Friday, January 27, 2012

Literary Felines



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Monday, January 23, 2012

Indispensable Writing Resources


I recently loaded a fresh version Windows 7 onto a new SSD (Solid State Drive) for faster boot-ups, and just because I wanted to take an SSD out for a spin.It's always interesting to me to see what apps I load first to get back up and writing as quickly as possible. Here's the list this time.

Antivirus
Any (Windows) computer with a good always-on broadband connection is open game for all kinds of nefarious shenanigans. I bought a site license for Trend Micro on my primary computer but even with rigorous protection, recently found myself a victim of an exploitation that got in, I think, through a self-updating Java update. I woke on my anniversary in December to discover that my computer had become infected while I slept. It took me most of the day to clean my computer. That was a pain.
So I went to install an antivirus app first thing on the new SSD and, lo-and-behold, Trend Micro said I was already using my three licenses. I rolled my eyes. Yes, it's loaded on my other hard drive, but it's still just protecting this computer. But happily, I'd recently read an article at Lifehacker on this very topic, and they ranked the Microsoft Security Essentials antivirus app as the best performing free antivirus app. That was good enough for me. I loaded that up, did a quickscan, and have been utterly happy ever since.


Browser
After loading antivirus protection, the first thing I do is hop into Internet Explorer. IE has gotten much better since the bad old days when it was a standards non-compliant virus-magnet. While I've been a Firefox user forever, I've discovered that I'm using Google Chrome for more and more, and it has some spectacular surprises (more on that in a bit). It loads Hulu and Netflix faster for me, and I particularly like the way it integrates with other Google products I use everyday, including Gmail, Google Reader, and the next item on the list.


Social Networking
My social networking needs change from season to season (remember those awesome days with MySpace and Shoutlife?). I've since left both those communities and have standardized on just three: Facebook, Twitter, and the new Google+. The upstart newcomer already has over 100M users and is quickly expanding. After setting up rigorous Circles, I find I don't use the circles much at all but the free video hangouts are brilliant, and I find the tenor of the posts in my stream are more techy, more thoughtful by and large than the more family-life and browser games discussions I detect in my Facebook stream. Twitter remains its own thing, and I enjoy having specific lists of people I follow there.

I prefer to do single-source posting, writing one thought and automatically forwarding it to a number of services. I used to use Ping.fm for that, but with the advent of Goodle +, I now cut out the middle man and do all my posting right at G+. I write-once, post-many, crafting my thoughts on Google+ (where I can edit an existing post, whee!) and then automatically forward my posts to Facebook and Twitter. If my posts are longer than 140 characters, my posts are shortened and a link is inserted to my primary post on Google+. (It may be annoying to people in my Twitter stream, but it works for me.)


Extensions / Add-ons
Which leads to my next tool, sgplus.me, an extension for Chrome and Firefox which allows me to auto-forward my posts to Facebook and Twitter (among others). And the cool thing is I can uncheck Fb or Twitter or both to customize each post to determine what posts go where.
I also made sure that AdBlock was running, because really, why not?


Adobe Apps
I quickly loaded Adobe Reader, Air, and Flash, because I know I'll be using these things to do stuff on the internet. Add in Microsoft Silverlight for Netflix and I'm good to go.


Writing
Forget Word, Scrivener is the most powerful, most fun writing app I've discovered. I can export to any file format I need, I can write and move scenes around to fit my writing style, and I can even use the Snapshot feature to go back to an earlier version of the story. There are versions for both Windows and Mac, and I keep my working files in the cloud on Dropbox for easy and secure access anywhere.

The Old Standbys
I've written about most of these before so I won't spend much time on them here. I can't live without them or something like them:
  1. Dropbox - I keep copies of all my documents in the cloud and can access them anywhere there's an internet connection and a browser. Up to 2 gig free.
  2. Evernote - Whenever I see something interesting online that I want to mark to read or save for later, I clip it into Evernote, another cloud-based app. I tag my articles for easy use later, such as AuthorCulture, Resource Roundup, Writing Stuff, and so on.
  3. DU Meter - This is a little bandwidth monitor I keep in my Windows sidebar that shows me download and upload speeds in real time.
  4. Pidgin - Open source IM client. 
  5. Apple iTunes - automatically downloads podcasts easier than anything else I've found.


Browser Bookmarks / Favorites
On Firefox, I'd normally go through a process to backup and save and recover all my bookmark favorites, but with Google Chrome, that's not necessary. I logged into Gmail / Google+ and I noticed that shortly thereafter, my Chrome bookmarks had automatically updated. I had the following already in my bookmark favorites toolbar:
  1. Gmail - brower-based e-mail I can follow my computer or any smartphone
  2. Google+ - social networking (with the best integrated way of keeping up with threads I've commented in, and with animated .gifs if you so desire!)
  3. Google Reader - with the demise of Blogspots, this has become my go-to RSS reader. I'm not crazy about the latest face-lift, but it is powerful and ubiquitous.
  4. Facebook - the big kahuna among social networking sites. I remain here because so many of my friends and family don't know there's anything else (no matter how hard I try to edumacate them).
  5. Twitter - taught us the merit and simple addictive joy of microblogging, 140 characters at a     <---- this is a joke
  6. Hulu - free streaming TV with a robust Plus version.
  7. Netflix - streaming movies
  8. Pandora - free streaming radio
  9. Grooveshark - free streaming albums
Next to last, I set up my Windows Sidebar gadgets, including a calendar, clock, countdown reminder, CPU / RAM monitor, moonphase thingy, Weatherbug, and DU Meter. I've added other things as I think of them, but have been pleasantly surprised with how fast I was able to get back up and running.

Finally, I was surprised by the apps I haven't yet loaded because I haven't needed them. (Microsoft Office, I'm lookin' at you.)
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Friday, January 20, 2012

Fabulously Fun Friday: Why Writers Really Own Cats


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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Review of Better Than Great by Arthur Plotnik

Arthur Plotnik has long been one of my favorite wits in the writing world. His depth-plumbing columns and articles in The Writer magazine were always among those I clipped for rereading, and I was sorry to see him retire from the post a year or two ago. So, naturally, I was tap dancing with excitement when his latest book Better Than Great: A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives was announced. The book offers 230 pages of alternate words, designed to replace the “thin” standards such as “great,” “fabulous,” and “excellent.”

This book easily provided the most fun I’ve ever had in a thesaurus. To make look-up easy and accessible, Plotnik divides the words into fifteen categories: Great, Sublime, Physically Affecting, Mentally or Emotionally Affecting, Beautiful, Joy-Giving, Large, Exceptional, Intense, Delicious, Trendy, Cool, Wicked Cool, Forceful, and Challenging Belief or Expression. He fronts each chapter with a fun intro that explains the chapter to follow and offers insight into his choices and how to utilize the book to full impact.

Admittedly, the book offers a limited scope of word alternatives. To begin with, the words are confined to the above categories of “positive superlatives.” And, within those categories, many of the suggestions would be appropriate only in moments of hyperbole or humor. But, even with its limitations, Better Than Great is a delightful book to put a writer’s shelf. It’s fun to flip through, great for on-the-spot inspiration, and sure to encourage us to reach deeper into our word choices, even if all we do is glance at the spine on our bookshelf every now and then.
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Monday, January 16, 2012

Using Dragon NaturallySpeaking As A Writer

For a couple years I have had my eye on the Dragon NaturallySpeaking program. I have a friend whose son can't use his hands. He has used Dragon NaturallySpeaking for years to complete school projects and she constantly raves about what a great product it is. So I'd done a lot of looking at the program trying to decide which version I wanted to buy, and finally settled on the home version - which I bought just a couple weeks ago.

When my friend first told me about Dragon NaturallySpeaking, I looked into other talk to text programs that were free. The one I tried..., well let's just say it didn't work too great. That made me a little leery of shelling out money for a program when I wondered whether it would even work. However, I kept hearing from various sources what a great program Dragon NaturallySpeaking was. So I finally decided to give it a try.

The box claims that Dragon NaturallySpeaking will give you 99% accuracy straight out of the box. Based on my experience with the other speech to text program I had used previously, I figured that was probably an exaggeration. However, I have been pleasantly surprised by how accurate Dragon has actually been straight out of the box. I did about 10 min. of training with it, reading one small paragraph, and a few paragraphs of a short story, and then launched right into using it.

I've only had the program for a couple of days, but I'm very excited to see what doors this will open for my writing. Some of the commands are not exactly intuitive for me, for instance, to create an action like hitting the enter key you have to say, "new line." I'm always wanting to say, "enter." Also, there's a certain knack to learning to pause before you give commands, so they aren't typed out in your document. For instance, if you don't pause before saying "new line," then the program might type "new line" right in the body of your document.

Due to the fact that you have to "train" Dragon to recognize your voice, the program really is only a one user program.  My son put my microphone on and tried to dictate a passage, however the program totally did not understand what he was saying. You can create multiple user profiles within the program, however the terms of service state that for each additional user profile you create you need to buy an additional license. Also,if you train your program in a totally silent environment and then try using it with background noise going on, the program will not understand what you're saying. So I suggest training your program inside the environment where you will use it most often. However, as time goes on the program continues to perfect your user profile. So at first this is much more of an issue then later on.

The only other drawback I see to the program is that you also have to dictate your punctuation. That takes a little getting used, but I've been surprised at how quickly it comes.

I'm sure as time goes on I'll learn a lot more about the program and the program will learn to understand me better and since I'm a visual-audio learner I think this program will help me to be a lot more productive.

So if you've been looking at Dragon NaturallySpeaking, I can say that I highly recommend the program. Maybe some of you already use the program? Do you have any tips and tricks to share with the rest of us?

Incidentally, I have typed this whole blog post by "talking it."
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Friday, January 13, 2012

FFF: Why Stephen King Is Afraid of Clowns


Stephen King is credited with popularizing the 'clowns are skeery' meme. In this clip, he explains where that came from (I'm lovin' it!).


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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Lessons from the Pros: Bad Guy Protagonists


Brady Darby has a smart mouth. He’s sullen and rude and sportin’ for a fight. No small wonder he’ll eventually murder his girlfriend.

Michael Camp will scope out your motel room, your car, your apartment. He'll break in while you're gone, or knock you out if you're there. He'll steal from you anything of value so he can buy his next fix.

Different characters from different books. What do they have in common? They’re the protagonists.

A protagonist doesn’t have to be a hero, he doesn’t even have to be likable, but he does have to be sympathetic. Brady Darby, from Riven by Jerry Jenkins, and Michael Camp, from I Called Him Dancer by Eddie Snipes, are definitely not heroic during the bulk of their stories, but amazingly enough, they are sympathetic.

Although Jenkins and Snipes started their characters’ stories at different points in their lives, they both developed backstories guaranteed to touch the heart. The reader got to watch Brady Darby grow up. We watched him leave his trailer home, where he and his little brother lived with their drunken mother, and go to school where he relished in his tough guy rep. No one dared tease him about being from the “other side of the tracks.” While we watch, he gets into scrapes that take no one by surprise, but he also participates in things that make us root for him. His early life is a series of ups and downs, but the one constant is his deep love for his brother.

When Darby finds a girl to love, the readers hope for a turnaround. But he makes awful decisions, has awful luck--and a loaded weapon he didn’t really intend to use. By the time he commits murder, the readers aren’t surprised, only disappointed.

Snipes opens Michael’s story at his worst point–living on the streets in New York, washing car windows at red lights in hopes for a dollar or two. That’s how his high school dance partner finds him.

Michael’s mother abandoned him at the home of a relative who didn’t want him either. He did eventually land with a family who cared enough for him to allow him to chase his dream of becoming a professional dancer. The reader roots for him all the way from after-school dance classes to the elite Pahl School of Dance, all the while seeing the abuse he has to overcome doled out by high school bullies. But because of the way Snipes opened the story--in the tale's "present time," the question throughout the backstory is: How did Michael become a street bum?

After all the lectures about dumping backstory into your novel, we see stories like these, where backstory is vital to making bad boys sympathetic. The reader has to care about these characters or they won’t read far enough to see what happens to them. Just telling the reader that the protagonists had a rough life doesn't cut it. The reader needs to see hopes and dreams dashed and see a feasible progression from the character's history to the character's current state.

But we also have to see the protagonist doing things that would reinforce our sympathy. Darby protects his brother, Michael protects his dance partner. Because of these actions, the reader continues to hope for redemption, and continues reading until his hope is fulfilled.

Writing bad boy protagonists is trickier than it sounds. The risk of losing your reader because he hates the character is present all through the novel. You must obtain and retain sympathy, or no one will care about the story. Develop and present a backstory that will earn sympathy, and show events that will provide the reader with hope, and you'll have him hooked all the way though.
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Monday, January 9, 2012

Writing Tips--Dialog Tags

If you’re writing fiction (or sometimes even nonfiction), the subject of dialog tags sooner or later is going to come up. What is a dialog tag? In its purest form, it lets you know who’s saying what: “Blap blap blap,” he said.

Simple, right? Well maybe. If there are only two people in the conversation, sometimes a writer can get by with no tags at all, if each speaker has their own voice:

“I’m going to the ball game,” Joe said.
His wife Janie plucked at his sleeve and said in a small voice, “Please don’t. Your brother is supposed to stop by tonight.”
“Let him. I’m going. I’m done with that deadbeat.”
“But the money he owes us—”
“We’ll never see again, and you know it! I never want to—”

If a writer is skilled enough, such a conversation be carried on for quite a while, with no danger of losing the reader. But add a third character:

The door to the flat swung open, and tall man with tough eyes entered unannounced.
“See me again?” he finished. “That hurts, Joe. What would our sainted mother say?”
“Ben, as I live and breathe” Joe gritted. “I heard the sheriff sprung you.”
Nervously Janie picked up a pitcher of tea. “Please, guys … don’t fight, okay? Joe, isn't it good to see Ben, after all this time?"

"No."
"Come on, hon. I just made this. Let's all have some.”
The visitor’s smile was cold. “I always liked you, Janie.”
The gun almost teleported into Joe’s hand. “Time to leave, Ben.”
Janie’s hand flew to her mouth. Her nightmare was coming true at last.

And so on.
In another post we’ll talk about why some writers strictly go with “said” for each character’s tag, while others—like me—tend to mix it up a bit.

Happy writing!
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Friday, January 6, 2012

Fabulously Fun Friday: The 72-Hour Novel

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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

How to Add Instant Originality to Your Fantasy

One of the reasons speculative readers love fantasy is the originality. When reality doesn’t apply, the possibilities for unique characters, worlds, powers, politics (you name it) are endless. But one of the chief complaints of many inveterate fantasy readers is that few stories provide that sense of originality. Raise your hand of you’ve ever read a Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time knock-off (Eragon, I’m looking at you). So, as a fantasy author, how do you add originality to your story?

Aside from having a knock-out premise or a generally offbeat sense of creativity, one of the easiest ways you can add originality to a fantasy story is simply by looking outside the box. Since most fantasy stories are grounded in specific eras of our own history and mythology, all you have to do to leave the beaten track is to start hunting out little-used time periods.

Image by Farazsiyal
For example, “high fantasy” has long utilized familiar medieval European history and Norse mythology for its foundation. So what if you wrote a story that took the basis of its setting and worldview from the ancient Mayans? Or the Maori? What about Native Americans? Or how about keeping the European setting but changing the timeline to something less medieval and more Renaissance or Roman? When reading Brent Weeks’s The Way of Shadows, I was excited at his early hints of an unusual Orient-based setting and disappointed when it didn’t play out and the author returned to the familiar medieval archetypes.

This trick, of course, won’t guarantee you a unique story—or reader satisfaction. The worth and originality of your story is based upon many factors. But you can take your first peek outside of the box and into a realm of exciting new possibilities simply by switching out a few of the “normal” fantasy stereotypes.
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Monday, January 2, 2012

The Givers and the Takers

I recently had something happen to me that highlighted the fact that there are givers and there are takers in this life.

Just before Christmas, on Wednesday night, I locked up the house and left for church. My son had been sitting on my bed with my laptop watching his endless basketball replays on YouTube and my other son shut down the Wii to head off to youth group. It was a typical Christmas break afternoon. My younger son was having a friend to stay the night, so an hour and fifteen minutes later we all trooped back into the house visiting with the father of the other boy and everyone headed off to settle into their favorite activities.

First came the request, "Mom, where's your laptop?"

I looked at him. "It's back on my bed where you left it."

He frowned. "I don't see it. I'll go look again."

At this point I'm still clueless as I continue to visit with our guests' father. But he left only a moment later and since my son still couldn't find the laptop I got up to go show him where he'd left it.

Not so much.

We'd been robbed. It was only a moment later that we realized the Wii and a few other small things were missing including one Christmas present - more on that later.

After calling the police and giving them a report we all felt a little numb. There were no signs of forced entry. So we surmise that my oldest son's key that he lost a few months back wasn't really lost, but taken by one of his friends who sadly has fallen into drugs and been in and out of Juvey several times already in his 15 years. Just a guess and nothing has been recovered, however something else happened after this and that is what I want the focus of this post to be.

The word got out, of course, and a friend of mine put out a request for donations on Facebook. It was quite humbling a few days later when they brought by the donations they'd collected, and told us that someone had offered to buy us a new laptop, as well. Over the next few days donations continued to come in and our family was simply blown away by the contrast of the two actions.

On the one hand you have someone who goes into another person's home to take what is not theirs. And on the other hand, you have those who have not been wronged in any way but who are willing to take on part of the burden anyway.

I don't know about you, but I want to fall into the latter group.

And I got to thinking about this - how it should apply to my writing career. We all know that as writers we have to self-promote. And sometimes that involves recruiting the assistance of others. But let us be careful to remember to be givers first, and then the help we need will come.

There are a lot of other writers out there whose books I really do enjoy. So this year, I plan to be a giver - I'm committing myself to helping others along this writing journey - whether with promotion, or information, or advice.

Interestingly enough, the one Christmas present that was stolen, ended up being a Bible. And whoever broke into our house now has our whole church praying for them (and I hope you, now too.) So more good than has already happened may come from this, yet. And I'm reminded of a verse - Romans 8:28 "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."

He certainly has for me this year. And I know I can move ahead into this new year, with my future completely assured.


Happy New Year, everyone.
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