Archives for January 2016

This Is My Experience

I’ve had a number of comments and private messages about my rant about my MacBook Pro. People have pointed out that their Macs are reliable and they’ve never had a problem with them. People have also told me that their PCs are very unreliable. My initial response has been that’s all well and good, but it’s not been my experience.

On reflection my sour response is not really fair. My friends and commenters are simply telling me what has happened to them, just as I am telling them what has happened to me. They clearly live in a world where their Macs are trusted partners and PCs are not. I live in a world where my Mac is flaky and my PCs don’t give me any trouble. The fact that my Mac is unreliable won’t make my friends’ computers any less so. The fact that their computers work makes no difference to my wifi problem. We simply live in different emotional worlds when it comes to our computers.

Of course, this is true of everything, all the time. All of us react to events and the world around us based on our experiences and our emotions, our habits and our preferences. Thinking about it, I was reminded of something I picked up from one of Sol Stein’s books on writing many years ago.

Stein talked about an improv exercise in a drama course, where one of the students was told that she was a mother whose son had been unfairly expelled from school because the headmaster was prejudiced against him because of his skin colour. The other actor was told that he was a headmaster having a meeting with the mother of a boy who was a regular and compulsive troublemaker who created problems in class for all the other children. The student actors were told this in secret. Neither knew the information the other had been given. When they did their scene together, sparks flew. There were plenty of misunderstandings and conflicts based on the actor’s different perceptions of reality.

Stein suggested you replicate this technique in fiction. Give your characters completely different agendas in a scene, make sure they had a point of conflict and assume that they saw the conflict completely differently. When you describe the conflict from the character’s point of view, see to it that it is rooted in their view of the world. He thought this was a recipe for good dramatic writing and I agree.

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Whatever Happened to It Just Works?

Warning– middle aged man ranting about first world problem alert. I am just venting about my recent problems with my Mac. Feel free to ignore.

After the last couple of operating system releases, the wifi on my Mac has always been hosed. It’s been glitchy, with dropped connections, greyed out icons for Dropbox and OneDrive and browsers telling me that they cannot connect. It was bad after the El Capitan upgrade but this last week it has been plain awful. My Mac won’t connect to the Internet at all in the co-working space I frequent, and it struggles at home. To add insult to injury, the same Mac has no trouble at all connecting in Windows 10 on Boot Camp. It’s clearly a software problem and quite a big one if you do a quick Google search for it on the Internet.

I was ranting about this to a friend whose job it is to install networks for businesses and he said he’s noticed a big uptick in problems with Macs over the past two years.

This is frustrating. I mean come on! WiFi is not exactly a bleeding edge technology. It’s one of the core functions of a modern laptop. It’s simply astonishing that a tech company like Apple is struggling with wifi drivers.

How has it come to this? It used to be that OSX was infinitely more reliable than Windows. There were periods in the first decade of this century when my iBooks and MacBooks used to run for months without a restart and years without a single problem.

Those days are long gone. Over the past few years I have had more and more programs crashing and asking me to send in error reports, keyboards locking up and the machine just freezing– not even a blue screen of death. It just stops working. These past few years I have had far less trouble with my Windows machines.

With some of this stuff I am inclined to give the benefit of the doubt. Apple is not responsible for the work of all the people developing software for their machines. But it is a disturbing trend.

Part of me is tempted to go for the easy explanation. Everything started to go wrong when the late, great Steve Jobs died. Without his obsessive detail-oriented presence Apple has simply gone down hill. This would never have happened if Steve Jobs were alive, I often find myself thinking. The more logical part of me doesn’t buy it. After all the same systems were in place after he passed on. The same processes of development were gone through.

I’m inclined to blame the yearly OS upgrade treadmill. This is a pure marketing exercise intended to give Tim Cook something to announce along with the new machines. The idea is to generate some excitement. Well, what would excite me, Apple, is Macs returning to something like the reliability they used to have. I don’t care about how my computer interacts with an iPhone. I don’t care about whizzbang new icons. I want something that just works because it’s something I just work on.

Rant ends.

(I am writing this in Windows 10 on a MacBook by the way.)

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Yesterday I was talking about the new military SF novel. I should have mentioned that I am experimenting with a new writing method. That may explain why it has been so much fun.

Normally I am an outliner. The corpses of unfinished novels littered my early career. I started off on short stories, and in those days I always found them easy to write. I could hold the whole idea in my mind, write the first draft in a few days and move on to the next project.

Things fell to pieces when I tried to apply the same technique to novels. Starting at a run and winging it just did not work for me on longer books. They were just too big and too complex. They took too long and it was too easy to lose momentum. Once that happened the project went on life support and was never resuscitated.

Reading Jack Woodford’s Trial and Error saved me from that. It laid out a clear, easy to follow path on how to write a novel. I just did what he recommended. Book after book came along, if not effortlessly, at least achievably.

Since then my process has been variations and refinements of that strategy. Have some sort of outline. Attack the project in discrete chunks. Work through things in a linear fashion till it’s done. Over the years, the tools have improved but the core system remained the same. During my professional career, I’ve never been a pantser, somebody who just makes things up as they go along.

The current SF novel started out as a scene and a voice. I just kept writing, because it amused me and I wanted to find out what happened next. I had a rough idea for a character and a setting. I had the idea for a first scene. The character just took it over.

We had a man pinned down in a ruined building in a devastated alien city. He’s being attacked by hundreds of armed militiamen. A chaingun-equipped gunship straffs him. High-energy artillery blasts away on his flank. He has only one bullet in his antique pistol. And yet he’s threatening his attackers. As the scene developed it turned out his confidence was justified. I just kept writing.

Another weird thing was that I did not move on to the next scene in chronological order. The next thing I know our hero is in the tunnels beneath the city. He’s hunting for an alien doomsday device and in the company of a very attractive woman. How did he get there? No idea. I do know that the scene proceeded intriguingly in a way that made me laugh. Again I kept writing. One scene followed another in a logical fashion. Before I knew it I had another 12000 words.

Old habits die hard. I broke out Scapple, did a scene breakdown and worked out a rough outline of the story. I did not put in huge amounts of detail though. I left areas blank for exploration. I’d been enjoying seeing this new world first through the eyes of the characters.

This approach even affected my method of writing. Normally I write detailed scenes and chapters. The scenery is in place behind the characters. I describe things in as much detail as I am likely to use in the final draft. Sometimes more. Often I have to take things out.

This time I have been racing ahead, putting down action, dialogue and any striking details that hit me between the eyes. I am just writing as fast as I can trying to keep up with the story the character is telling me. I do this in the first draft. Later I go back and infill the details, and any new stuff that occurs to me in downtime. It means there is a real sense of progress every time I sit down to write. I am also writing scenes out of order when I feel the urgent need to set them down.

It’s like I am looking at the pieces of gigantic jigsaw. I am starting to see the ways the parts fit together.

The strange thing is it feels like the world is in my head already. Something’s been bubbling away down in my subconscious for a long time, waiting to get out. Stephen King once described writing a story as being like chipping a fossil out of a rock. It’s already in there, you just have to get it out. I’ve never felt that way about a story before. It’s an interesting experience and I am curious to see where it takes me.

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Sweet Sixteen

So yesterday I hit 16 posts this month, precisely twice as many as I managed in all of last year. I’m going to give myself a hearty pat on the back for that. I’ll also confess I am a bit stuck for something to write about today so I am just going to talk about recent developments in my writing and travel plans. Bear with me, I am new to this daily blogging thing.

I was very surprised to discover my military SF novel seems to have taken on a life of its own. I sat down to write a few scenes, just sketches to see whether it would work and to try and get the feel of the thing. Before I knew it I had written 15000 words, laughing maniacally all the while. Believe it or not, this is usually a good sign for me although it troubles my wife and anybody else who happens to be in the vicinity.

Robert E Howard used to say that he felt as if Conan was standing at his shoulder dictating his adventures. I know the feeling. So it looks like there will be a cyberpunk space opera supersoldier novel from me in the not too distant future.

This week I am hoping to put the final touches on the latest Kormak short story, a tale of drunken sea-going giants and a demon sorcerer’s palace rising from the ocean floor. I’m also going to have to think of a title for it. So far that’s been the hardest part of the whole process. Since I settled down to finish it, this story has been a blast to write. As you’d guess about a story featuring inebriated giants, it’s a bit less grim than the usual Kormak story, with more of the feel of the early Gotrek and Felix adventures.

Earlier in the week I picked up a ticket to Ho Chi Minh City. I am off late next month. (I would say I am going to escape the snow but it all melted over the weekend.) It’s only for 10 days but it should be interesting. I did a two day trip to California for discussions about Illidan this time last year, so this counts as a long trip by my recent standards. I’ll post pictures here with a view to making all of you stuck in the European winter jealous. I’m nice that way.

And that’s all the news that’s fit to print from me this week. Hopefully tomorrow there will be something a bit more coherent.

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Surface Pro 3 Revisited

It’s a bit of an experiment today. I am posting this using the Open Source version of Microsoft’s now unsupported but much loved Windows Live Writer. This is an experimental version but  it seems stable so I’m going to give it a try. The other part of the experiment is that I’m going to look back at a product I have already reviewed and see how I feel about it after putting it to use over a fair length of time.

In late 2014 I bought a Surface Pro 3. It was the basic model with an i3 processor, 4 Gb of RAM and a 64 Gb SSD. I was happy with it when I bought it, but how do I feel about it now?

Microsoft bills this as the tablet that can replace your laptop and I actually put this to the test. For about 5 months I used the Surface Pro as my primary work laptop. I was dithering about whether to buy a MacBook Pro and waiting to see if a new model would come out so I took to working on the SP3 rather than my aging and somewhat damaged MacBook Air.

The Surface served me well during that time. I got my work done and it travelled everywhere with me, during a couple of long family visits to Scotland, a short trip to Blizzard in Irvine and to the London Book Fair.

When I was in the coworking space I used a Dell 23 Professional monitor and a Microsoft Keyboard with a Logitech mouse. This setup is perfect for use with the Surface Pro because the monitor contains a 4 port USB hub. I just left the keyboard and mouse plugged in to the monitor and hooked the Surface up when I came into the office. It worked like a charm. I have a similar setup at home. I didn’t need the docking station although Microsoft will sell you a very nice one if you do.

The Surface Pro was a real pleasure to use on the go. With keyboard cover attached it weighs just over a kilo and it travels easily and well. The power adaptor is superlight and lets you charge the Surface and your phone at the same time, thus ridding you of the need to carry a phone charger. It’s a very elegant solution. Without the keyboard cover the Surface weighs about as much as the original iPad and it makes a good if somewhat hefty tablet.

The machine has enough power for email, Netflix and office applications and the battery life is excellent. There was never a time when I was too far away from a power socket for too long. People were usually impressed when I whipped it out and started taking notes with a pen as well. It has that wow factor.

So why did I eventually go back to using a MacBook Pro as my main machine?

There are several reasons– the first was my own cheapness. I originally bought the cheapest, lowest end model of the Surface Pro I could get in an airport duty free shop. This was  my undoing. 64 Gb is just not enough for a main machine and an i3 processor is a bit underpowered for gaming, speech recognition and the other high end things I sometimes do on a computer. To be fair, Dragon Naturally Speaking worked very well, but it takes at least twice as long to transcribe speech as the MacBook Pro does. This can mount up over time.

The second reason is that the trackpad is (as I observed in my original review) crap. Because of the touch screen you don’t often have to use it but when you do, watch out. The keyboard cover in the SP4 is supposed to fix this and its backward compatible with the SP3 so I may test this yet.

The third reason is that the software is not quite there yet. Don’t get me wrong– anything by Microsoft works very well with the Surface Pro but I had problems with Scrivener and a number of other apps on the extremely high resolution screen. For some reason they just don’t scale up very well. Text can be almost unreadable sometimes. Doubtless this will all be fixed over time as more Windows developers get used to ultra high res screens, but it’s not there just yet.

Another aspect of the software problem is that there is just some software on the Mac side that I am not ready to part with yet. Most noticeably Scrivener (the OSX version is better) but also Vellum (which I will get around to reviewing soon.)

I still use the Surface a lot, in particular for PDF reading and Pen Editing PDFs in Drawboard. It is a superb replacement for printouts when you are proof-reading.

Would I recommend the Surface Pro 3? Yes, pretty much unreservedly. It does what it says on the tin and it is a beautiful piece of hardware. If you mostly use MS Office you really can’t go wrong with it. Even Scrivener is pretty usable in laptop mode if you alter the font settings yourself—it’s a slightly tedious process but it works.

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The Limits of Outlining

I tend to be an outliner but these have their limits as I discovered when working on the latest Kormak short story. I’ve had half this tale sitting on my hard drive for years. I really liked the opening but I could never find a way of making the story work. I got myself into a real tangle by introducing an interesting new character with a big backstory and then not really knowing what to do with her. Frustrated, I put the story away and just left it.

A couple of weeks back I decided I was going to finish it. I sat down, broke it into scenes and did an outline of the bits I had written so far, hoping to make the basic structure of the tale clear to myself.

I started questioning myself about the implications of everything I had introduced in what I had written and what they meant for the story that should follow. I was using that famous Checkovian principle— if you show a gun above the fireplace in Act One, it had better be used by Act Three. I asked myself what were the guns in this story and how were they going to fire. I tried to work out the implications of everything I had already said, then I sat down and wrote an outline.

Once I got to grips with Scapple I transferred the scene cards from Scrivener over to it and played around there. Eventually I had an outline I was happy with.

Then I started writing. At first things went more or less as I had planned, but as I wrote actual concrete descriptions of the scenes, these started affecting the story and nudging it out of my pre-planned storyline. Bits of the stage sets implied something different was going on than I originally thought. They suggested things about the nature of the villain that I had not considered before.

The characters started behaving in different ways from those I had envisioned. Just the act of writing the story changed the story itself. It was like reading a travelogue about a place and then visiting it myself. Things were not quite as I imagined them.

As more and more new details accumulated, I found myself having to go back and foreshadow things. The nature of the adversaries changed. I don’t want to go into too many details for fear of spoilers but I will say that the changes were like those small pebbles that start avalanches. They rippled through the story and transformed it into something else.

The basic structure of the outline was still there, like a skeleton buried within flesh, giving it shape, but everything I had imagined about the body of the story was completely altered. It felt like a totally different tale.

I’m not sorry that I wrote the outline. It gave me the confidence and impetus to complete the story, but I was surprised by how much I did not stick to it.

I’ve sometimes had experiences like this before with novels, but it was much more obvious and powerful this time because short stories are so much quicker to write and tinkering with the structure is so much easier. I learned a lesson too. Sometimes an outline is just something you need to give you the confidence to start. You can abandon it once you’re well under way.

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