Sunday, July 25, 2010

Taking a Break

Everyone needs to take a break now and then.  I just got back from eight days in Alaska, which was a nice (though expensive) break.  But not every break needs to be a big deal.

I need breaks every day -- several times a day, in fact, and you probably do too.  You may not think of them as breaks, but that's what they are.  When you get up  from working at the computer to refresh your beverage of choice, that's a break.  When you answer the phone, that's a break.  Gazing, perhaps longingly, out the window is a break too.

If you work for a long time at the computer as I do, your shoulders, hands, back, neck, eyes -- just about any part of your body -- can give you problems that can often be solved by taking breaks.  For many of us, the problem is not that we don't know we should take breaks, but that we don't remember to take them when we should. 

How often should you take a break?  Some people like a 5 minute break every hour.  I prefer more and shorter breaks, on the order of 5-10 seconds every 10 minutes or so.  I find it helps to keep my body from freezing-up without breaking my mind's train of thought.

How do you encourage yourself to take breaks when you should?  You could use an egg timer, I suppose, or you may have a timing program already on your computer that could help, but there are software applications out there to help with this specific problem of scheduling breaks.

Workrave is pretty nice, and free, though it lacks much in the way of help.  [I have no connection with Workrave, but I've used it, and found it suitable.]  There are many other applications, both free and paid, that you can find by searching for "workrave alternative", "break reminder", or RSI, among other things.  RSI is short for Repetitive Stress Injury, by the way.

The nice thing about Workrave is that it offers exercises for you to do during the longer breaks that you've scheduled:  shoulder stretches, finger exercises, close/far focusing, etc.  I love that.  It also can coordinate breaks between two or more machines, so if you sometimes timeshare between multiple machines, it knows to call for a break on the machine you're currently using.  Other applications may do these sorts of things too, but I haven't tried them.

The fatal (for me) flaw in Workrave is its activity timer.  Most of these break-reminder applications monitor your activity (I know this sounds insecure, but they don't intercept your keystrokes or anything -- they ask the operating system how long it's been since you've used the keyboard or mouse; that's the same measure that kicks off your screen saver).  The idea is that you don't want to be reminded to take a break while you're out having lunch.  But I have this nasty tendency to pause my typing and mouse use for several seconds or even a minute while I'm thinking.  And staring at the screen.  That's exactly when I need the break to come up, but that's when Workrave assumes I'm already taking one!

So I wrote my own.  I may rewrite it and release it free for public use this Fall.  But I can't let it distract me from my writing, which got a big mental refresh on my break in Alaska.  And that just goes to show that even long breaks can help your writing.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Classics in Your Field

[Short post this week -- I'm off to Alaska!]

Every field has its classics.  Car enthusiasts know them, oil painters know them... do you know the classics of literature?  I'm not asking if you can name them, I'm asking if you've read them.

That's a pretty ambitious undertaking -- there are a lot of literature classics, after all.  How about something more manageable?  How about the classics from the little corner your writing fits into?  Do you know what they are?  Have you thought about it before?  Have you made an effort to read them?

Sometimes they sneak by us.  My son designs and plays video games, and the mythic monster Cthulhu from H. P. Lovecraft's short story "The Call of Cthulhu" shows up repeatedly in those games as well as dungeons and dragons type of games.  Has he ever read the short story?  No, but he knows of its existence.  He'll probably be reading it soon, because I'm going to get a copy for him.

I can't think of one that's snuck up (or snuck by) me in fantasy-but-not-sword-and-sorcerer, but I haven't read more than a handful.  However, I feel certain there are a whole bunch of them I've missed simply because I'm not familiar enough with my chosen field.  And a good part of my unfamiliarity is due to my inability to give it my slice of fantasy a solid name!  Pitiful, I know.

What about you?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Know Your Tools: Spellcheck

Your word processor's spellchecker can be your good friend and your annoying enemy at the same time.  Do you know where your dictionary comes from?  Is it the standard dictionary that came with your word processor, or does it have words added by you or someone else: words that maybe don't apply.

Just so we're clear, the dictionary in your word processor doesn't have word meanings; it has word spellings.  If your word processor allows you to lookup a word's definition as you're typing, it's not using the on-board dictionary, but is instead probably going out to the web.   Very occasionally the program's dictionary incorporates a misspelling -- beware!  More often the problem is that it uses an alternate spelling you're not accustomed to, or you might have a British-English dictionary instead of a U.S. one (in this case, check your language or locale setting in the word processor's preferences).

Sometimes people cause trouble for themselves by adding entries to their dictionary that are misspelled.   Woe and lamentation!  You only have to do it once for the word in question to be forcibly misspelled by the word processor from then on.   I would hope that writers would be more careful about this sort of thing, but many writers are not very technically savvy, and this road to ruin is traveled with a mere click or two.  On the other hand, I have seen programmers, generally a very technically savvy bunch, insert all sorts of garbage into their dictionaries. These are people who know well how to add things to the dictionary, but too many of them don't know (or don't care) how to spell.

You might think that we writers have no reason to add words to our spelling dictionaries, but we often have names, particularly surnames and place names, that need to be added:  otherwise they'll be highlighted as misspellings on every occurrence.  Why not just ignore the highlighting, since you know it's wrong?  Because you can bet your lowercase m that some of the highlighted words are real errors.  In a sea of red squigglies, how will you know which to ignore and which need fixing?  It's simpler to add your words to the dictionary so that they are not pointed out as errors in the first place.

In order to avoid those little wiggly underlines that point out spelling errors, some of you turn off your spellchecker.  This solves the problem of having incorrect automatic misspellings forced upon you, but it also means that any spelling mistake on your part can slip through.  When the computer is ready, willing, and able to help you spell things properly, why miss out on the benefits of that digital brain?

Many people think of the spellchecker and the auto-corrector as the same thing (and I've been linking the two together here), but they're two different functions which you can enable or disable separately.  If you want your misspellings to be automatically corrected as you type, then enable automatic correction.  If you want your misspellings to be tagged with little wiggly underlines, then enable your spellchecker.  If you enable them both, then the only thing left misspelled and underlined will be words that are not in the spell checker's dictionary.

If you're writing historical fiction, fantasy, or sci-fi, you may have either words that are archaic, use an alternate spelling, or are made-up.  Your spellchecker will fight you on each and every one of these words unless you add them to its dictionary.  However, when you're working on other documents, all these special entries in your dictionary are dangerous rather than helpful.  This is where custom dictionaries come in handy.

You can make a custom dictionary for a given work or series or genre.  When you work on your novel, your spellchecker will be checking your words against a both the system dictionary and your custom dictionary (which includes all of your special words for your novel).  When you write your Christmas letter or business correspondence, you'll be able to use the standard dictionary alone, perhaps adding a different custom dictionary that has family names and places in it, or special business terms.  Don't get them mixed up!

You can even use more than one custom dictionary at a time.  Imagine you're a mystery writer, and you need the Latin names for poisonous plants as well as the names of numerous toxic chemical compounds.  But you also need a dictionary specific to the mystery series you're writing; it holds the character and place-names that you want to spell consistently across all the books in the series.  You'll be using all three dictionaries (standard, genre, and  series) together when you write.

It pays to be very careful when you add a word to one of your dictionaries -- make certain you're spelling your word properly, and that you're adding it to the right dictionary.  I rarely add anything to my system dictionary, although I've had to a couple of missing words to it, like dreamt (and now I see that my browser's dictionary doesn't recognize dreamt either, sigh).  If you have any doubt about previous entries, your word processor has a way to review and change / delete words in your custom dictionaries.  Look in the help.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Tyranny of Choice

If you search the web for "tyranny of choice", you'll find articles explaining how having too many choices is a recipe for disaster.  It causes us to have difficulty making decisions, to often make poor decisions when we finally make them, and even when we (accidentally?) make a good decision, to make ourselves miserable and depressed by second-guessing our choice.  Some advocate choosing anything that's just good enough in these hyper-optioned situations.

When it comes to choice, more is not better.

I experienced something a bit different today.  I've had a rough week, and I decided that instead of plowing ahead with my normally scheduled reading (which would be some of Edith Wharton's novels), I'd like to tame my stress by reading something more exciting and interesting -- something escapist.  [Not that I'm knocking Edith W. -- but I just came off a few weeks of Chekov.]  I rearranged my morning errands to include a trip to my public library, and I decided I'd get "The Life of Pi", by Yann Patel.  No, it's not a book about mathematics, although the pi reference is what caught my attention -- Pi is the protagonist's name.  Anyway, I went to the library and they had 16 or 17 copies -- all currently checked-out, except for a set of 10 which were off-limits as they were in a kit-bag for a book group to use.  So I left the library empty-handed.

3 or 4 hours later I did think of another book I was in the mood for, and I went back to the library again.  I grabbed the single shelved copy, and went home happy.

I know -- you're thinking, "What a lucky guy he is that there were two acceptable books, and at least one of them was checked-in!" right? 

How many (hundreds of) thousands of volumes were sitting on the shelves, waiting for me to fall in love with them?  I didn't care.  I wanted the book I'd come for, and no other book would do.  Normally I'll read anything that's printed in English, but this time I'd made my choice and let it tyrannize me.

As writers, we face choices with multitudes of options all the time.  From "What should happen next?" to "What's the best word to describe how this couple moves past the bench by the lake in the park?"  We must choose.  We can't freeze or dawdle too long; there are too many choices to be made: we'd never finish.  But we can't settle for just good enough, either.  Our writing has to be far above that level to succeed in telling our story.  And, as my experience at the library today reminded me, we certainly can't let a choice (premature or otherwise) tyrannize us and blind us to the presence of all the other options.