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Month: October 2013

What Would Jesus Do? The Happily Ever Afterlife Negative Comment

seek-truthMost of the time I am genuinely a nice guy. I like to help people, do things for good causes, and give back when I can. I’m not rich, but I have enough. I also can give my writing and my talents. Some people think I am too hard on organized religion and churches, and I admit I do have a bias and a certain measure of bitterness.

I messed up too. Yes, I’ve been the church teacher. I’ve been the leader, and I’ve even lived in hypocrisy. For those years I am truly sorry to those I hurt without knowing better. But I matured and I learned, and I now I give back, but not in the confines of a “church” or as a “Christian.” I’ve come to question the very foundations “the church” is based on, and found them lacking.

museum cautionGiving Back. That being said, I’ve spent the last four years where my only “day job” was for a non-profit. Recently I started a charity drive around one of my stories in an anthology as I’m sure many of you know. Proceeds go to Boston Children’s Hospital, and even if you don’t want to buy the book, you can give directly to the cause here. You can even buy t-shirts the publisher helped design here. There are a variety of ways to give, but even if you can’t afford to help at all, even by buying a book, you can share the link with your friends who may be able too. I’m not even asking everyone to participate. So why this post?

Backlash. I’ve only gotten one negative message on the page so far. I won’t use names, but if you are around the promotion groups on Facebook you have seen her, and her “bombed with five star reviews” posts. The first message from her was basically “I already liked your page, now like mine.” I did and then posted this: “Thank you. This page is for a charity giveaway. Please consider donations, buying books, or just spreading the word about this event for a great cause.”

The “Christian” response: “Living hands to mouth daily. Unable to give. Please don’t ask me again.” Not to pick apart the grammar, I was shocked. I certainly didn’t intend to ask her again. The purpose of the page is not to boost anyone’s likes, mine included. It is to raise money for a worthy cause. Her blog had a recent post: Blessings Abound When …” Not to edit that post, or the phrase under her photo: “Writing for Fulfill The Great Commission.” (That is an exact quote, capitalization and all). No matter what else she writes, I’m not inclined to follow whatever creed she ascribes to. With her response, I’m not sure her commission is that “Great” after all.

t shirt backDo no harm. I don’t share her name here, or bash her book, although I might suggest proofreading mission statements and blog posts (I’m sure someone will find an error or two in this one now), but I don’t know her circumstances, background, etc. so I won’t put her down. I’m told to love my neighbor, and like it or not she is in my neighborhood, so I can’t throw stones. I’m sure in some contexts she is a wonderful person. Listen, I know you can’t embrace all causes and support everything you are invited to. I have to pick and choose. I love dogs, adults, kids, and starving tribes in Africa. But I had to pick one charity, and I let my readers pick mine so I wouldn’t play favorites.

BCH T-shirt LogoMake a difference: I’m one guy. But you are one person too, and you can make a difference. You can share the causes of others. You never know who will be the one to spark a fire, and really make a huge impact, maybe one of your friends. Sometimes though, you just have to say no. But if you are going to say you are a follower of Jesus, please be polite about it.

For that matter, if you are going to claim to be a follower of anyone, or if you are just a human, stop damaging our reputation. Be nice. You may not be able to help every time with everything. But at least be nice when you say “no thanks.”

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The Write Software: WriteWay

If you have followed this series at all you know that I have my software favorites, and I’m not shy about saying so. Also you know that I try to evaluate these programs fairly, based on how affordable they are, how easy they are to learn, and how well they work. In most cases, I highly recommend you download demos when possible, and try the programs for yourself.

These creative writing programs do not replace your word processor. They are merely tools to enhance your ability to create. None of them write your book for you, and editing and formatting are best done in programs set up for that purpose. There are some better suited to writers and the way their brains work than others. WriteWay is one of those, although as you will see it is more suited to outliners than those of you who are “pantsters.”

priceAffordability: WriteWay Pro runs about $35-$40 although the reason for the timing of these posts is NaNo is right around the corner, and if you follow their posts and join the event on their website, you will often get discount offers on this and other programs (although you should have already been prepping for Nano. See this post from Kristen Lamb for more on preparing). This falls right in line with other software, including the one I use the most, Scrivener. It is less expensive than Character Writer which we explored here, but does not have the same features.


WritewayRibbonLearnability: The user interface on this program is very intuitive. The ribbon includes tabs for scenes, story boarding, characters, composition, research, and more. These pop open in separate windows that you can move and resize, allowing you to still work on your manuscript while viewing them, although the split screen is not as intuitive as it should be, and the placement of the windows sometimes less than ideal. That being said, one of the greatest features of this program is a word count/goal tracker.

Wordtracker

Clicking on this pops out a separate window like the one above. It allows you to set goals, both daily and overall, and tracks progress for you. To see where you really are for NaNo? This is a fantastic tool, and will either keep you on target or drive you to drink. As an author, either way you win!

One minor issue in this category is user support. The program makers do not have the best support system, there are not many forums online, and sometimes help just isn’t—well, that helpful. If you are a nerd like me, that’s okay. Most of the time you can figure it out. If you aren’t you might want to factor the help or lack thereof into your purchase.

Compatibility. Here is the Achilles heel of this software. You can save your work in some common formats, but there is no offering of this software for Mac. No, you did not read that wrong. A creative writing software that will not work on your Mac or the popular portable platform the iPad? Yep, unless you are also running Windows on your Mac (something we discussed here) you are out of luck.

The End (so to speak). So is this software worthwhile? Well it could be, but for the money features and support are somewhat limited. However, if you like the format, and it helps you be more productive creatively, it could be a good fit for you. My official recommendation? Look around the website, and download the demo here. Try if for a bit, and see what you think.

Just do it before NaNo. I catch you wasting your writing time playing with software in November, you may be in trouble.

Until next time.

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The Write Software: Comments and Track Changes

Over the past number of posts, I’ve stressed the importance of Track Changes and Comments as desirable features in your word processor. It is one of the main reasons I like Microsoft Word, especially for editing. Sometimes authors and business professionals look at me and ask: What are Comments and Track Changes and how do I use them? So what follows is a brief explanation and instruction manual. Once you know these things are available it is hard not to use them.

Comments: Comments are a way to pass notes back and forth, like sticky notes posted to certain sections or even words in a manuscript. So open your copy of word, and click on the review tab. You will see this:

Comments

You’ll notice in the screenshot above that I left myself a comment. I amused myself, and wanted to let myself know. (No comments from you, I know I’m schizophrenic but so am I) The comment box shows who made the comment, and when. This is a part of the document’s Meta Data.

Also take note that Track Changes is highlighted showing that it is active, and that the drop down box next to it says “All Markup”, the one below it says “Show Markup”. The one below that one that says “Reviewing Pane” we will look at later. Under those menus, you have options. For Markup you can choose from the menu No Markup, Simple Markup, or All Markup. All Markup is the best, because it shows changes and comments both you and the person you are working with on the other end make.

Markup Menus

Under Show Markup you can choose what you want the program to show you, from specific people, format changes, etc. Most of the time you want to show everything from everyone. There are few instances where you may not want everything visible, but most users will rarely encounter these. If this is confusing to you, just leave everything checked, including comments and balloons.

Now look at the screenshot below. You can see that I have made a change: I confused “you’re” with “your” and caught it. I also left myself a comment. Notice that I can “see” what I changed, just as you will be able to see what your editor has changed. This way you do not have to compare the file they send you with the one you sent them. The differences show up usually in red, but sometimes blue. This lets you know what they changed, but it does something much more important.

TrackchangesYou can accept or reject the change. Often editors make what we call “editorial suggestions.” These are not grammar or punctuation issues, but “rewording” of phrases or sentences that we think make your work stronger, sound better, or just work better for us. You can “reject” these changes. There are two ways to do this: you can hover your cursor over the area, right click, and then a dialogue box appears. Click on “accept insertion/deletion” to accept or on “reject” to reject. (Don’t worry, I’ve been rejected plenty of times)

revision pane1

Or you can turn on the Reviewing Pane. You can do this vertically or horizontally like I have done here. This shows you all the changes that have been made in the document, who made them, and when. Clicking on one of these changes in the reviewing pane takes you to that place in the document, and then you can either accept or reject that change using the accept/reject buttons up on the ribbon.

acceptrejectbuttonsThat’s a simple overview of these features. You can readily see from these examples how useful these can be. So why does the program you are using matter? Don’t many programs have these features?

Yes, they do. But if you and your editor or collaborator are using different programs, these advanced features may not translate. Why? This is due to coding, or the way these features are programmed. Microsoft especially is very proprietary about their programming, because they want you (and all of the business world) to keep buying and using their products.

Some programs do not have either of these features, and some have only one or the other. Alternatives to Word and Office are emerging (Most notably from Google) and we will explore some of those as we go along. But for now there’s your less on for the day. Play with these features, and learn to use them. In the long run they will become some of your best software friends.

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To MFA or Not to MFA: What a Silly Question


Master-of-Fine-ArtsIf this is such a silly question, why do I keep asking it of myself?
I know the answer. I don’t like it, but I know it. Ready? I work as an author, editor, researcher, technical writer, and teacher. In that role I tackle complex subjects, including geology, hydrology, natural resources conservation, history, English language uses, literature, and more. I don’t have the ‘paper’ degree to go with any of those things. So when I opened my Poets and Writer’s Magazine and saw that it was the MFA issue, my heart sank. Like Titanic, without all the romance or the iceberg.

Most of the time I don’t give a hoot about degrees or letters, but people keep asking me where I did my graduate work. When I tell them I didn’t do any, and in fact I also didn’t finish my undergraduate degree, jaws drop. There is no BA, BS, or any other letters after my name. Just plain Troy Lambert, he of many previous professions, currently self-employed and a proclaimed autodidact and polymath. Those are two of my favorite intellectual words, recently brought to the front of my mind by a friend. What do they mean, and why do they qualify me to do anything at all?

polymath

A polymath: a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. Let me give you a life example, and please don’t take it as bragging. It illustrates my shotgun approach to both my education and my past careers: what has led me here. In my most recent ‘job’ as the Museum Operations Specialist at the Wallace Mining Museum (a made up title meaning I do it all) I designed a new exhibit area using CAD. I presented it to a funding partner using PowerPoint and an animation software. I then drew up plans which the director submitted to the building inspector. To obtain grants I did materials estimates for the granting agencies. When we got funding, I then built the exhibit area with my own hands, supervising the two individuals who helped me. I then assisted in populating the exhibit, writing much of the language used in the displays.

Let’s see: design, presentation, project management, material estimates, supervision, construction, and authorship all on a single project. Yes. Am I insane? Yes. But how did I have the knowledge to execute all those tasks and do them well? Because of the next term.

AHAYES-Autodidact-300x385Autodidacticism is self-directed learning that is related to but different from informal learning. In a sense, autodidacticism is “learning on your own” or “by yourself”, and an autodidact is a self-teacher. Autodidacticism is only one facet of learning, and is usually, but not necessarily, complemented by learning in formal and informal spaces. So where did I learn CAD? I’m self-taught, with a few formal courses. Same with GIS. Project management I learned through a series of management positions in various professions. I’ve always been mechanically inclined, and learned a great deal of carpentry from my grandfather. Writing and research? Well, those come as naturally to me as breathing.

So why didn’t I get a degree? I have no idea. I finished tech school (yes, I’m also a certified motorcycle mechanic) but not college. I guess I just never made it a priority. I’m not sure that any one person can gain enough knowledge in enough subjects today to be truly called a ‘Renaissance Man,’ but you can know where to find the answers, and how to learn.

schoocloudI think there are a plethora of people who could be self-taught in more areas than they are. There’s a whole bunch of educators that believe it too, so strongly that they are creating schools centered on the idea. So many friends who have degrees find them almost meaningless in what they really do every day. So why do I need a degree to do what I do now?

I don’t. The days when I think that way are the days when I focus on others and what they might think. I consider the credibility that letters might add to my name on a plaque on a desk somewhere. Then I wake up, realize I don’t even want that, and recognize that every time I can talk to someone about what I do and what they want me to do in a real situation they recognize ability, and welcome my enthusiasm.

So far, none of them have asked to see my papers. If you think you need to go back to school, go for it. But me? I think I’ll take history of world religion again. I hear the professor is an interesting guy. Right after I teach myself to write apps and read The Jesus Papers one more time.

Watch the video below to learn about the School in the Cloud, and the movement to teach kids to teach themselves.

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The Write Software: Character Writer

RedshirtexpendabilityCharacter Writer is currently in its 3.1 version, and while it will also help you organize your writing, it has some other very impressive features. It was my first foray in to the Writer Organization/Character Creation software.

Affordability: This software runs $69.99 normally, but you can often find it on sale and it is often offered at a discount during NaNoWriMo, at writers’ conferences, etc. You can download a trial version here with no time limit on its use, however some portions of the program are disabled, such as saving and printing. This does give you opportunity to see if this is something you might use. Sound a bit pricey? Read on.

Learnability: The opening screen looks like this:

CWScreenshot1

The User Interface is fairly intuitive. This software is primarily designed to help you flesh out your characters. How does it do that? It uses a method called Enneagram which is used by psychiatrists and psychologists to define the details of people’s character. Enneagram divides people’s personalities into nine distinctive categories with two subcategories in each. This allows you to explore the psychology of your character by adding disorders and distinctive traits. The program then helps you by providing editable details about that person and how they would react to everyday situations.  It also assists you in predicting how they would interact with other characters in similar circumstances. Plot ideas? Subplot ideas? You get them here.

Don’t have an idea for a character? Hit the Generate Instant Character Button. Now you have a basic character sketch with a name and some randomly generated details. Fairly useful for minor characters like Star Trek Red Shirts.

The Generate Story Points will create a possible scenario for your character, thus generating plot ideas for you. Don’t like that idea? Click again and create another story idea, or customize it with your own details.

Compatibility: This is a writing tool. This is not a word processor replacement, nor is it designed to be the place where you create your story. It can be a good companion, but exports and imported text are converted to rtf format. Your italics and clever spacing from your Word doc? Gone. That isn’t always a bad thing, but something you need to be aware of.  The built in “fully featured” word processor is far from “fully functional” but that’s not your primary reason to purchase. This is a creativity platform best suited in aiding and finding inspiration.

Bottom Line: Is it worth it? I’ve tried dozens of “clever” software for various purposes. This one works as promised, I still own and use it. If you have trouble fleshing out those minor characters or if you just want an easier way to do it, this software is right for you. The time and effort it may save you will in the long run pay for itself. Watch the video below for an overview.

Now get out there and sell some books. You need to earn $70. (Watch for the NaNo special offers. It is how I got mine). Until next time.

Character Writer 3.1 Overview from Writers Store on Vimeo.

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The Write Software: Organizing your Writing With Software

nanowrimo-word-cloudAs writers, NaNoWriMo will soon be upon us, and inevitably software companies offer free trials and reduced software prices to us in the hope we will switch to using their software as our primary writing platform, and tell our friends about it as well.

These types of software help you organize your ideas, character sketches, plot outlines, and sometimes offer distraction free writing interfaces designed to keep you focused on creating. So how are these different from Word Processors like Word, Pages, or the OpenOffice equivalent?

This software are not a replacement for your Word Processor. Why? Well, if you have been following this series, you already know that programs lie Word, Pages, and OpenOffice offer powerful features that are unmatched in other programs. The majority of writer organization tools are just that: they help the writer stay organized. When it comes time to format for submission or publishing, you still need features offered by a Word processor, and you will need some of those advanced features to work with your editor and publisher. So why bother with these?

Search-for-talentResearch. Organization programs keep your research at your fingertips, so there is no need to keep several documents or especially those always distracting browser windows open. This also allows you to go “paperless” with your research and scene notes. Often these are contained on “digital” notecards easily accessed from a single program. No need for corkboard everywhere, or an overly cluttered desk.

cluitteredOrganization. These “cards” can be sorted by subject, title, and type, thus keeping them easy to find in the digital “piles” where you put them. Instead of minutes spent shuffling through them, often they can be accessed in seconds, giving you the potential to be more productive. Entire documents and otherwise organized scenes remain at your fingertips. No more searching your hard drive (or worse, your file cabinet) for them.

Continuity. You named that minor character Cindy in Chapter One, but now in Chapter Thirteen, she feels like a Mandy. She had blue eyes, but now they are brown. And what color was her hair anyway? Her eyes? You could flip back to Chapter One in your single word processing file, or if you have saved each chapter as a single file, you could open that file and look there. Or you may have created “Character Sketch” files. You could open that and look. Or even more old school, you created note cards. Where did you put them? Or you could click on the character sketch in your organization software, and look there. Seconds later, you have your answer, and you can keep writing without interrupting the flow, or with nagging questions in your mind distracting you from moving the plot forward.

Write out of order. Got a great idea for a scene? Suddenly know the ending? No need to open another document. Simply write it in a new scene in your organization software and save it for when you need it. No need to name the file cleverly, or even remember what you named it and where you stashed it. When you are done, go right back to where you were writing before your muse ran down a rabbit trail.

softwareSounds good right? It does. There are many programs out there, and many software designers willing to take your money. But some of them are better than others, and some will work well for you and not for others either. I have my favorite, and we’ll look at that one and the many others along the way.

We’ll evaluate them much the same as we have software already: affordability, learnability, but above all functionality: specifically what does it do for you, and does it do it in a way that helps rather than hinders your process.

Stay tuned. We’ll evaluate CharacterWriter, WriteWay, Page Four, and my favorite, Scrivener.

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The Write (Mac) Software: Microsoft Word vs. Pages

IamMacThrough the process described in earlier posts, you’ve chosen Mac over PC, or perhaps you already have one. You‘ve looked at OpenOffice, and decided it’s not right for you. But Mac has this great app, very affordable, and it’s a pretty damn good software. You’re right! And then again. . . Affordability. Pages appears to win hands down. For $20 you own it. That being said, Pages is just a word processing app, like Word, but not part of a larger Office suite. Spreadsheet, Presentations, and other software similar to Office is offered in the Mac store, each at about $20. If you buy each app from Apple you will spend nearly the same as an equivalent Office suite. This is another situation where it’s necce3ssary to evaluate what you need, and what you’ll actually use. You can price Pages and Office for Mac software here. word-vs-pagesLearnability. Pages is very intuitive, and excellent software. It is easy to use: if you are a long time Word user you will be navigating effortlessly within minutes. I tested it at a local Mac store, and was quickly impressed. Adapting to the controls should be very easy, especially if you already use other Mac based programs. The User Interface and menus are good, but the program is not overly cluttered, and the controls do not detract from its primary purpose: word processing. A side note: if you are creating documents for presentation or research, Word leaps ahead with additional functionality, and better shapes and templates. For the straight fiction writer, it will suit your needs well. Compatibility. Is Pages compatible with Word? Yes! To a point. The only places it loses on are the same advanced features where other software is not compatible. Track changes and comments do not translate between the two programs. Again, as both an editor and an author, and someone who works with governments and businesses who are staunchly PC, I need those advanced features to translate. Do you? Well, you might at some point. What I have found with compatibility is this: the more professional environments you find yourself in, the more you need the advanced features and compatibility of Word and other Office components. There are other options, to be explored later. If you like Pages there may be no issue with you using it as your primary writing software. Conclusion: What do you need? This is a constant debate. Need vs. Want. Office has excellent suites that are compatible with Mac, and if you find yourself in the business world, and moving toward a more professional writing career, this may be the answer for you. But to be fair, for writing and word processing? Pages can be a great choice, especially on portable devices such as the iPad and Macbook Air. However, at the moment Microsoft has a strong hold on the business world. Pages may work for you now, but until corporate America changes you may need Office at some point. More on that in another post.

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The Hidden Sacrifice

Heritage and the Government Shut Down

museum cautionBeen to a museum lately? How much did you pay to get inside? Ever think about where the money comes from to keep them running? Many used to be privately funded, but that changed in the last 50 years or so. As a writer who works for heritage organizations and is paid by Federal dollars routed through them, the “Big Shutdown” affects me directly too. Don’t worry. I’m not starving, but it hurts. So what happened?

Private Funding. Private funding for museums used to come from generous individuals, and most often their estates. Many who founded museums in the 1950’s and 60’s did so for the tax benefit: a museum was a great tax shelter. Many set up heritage trusts, especially in rural areas, specifically designed around historic site preservation and education: thus the IRS 501(c)3 status of many museums. But that generation has slowly been replaced by a younger one that for whatever reason feels more entitled. Private donations to museums and historical societies fell off sharply. In short, most were in real financial trouble.

102_4697Admission Fees. I admit, I was an admission fee snob until I worked for a museum. We build a world class attraction, one of the best small museums in the state and region, spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in an effort to preserve the history of Wallace, Idaho, and Idaho’s Silver Valley, one of the nation’s premier mining areas. We weren’t the only ones. Heritage tourism is big in the area where Big Ed Pulaski fought the 1910 fires, and where Wyatt Earp spent a few short months. Yet when people walked in they regularly baulked at the admission price: $3.

102_2898That’s right. Three lousy bucks to see, in my opinion, one of the coolest museums you will ever visit. Many were used to publicly funded museums on the east coast, where admission was free. But if the government shut down illustrates one thing, it is that those museums are no freer than the small one in Wallace. They are just paid for differently. I remember one woman who walked in and threatened to call her congressman, because she had to pay to get in. I asked her to please do so, perhaps he would send us some money.

Federal Grants. Many museums shifted from relying on Federal Grants rather than private donations or private grants. The private money just wasn’t there any more. That’s why, as the budget gets cut, museums close early, shorten hours, and sometime stop accepting donations and go into what they call “collections care” mode. Citizens have come to expect museums to be dependent on Federal money that is one of the first things cut in almost any budget. Not to mention state and county budgets, where there is now almost no room for these “non-essential” services. That’s why the Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane nearly shut its doors a few years back and drastically reduced operating hours and staff. Federal grants that were cut from the budget funded nearly 75% of their operation.

1995 closeupAnd federal contracts for reports necessary for the preservation of history and archeology at various sites? You guessed it. They get cut too. And when the government shuts down, they go away. Many of these reports are funded by trusts and other methods to protect them. Those trusts are getting smaller or disappearing all together. How do you think those trusts performed when you lost half of your retirement? You guessed it again. They fared no better than your 401k.

Here’s a final hint. We can’t learn from history if we do not preserve it. If we do not learn from it, we are doomed to repeat it. Remember the election after the shutdown 17 years ago? Remember the turnover in the House and Senate? That’s history. This is today. I’m sure there are no lessons to be learned there.

Now if anyone asks you if you know someone that is directly affected by the government shut down, you can say yes. Then look around, and realize that even if it doesn’t seem like this is a big deal, it affects all of us in the long run.

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