Sunday, February 24, 2013

We're not all winners

While '5-star' may be seen as an indication of achievement  (think 5-star generals, and 5 star restaurants), if we make everything 5-star, stars quickly become meaningless.

The other day, I was on my iPad, browsing through the app store.  Yes, I already have a gazillion apps, but they're coming out with new apps every day... and sometimes they're bigger, or better, or cheaper.

But sometimes, they're not.

So as I look through the available apps, if I see one that seems interesting, I take a look at the reviews.  One or two stars --  I move on.  If an app has 4 or 5 stars, it's worth a further look, and I read the reviews.  After all, it's always a good idea to hear from someone who's used a product you're considering.

So I was very disappointed when I come across a bunch of apps that seemed of interest, but when I started reading some of the reviews... reviews where people had given the app 3 or 4 stars ..  people were using words like 'mediocre', 'poor',  and 'buggy'.  Huh??
So I looked for some standard, relative to the rating of apps, and couldn't find anything.  But even so . why would you give 3 stars to something you weren't happy with?
This isn't 3 stars out of 100, or even 3 stars out of 50, it's 3 stars out of 5.... that's more than 50%.
Those three stars just became meaningless.

Reminds me of one of my pet peeves.  When I was in school, we had field day  (kind of like a mini-Olympics, for each grade level), and spelling bees, and science fairs.  As I moved on to junior high and high school, we continued to have things like science fairs, and we had debate contests, and we elected class officers.  And at each of those events, a few people won, and some came in second, or third, and some won nothing at all.  You might even say they lost.  And that was ok.  Oh sure, those who lost were disappointed, and even some of those who came in second or third, were disappointed.  And I'll be honest, sometimes, people were so disappointed, that they cried.  But everyone survived, and moved on.

Today, there seems to be a focus in school on making sure that 'everyone is a winner'.  Everybody walks away with a ribbon... every body.  If awards are handed out, every student gets at least one award.  What does this accomplish?  I understand that proponents of this approach believe that this builds self-esteem in young people.  But this is a short-sighted view.  I'd suggest that, in fact, what this approach does is diminish the importance of winning, takes away any incentive to do well, and does an extremely poor job of preparing these children for life in the real world.  If children are led to believe that everyone wins, every time ...  what happens when they get out in the real world?  Because, in the real world, there's no question that there are winners, and there are non-winners.  In the real world, not everyone gets the job they applied for, not everyone gets the raise that they asked for, not everyone wins.

Trying your best, doesn't make you the best.  And that's another thing.  If anyone can get a ribbon or award, if even mediocre and poor receives 3 stars, if everyone is a winner, there's no longer any incentive or motivation to even try your best.

Even as adults who grew up in the 'winners and losers' age, we're disappointed today when we don't win, when we don't get what we wanted, when we don't get what we think we're entitled to.  But at least we've been prepared.  Children who never lose, who never have the opportunity to lose... are not prepared for the real world.  And these are the same children who now award 3 stars out of 5  to something they don't like.  It's time to return to reality.

My reality???   I hear the kettle whistling, and I'm ready for another cup of tea.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Scrivener - you don't have to eat everything on your plate

I'm a huge fan of Scrivener.  This wonderful writing software works very well on both the Mac and Windows platforms...  and makes the process of writing much simpler, than trying to use Word/Word Perfect/Google Docs.  Scrivener allows you to bounce here and there, write the end, first,  write the middle and then move it to the beginning, take a section and split it into three separate parts in different locations, and have all of your research right there at your fingertips and available in a split-screen view with your draft.

At least, that's how I use it.

So far, if I think of something I wish my writing software did... I poke around, and sure enough, Scrivener does it for me.   I know there are tons of features on Scrivener, that I don't use.  Some features - I know about, but I've not taken the time to learn how to use them.  Some features,  I've not felt the need for.  And I'm sure there are still other features that are built in, but I haven't felt the need for them, so I haven't looked for them, and I haven't run across them.

And that's ok.

There are a lot of Scrivener users out there, who talk about the time it takes to learn everything that Scrivener has to offer.  And there are a lot of potential Scrivener users out there who express concern about being able to learn all the features, potential users who are too intimidated to give Scrivener a shot.  And I'm confused by both of these groups.

Scrivener puts a lot on your plate -- but you don't have to eat everything that's there.  One of the many things I like about Scrivener is that you use what you want, and ignore the rest.  And the parts that you're ignoring?  Trust me, they don't interfere with the parts that you are using, and they don't get in the way.  They also don't get rusty... they merely remain in the background, patiently waiting their turn, until such time - if any - that you call them up.

Yesterday, I came across a post by an author/blogger I follow - Michael Holley - talking about the corkboard feature.  It's a feature I'm aware of, but never felt that it matched any of my needs, so I've ignored it.  Michael talked about using it in a different way, and I might (or might not!) try it, at some point.

But today, I came across an interview with David Hewson, and one of his remarks made me do a mental fist pump.  Hewson is an author, and was talking about one of his books that is based on a television series, and consequently has 3 different story lines weaving in and out, and he talked about how helpful Scrivener was to this process.  He could write from beginning to end, but he could also pull out only the sections applicable to story line A, and make sure there were no gaps.  And then he said
That said I think it’s important you only use the tools you need. Scrivener is a very powerful and complex piece of software. You’ll be wasting time if you try to learn all of it – I haven’t and I’ve probably written fifteen books in it now.
Wow.  That's what I've been trying to say.  Not only should you not worry about learning it all, you shouldn't even try to learn it all.  Only use the tools you need.

Don't you just love it when someone more important and famous than you, says the same thing you've been trying to say??!!
I think I'll celebrate, with a nice cup of tea.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Laurie's "read" list, 2012

I just came across a post on the PBS site that on this date (February 19)  in 1985, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published, in the United States.  Literary critics universally recognize this as a literary masterpiece.  While nothing that I read in 2012 falls into that category, it did seem like there were some enjoyable pieces that I read, so I thought I'd check my list on  Goodreads, and see what was there.

Well, there certainly was a lot of 'junk food'...   "Spell Bound", by Kelley Armstrong, "Destined for an Early Grave", by Jeaniene Frost, "Cherry Cheesecake Murder", by Joanne Fluke.  There were a couple of Linwood Barclays, and a couple Janet Evanovich books, and a Sue Grafton, and some Lee Child books.  I'm not embarassed about my junk food reading..   sometimes you're just not in the mood for something gripping, or enlightening.. but you just want entertaining fluff.  But there's nothing wrong with either writing, or reading fluff, in my opinion.  I do a lot of reading when we're out on the boat, and I also do a lot of reading just to avoid boredom.  And reading is certainly better than stealing hubcaps.  I also read some amusing Harry Potter fanfic by Norman Lippert.  Until recently, I had no idea what fanfic was ..  it's typically a parody, or a take-off, on a piece of original fiction.. written by fans of the original.  When I first heard about fanfic, I thought the idea was kind of stupid..   but I came across some free stuff (yes, I'm a sucker for free books for my Nook), and some of it was pretty bad.  But as it happens, the stuff written by Lippert, with James Potter (Harry's son) as the main character, isn't half bad.

Moving on through my list..   oh yes!  I read "The Magicians", by Lev Grossman, in 2011, and thoroughly enjoyed it.. and in 2012, I read book 2, "The Magician King".  I was initially intrigued, because I'd read that this was a combination of Harry Potter, and "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe" ... but this 2-book series was so much more.  Definitely has some dark spots, definitely NOT recommended for children, some excellent characterization, much more of a focus on how people react in different situations.  In fact, I liked it so well, that (I know, this makes no sense), when I heard the Mr. Grossman's brother, Austin, had written a novel - "Soon I Will be Invincible" - I read that in 2012, as well.  It was nothing like "The Magicians", of course.. I knew it wouldn't be... but I did enjoy it.

Oops.. this is getting long..  so I'll try to speed this up, and only include books that were both good, and memorable.
"The Warded Man"' by Peter Brett.  Pretty intense.. I've added a couple others of his to my 'to-read' list, but haven't gotten to them, yet.
"Fairy Godmother", by Mercedes Lackey...   interesting twist on fairytales.. in concept, this reminds me of the television show, Once Upon a Time.
"Before I go to Sleep", by S. J. Watson.  Wow!  Some really clever plot twists.
"The Shadow of the Wind", by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  Very different... kind of like a psychological study.
"19th Wife", by David Ebershoff.  Very good, but difficult to follow at times.  There's the historical fiction part about the early Mormons based on letters from one of the early wives, but then you have a more modern story woven in about a son of a more modern Mormon wife.  Oh yeah, and there's a murder.
"77 Shadow Street", by Dean Koontz.  This is an exception to my plan to only include books that were good.  This one - while certainly not a waste of time - was a disappointment.  Mr. Koontz, I know you can't be excellent all the time, and this proves it.
"11/22/63", by Stephen King.  A major departure from his usual writing... which makes this a very worthwhile read whether you're a King fan or not.
"The Casual Vacancy", by J. K. Rowling.  Yes, I'll admit it, I only picked this one up, because I liked the Harry Potter series, and I knew it would be very different.  And it was.  But even so, at first, it was hard to not be disappointed... and the book certainly moved much slower.. but as I realized that the main characters in this story were a) someone who died in the first few pages  (oh come on, that can't be a spoiler.. how do you think the vacancy came about?), and a website...  I found this to be quite enjoyable.
"The Woman Who Died a Lot", by Jasper Fforde.  You're either a Fforde fan, or you're not.
"Dies the Fire", by S. M. Stirling, and "The Passage", by Justin Cronin.  I've enjoyed dystopic novels, since long before their recent popularity
"The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry", by Rachel Joyce.  This was one of my favorites  (after "The Magician King").  It involves people, and their motivations, and their interactions.  Oh dear, my description is dull, but the book is not.

Wow.   2012 was a pretty good year.  I lift my teacup in a toast to the books I've read, and here's hoping that 2013 is just as good.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Save the Libraries

Not long ago, I posted about the closings of Barnes & Noble stores, and libraries, and I shared my thoughts on how wonderful libraries are.  Don't tell anyone,  but I actually like returning books late, because I feel like when I pay my library fines, I'm helping to contribute to the library, over and above the contribution made by my tax dollars.

Tonight, I read an article that has me outraged.  At first I couldn't believe it, so I googled it.  Sadly, it's true.

What is so outrageous?  What is so sad?  I'll tell you.

There's a British children's author, named Terry Deary.  Mr. Deary has written over 200 books, and has sold over 25 million copies.  Cool, huh?  You might be thinking that Mr. Deary must be pretty pleased with himself ---  I'm quite sure I'd be pretty pleased if I'd written over 200 books and sold over 25 million copies ---  but if that's what you think, you are horribly wrong.  Believe it or not Mr. Deary is annoyed,  and more than just a little ticked off, because he's worried about all the money that he's missing out on, when people check his books out from the library, rather than buying them.

Yes, you read that correctly... no typos there.  Mr. Deary told the Guardian Newspaper that "the concept behind libraries ...  is no longer relevant".  He squawks about the fact that people have this mistaken belief that they are entitled to read books for free, and that books are public property.  He suggests that even if we want to hold on to the Victorian notion that we should provide poor people with access to literature, we don't need libraries to do that, because poor people get this access through compulsory schooling.


Curiously enough, just a few years ago, Terry Deary stated in an interview that "schools are an utter waste of young life".  He predicted that schools would become obsolete within twenty-five years, being replaced by mentors, and further announced that "teachers know nothing about life and the real needs of pupils".  Oh yeah, he described schools as "a Victorian idea to get kids off the street".

What's that, you say?  This sounds familiar?  Hmmm.  You've got a point.   First Deary says that schools are a Victorian notion, and now he says that libraries are a Victorian idea and unnecessary,  because we have schools.

Oh, and here's another thing about dear Mr. Deary.  In between announcing that schools are a waste of time, and libraries are irrelevant, he described historians as seedy, devious, and contemptible.  Oh I'm sorry, did I forget to tell you that Mr. Deary's best selling children's books are the Horrible Histories series? Yes, that's right, history.

I don't know if all of this is just a cheap ploy on the part of Deary to get some attention, or if he enjoys creating controversy, or if he's just a mean and curmudgeonly coot.  But fortunately, he seems to be alone.  His most recent remarks  - the ones about libraries and how unfair it is to authors to let people borrow books instead of buying them - seem to have no support.. not even among other authors.  At a quick glance, I'm seeing that Neil Gaiman (author of Stardust, and The Sandman, and tons of other stuff), and Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat), and Alan Gibbons, another British author of children's books, have all come out in favor of libraries, and against Mr. Deary's position.  Strongly against.  One of Neil Gaiman's tweets refers to Deary as stupid, selfish and shortsighted.  Perhaps my favorite response comes from David Almond, yet another British author of children's books, who calls  Deary's remarks "ignorant twaddle".

The more I think about this, the worse it makes me feel.  Almost makes me wish I had children, so that I could make sure they never read any of his books.

Mr. Deary -- I sincerely hope this was all a joke.  I think not... it's right in line with your ridiculous remarks about schools and historians.  But still, I hope this was a joke.  It would really be a shame if a prolific, successful author was truly anti-library.

My usual Typhoo tea with lemon, and a bit of sweet-n-low, isn't enough... I need something stronger.  I think tonight I'll drink my tea black.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Mother Nature

(This morning, cleaning out some old, old  e-mail folders, I came across something from another blogging site...  confirmation of something I'd posted.  Really?   Oh yeah....  now I remember...  a couple of years ago, I had a notion to start a blog.  I posted once, never posted again, and completely forgot about it.  I guess maybe the time just wasn't right.  I was going to just delete it, but then decided it was worth sharing.  The original date on this post was August 16, 2011.)

Sometimes, Mother Nature works overtime, I guess.

Recently, we had the following day:
Saw a large deer walking across the lawn, in the morning. Went out on the boat and headed over to a fishing spot...  didn't catch any keepers, but we saw a whale, a dolphin, and a seal.  Took the boat back in, and had to stop to watch a friend who was cleaning the porbeagle shark he'd caught  (7  1/2 feet long, 86" around).   First time I'd ever seen a real live shark -- well, I guess it was no longer alive, but I mean in real life, as opposed to on TV or in a book.   Got home, went out to check the tomato plants, and disturbed two rabbits who were busy enjoying my garden.  Later, went out to run some errands, came back home and our headlights startled a small deer walking across the driveway.

Oh yeah, in her spare time, she made sure all of this happened on a warm (but not too hot) sunny day.

Good job, Mother N.  I don't mind the rain today, you deserve a day off.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Nemo 2013

I live in Massachusetts, North of Boston, near the coast.  Which means that I was very much a part of  the recent Blizzard 2013, nicknamed 'Nemo', by the Weather Channel.  Why Nemo?  The Weather Channel said it's easier for people to follow a storm, when it has a name.  While that might explain why they gave it a name, it doesn't explain why someone decided Nemo was the name to give this event.  Unlike hurricanes, cyclones and tornados, there doesn't appear to be a list for snowstorms, blizzards, or even miscellaneous notable weather events.  If someone finds out why 'Nemo'...   let me know.

On Friday, NOAA  (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)  released the following satellite picture .

Pretty cool, huh?  As much as this looks like snow, it isn't, of course, but it shows the cloud cover over the entire eastern US, with just the bottom bit of Florida peaking out.

Locally, (ie, looking out of my patio doors ),
this is what it looked like, Friday night

.....  and this is what it looked like, Saturday morning.  By the way, snow was still coming down at this point.

There was no way to avoid the inevitable, of course.  The snow wasn't going to go away by itself...  BUT -- I wanted to play, first.  After all, it had snowed a ton, it was still snowing, we couldn't go anywhere by car due to the statewide driving ban...  I wanted to go out and walk around, and grab some pics, and play in the snow.  So I bundled up, grabbed my camera, headed downstairs..... and discovered that I wasn't going to be going out the door, as the snow had drifted and was as high as the handle.  That's ok...  I had alternatives... so I went into the garage, and opened the door...

you can't read the yardstick, but that's 16 inches of snow... and that's right next to the building.  THIS was going to be FUN!!!!!

So I climbed over this pile, and started traipsing down the driveway...

Yep!   that's showing 24.5 inches of snow!!!  Although, in all fairness, I looked around, and decided that this was perhaps a bit drifted...  but I think it's definitely fair to say we had a solid 20 inches of snow...
and it was still coming down!...  slowly, now, but still coming down!

 I went down the end of the driveway, climbed over the 34 inch wind row that the snowplows had left, to look up the street... everything was so white, you almost couldn't tell what you were looking at.  I looked back up the driveway, so that I could share the excitement with hubby...

                                                                                                                 Sigh.  Clearly, hubby was not here to play.  We had work to do, and playtime would have to wait.  What can I say?  One of us is responsible, the other is responsible-ish.

So, I trudged back up the driveway   

to get my shovel, so that I could help out.

It was still fun, being out there in the snow, and we can't (and don't) complain...  there was almost no snow last year, and there hasn't been much snow this year.  And the timing couldn't have been better.  Nemo brought us home early on Friday, we slept in, on Saturday..  we spent Saturday afternoon clearing out the snow, and tomorrow we'll drive around, taking a look at the effects of the storm.  All in time to be back at work on Monday.

And I'm not complaining about hubby, either.  True, he decided it was more important to deal with the snow in the driveway, than to go out and play...  but on the other hand, as part of our storm preparation he decided he was going to make his famous home-made, start-from-scratch cinnamon rolls, to get us through the storm.
So as I sit here, trying to figure out the hidden meaning
behind calling a blizzard Nemo, drinking my tea --
I'm also eating an incredible, wonderful cinnamon roll.

In case you're wondering, yes, you're right... this is not my typical sort of teapot musing... but I wanted to share some of these photos.  And in case you're interested, we ended up with an additional 3 inches of snow, for a total of 23".  That's a lot of snow.

Wherever you are, I hope you're warm and safe.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Write what you (don't) know

Even many who do not write fiction are familiar with the oft-given advice "Write what you know".  To which I reply 

Oh sure... if you're writing a textbook, or a patent application, or an appellate brief, or even a letter to the editor... then this advice makes sense, although it might be better expressed as 'make sure you know what you're talking about before you start distributing your words to others'.

But think about it.  Fiction, is supposed to entertain, amuse, or evoke some sort of emotion.  There should be some level of excitement, or edginess to it.  If the author is bored, how can the reader possibly be excited?  Yes, I acknowledge that if you're truly passionate about something, you can excite the reader, but I don't think many writers of fiction are passionate about their storyline.  So I'm just not sure that 'writing what you know', is truly the answer.

For your consideration, I would suggest that perhaps the advice should be... 'Write what you don't know'. After all if you don't know, you have to either figure it out (which gets the creative juices flowing) or find it out (which gets the research juices flowing).  In either event, the condition of flowing juices is more likely to result in something that is worthy of reading.

I don't currently have any fiction published - and I'm quite certain that the non-fiction that I have published would bore the pants off of nearly all of you (and while that might be entertaining or amusing, it's not my goal).  But I think there's a lot of merit to the notion of write what you don't know.  My first piece of fiction, I decided to write about what I knew... Because that's what 'everybody' said.  I had almost no advance notice, and I thought,  'I know...  I'll write a story where everything revolves around spices', because I use a lot of spices.  But it didn't take very long before I was too bored to write...  Which did not bode well for any potential readers.  So I started researching little known facts about everyday spices, and tweaked the story to include some of those facts, and NOW I had a story! And while it's not a very good story, it's better than what it was, and has the potential to be something better.  My next story was about a world where tattoos played a major role...  I have no tattoos, my husband has no tattoos...  I knew nothing about tattoos.  So I researched tattoos...  Their history, the legal issues, the development of inks, and I talked to some people with tattoos.  Voila!  By virtue of my research, I found myself excited about tattoos... Not excited enough to get one, mind you, but excited enough to write a story that wasn't boring.
Since then, for various projects, I've researched lightning, blood types, magnets, quantum physics, nursery rhymes, and oil paints.  Not enough to become an expert, of course, but enough to get excited.

Hmm, you might well be thinking 'maybe this is Laurie's theory, but she's far from an expert'... And you're right of course.  But Stephen King reported that he didn't write his best seller 11/22/63 until over 30 years after he initially had the idea, because he needed to set aside time for the large volume of research that he felt was required.    Tolkien spent decades developing the Elvish language used in The Hobbit, and Dan Brown has stated that - due to the intensive research required for his books, he can often spend two years, working on one novel.  And if you do a google search for author-fiction-research, or writer-fiction-research, you come up with pages and pages and pages of results...  at a quick glance, they include topics like how to research, what makes research effective, and why you should research..  but I didn't see anything that said 'don't bother to spend time researching, just write what you know.'

As I sat there looking at the google results and trying to figure out why people keep saying 'write what you know', I decided to google "Write what you know".

Apparently, I'm not the first to question this advice.  There seem to be a lot of people who are going through a lot of gyrations to explain that this actually means make sure you know about your topic before you actually start writing, as well as those who say that this advice is meant to refer to what you know about life and nature and humanity, and how people interact and respond, and use that in your stories.  And still other people say the advice means exactly what it says, and point to Grisham, a lawyer, who writes courtroom dramas, and Fleming, a former spy, who wrote the James Bond books.

So that means that 'Write what you know' either means what it says, doesn't mean what it says, or kind of means what it says.   Well that's hardly helpful.

BUT WAIT!!      AHA!    EUREKA!!       JACKPOT!!!

Here we go, I've found the explanation for all of this.  G. K. Chesterton (creator of the short stories about Father Brown, the priest-detective,  and author of The Man Who was Thursday, among other things), said

I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.

Yes, I like that.  So -- you can do what you want, I'm going to have another cup of tea.

Friday, February 1, 2013

On libraries, and bookstores

Once upon a time, there were lots of little independent bookstores.  New book stores, used book stores, specialty book stores.  As time went on, a number of BIG bookstores began to develop.  There was Walden Books, B. Dalton, Powell's Books, Borders Books, and of course Barnes and Noble, as well as a host of others.  In some communities, the little bookstores were able to survive.  But in many instances, they just couldn't keep up with the big stores.  The big stores had more titles available, and typically had cheaper prices.  Many of the little bookstores closed, or were swallowed up by the big bookstores.  And even some of the big stores were forced to close, in part because of the BIGGER stores.

Recently, Barnes and Noble, the BIGGEST of the BIG stores, announced that they will be implementing a schedule of store closures, resulting in a significant reduction in total stores. The news made me sad. I like bookstores, although if they relied on my purchases alone, I can certainly understand why the closures are necessary.

You see, while I love books, I almost never buy books for myself. I get nearly all my reading material...  whether in the form of printed books, or digital ebooks for my Nook, or recorded books to listen to in the car... from the library.

When I was a young child, and first learning to read, we didn't have a library nearby.  BUT...  we DID have a bookmobile, which came to the neighborhood once a week.

I still have fond memories of going up and down the single aisle that ran down the middle of the vehicle.

When a library -- a real library! -- opened up, fairly close, I was beside myself with excitement!  We could go there any day of the week, and there was an entire building full of books.

But as much as I loved reading, I never felt the need to 'own' the books.  I read them once, and moved on.  Frankly, it was easier to choose books from the library, because I always knew it was a temporary choice.  Any book not chosen one week, could be chosen the following week when I returned.  On the occasions when I went to a bookstore, it was always very difficult, as I felt that all the books not chosen, were missed opportunities.

However, there's no question that bookstores serve a very important purpose.  As much as I don't care to own books, I do love giving books as gifts.  Sure, I could go online and order books that way, but unless I have a particular book in mind, I'd much rather walk up and down the aisles, select the books I want, and walk out of the store with my purchases in hand.  And of course there are a lot of people who do, indeed, want to own their books.

For me, personally, the closing of Barnes and Noble stores will have little effect.  I'll continue to go to the library, and I have confidence that, in one form or another, my Nook e-reader will continue to be a supported device, either by what remains of Barnes and Noble, or some spin off.  And the business plan that the company announced, is a decade-long plan.

But still.  I find myself saddened at this news.  It feels like the end of an era.

Time for some tea, and a good book.