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Write Now with Scrivener, Episode No. 5: Christian Cantrell, Sci-Fi Thriller Author

Christian Cantrell writes sci-fi thrillers full of cutting-edge technology.

With a day job as a designer for one of the world's largest software companies, Christian Cantrell knows how computer technology works, and his novels are full of cutting-edge ideas. He explores science and technology that don’t yet exist in order to put characters in situations in which they can discover things about themselves that would otherwise have been impossible.

Show notes:

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Christian Cantrell works as the Director of Design Prototyping for Adobe, where he is in charge of ensuring that some of today's most advanced software is user friendly. At the same time, he loves storytelling, and weaves into his science fiction thrillers the technology of today, and that which is right around the corner. This makes the technology he discusses much more believable than in some novels.

"It's really important for me to get that stuff right. I don't want people who do understand the technology to roll their eyes and think that I took shortcuts, but I also want all of the technology that I write about to feel familiar to people. I'm typically writing what's often referred to as five minutes in the future. So there's unfamiliar technology, but you should always be able to relate to it and connect it back to your experiences."

In Christian's latest novel, Scorpion, the technology is very important, it's almost a character in the novel. It is often said that an author should write what they know, and Cristian clearly knows about technology. But there's also a serial killer in the novel; does he know a lot about that?

"I do not. On the first episode of this podcast, the guest said that people had always told him to write what he knows, but he likes to write what he can imagine. I loved that. I had never heard it before, but I've adopted that idea. I write about what I know, but I also am not afraid to write about what I can imagine."

Beyond just using technology as a vehicle for advancing the plot of his novels, Christian also introduces interesting ideas about technology. Early in Scorpion, one character explains that "The cost of stealing [information] has to be higher than its value. Securing information is less about encryption and more about the cost of decryption. It’s all economics."

"I don't think that people appreciate the extent to which technology is linked to economics. Technology is seldom about what can be done, it's much more about what can be done in an economically viable way. William Gibson has a quote that says, 'the future is already here, it's just not widely distributed.' If you can figure out not just what's possible, but what's going to be profitable, then you're going to do a better job of understanding where we're headed."

But it's not just the future that has a role in Scorpion; Christian makes a number of references to Shakespeare's Hamlet, through quotes, and even a method used to murder someone. "I didn't study computer science in school, I studied literature and creative writing, and some theater. These two things in my mind come together very organically."

Christian's career as an author has been interesting. He self-published his first novel, then got picked up by Amazon's 47North imprint, and Scorpion is published by Random House. He's got novels optioned for TV and movies, and his future as an author looks very positive. I asked if he was planning to give up his day job any time soon.

"I ask myself this question a lot. It's hard to say; I go back and forth all the time. I love my job and I love the people I work with. I don't know if I'm going to give up my Adobe job. I know for sure that I will not give up writing."

Christian has a unique perspective on Scrivener. For him, Scrivener is to writers what an IDE (integrated development environment) is to software developers.

"I have my own custom project template, where I have the Binder set up the way I like it, which is just Draft, Archive, and Trash. I'm a bit of a minimalist, I suppose, when it comes to structure like that. I use folders for parts of the books, and then inside that are folders for chapters, and inside that I have text documents for sections. I love being able to reorder."

Christian also uses synopses, so he can look at his work at a glance in Corkboard view, and makes extensive use of Notes.

"And I love snapshots, they are fantastic. Snapshots are very much like what you would do with a version control system when writing code; you create a branch or something like that. I do a lot of editing and I rewrite things a lot, which I think is good practice. But I don't make a copy of the document and give it a different name, or copy and paste into another file, I just create a snapshot and then I don't have to worry about it."

The ability to organize his novels in the Binder allows Christian to focus on the entire novel as well as individual chapters. "I always want every chapter, even every section of every chapter to have its own arc. Scrivener helps me do that to some degree. It isn't this long, scrolling narrative; the novel's made up of a bunch of narratives that are linked."

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

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