Old Lady: New Tricks? Writing courses for wannabe authors

Tomorrow, the second of the two workshops I signed up for this summer will start.

The first was a MOOC through Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I must say…that was a bust. First off, you’re invited to listen to an introductory video. This consists of two Iowa faculty members sitting at a desk reading the welcome and the desiderata for the course.

No kidding. They have their notes laid flat on the table — apparently Iowa can’t even afford to provide a plywood podium so they don’t have to look down to deliver their remarks. They’re sitting in front of a videocam with their faces staring DOWN at the desk, reading the stuff as if they’ve never seen it before themselves. TED Talkers, these two are not.

When they do look up, their strained politeness toward each other is of the sort that reminds one why one is glad to have exited academia. University faculties are all the same — whether they’re at some prestigious school or at Podunk State. And lo! There’s that familiar expression on their faces, the one that tells you it’s all they can do to hold it together without lunging at each others’ throats.

Yeah. I do know the look. 😀

That seemed inauspicious. And as it developed, the omen was tryin’ to tell us something. The theme of this summer’s workshop was examining social issues in your writing. All very intellectual-sounding. But when you get into it, what you find is that it’s set up much like a series of virtual dorm-room bull sessions. Some broad topic is presented: it’s the sort that undergraduate students like to “philosophize” about as they’re hashing through the challenges of entering adulthood. You’re asked to read some stories, and then you’re supposed to go online and “discuss.” Presumably the insights gained will inform your writing, and some of you — maybe at least one of you? — will disgorge Lit’rachure.

In the “been there, done that” department…ugh. It was fun when I was 19, but I think I’m past it now.

The truth is, I don’t want to contribute to the literature of the 21st century. I just want to tell a good story. Any good story.

It need have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Certainly not high-minded qualities. Let’s just write some fun stuff, some interesting stuff, some inspirational stuff, some depressing stuff, some detective stuff, some urban fantasy stuff, some sci-fi stuff, even some romantic stuff…but spare me the middle-brow dorm room bull sessions.

So that dropped off my computer after Week 1.

In lesser precincts: Maricopa County, home of the fifth-largest city in These United States, has a library system. Can you imagine? Yes. Flyover states got libraries. And the county managed to dig up some cash to offer residencies to actively publishing writers of various stripes. Some of them are genre novel writers, some nonfiction writers, whatEVER. All have contrived to get their emanations published through real publishing houses, a mark of distinction in this game.

Some of the resident writers have allowed themselves to be got up to offering writers’ workshops at their respective libraries. And lo! One such resides at the city library where my favorite group of tyro writers meets each month.

It’s a bitch of a long drive out there, but there are only two meetings a month, spread over three months. So I figure what the heck: I can afford the gas to make an extra couple trips a month out there. Also I figure a guy who’s writing genre novels for what he hopes will be a living is not likely to fill my ear with high-minded socially correct post-adolescent palaver.

So that starts tomorrow. It should be interesting.

In my experience, writing classes and workshops for would-be Writers with a Capital W are pretty much hit & miss. There used to be a workshop in Santa Fe that was truly outstanding. I don’t think it’s still extant, unfortunately. But when it was going, they would have real, publishing writers direct groups of 15 or 20 wannabes in reading and critiquing their work. The people who ran the groups knew what they were doing, and they were very, very good. They had sit-down meals in the retreat where they met, so you got to know people; they had authors’ readings; and they invited real, nonfraudulent working literary agents who would speak to you and if they felt inclined to do so would agree to let you send your proposal to them.

One of the neat things about the Santa Fe conference was that it attracted a lot of attendees who were already publishing or who were real-world writers. I took up with a woman whose day job was technical writing and editing, for example. On the side, she was a pretty creditable fiction writer.

And that’s the thing: I’m a little past the wannabe stage. I’ve been a paid, working writer. Granted, what I wrote was (mostly) nonfiction (though my poetry has been published in Puerto del Sol). I spent 20 years as a journalist, which is the reason I wangled a full-time NTT university job teaching upper-division and graduate-level writing.  My eyes are not wide and starry, my heart is flinty, and my skepticism is heightened. And I do know how to write a simple sentence.

So a lot of writers’ workshop endeavors are lost on me. They’re as much a waste of my time as palavering online about topics that my friends and I hashed out in the dorm fifty years ago.

And yeah: I know that sounds snobby and elitist and dismissive. But truth to tell, I don’t have so much time left on this earth that I can afford to waste it.

Image: DepositPhotos, © kasto

MacUpdate: If ain’t broke, dammit…

Caslon 540

Caslon 540, close but no cigar…

DON’T FIX IT, Dear Apple!

So I was finally forced to update the operating systems on my aged MacBook Pro and iMac to “Yosemite” (is it really necessary to give the software annoyingly cutesy names?), the highest level of Apple’s operating system the machines will accept.

This was a major hassle that required me to pay about $300 to hire a tech to come figure out how to do it, install a new hard drive on the laptop, and absorb several hours of my time in the process.

So now these wonderful (no irony) machines are “updated” to the extent possible. If I want to keep up with the times (which I do not, especially), next I need to buy new computers. Like I have nothing else to do with my money…profoundly limited in the post-layoff era.

Okay, so I’m proofreading, online, the content of a book I’ve uploaded to the PoD supplier. I used the most recent PDF I had on hand, which presumably is about as good as I’d gotten it before I became distracted by the 14 weeks of respiratory ills.

Naturally, I find a minor glitch: a series of elllipsis points breaks at the end of a line. Videlicet:

Blah blah blah.
. . .

Shee-ut. I need to fix that in the Wyrd document, then save to PDF and upload the corrected PDF. The book’s layout is done in a Wyrd template purchased from Joel Friedlander’s Book Design Templates enterprise. I like these templates, because they come with the margins correctly installed for your desired trim size, the heads and subheads and body copy and all their iterations set in stone using Word’s “Styles” function, and overall they’re easy to use and yield a pleasing product.

When I open the most recent Word iteration of this book — this 468-page book — I find that every word I set in italic is now set bold-face italic!

Holy sh!t. And WTF? I don’t know what’s caused this, but I figure…okay, I can fix it with a search and replace:

Search > format font > boldface italic
Replace with > format font > italic

I try this. It doesn’t work. Word does not see these characters as boldface italic. Word sees them as plain italic.

I try manually changing the things. And guess what? I CAN’T change any of these distortions to plain italic. Or even to plain roman. The best I can do is change them to boldface. And I don’t want the damn things b.f. I want them effing italic.

To cut a long and frustrating story short, eventually what I and Friedlander’s designer discover is that somehow the conversion to effing Yosemite has corrupted the template’s font on the MacBook and the MacBook only. If I open the file on the iMac, it looks OK. Even a PDF made on the MacBook and sent to the designer looks OK on his computer. WTF?

He suggests we should delete the font from my MacBook and replace it with a new set of fonts, which he sends over.

I google “how to delete a font Mac OS X 10.11.4” and find you have to get into something called a Font Book, but no clue is given as to what “Font Book” is or where to find it. I call Apple Support. The tech who responds also has never heard of a “Font Book.” Finally we discover it, not surprisingly, in Applications.

I delete the font from “Font Book,” reboot, and, following instructions, install the new version of the designer’s font, which is called “Alegreya.” It’s in the Times family. It’s nothing special, but it’s inoffensive and it has a kind of airiness that works for some kinds of books.

When I reboot again and open the files…you got it! All italic is rendered as boldface italic.

So, you ask, why don’t I just do all my work henceforth on the iMac? That would make sense, wouldn’t it?

Except the reason I’m sitting here in an overstuffed living-room chair with my feet propped up is that my back went out several years ago and I can no longer sit in a desk chair. No. Not in any desk chair (believe me: I’ve tried. Expensively!) So that turns the iMac into an expensive video-streaming device. There’s no way I can sit in front of a desk long enough to render an entire book into print-ready copy.

While Friedlander’s designer is sweltering over this problem, I begin to realize that I’m going to have to change the font in this template. And to do it in the 468-page writing text, which, goddamn it, has an index that goddamn it I’ve already had to do over once and I absolutely  positively do NOT want to recompile from scratch again because again the goddamn pagination gets changed.

Holy ess aitch aye.

The problem is that of course these fonts have variable widths, like any serif font in the Times family. This means that different designs yield different line lengths. So if you were to type a line in Alegreya and a line in, say, Callisto MT, you would find they come out in different lengths. Like this:

Alegrey&CallistoMT

Over the course of 468 pages — actually, over the course of something like 10 or 20 pages — this would change line lengths, change paragraph lengths, change chapter lengths, and screw up the pagination that has been so time-consumingly recorded in the index.

While I’m waiting for the designer to come up with a new idea, if he can, I go through every serif font in goddamn OS 10.11.4 — there are a LOT of them. Along the way, I discover that Big Caslon — Big Caslon, can you imagine? — is overall about the same size as Alegreya, except for the numerals.

BigCaslon

It’s close. In fact, it’s SO close that when you change the style for the body copy from Alegreya 11 pt to Big Caslon 11 pt (which you see in the second lines here), you come out with the same number of pages. It looks like the wraps from page to page are consistent, and so if the index is screwed up, it’s probably not so much that anybody is gonna notice. Upper-case is larger in Caslon, but you could fix that by searching format > font > upper case 11 pt and replacing with format > font > small caps 12 pt. As it turned out, though, this was not necessary.

Big Caslon. Who’d’ve thunk it? Well. If it’s good enough for the Harvard Crimson, it’s good enough for Plain & Simple Press. I guess.

Can anybody remember when writers wrote? When we did not have to screw around with amateur typesetting and amateur printing and amateur publishing and amateur marketing and amateur fulfillment? When you wrote an article or a book and you forked it over to an editor and you were done except for maybe a little proofreading or demands that you answer some question that came up in fact-checking?

Damn. I do hate this Brave New World.

Image: Caslon 540 (which no, is not Big Caslon, but…), James Puckett – Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The Ballad of Pen & Paper

Pens&Notes{chortle!} Well, this may not rise to the level of ballad, since its author still has to clean the pool this afternoon. There are only so many minutes in the day. But by way of resisting work, here I am with another little rave.

You’ll recall that one of my scribbling acquaintances and I rediscovered the joy of writing with actual fountain pens and actual ink. Since that revelatory day, I’ve taken to drafting the current chapter of the current (increasingly challenging…) novel this flat stuff called paper, using these sticks that hold ink, which leaks out when you run the pointed end of the stick across the paper.

What a discovery!

Its main benefit is escape from the tyranny of technology.

  • A pen frees you from the addictive temptations of news feeds, social media, email, online games.
  • It provides a site where your creative work (at least) is saved in a form that cannot disappear into the ether.
  • It can’t be attacked by a virus.
  • It can’t be rendered obsolete and unreadable by yet another arbitrary “update.”
  • It does not have to be password-protected.
  • No burglar is likely to steal it.
  • It does not cost upwards of $1,300; it does not even cost $470. One of these pens set me back all of $13, and it writes nicer than the classy $85 Waterman I bought back in the day when I had a job and could afford such indulgences.

Who’d’ve thunk it?

Another of my writing acquaintances reported that her system went down and she had to have the hard drive rebuilt. She was in a sweat, since she’s been laboring long and hard to produce her next book. Fortunately, she succeeded in saving most of her draft. But it sounds like she did so on a wing and a prayer.

Holy shit! The scribbler’s worst nightmare.

Truth to tell, whatever you have on paper is likely to be just a draft of whatever you end up with in your computer. If you’re like me, you revise during the act of typing, and then you go over and over your MS copy, revising and touching up and adding and deleting.

But at least if you have a first draft in pen & ink, it’s not going to be utterly gone when your computer is gone. And as you know, the computer going down is not a matter of “if”; it’s a matter of “when.”

It also has another advantage: it takes you away from an environment rife with distraction. Writing with a pen, I’m finding myself a lot more likely to sit still and finish a scene — or at least to mock it up roughly — than I am when I’m on the computer. With no recourse to Google, I don’t waste time cruising the Internet in pursuit of the answer to some irrelevant question. I don’t ease my aching brain by loading up a Mah Jongg game. I don’t kill time in the voracious timesuck that is Facebook. I don’t check the email every three or four minutes, or kill some more time writing an email answer that could wait for awhile.

Even if all you intend to do is process words or enter bookkeeping entries, computer technology reaches out its tentacles to take over your life. One could speculate that it has the potential to strangle creativity.

When I was a young pup, all those years ago, I was an early adapter of PC technology. I made my husband buy me one of the first marginally affordable desktop IBMs, and I learned to write online in WordPerfect and XyWrite. I became proficient in DOS and fumed at being herded into windows and rodents.

The thing seemed like such a miracle! In those days, I felt it cultivated creativity, caused it to bloom — it made writing so fast and so easy, your thoughts and ideas flowed right out through your fingertips.

But in those days we didn’t have an Internet. There was no Google, no Wikipedia to look up facts and search for ideas and find new words for you. News was borne into your house on sheaves of paper laden with — yes! — ink. A game was something you played with another human being. If you wanted to communicate with friends from the comfort of your home, you called them on the phone. “Social” had to do with a club meeting or a cocktail party.

Wonderful as the Net is, as many amazing benefits as offers, it nevertheless presents a pernicious distraction. I find it almost impossible to get through a writing task — any writing task, or, for that matter, any editing job — without interrupting myself to cruise the Web, fiddle with the email, or relieve my fevered brain with an online game.

If anything, the ease with which you can barf out copy represents another assassin of creativity. Look at all that self-published stuff on Amazon: fiction and memoir and how-to and inspiration and rant and pop history and wild-eyed theories and this and that and the other are gushing like…dare one say it?…like a sewer. We pour out all this formerly unpublishable stuff, largely unedited. It appears on Amazon because no profit-making publisher in its right collective mind would take it to press. And we’re drowning in it.

The fact that you can toss out content without really thinking about it means…well, it means that what you’re tossing out is “content.” Not art. Not even real craft.

Writing is not a no-sweat endeavor. By its nature, it’s contemplative. And writing by hand is contemplative.

It may be that slowing down to form the characters on the paper fosters creativity by giving the writer a slight edge in time: a few milliseconds and then a few seconds and then a few minutes in which to think about what’s coming out of the fingers.

I don’t know that’s true. But I suspect it.

Writing with the Palmer method

Writing with the Palmer method

Creative Process as Wrestling Match

Alien City © SpinningAngelThis new noveloid, which I thought would fly on the wings of a lark, has turned into something out of WrestleMania. Lordie! I cannot BELIEVE how difficult the traveling is.

As I mentioned awhile back, on a whim I decided to try writing with a fountain pen and…you know, that flat stuff…paper? Interestingly, the break from the computer does help speed things along a bit. No Spider Solitaire link, no Bookworm link, no Mah Jongg link, no Washington Post Outspell link, no New Yorker cover jigsaw puzzles, no Google News link, no Huffington Post link, no CNN link, no Fox News link, no SciNews.com link, no Smithsonian link, no Astronomy Picture of the Day link, no…none of that stuff: the attention span extends over a slightly longer period.

Not much longer, but enough longer to be helpful. But still, I’m struggling to get the characters, the setting, and the action down on paper.

After some reflection, it occurred to me that the problem is lack of visualization. The setting is not clearly imagined: it’s fuzzy and lacks detail. The characters are ur-characters: I kind of know these people, but some of them are only passing acquaintances and even those at the center of the story have never settled in as my bosom buddies. The action is imagined, the series of crises and the main character’s “journey” is there, but these two are not well envisioned.

And that surprises me.

I like to build imaginary worlds. My fantasy life is full of them — hence, Fire-Rider. The specific imaginary world under construction just now has been around for a long time. When I first dreamed up the characters and the premise, I was about 10 or 12 years old. Off and on over the years, I’ve concocted stories involving these characters. Since I’m now in my early 70s, you can figure for yourself about how many years are involved.

So, sitting down to write this tale, I figured I knew the time, the place, and the people well. Yes. I knew the place like I know my neighborhood. The people like I know my friends and family. The time, in elaborate completeness.

Well, no. When I start to write about thus-and-such a venue, suddenly I realize I don’t know what this damn place looks like. Not at all.  When I think about the social customs of this or that set of characters, I realize they’re really not very detailed or convincing.

To complicate matters, new characters quietly pop to life. Yesterday, one Eylla came on the scene, previously unimagined and so, undeveloped. And characters who have been around for a long time turn out to have unsuspected whims and traits — one has a dual allegiance; another is secretly in love.

All this vagueness, all this malleability is slowing things way down. I’m having to stop and picture what does this person look like? what does that place look like? what explains the behavior of that group of people? how did this situation come to be? when did that series of events begin, and why? And that stuff is time-consuming.

Weird.

How can you dream up a whole empire of other worlds and a dozen characters and still not know what they look like?

Images: Depositphotos,
Alien city: © algolonline
Water planet: © artcasta
Alien worlds in space: © mozzyb
Snowy planet: © algolonline

The Five Worst Novice Writing Clichés

Recently I was asked to opine upon the five worst writing clichés that I encounter in reading and editing.

It’s a big question: the clichés go on and on. How many ways, in genre writing, can you tell the same story without beginning to sound a little stale? In nonfiction, most writers emit little that is new and much that is familiar. And there’s the question of whether the inquiring mind means cliché on the line level, or cliché on the structural or plot level.

On the line level?

1. I would say that “in today’s modern society” takes the proverbial cake. Note how you can’t even describe it without invoking yet another cliché.

“In today’s modern society” is a space-filling freshman-compism. However, just the other day I saw it used in an academic paper by someone who had attained the Ph.D. and was emitting what one might expect to be new and fresh knowledge. Well. One might expect it until one realized the mind behind the paper thinks in cliché.

On the structural or plot level?

2. Deus ex machina has got to be one of the worst offenders. The last three novels I’ve read have placed their heroes in terrifying predicaments, only to rescue them with the proverbial cavalry. When you design a standard plot, as you know, the plot line rises through several crises or turning points, in which the characters become tangled in some sort of conflict. The thing is, the protagonist needs to get herself out of the predicament on her own. She or he cannot be rescued by a merciful god, saved in the nick of time by the police, relieved when some pursuer is struck by lightning. How many times can God drop down out of heaven to rescue people, anyway?

3. Secretly, bad guys and bad girls are wannabe nice folks, eh? The whore (or thug) with a heart of gold is a sweet thought, but alas, another cliché, sort of like cute kittens, puppies, and baby armadillos on Facebook.

4. Endless sagas that go on and on through novel after novel. I’m guilty of this myself. Deep in the bowels of my computer is the plot outline of yet another Fire-Rider story. How much can one say about these folks’ adventures, anyway? Occasionally you’ll hit it big with a character that readers love, such as, say, Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. That’s the time to keep writing until the world runs out of paper and bandwidth. But for most genre novels that appear on Amazon, a series is just an excuse to keep turning out the same story over and over. It becomes its own cliché.

5. Black (Native American, Latino, Asian, immigrant, whatEVER) characters who save the day through their pure angelic virtue and unassailable wisdom. People who are members of ethnic groups other than your own are people, just like you. They are not different, at base, from other human beings. Each of us is an amalgam of the good, the bad; the wise, the foolish. To deny this is to flatten the character — to show the character as more than human is to show him as less than human. And to my mind, it patronizes. Give your characters equal-opportunity humanity. Please.

What are your “favorite” clichés?

Images: DepositPhotos
Seen on TV: © valentint
Deus Ex Machina: © yellow2j
Kitten: © simply
To Be Continued: © iqoncept
Stereotype: © Rawpixel

Procrastination as Creative Strategy

Over at Quora, an inquiring mind asked about how one deals with procrastination. The correspondent confessed to being a Ph.D. student, and so I assume he or she was worrying about the struggle to write seminar papers and the dissertation.

You don’t have to be an aspiring academic to confront this predicament. Most writers find themselves putting off the job, from time to time. Sometimes all the time.

It’s so common that I’ve come to think “procrastination” is actually a creative strategy. You need to take time away from the physical and psychological process of writing. Sometimes you really do need to get up and go away from your desk.

New insights come as a result of looking away, as it were, from the task at hand. At night, you can see a faint star with your peripheral vision – by glancing slightly away from it – when you couldn’t see it by peering at it straight on. Similarly, with a creative project you may develop insight and strengthen your grasp on the subject by looking away from it for awhile.

So, instead of fighting this phenomenon, it’s better to build time into your routine to accommodate it. Schedule time to go do something else.

Also, set aside a short period at an appointed time each working day (not necessarily seven days a week), to do nothing but work on your writing project. This can mean research, thinking, outlining, and revising as well as writing new material. Insist that the people around you let you have that time uninterrupted – no getting up to tend to the kids or water the plants or answer the phone. Assure loved ones and friends that you will be with them at the end of this period. It doesn’t have to be hours at a time: in fact, it’s better to keep it brief. Forty-five minutes or an hour will do, at least at the outset. The period may (or may not) grow as you get used to it.

You’d be surprised how fast you can get through a project using this strategy.

Image: DepositPhotos, © stuartmiles

Are You Infringing Someone’s Copyright?

Leonard_Nimoy_William_Shatner_Star_Trek_1968A query at Quora.com asked whether a story that contains one plot element “inspired” by someone else’s published work would infringe that author’s copyright. Although the new story, the contributor explains, is “inspired” by the first writer’s tale, the new fantasized world is entirely different.

I’m no lawyer, but I’d say this: if it’s not “fan fiction” —  i.e., a story that takes the  fantasy world, plot line, or characters from another story, such as the endless amateur Star Trek and Harry Potter spinoffs, this writer is probably safe. You can’t copyright an idea, and so it’s unlikely that s/he could be accused (successfully, anyway) of plagiarizing on the basis of taking one element and spinning off something entirely new.

However… You can copyright or trademark characters. Whatever you write — or produce in any medium that can be reproduced, not just in print but as film or audio or digital media — is automatically copyrighted the instant you put it in words. That includes Mr. Spock and Capt. Kirk.

Something that is based on pre-existing work is called a derivative work. In U.S. copyright law, the original creator owns the rights to all derivative works, unless he, she, or it has sold derivative rights to someone else. So under U.S. law, an author whose work “inspires” another work whose writer uses the same characters, the same setting, the same fantasy world, or the same premise can sue the copyright infringer for monetary damages and demand that the offending work in all its forms be destroyed.

Most authors don’t, for various reasons: lawyers and lawsuits are expensive; suing over infringement that doesn’t cost you a lot of money is a distraction from the work you’re doing now; and if the rip-off isn’t costing you anything in cash or reputation, it’s hardly worth the effort to pursue the offender. Apparently some authors and publishers regard fan fiction, in particular, as kind of flattering or think it directs readers toward the original author’s new work.

I once edited a budding novelist’s work that was almost frankly fan fiction: the characters were the same, only renamed, and the premise was roughly the same as the television show that inspired the client’s novel. And you may be sure I pointed out the resemblance and suggested that there was some risk.

Heightening the risk was the characters’ provenance: that TV show was long-running, wildly popular, and produced by a large network with deep pockets. Very distinctive characters can be trademarked as well as copyrighted. Whereas copyright is automatic, you have to proactively register a trademark. But if those characters are trademarked — which they surely could be — the creators could come after our nimrod author with a lawsuit that will knock her financial status into the Third World.

Defenses to such suits include fair use and constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech. These laws are complex and nuanced — outrageously so. To defend yourself, you would need a sophisticated lawyer, and you would probably end up going to court.

Better, I’d say, to come up with something altogether original. The ego trip you’ll get by self-publishing your cool knock-off of Star Trek or Twilight or Fifty Shades is just not worth the potential pain.

Image: Public domain. Press release is dated 12 January 1968. Publicity photo of Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner as Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk from the television program Star Trek.

Retrograde Motion: Fountain Pen Dept.

So there I was on Facebook, ranting about how Ms. User Error and the Mac collaborated to disappear the current version of a chapter in draft. The ensuing comments elicited a conversation with one of the group members who reminisced about the bygone joys of writing with a fountain pen.

Entertained, I wondered what became of my old fountain pens, long since relegated to hiding places where they would be saved for posterity. For “saved,” read “lost”… 🙂

Well, after a little shoofing around, what should I find but this lovely old Waterman pen, purchased lo! these many years ago. And I even found a bottle of ink that was still liquid. And two bottles of ink whose contents had petrified.

Pen Fountain Pen

Click on the image to make WordPress deliver a better view in another tab.

It really is a lovely pen: smooth writing and elegant.

There’s something to be said for drafting fiction longhand (and, I suppose, for drafting nonfiction with actual ink). The computer has melded itself into my fingers, and as a result, it’s difficult for me to write with a pen anymore. I type as fast as most people can speak — not well, but it gets the words down. And I spend so many hours of my days at the computer, I hardly ever practice real physical writing at all.

Writing with a pen forces you to slow down and think about what you’re putting in front of the reader. It also brings to your attention — startlingly, in my case — how much you revise as you’re writing. A page of handwritten copy hereabouts is a page of cross-outs, re-cross-outs, crossed-out cross-outs, paragraphs circled and pointed with inked arrows to new places in the narrative, question marks, misspellings, doodles in the margins…on and on. A word processor allows you to fix all those things as you go along, so that by the time you reach the end of the document, you don’t even remember all the changes you made in the process of writing.

Back in the day, when I first started life as a journalist, we still used typewriters. It was several years before personal computers came into our lives.

I hate typewriters. Did then, do now. We were expected to compose our stories at the typewriter, but I found I simply could not manage that. Reason: my neurotic perfectionism. I make a lot of mistakes when I type. Even on the word processor, where I type a lot better, my copy is full of typos and bêtises. Under the best of conditions, it takes several drafts and endless proofreading for me to get a piece of copy right.

It was so frustrating to have to pull out and discard a whole sheet of paper for ONE STUPID MISTAKE, for ONE slip of the finger, that every error would distract from my train of thought — to the extent that it was impossible to think through and compose a paragraph, to say nothing of a 1,000- to 2,500-word story.

So I would draft my assignments in longhand (unbeknownst to my editors) and then transcribe the result into typescript. This was far more efficient and even faster (believe it or not) than wrestling with error after error on the typewriter.

Hence, an appreciation for writing instruments.

And few writing instruments surpass a good fountain pen. Even a cheap fountain pen vastly improves over a ball-point or roller-ball pen. I used to use those Shaeffer cartridge pens — remember those? Found a few of them in the hiding place, but as it develops the things were part of a calligraphy set…fun, but not much use for trying to write 80,000 words of fiction.

But this Waterman…ahhh. What fun to write a scene in actual ink, on actual paper!

This, vs...

This, vs…

...this

…this

Computer: Why don’t you have a neck I can wring?

MacbookHOLY doggerel, Batperson! What a computer adventure yesterday! Went from day-before-yesterday’s ecstatic rave about the Mac’s talking narrator straight to the Ninth Circle. Digitally speaking, that is.

The trip was all my doing, like so many computerized adventures. Two portable external drives that I use to back up data had corrupted. The fix is simply to wipe and repartition them, which you can do easily on a Mac. I, being a  master of procrastination, naturally dawdled and delayed until I could dawdle and delay no longer. So yesterday I finally resigned myself to doing some work.

With the smuggest of success, I indeed did manage to reformat one of the external hard drives and set up Time Machine to restart its infinite backups. Problem is, when you have an internal drive that contains more data than Carter has oats, it takes a long, LONG time to establish the first backup. During that time, the computer drags painfully, kindly making work an exercise in frustration.

So I got up and went about some other business: watering plants, cleaning the pool, and generally farting around. I believe a bourbon & water was involved in the latter: user error #1.

Eventually I come back to the machine, plop myself down in my favored writin’ chair, and put the computer on my lap so as to continue the noveloid scene I’d been playing with. Looking forward to this, for a change: the past few hours had put me on a roll. A new character had come to life, and she’s the first in this book that I’ve really “connected” with imaginatively. Finishing the scene I’d been working on for days looked like a piece of cake.

Lemon cake.

Open the lid to wake up the computer, get the endlessly annoying “External drive was disconnected. Do not disconnect these things, idiot, without unplugging them in Finder, ’cause if you screw up on this you could damage the device.” The short cable I use to plug in the external drives is loose, so that every time you hiccup, sneeze, or pet the dog you elicit this effing message.

A-n-n-d…it interrupted the Time Machine backup and so shut down the process.

Shee-ut. So now I had to wipe the drive again and restart Time Machine.

Remember, the file I’m working on is open. It exists in various iterations in two places on my hard drive (user error!) and one place on DropBox (possible user error?). I save to disk but then go straight to wiping the drive, figuring I’ll come back to my project in a minute or two (user error!).

As I start to do this, I think…waitaminit: I’d better save the current items that matter over to DropBox because if I make a mistake, wouldn’tchaknowit, the thing that matters most to me right this minute will get erased.

This crosses my hot little mind as the Mac is wiping the contents of a large disk full of data, a process I find mildly alarming in the best of circumstances.

So, mildly spooked, I do a kind of panic backup: copy this, save there.

The system doesn’t like that. The backup crashes. I think fuck it and decide to re-open the file, work on my little fantasy for awhile, and then get dressed to go meet my friend for dinner and the concert we’d planned to go to yesterday evening.

So understand: while all this computer diddling is going on, I’m setting my hair so I can put it up, washing up, painting my face, shuffling through the closet in search of presentable clothing…and migrating back and forth from bathroom, bedroom, closet, mirror, makeup drawer to the computer screen. Yeah: user error!

Okay, so I re-open the file, ever-so-distinctively titled “chapter 1.docx.” Don’t do that, for cripes sake. Put something in your filename to distinguish it from the ten or fifteen other chapter 1’s on your freaking disk drive. User error.

Chapter 1 comes up…and it’s a version that’s at least a week old. All the work I’ve done over the past two days is absent.

Ohhhh shit.

I bang around and thrash around and I cannot find it. It’s not on DropBox. Whatever I saved to DB overwrote the copy that I’d been working on…deleting the stuff I’d written over the past couple of days. User error.

Word is set to auto-save every 5 minutes, because it habitually loses my clients’ work when I’m trying to edit a file that contains tables, Chinese characters, Hebrew characters or the like. But when I go to try to find a recent autorecover of the Great Novel of the Western World, what do you suppose I discover? WORD HAS NOT DONE AN AUTORECOVERY SINCE MARCH 21!!!!!!!!!!!

So the file that contains the last DAYS of work is GONE. And what’s gone is the most productive and lively copy I’ve managed to gag out for this book since I started.

Check autorecover: the settings have not been changed. No notice to the effect that the hard drive didn’t contain enough space ever popped up. Nothing. I am just screwed! I don’t know what TF is going on but suspect it’s not user error!

Oh, lord, how I hate Word.

Sumbiche. So I emit an electronic wail of dismay and post it to a private Facebook forum I subscribe to, as just about the only way of venting I can think of short of throwing the effing computer through a block wall. It’s now exactly 5:00 p.m. and I’m supposed to be in my friend’s driveway picking her up for our night on the town. Slap on some lipstick, grab a credit card, and fly out the door.

By the time I get back, several hours later, a number of people have posted replies at this forum. One kind person remarks, gently, “Think I heard once upon a time DropBox retains revisions? Might be something there.

Uhhhh…. Hmmm…. Yeah. Come to think of it: a year or so ago, my business partner managed to retrieve a whole set of “disappeared” files that one of our journal editors removed from DropBox, thinking she was doing us a favor. I had remarked to said Editor that mine is the free version of DB and so in due time we should remove completed articles from our shared folder, so as not to run me past the space limit. She took that seriously, and so she dutifully removed a bunch of stuff that neither my associate editor nor I had downloaded.

Well, Associate Editor is smarter than the average snail. She actually knows how to operate DropBox, and she was able to retrieve not only all the “disappeared” files but a record of who had disappeared them and when. So…there may be something to this…

Click on the DB icon, sign in, and find, by golly, instructions for how to recover a disappeared file:

DB instructions 1

A-n-n-n-d instructions on how to recover a disappeared file on a Mac:

DB instructions 2

This latter entails one (1) simple keyboard command. And…damned if it doesn’t work! Command + filename brings up 23 of the most recent pages of draft drivel, just as they were when User Error lost them!

Well, not quite just as they were: they appear in some sort of html-ish format:

copy saved from DB 1

But click on “download,” and mirabilis! The thing appears in perfect, uncorrupted(!) Wyrd format, complete with the infelicitous rhymes and the notes-to-self and the puzzling over what on earth (or…uhm…not on earth) this place looks like… (Click on the images to come close to seeing the details.) (No, WordPress will not let you post a screenshot in any way that makes sense, not that I’ve been able to figure out.) Best of all, this file contains the passage I was writing at the time I contrived to disappear the file: not one word is lost!

Hallelujah, brothers and sisters!

It was well after 1:00 a.m. by the time this little miracle manifested itself. I staggered off toward bed to the sound of angels singing.

So upset was I by the fiasco at hand that I had not one but two panic attacks driving downtown last night, scaring the bedoodles out of my friend, who nervously offered to take over the chauffeuring job. Felt considerably better after two margaritas and a plate of hummus. Enjoyed the concert. Was pretty relaxed (heh) on the way home.

Now we know what takes care of panic attacks: margarita mix, right?

By the light of day, I’m thinking it would be good to overcome one’s cheapskate instincts and spring for the cost of DropBox’s premium service. That file recovery function is one helluva value-added feature. I’ll continue to alternate two or three external drives to back up the Mac’s software and data in Time Machine, thereby providing some protection against ransomware. Andthe extra space on DropBox will hold data files that I can’t afford to or don’t want to lose.

It’s $9 a month for the low-end subscription, and only $13 a month for the “Standard” plan that lets several people share its functions and archives files for three months. That plan gives you 2 terabytes of memory, which is twice as much as I need to back up my entire system, programs included, with TimeMachine. Unfortunately, its apparently not configured to work with TimeMachine. But it still would be worth $360 a year to have key files archived for 120 days.

Definitely worth it.

Computer: Read Me My Story!

UPDATES: Un-fucking-BELIEVABLY, Apple dorked up access this wonderful feature in updates to its operating system. In OS 10.11.4 (El Capitan), you have to go to system preferences > dictation and speech. (Note how conveniently this is different from the earlier process.) Once there, click on “text to speech.” To get the Mac to read the highlighted passage in your Word document, FIRST you have to find the “speak selected text when the key is pressed” choice in “Text to speech.” If you click on this, it should show the default keyboard command, Option+Escape. It will not run this automatically. Even though the command appears to be a default, you have to proactively SELECT it to make it work. Once you’ve done that, your Mac probably will read a selected passage in Word aloud for you.

Dammit, Apple. IF IT AIN’T BROKE, DON’T FIX IT!

*****

I, Reader...

I, Reader…

Here’s something fun, kinda silly, and useful: If you have an Apple computer, you can make your Mac read copy from Word out loud.

It is a hoot. You get a half-dozen choices of “voices”:  three female and three male. They all sound equally robotic. But surprisingly, they get most of the pronunciation right, they interpret the punctuation correctly, and the result is clear and easy to understand. And — here’s the thing! — listening to some”one” else read your copy aloud helps you to catch typos and glitches that you miss when you proof your own stuff. Even when you read your own stuff aloud, that gold standard of DIY copyediting.

I tried this out on a passage from an abstruse scholarly paper emanated by one of my clients. These things start out difficult to read because they’re about as exciting as watching a tree stump disintegrate. Then the task is complicated by the fact that my clients are native speakers of languages other than English. This author, for example, is in India….

Academic paper

There are also studies that compare Indian and foreign firms. Valuation of R&D is higher in India when compared to the US or Europe, and it is much higher for Indian firms than foreign firms invested in India, although the difference is smaller in science-based industries (Chadha & Oriani, 2010). Although average R&D levels have decreased, evidence is presented of rationalization and more efficiency of R&D spending, which rises faster with firm size and is directed toward assimilation of technology imports and toward support of exports (Kumar & Aggarwal, 2005). Both studies (Chadha & Oriani, 2010; Kumar & Aggarwal, 2005) also highlight the different profile of R&D pursued by Indian firms and subsidiaries of foreign multinational enterprises. These studies indicate a need to investigate the specific approaches adopted by Indian firms as opposed to foreign subsidiaries to improve returns on R&D investments.

Ah,  yes… another eye-glazing review of the literature. But note that our robot reader has no problem pronouncing Indian names — indeed, “he” does better with those than “he” does with an Italian name. And multisyllabic words are no problem.

Here, when we hear the copy read aloud, we quickly recognize that the word “when” in the second sentence isn’t quite right — possibly “as” would work better, because he’s not talking about something happening in response to an event or a trigger. Then we see that Author uses the word “although” twice in a short span, almost back-to-back: one of those needs to be fixed. These are small things we can massage to make the English sound more idiomatic.

Having plowed through 10,000 words of this and sent the thing back to the client, I decided to try Robo-Reader on my own golden words. Here’s what happens when the thing is applied to the rawest of rough drafts:

Draft fiction narrative

When they reached the corner Merren had specified, they climbed out of the car. Merren led Chadzar to a narrow alley. The buildings’ walls blocked most of the sunlight into the tunnel-like walkway. “You say there’s a restaurant here?” Chad asked after they’d gone a few hundred feet through the gloom.

“Right up that way.”

“I don’t see any sign.”

“This place doesn’t need a sign.”

He stopped in front of a small, unmarked entrance and pushed the door open. It led into a narrow entryway and a flight of uncarpeted steps. Merren took the steps up to the landing two at a time, followed more tentatively by the Michaian. Again they came to an undistinguished door, and again Merren walked through it as though it belonged to him.

Light poured through the opening into the dark hallway. The sound of voices came with it. Inside, groups of men and women sat around long, narrow, tables. A few children played here and there or loafed with the adults, some of whom were eating, some chatting, some betting over games of budil or cards or tiny multicolored twirling tops. The windowless room was brightly lit with glow-panels that covered all four walls. A few decorative lights graced the ceiling. The scent of roasting meat and aromatic vegetables perfumed the air.

“Hey-hey!” a voice called out across the room “Here’s the Bear!” A broad smile crossed Merren’s face and he delivered a mock salute. The decibel level rose briefly as others greeted him with “Bear!” “Come on over here!” “We’ve got a seat for you, brother…” and “Who’s the new boyfriend?” A lithe brown woman bearing a large bowl of steaming food sidled up to Merren, murmured “Bear-Bear,” and hugged him with her free arm. He kissed her on the lips, eliciting a cheer from the audience.

Not bad, for a robot, eh? He kind of sounds like a character in a computer game. But he gets most of the pronunciation right — even of invented words and names — and about 95% of the time even the intonation is pretty good. In translation from the machine reading into QuickTime, our robot guy affects a whistley lisp that’s kind of annoying here but that doesn’t appear in a Mac reading before it’s recorded in QT.

Our robot reader picked up a typo that I missed over many readings and attempts to revise: the unneeded and unwanted comma between “narrow” and “tables.” And another effect of allowing the machine to read the copy while I follow along: lo! It highlights the fact that I used the word “narrow” three times in 219 words.

I have no idea whether this will work on a PC. On a Mac, though, go to System Preferences > System > Speech to bring up the program.

Interestingly, because QuickTime (the program I used to make these recordings) will pick up any sounds in the room, you could in theory add your own comments and reminders to a recording of a passage — for a writer, this could be handy. It also would be very helpful if you’re teaching writing to visually impaired or severely dyslexic students. Dang! Wish I’d thought of this when I was at the community college!

It’s kind of fun to hear some”one” read your emanations. But it also may be a powerful revision tool.