Archive for August, 2012

The Back-Up

Yesterday I spent about a half an hour backing up my writing.  Not all of it actually, just the stories and other things that I’ve worked on for the past several months.  That amounted to eleven files in MS Word, and five Excel files.  I’m really bad at backing up.  It’s not that it takes that much time, and it’s not difficult to do, it’s just that I sometimes feel I can’t be bothered.  I’d rather write than back up.  Not a good idea; that means I may go several months between back ups.

I generally back up to two flash drives.  Both are 2 GB drives, and each has plenty of space for all the writing I’ve done, and that includes several novels, including a separate file for the front part of each novel that contains the title page, table of contents, epigraph (look it up), dedication if any, and any other stuff that normally goes before the novel itself.  I use two flash drives in case one gets misplaced, waylaid, lost, destroyed or what not, then I still have the other.  But is that enough?

I’ve noticed lately that many people use outside storage systems.  The two I’m most familiar with are Carbonite and Dropbox, but there are probably others.  (This is termed “cloud storage,” or “storing in the cloud.”  Where the “cloud” came from, I have no idea.)  The idea is that your files are stored outside your home and if anything happens to your home or apartment, like a fire or a huge meteorite that destroys everything, including your computer, flash drives, etc., your data and files are intact in a large storage mainframe somewhere far, far away.  Unless it gets hit by that big meteorite.  It’s a good idea and I’m seriously considering it.  The first couple of GB are usually free or cost very little.  The only drawback is that your files are on someone else’s computer, and potentially readable by some unscrupulous twit.  The chances of that happening are miniscule I figure, and not a serious drawback.  It may be money well spent.

Another way to save files is to e-mail them to yourself, and the email is stored in your e-mail server’s computer.  That’s possible, though if you make changes in a file, you have to send it to yourself all over again, and that could become tiresome.  With a flash drive or cloud storage, you overwrite the old file and don’t wind up with a series of older, outdated and updated files.

There are other things you can do, like print the files and hold them in a different location, perhaps a safe-deposit box.  That’s possible, but a novel of, say, 350 pages, is rather large, and several of these would require a large box.  Could get expensive.  Better to rent a small safe-deposit box and put your flash drives there.  But that might get tiresome going back and forth to the bank just to get your flash drives.  In any event, there are things you can do, and not doing something is foolish.  Even a simple flash drive is better than nothing.

Some people use an exterior hard drive on their computer, but I figure that’s not too good because it stays near your computer.  Storage should be oriented toward someplace outside your home or outside wherever you use your computer to be safest.  How about you, what do you use?

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The Plot’s the Thing

I’ve been sending out short stories over the past several months to those literary magazines which I thought might be likely to publish one of my stories.  This has required that I read two things about each magazine: first, the description of the magazine written by the editors, especially the part where they discuss what kind of fiction they like to print, and second, some of the stories that have been published in recent issues of the magazine.  Now, with respect to the second point, I’ve noticed that most stories tend to fall into two groups: those that have beautiful, wonderful writing, and those which, while the narration is adequate, simply tell a good story.  I gravitate toward the second.

Yes, of course, there are stories that combine great writing with a great plot, and those are fascinating to read, but in all honesty my feeling is they seem to be in the minority.  The greatest proportion fall into one of the two categories above.  Now, I’m certainly not the most well-read person on the planet, but what I’ve read has convinced me that I much prefer the short story or novel that goes out of its way to provide a good plot.  Those draw me in much more easily than stories that use little but beautiful language.  I want a story that moves; a story where the characters are doing something; where the plot line moves inevitably forward.  I want to see what happens, not read how well it’s told.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: plot is everything and everything else is secondary.  Or even tertiary.

In my writing I’ve always tried to tell a good story.  I feel that’s more important to the reader than how beautifully the story is told, and I don’t worry too much about producing a fancy metaphor, or describing a person, place or thing in grandiose, flowery language.  I have to say I’ve read stories that, while they were beautifully written, had virtually no plot line.  Nothing went on in the story, nothing that the reader could “sink his hands into.”  Two people talking, or one person describing something, like his/her lover.  Some of these stories even get nominated for prestigious awards, as though the editors of the magazine aren’t aware that literature is for the dissemination of ideas, not just words.

Many people, including me, believe that “it’s not what you say that’s important, it’s what you do.”  Or, put more succinctly, actions speak louder than words.  That’s also true in literature; what a fictional character does is more important and significant than what he/she says, or how his life is described.  To use an Olympic metaphor, go for the action and go for the gold.

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Science and Fiction

I’m a scientist by training, and perhaps even by inclination.  I’ve always liked reading true-life stories, stories about things that actually happened.  Growing up, I read some fiction, but most of my reading–outside of the required reading of fiction in high school–was non-fiction, especially about science.  Sure, I read David Copperfield in high school, (who didn’t?), but it was books like Willy Ley’s Rockets, Missiles, and Spaceships and Wernher von Braun’s series (with other authors and the magnificent paintings of Chesley Bonnestell) of books about trips to the moon and Mars that I really devoured.  I followed the US space program long before the first Mercury astronaut ever set foot inside that tiny spaceship, and when I read fiction, it was more along the lines of Lassie and Black Beauty.  Then, when I went to college and graduate school, I got interested in microbiology, especially viruses and their ilk, and I spent over 40 years studying them and trying to understand why they did what they did.  I wrote scientific papers about them, and gave talks to innumerable groups about them.  All fabulously interesting and compelling, though not particularly lucrative.

Then, suddenly, out of a clear blue August sky, I got the idea for a novel.  Science fiction to be sure, but a novel nonetheless.  I’d never written a novel, and it’d been a long time since I read one.  So, I sat down at the computer and began to hack it out, and that’s when I found out I didn’t know the first thing about writing a novel.

Novel writing is almost diametrically opposite to that of writing scientific papers.  Scientific papers are notoriously boring, except to the few who are interested in what they have to say.  (Out of the hundreds of thousands of scientific papers published each month, I would be willing to bet that each one is read in a substantial way only by a few people.  Depending on the paper, maybe twenty or thirty, possibly a few more.)  Back when I first started reading them, the most prominent characteristic of a scientific paper was the use of the passive voice.  Instead of saying, “We treated the virus this way…” most authors wrote, “The virus was treated in the following manner.”   That’s changed nowadays, and scientific authors are using active voice more often.  I even did a few times.

Scientific papers do have one aspect in common with fiction: the author has to tell a story.  In scientific papers, you’re telling what you did, how you did it, why, and what it meant.  Each paper is a story in itself and it has to be complete in its own way.  Same for fiction, but the telling of the story is so much different.  Fiction is concerned with emotion, which is totally lacking in a scientific paper.  That meant I had to learn to write fiction from the very basic fundamentals, and it took a good ten years to do it.  I had to throw out the passive voice, and learn to put more emotion in my writing.  That didn’t come easily; I still slip into passive every now and then, and have to watch to make sure I’m giving the reader every opportunity to dwell within the mind of the point-of-view character.  Now that I’m retired, I devote full-time to writing fiction, and I’ve completed two novels and have a third one in the oven.  A few short stories round out my output so far (sorry, I can’t help reverting to science) but I think I’ve begun to master the art of fiction.  We’ll see.

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