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Category: Advice for Authors

The Write Software: OpenOffice vs. Microsoft Office

office vs openofficeThis may seem an unfair comparison, with Office a well-developed Microsoft backed software, and OpenOffice an open source free download. However, because of cost many authors are tempted to take this route. It comes down to the same questions we promised to explore in Part 1, and the issues we explored in Part 2 Mac vs. PC which you can view here.

No matter what platform you chose after part 2, or that you currently use, either software is available for PC or Mac.

Affordability. This is an easy win for the open source platform. OpenOffice is free, and can be installed on as many machines as you wish. Microsoft Office on the other hand, is not. Suites range from monthly subscription fees (with the relatively new Office 365 at $9.99 per month or $99.00 a year) to 139.99 for Office Home and Student all the way up to 399.99 for Office Professional. (See the Office buy page here) We’ll tackle which office suite you actually need later on, but suffice it to say that vs. the zero cost for OpenOfffice (downloadable here) the affordability choice is clear.

The OpenOffice suite contains Writer for document creation, Calc for spreadsheets, Impress to create presentations, Draw to produce diagrams and illustrations, Base for database creation and manipulation, and Math to perform mathematical equations and advanced functions. There is no e-mail client, although there are other options to manage mail. This is the equivalent of $200 of Microsoft Office software, or the new Office 365 subscription.

This alone explains why authors everywhere have chosen to use OpenOffice for years. Millions use it worldwide, although Microsoft still dominates the business market.

Screen shot Office and OpenOfficeLearnability. Both software suites have very friendly user interface modules, and offer user guides and tutorials. Because of the corporate backing of Microsoft Office and its corporate backing, there are more tutorials and support materials available. That being said, OpenOffice works on a very simple platform, and there are many forums and manuals available on line.  The manual for the new version is available here, but is still in the draft stage. The OpenOffice User Interface is very similar to Office. If you are a longtime Office aficionado, you will be up and running in no time.

In this category, Microsoft has the edge, but not by much. The only reason it edges OpenOffice is its widespread use and readily available educational support. Office has been king for a long time, and it will take time and innovation to unset it from the throne. However, remember when Word Perfect was the standard? Many of us struggled with the adaptation of the business world to Office. It is possible that another shift could take place, but more on that next.

Compatibility. Microsoft wants you to use their products and the plug ins and accessories for them exclusively. So there are times when quite deliberately they make it difficult for other programs to be compatible. It’s not cruel, it’s just business. That being said, let’s look at the issue in detail.

OpenOffice can open Microsoft Documents, even the new .docx formats, although occasionally some formatting or coding is lost in the transfer. OpenOffice can also save documents in the various Word formats. Its other components can open Microsoft formatted documents as well, with similar caveats. Word can also open and save in OpenOffice formats. Most features are compatible, and if you are doing simple memos or completed reports back and forth, it works well. Sounds perfect right? Before you download it and delete Word from your computer read on.

One of the primary features I use in Word as an editor, and even in my work on research and technical writing is twofold: Track Changes and Comments. OpenOffice has these features, and so does Office but the two are not compatible.  This is based on actual experimentation. If you save an OpenOffice document with track changes and comments, when you open the document in Word they will be lost. It is the same vice-versa. If you have a document with Track Changes saved in Word and you open the same program in OpenOffice, those features will be lost. What does this mean to you?

Quite often in business writing and editing, track changes and comments are how the authors and others working on the project communicate. If these changes disappear, a huge communication tool is lost, and it can take precious hours to “explain” things a different way or through more personal contact.

The solution? Well, since OpenOffice is free, you could get your client or your editor to download it and run both on their computer, right? Sure, but that creates issues. The programs tend not to play well together on a single PC, requiring finesse to set up default programs and avoid odd clashes between the two. Also, the client then has to remember that when dealing with you, they open documents a certain way as opposed to everyone else. A line on the OpenOffice website says: “Compatible with other file types for those still using Microsoft Office.” That is a large group of businesses, governments, and organizations.

Conclusion: What do you need? Microsoft holds the edge here, again barely. As a beginning author you can get by with OpenOffice, but when you enter paying markets it is often desirable to upgrade to the more commonly used Office. In the long run, the headaches it saves you will belay the cost. As more businesses adapt to open formats, and using Google Docs and other open source software becomes more common, it is possible that Office may be dethroned.

Even if you do go out and buy Microsoft Office, which of those fancy suites do you really need? We’ll tackle that question in our next segment.

OpenOffice isn’t out of the fight yet. Have your own experience to share? Let me know in the comments.

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Show Me a Story

inumber2We all love storytellers. My grandfather was one, and a good one. How do you tell a good story from a bad one? One thing makes the difference for me, and I bet it is for you too.

My 11 year old is a story teller too, but he has yet to perfect the craft. He tends to—well, ramble. He includes details that the listener doesn’t need to know, and frankly isn’t interested in. In the process he tends to leave things out that the listener might find relevant and need to know so the story makes sense.

We want to picture the story we are being told in our heads, whether it is told in a book or in person. We want to know what the person the story is about experienced. It’s the old author adage of “show, don’t tell.” Truthfully the truth lies closer to “show and tell” the old elementary school day that everyone looked forward to.

Get to the point. Today, I brought this pencil to my own show and tell. It may look ordinary, but it’s not. Whenever I write something down with it, whatever I write comes true, no matter how mundane or how fantastic. I wrote the words I love you with it, and handed them to my wife twenty years ago, and it’s still true today.

eraserAvoid long flowery descriptions. It’s just yellow stick with a graphite core and a #2 on the end closest to the metal thing that holds the eraser. The eraser works. If I erase what I wrote and if what I originally wrote can be undone, it is. The eraser has made me afraid more than once, and I use it cautiously now, especially after what I learned from my cat.

Build tension. My cat got hit by a car, and I ran to my room. I wrote “I hope Oreo lives forever.” I was young, and the pencil was new, and I didn’t know what forever meant. It wasn’t more than five years later that I went back and erased that sentence so Oreo could move on. He was lame by then, and that’s also when I discovered it’s not always better to live.

Oh yes. I keep the journal, with everything I write with the pencil. I didn’t always, but I learned quickly it was a good idea. And sometimes, like today, I erase only parts of what I wrote, and fill in with new, better words. Words with clearer meaning.

Skip the parts that readers tend to skip. Oreo is dead. So are my parents. I’m sitting here, wondering what to write next, now that I know when I’m supposed to die and how. It’s easier to write things down when they are about others, not about me. I touch the now stubby pencil to the elderly, blue-lined journal page, and write the word “please.” It seems like a good start.

Leave the reader wanting more. Want to know then end of the story? Stay tuned.

 

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The Write Software: Mac vs. PC

pc-vs-mac_dsc_8015_mhughes_croppedThis post is not to add fuel to the big overall debate of Mac vs. PC. It’s to explore it in only one area, that of writing. Also, it will not be conclusive. Why? There’s no “write” answer. There is a right answer for you, but your choice may not be the same as someone else’s. We’re going to evaluate the first step in the process of choosing the write software by looking at the primary machine options.

Affordability: Mac’s are more expensive than PC’s when it comes to initial investment. However, as far as long term viability is concerned, Mac’s tend to last longer. They are upgradeable, but so are PC’s. Another debate for another post: Mobile vs. Desktop determines which machine will work best for you. What else you want to do with your machine, and what kind of writing do you do? Do you need video capability? Graphics? Programming? What markets do you write for? Also which platform is best depends on what kind of software you want to run: Pages or Microsoft Word, Scrivener or other “writer specific” software, all of which we will look at over time.

The bottom line on affordability is this: if you already own a PC, switching to Mac will be costly. Die hard Mac fans will tell you that once you make the switch, you won’t go back to PC ever. So conversely, if you already own a Mac, including an iPhone, iPad, or other iDevices, switching to PC can be costly, and you can experience compatibility issues, but more on that in a moment. If however you are relatively new to the computer world, and you don’t already own software licenses and exclusive hardware, you have to look at your short term budget, long term budget, and what you think your future needs might be.

One final note that may sway you the Mac direction: Mac can run Windows in a couple of different ways. I won’t get into the tech details here, other than to say it can be done, so all of your programs could transfer. If you are determined to make the switch, this can be a way to solve some issues.

Another note is that you may not need anti-virus programs with Mac, although they are still a good idea, especially if you run Windows in some form on your machine. There just aren’t as many viruses written for Mac, primarily because government agencies and companies tend to run PC, and those people are better targets for hackers.

MacPCLearnability: How easy is each system to learn? I recently when through this debate, and here is the bottom line. The new Mac Operating System (currently Maverick 10.9 released this month) is very similar to the previous OS. It is fairly easy to adapt. The converse? Every time Microsoft updates an OS there comes with a learning curve and countless updates as they fix things they did not fix before the initial release. Apple tends to sort those things out ahead of time.

Other than that, most programs are written to be fairly intuitive. My word of caution: there are some programs that you need to spend time with before you truly become familiar with them. Spend an afternoon or morning on tutorials. If nothing else, they will teach you shortcuts and tricks you would not otherwise learn.

Either machine can be learned, and the more tech-savvy you are, the easier adapting will be. Mac is much more consistent than PC, and its operating systems are fairly intuitive.

Compatibility: This was the number one decision point for me, because of the other things I do, and who my clients are for certain products. Yes, you can run Windows and most Microsoft programs on Mac, but if you work in a dedicated PC environment, there are some file types that do not translate. You need to use different formatting for portable hard drives and thumb drives to be compatible. If it is just you, and you run all Mac products, you will fare well.

If you work with publishers and editors on a regular basis, you will still need Microsoft Office, at least Word. There are solutions for this dilemma, but remember, only 19% of people run Apple, and most businesses run PC. This means some of the features in Pages may not be compatible with Word, and advanced features commonly used like Comments and Track Changes may not translate. This simply means you must either by the Mac version of Office, or run Windows on your Mac. There are other program compatibility issues as well, and we will tackle those in later software posts.

This is one of the longer posts in the series. So what’s the bottom line? Depending on what else you do with your machine, and what others in your household run, you may want to stick with either Mac or PC. Also if you already own software and other compatible devices, you may want to also consider that.

Your short term budget may determine what you buy. Shop around, make hands on comparisons, and if you have questions feel free to leave them in the comments, or contact me here.

Until next time.

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Jumping the Shark

You know those moments when a book or a series of books just goes a little too sideways? When the author uses some crazy plot twist to make things work, as a substitute for good writing? Well, I happens to every writer from time to time. There are even terms for it, but my favorite has to be “Jumping the Shark.” Why? Because I remember the episode well.

It was Hollywood (Part 3) from Happy Days originally aired September 20, 1977. In parts one and two, the Cunninghams accompanied Fonzie (Henry Winkler) to Hollywood as he’s been discovered and a director thinks he is the next James Dean. Turns out, they like Ritchie (Ron Howard) and want to sign him to a 5 year contract. He must decide between Hollywood and college. The Fonz is challenged by the ‘California Kid’ (Hollywood’s equivalent Fonz) to perform a dangerous stunt, jumping a shark on water skis. (Watch an excerpt from the episode below)

Fonzie was cool, but never a water skier. However, clad in swim trunks, a life preserver belt strapped over his signature leather jacket, he climbed on to the skis, and did it. Horrible. Even as a kid, I thought it was horrible.  But did I stop being a fan of ‘Happy Days’? No.

Infused with some better writing, the series went on to be successful until 1984, and then went into syndication. Old episodes actually were re-aired on ABC while new episodes were being filmed, and were titled “Happy Days Again.” Overall the series  aired for 10 years, from 1974 top 1984, and ran in syndication for years.

Someone tell you this book or this story of yours doesn’t work for them. Maybe they even say they are no longer a fan of yours? Take heart. Maybe you just ‘jumped the shark.’ Maybe they just don’t like that story, or certain words that you used. However, maybe, just maybe you’re the next Happy Days, and will go on to great success for years to come.

 Your useless trivia fact for the day, brought to you by troylambertwrites.com, and the Samuel Elijah Johnson series. Also thanks to the letter “e” without which this post would have been impossible.

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George and the Achievers Part 2:

What Authors (and others) Can Learn About Marketing from the Achievers and George Takei

Part 2: Make the Connection

lost puzzle pieceIn part one of this series we introduced The Achievers and George Takei, two completely different types of internet phenomena. We looked at their core audience. You can read that post here.

So they had a solid fan base: core fans. You have them too, whether you are an author, or a business. How do you connect them? They may be scattered all over the world. What tools do you use to bring them together?

Internet Forums. The achievers used the birth of social media: an internet forum to share the word about their passion. Fans gathered around a little known film released in the late 1990’s, and found they had more in common then they at first realized. Some even made love connections in the group. More modern forms of these include Goodreads, Kindle Discussion Boards, and Facebook Groups.

Facebook. Originally a social media outlet similar to MySpace, Facebook took off and became an advertisers dream: millions of reachable customers and fans all gathered in one giant stadium. The problem is, you are one hot dog vendor among thousands, and your customers are scattered throughout the seats. How do you get them to come to you, to “sit” in your section? Once they sit there, how do you make them all want to buy your hot dogs? George has used this with amazing success. He has over 3.8 million “likes” and 3.5 million of those talking about and sharing his posts!

Twitter. In 140 characters or less, you need to get a message out there. A message that compels, that speaks to a specific group, and a message that they will see and share. George has over 600,000 followers. And those who say you have to follow to get followers? Look at George’s balance here: 622,000 followers, he follows 57. He may be the exception to the rule, but you don’t have to follow those you don’t want to follow to glean followers.

These are the tools: Now how do you use them? In part three we will discuss this, but here is the basic premise, and therefore your homework. Have a message. Every day have something new to say. Pretty tough? Yes, tougher than it looks.

Last week, you started to follow George on Facebook if you weren’t already doing it. You were supposed to pay attention to what he posted and when. This week? Do the same with Twitter. Follow George here and just observe: What does he post? When? What gets Retweeted? Favorited?  Let’s see what we can learn from those who are already doing something well.

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George and the Achievers

What Authors (and others) Can Learn About Marketing from the Achievers and George Takei

Part 1: Your Core Audience

ent37How does a star of a television program that aired in the late 1960’s rise in social media to have 3.8 million followers, sell out a musical performed at the Globe in San Francisco about Japanese citizen interment in the United States during World War II, and influence opinion nationwide about marriage equality and LBGT rights?

How do Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt go from tattoo vendors at a convention in 2002 to international sensations by 2009, hosting conventions centered around a movie released in March of 1998 with minimal success and a small cult following?

You’ve written a great book. The people who have read it that are not your

 mother, father,

 brother, sister, cousin . . . you get the idea, have told you so. Not enough of them have read it though. How do you get it noticed? How do you go from a small book with a

small cult following to an international sensation? What can we learn from the two examp

les above?

 

Disclaimer: I am not a master marketer. I am just learning some of these things myself. I don’t have 3.8 million followers, and I haven’t filled a convention center in Las Vegas with 4,000 people to watch an old movie together and quote movie lines. I’m just a writer like you, trying to tap into the mystery.

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What George and the Achievers have in common:  Both started with a core group of fans, gathered around a single idea. George started with Trekkies. Basically a core group of geeks who followed one television series. (Yes, I am one. So what?)

The Achievers began as two guys who loved the movie The Big Lebowski and started quoting movie lines back and forth at a tattoo convention. They noticed they weren’t the only ones quoting lines, and decided to have a party at a local bowling alley, where fans could bowl and watch the movie while drinking White Russians. By 2009 there were gatherings around the world, and fans were traveling thousands of miles to “official” conventions.

The secret? They both started with a core group of fans, centered around one thing they had in common. When those people gathered, they found they had other things in common. George expanded his audience by embracing one of his passions. It may have alienated some, but it gained him a great following.

So how do you do the same thing? Ask yourself: what do all of your fans have in common? What is a passion they all share, that would also appeal to other people and draw them to your work?

A hint: the common factor is not your book. Not yet. What’s the theme of your book, the central idea, that would draw people to read it? Why did you write your story, and why does it resonate with others?

Of course, this is only the first step that both George and the Achievers took to build a fan base. We will look at the next step next week. Until then, you have homework. Follow George on Facebook if you don’t already, and watch what he posts and when. Second, watch the documentary The Achievers and watch their idea take off. Here’s a link to the trailer. Now write on!

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I Wrote a Book and No One’s Reading It!

megaphone-man01I hear writers say it all the time. It starts with the release party, which they expect to be a huge success with a huge draw. I always cross my fingers hoping for their sake that it will be. Unfortunately when it isn’t, the author is usually shocked. “I built a platform,” they say. “I have followers and friends on Facebook. Why didn’t they all buy my book?” We’ve been talking about this in a few writers’ groups and here are some of the common mistakes authors make, and why their books don’t sell more.

Most of your friends/followers are fellow authors. When I first started on Facebook I did the same thing. So while my friends list is well populated, there are a lot of authors’ names there. Those authors are struggling with the same thing I am: finding readers. Because they are connected to other authors. Who are connected to authors. On the cycle goes.

What woke me up was after a media blitz I asked myself the simple question: “When is the last time you bought a book because it was in a promo from anther author?” Other that authors that I have already read their work (and thus become a reader or a fan if you will) I can’t remember. I find new fiction through publishers and friend recommendations, but rarely through a “cold” promo even from a fellow author. Other writers are just like you. Most have day jobs, are trying to write so they’re busy and don’t read many new authors especially outside their chosen genre, and are trying to cultivate readers of their own.

Smart Reviewers, readers, and other authors don’t promote work they haven’t read, or when they don’t know (and trust) the author. “Please retweet” or “share with your friends” works with some readers, but most feel they have a reputation to protect. I want readers to know that if I recommend a book it is because I like it, and I like it because the writing, editing and story are solid. What you recommend reflects back on your writing and your reputation. Don’t promote randomly to get followers, and don’t expect others to either. I’ve read dozens of books in the last couple of years. I’ve left 23 reviews on Amazon/Goodreads, etc. The reviews I do are few and far between (I won’t leave negatives unless the work is totally offensive, but will contact the author and let them know what I think if I know them well enough).

True readers don’t just download a book because it’s free. Okay, Kindle Select can do something for your rankings temporarily. But as a marketing tool from a business standpoint, it only makes sense if you have other “paid” items that your free book drives them to. Those that do download books just because they are free aren’t real readers. They may drive your numbers, but they won’t glean you reviews, and they won’t bring you future sales. There is a strategy to giveaways, and if you’re going to do them, get good advice and follow it.

The best thing you can do to build a stronger reader base is to write more. Read this great article by Hugh Howey and his advice to aspiring authors. Write your book. Send it off to a small press or publish it yourself. (More on the big six another time). Then continue to write and promote your work. No one will market it but you. Keep at it long enough, and the readers will come.

Remember, there is no such thing as overnight success. If it came overnight, likely it came after a long period of hard work that finally paid off. Keep Calm, and Write On.

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Why Use the F-Bomb?

 

f_bomb

It’s a fair question. A variety of people read your writing. Why would you alienate some by using certain words? What’s the purpose? It goes along with one of the ten cardinal rules for writing: Use Dialect Sparingly. What does that mean?

 

First, certain people use the f-word and others don’t. In Redemption Sam Johnson uses it with some frequency. He also has a certain dialect. However, Sam has just spent 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. If you had spent that much time in prison, you might say F**K too. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “My characters speak coarsely because people in real life speak coarsely.” However, if your character is a Harvard educated librarian, and she uses the f-bomb outside of extraordinary circumstances because you want to shock your reader, delete that scene and start over. Only use such words realistically.

 

Don’t overuse the salt. Dialect and cuss words are like salt in the pages of a book. Some adds flavor, and too much ruins the plot. Your characters don’t have to speak proper grammar all of the time in dialogue and it’s okay if they cuss. But don’t turn your reader off by overusing it to the point where they are tired of it. Foul language has gained more acceptance in modern fiction, however moderation is the key.

 

Suspend disbelief. Your job as an author is to make me believe, just for a little while, that what you say is happening in your book is really happening. You want it to play like a movie in my skull. You want me anxious to see the next scene, to long for the finish, not dread the next time your character opens his mouth. This is a tough lesson to learn, and if I could have some of my young writing back, I would likely do some things differently.


What’s the answer then?
Use the f-word or any other cuss words like dialect or salt in a soup. Don’t overuse them. Do use the f-word for sailors and prisoners, don’t use it for librarians and old maids. Think about your reader. Is this believable? Will they forgive your use of the word here even if they don’t like it because it feels real? If you can answer “yes” you’re probably on the right track.

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