Writing Blog

Harsh Conversations With Myself


It has been an interesting year for me. For a couple of personal reasons (the details of which I don't really want to get into here), I have written nearly nothing in a year. I haven't found myself in a writing mood. I didn't even win NaNoWriMo this year, and for anyone that knows me, this is a huge failure.

On the flip-side, I have found myself more passionate and interested in my day-job, teaching. I have been in a new school, now a high school teacher instead of middle school, and that has certainly been a factor. In addition, I'm working for a principal, and admin team as a whole, that genuinely appreciates me and my work. I like my kids more (though I'm not going to try and say there aren't individual exceptions), I enjoy my day more, and I generally like my co-workers. This is weird to me.

Along with a more supportive administration, I also now have an administration that looks to my strengths, and asks me to impact the school in a positive way with those. During this year, I have been part of a Digital Curriculum Teacher Leader core consisting of 5 teachers from our school (and in a school with nearly 200 teachers, that's a small number). Through this training group, I have come to be a teacher leader for technology, running Professional Developments for my fellow teachers and administration. So, when the idea of a Digital Curriculum Instructional Coach for next year was floated by my principal, I said that it should be me, and he agreed.

Despite all the evidence in front of me, I have still always considered my online presence (and really, even internally) considered myself an author first and a teacher second. My acceptance that this was not truly the case was not easy.

Still, after a long and blunt conversation with me (and yes, I talk to myself, and I don't need your judgment!) I decided that this long-neglected blog needed a facelift and a repurpose. So, you can now expect to see more frequent posting, especially posts focusing on technology in the classroom. And who knows, maybe I'll start writing fiction again because of it (hey, a guy can dream, right?).

Audiobooks: Are They Really Reading?

bigstock_Audio_book_14340599-e1330386218724Despite what the title may imply, this post simply will not answer that question, partly because I don't actually have an answer and mostly because I'm too lazy to research the answer in any way.

I have had friends tell me before that they have "read that book," and then proceed to talk about the voice work done by the narrator. My immediate response is to cringe, and sarcastically throw up air quotes like I'm raising a very tiny, and crooked, roof. My gut reaction, as a reader, is that reading is a task performed with your eyes, and if you are listening to another person read to you, you just aren't reading.

Then, as a writer, I have to pause and think logically. I write because I have a story inside me that must get out. I publish because I want to share that story with others. How people choose to consume that content shouldn't matter to me so long as they consume it, and, to a much lesser extent, I get paid.

The writer in me disagrees with the reader in me, so I turn to the tie-breaking side: the teacher. Unfortunately, this is where the waters get even more murky.

When dealing with students we talk about phonological awareness as one of the factors that determines literacy, or ability to recognize and repeat sounds of the language. In this aspect, audiobooks would have an advantage over print because you are hearing the words pronounced correctly (assuming the narrator is any good).

However, we also judge students on other skills, like being able to recognize "sight words" (common words that anyone should be able to recognize) and their ability to sound out unfamiliar words. In these two skills, audiobooks have little benefit.

The best answer is to say that audiobooks have their place and so do print books. Certainly we use reading aloud regularly with children (especially with younger children who are learning to read), and even with middle school students this is a common and useful strategy. But when it comes to real-world application, their boss certainly isn't going to read their employee manual or emails to them (although as the technology improves, text-to-speech makes this a possibility).

I go back and forth on this issue a lot, but I think ultimatley it comes down to a question of intention. If you intend to "read" a good story for the literary or entertainment value, then I don't see why you can't dive into the world of an audiobook with as much fervor as print, and so long as the writer still gets paid, he can rejoice in another willing mind to paint his world into.

But with children, we need to avoid letting them depend heavily on audiobooks. I would like to believe that no amount of technological innovation will ever make the ability to read unnecessary [NOTE TO SELF: Future blog post?], and so being able to listen to someone else read will not be able to replace good ol' fashioned reading.

What the Future Means to Writers - or - Some Advice to A Friend

A friend of mine said to me on twitter today, “Brad, kind of struggling lately with the idea of being a writer, given so few people read these days.  Any recommendations?”

It was an innocuous enough question, and he was probably just looking for me to say “Keep at it!” or “You’re great!” or some other such fluffy nonsense (at least this is the response I imagine most people would give), but being that I am a writer and a thinker [NOTE TO SELF: Can you be a writer without being a thinker? Future blog post.], the question really got the gears upstairs moving.

Now, I am a writer of fiction, and avoid research at all costs, so I don’t have any fancy numbers to back up all the stuff I’m saying, just the observations of a crazy person and the random bits of data that I have heard and gotten lodged in my brain.  Plus, I write this blog post as my wife drives, so I don’t have the power of the Google-machine to research these facts even if I wanted to.

It is a really loaded question because of the basic assumption, that people generally read less.  As a middle school teacher I can definitely vouch for the trend.  Many students simply don’t want to read, and getting them to do so, even as part of a required component of the class, is a constant challenge.  This is echoed by their statements about their parents not reading, or even owning books.  Beyond these observations, there is certainly a decline in book sales as a whole.  Stores like Borders and Barnes and Noble can’t seem to keep their doors open, and I constantly see used bookstores going out of business (though this could easily be attributed to the fact that they can’t possibly compete with the Amazon used book model).  For the purposes of this blog post, we will allow the assumption to stand, that people are, at least generally speaking, reading less.

As my brain ran through its higher gears to contemplate all the implications of this seemingly simple question, I thought back to comments made last night by Eric Ruben (generally awesome dude.  Follow him on twitter @rubenagency), literary and showbiz agent.  He was talking about the state of the publishing industry now, and one thing he said really hit me: “Now more than ever, writing is showbiz.”  He made comments about readers being accessible to their readers, but I think it goes beyond that.

Technology is truly starting to blur the lines of what is and is not a book.  For example, is an ebook a “book?”  It doesn’t have pages, and you just can’t hold it in your hands like a real book (as I’ve heard many people complain when talking about my own love for ereaders).  I find myself particularly torn when you start to talk about audiobooks.  If someone listens to an unabridged version of Harry Potter, can they truly say that they “read” that book?  Trust me when I say that this is not the post for me to delve into that argument [NOTE TO SELF: Future blog post].

I ramble about all of that so that I can tell you my recommendations for my friend.  With the lines blurring, we as writers have to start to change the definitions of ourselves.  I think the new thing we need to call ourselves is “content creator.”  There are people out there who are respectably successful running a twitter account and finding ways to monetize it (one of my personal favorites is @sarcasticrover).  There are lots of people who are successful YouTube producers, and as this channel becomes larger as a place for original content, they will be in need of writers.  Others make a comfortable living doing freelance writing, a magazine here, blog post there.

So, while I don’t think people are reading novels as often, the human species as a whole will always have a thirst for knowledge and adventure.  We as writers just have to be willing to find the new way our audience consumes the content we have to offer, whether it is through the spoken word (which would arguably be a regression instead of a progression) or 140 characters at a time.

How to Setup Automatic Redundant Free Backup

So here's the step-by-step that I promised a few days ago.

For this, I will be assuming you use Scrivener, but as I said before, this would be possible with any program that has an automatic backup option.

    Install both of these programs on your computer.  Default settings on both are fine.
    Google Drive: https://tools.google.com/dlpage/drive (you'll need a Google account, which you should have anyways because it's free and awesome. 5GB of free storage)
    DropBox: http://db.tt/Nc4fWP7Q (signup is free, and signing up with this link helps me out by giving me extra storage for my account)
  2. Backing Up Main Files
    In Scrivener, open up the project file for your book.  It should open up automatically when you start it.
    Click File, then Save As.  Navigate to the location of your newly installed Google Drive directory.  It should have installed itself in the favorites section if you're using Windows 7.
  3. Auto-Save
    While we're in Scrivener, lets make sure that you have auto-save setup.  This will help us in case you're not a paranoid freak about hitting CTRL + S like I am.
    In Scrivener, click on Tools, then Options.  Now make sure that the setting for Saving is at 2 seconds and the check box for "Automatically name" etc., etc. is checked.  Now, every time you stop typing for 2 seconds, Scrivener will save to your Google Drive, which is automatically backed up.
  4. Auto-Backup to DropBox
    Now the fun part.  This is where we get the true redundancy that makes this so well protected.  While you're in the Scrivener settings, click on Backup.
    This picture shows what all the settings should look like:
    The zip files option is really up to you, but it makes the files slightly smaller, which is nice.  Also, makes them a lot easier to download from DropBox should you need them because it is now one download instead of an entire directory.
    Also, I would leave "Retain backup files:" on Only 3.  There shouldn't be a lot of need to keep more than 3, and since you only have 5 GB of storage on DropBox and could potentially have multiple Scrivener files as you work on multiple books (and use DropBox for other purposes as well), keeping three should be fine.
  5. How to Use It
    Well, it is automated, so you don't have to do anything different.  The one thing I would point out is that Scrivener won't create the backup that does to DropBox unless you close the project (or close Scrivener), or manually save.  This is where my paranoia works to my advantage, so if you're not the kind of person that hits CTRL+S a lot, maybe start doing that.

Well, that should do it.  If you have any problems or questions, throw them in the comments.  Oh, and stop worrying about your novel getting erased.  Your files are safe now!

For Writers: How to Get Automatic Free Redundant File Backup

Today, I was clearing out some old Scrivener backup files and wasn't paying as much attention as I should have been. Somehow, deleting one of the backup archives broke my current Scrivener project and dumped me back to where I was on my WIP two months ago, effectively losing 5 full chapters (and a ton of edits) of my work.

Needless to say, there was a moment of panic on my part.  Then I took a deep breath and remembered that I use redundant backup solutions, so the information was still out there in the cloud, I just had to go find it.

Obviously this is entirely my own fault, but the whole experience got me thinking about other writers, and the possibility that they may not know easy and free ways to setup redundant automatic backup of their files.

I've decided to split this post into two posts.  In this post, I am going to generally explain what I use and how it benefits me.  In a future post (I would say tomorrow, but I'm not making any promises) I'll give a step-by-step guide on how to set this stuff up.  Most people will probably be able to set it all up without the guide.

First, lets talk about some assumptions about backup and what you want.  First, file backup should be automatic.  If you have to manually backup your files, you will inevitably forget, and at the very least will not backup your files as often as an automatic backup solution.  This means that when you have a catastrophe and need the backup, you are going to have an older one, and you can get a lot done even in just a couple of hours that you don't want to lose (especially if you get into a story and really let the words flow!).

Also, your backup should be off-site.  External hard drives are pretty cool for mobility purposes, but in general hard drives are prone to crashing, and external hard drives are more likely to crash than internal ones (based on personal experience).  Also, if the event that triggers the need for your backup is a house fire, flood, terrible roommate or anything else that destroys your home, your external drive will likely be destroyed or damaged as well, making the effort you put into backing up entirely wasted.  On a side note, if mobility is your goal, I strongly suggest you buy a flash drive.  Because they have no moving parts (they are what we call a Solid State Drive), they are not as easy to break or as likely to have damaged data, though I will agree they are a lot easier to lose.

I use three different backup solutions, two of which are free and one that is not.  The paid service I use is called Carbonite, which is $59 a year and backups your entire computer automatically and unintrusively at all times.  This means that it protects not only all of your writing, but all of your photos, videos, other documents, etc. as well.  I've been using it for years and highly recommend it.  As this is not a free service, that's all I'm going to say about Carbonite.

Now, to the good stuff.  I use Scrivener to do my writing, which is a great program (also not free), but creates a TON of files you need to backup.  In fact, it creates an entire folder on your computer (with other folders inside of that one, like Inception, but without the completely stupid ending), and every file in it is important to your manuscript.  To backup, I use Google Drive and Dropbox, both of which offer programs that create directories on my computer that are automatically backed up.

When I created my Scrivener project file, I saved it in the Google Drive folder on my computer.  Every time I hit save (and actually more often than that because I enabled autosave on Scivener, so it saves every time I stop typing for more than 3 seconds), Google Drive immediately takes the new data and uploads it to my Google Drive server, which makes the files accessible anywhere and also gives me redundant backup as Drive saves all your files on multiple servers in case one of them fails (Google is extremely secretive about how they backup your files, but suffice to say, they're safe).

In most cases, this system alone would be enough, unless like me you do something stupid and delete the backup in order to save space, despite the fact that you didn't have any shortage of space.  Yeah, I know, dumb.

So, in order to protect against user error, stupidity, and Google as a whole crashing simultaneous to your laptop crashing (also known as the digital apocalypse), I use Scrivener's auto-backup feature to backup to the directory on my computer that is synced with Dropbox (I tried for a long time to have the Google Drive directory just be the same as the Dropbox directory, but like two fat kids with just one candy bar that isn't a Twix, the two just don't play well together).

Once these things are setup (which is easy and free), everything I write is backed up to Google Drive every 3 seconds and whenever I hit the save button (which I do all the time because I'm a paranoid lunatic) it is compressed and backed up on Dropbox.

I don't have much experience with other writing programs (except Microsoft Word, which we all know isn't the ideal writing option for a novel), but I imagine that most of them have a backup option to be used.

Stay tuned for the step-by-step (with screenshots) for how to set this all up in a day or two.  Till then, keep writing!

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