Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Use del.icio.us to make link-blogs for your friends

We all send interesting links to our friends. My wife and my college roommate used to get deluged with links whenever I caught up with sites like BoingBoing and Gizmodo. But a few months ago I decided to stop sending them a link every time I read something interesting.

Instead, I started tagging links in del.icio.us with their names.

Del.icio.us is a site that stores links in an online database for you. More than that, you can install a browser plugin with a button that instantly displays the link dialog for the current page, so it's quick and convenient to link a site. And you can make up new tags on the spot. Tags are ad-hoc keywords you assign to sites, and once you've assigned one, you can, at any time, display a list of all the sites in your list with the same tags.

So, to store a link for my wife, I just use her name when I bookmark the site using del.icio.us. If I also want my old roomie to read the site, I add his name too. I don't have to go through a separate process to create a tag; I just start using it.

And because del.icio.us' default sort order for links is last-linked-first....it's like a reverse chronology of your browsing...a blog about your reading. You can see the stream of things I've been linking here.

And you can store comments about each link. So saving links to del.icio.us can be very much like blogging about the sites you read.

It's not the same as e-mailing them a site. They're only just getting used to going to the web site to look at this stream of links. But I like to think it's a lot nicer than drowning them with whatever has hit my fancy of a coffee-drenched morning. I know, in my more lucid moments, that my caffeinated enthusiasm isn't always discerning.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Stories are just about never as done as I think

The main story I'm struggling with right now is called "The Wonder Kid". I finally found a title I like, after having the working title "Elf and Troll" for the longest time.

I have been slowly getting near done with all the scenes I thought I'd need, for about a month now, and then on reading Swain recently I feel like I need to replan the whole drive towards the end, because things don't revolve around my focal character the way it seems they should.

I'm not sure about this yet. What I have is a story told by a teacher, about a kid who is in jeopoardy. Swain's ideas don't seem to take a distinction between a narrator and a focal character into account. However, I think it is true that my narrator character doesn't have enough at stake in the story, and the story would probably be better if he had more at stake.

Well, I have some ideas about how to fix that, but they feel like pretty huge changes. What happened in this case is that I had one story, I went for the ending, and then I decided I didn't like that and added a bunch of material after...but the second plan never accounted for the motivation or risks of the main character enough.

Well, this is all nicely vague. But I wanted to put down some of my ideas and feelings, without getting into the details of the story. It's kind of like being knocked back about a month....I was starting to feel like I was about a week away from a good solid draft I could send around for people to review, and now it feels like there's a lot more to do.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

That Dwight V. Swain Sure Talks Sense

I'm still working my way through Dwight V. Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer, which I started reading based on seeing it recommended in several places...the most prominent one, i think, being Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake method web pages, which are popular amongst NaNoWriMo aficionados, among others. Here's one page where Ingermanson mentions Swain.

Swain's book talks about story construction at the sentence, scene, and...what to call it? the part level, I suppose. The highest level of story structure, the beginning-middle-end level...the first division you'd make when you start to slice a story.

I kind of wish the book didn't have such a commercial-sounding title, though perhaps that's just a good idea for selling the book. I find the advice in it to just make sense when what you want is to write a story people will want to read. And I think if you can't do that, any other pretensions you have don't matter at all.

Swain's book isn't one I can just read and put aside. I'm having to go through it slowly and try things out. Much of his advice is difficult to follow. Not difficult to understand -- difficult to practice.

For example, he's got a theory Motivation-Reaction Units that addresses how you put sentences together. And it makes a lot of sense. He talks about how we imagine someone reacting and responding to events in the world, and how to put that down on paper in an intelligible fashion. But doing it requires practice and careful review; it's certainly more work than just tossing words down on a page.

The main thing I've tried to apply so far from this book is the concept of Scenes and Sequels. Swain talks about structuring a story in terms of chains of these, with a Sequel to follow each scene. A Scene has a goal, conflict, and disaster, and a Sequel follows it with a reaction, dilemma, and decision. They naturally build on each other.

Swain explains this in more detail, but doesn't overly belabor his points. His style is that of straight talk from someone who's been around the block. I like it a lot.

A great computer-buying experience..at Goodwill

We have badly needed a replacement for our home desktop, which got fried by power outages. We have talked about all sorts of plans, but we finally settled on getting an inexpensive desktop now, and probably getting Tanya a laptop later as well. So we started looking at desktops in the super-cheap $300 range.

Our spending was further complicated by the fact that we were talking about wanting to buy locally and not from a big-box chain...if it didn't mean too much much of a spending sacrifice.

We happened to be near the Goodwill computer store at I-35 and 183 yesterday, and decided to see what deals they had. And they had good ones. The systems were older, but cheaper than retail bundles, and comparable in performance:

The systems came with monitors.
They're all clearly labeled with what they contain.
They've got lots of open source software preinstalled. Firefox. OpenOffice. Thunderbird. I could do all that myself, but it's awful nice to have it predone.
They let you pick any mouse, keyboard, monitor you want, within certain limits.
We were buying a printer too, and they threw in the interface cable for free.
We got excellent consultation from the two different people who helped us, and everyone was cheerful, even though the store was pretty busy.
We went next door to the Wal-Mart, and the Goodwill prices were still better. Not many folks can beat Wal-Mart.

All in all, it was an excellent buying experience.

They have motherboards with CPUs for $30, too. Not the most modern of machines. But by adding RAM and peripherals that I have lying around the house, I can gin up a computer for the kids for very little money. It's a great option. I might actually try a casemod project...I've been wanting to do that, but all that pesky writing sure does get in the way of my crafting time.

Only Trees Want That

My 10-year-old son holds out a balloon to my 8 year-old daughter in the car, and says, "I have a delicacy for you here. It's full of air."

"No it's not, it's full of carbon dioxide," says Chloe. "Only trees want that."

That's my budding scientist.