Book review: Welcome to the Writer’s Life

Welcome to the Writer’s Life: How to Design Your Writing Craft, Writing Business, Writing Practice, and Reading Practice by Paulette Perhach

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am continuing on my unofficial second career as not a writer, but one who reads every book about writing instead. Then writes about them.

Welcome to the Writer’s Life succeeds on a couple of fronts. First, author Paulette Perhach has an entertaining voice and regularly drops funny little zingers in with her advice without ever making it feel like she’s trying really hard to make you laugh.

Second, the book tackles a few things that a lot of new writer books don’t cover or cover minimally. There are plenty of books that will cover the classic plot structures, character development and other things you need to know in order to tell a convincing story–whether it be through fiction or non-fiction. Perhach covers the other stuff in a writer’s life, relating her and the experiences of other writers in finding ways to nurture and grow your writing habits, covering everything from what to read (and how important reading is) to meditation to clear your mental decks (she claims to never suffer writer’s block because of her daily 15-minute meditation sessions), as well as touching on the business side of writing, along with thoughts on pursuing an MFA (spoiler: she doesn’t think it’s necessary).

It took me awhile to read through the book and though I enjoyed it, I found myself wondering why, and I believe it’s two things: I found the quotes from other writers largely unnecessary (fewer would have been fine) and there are sections where even Perhach’s writing style can’t lift the subject matter from feeling just a little dull. But I have read a lot of books on writing, so it’s just as likely that I am becoming a bit weary of the topic of writing itself.

Still, I think this is a good intro to the craft of writing for a new writer and have no problem recommending it alongside other more “nuts and bolts” book on the writing process itself.

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Holy cats, Scrivener 3 for Windows is out!

I have opined before on the travails of getting the Windows version of Scrivener caught up to the Mac version. Then I found out that version 3 for Windows was released six days ago (March 23, 2021 to be exact). I am not even sure how to react.

Since I qualified for a discount on upgrading, I decided to spend the $34, even though I don’t use Scrivener anymore, to check it out.

I had used the beta off and on through its years of development (the original release date was projected to be 2018–see here for more), so I was broadly familiar with the update (and have used version 3 on the Mac). The upgrade and installation processes were both quick and painless, and the program looked much as it did when I used the last beta.

And it remains as inscrutable as ever. To be fair, the UI has been tidied up a bit, but large parts of it are unchanged and it wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t utterly ignore the conventions of standard Windows software–or any other software, for that matter.

Unlike other writing programs like iA Writer or Ulysses or, uh, Notepad, Scrivener is more like Microsoft Word in that it presents a WYSIWYG environment. As such, you can adjust indentation, font sizes and all of that, making the document look as pretty as you’d like. In the end this doesn’t matter as much, as you can specify different options when actually exporting your project to PDF, ePub or some other format.

To adjust how the text will look when writing, you go to File > Options. Pretty clear so far. The keyboard shortcut is cheekily CTRL, (CTRL and the comma), which is the same combo used to invoke Preferences on a Mac. You then choose the Editing tab from the vast array of options presented. OK, this mostly makes sense, as you are changing what the editor will look like. Here you have three more tabs: Options (er), Formatting and Revisions. Formatting is what you want. Here you will finally see where you can adjust the settings. Strangely, the sample text is highlighted–it turns out the preview will not actually show your changes unless the text is highlighted when the changes are applied, so it is pre-highlights the text for you.

Here you see a strip of formatting options much like you’d see in a typical word processor. You can change font, size and style, paragraph type, indentation and more. It does pretty much what you’d expect. Now when you create a new project, it will use these settings. Yay, all done!

But what if you want to change the look of a current document? Well, you can do that by going to the Documents menu, choosing Convert and then Text to default formatting. You get to choose a few options, but strangely (see a trend here), if you had somehow selected bold for the text in some scenes (maybe your fingers slipped and hit CTRL-B), there is no way to change this across multiple scenes (that I have found). You have to go into each individual scene, hit CTRL-A, then uncheck Bold from the formatting bar.

There is, still, no way to select an entire document/project at once and apply settings globally, apart from the Convert method above, which doesn’t actually convert everything. It is odd. It’s not even wrong, per se, but Scrivener continues to chart its own course when it comes to interface.

I’m not sure how much I’ll use it, but the upgrade costs less than a single year of subscription to Ulysses, so I’ll at least tinker with it for a bit.

Book review: Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book Review: Bird by Bird

There are a couple of important things to remember when reading Bird by Bird. The first is that it was published in 1994, so it predates the internet. This means that the writing advice is not informed at all by the last 27 years of technological and social change. It makes a difference.

The second is that, while Anne Lamott is enthusiastic and funny, this is not anywhere close to a formal hot-to on writing. Lamott covers some broad topics–writing every day, not worry about the quality of first drafts, how publishing shouldn’t necessarily be looked on as an end goal–but does not get into any kind of nitty-gritty. The advice is more inspirational than nuts and bolts.

A lot of it is amusingly written. Lamott seemed a tad neurotic at the time but also rather self-deprecating, so a lot of the book consists of colorful recollections on how she dealt with various writing-related crises and sometimes her advice translates to “don’t do the thing I did.”

I was glad to finally read Bird by Bird, but the passage of time, changing markets and new technologies have made some advice less relevant in 2021. Some fault may also undoubtedly lie with me–if this was one of the first books on writing I’d read, I probably would have found it hilarious rather than amusing, and found the tips more compelling. Still, it’s a quick read and a lot of the information it contains remains relevant today.

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Finally, proof I am not crazy talking to myself

I’ve always felt that talking to myself helped me to clarify thoughts and ideas–not to mention for fiction writing, it’s a great way to sound out dialogue. And now I have scientific proof!

Talking out loud to yourself is a technology for thinking

Not only that, but walking around while talking to myself apparently enhances the effects:

You might have noticed, too, that self-talk is often intuitively performed while the person is moving or walking around. If you’ve ever paced back and forth in your room while trying to talk something out, you’ve used this technique intuitively. It’s no coincidence that we walk when we need to think: evidence shows that movement enhances thinking and learning, and both are activated in the same centre of motor control in the brain.

Now I need to go stretch my legs and loudly think of my next blog post.

The new MacBook Air and its allegedly silent clicking

This is not a full review, as I’ve only had my 2020 M1-based MacBook Air for a day, but I can give a few impressions.

First, yes, I got a replacement for my 2016 MacBook Pro just a few weeks shy of its four-year free keyboard replacement offer ending.

After mulling over the differences between the equivalent MacBook Pro replacement and the Air, I opted to go with the Air because:

  • The Air costs a fair bit less, allowing me to increase the ram and storage without spending more
  • They have the exact same M1 chip, so general performance is pretty much identical
  • The Air only loses out on sustained performance, something my use case would rarely if ever hit
  • As a bonus to the above, the Air has no fan, so is completely silent
  • The Touch Bar still seems like a goofy, unnecessary idea
  • The extra battery life of the Pro is nice, but the Air is already way better than what I had before, so the improvement in the Pro is not worth the price premium

Setting up the Air was pretty straightforward. I have made a new rule this time, which I plan to strictly enforce (until I stop):

Only install programs I am actually using, not ones I might use or may eventually need to install. Slim (installs) is in. So far I have installed:

  • Firefox
  • Edge (to have a Chromium-flavored browser handy)
  • Ulysses
  • OneDrive

And that’s it!

For Firefox, I started with the current non-native version, but it was just janky enough to drive me to use the 84.0a beta, which is M1 native. The two issues I encountered were crashes on quitting and searches not working. Annoying and I could have probably managed, but the beta has been stable and runs fast.

Ulysses is M1 native. Edge and OneDrive are running under Rosetta 2 translation, but they both seem fine. So software-wise, I haven’t had any major issues, or nothing that couldn’t be fixed fairly easily.

I set up Touch ID and it is fast. FAST. Pretty much instant. But having the system unlock with the Apple Watch is even better.

The system wakes up almost instantly, too.

Battery life so far seems very good, though I haven’t really used the Air enough to give it a proper workout.

I selected Silent Clicking for the trackpad, but can still hear it click. Maybe I need to reboot? Maybe silent means kind of silent.

Oh, and the keyboard. This feels much closer to the keyboard on my old 2013 MacBook Air. It is still clicky (and clicks notably with my caveman typing style), but the clicks are much softer, because there is actual travel now. It no longer feels like pounding your fingertips into hard, unyielding plastic. It’s what the 2016 keyboard should have been. Better late than never, I suppose.

I’ve ordered a dock for the Air and in a few days will ship off my Mac mini for trade-in, so the Air will be doubling both as my laptop (for the future days when people can take laptops outside their homes again) and as a desktop machine, where simply plugging one cable from the dock to a Thunderbolt port should be all I need to get it working with an external monitor, keyboard, mouse and all that stuff.

So far it seems pretty good. We’ll see how it holds up over the long term. My MacBook Pro still works, but I can’t say I ever enjoyed typing on it. Considering it was my primary writing tool for a few years, that was a bit of a problem. Hopefully the Air will be a better overall experience.

National Novel Writing Month 2020 update

Update: Many people are still writing, while many others have met their 50,000 word goals or exceeded them.

I have continued to not write a novel and actually feel pretty good about it. In the past I’d argue that making the effort and stumbling was still worthwhile but…been there, done that. I’d rather write something to my own schedule now. I think I can do that now and NaNoWriMo is more a barrier than an aid at this point, because it forces you to write a story in a specific time frame, which is arbitrary and a little weird. It’s great if you’re just starting out, or desperately need some kind of external discipline to get you started.

But I no longer need those things, so maybe I won’t participate next year, or ever again.

Now I just need to prove how smart this decision is by, you know, writing and maybe even finishing a novel. It could happen!

National Novel Writing Month 2020 Day 23 word count: 38,341 (minus 38,341)

Yes, if I had participated in NaNoWriMo this year and had stayed on track, I’d be closing in on 40,000 words as of today, or possibly have already moved beyond that upon entering the final week home stretch.

Instead, my word count is zero. I have written nothing, nada, zilch. I have not had to wonder if the Windows version of Scrivener 3.0 would finally be ready for NaNo this year (spoiler: it isn’t), I have not had to wonder how I will fix giant plot holes, barely-there characters or gaps in logic that an 18 wheeler could rumble through.

Do I feel bad about this non-effort, especially since I had originally planned on participating?

I do not. If I think about it in some detail I can move the needle to “a little bad.”

And yet, I am trying to get moving on writing again, in the same way that a man who has to walk a thousand miles starts his journey by checking Amazon for a nice pair of comfortable shoes. I wrote this post! I wrote another post! More writing may occur!

We’ll see where it goes.

I did happen to come across this post while searching for something else on my blog and I call to Inspiration Cat to help me like you’ve never helped me before! (If you read the linked post you will see that Inspiration Cat did not, in fact, help me at all.)

And just because the image amuses me and this month’s unofficial blog theme is Funny Cats, here is the happy little typist again:

Book review: Following

Following: A Marketing Guide to Author Platform by David Gaughran

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David Gaughran’s latest on helping writers is a short volume on creating an author platform. With his usual wit, Gaughran cuts away the marketing hype and reassures the reader that an author platform is basically having an established presence online, not some great convoluted thing that would require a team of experts to assemble (though he does suggest outsourcing some aspects). He offers a mix of general and specific advice on what to do, ranging from what social media to focus on (to no surprise, he says Facebook is the one essential due to its reach, even if you may dislike Facebook as a company) to recommendations for hosting and content management systems (CMS)–and again, he not surprisingly recommends WordPress, which is to CMS as Facebook is to social media, though perhaps with less imperiling of modern democracy.

Much like his fourth (and now free) edition of Let’s Get Digital, Following also comes with a link to online resources that Gaughran promises to keep updated, extending the book’s usability beyond what is contained in the text.

For a beginning author, this is a welcome and even gentle way to introduce the idea of establishing yourself on the internet as a writer, even before you have completed your first book. Gauhgran’s advice is sensible and much of it is based on his own experience–learn from his mistakes so you don’t make them yourself! I especially like the tips that seem small or simple, but could have a profound effect (and may come as a relief to the starting writer), particularly in debunking some common beliefs, such as needing a robust presence on every social media platform, or needing to keep an active blog going. For those who have read Gaughran’s other books on writing, it will be no surprise that he pushes hard on building a mailing list.

Gaughran teases the possibility that Following could be expanded in the future (and this would not surprise me, he has an admirable devotion to this set of books), but as is, it is still an excellent and recommended resource to the aspiring author.

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Book review: Let’s Get Digital, Fourth Edition

Let’s Get Digital: How to Self-Publish, and Why You Should by David Gaughran

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For the most part you can just check out my review of the Third Edition of the book–everything I liked about it has been kept in the fourth edition, so I’ll mainly focus on the changes.

The biggest is that the entire book has been rewritten, so it is not merely updated, but now reflects the market as of 2020, with Gaughran offering additional wisdom he’s gathered in the years between editions.

The comprehensive resources have now been moved from the book to a specific area of his website, which allows Gaughran to continuously update them–a welcome improvement that ironically makes the book more useful even as you set it aside.

Gaughran does make a few assertions that he had not previously (or at least that I don’t recall). The biggest, for fiction writers, is that he flat out says you should write series. It’s just the way of fiction now, and unless you’re already a well-established author or writing non-genre fiction, he maintains it pretty much cannot be avoided. He presents clear arguments for this, but it still makes me sad, because I love one-off stories and prefer them to series. He softens the blow a bit by saying that a series does not have to be literal sequels, but can simply share the same setting or characters.

As with previous editions, Gaughran keeps the tone light but the advice is serious, well-researched and backed by his own experience and the experiences he has heard from other authors.

If you are interested in self-publishing or have just started dipping your toes into the experience, Let’s Get Digital is and remains an excellent introduction to new authors. As before, highly recommended.

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Scrivener 3.0 for Windows: A puzzling non-release

For awhile Scrivener was my favorite writing application. It does pretty much everything you could want in a writing program and has excellent organizational tools that really help in planning and plotting out novels (or other projects).

A major new update to version 3 was released for the Mac in November 2017, with an equivalent Windows update arriving in 2018, then by end of Q2 2019, then for absolute sure by August 30, 2019. All dates were missed, with contrite apologies from Literature and Latte.

After the last missed date, they stopped saying when it would release and version 3 for Windows has existed since then as a perpetual beta and now, a perpetual release candidate. Users talk about how stable it is, how perfectly usable it is, but it’s still not officially released. You can’t buy it.

I am not a developer so I can’t speak to the challenges the duo working on the Windows version of Scrivener is facing, but it does seem to me that as we draw ever-closer to three years since version 3 came out for the Mac, that the Windows version ought to have been ready by now. I mean, if you originally project a release in 2018, re-calibrate and say, okay, second quarter 2019, then re-calibrate yet again and say August 30, 2019, then finally go silent on a release date and then still have not released almost a full year after the last offered date, I would submit that you are bad at estimating software release dates, and also very slow at developing software.

I will buy version 3 when it eventually comes out, and I might try it again (I have version 3 already for Mac but I have switched mostly to using Ulysses for my fiction writing), but I must admit, the pace of the Windows version’s development instills me with little confidence in the product or the company. One of the main points of the version 3 release was to bring feature parity (as much as possible) to the Mac and Windows versions. That cannot happen if the Windows version is constantly lagging well behind. I have every expectation that should version 4 come out for Mac, it would be years before the same version released for Windows. I might be wrong. I hope I am wrong!

Anyway, I do hope the Windows version releases at least before the anniversary of the version 3 release for Mac. Looking over the current issues in the forum thread on beta releases, it feels a bit like they are striving for perfection and holding up release indefinitely as a result. They report a single crash bug:

We are aware of one bug (listed below) that can hang Scrivener, and zero bugs that cause data loss, so if you are aware of any other bugs that can hang Scrivener, or cause data loss, please let us know. The only crash bug we know about is:-

Merging cells in table can crash under certain conditions

I can’t speak for all writers, but I have very few tables in my novels, apart from the actual furniture in various scenes. This doesn’t seem like enough to hold up release. I mean, what if they can’t track down the cause of this bug? Just hold off release for another six months? A year? At some point you have to accept that you’ve done all you can and put your work out there–like any good writer would.

Goodbye, Ellen

For many years I had the following quote by Ellen DeGeneres on my website in the top-right corner, to underscore the absurdity of writing (especially writing for publication):

You know, it’s hard work to write a book. I can’t tell you how many times I really get going on an idea, then my quill breaks. Or I spill ink all over my writing tunic.

I like absurd humor, so this quote resonated with me.

In recent years Ellen has come under fire for cozying up to George W. Bush, for treating guests and crew on her show poorly, and for generally seeming to be the opposite of the nice, wholesome image she presents.

So I’ve changed the quote. I still wanted something funny and my search will go on, but for now I’m going with this from Gene Fowler:

Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.

Not quite as absurd, and darker, but it will do for now.

Review: Save the Cat! Writes a Novel

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Save the Cat series of books is aimed primarily at screenwriters, but in this case Jessica Brody has reworked the formula for novel writing.

The book, as befits one concerned about plot, is well-structured, with sections designed for easy reference after the initial read-through. At its core, Brody puts forward that there are 10 core plots that are used in pretty much all successful stories (note that this success is oriented toward readers more than critics, hence the inclusion of novels that have received what some might call unkind reviews, such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

In the first chapter Brody describes how we are wired to respond to certain types of stories and covers the usual concerns over “How can I be daring and original if I’m following a strict plot outline?” by saying nothing is really original, but all authors have their own voices and style that separate them from other writers.

The next ten chapters are devoted to an explanation of the specific plot type, covering three essential requirements for each, followed by a “beat sheet” (beats are a big thing in the Save the Cat world) for a specific novel, explaining how it conforms to the particular plot type in question. This is followed by an even more precise summary of the beat sheet, handy for quick reference.

The final chapter is a general set of common questions Brody has addressed in related workshops, along with answers, ranging from the basics of “Where do I start?” to handling multiple narratives. Brody also provides templates on a website that serve as virtual corkboards for plotting (for those who don’t want to use actual corkboards). In all, the information is detailed, but presented in a light, informal style that will be easily accessible to young or new writers, as well as those who have yet to plot their way out of the proverbial wet paper bag.

You can get an idea of the tone of the book by observing some of the plot types discussed:

  • Whydunnit
  • Dude with a Problem
  • Buddy Love
  • Monster in the House

All of this may sound very rigid–and it is. Brody does allow that some bending of the rules may be allowed, but that overall these plots, their associated acts, scenes, and overall beats, must be followed to achieve the effect they are meant to have on that primitive part of our brain that responds so well to structured tales.

If you believe in the power of plotting, this is an excellent primer on how to write a novel using any of the ten specific plots discussed. As Brody mentions, it also works well for those trying to fix a work in progress.

For new writers or those who have a tendency to send their initially sound novels upon the rocky shoals of “I don’t know what happens next”, this is recommended.

P.S. “Save the cat” is a reference to how an unlikable main character should do something to show they have a good side or some merit, such as…saving a cat.

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