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The 21st Century Writer, Part II

Man, 2017 is already so last year.

Way, way back in the distant past of 2016 I told you all about the 21st Century Typewriter.

In that post, I recommended getting yourself a tablet​ with a bluetooth keyboard. It's pretty portable, and pretty flexible, but guess what? Unless you want to pay out the big bucks for an iPad, or you're crazy enough to want a Windows tablet, you can't have Scrivener, as there's no version of it for Android. This rules out most of the best value tablets on the market.

When I wrote my previous post, there was already an alternative but it was getting a somewhat lukewarm reception at the time. There are good reasons for this, that I need not go into. But, let me introduce you to:

The PC Stick

​You are looking at the Intel "Compute Stick." Released in mid 2015 it caused quite a stir among techies and the IT press and everyone had a lot of cool ideas for what to do with it. And a lot of people overworked the poor thing. It's very small, and it gets hot.

So there were quite a lot of unsatisfied customers who were disappointed that they couldn't play Call of Duty or stream UHDTV on it. If you have no idea what I just said, your the right person for this device. Why?

It's a Computer. You're a writer. You need one. To write on. To do a little light research. To keep up with your social media. All the stuff you do on a computer.

This Year, Somethin's Bound to Happen

There's a great article over on Digital Trends​ all about the new offerings in PC Sticks for 2017. You can read it if you want to, or you can just use it to follow the links and buy the device of your choice!

Let me unpack it for you, with a little help from Mike, as usual. Right now, chances are, your computing experience looks like this:

​Mike on his laptop, poor lamb. But I hope you aren't sitting at a desk with a massive, whirring humming thing under, on or behind it somewhere. At least if you have a desktop let it be an all-in-one like the HP 22 b050 (below).

Hint: the computer is built into the screen. It's kinda nifty. But not very portable.

To have a 21st Century Portable Typewriter, using a PC stick, here's what you need:

  1. A PC Stick: from $100
  2. A portable monitor: from about $250
  3. A bluetooth mouse & keyboard: from about $40

​So this is a tiny, lightweight portable computing solution for less than $400.

What Little you Have to Know to Get Started

PC Sticks Choice

​Have a look at the article on Digital Trends (linked above). Basically in PC Sticks it's the same rules as with all computing:

  • The smaller you want it, the more it costs
  • The faster you want it, the more it costs
  • The more you pay, the better quality it is
  • Some brands cost a little more just for the badge (but some of them are worth the extra)

But my ONE RULE of computing for authors applies very soundly here:

You don't need much.​

Portable Monitor Choice

Your portable monitor must have an HDMI port. They are available in various sizes, and you can even get a touch screen portable monitor if you want to spend even more money. The GeChic 2501C is pretty practical (below).

Mouse & Keyboard Choice

Go straight for Bluetooth. Most PC sticks have only one USB port and you can't be clogging that up with the dongle of your wireless keyboard.

You have two choices - if you expect to be working on a flat surface most of the time, a Bluetooth keyboard and separate Bluetooth mouse​ are a good choice. For more portability, choose a Bluetooth keyboard with a built-in trackpad.

What's wrong with a laptop?

People do sometimes ask me this. It's about the science of ergonomics, and the art of comfort.

Posture and vision specialists tell us that the screen should be level with the eyes - your eyes should be at a height somewhere above the middle of the screen. The keyboard should be on a flat surface, and itself as flat as is comfortable for you. If (like me) you learned to touch type on a mechanical typewriter) you might want to be able to rake (tilt or incline) your keyboard a little​. These little but necessary adjustments are not possible on a laptop, and working for long periods on a laptop is difficult and uncomfortable for many, many people.

A portable monitor can be mounted on a tablet stand or a tablet arm when at home, and propped up or stood on its built-in stand when out and about. But bear in mind the PC Stick can be plugged into any screen with an HDMI port, including televisions.​ So you can PUT SCRIVENER ON YOUR 50" TV and type on your sofa.

I Even Hear Tell...

... of some retailers who have already seen the potential in this set-up and are offering bundles. 

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The 21st Century Writer – Hardware for Authors in 2016 and 2017

In my previous post, I talked about wearable technology, and the way that, for communications at least, the day is not far off when you won't need to wear or carry your 'phone around with you - but you won't need an implant or circuitry embedded under your skin either - you can be completely naked and still access your contacts, make a call, and all with nothing more than voice and gestures.

. . .

​And I've had some feedback on that post that suggested I may have been getting just a little ahead of myself - or at the very least, ahead of you.

In that previous post I did a series of scribbles showing Mike, my stick-figure-guy, interacting with various computer technologies, and from what I hear, an awful lot of authors' equipment rather resembles this one:

In my picture, Mike is supposed to look really excited because it's the early 1980s. A lot of authors are still typing on desktop computers, though I'm reassured to learn that many have flat, LED screens now, and some even have them mounted on a posable mount arm!

Increasing numbers of authors are also writing on laptops... which speaking as an ex-IT consultant, I have to tell you is very bad, long term. If you're writing, you need to touch type, and you need to keep your head reasonably level. Laptops discourage both. You learn to touch-type much more slowly because you can see the keyboard and screen at the same time. You do your neck (and it is suggested, your eyesight) long term harm, too.

All sorts of interesting interim solutions have been devised for this. I used to have my laptop on a book stand, with a USB keyboard connected to it.

So what next?

Technology is moving on really fast.

My dual mantra, "you will have to learn, you will have to search" is especially true here. But I can tell you where this is going - I can give you a few pointers, that will be especially useful to authors, in particular those who are still hammering away at the keyboard of a desktop computer.

If you aren't still chained to that ageing desktop, chances are that in recent years the number of different devices you own has started to multiply...

...and if you're busy working on both your pillars, then you also spend a fair amount of time online - working on your marketing, your social media, your advertizing, your networking, and so on.

Running your own business - which, if you are a writer, is what you do - requires you to be connected whenever you need to be, which means you need a device that's both portable and powerful, so you probably have a pretty good smartphone. And for the time being, you're going to continue to need one. If you already have one you can skip straight to device #2.

Device #1: Smartphone

It is conceivable that you don't already have a smartphone. If you don't you will have to find out what it is. And you will have to get it set up to do the following:

  • Have a data connection - 3g/4g when out and about, wifi when at home
  • Connect to your most frequently used social media - Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Pinterest, etc
  • Send and receive email
  • Browse the internet

Any specific advice I give you about Smartphone makes and models will be out of date in a few months, however one thing is unlikely to change soon, which is that there are three main "flavors" of Smartphone:

  • iPhone - if you have to have everything Apple
  • Android - if you don't fee the need for an iPhone
  • Windows phone - if you're a glutton for punishment

You will have to learn, and you will have to search, but with the information I've given you, you can get started.

Device #2: The 21st Century Typewriter

The way that the technology is going, if you're an author, and most of your screen time is going to be spent either writing your book or doing your promotion, marketing or communications, I strongly advise against getting a computer.

Neither desktop nor laptop should ye have. The modern writer should be equipped with (drumroll):

A tablet and a Bluetooth keyboard.

Most tablets are already more powerful than any personal computer was 10 years ago.

So they combine outstanding computing power with portability. Picture quality is better than the screen you're reading this on. Anything you can do on your computer, you can do on a tablet.​ Screen size is only a small concern, because for the good of your eyesight, what matters is the quality of the picture.

Of course, you'll want the screen at a healthy height for your eyes, and if you search for, and learn about tablet mounts​, you will be able to achieve this.

Tablets also come in 3 flavors, just like Smartphones. The only difference is that Microsoft's tablets are actually pretty good - but if you have an iPhone you'll want an iPad (Apple's tablet), and if you have an Android phone you'll want an Android tablet (there is a huge choice of these from many manufacturers. The best ones are made by the same people who made your smartphone - whoever that is.)

The keyboard in the picture is Microsoft's Universal Folding Keyboard. Even if you touch type it only takes a few days to get used to the small gap in the middle; it's slim, light, very portable, and can be used with all flavors of device. Other Bluetooth keyboards are available. Many, many others.

​This happy family may now be set up anywhere temporarily using a small foldaway tablet stand, or clipped onto that tablet mount when you're in your writing nook.

And because you'll now be storing all your manuscripts and notes "in the cloud" (you will have to learn, you will have to search)​, all your work will always be accessible to you wherever you go, and you'll never have to worry about breakdowns or loss or theft, because whether you store in the iCloud (Apple), on Google Drive (Google/Android) or Onedrive (Microsoft) or a third party like Dropbox, they will do all the backing up for you.

The Near Future

... is what I'm trying to show you; if you're thinking of getting a new computer right now, then what I've been talking about is exactly what you should be looking for, and you should not wait.

The portable typewriter allowed authors to take their work anywhere. Those days have at last returned.

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What you want to hear

As an editor, I don't always play nice. Among the things I've been known to say to authors are:

    • You don't have the experience to write what you're attempting.​
    • Trying to run before you can walk is part of learning. But don't expect anyone to read what you write until you've mastered the basics.
    • No one cares if your ideas are unique. They care if you know how to tell a good story, and tell it well.
    • No one cares what inspired you to write this. They care that you know how to tell a good story.
    • No one cares about your personal journey. They care that you know how to tell a good story.
    • This is very interesting, and some of it is very well-written. But where is the story?
    • etc.

As I'm sure you well imagine, in my occasional forays into attempting to publicise my work and find new clients, I quite often encounter the offers, products, services and promises of my colleagues. Most of what they all offer is honest and valuable, and if you're serious about becoming an author, or you're already and author and you're serious about becoming a better author, you should read all the craft books and do all the writing courses you can possibly afford, until you reach the point where you can see just how limited their benefits are.

Because when you reach that point, it means you no longer need them. You've learned as much as you're going to about methodology, and you can set aside the games and start looking for mastery.​

When you're a student, you're not alone. There are plenty of others trying to soak up all that past knowledge and experience, and trying to understand all that terminology, analysis, and method.

Mastery is a solitary pursuit.​

You have to study the work of masters, of whom those who aren't dead are likely inaccessible to you. But more than that, your study of them has to be personal.

You have to examine and observe what moves you about their work, and try to understand what it is, why it moves you, and how that was achieved, in order to reproduce it.​

What impresses, moves, or inspires you in the work of the masters you study will not be the same as for others. And this is the secret - if there is one - to mastery: it's when you reach a point where you are deciding what to learn, what to study, what to practice, what to hone. When you are choosing your techniques, and choosing who to learn them from.

This isn't because you are unique or special. It's just how you motivate yourself to become a master. But it is how you become unique and special.

What you want to hear

​The marketing folks are always telling me - and my colleagues seem to be hearing the same advice - that no matter what your product really is, you have to package it so it looks like it's exactly what your target market wants. So we're supposed to look at the way authors, creative writing students, right the way through to anyone who daydreams about one day being an author, and determine what preoccupies them about writing - their concerns, their anxieties, as well as their wants, needs and dreams.

In my experience, you're a pretty level-headed bunch.

If there's one thing I'll say about authors, they know the difference between fantasy and reality.

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​In fact, that's why it's so easy to spot the scammers. The scammers all think that authors dream of a big publishing deal, and will therefore part with their money if the possibility of fame and fortune is dangled before them. But authors know that just because it happens to a few, doesn't mean it isn't a fantasy.

Far more insidious, then, are the small concerns, the minor anxieties of new authors. I'm going to take two examples.

Protecting your story idea

​On Quora, this is a regular question. All the new and hopeful authors who think they have a great idea for a story (and in fairness, most of them do), are afraid to talk about it because they think someone will steal their idea. They're all preoccupied with the originality or uniqueness of their story concept, and they believe that is what will make it sell, and make readers want to read it.

A unique concept is not a hook. Only a skilfully wrought first chapter can be a hook.

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​Because new writers think that their story idea is their most valuable asset, those providing services to them (editors) have to make a big show of our discretion. Actually, I am pretty discreet. Even when I talk about your terrible writing in private, I don't tell my close friends or family members your name.

But your story idea isn't an asset. Your brilliantly written compelling page-turner, duly and rigorously edited, is an asset. But even then, a small one. Once you've spent a few hundred dollars promoting it, and have sold a few hundred copies, it's an asset worth protecting, because it's become an asset worth stealing.

No one who wants to make a living from theft steals a story idea, because they'd still have to write the book.

But they will steal it once it's been written, and try to re-sell it elsewhere, or use it as bait for a scam, by offering it for free. This is known as piracy. It's common, but doesn't happen to everyone and you can do something about it.

Here are just three articles on what to do. There is plenty more advice to be had on this topic, so use your search engine.

Preserving/developing your unique voice

​Remember I said at the top that I don't always play nice? On Quora, there's a rule, known as BNBR - be nice, be reasonable. It's a very good rule on Quora, it's like good manners, it enables people with very different backgrounds, cultures, beliefs and values to interact and learn from each other. Quora is awesome.

Here on my personal blog, I am under no such obligation. So listen:

You don't have a unique voice, unless you invent one. Which takes both experience and skill.

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​I've heard the complaint many times from authors that an editor 'completely removed their personality from the manuscript' or 'damaged their distinctive style' or 'replaced their unique voice.' In many cases, the author in question has shown me. In only one case did I really "agree" - but even "agree" gets scare quotes because what the editor did was overstep the normal bounds of his job, and rewrote much of the book in his own style when there was nothing wrong with the original.

In all the other cases, what happened was that the author was shocked by the sheer amount of blue pen, and saw this as his own hard work being denigrated or even insulted.

You know I mentioned that stage when you realize the craft books and the courses aren't doing anything for you any more? When you reach that stage, you will be able to tell when an editor makes changes that aren't needed. Until you reach that stage, you have to look at every change and every suggestion as if from a position of complete ignorance.

You have to be an uncarved block.

Because even if the editor is no more experienced than you, their doubt is an opportunity for you to evaluate your creative and linguistic choices, to be come more aware of your own writing, to learn.

And also: by the time you begin to pursue mastery of your art, you already know how to use several voices, some of which may be unique to you, and some won't.

The great masters of writing are those who know how to speak to their readers. Uniqueness does not help this.

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Your General SF Culture – story influences

Author’s Culture and Story Influences

As an editor, I’m sometimes more conscious of where stories come from than many of the writers whose work crosses my desk. This isn’t a surprise. Story influences are sometimes less important than the stories they inspire.

Nonetheless I was a little shocked to discover that one of my authors, who writes serious and innovative cyberpunky/Dys/U/topian SF, had never heard of The Marching Morons.

I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked. Every generation is shocked at how uncultured the next generation is, and reports of this go back at least to ancient Greece.

However, if you write Science Fiction, Tech Thrillers or Cyberpunk, there is some culture you need to make sure that you have. I could go into all sorts of detail on the crossover between pulp Sci-Fi and sociology studies, and professors experimenting with LSD or trawling paranormal literature. Of the Red Menace and it’s relationship with the Alien Menace. Of Sen. McCarthy and Flash Gordon.

But I hope you’ll go do some of that research yourself. Even if you don’t, I’ve selected three short stories that were among the most influential of that mid-twentieth century explosion of creativity and social awareness, that gave rise to modern SF, from space opera to cyberspace.

I won’t give you any analysis of the stories here. I’d prefer you read them, and let them speak for themselves.

The Marching Morons, by Cyril M Kornbluth

Wikipedia will tell you that:

“The Marching Morons” is a science fiction story written by Cyril M. Kornbluth, originally published in Galaxy in April 1951. It was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two after being voted one of the best novellas up to 1965.

This is true. You can read the story in various places online. Here’s one I found today:

And Then There Were None, by Eric Frank Russell

Originally a short story, it became the third part of his book, The Great Explosion, about which Wikipedia has this to say:

The Great Explosion is a satirical science fiction novel by Eric Frank Russell, first published in 1962. The story is divided into three sections. The final section is based on Russell’s famous 1951 short story “…And Then There Were None.” Twenty-three years after the novel was published, it won a Prometheus Hall of Fame Award.

This also is true. You can read the story in various places online. Here’s one I found today:

Who Goes There, by John J Campbell Jnr

Wikipedia tells us:

Who Goes There? is a science fiction novella by John W. Campbell, Jr., written under the pen name Don A. Stuart. It was first published in the August 1938 Astounding Science-Fiction.

In 1973 the story was voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the finest science fiction novellas ever written. It was published with the other top vote-getters in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two.

The novella has been adapted four times as a motion picture: the first in 1951 as The Thing from Another World; the second in 1972 as Horror Express; the third in 1982 as The Thing directed by John Carpenter; and most recently as a prequel to the Carpenter version, also titled The Thing, released in 2011.

In my opinion, none of the movie adaptations captures the atmosphere, nor the fundamental message, of the short story.

A quick search of the internets found a .pdf of it here:

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3 Kinds of Smarts

An Unfinished Definition

A while ago – a fair while ago, I wrote a series of blog posts detailing the major difference between types of mental competence. I talk about intelligence, cleverness, cunning and wisdom.

That post is all about what the words mean, where they come from, and how those types of intelligence are applied, as a means of making sense for a reader when describing your characters actions and behaviors.

Earlier this week I saw a Quora question (for which I had no adequate answer), and it set me thinking about my original posts, in particular, about what was missing from them.

I eventually concluded that there are, culturally speaking, 3 kinds of “smarts,” and the differences between how and when they are applied arise largely from the differences in how, when and where they are learned.

So I came up with a new set of definitions for this trichotomy, but before I tell you all about them, a quick warning: certain cultures, including, until recently, Western culture, see education or personal development as a combination of all three. I’ll tell you all about that at the end.

  • street smarts
  • book smarts
  • age smarts

Street Smarts

Generally most associated with words like “clever” and “cunning,” street smarts are the ones you have to learn fast in order to survive. So the nature of street smarts varies very widely. The Street Smarts of an African Bushman and a member of a Nairobi street gang probably both include information about finding food and avoiding danger, but in strikingly different ways. The similarity is that they both had to learn these things as fast as they could, in order to protect themselves and their friends and family, and in order to subsist in the short term. Street Smarts are essential in every lifestyle, everywhere on the planet. A university professor who wants, one day, to get tenure, will have to use his street smarts to learn and negotiate faculty politics. A steel mill or oil rig worker will get all sorts of safety training, but won’t be completely safe until she’s used her street smarts to learn to negotiate and balance all the risks and dangers in those complex and difficult environments.

Street Smarts is excellent for solving urgent, simple and short term problems. Sometimes a street smart solution creates a new problem.

Everyone has street smarts.

It’s a common and frankly harmful stereotype that the hero, being noble in spirit, lacks street smarts, and has to acquire Artful Dodgers to help him through certain environments. This trope is common in every kind of story. But a better story has the hero dropped into an unfamiliar environment, and shows the process of his learning the necessary street smarts to make it out again.

There’s a pervasive Hollywood myth that computer hacking is a kind of highly creative street smarts. This is bollocks. The best hackers are passionate, dedicated, sometimes a little obsessive, and profoundly BOOK SMART.

Most people understand street smarts instinctively.

Book Smarts

Generally associated with words like “intelligent” and “educated,” book smarts are learned through formal education. Teachers who are trained to teach pass on their knowledge and skills in a structured process and an institutional environment; academics who are trained in study conduct research and write textbooks that you can learn from. Book smart people have information at their fingertips on their specific field, but they also become very good at spotting connexions and thereby making insights and paradigm shifts. Book smarts is excellent at finding solutions to complex problems.

Book smarts solutions are often restricted to the specific problem they were devised to solve.

Book smarts have to be deliberately acquired and are best acquired voluntarily.

How much book smarts you have will have an effect on your understanding of what book smarts is. If a character has very little education, they will tend to think that book learning is about remembering lots of facts (they may also think this if they are a politician, but that just means they didn’t understand what their own education was about). But true book learning is both information, understanding AND synthesis. Synthesis is the capacity to see the relationships between different information from different sources, to compare it, and to build new knowledge from it. It is the foundation of all the advancement in knowledge and culture, and the real reason why education is important.

Age Smarts

Age Smarts are most commonly associated with the word “wisdom.” Experience alone is not enough to create age smarts. If you’re young, you may become something called “street wise” but all this means is that you have a lot of experience of some specific street smarts, that makes you seem wise to the people around you of a similar age to you. Age smarts comes with age alone. But age alone is no guarantee of acquiring age smarts. The people who become wise seem to be those who either dedicate their lives to a specific cause, or spend their entire lives perfecting one skill, or just spend their entire lives in the same place, doing the same thing. This seems to be true in any context. It also seems to help if you cultivate and preserve an openness to new ideas.

This means that age smarts may make you very wise about some things, but ignorant or naive in others. A crucial element of wisdom, therefore, is recognising the limitations of your age smarts.

Age smarts provides long term, often very simple, solutions, to all kinds of problems. Age smarts solutions are often the most efficient solutions to problems. Partly this is because the best way to find a more efficient solution is trial and error, and trial and error requires time.

Most people recognize age smarts in others readily, but have difficulty seeing it in themselves. The young assume they have it long before they do; the old always assume they don’t have it yet. This is a horrible cliché, no matter how often it seems to be true. Feel free to subvert it.

The Path To Enlightnement

Medieval Apprenticeship was very similar to Wushu masters (in the Wuxia genre), in that it involved a combination of all three types of smarts, over a period of time. No one thought smarts of any kind was something you just have. But at the same time, no one thought you could only learn book smarts, or that the only learning of any value was book smarts (which seems to be the current obsession in Education). Medieval Craftsmen, much like kung fu masters, learned their mastery in three stages.

First the apprentice, who has to work hard and learn hard and learn fast. It’s a combination of street and book learning, both literally and figuratively. The kung fu novice has to perform all sorts of menial tasks as well as do his hours of training; only a combination of the agility of street smarts and the discipline of book smarts will enable him to get everything done.

The second stage is as a journeyman – a day worker, or casual laboror, but it’s anything but casual. The craftsman must find masters who will take him on to help them in their work, and he’s paid a day at a time, so he better be good at what he does. If he wants to be come a master craftsman, he must learn from as many masters as possible, so he must travel and work. Again, a combination of street and book smarts sees him through. In the wuxia story, the hero becomes a wanderer, seeking people in difficulty and offering help to them, as he tries to solve some personal problem. He must gain a rapid understanding of people and their problems, but will learn more from his failures than from his successes.

The final stage is to prove your mastery. It is accepted in both cultures that a key element in becoming a master is time. Only once you have been a practitioner for many years, can you aspire to mastery, because many years practice is what it takes to master a skill.

(Some stories – in fact, many modern stories, have characters who are ‘naturally gifted at a young age.’ You should be aware that those stories are fantasies, and fit into one of two categories; they are either parables for adolescent coming of age, or they are escapist, adolescent wish-fulfilment. Nothing wrong with either, but be aware that stories are rarely what they seem to be.)

The Medieval Craftsman must make his Masterpiece. It’s a typical peculiarity of language that we use the word ‘masterpiece’ to mean ‘the greatest work an artist has ever made,’ but to a master craftsman, it’s just proof of his skill, and in fact, everything he makes afterwards will be even better.

The wuxia hero must defeat his disgraced former master/defeat his murdered master’s killer/acquire the famous artefact/reach enlightenment to become a master himself. After he does, he can set up a school, and take students, and grow his beard long and white.

These two traditions both say that the path to mastery is to use all three forms of smarts; to learn in all three ways. To combine, Street, Book and Age to reach Mastery.

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