Environmental Change

By which I mean, I have acquired a new desk chair and I have rearranged the layout of my desk.

The new chair was a necessity.  My previous desk chair gave me many years of loyal service, but over the past month or so it had developed a forward tilt and a sideways list, making it uncomfortable to sit in.

The new desk layout sprang primarily from a desire to have my monitor not be in a position where I had to crane my neck slightly upward to look at it.  That placement was a holdover from the days of CRT monitors, which were as long or longer from front to back as they were from side to side.  The lower side of my desk wasn’t built to hold an object of that size.  As for the rest of the desk – let’s just say that back in the year when we bought it, the ergonomics of computer use were far from well-understood.

Also, the damned thing is so sturdy I probably couldn’t break it if I whaled away at it with a sledge hammer for a week.

It’s Been Cold.

I blame this year’s March weather for my laggardliness in posting new stuff.  Normally, by this time of year we’re already in the segue from winter to mud-time (which I used to think was a season invented by Robert Frost for poetic purposes, and then I moved up here); this year, we’ve had nights in the double-digits below zero Fahrenheit as recently as this past week, and the snow is still two feet deep in the front yard.

It makes it hard to work up energy for anything beyond the absolutely necessary, so it does.

One thing I did accomplish, though, because it didn’t require anything much beyond shifting some pixels around:  I took advantage of Google Drive’s recent lowering of prices for extra storage to pick up the 100-gigabytes-for-$1.99/month deal, and then spent a couple of days backing up my photo and image files to the cloud.

Backing up text is easy – text is compact. If you don’t have your working files saved in two or three different places (two different drives and at least one offsite backup is a good minimum), then you’re courting disaster.  Image files, though, and video and audio files, those are big.  They take up lots of room on any physical media you might want to store them on, and they transfer from one medium to another at a crawl.  Which is why up until a couple of days ago I had my image files stored in the virtual equivalent of a single shoebox.

Now, at least, I’ve got them stored in a couple of shoeboxes, and one of the boxes is on a shelf in somebody else’s house.

Neophilia

Writers have always tended to have a complicated relationship with the tools they use to write.  Some of them praise the fluid ease of writing in a fresh bound notebook with a high-quality fountain pen; others insist that only #2 pencils and a legal pad will do.  (Lord Dunsany allegedly wrote his stories with a peacock-feather quill pen, but he was the 18th Baron Dunsany and could get away with such things.)

Other writers love new tech.  Mark Twain was an early adopter of the typewriter, for example.  For a while in the mid-twentieth century, composing directly on the typewriter, instead of just using it to make a fair copy for submission, nevertheless had a faintly non-literary smell – an aroma of hackwork, as it were — in the noses of sensitive readers and critics.

Then along came dedicated word processors, followed shortly by word processing programs running on personal computers, and the people who had been looking down on typewriters switched to looking down on word processors and waxing nostalgic about their old muscle-powered Remingtons and Underwoods.

And so it goes, and keeps on going.  Even among the computerati, there are writers who eagerly embrace each new development (Google Docs!  Scrivener!) and others who lovingly maintain a vintage PC for the express purpose of running their copy of WordStar or Leading Edge.

Which is all taking the long way around to saying that I’m composing this blog post using Microsoft Live Writer for the first time, and if anything about it looks strange or funky or unexpected . . . well, you’ll know why.

The Transience of Things

Today’s pop-up target was my LCD monitor’s sudden affliction with creeping screen rot.  It was bound to happen eventually, I suppose; I got this monitor back in 2008 or so, and nothing lasts forever.  Especially nothing involving computers — though they do get cheaper; our very first computer, the Atari 800 of blessed memory (48 screamin’ K of RAM!  Upper and lower case letters!), cost nearly ten times as much as my most recent computer purchase.

Of course, that was back when personal computers were still mostly the domain of electronics enthusiasts, and Gates and Jobs and Wozniak and their fellows were still regarded as (admittedly, fairly well-off) nerds, rather than as giants in the earth.  These days, computers are appliances, like televisions or toaster ovens; they’ve gone from being a luxury good to something we assume most people have — at any rate, we tend to regard lack of computer access as a sign of economic misfortune, if not outright poverty.

What these changes mean for me is that I was able to order a new monitor of somewhat higher quality than the old one for less money than the old one cost, even figuring in the extra expense of speedy delivery.  And I console myself with the thought that at least the monitor died this month, when the tidal nature of freelance income meant that I could replace it, rather than last month, when I would have been left with nothing to work on but my little netbook.

Fun and Games with Software

Or, today I upgraded from Windows 8.0 to Windows 8.1, which was just as much fun as it ever is.  In the process, I’ve learned that everything is an app now, and not just the small handy things that come from the app store . . . when they say “you’ll have to reinstall your apps,” they’re talking about everything.

Fortunately, I had backups.  I did have one moment of near-panic when I couldn’t find my installation files for Quicken 4.  The newer versions of the program use a different file format than the older ones, probably because the nice people (and I use the term loosely) at Intuit want their users to keep buying new versions of their software, instead of sticking with the one that’s been doing just fine for a decade or so now, and I wouldn’t even mind it so much if there were a conversion utility or something like that available — but there isn’t.  You need, so far as I can figure out, to convert your Quicken 4 files into Quicken 6 files in order to convert the Quicken 6 files into the latest format.

Fortunately, I found the files.  And my backup Quicken data files are on a separate drive.  So that’s all right.

And I’d like to take this opportunity to plug MozBackup, a freeware utility for backing up Firefox and Thunderbird. It has saved me a great deal of sorrow and tears.

Tell Me, Dr. Doyle…

…why aren’t you posting very much this week?

Because I’m on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, getting reading to be one of the instructors for this year’s Viable Paradise Writer’s Workshop.  The workshop is a great deal of fun, but it’s also a great deal of work — it takes up not just time, but mental processing power.

For your amusement, though, have a nice rant about MS Word from science fiction writer Charlie Stross.  I’m a WordPerfect fan myself (they will take away my Reveal Codes window when they pry it from my cold dead fingers), but I use Word for my editing work because just about everybody else uses it; either that, or they use some obscure personal favorite and export the files to Word when they want to share them.   I don’t think anybody really likes Word; at best, they feel about Word the way I feel about Windows computers . . . they do what I want, and nobody expects me to be in love with them.   (Say bad things about Windows, and nobody cares.  Say bad things about the Mac interface, and the Mac users make sad puppy eyes at you because you’re being mean.)

 

Finding Story

Sometimes, in this writing game, you get lucky.  A story idea doesn’t so much come up and whisper in your ear as leap out of the bushes in front of you and demand your attention.  Stories like that don’t get written so much as they get exorcised — writing them down is the only way to get them out of your head so that you can get on with whatever it was you were supposed to be writing instead.

(It’s one of the sad truths of writing:  The story that you’re supposed to be writing is never quite as attractive as the one that you’re cheating on it with.)

Other times, though, you have a pressing need to write a story — you’ve promised something to an anthology, or you’ve got a class assignment, or you’ve committed yourself to producing a piece of handmade original fiction as a birthday present for a dear friend — but you haven’t the foggiest idea what you should be writing a story about.  You’re suffering, in this case, from the problem of too much choice.  Given the whole vast and varied universe to pull a story idea from, your muse takes a hard look at all that vastness and variety and goes off and hides in a corner whimpering.

What you can do, at that point, is start setting up boundaries and making requirements, so that your agoraphobic muse isn’t forced to either contemplate infinity or hide.  So you decide that you’re not going to write anything longer than 5000 or 50,000 or 150,000 words (depending upon just how big a story you need); and you’re not going to include self-aware robots, or an in-depth exploration of employer-employee relations in mid-twentieth century Chicago, or time travel.  At the same time, you decide that your story will include certain things.  You can derive these included things any way you like.  You can pull random nouns out of a dictionary, or random objects out of your household junk drawer; you can draw cards out of a Tarot deck; you can go to any of the various online plot generators.

It doesn’t matter what method you choose, because the whole point is the imposition of random constraints.  The self-imposed boundaries and required inclusions give you some fixed points on which to hang a story, and they reduce a universe of infinite possibilities to something that even the most timid of muses can contemplate without coming unanchored and floating off, storyless, into the void.

Such as, for example, self-aware robots, an in-depth exploration of employer-employee relations in mid-twentieth century Chicago, and time travel.

Tales from the Before Time: Paper

They’ve been promising us the paperless office for more than two decades now, and I’m starting to think that as futuristic promises go, that one is up there with the personal jetpacks and the flying cars.

That being said, while we haven’t yet got a paperless office, we do have (at least in the writing business) a less-paper office.  Most of the science fiction and fantasy short fiction markets these days prefer online submissions — The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is the only major magazine I know of that still requires paper.  (F&SF is still our first try on those occasions when we have a short story to send out, because they’re a good fast rejection.)  As for novels, it’s been over a decade, I think, since we submitted a finished project in paper form.

I have fond memories, though, of papers past.  I remember the narrow-ruled composition paper I used to write my first, dreadful novel in the summer after I graduated from high school.  I’m fairly sure it would have dressed out as a complete, if short novel, given the number of lines per double-sided page and my cramped, illegible handwriting.  It occupied most of my brain space for over three months, and taught me a lot of things, including “always think about where your light is coming from,” and probably kept me sane while I waited to go off and become a college freshman.

I remember the heavy-duty erasable bond paper that I used for my essays and research papers all the way through college and graduate school, and that did duty as well for my occasional failed attempts at selling short fiction.  (I got my first rejection from F&SF back in those days, and for good reason.  The story sucked.)

I remember the flimsy, pale yellow second sheets that I bought by the ream and used for first drafts once I switched from composing in longhand to composing on the keyboard.  The very flimsiness of that paper had a liberating quality:  “You can throw this out if you have to,” it said; “there’s plenty more where it came from.”

I remember the fan-fold paper that ran through our first dot-matrix printer, an Epson MX-80 that was built like a tank and lasted for years.  I remember the bond paper we bought for our letter-quality printer in 10-ream boxes, and how fast we could go through a box-full back when we were printing out 500-page manuscripts in multiple drafts.

These days, we go through a ream every three or four months, maybe.

But paperless?  Not yet.

Getting Acquainted

So you have the idea for a novel — you’ve got a compelling theme you want to work out, or you’ve got a nifty science-fictional or fantastic conceit that you want to play with, or you’ve got the outline for a marvelously well-fitted and dovetailed plot — and now you need characters to fill it.  Unfortunately, all you’ve got so far is a list, if you’re lucky, of names that you think might work.

It’s time to get acquainted.

There are a lot of ways to get to know your characters.  None of them work for everybody, because writers (and characters) are persnickety like that.  But there’s a chance that one of them may work for you.

Some writers fill out detailed character questionnaires for all their characters.  (There are lots of these available on the internet.  Just google on “character questionnaire” and there you go.)

Some writers have their important characters write letters to them, or to each other, or keep a diary.

Some writers make musical playlists for their characters.  Others scour the internet and other resources for visual references for their characters’ physical appearance, clothing, and home decor.

Some writers draw up astrological charts for their characters, or do tarot readings for them.  (This approach, oddly enough, can work just fine even for writers who think that astrology and the tarot are pure hokum.  It gives the writer a way to think about the characters in symbolic terms.)

As always, there isn’t a right way to do this.  Whatever works, works.

Batteries Sort of Included

Not too long ago, three out of the four Uninterruptible Power Supplies in our office setup expired from old age.  A bit of internet research informed us that replacement batteries for all three, plus shipping, would cost about the same as buying one new UPS, so — not being intimidated by the idea of opening up the dead power supplies and performing a bit of open-case surgery — we decided to go the replacement-battery route.

What was never in question was the idea that an Uninterruptible Power Supply belonged in the “replace when broken” category.  We’ve been big believers in having a UPS for our computer since the early days, when a UPS was essentially a motorcycle battery in a metal case with a plug on one side for wall current in and a plug on the other side for battery power out.

Our conversion experience, as it were, came during our time in the Republic of Panamá, where the power downtown had a tendency to fail at inopportune moments.  One weekend afternoon, my husband and eventual co-author was playing Jumpman Junior on our Atari 800, and after a session of extended play had succeeded in racking up an all-time high score.  Flushed with triumph, he went on to the screen where he could save his high score and his initials for posterity . . . and the power went out.

We ordered our first Uninterruptible Power Supply that same day.