Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Wonder that is Scrivener: A Review

I was recently granted the privilege of using a hand me down Mac Powerbook from my kind hearted and awesome brother. Though the machine is old, slow and hasn’t much memory left, I am becoming a convert very fast and the reason for that is very simple. I now get to use Scrivener. Now, if you know me you will be aware of my constant complaints all over Facebook about this or that so called writing ‘Organizer’ on the PC. It has been an epic quest and like most epic quests it only seemed like a good idea at the time. It has been, in fact, a nightmare.

                Now just to let you know the level of quest it has been. Seemingly every day, while I should have been busy typing away at the new screenplay, or editing this or that blog post or what not (this includes the long delayed and often confounded update to Humans From Earth – available here on this blog) I have been diligently searching for some dumb PC program where I can throw the thoughts, research, idle musings, events, etc for these projects. I currently have – I think – five such programs installed on my PC. They all suck. And when I say they suck – imagine the oil pipeline blowout. Remember all of that inky black crap popping out of the ocean floor? Well now wrap your mouth around that. That’s how much they suck. With one notable exception – yWriter.

                yWriter is free, which is always good, and I believe it may have been developed by someone who actually writes which is also good. It isn’t a very robust program but it is very serviceable for throwing locations and characters and planning on whatever you happen to be working on. It is, however, strictly for fiction writers. Out of everything I have found it’s by far the best for PC in that it won’t drive you completely insane. There is enough involved in writing that WILL drive you insane that you really don’t need anything else.

yWriter is simple to use, pretty self explanatory and has just enough bells and whistles to be actually useful in keeping your head in the game. Unfortunately it doesn’t lend itself to easy transport of documents to any other platform where it more or less relies on the standard cut and paste method.

                I realized early on in my search that what I really needed was something fully adaptable with few constraints. Something in which I could find whatever I needed whenever I needed it. I needed something that could contain multiple nesting of outlines and files and all of them accessible quickly and visually. I am not a obsessive hoarder of notecards (in fact I have never met a notecard I could respect) or I might have fallen back on that old stand by. My trusted moleskine has a tendency to fill itself up with useless trivia, nonsensical musings and worse – tired, woeful journal entries that someone may yet have to dispose of in the hours after my hopefully distant demise. yWriter does a great deal of this but I have an exceptionally leaky brain and it couldn’t contain the overflow.

                I NEEDED Scrivener.

                I have been seeing taunting ads for it in my tireless and annoying search. I stared at the screenshots of it longingly. I wept. I bitched about my utter lack of funds all over Facebook to the point that most of my friends were probably at the point of reconsidering our relationship. I didn’t think it was possible but here it is and it is as wonderful as I envisioned.

                It is a little more complicated than yWriter but if you get through the tutorial you should have everything you need to understand how to use it. It is just an organizer which is sort of like saying Shakespeare was a scribbler. It is the organizer par excellence.

Basically, from the launch you can see the differences with anything available on the PC. Like yWriter, you start with a Project – which is whatever you’re working on – a novel, screenplay, what have you. There are several preloaded templates which are really nothing more than basic guidelines on how to assemble a manuscript as well as format guides on cover pages and the like. It’s handy but not really all that necessary. The files and documents are easily viewable in the left hand bar and can be collapsed and expanded on a whim – which is very nice for keeping things where they ought to be instead of bleeding all over the manuscript.

                After that you have The Manuscript which is the stuff you are currently working on. Inside the manuscript file you can have files for Chapters, Parts, Volumes, Stanzas or any other division you would like. Every division is customizable and open as though you were creating a new file. All in one place and all to your hearts content. Should you ever need a quick glance at the contents of your manuscript there are two nice little tools on the top bar which will permit you to view stuff either by corkboard (which assembles itself intuitively based on your outline and documents) or the Outline view. On the side bar, should you choose to open it, is The Inspector – which allows you to include non obtrusive document notes to whichever particular text document you have selected as well as edit the notecard that will appear at the top of the pile on your corkboard. It may sound a little complicated here but really it’s incredibly simple to use and once you get started it makes so much sense you may be filled with bloodlust over the ineptitude displayed by every programmer trying to make something similar for the PC. I still haven’t quite gotten over the bloodlust actually. I think they are all diabolically cruel people and deserve punishment. The nicest thing about it is that it tends to dramatically unclutter your actual document. You can now use that space to actually write rather than cram hand written revision notes all over.

                Beneath the Manuscript Folder lies the Research folder which is…uh. Words cannot express the joy. It works almost exactly like the manuscript folder but you can throw all of your notes – as many of them as you want – all of your research, pictures, web pages, anything that will help keep things straight in your head when you are working on the manuscript. It too has the outline view and the corkboard view, which is very handy if you have some inspiring snapshots to spur the thoughts on character or places or whatnot. You can look at them all – as many of them as you want or think you need – all on one page. If I were to have the actual corkboards represented in the research folder my room would smell funny and be covered in cork (meaning I would never find anything ever again – good ideas would be pinned under an abyss of paperwork until all the cork in the room would fall and bury me under it’s weight.)

                Scrivener is primarily a fiction writing organizer. It can prepare a manuscript for transfer to a more robust and dedicated writing program such as Word or Final Draft for final review and editing. My initial experiments with a demo version of Final Draft 8 produced a few mixed results on this transfer. While you can write in screenwriting format directly in Scrivener, the particular coding does not transfer completely – meaning the characters, locations and such will not transfer to Final Draft (or at least they don’t on the version I worked on.) This is unfortunate as it means that spitting out the wonderful reports that Final Draft is capable of will not function and considerable editing will need to be done. What’s more the notes and documents that may form the skeleton of a work will also not transfer over. This is a big drawback in terms of its functionality as a launch pad for screenplays. However, with the additional windows and functionality of the Mac as opposed to the PC it’s pretty easy to switch back and forth between the two programs.

                Formatting with Final Draft is not adequately preserved when transferring BACK to Scrivener, which is also a bit of a drawback. If you work on your drafts in Final Draft and then want to keep tracking the revisions with Scrivener you’ll be spending a lot of time reformatting things. If, however, you can deal with your Scrivener copy looking a bit different from the fully formatted Final Draft then it could work fairly well to track revisions, particularly when you use the ‘snapshot’ function to preserve earlier drafts of the manuscript. Given the complete inefficiency of all the other programs I have attempted to use (Liquid Story Binder, Dramatica, StoryView, WriteWay, and yWriter) in transferring files to and from the organizer I can honestly say that it’s the best I’ve seen.

What Scrivener does exceptionally well is stay out of the way. Everyone’s writing process is different and rather than imposing the structure of another writer on you it allows itself to bend to your will and the way YOU work. Most of the other programs I’ve toyed with create character dossiers like you might role up a character in D&D. They are obnoxious, unnecessary and irritating with their insistence on questions regarding your characters. If you happen to be someone like me you enjoy having your characters reveal themselves on their own terms and at their own speed, not in a sort of police procedural dossier where you jot in their height, weight and eye color. The same goes for locations and objects. Because there are no questions being asked about these things the freedom to create them comes on as you create them, piece by piece. On the down side Scrivener does not have the ability to track your characters, locations (except insofar as you have set them up for you to track) It will not have character lists or reports or the like the way some other programs might (yWriter actually does a pretty good job of this). But because it is such an efficient organizer you should not have a problem keeping things straight on your own.

                Hopefully, in the future, the makers of Scrivener (Literature and Latte) will provide a little smoother transition and additional functioning with Final Draft and other dedicated writing programs. It might also be a great idea to add a few more preloaded templates for blog entries, journalistic articles, etc. I can see the organizing potential for something like Scrivener being extremely useful for these endeavors. Of course, if they do add some of these functions you could expect a bump in price which is currently a somewhat guilty steal at $60.00 (I purchased the software copy otherwise the downloadable version is about $50.00.

                All in all Scrivener has the potential to be one of the most dazzlingly useful writing organizers mankind has ever seen. If they keep up the kind of attention to detail and great work as this version it could easily be a standard for anyone who writes anything. A roll out of version 2.0 is coming out soon but they seem to be fairly cagey in regards to some of the updates going into it. Personally, I am pretty excited to find out.

Categories: Writing | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

The Eyre Affair – A review

Fun stuff. That’s what it is. Read it. You’ll like it. Promise. Unless you’re one of those stodgy “I don’t read anything unless it has some sort of Empirical Value’ type people but I doubt that you are or you wouldn’t be here, reading this. If you are one of those people, then I don’t know what to say. Go away would be a good start. I don’t do stodgy. Or at least I try not to. Sometimes stodginess happens accidentally, as we all know, but I try to batten it down whenever it comes loose.

But seriously. I know, I know. Why read a book review if it doesn’t have any meat to it. Well, really – you shouldn’t. You should be reading books and deciding such things for yourself as I am not the arbiter of good taste. Not by a very very long shot. And speaking of shooting – if you happen to encounter that arbiter please shoot him or her. For the sake of everyone.

Usually I hate derivative literature with the sort of burning passion one tries to reserve for a column of Nazi’s walking down the street or green beans on the dinner plate but this one I happily tolerated mainly because it doesn’t have a derivative bone in its pages. Which is a good thing as bones don’t make very good bookmarks. This fun little piece of fiction follows the plucky story of Thursday Next, a thirty something detective in the SO-27 division of Special Ops. She has recently had a run in with some very distressing characters, specifically one very distressing character, Acheron Hades. Hades has stolen the original manuscript of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit and is holding it for ransom in an alternate universe patrolled by Chronoguards (who monitor infractions dealing with time) Vampire and Werewolf Cops (who are woefully underfunded and slightly insane) and of course Literary Detectives who mostly monitor knock off editions of Byron, claims of forgery, and any infractions that might deal with the printed page.

Next’s world is populated by reengineered Dodo’s (who make great pets), Reengineered Neanderthals who are more or less sadly lost in time, and speaking of time nonexistent fathers have a tendency to pop in at strange moments just to say hello while they are on the lamb from the Chronoguards. Add to that a missing manuscript, a strange invention that can drop people into the pages of fictional works, a fairly dull ending to Jane Eyre, and one diabolical master criminal and what you have is a head spinning wonder of a book that is easy on the eyes and relatively easy on the pocket and completely non-baconian in origin. Which is good. Those guys are loony. (read the book you’ll find out)
For something as fanciful as all that you might expect its author, Jasper Fforde, to be one of the flood of authors who come up with a good idea and then botch the sauce. The universe is littered with such authors, which include myself, so I know what I’m talking about. But he is quite surprisingly capable of pulling off a lovely line, a thoroughly nice paragraph, a whole page where the sentences feel like they have some sort of flow to them rather than the casserole of hot dogs and tater tots we’re used to in this sad age of letters. I’m not saying it’s always terrific but where it isn’t you probably won’t notice because it flows along at a nice brisk pace that you will probably miss any bumps in the road.

Next is a well wrought character. She’s got a bit of the edge of dangerous to her, which we all like so much, and yet her considerable displays of unbelievable bravery is tempered by her tenderness for her pet Dodo, Pickwick, her on again off again relationship with a former lover Landon, and her strained affection for her stuck in time father who has been eradicated but still shows up for birthdays and breakfast. She has a healthy relationship with violence, though you worry about it early on when she shoots an elderly woman in the back three times. But trust me. It all ends well. She’s smart and plucky and resourceful and all the things a great heroine ought to be and more so I think you’ll probably get along pretty well with her. Picture, I guess, the attractive version of your brilliant college literature teacher and then strap a gun on her hip and you’ll probably be about there. And how can anyone shake a stick at that?
Edward Rochester, well, we know all about him don’t we? And besides, I’m just teasing you. He’s a pretty minor character.

Acheron Hades is a very fun creation. Not since Edmund or Iago have we seen a villain so gleefully filled with his sense of evil. If there is one thing that Hades wants it is to move up the list from Third most violent criminal to first. Given his intense capacity for despicability you really have to worry about the other two on the list. You’ll love to hate Hades and I have to admit, in just a small way, you sort of root for him in the way you might root for… oh I don’t know someone who is really really evil but has a pretty clever scheme.

As I mentioned the dazzling permutations of this fun little novel will either leave you really annoyed or with a pleasant smile on your face. It may twist your brain around in a few knots but nothing that won’t eventually work itself out in fun little ways. It’s definitely worth the read – now stop bothering with this garbage and go get it.

Categories: Book reviews | 2 Comments

Culture as Genetics from a little nobody

    I reckon this might be the first in a set of idle thoughts that I am pursuing. For too long now I try to discuss these things and throw some ideas out there for consideration, but lets face it – this is not the world where an unemployed nobody in the Midwest can be heard in any fashion to be taken seriously, particularly when that person does not have the requisite letters behind his name. I don’t claim that these ideas will be entirely unique or interesting to more than a few. I am very much interested in hearing other peoples thoughts and ideas on any concepts proposed here. If you have any reference material to be read I will be happy to read it but for the moment much of what will come out of this will be spewing from my head. Please keep this in mind with any comments you might have.

    I have been pouring through the internet today, trying to find some articles or mention of this idea. Maybe I’m just not great at internet searching. I’m pretty sure it has to be out there. But this goes back to the age old philosophical question of nature versus nurture. Of course I hate the versus nature of these arguments and think that any time we see a versus in an argument there is something wrong, fundamentally, with our premise.

    Culture is genetics. There. I said it. I’m sure it’s been said elsewhere and probably better but I’m going to go through with it because, well, that’s the point of this whole blog article.

    What I mean by that is that culture, insofar as it is the blueprint by which we gauge our lives and activities as well as the prism through which we look, is in fact the natural adaptation. Genetics is simple biology. Though I don’t doubt the necessity and biological imperative of genetics in describing and delineating genetic diversity, the sole characteristic that made humans an adaptive being capable of dominating the world as much as it has is culture and without a valid study of culture itself AS the genetic principle we’re going to always be at odds with the nature vs. nurture question. Which really is a dumb question.

    I guess what I mean by this – and it isn’t so shocking – is that every biological equivalent has been supplanted in one sense or another by culture and its economics. Where animals in the wild develop plumage or whatnot as reproductive adaptations and enticements we have developed dynamic equivalents in a very genetic sense but on an economic scale. Any anthropologist worth their salt can point out a thousand different cultural artifacts in human civilizations that stand in for what biology cannot. Granted biology still plays its part but it must be said that in terms of adaptive equivalents it takes a more than back seat role. Instead of plumage we have preferential body types, shoes, thread count of sheets, monetary economic affluence displays, all of which we know to be dynamic and dependent upon sub cultural preference. Basically we choose – much as an animal might – the traits we wish but our choices aren’t based on standard biological imperative or preference.

    The genetics of a culture are mutated rapidly, but with a similar set of dynamic parameters – essentially the same things we would study in animal behavior. All of the qualities that we think of as adaptive in a ethnozooligical sense are represented by the subsets of our ethnic diversity, nationality, culture. If I use the word culture one more time you can shoot me. I mean I hope this is fairly easy to see. I’m so certain this idea isn’t original that I actually feel foolish talking about it – like I’m a three year old trying to describe the sun or worse a teenager trying to explain why their shoes are cool. The trouble is we have selected genetics as the signpost for human decision much in the same way we once looked at phrenology. Not saying, of course, that they are one and the same. All I am trying to say is that encoded DNA is not the only, or even the most important, qualifier in understanding human adaptation. We must seek to understand what and how decisions (and decision making)

    All of these things are hinted at when you look at the study of adaptations in natural populations but looking at biological evolution doesn’t explain the predominance of humanity over the globe and almost all of its available habitats. The adaptation, clearly, that matters more than anything to human habitability is its culture (bang bang) which is dynamic enough to explain this exodus from humble origins and not particularly auspicious biological beginnings.

Lets face it – alone we’re little more than an average meal for any predator of significant size. I would argue that it all began from the earliest banding together of the human species for survival and just as any evolutionary principle proceeds it became the primary adaptive attribute without which we would not have survived as a species.

Clearly I suck at writing papers like this. This is just a start – the product of trying to spit a whole bunch of stuff out in one go which won’t work. So where do I start? Any ideas? Hmmm…. I guess I should have thought about it a little more completely before setting stuff to print. I suppose it should start with a discussion of the principles of adaptation. I’ll work on that. Must do some more research.

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