Book Tour: Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy, Ch. 5

Sometimes I run across an older book that’s usually out-of-print, but has exceptional wisdom locked up in its pages. I found this one at my local Half Priced Books.

First Edition cover, 1991.
First Edition cover, 1991.

The very nature of this book—20 essays about writing by the best SFF authors—makes it hard to review as a whole. I think a better strategy is to look at each chapter in detail.

See all of my WSF&F chapter reviews.

Chapter 5: You and Your Characters

In this chapter James Patrick Kelly discusses science fiction characters and how to build them. He starts this chapter with a discussion of writing books he’s bought in the past. Then he dives in.

Continue reading “Book Tour: Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy, Ch. 5”

Word Count — Week 13

It’s time for my weekly word count check-in. At the end of every week, I post a screen shot from my writing results spreadsheet. This shows the current week and the three before. My week starts on Monday. The numbers are current through Sunday night. I also only average over six days. This allows me one day of no writing that doesn’t impact the weekly totals.

The week was about increasing my activity levels. And the little exercise I did really drove the point home about how out-of-shape I am. The last part of the week was the worst. I hope I start to feel better.

Week 13, March 23rd – March 29th:

Week 13 results.
Week 13 results.

My other posts tagged word count.

Book Tour: Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy, Ch. 4

Sometimes I run across an older book that’s usually out-of-print, but has exceptional wisdom locked up in its pages. I found this one at my local Half Priced Books.

First Edition cover, 1991.
First Edition cover, 1991.

The very nature of this book—20 essays about writing by the best SFF authors—makes it hard to review as a whole. I think a better strategy is to look at each chapter in detail. See all of my WSF&F chapter reviews.

Chapter 4: Dialog

This is Isaac Asimov’s second of five chapters in the book. As a writer of books that are mostly dialog, when he thinks “of the art of writing I tend to think of dialog.” His first example is a look back at Victorian dialog. When compared to modern language it seems silted and overwrought. But written dialog is not a perfect example of the spoken language of the time. Just as movies tend to feature better-than-average looking people, dialog does the same to language. Asimov’s example is that movie stars don’t look like average people. They look like movie stars. Also, fictional heroes are braver, stronger, and more ingenious “than anyone you’re likely to meet. Why shouldn’t they speak better too?” At the same time the characters need to sound like people, not pompous stuffed-shirts. Sometimes the well-placed ungrammatical exclamation is exactly what’s needed to humanize a character. He cites Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as the first example of a book written in substandard English. But it is still a great work of literature. While the words were mostly slang, the sentences and paragraphs were the work of a master. Asimov as most writers, draw the line at vulgarity. His position is that his characters are well-educated and should be able to express themselves better than a profanity-spewing fire hose. He notes times have changed and it’s expected that some profanity will creep into almost any novel. In some cases it would be criminal to not have characters swear. Asimov works hard to avoid it, but he realizes that other authors have other styles. This was another short chapter, having just under five pages. Even with it being so short it was still packed with advice:

  • Avoid overly ornate language.
  • Some ungrammatical dialog is good for emphasis and adds realism.
  • Be conscious in the use of profanity.
  • Characters are usually “better than” ordinary people, so they should speak better too.
  • Writing uneducated characters/ungrammatical dialog is difficult. The structure of the story must support it.

Short chapters like this need to be read multiple times. The advice is densly packed inbetween anecdodtes and examples. A second or third reading teases out the meaning that was missed the first time. This book continues to pour out widsom at an unexected rate. The next chapter is the longest yet and I might have to break into several parts.

New Payment Service:

Getting paid online is a delicate balance of convenience vs. cost. Some of the services are used simply because they’ve been around the longest. Like PayPal. But new ones seem to pop up every other day. For the most part, they’re worth signing up for to see how things work.

The newest is from Square. They have a nice link-shortening gimmick called “cashtags.” The idea is to create a username starting with a dollar sign ($) which then becomes your unique URL. They also provide phone apps for both iOS and Android.

Since this is new service, I wondered if all the good short names were taken. They weren’t. I was able to get$writer. I think that’s pretty cool.

There’s a choice between personal and business accounts. The personal accounts have no fees, but are limited in the transfer amounts.1 The buinsess account charges 1.5% per transaction with no transfer limits.2 This is quite a bit cheaper than the other options.

I have existing accounts with PayPal, Stripe, and Square. The fees as I write this are:

Service Rate Notes
PayPal Invoice 2.9% + 30¢ 2.2% + 30¢ for high volume
PayPal Here 2.7% 3.5% + 15¢ for keyed entries
Stripe 2.9% + 30¢ No standalone service
Square 2.75% 3.5% + 15¢ for keyed entries 1.5% Debit only, online only

Over all, they are all competitive. But the devil is in the details. Right now I don’t think there’s one that’s best in all cases.

Stripe is more of a back-end service. It’s at its best when integrated into another site. That might be a sales page or an online invoicing service.

PayPal is the granddaddy of the them all. It has a history of closing accounts at random and overall opaque3 customer service. It also has the best international support.

Square is the upstart new kid. It started as an app with a card reader, but has grown into a full merchant services provider. Square’s focus seems to be on retail, and I don’t like the invoices it sends. They’re too cutesy for a service invoice. only works for debit-to-debit card transactions. That’s the trade off for the low (or no) fee. For B2B transactions it will be hit-or-miss, depending on if a debit payment source is available.

For now, I’ll be pushing as my first payment option just because of the low fee.

  1. Personal accounts allow transfering up to $250/day with no more than $1000 in a rolling seven day window.
  2. Buiness accounts require basic ID verifcation using date-of-birth and SSN.
  3. Non-existant.

NFL and the Extra Point: will it stay?

The NFL owners spent an hour talking about extra points today. The current rules make the PAT boring. Most of the time the TV broadcast doesn’t even show it.

The discussion was just that, talk. But there are plans for the Competition Committee to come back with a proposal for a May vote. The general consensus seems to be the extra point should be made into a football play.

This will be interesting on how it shakes out for the kickers. I would suspect the punter and place kicker might be combined into a single role.

Among the variations discussed:

» A team could go for two points from the 1 1/2-yard line or kick an extra point from the 15.

» Eliminate the extra point altogether and just place the ball at the 2-yard line, making it a two-point play.

» Narrow the goal posts.

» A college-type rule where a defense could score a touchdown on a blocked kick or interception or fumble return on a two-point conversion. §.

Unexpected Uses for the Apple Watch

Just to the shoot the elephant in the room: Yes, there is gadget lust involved here.

Ever since the original announcement I’ve wondered exactly how I could justify the purchase of something so unnecessary. The features are well documented by Apple and others. I don’t see a need to rehash what a cottage industry of speculation has already hashed.

So to my possible financial detriment, I went and looked at Apple’s Watch pages. Most of it was shown at the Spring Forward Event. As expected the photos are jaw-dropping, and all of the use cases seem oh-so-practical. It’s a site designed to open wallets.

Unexpected Productivity

What I wasn’t expecting to find was something that was entirely business-oriented and practical: time tracking.

Apple Watch with Invoice2Go app shown.
Apple Watch with Invoice2Go app shown.

There are very few people on the planet that enjoy time tracking. One of the major reasons I’ve found is the lack of a common interface. Some apps are desktop-centric, others are phone-first. Switching between them is annoying. Even with the smoothest apps I’ve tried, there’s still friction.

Thankfully I’m not working on any projects that require me to track my time. I have a basic workflow tested in case something comes up. But I’m not happy with it. There’s a Mac widget for when I’m at the keyboard. It works well enough. The friction comes in when switching to the phone.

On the phone the usual process is to unlock it, open the app, choose the project, select the task, and then finally start the timer. Other apps might combine the project/task stop, but the workflow is pretty much the same across the board. Pomodoro timers for the phone have the same problem. There’s still the unlock step and app tapping.

Using an app faster than scribbling notes. There’s no transcription errors or forgetting to enter the data into the desktop app. Overall the apps are faster than anything we’ve had before. But they’re not seamless. Starting a timer doesn’t need a big screen. It just needs to be accessible.

These are the type of tasks that should migrate to the wrist. Mainly because there’s no device to pick up and unlock. The Watch will be right there1 no matter what you’re doing at the time.

Besides, with the right business apps, the purchase would be a tax deduction.

Apple Pay

One other thing I found: The Watch can use Apple Pay without the iPhone present. This means I could combine my exercise walks2 with quick errands. I don’t take my wallet on walks. I also can’t use Apple Pay because my iPhone is past its expiration date.3 It doesn’t have the NFC chip like the latest generation. Unless I grab my wallet or tuck a few bills in my sports bra, I can’t add an errand to my walk.

This doesn’t come up often, but it would be peace of mind to know I had a card available if needed. The security features of Apple Pay are also important. My bank has sent me two new debit cards since Apple Pay was launched. I’d really like to stop putting my card numbers in the hands of these large companies with poor IT practices.

In the end will I buy one. Probably. But not at launch. I want to see how they’re working in the real world first.

  1. Literally within arm’s reach.
  2. The exercise/health tracking features of the Watch are cool too. But I already have a fitness tracking band.
  3. It’s the original 5 and still going strong.

Book Tour: Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy, Ch. 3

Sometimes I run across an older book that’s usually out-of-print, but has exceptional wisdom locked up in its pages. I found this one at my local Half Priced Books.

First Edition cover, 1991.
First Edition cover, 1991.

The very nature of this book—20 essays about writing by the best SFF authors—makes it hard to review as a whole. I think a better strategy is to look at each chapter in detail.

See all of my WSF&F chapter reviews.

Chapter 3: Plotting

This chapter was written by Isaac Asimov. It is the first of five that he contributed to the book. It’s short—only five pages—but covers the essentials of plotting a story.

Continue reading “Book Tour: Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy, Ch. 3”

Fitness Tools: Withings Wi-Fi Scale

I bought this scale at the beginning of 2013. At the time there was only this on and another by FitBit. Since then almost every connected-device fitness company came out with their own scale. I was swayed toward the Withings because it connected to almost everything. They didn’t make a fitness tracker then. So they were open to every app I used. This is still true. I don’t even need the Withings app installed for my weight data to be sent to the apps that I do use.1

Withings Wi-Fi Smart Body Scale
Withings Wi-Fi Smart Body Scale

This particular model has been discontinued. The newer ones have more features of course. But I’ll be keeping this one until it dies. Everything I need, it does. It’s also good on batteries. I use rechargeable batteries in it and get over six months on a charge.

The main reason I splashed out for a connected scale was for the convenience. I like having the data sent to the apps I use. With regular wieght updates the apps can keep my calorie burn current.

Now that I’m keeping a personal fitness log in spreadsheet. I could use any scale. Being able to pull up the data from my phone saves me from two pitfalls. I don’t need my glasses in the morning to see the scale readout. I also don’t have to write down the numbers before I forget them.2

These might not seem like much, but it has been huge timesaver. It’s like a having transcriptionist in my bathroom—but less creepy. Having the data saved automatically means I can update my spreadsheet when I have time.

The extra data (fat/lean mass, BMI) is helpful. I’m tracking fat and BMI on the spreadsheet. I know that the fat mass calculation isn’t the most accurate. But I’m more interested in the trend than the actual numbers.

For the $100 I spent, along with the over two years of use I’ve gotten out of it, it’s been a worthwhile purchase. When it breaks I’ll be buying it’s newer replacement model.

  1. One exception is Apple Health. If doens’t pull the data from the Internet. It uses the app.
  2. Seriously, who keeps pen and paper in the bathroom? If I did, then I’d have to bring it out, then put it back. Which means I’d never have either in the bathroom.

2015 NFL Compensatory Draft Picks

This is something I had never heard of before. Apparently the League tries to even out a team’s loss of quality players by awarding extra draft picks.

The number of picks a team receives equals the net loss of compensatory free agents up to a maximum of four. The 32 compensatory choices announced today will supplement the 224 choices in the seven rounds of the 2015 NFL Draft held on April 30-May 2 in Chicago.

Here’s a quick primer on NFL draft math:

  • There’s 32 teams and seven rounds in the draft, which equals 224.
  • A total on 256 players are on the auction block.
  • The extra 32 picks make sure there are enough picks for the players available.

Of course draft picks are the black market currency of the sport. Some teams are pick hoarders. Others are more casual and work with what they have. It seems like every free agency deal over the last two weeks had some sort of pick involved.

All of these extra picks are in the 3rd-7th rounds. Usually after the fourth round teams are making picks because the have to. The strong players are gone by the third round.

Here's the list of who got what:

 Denver         4
 Kansas City    4
 Seattle        4
 Baltimore      3
 Houston        3
 Carolina       2
 Cincinnati     2
 Green Bay      2
 New England    2
 San Francisco  2
 Arizona        1
 Indianapolis   1
 Pittsburgh     1
 St. Louis      1

I’m not to happy with Seattle getting 4 picks. They’re already a strong team, and have made several big-name free agent signings recently. The NFC West is already the smash-mouth conference. This season looks to be bare-knuckle brawl.

To find out more read the NFL press release (PDF link).