yWriter – Test Drive

I installed yWriter and have been playing around with it for the last two days. My initial impression is, I think it is an awesome tool for fiction writers.

Installing it was a cinch. No snags. I’m on a Windows 7 system. I’ve found the user interface to be quite intuitive.

Key features I love

– It’s completely free, and no adware!

– Each story you are working with is saved as a “project”. This allows all the data you enter for that story to be grouped in one central location. If you are anything like me, when I write I will often have tons of separate files for notes, scattered all over the place. Even though I create a separate directory for that particular story, I still wind up with tons of separate files in that directory; character sketches, working drafts, research notes on related topics, world-building notes, backstory, revisions, and so on. With yWriter, all of that and more is stored in one “project”, easily accessible, and searchable. This makes locating and cross-referencing a breeze.

– For each project/story, you create Chapters. For each Chapter, you create Scenes. When you are sitting down to write, you write the story scene by scene. I think this is a great method, breaking down the chapter into smaller chunks (scenes). Also, you don’t have to do this sequentially. For example, you could write scene 7 for chapter 9, and then scene 1 for chapter 1, or whatever chapter/scene you want to work on that session. You can also move scenes around by a simple drag and drop. Say you wrote scene 4 under chapter 3, and then later decided that scene really needs to be scene 1 for chapter 19. Drag/Drop, Bam, it’s done.

– Outlining. If you wanted to, you could outline your entire story even before writing the first scene. You could create blank chapters, and blank scenes within those chapters, then go to the notes section of each chapter and scene, and write a brief description (e.g. chapter 1 description; character x goes to the rodeo. Scene 1, she gets in her car, scene 2, she drives there, scene 3, she watches the show. Chapter 2…).

– Notes galore! I typically write a lot of notes when writing a story (like I mention up above). With yWriter, there are areas for notes in most sections you are in. So if you are looking at your character list, and click on a character, there is a note section for that character. Same with scenes, items, locations, and the overall project itself. It even includes an area where you can tag the date and time (in story time) for that scene, in case you need to track that to keep your story internally consistent. For each scene you can add what characters are in the scene, a scene description, and other helpful bits of metadata as well.

– Backup, backup, backup! There is a scene backup utility that automatically backs up a scene when you open it, and also automatically backs it up at regular intervals. You can set it to either backup as one file, or as sequential files. The author of the software recommends sequential files. This way, you have backups of previous drafts all along the way, in case you want to revert (you can view/restore old scenes). Additionally, titles, descriptions, character data and all the rest are also backed up automatically into a file, and a new one is created every time you open yWriter. Lastly, you can manually backup the entire project into a zip archive at any time.

– yWriter can export your project into several formats; HTML, Text, RTF, LaTex, Ebook. You can also export an Outline, Synopsis, and Scene Descriptions.

There are additional features as well, but these are the top hitters for me.

Official website: yWriter

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Bleed the Page – Writers Group

I started an online writers group, called “Bleed the Page”.  Here is the original feeler I put out:

Are there any writers on my friends list that would be interested in participating in an informal online writers group? I’m particularly interested in fiction writers, though non-fiction might be fine as well. No poetry (sorry, while I do love good poetry, that’s a whole different thing). I’d like it to be geared towards novels (genre fiction and literary both welcome), short-stories, and perhaps even screenplays. I’ve written off and on my entire life, but never really got serious about it. I’ve been getting serious about it, and would love to be able to have a space to share tips back and forth, critique each other’s work, help source beta readers, and encourage one another. I’m not interested in a Facebook group. I’m thinking more old school, like an email list. Putting the feelers out.

I did get a response. At present (6 August 2017) there are 7 members, including myself. We have only just begun. Our first activity (suggested by another member) is a 30 day writing challenge. We are keeping it simple to start. The challenge is to write at least 100 words a day, consistently for 30 days (you can write more, but not less), and to post what we write to the group each day . The writing doesn’t have to be on any particular theme. It can be anything from character sketches, to story content,  to plot development, to backstory, to free writing or other related exercises. The idea is to cultivate a regular writing practice.

We are currently using Google Groups as an email list. If you are interested in joining the group, send me a message with your preferred email address, and I can add you. As the above feeler post mentions, the group is geared towards fiction writers.

 

XAMPP

XAMPP

I am exploring a new (for me) tool to play with at home, called XAMPP. This is an open source web server stack that contains Apache HTTP Server, MySQLPHP, and Perl, along with some other goodies. At my current job I interact with SQL fairly regularly, and I wanted a way to learn more at home, to deepen my knowledge, and advance my skill set. I am also interested in learning PHP and Perl, along with my ongoing Python studies. XAMPP is great for home development.

If you are into this kind of thing, or interested in learning about it, you should check out XAMPP. It is very user-friendly, and compatible with Windows, Linux, and Mac.

Get Yer Code On…

Python
Have you ever thought you might want to learn some programming, but were hesitant because you didn’t have any of the prerequisites (or the funds for outrageous tuition)? If so, this course might be for you:

Programming for Everybody

I just completed a different course by the same professor, Dr. Charles Severance of the University of Michigan. I liked it so much I have enrolled in this one as well. Dr Chuck (his preferred moniker) has a way of taking really complex ideas and breaking them down into understandable chunks without sacrificing the integrity of the information.

The textbook for this course is offered under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License, which means it is free, and can be adapted by anyone as long as it is not for commercial purposes (which is cool, IMHO).

The course begins on October 6th, and is 10 weeks long. This is being offered on Coursera (the best platform for MOOCs that I have found).

Introduction to Linux on edX

Tux

I am gearing up for the Introduction to Linux MOOC being offered by the Linux Foundation on the edX platform. Since I am currently studying for the LPIC-1 certification, I feel this course will be useful as supplemental training. The course begins on August 1st. Enrollment is still open. There is no fee. That’s right, this is free (who says there is no such thing as a free lunch). The course has the support of Linus Torvalds, the principal developer behind the Linux kernel (He released the initial kernel back in 1991, and it continues to be developed, along with many other tools and utilities, by the ever-growing community of GNU/Linux enthusiasts). As its name implies, this particular course is an Intro course. It promises to give a solid foundation to build upon. From the description on the edX site:

Upon completion of this training you should have a good working knowledge of Linux, from both a graphical and command line perspective, allowing you to easily navigate through any of the major Linux distributions. You will be able to continue your progress as either a user, system administrator or developer using the acquired skill set.

So, grab a distro of your choice (a good place to look is here), install it on your system, or run it through a Hypervisor like VMware Player or VirtualBox, and sign up for the course. Perhaps I will see you in the discussion forum?

A General Note about MOOCs
I have been exploring several MOOCs since last year and have found them to be helpful in terms of continuing education. Now don’t get me wrong, some MOOCs are better than others. It really depends on several factors. First and foremost is the mindset of the student. Are you a self-motivated learner that doesn’t need a lot of hand-holding? Are you disciplined? Does time management come relatively easy for you? If so, you might be a prime candidate for a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course).

Another factor that comes into play is the platform offering the MOOC. My favorite so far– hands down–has been Coursera, where I have successfully completed four courses as well as auditing several others. I am currently enrolled in several courses there at the time of this writing, and will continue to go back again and again as long as I keep finding subjects of interest. They have a wide selection, not just technology, math and science either. They are one of the few I have found that also offer humanities courses.

I have also tried Udemy. This platform is alright, but not really what I am looking for. It has a mix of free and paid courses. What I have found is that the free courses are often very general, to give you a taste in hopes that you will then be willing to pay for the higher level courses. There is not much of a discussion forum to speak of, and that is important to me (see below). Though if I want a general overview of a topic and I can’t find it on another platform, I’ll check Udemy to see what is available. I have never paid for a course because I haven’t been all that impressed with the free courses, so I don’t know if the paid ones are worth the cost.

Lastly, I have tried edX. To be fair, I only attempted one course with edX, so my experience there is limited. That said, the course I took had some technical issues that ultimately led me to discontinue the course and write off edX as a lost cause. One of the driving factors behind a MOOC is the discussion forum. This is where most of the action happens. In a sense, one can think of the discussion forum as the virtual classroom where students, instructors and TA’s gather to discuss the lectures, exchange ideas, and engage more fully with the coursework. Without a stable and active forum, a MOOC is little more than a series of video lectures. My first experience with edX was that the discussion forum kept crashing.  It is possible this was just an issue with that one course. That is my hope, because it was very frustrating. I know it was not my system. I have plenty of RAM, a large hard-drive, and a fairly powerful CPU. My Internet connection is fine as well, and I have not experienced any similar issues on other platforms. This all adds up to it being on edX’s side. Yet I am going to give them a second chance. They are offering a course on Linux, so they got my attention (I’ve been looking for one on Coursera with no luck).

Non-attachment and the Monkey-Mind

Monkey Trap

In a world where so much importance is given to “image”, posturing becomes the norm (yes, even among various subcultures. Sometimes even more so!). Bright-and-shiny (or dark-and-spooky) objects can be fun to look at and play with, but if there is no substance behind the image it quickly melts away, like a sugar skull discarded on the steaming asphalt of an open stretch of highway in the dirty dirty south in the sweltering summer heat.

I am not your products. I am not your anti-products. I am not your job. I am not your clothes. I am not your house. I am not your car. I am not your haircut. I am not your Facebook profile. I am not your manufactured desires, and neither are you.

But you knew that already.

Enjoy the images, yes, but do not mistake them for more than they are–phantasms, spectacles, mirages.

My monkey-mind sometimes wants to grab the treat and not let go, but if I try to hold on to it my hand will get caught in the jar, and the hunter is just around the bend. In those moments when I am able to cultivate mindfulness I tell myself “Silly monkey, just let go!” If I release my grasp, liberation is attained in that very instant.

Reading and Writing – A Love Affair

Keyboard and Book

Two pieces of advice I hear most often from accomplished authors, when asked by novices like myself how to become a better writer, are 1) read constantly and 2) write something every day.

There is a strong connection between reading and writing. This seems obvious, especially to most writers, as most of us happen to be avid readers as well. Reading for the pure enjoyment of it is a pleasure all its own. And I certainly still do that. However, I have also found that doing a close reading of a text yields a wealth of insight that can be added to my tool-set as a writer. Sometimes I will do two readings of a text–one simply as a reader, enjoying a text, immersing myself in the story, loving and hating the characters, etc., and another as a writer. Reading as a writer is something different than reading as a reader. What I mean by “reading as a writer” is reading and paying close attention to the author’s use of  style, word-choice, language, themes, pacing, dialog, plot points, tropes, story arcs, imagery and a whole slew of other literary elements and devices–all the “magic tricks” of a good writer, or rather, tools of the trade. We learn these by reading, and paying attention to what we are reading, and then practicing on our own. Close reading is fast becoming a lost art in this digital age of click, click, click, short attention spans, and 140 character limit twitter feeds. Yet it is an art I hope to preserve in my own life.

Writing is a craft, a skill. It can be learned. It can be improved upon. It takes practice. It takes effort. So the second point–to write something every day–also makes a lot of sense to me. I have learned enough humility to honestly assess my skill-level as a writer. I have a long way to go. Yet, I keep at it, keep banging away on this keyboard, building my writer’s muscle, practicing what I find useful from those other writers that I admire, exploring on my own, sharing my work with my peers and allowing them to tear it to shreds so that I may come back to this keyboard and try again, and again, and again.