author, her approach to writing, and some of the tools she uses to bring her stories from concept to reality.

Meet Helene Wecker

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 0:00

Helene Wecker is the author of The Golem and the Jinni. Recently nominated for the 2013 Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Award, the novel tells the story of a group of immigrants (both natural and supernatural) living in New York City at the turn of the last century.

Helene got her start in the Marketing and Public Relations field. Seven years into her career, she decided to stop writing about other people’s awesome projects and start working on her own instead.

Having written Doctor Who and Star Trek fanfic in high school and leaning on some additional experience in creative writing classes, Helene chose to pursue a career writing fiction. Perhaps leaning towards the Type A side of the personality spectrum (no comment – pw) she was talented enough to graduate from the prestigious Master of Fine Arts Degree program at Columbia University in New York.

Welcoming Helene Wecker

At the end of Technical Difficulties 67 with David Sparks, Gabe ressurected a Generational feature he calls “Tell Me About Something You Like.” In it, Gabe told us about a great book he had just finished.

On his recommendation I made it my next audiobook, and Erik added it to his Kindle library. Well, it turns out that the author herself heard the mention and after Gabe saw this, he was able to arrange this interview.

Though we were all a bit starstruck, Helene proved to be a gracious and wonderful guest. We think you’ll agree.

On being published

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 9:38

Among the benefits of Helene’s Columbia MFA program were the annual mixers which allowed students to interact with literary agents. While these events didn’t offer any guarantees of representation (much less fame, fortune, and a show on HBO), Helene was able to make a connection with someone who could offer some guidance. Over a period of four to five years he helped her refine the novel and stay on track, eventually becoming her agent and helping Helene sell the novel to HarperCollins Publishers when it was roughly half-complete.

The Basis for the story

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 19:49

The Golem and the Jinni is a story that interweaves Jewish and Arab American traditions and mythologies amidst the backdrop of New York City in 1899. Ensuring that a novel with such distinctive themes rang true required Helene to conduct exhaustive research and pay careful attention to the “rules” of the world she was creating.

Fortunately, Helene had access to family traditions from both cultures as well as the Columbia University library. That being said, making a golem and a jinni believably walk the streets of The Lower East Side and Little Syria requires an immense amount of good old-fashioned hard work – far more than just a quick viewing of Funny Girl.

Caution

Erik’s lack of appreciation for the romantic charms of Dearborn, Michigan does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the management.

Fitting Research into a narrative

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 32:50

When a story expands to the length of a novel, a line needs to be drawn somewhere between fleshing out a tale’s detail, and writing a textbook. And what about the characters? A world needs a full cast to feel real, but nothing feels like more of a cheat to the reader than when the author’s hand can be seen dropping an extra into the plot in order to keep things moving.

“That starts to feel a little woo-woo”

On Being a Writer

One of my favorite aspects of this interview was the obvious dichotomy of becoming a professional writer. Anyone can become a “real” writer and professional story teller, but not just anyone has the tenacity and professionalism to make it a career. I think Helene is a character study in the birth of a professional writer. She gave up a lucrative career, worked very hard at perfecting her craft, and stuck with it until someone noticed.

While I do believe that it takes talent to be a professional writer, I think Helene’s story is compeling because of her fortitude and persistence in achieving that status. It’s fun, but it sure is a lot of hard work too.

Sometimes carefully prepared and even beloved writing has to go into the trash heap when it isn’t right, and Helene experienced this herself when writing the ending of her book. Like a surgeon’s cut, sometimes excess or damaged pieces need to be removed.

Details, Details

Helene was kind enough to provide some additional information about the tools she used when writing her novel. While some elements were alluded to in the audio, we’ve interleaved some additional detail into the notes where appropriate.

Hardware

I treated myself to a new MacBook Pro back in December. I’d been saving up for a while, but I waited until they announced the new line. My old laptop was a five-year-old plain vanilla MacBook, and it was running on borrowed time. For the new one, I maxed out the memory and the processor, but not the storage. Now that I’ve decided to go paperless, I’m wondering if that was the best decision.

Your basic monitor. It isn’t the greatest at talking to the laptop; when it wakes up it cycles through its analog and HDMI inputs before it hits “Digital” and finally connects. I’m sure there’s some setting in its frustratingly Byzantine menu that fixes this, I just can’t be bothered to find it. I certainly don’t think you need an external monitor in order to write, but it does make it easier to look at research while writing, or two versions of a manuscript side by side.

Mainly I use this for Time Machine. I recently had to buy a new one, when my bad habit of unplugging without ejecting caught up with me. Turns out the warning’s there for a reason. Huh.

  • Drobo
  • The Drobo is the latest generation of the award-winning platform that started it all. It holds true to the unique design and simplicity that has made Drobo the best desktop storage solution for storing and protecting all your data.
  • MSRP: $599.00

Our family NAS is an eight-year-old Drobo that sits on a shelf in the family room, behind my daughter’s board books. We use it as our media storage (connected to our TV via a Mac Mini) but I also back up to it sporadically. (I need to be more diligent about that, probably with the help of SuperDuper.) We’ve had a couple of bad-drive scares, but it’s still chugging along. We’d like to buy a new one soon, if only because this one’s making a noise like a lawnmower. Could be the pound’s worth of cat hair in the fan.

Research

  • Scrivener
  • Scrivener is a powerful content-generation tool for writers that allows you to concentrate on composing and structuring long and difficult documents. While it gives you complete control of the formatting, its focus is on helping you get to the end of that awkward first draft.
  • Price: $45

I didn’t keep any research in Scrivener while writing THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI. Instead I stuck it all in Evernote, and went back and forth. But for the next book, I’ve been loading everything into Scrivener’s research folder instead. It was just too irritating to switch between apps, especially when I’d start to second-guess myself over some historical detail: “Wait, did I really read this somewhere, or did I make it up?” And then I’d have to switch to Evernote and dig out the right note. Whereas if everything is in Scrivener, I can link from the draft in progress to the right document in the research folder. Once and done.

Granted, it’s much more of a pain to get everything into Scrivener. The Evernote folks have gone out of their way to give you 17 different ways to toss content into your notebooks, but with Scrivener it has to be done from inside the app. There’s probably some way to use Hazel rules and AppleScript to save items into a Dropbox folder and then automatically load them into a predetermined Scrivener document, but learning AppleScript isn’t high enough on my priority list to figure it out. Rumor has it that Literature & Latte is working on an iOS version of Scrivener, which I’d really love to see. Might give me a reason to use my iPad more often.

  • Evernote
  • Evernote is an easy-to-use, free app that helps you remember everything across all of the devices you use. Stay organized, save your ideas and improve productivity.
  • Price: Free

I have a love-hate relationship with Evernote. Sometimes it’s invaluable, and sometimes it feels like a junk closet. Admittedly, I’m not the best at keeping it organized. Recently I went through it and created a handful of new notebooks; hopefully that’ll help. But part of the problem is that Evernote has really fuzzy boundaries, and ends up half-sharing the duties I use a lot of other apps for. Should I keep my to-read articles in Evernote, or in Instapaper? What about small but important pieces of reference info: Evernote, or Simplenote? Recipes are a no-brainer, but what about articles on time- or event-sensitive subjects, like tax advice or seasonal gardening tips? Do I create OmniFocus reminders for those, or make an Evernote “tickler” notebook a la GTD? It leads to muddy workflows and duplication of effort. Sometimes I’ll do a Google search on something and toss the results into Evernote, only to see I’d already clipped that article a year ago. It’s like buying a new lightbulb, and then finding a blister pack of them hidden in the linen closet.

  • PDFpen
  • The all-purpose Mac PDF editor! Add signatures, text, and images. Make changes and correct typos. OCR scanned docs. Fill out forms.
  • Price: $59.95

I stuck these two together because they really are a team: together, they’re twice as useful as they would be alone. Since a lot of my research involves stuff like out-of-print books, old maps, and articles from academic journals, I end up making a lot of photocopies. This used to lead to entire shelves devoted to three-ring binders. Now that I have the ScanSnap and PDFPen, I’m turning it all digital. It’s all on my laptop, right where I need it, and easily searchable.

The direction of writing

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 41:47

While she used various techniques along the way, Helene gradually moved her story forward, often taking steps back into the past to refine a character’s path through the story or correct wrong turns. This attention to detail and internal consistency allows for the reader to know that the book’s universe has rules. Having other readers at this stage of development is particularly useful in order to avoid a frog-in-a-pot scenario. A word of caution: learning this skill may ruin your ability to enjoy entire swaths of literature.

Writing Apps

  • Scrivener (Again)
  • Scrivener is a powerful content-generation tool for writers that allows you to concentrate on composing and structuring long and difficult documents. While it gives you complete control of the formatting, its focus is on helping you get to the end of that awkward first draft.
  • Price: $45

I said this in the show too, but it bears repeating: I don’t know how I could’ve written THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI without Scrivener. That book had at least a dozen moving parts, and Scrivener allowed me to treat them as exactly that: parts that I could move around, swap in and out, try out different versions of, banish to a “graveyard” folder and later resurrect if I felt like it. I bought Scrivener in ‘06 or ‘07, back when it wasn’t quite so feature-rich. I’m sort of glad I did; I know that Scrivener’s current complexity can scare away potential users, and I might have been one of them. Suffice to say, if you’re a writer and MS Word’s pissing you off, give Scrivener a try.

I’ve just started using Byword, mostly on my laptop but sometimes on my iPad. I use it mostly for short-to-midlength pieces (like this one) and sometimes for long emails. I really like the stripped-down aesthetic. I’ve started teaching myself Markdown, so the Preview option gets a workout.

In the past I’ve rotated between Notational Velocity, NVAlt, and Simplenote, and right now Simplenote’s on top. I’m pretty happy with it, though I miss Notational Velocity’s nifty “search and create from the same line” feature. I used to keep everything I wrote (that wasn’t part of a book) in Simplenote, including the short-to-midlength pieces I now write in Byword. But that started to get unwieldy, and it gunked up the search results. Now I use Simplenote mostly for lists, reference info that I need to access quickly and often, and travel itineraries. The sync to iOS is pretty reliable; I’ve had my grocery list decouple a few times, I suspect because I had it open and edited in both devices. So now I keep a template, just in case.

Outlining

  • Tree
  • Tree is an outliner featuring a horizontally expandable tree view. Tree assists you in organizing your information, sketching plans and brainstorming new ideas.
  • Price: $14.99

I started playing around with Tree while I was outlining the new book. I like it quite a bit, though some of the actions don’t behave the I want them to, so they don’t stick in my muscle memory as well as I’d like. The horizontal view is fabulous for looking at a lot of info on the screen at once. Weirdly, I use Tree to write presentations instead of Scrivener, which would be the more obvious choice. I think my brain has partitioned off Scrivener for writing fiction; doing anything else in the app just feels odd.

  • OmniOutliner Pro
  • Welcome to OmniOutliner 4, an amazingly flexible yet lightweight program for creating, collecting, and organizing information. Use OmniOutliner’s document structure to brainstorm new ideas, drill out specifics, and construct a beautiful document for sharing.
  • Price: $99.99

I used to use OmniOutliner back in the days of Kinkless GTD, but I never really got familiar with the app itself, and that’s something I’d like to change. Too many people have recommended it not to use it. I’ve tried at least twice to get to know the latest version, and each time I’ve retreated back to Tree, a victim of the exact same feature overwhelm that keeps a lot of writers away from Scrivener. Ridiculous, I know. I love everything the Omni folks do, and eventually I’ll get there.

  • Aeon Timeline
  • Aeon Timeline is the timeline tool for creative and analytical thinking. It provides an intuitive, responsive interface to help you create and edit your data on the fly. It allows you to hide and filter information so that you can focus on what is important to you at the time.
  • Price: $39.99

Oh man, do I wish Aeon Timeline had been around eight years ago. AT lets you create incredibly complex but easily readable timelines, along decades or years or even minutes. (Scifi and fantasy writers, check out the feature that lets you define non-Earth-standard time increments!) You can organize your events along different “arcs,” which is incredibly helpful if you want to keep groups of events separate from each other, but still want to see where they intersect. For my next book, I’ve built a timeline with different arcs for events from World War I, New York history, the lives of various historical figures (Ameen Rihani, Louis Brandeis, T.E. Lawrence, etc.), and the lives of my own characters. So when I go to actually write the book, I can be clear on which real-world events have already happened, which will happen within the course of the book (and possibly influence the characters’ actions or attitudes), and which events the characters will create themselves in the course of the plot. If this sounds confusing, just take a look at the demo, where they’ve broken down the entire plot of Murder on the Orient Express. It took me about a half hour of playing with AT to go from “Hmm, it’s a little pricey” to “SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY.”

Email

Am I weird for using Gmail in the browser? Everyone else seems to use Apple Mail or MailMate or what have you. I’ve tried them all, but I always end up back in Chrome. (Though once a week I open up Apple Mail and let it slurp down all the new stuff, just so I’ve got everything in storage.) Of course, my email needs are relatively uncomplicated: I’ve only got one account to manage, and I don’t have to worry about syncing with an Outlook server or the like.

That said, I’ve experienced a lot of growing pains around email in the last few years. It wasn’t too long ago that I’d get maybe six emails I cared about in the course of a working day. These days, I have a lot to respond to, much of it time-sensitive. I’m still trying to figure out how to manage it all. I set up a bunch of filters set up to move low-priority email to a “Later” folder, so that (hopefully) the most important emails float to the top, but I don’t entirely trust it yet. I tried the SaneBox demo, but I’m too much of a control freak to be happy with it. I kept second-guessing the algorithm, and wondering what I wasn’t seeing. Maybe someday I’ll be able to let go (and justify the annual fee), but for now I’ll keep struggling with email on my own.

Productivity

  • OmniFocus
  • OmniFocus is designed to quickly capture your thoughts and ideas to store, manage, and help you process them into actionable to-do items.
  • Price: $79.99

It’s probably an exaggeration to say I’d be lost without OmniFocus, but not by much. I’m still (perpetually) refining my OF workflows. I used to keep separate folders for work projects, travel, and home or personal projects, regardless of whether they were short-term or ongoing. Now, as soon as a project gets a deadline, it goes in the Deadlines folder, no matter which part of my life it comes from. That way I can scan the folder quickly to see what I’ve got coming down the pike. I don’t want to have to look in two different places to realize that I’ve got a blog Q&A due the same day I’m hosting a Passover seder.

Like a lot of OF users, I struggle with how – or even whether – to break down large creative projects into OmniFocus tasks. It would feel weird not to have my next book represented in OF in some way, since it’s the biggest thing on my plate. But at least with the last book, once I was in the thick of writing, a daily repeating OF task labeled “Write two hours” seemed kind of silly. Kind of like having a task called “Eat lunch” or “Put your clothes on.” What the hell else was I going to do that day? So right now, my next-book OF project only has a few ancillary tasks in it, like “Research NYC orphanages in 1910s,” and “Go to UC Berkeley library for JSTOR access.” Maybe as I (hopefully) acquire an official deadline and the book gains substance and momentum, I’ll figure out a good way to break it down into trackable chunks.

N.B.: I can’t remember which productivity blogger or podcaster suggested creating app-based contexts (“@Chrome,” “@Byword,” and so on) but whoever it was, I owe you big. It changed my entire workflow. Now I just open an app, go through my task list, and then move on to the next app. Genius.

  • Freedom
  • Freedom is the wonderful app for Windows, Mac, and Android that locks you away from the ‘net. If online distractions kill your productivity, Freedom could be the best 10 dollars you’ll ever spend.
  • Price: $10

There are days when turning on Freedom is the only way I get anything done. It’s painful, especially when I’m in research mode or waiting for a response to an email. But still, invaluable.

  • RescueTime
  • With so many distractions and possibilities in your digital life, it’s easy to get scattered. RescueTime helps you understand your daily habits so you can focus and be more productive.
  • Price: $9/mo
I’ve started using RescueTime again, now that I’m trying to get back into Serious Writing Mode. It keeps me accountable over the long term, the same way that Freedom does over the short term. And it’s always fun to try to beat yesterday’s stats.

Automation and Shortcuts

  • Hazel
  • Hazel is a System Preference pane that works silently in the background, automatically filing, organizing and cleaning.
  • Price: $28

I finally bought Hazel about a month ago, after hearing everyone talk about it ad nauseam. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it can do, but already it’s saving me tons of time and mental energy. Moreover, Hazel makes me think about how I label my documents upfront, instead of what I used to do: just call them any old thing and toss them in a giant bucket. It’s helping me create an in-the-moment organizational discipline that, with any luck, will spill over into other aspects of my life.

  • Alfred
  • Alfred is an award-winning productivity application for Mac OS X. Alfred saves you time when you search for files online or on your Mac. Be more productive with hotkeys, keywords and file actions at your fingertips.
  • Price: Free

Oh, Alfred, how I neglect you. I know you’re more than just an app switcher and document finder. Others whisper amazing things about your clipboard prowess, but do I take the time to figure you out? No, I just tell you to open iTunes again. Poor Alfred.

  • TextExpander
  • Type more with less effort! TextExpander saves your fingers and your keyboard, expanding custom keyboard shortcuts into frequently-used text and pictures.
  • Price: $34.95

I’ve been tinkering with TextExpander for a few months, figuring out where the big wins are. At first I created a zillion snippets for small, often-used phrases, but I found it was more effort to remember the snippet than to just type out the phrase. Now I’m much more interested in long-form snippets. Recently I figured out how to use TextExpander snippets to write answers to frequently asked questions. I tend to answer the same dozen or so questions repeatedly, either in email interviews or in readers’ emails. I wanted a way to speed up the process, but I didn’t want to copy and paste canned responses. So I developed a set of snippets that present me with lists of phrases related to each answer. For instance, if someone asks about my inspiration for THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI, I type “.inspiration” and get this:

started at Columbia
working on short stories
combined tales from families
immigration to America
issues of language, culture
collection refused
complained to a friend
she pointed out
realist stories
sci-fi and fantasy
challenged me
fantastical instead
switched characters
golem and jinni

Now I have a handy cheat-sheet of phrases. I can incorporate them straight into my answer, or reword and tinker with them, or just read them over to get the engine going and then write something completely different. This way I can to tailor each response to fit the situation (relaxed-and-chatty blog Q&A vs. more formal press interview, etc.) without having to start each answer over again from square one.

The hazards of hearing your own writing read aloud

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 53:27

When you write a book over a period of years, there are likely going to be sections that benefit unequally from increasing skill. This is usually transparent to the reader, but an author may want a few more editorial passes done on a completed book, if they are forced to spend to much time with their own words.

This is made worse for someone hearing George Guidall perform their story. Dostoevsky might even want to revise a paragraph here or there.

Narrators

George Guidall is probably the best there is, but I have a soft spot in my heart for the narrator couple of Kate Reading and Michael Kramer after hearing them read the whole Wheel of Time. I also love Stefan Rudnicki, Gabrielle de Cuir, and Richard Ferrone.

Proper (we hope) name pronunciation is one of the benefits of hearing a professional read a book to you, and the characters in The Golem and the Jinni really highlight this. Helene’s method of combining names from family members, ship manifests, and other period source material give the world its feeling of reality.

You Need a Budget

This doesn’t have to do with writing per se, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention You Need a Budget (YNAB). I’m essentially a freelancer now, so I get paid in erratically spaced, odd-sized chunks. That means I need serious control over my monthly expenses, so I can build a cushion for myself and have some certainty about how long it’ll last. And then there’s the joy of quarterly taxes, saving for retirement, tickets home for the holidays, etc. It didn’t happen overnight, but with YNAB’s help, I’ve managed to create a realistic, all-inclusive budget and stick to it, for the first time in my life. Frankly, it feels pretty great.

Spoilers Ahead

Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 1:04:57

For the sake of listeners who haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, there are spoilers from this point on. Once you have finished, you can return to this section of the audio which adds additional character insight and some thoughts on faith in the world of the golem and the jinni.

SciFi and Fantasy

Science fiction and fantasy has gotten a bad rap over the years. For a long time it was second class to works by authors that focused solely on the human condition, like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I made my way to the genre through Vonnegut, who elegantly intertwined time travel and alien planets with alcoholism and suicide. It was a surprise when I learned that fiction and scifi were two separate things. With the popularity of vampire stories and comic book movies, I think the mainstream is steadily moving toward my own happy conclusion: SciFi is just fiction with an imagination.

Until next week

Well, that’s it for this week. If you have anything that you’d like to add to or correct in the show notes you can find me on Twitter @potatowire, or feel free to send an email to me at potatowire dot com.