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Monday, May 28th, 2012

I don’t usually blog the day-to-day kind of stuff, but thought I might shake things up and give it a go.

It’s been nice to finish my writing early today, to work past the difficult portion and sail into the calmer waters of Having A Clue Where The Scene Was Going, and being able to get it there with a minimal amount of fuss.  I’ve split my time the past two weeks between producing work and reinvesting in my skills to better my work.  It didn’t help that when I looked at the page, I promptly forgot everything I should do and could only remember what I shouldn’t do. The result of this was that I sat there staring at the screen.  Not a very good way to write a story.  So I stuffed that part of my brain into a box and just wrote.  The nice thing about being done for the day is that I get to do other things guilt-free.

This video is amazing: Run Boy Run.    It reminds me of both Where the Wild Things Are, which I’ve neither seen nor read–a crime, I know–and the game “Shadows of the Colossus,” simultaneously a beautiful game and one I can’t play without feeling terribly bad about playing it.  Follow the link to see it bigger.  It’s HD, after all.

Read a (digital) comic book today, one of a very few that I’ve read in my life (first issue of Eternals, for those curious).  When it comes to comics, I mostly just read the text very quickly, and then feel bad that I almost didn’t even look at the art.  So then I go back and look it over for a while, when I remember to do so, and I imagine that that’s not how one is supposed to read a comic. Does that mean I’m more of a text person than a visual person?

Right then.  That’s all for now, so off I go.

Grasshopper Wing

1000-word flash fiction, prompt from Terrible Minds.

“Wait here a minute,” Dad said, “and don’t go near the water yet.”  He then waded into the waist-high golden weeds that led away from the small, deep pool of water.

Kenny dropped the olive and tan tackle box he’d been tasked to carry, glad to put it down.  The box required both hands to carry, held out in front of him on account of its large size, which set it to bumping his shins with every step on the hike down the hill to the stream behind their campsite.

When they didn’t know he was listening, Kenny’d heard his mom and dad arguing about the trip.  She wanted to go to the beach.  He wanted to camp in the woods and go fishing.  “Kenny’s nine and has never been,” his dad had said.  This was important.  Somehow.

The stream was small and shallow, bordered by gray rocks the color of his schoolyard blacktop, capped here and there by crusty blue moss stuff Dad had said was “liken” (whatever that was).  On the bottom was a brown muck the color of some disgusting family dinners.

He didn’t know why Dad had wandered off into the weeds—surely he’d have a whole ton of stickers now, the kind that pierce your sock and wedge themselves up against your shoe, poke you every time you take a step, and make you take off your shoes and dig them out one at a time.

Nearby was the fishing pole his father had brought: dark maroon segments that could collapse into one another, bright silver rings that guided thin, white-clear fishing line, and a black reel with a crank and a complicated-looking metal guide for the spool of line.

A thrashing sound announced the return of Dad, white t-shirt and blue jeans and the grass-stained sneakers he wore to mow the lawn, hands cupped together in front of him, face split in a triumphant grin.

Dad went straight to the rod while Kenny leaned over the deep pool for a closer look.  Trees dropped orange leaves and dappled, golden light across the surface of the water.   There, down below a rock that jutted out over the sandy bottom about a foot down, were two fish, plain as day.

Kenny looked over just in time to see Dad shove a grasshopper onto the end of a hook.  It made a crunch sound.  One of the wings tore off and fluttered to the ground like a leaf.  Once, when the wing caught the light, Kenny saw rainbow colors instead of the clear.

“Oh,” Kenny said.  He looked away from where the wing landed on the ground.  The rainbow was gone.

“What’s that, son?”

“Nothing.  I just thought we were going to use the eggs.”  Before they’d left camp, Dad had opened the tackle box and shown him hooks, sinkers, spinners, and a jar of fake fish eggs: little red spheres that smelled nasty but apparently passed for fish snacks.

“Nah,” Dad said, and handled the pole across to Kenny.  “This here’s the real deal.  My dad did the same thing for me, my first time.  It’s like a fish Big Mac. They can’t refuse.”

Kenny took the pole and tried not to look at what dangled from the end of it.

“Okay, now hook your pointer finger down around the line to hold it,” Dad said.

Kenny fumbled with the pole, then did so.  “Like that?”  He wanted to do this right.

“Now flip open the catch.  Good. Now just give it a little toss, and let go with your finger.”

The grasshopper and hook landed on a rock on the other side of the pool.

“That’s okay,” Dad said.  “Reel it in nice and slow.”

Kenny gave the reel a timid crank.  The guide clunked into place, and the grasshopper slid into the pond, sending rings of ripples out across the calm surface of the pool, but didn’t sink.  The fish just watched from their little spot under the rock.

“Maybe they don’t like grasshoppers?” Kenny suggested.

“Do it again,” Dad said.

Kenny cast the bait again, praying for a direct hit and a dramatic fish-fighting scene, so that they could call this a success and just go.  Fishing’d sounded like fun, until they hiked out here, until Kenny got stickers in his socks even though he stayed in the clear areas behind his dad, until the bug went crunch on the hook and the sun beat down on them and made his back get all sweaty under his red Spiderman t-shirt.

The bug hit dead center of the pool this time.

Bullseye!

But no fish came up for a bite.

They stood for ten minutes in silence, watching the fish watch the grasshopper.

Dad was trying, Kenny knew.  He was trying, too.  Even though he decided he didn’t like fishing very much.

When they finally gave up, Kenny busied himself skipping rocks into the pool while Dad packed everything up.  At first splash, the watching fish disappeared deeper under the rock.

Take that, stupid fish.

Another grasshopper jumped and landed on a nearby weed.  Kenny paused, his rock-skipping arm half-drawn back, and squinted at its small, tan form.  Its wings were clear, but sometimes had colors, too.  On the ground, the other wing was dirty now, crushed into the sandy muck by Dad’s shoe.

With a rasping flutter, the grasshopper bounced off the weed.

Kenny nodded.  Clear.  But rainbow, too.

On the walk back to camp, he decided that the real color of a grasshopper wing was the happy freedom to bounce around in a field.  The color of a grasshopper wing was also sadness when you got shoved onto the end of a hook, which was doubly dumb when the fish didn’t even bite, so you were better off not getting caught and baited in the first place.

If someone asked, would he say it was clear?  Rainbow?

Both.

My Writing Software Setup–Syncing, Backups, Etc

I spend a lot of time thinking about software and how I can use it to make my life better + easier.  That includes the various ways I could set up my writing workflow.

I’ve been using this system for a while now and it’s worked well for me.  I realized that others might benefit from what I’ve come up with, so here’s an overview.  In addition, I hope to hear from others, as maybe I could be doing something better.

Since this is an overview, I won’t go into too many details on each piece of the system, but instead will focus on how I make them all play together.  First will be the problems/considerations, then the dramatis personae, and then how I hook them together.

Problems That Need to be Solved, Considerations to Address

  • I work on both a desktop and a laptop and need my files to be available on each of them.
  • I also need backups.
  • The more of this backup stuff that’s automated, where I don’t have to think about it or remember to do it, the better.
  • My data shouldn’t be locked away on someone’s server. If the company disappears, or decides to freeze my account, my work could go with it, and That’s Bad. An example of this would be Google Docs.
  • This one is very specific to my personality: I don’t want my prose floating around on the internet until I publish it.  I know that the chances of someone actually caring about my stories enough to steal the drafts is essentially nil, but I just can’t seem to get past it. Consider it deeply-rooted in my primal past, like fascination with fire and the urge to run away from large predators.

Word Processor / Composition

I use Scrivener for Mac.  Love, love, love this program.  Can’t say enough good things about it.  I’m also a fan of Ulysses, but I think Scrivener works better for most writers.  This is where my writing happens.

Syncing

Dropbox is like mana from heaven.

  • Short version: keeps a directory of files synced across all your computers.
  • Long version: once it’s installed, anything put into this Dropbox folder on your computer will be uploaded to their servers.  When you install Dropbox on a second and subsequent machines, the software will sync all changes to everything in that folder across all of them.  Plus, you can access all your files from their website, as well, and also via mobile phone apps.  Their free account can store up to 2GB, so there’s no reason to NOT be using it.  I use this program for darn near everything that I don’t consider private: PDFs I need to reference/read, lists I write, and files I need to keep handy all the time, like book covers, book blurbs, and my profile / headshot images.

Please note that if you want to sign up, if you use my referral link (here), we both get extra space for free.  That’d be nifty.  If you’re not comfortable with that link, you can find them here: Dropbox

Encryption

I use TrueCrypt for this.  Don’t let the website or software scare you–it’s fairly simple.

  • You create a Truecrypt file on your hard drive, the size of which is the total space you want to have.  This acts like a container for everything you want to encrypt.
  • The program lets you mount the file and use it like any normal drive–it’ll appear in your drive lists like a USB stick or, for Mac people, works just like a *.dmg file.
  • You do your thing, and when you’re done, you just unmount the file.  Truecrypt handles all the encryption+decryption in the background.

I’m purposefully skipping over some of the mechanics behind how Truecrypt works because it doesn’t matter for this explanation / usage.  If you have questions, please ask.  I’m happy to go into more detail.

Putting It All Together

  1. I created a Truecrypt file on my hard drive, inside my Dropbox folder, and named it “WritingNotes”.  I initially allocated 5 MB, because I know that text barely takes up any space, but I’ve since moved to a 100MB file because I forgot to account for the overhead of programs like Scrivener.  They do more than just store plain text, so of course the files will be bigger and I used up my space fast.
  2. Dropbox will do its magic and upload it to the Dropbox servers. Don’t worry about when this happens.
  3. Mount the file (ie., turn it into a usable drive) with the Truecrypt program:
  4. Now create a new Scrivener project and save it to the Truecrypt “drive” you just mounted.  Mine is the “untitled” drive in the device list and you can see some of my *.scriv projects:
  5. Do your thing, and when you’re done working, close Scrivener and unmount your Truecrypt file.
  6. Sit back and enjoy your beverage of choice while Dropbox uploads all your changes.
  7. Now or later, go to computer #2 and wait for Dropbox to finish syncing.  Mount your Truecrypt file, open up your Scrivener project, and bingo, there are your changes.

Edit 2012/05/04: You can right-click on the mounted drive and rename it to something more appropriate, like “WritingNotes”.  It will keep this new name each time you mount it, and this change will also propogate across to your other machines on your next Dropbox sync.  I tested it and didn’t have any data problems.

Reasons Why This Works Well and is a Good Thing

One of the key things here is putting the Scrivener file inside of a Truecrypt file.  Programs like Scrivener store their information in packages / folder structures, and syncing software can wreck havoc on these, to the extreme extent that your file is corrupted and unopenable.  Once you mount the TrueCrypt file, Truecrypt “locks” the file and keeps hold of it, and Dropbox knows that the file is still busy and so doesn’t try to sync it.  This, and the fact that as far as Scrivener is concerned, your file is still local on the computer, is what prevents your Scrivener file from getting corrupted.  I’ve been using this system since August, 2011 and haven’t yet had any difficulties (cue suitable superstitiously-related activities).

This system works because it uses the interwebs to sync your stuff, but none of your text is “out there” on the Internet: even if someone broke into your Dropbox account, the encryption happened before the file ever left your computer.

It also keeps all the text and files on your computer: if Dropbox goes out of business, at worst case, one or more of your computers will have an out-of-date file.  Just figure out which one is the latest and copy it to the other machines manually.  You’ll never be locked out of access to your file.

Another reason why this works is because of backups galore:

  • Scrivener saves a local backup whenever you close the program.  These are stored outside the Dropbox folder, so you’ll always have a copy on whichever computer you were using at the time.
  • Dropbox syncs your Truecrypt file, so you have a copy of the file on each machine, plus the one accessible from the Dropbox website.
  • Dropbox also maintains old versions of your file:
  • For Mac users, Time Machine backs up your Dropbox folder, so that’s a second backup of the file, including previous versions.  Between the Dropbox and Time Machine versions, you should be able to go back and grab a previous copy of the file if it somehow gets corrupted and then propagated to your other machines.

 

Summary

No system is ever perfect, including this one.  But I feel it has a lot going for it and has worked well for me so far.  One of the drawbacks is that there aren’t as many hour-by-hour backups.  I solve that by doing manual backups of my Scrivener project if I’m feeling nervous, and by quitting/unmounting everything to sync to dropbox every so often throughout the day.  I find that mealtimes and/or coffee breaks work well as a benchmark.

Hope it helps.

Lesson From Star Trek: Don’t Cheat Your Characters

Another thing I’ve noticed during my romp through the episodes: they spent all sorts of time building up their characters, and then sometimes cheat them in their core characteristics for the sake of drama.

The biggest example of this is Worf.  In Worf, we have a trained warrior, from a warrior culture, whose body also apparently has backup organs to act as fail-safes. He’s tough and mindful, both of his duties and his environment.

Why, then, do people get the jump on him time and time again?   Why do his instincts and training inexplicably fail?  in the episode “Man of the People,” Worf and the captain have beamed down to stop something nefarious.  They’re confronted, and then the camera cuts to show Worf under phaser guard and being disarmed by two on-planet guards.  How did that even happen? Why didn’t he see them coming?

Even if someone did get the jump on him, he should be able to take more than one hit.  Why does he get knocked out with one blow to the back over and over?  The Klingon pain ceremony in the episode “The Icarus Factor” proved his endurance beyond any doubt.

These instances are frustrating as a viewer because I know, based on what I’ve seen before (based on characterizations over many episodes), that these things would never happen normally.  Instead, they’re just used to scoot the episode along to where the writers wanted it to go, and in the process, cheat both the viewer and the character.

Good storytelling renders a character’s strength meaningless or temporarily ineffective.  Don’t just chump-shot the warrior: give me a situation where he has to face an army, an enemy he can’t fight, a situation where he has to go against his instincts and surrender to save someone else.

 

Lesson from Star Trek: Multiple Story Threads

Like many other people, I’ve been watching Star Trek: The Next Generation from the beginning now that it’s available for streaming on Netflix.  Now that I’m far older and have some stories under my belt, I saw an interesting pattern in what the writers decided to do with their story lines.

So far, they fall into two basic structures.  I’ll call them the parallel structure and the nested structure.

The parallel structure is two separate story threads blended together that they then cut back and forth between during the course of the episode.  Usually, one of the two threads involves the “problem on the planet” type stuff.  Solve the dilemma, save the other spaceship, and so forth.  The second story thread is the one that the writer(s) can play with to achieve a different feel.  It could be humor-based, such as when Data is trying to learn how to be funny.  Or it can be character-based, such as when they investigate Worf’s background or the interaction between sets of characters.

The variations, of course, are nearly infinite.  What’s important is the idea of the two parallel threads: you can create tension by cutting back and forth between the two, and you can also get away with more when you use them together than if you were to use each separately.  The “Crisis on the planet” schtick might get stale faster if it’s not interwoven with something else.  There’s also something to be said for allowing a story some room and giving the viewer/reader a chance to breath before the tension cranks up again.  A whole episode of nothing but character background / investigation / fan service can get boring quick, too, especially if that character doesn’t happen to be the viewer’s favorite.  It also exhausts the pool that represents that character’s background story potential much faster.  Want to ensure a reader comes along for the entire ride?  Dribble the background, the stuff they want to know, in small bits throughout the entire arc.

In the nested structure, one story thread complicates another.  One of the best examples of this so far is in the Season 1 episode “The Big Goodbye,” where Picard and others get trapped in the holodeck right as the ship is supposed to make important diplomatic contact that only the captain can handle.  Either story thread could have been an episode by itself, but would have felt a bit anemic.  By complicating one situation with another situation, the tension rises.  After all, things are seldom easy or go as planned–especially if the writer has anything to say about it.

Within the nested structure is the reminder to not let things be easy on characters.  If the ship breaks down, and the crew just says, “oh, okay, then we’ll stop until it’s fixed,” there’s no episode, no conflict, nothing interesting going on.

The use of these two ideas, or vehicles, in a TV show makes me think they’d work well in short fiction.  I’ve added these to my writer’s toolbox and will try to pull them out every now and again.