Over the hills and far away

Last week, I went to Kansas City for training. I rarely go out of town, in fact I don’t think I’ve gone out of town for work in over a year and that last one was a very short trip to Fairbanks. Living in Alaska, everything is far away. Even stuff up here is far away. From where I live, the capital is about 1 ½ hour flight and it can’t be reached by road. I’m actually closer to Seattle from where I’m at than I am from the farthest corner of this state, and I’m a three hour flight from Seattle. Anyhow, a trip to Kansas City, which is generally a few hours of flying time at worst (unless you’ve got to take a really wacky series of layovers) from most parts of the country. For me, however, we’re talking a minimum of 8 hours travel time involving at least 1 layover. To put icing on that cake, most AK to lower-48 flights leave sometime between the hours of 11pm and 6am.

The moral of this story is that not only do these trips trap me on an aircraft for two full days, it results in serious jet-lag and exhaustion. It’s true this trip was for business, and I committed myself to carrying out those responsibilities and talking shop for many extra hours too. One would think that I’d be too tired for creativity – which is something I hear a lot during the procrastination process. While I believe ‘too tired’ is a legitimate reason to put the writing down for a bit, after all we all get there, I feel that there are strategies for dealing with it. In any case, being away from home I was left without many of the usual distractions and responsibilities. So, even in my state of ‘holy crapamoly I’m tired’ I was able to take what little energy I had and focus it.

From the perspective of writing I learned a couple of things about myself and writing on this trip. The first is that I really need to have coffee to write. At 6:00 am I was on the plane with my iPad and couldn’t bring myself to turn it on. Once they came round with coffee I fired that bitch up and didn’t stop until the wheels hit the ground. Lesson learned: If I’ve got a warm cup by my side, I’m a lot more productive. In the evening, when coffee is a bit dicey, a beer or whiskey also seems to fill the niche (herbal tea or decaf works through the week when I’m being good). The second thing I learned about myself is a bit more involved.

Ahead of the trip, I had decided that I would focus my free time on writing, so I planned to stay off of Twitter, avoid much on Facebook (I did flip through a few times), and not even open Wordpress. I’d say that I was fairly successful there. However, I’m not convinced these are actually the source of most of my distraction. Sure I can kill an hour very rapidly by sifting through various blog posts and wipe out 5 minute spans of time keeping an eye on twitter, but those actually don’t really tear me away from what I’m doing like other sorts of things. I also didn’t turn the TV on while I was there. With that noise box silenced the hour in the morning and hour or two at night I had for writing (the same as I have now, incidentally), was uninterrupted.

The most important thing I learned, however, was that over the course of those three days last week I found that if I’ve got a strong idea, and few real distractions (and even if I’m exhausted) I can write – a lot – not polished, ready to share work, but solid rough draft material. I don’t ever recall having written 6,000 words over the course of three days while still putting in 8 hours of work plus a few hours of work-place networking before. Hell, I don’t know if I’ve ever written that amount during time off. If I hadn’t been so fried on Friday I’d probably have knocked out another 2-3K on the airplane, which would have been about half of chapter 9 of Wine Bottles and Broomsticks.

Now I’m back home and back in my usual routine and I’m not entirely sure how to apply these lessons to my day-to-day writing (except the coffee – that’s easy) given that when I get home it’s time to cook, clean up and manage children, those TV free hours are lost anyhow, it’s later that I’m still working out. I do like being able to unwind with a little TeeVee but I’d also like to get done with my book. I suppose though that just knowing that I can produce a lot feels like a personal victory and knowing more about how I work best is helpful. With that in mind, and because I’ve been kicking the idea around for a while, I signed up for NaNoWriMo. I’m planning on tackling a project other than Wine Bottles and Broomsticks. However, in order to ‘win’, I’ve got to write something on the order of 1700 words per day. Anyhow, we’ll see how it goes. For starters, I need to be well prepared so at some point soon, I’ll start outlining like a fool and sketching characters.

So, there’s my thought for the week. I should probably think them out on this blog more, but too many distractions. Off to that cup of coffee and the last ten minutes remaining to me this morning.

Writer’s improvement hell – Tools #3 (Backups and document sharing)

I should be working on Wine Bottles and Broomsticks, or blogging about the development of that project – which I think is a hell of a lot better than anything I’ve tried yet. Possibly, I should be blogging about the fact that I just left a workplace that I happen to like a lot for a new adventure (this was emotional for me and has rather consumed me for a few days now).

Instead, I’m going to muse on backups and document sharing. This rant will be a lot shorter than the other two in the set. If you’ve read tools #1 and tools #2, you’ll know my writing setup consists of an Ubuntu Linux laptop and a MacMini desktop that I rarely get to use because reasons. I’m mostly using LibreOffice and Scrivener. A big mash-up right? How can I possibly keep all that straight, and more importantly how am I going to move documents back and forth – e-mail?

Another question that filters in here is how to I keep my work safe? What if my computer is stolen, or thrown into the duck pond? OR the geese eat it!

There are options – to deal with both of these concerns, actually. Most of which aren’t ideal with Linux.

The two categories are the cloud, and something else.

The cloud options consist of things like dropbox. If you’re like me, you think that the cloud is just another way for very large corporations to suck money out of you without providing you something you couldn’t have done just as well on your own. That said, there is some comfort in knowing that if your house burns down tomorrow, all of your writing work will be spared. If not going with a cloud option, for backups and what-not, there are a couple of choices.

The first choice in home-backups would be thumb-drives. In fact, this was my primary backup system for some time. They’re easy, portable, and cheap. However, they’re also not the most stable medium in the world. If you don’t spend enough money on one, you are looking at a potentially high failure rate. Imagine that your thumb-drive containing all of your work fails. Well, that would truly stink. There’s nothing more irritating than a failed thumb-drive. Imagine if your thumb-drive is bad AND your hard-drive fails, or worse, you’ve forgotten to backup your work in a few weeks and your computer spontaneously bursts into flames. It’s pretty unlikely so I expect this is a pretty good choice for backups. After all, they’re back ups, not primary storage. However, for me, that’s only half the story. What if I want access to my stuff from multiple places and I don’t want to have to try and work out version control on a thumb drive?

Next possible option is to get one of those fancy routers with a USB port that you can plug a portable hard drive into. This would kill 2 birds. I get portability AND a certain amount of backup, excepting for a couple of issues. The first is that I’ve got to fight Linux to make it work. Fortunately, I’m a reasonably smart guy and can probably make it work, plus Ubuntu has a fairly robust community. Problem solved right? No. Now I don’t have remote access to my files, and the portable hard drive connected to my router is the primary storage for my files, meaning that I still don’t have a back-up. This still leaves thumb-drives, which I’m ALWAYS forgetting to use anyhow.

Alright, let’s consider ‘cloud’ solutions. To be clear I do not like the ‘cloud’ it’s a word that IT managers use when they’re too stupid to implement their own, more effective and cheaper solutions. Don’t argue with me on this one, it’s a position I won’t budget from unless clear evidence can be produced to the contrary. HOWEVER, for certain applications, it has an appeal. First off, let’s discuss problems. One being security. How do I know that if I dump my files on to some cloud service that they’ll be secure? In general, you can’t. This is the reason I won’t use Dropbox. Another problem? Cost. Many of these services have monthly fees associated with them. Yet another is constant network access. So why consider it then? Because there are a few services out there that have encryption so intense that if you lose your password, don’t expect to ever see your files again (something I generally approve of), second, if you set it up right, you won’t need remote access, you’ll have copies on your local computer. The remote cloud stuff is just a backup. So, we just achieved two benefits. This is good. As for cost? Well, there are services that will back-up a certain amount for free, and for someone like me, the free amount is enough.

So, in spite of my deep-seated prejudices against ‘the cloud’, I’ve found a cloud-based service that works just fine. To date, I haven’t experienced any problems with it. Is this the best solution? Probably not. The best might be to develop my own back-up service that goes to a locally hosted RAID array. Yes I could do this, but it would cost a lot and take a lot of time. As a result, I’m sticking with my setup for now. Am I going to recommend what you should use? That would be an emphatic no. You have to do what makes you comfortable and works for you. Same as all of the other tools.


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Writer’s improvement hell – Tools #2 (The word processor)


A couple few blogs ago I complained about operating systems and computers. The conclusion being that there is no one solution. Anything you pick to work on is going to give you a headache of one sort or another. Apparently, word processors are the same. At face values anything will work, and indeed as far as simply using your word processor as a tool to get your story down, that is totally true. However, once you’re done writing your story, you get to a point where it has to be shared. That, it would seem, is where the problems start. Of course, if you’re like me and work in a thoroughly multi-computer / platform environment, things get dicey.

So what are some of the options?

MS Word is generally regarded as the gold standard of word processing, it does a lot and it does do it pretty well. It’s highly portable, has a lot of features, and if you’ve spent any time working in an office, odds on, you’re already familiar with it. What’s my problem with it then? First off, it’s expensive, in the neighborhood of $100 by itself, and if you go with Office 365, you’ll be paying that every year. I seriously doubt I’ll ever sell $100 worth of book to even make that worthwhile. The second problem for me is that there is no Ubuntu Linux version of Word (yes I could use a windows emulator like Wine, but it’s a pain). Mac does have a version, but it’s not as reliable as the Windows version. In short, cost and portability make this a tough one for me.

Although I’ve never used it, Word Perfect is still an option. However, coming it at over $200 for a license, cost is most definitely an issue. Again, this one isn’t available on Ubuntu, but it is available for Mac. Might as well go with Word, just for cost alone.

Scrivener is another good option, it’s relatively inexpensive, in the neighborhood of $50. As far as word processing goes it’s bare bones, but it hits the high-points for the needs of very many writers. There are some other major bonuses here, it allows compilation of your novel into a format appropriate for distribution. It also provides excellent document management and organizational tools that allow for notes to be tacked on all over the thing. For drafting or even final construction, this really an excellent option. There is an Ubuntu version, but it’s missing a few essential pieces, the key being spell-checker. The real problem, however, is that you have to be extremely good with scrivener to make it work for others. I recently distributed copies of my manuscript to folks for a beta read, and every single one of them had one problem or another – the point here being, you CAN get all the bugs out of scrivener when you compile, but it’s not as easy as just pressing a button.

If you have a Mac, you’ve got Pages. As far as word processors go, it’s not awesome. It doesn’t suck, but it’s not as feature loaded like Word. The other problem is the very limited scope of document support. It only handles a few document formats. Again, if you’re dealing with multiple platforms (or sharing your work for any reason), this really becomes unworkable.

In the realm of free, you have Google Docs, which you can store on Google Drive. I’ve only used it a bit, but it gets good reviews. While this set of tools supports multiple document formats, you’re stuck managing all of your documents out on the web. There are major benefits here with respect to multi-platform systems, but it does shut down portability a bit. You’ve really got to have Wi-Fi access. Other issues I have here involve to trying to construct a 100,000 word document and then transferring that into a format which could be used to construct a book. I cant say anything with particular authority, but but I suspect this would pose something of a challenge.

Also in the realm of free are OpenOffice and LibreOffice. I’m going to lump these because they both use the .odt format, and generally have the same set of features. These are flexible, support a number of document formats, and can be used in Windows, Mac, and Linux. There are some oddities with formatting and available fonts, but I think most of this might be limited to LibreOffice, in all they’re fairly minor considering the product is overall pretty good and also free. I think the main problem remains that conversion and portability seem to be problematic.

I don’t know that I can say I know what the point of that rant was. I’d say any one of these options works as well as any, again if you can get it MS Word is probably the best tool, especially if you’re working on a single platform. Barring that, how do you choose? – I have no idea. I use LibreOffice as my primary word processor because that’s what Ubuntu comes with. It works fine and it’s free – no complaints. However, now that I’ve discovered Scrivener and started working with it, I’m moving all of my projects over there. This is largely because of the other tools it has relating to making notes and various compile options. Once I figure it out, I expect my problems with portability and conversion should be resolved.

The truth is though that anything really will work, so it’s all up to preferences. Just like computer, anything you choose will have it’s own special problems.

Now that I’m done ranting about word processors, are there any remaining problems? Yes. Stay tuned.

photo credit: IMG_0561 via photopin (license)