Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The awesome might of wiki technology.

Well, I’ve linked repeatedly to my own personal wiki, I figure its about time I explain why. A wiki can be one of the most powerful tools available for series writing, expecially genre fiction where you want to have a lot of details.

First off, lets talk technology turkey. The term ‘wiki’ is Hawaiian for ‘fast’(or possibly quick, I can’t remember). A programmer(I forget his name) traveling on business to Hawaii was told to take the ‘Wiki-Wiki Shuttle’ at the airport, and thus chose it as the name for his project.

At its core, a wiki is essentially a database. The underlying technology is usually PHP or SQL, both of which are too boring to get into. Unlike beauty, its what’s on the surface that counts here, and that is typically a WYSIWYG editor. That big long acronym stands for “what you see is what you get”, basically you type in text and you get it.

There are a number of wiki technologies freely available. Mediawiki, which powers the eminently popular Wikipedia is among them. It is free to download and use, is incredibly awesome, and is relatively easy to get the hang of. The best part is that you can just refer to wikipedia’s help pages whenever you can’t figure out how to do something.

The hard part of obtaining your own wiki(and the part that might be especially challenging for my younger readers) lies in the hosting. Because you are using an SQL database, you need some backend support. A typical, inexpensive web-hosting plan will typically include this. I pay about $8 a month to a hosting company, and in exchange I get countless websites(RickAustinsonDotCOMtheGame.com, UninformedGamer.com, CamarilloWritersclub.com, AuthoroftheGust.com, and of course TheCourseBooks.com to name a few), as well as up to 5 SQL databases. I use one to host my wiki.

Of course, for those of you without access to this sort of thing, there are a number of personal wiki technologies available. Some are even portable enough to run off a thumb drive if, like me, you sometimes need to move between multiple computers. There are a lot of them out there, do some searching, test drive a few, and go from there.

Now let’s talk about what to use your wiki for.

For me, it’s basically a searchable notebook. Information that used to be contained in dozens of different word documents scattered around my thumb drive is now maintained up on the wiki. Any time I need a piece of information, finding it is as simple as doing a search.

You may be thinking “But, I can just do a search through my words docs, can’t I?” You can, but honestly the search engine that’s built into your OS just isn’t nearly as good. It picks up only whole words spelled correctly, grabs every single ‘if’, ‘the’, and ‘and’ it can find, and displays results in the order that it finds them, not by order of relevance. By contrast, the searchable wiki database is worlds more effective.

Then of course there’s the hyper-linking. If you’ve ever used Wikipedia, you know how handy that sort of thing is. But what you probably don’t know is how easy it is to do. Let’s say in my wiki I want to link to my page about dragons; all I have to do is type [[dragons]] and it automatically creates a hyper link. Want to link, but don’t want to use the word ‘dragons’? No problem, just type [[dragons|whatever you want]] and it still hyperlinks to dragons, while ‘whatever you want’ displays as the link. It takes a bit of learning, the software isn’t sophisticated enough to invent links for you, but with practice it gets easier.

Finally, there’s what it does for your thought-process. Wiki technology actually gets about as close as possible to the way your brain stores information. You link ideas together in the oddest ways. By recording them in your wiki, you can link them together in the same way.

By creating a sort of free-form environment into which to dump directly from your brain, easily creating, storing, and editing ideas, you will find it much easier to produce new ones. I can’t even begin to tell you how many new stories I’ve thought of simply by producing my wiki, or how many dead-ends I’ve broken out of. It’s not a ‘get out of plot trouble free’ card, but its close.

And let’s not forget the collaborative capabilities. Co-writing a story? You can’t do better, even if you’re sitting in the same room!

Finally, the wiki is expecially useful for storing information that isn’t going to make it into your book. I have so much data included in my wiki, things that would be boring, awkward, or cumbersome to try to cram into a story, but that work very easily in the sort of encyclopedic format that is the wiki.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Feel Free to Drop a Line