Wednesday, November 17, 2010

More on Living With the MacBook Air 11.6" - Day 8

One Cool Laptop
    One of the things I hate most about laptops is how hot they run. If you don't put some kind of pad under them, they'll cook your legs. Or you can use it on a desk, but then that sort of defeats the purpose, doesn't it? On cold days, I used to slip my fingers under the laptop to warm them up.

    Well, the MacBook Air 11.6" is incredibly cool, most of the time running close to body temp. Not much use as a hand warmer. It will get warmer if you're watching videos since the processor has to work harder, but it's still not bad.

Too small? Nah.
MBA and 1/4" hardboard pad
    Under all my laptops I've used a piece of hardboard to insulate myself from the heat. I don't need it for this purpose with the MBA, but I'm trying one out to see if it will keep the laptop steady. The MBA is so small that it tends to rock a bit on your legs when you're typing. The board isn't a necessity and I'm not even sure I'll keep using it, but might be something you want to consider. Hardboard is like pegboard material but without the holes. It's available at home improvement stores.

    I wouldn't bother taking the board on trips. After all, the whole point of getting the small MBA is for its lightweight design.

Carrying Cases
11.6" on hardboard
    Right now, you're out of luck on finding much of a choice for cases for the 11.6". Even the Apple Store doesn't have them. Some manufacturers are doing advance orders, such as SF Bags, and I'm sure Incase and others are scrambling to get something to market. I've read on forums that other netbook or laptop bags aren't a perfect fit. The MBA is wider than the norm due to its wide screen format. We'll just have to wait a bit.

No CD/DVD Drive
    Nope, you can't watch DVDs on this laptop, at least not without buying the optional external MacBook Air SuperDrive for $79. I haven't missed it so far. You can "borrow" a CD/DVD drive from another Mac or PC using Apple's Remote Disk feature. I used it to install some software, but couldn't get an older version of Quicken to work, nor does Windows install by remote disk. Not a deal breaker for me since there are usually other ways now that so much is online. And if not having the optical drive helps chop a couple of pounds off this unit, I'm willing to make the trade.

Daily Use Report
    My main worry was about the smaller screen size compared to my 13" MacBook. I did notice it initially, but after a week of daily writing (some days for several hours) I don't notice it at all. It's like this is normal. Part of this is due to the higher screen resolution, which provides more info onscreen. Of course it's all a bit smaller, but it doesn't bother me.

    I write with MS Word 2011, iTunes (gotta have tunes!), a browser, NoteBook (by Circus Ponies), and Pages (iWork by Apple), all open at the same time. Usually I also have Mail, Evernote, maybe another browser, and perhaps Excel (timeline for my book). Honestly, I can launch just about every application I have and the machine still keeps humming along just as fast as ever. I think it's using the fast Solid State Drive as backup RAM, but the SSD is so incredibly fast that I don't even notice it.

    I did pay to get the upgraded model: 128 GB SSD drive (up from 64 GB), 4 GB RAM (2 is standard), and the 1.6 GHz processor (up from 1.4 GHz). These upgrades were $100 a pop. But I tried the lower end model in the stores and launched everything I could, then copy/pasted a Word doc until it reached over 1,000 pages and tried a few Saves, disk copies, etc. It still screamed. I was duly impressed.

    My primary reasons for getting the upgrades were, 1. I'm using this as my main machine, not just a travel notebook, and 2. Apple has the new OS coming out next year, Lion, and it's possible it might benefit from more RAM and a faster processor. You can't upgrade either on these machines. And 3. I have a pretty large iTunes library and 64 GB SSD didn't give me enough headroom. Right now with everything installed, I'm using 75 gigabytes, so I definitely needed the larger drive.

    I'll be glad to answer any questions about the MacBook Air. Just leave a comment or drop me an email.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Living With the MacBook Air

    I want to talk about using the MacBook Air 11.6" as a daily machine, especially for writers.

    After 2 days of setup (syncing my iPhone, moving files, installing applications), I'm ready to go. I decided to do new installations of software instead of using Apple's Migration application because my old MacBook had three years of crud from multiple installs and some issues. I wanted a fresh start.

    Size-wise, the keyboard is exactly the same width as my MacBook and just 1/8" shorter from the bottom of the keys to the top of the number keys (the Function keys are smaller by about a third, but they work fine. I wrote for a couple hours yesterday and it didn't seem much different than my older MacBook.

    The key touch is great--typical Apple. The wrist pad area is about 3/8" shorter, but very usable. Not sure why Apple keeps making the front edge so sharp. Might have to file that down a bit. I used a cleaning rag on my old MacBook (it had a sharp plastic edge) for my right wrist since it tends to hang off the edge a bit more than my left--due to using the trackpad, I guess. Or maybe I'm built weird. MB Air Trackpad is glass like the MacBook Pros, and large. Very nice and not overly sensitive.

    The first thing I noticed is how BRIGHT this LED backlit screen is. Wow, what a difference! After using it for a day, it would be very hard to go back. Haven't tried it outside in sunlight, but might work. Screen is reflective, but not as bad as some.

    Straight across screen Width is 10 1/8" on the Air compared to 11 1/4" on the 13.3" MacBook. Height is 5 3/4" vs 7". But the resolution is better, so the amount of vertical info in windows is about the same.

    Real Experience: I was using Office for Mac 2004 on the old machine, but upgraded to Office for Mac 2011 Home & Student edition. I use Word for writing and keep the formatting tabs (or whatever you call those things labeled Home, Layout, Document Elements, etc) rolled up. I set the Preferences to launch with them closed. This provides more vertical space for the writing window. 

    I tested Word at the Apple Store, opening two docs side-by-side, and found it very usable.

    Let me just say, this computer is FAST. Fifteen or so seconds from cold boot to everything working; 1 1/2 seconds for full Shutdown. With the Solid State Drive (SSD) of memory instead of a standard hard disk, it's lightning fast read & write times. Word launches in 2 seconds. And wake from Sleep is instant, like an iPad.

    If you've seen the advertisement, you know the 11.6" MBA is small and light--and it is. At 2.3 lbs, it's a breeze to carry with you everywhere. Library, Starbucks, conferences. And BONUS, the airport TSA doesn't require you to remove it from your carryon like other laptops.

More in a couple of days.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Technology in Writing

    I took the plunge yesterday, bought into the hype and drove to the Apple Store. I came out with a shiny new MacBook Air. It has an 11.6" screen, a fair amount smaller than my 13.3" MacBook, but I'd tried it out a couple of times in the store and thought it would work. It has a bigger brother with the same size 13.3" inch screen as the current MacBook Pros.

    Macs have long been my computer of choice. In fact, my first one was still in 1984, the year the first Macintosh commercial debuted during the Super Bowl earlier that year. It was a tall, foot-square box with a 9" B&W screen and 128k of RAM. It had a single floopy, but I splurged and bought the upgrade: the external floppy drive. I was a happy man with two disk drives. No hard disk.

    All computers were a challenge in 1984, but the Macintosh caught on due to its graphical user interface (GUI), which changed the way computers worked. For a few years, it was touch and go for Apple and the Mac, but the good times are rolling now.

    After the better part of two days, I've got a clean system with only the software I need installed. I even spent a little time at the Cambria library today doing some writing. All my writing files, bookmarks, mail, etc., are in place and working. And I have my backup set up.

    Let me say that again: I have my backup set up.

    After having a hard drive fail several months ago, I never take backups for granted (I'd just done a full backup the night before the failure).

    For a few posts I'll touch on technology and the MacBook Air, specifically as it pertains to writing. But first let me tell you about something I recently learned about: Dropbox (

    Whether you use more than one computer or just need someplace to store files for backup, Dropbox is pretty cool. 2 GB free. I'm using it to hold a copy of my latest work in progress. After I close the doc, I just drag it to the Dropbox folder and it's stored locally as well as up in the cloud at my free account with Dropbox. I can get to it from any computer. Check it out.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

ACFW Contest News

     The 2010 American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) annual conference in Indianapolis, Indiana, was held the third weekend in September. I knew I was one of five finalists in the Mystery/Suspense/Thriller category of the Genesis Contest, so I figured I had a 20% chance of winning, right?

     Unfortunately, I wasn't able to attend due to a conflict, but some thoughtful conference organizers arranged to have a live blog feed posting the award banquet happenings. So it was Sunday afternoon at an inn in Sonoma, California, where I watched the blog postings flow by, announcing the genre categories, the list of finalists, the runner up, and then the winner of each category. About 650 people were at the awards dinner, and another 120+ like me tuned in online.

     As they say at the Academy Awards, it's an honor just to be nominated. It really is--and lot's of fun, too. And it was fun as my name came up on the list of 5 finalists: Rich Bullock, Storm Song (my latest book and my entry for the contest). Seeing the book's title in print on the computer screen makes it that much more real. You see, I've lived with this story for over a year, laboring over every line, crafting every character's past, present and future. I know the people in Storm Song better than I know many of my live friends. So, because it's only a manuscript on my computer (and dozens of backup copies!) and not a printed book, sometimes it doesn't feel quite real. But here it was, my book title flowing by on a national blog post.

     Then they announced the runner up: wasn't me. Then they announced the winner:

     Rich Bullock, Storm Song.

     I had a little trouble breathing. Sheryl let out a little scream (didn't want to disturb the other guests at the inn). Wow. I'd actually won the contest category. We went out to a very nice dinner that night!

What it means:

     Well, it doesn't guarantee a publishing contract, nor is there a sizable check in the mail. But a lot of key people saw and heard about it. I have hope that the agents and editors I've contacted will take a second look now.

     Thanks for everyone who says they can't wait to read the book. That's exactly what I want, too!

     Thanks for all the support and congrats from so many. You are so incredibly valuable to this whole writing process.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Fiction - The Great Teacher

At noon today I took a walk in the old Cambria cemetery. Since it's an old California logging town from the mid-1800s, there was a section where the Chinese were buried. But their graves weren't marked or preserved.

Many others' were, however, and some of the headstones told tiny, interesting stories. Babies and young children were perhaps the most poignant. One from the late 1800s, and another 90 years later.

Most headstones didn't have epitaphs, although many had military service details: WWI and WWII, the Spanish American War in 1898. A lot of people died in the 80s and 90s -- that's 1880s and 1890s. I also discovered a lot of people in the 1800s who lived into their 70s and 80s. They probably walked a lot more than we all do today.

I found the Reverend Henry C. Thomson's headstone who died in 1928, a year before the Great Depression. "A faithful servant of the Lord Jesus Christ." 

But one thing all had in common: they all had died. That may seem obvious, and I don't say it to be funny. And, except for the younger ones, I imagine most considered what legacy they would leave after they were gone. 

I wonder about that. Do you?

From a fiction writer's perspective, legacy is a powerful motivator for characters, both negative and positive. Some waste their lives on frivolous pursuits, and others build a business that none of the kids want. Still others live as "A faithful servant of the Lord Jesus Christ." 

Fiction has been said to be true stories that haven't happened. I believe we learn best from the stories of others. And that's why fiction is such a great teacher. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Special Edition - Press Release

Great news! While on our recent road trip – 2700 miles through Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon, and back to California – we got stuck briefly at the Jeep dealership in Las Vegas with a minor AC problem. (By the way, I highly recommend Chapman Dodge.) Well, that wasn't the good news and it cost us some bucks, but ...

... I was sitting in the waiting area when my cell phone rang. It was American Christian Fiction Writers, letting me know I was a finalist in the Genesis Contest for my current suspense novel. I'm one out of five finalists in the mystery/suspense/thriller category! I've entered twice before, but this is the first time I've made the finals.

We'll know who won in September, but check out the press release on my website. VERY encouraging.

Thanks for all the support of my writing. Many ask how it's going. Today I can say it's going GREAT!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

From Mount Hermon - Saturday

   Greetings from Beautiful Mount Hermon, CA, in the Santa Cruz mountains. I'm joined by about 300 other writers amongst the azaleas and redwoods to soak up writing skills, network, and reconnect with friends.

   My task this year is to make as many contacts as I can. With two completed manuscripts and another one rattling around in my brain, I'm anxious to get on the publishing trail. I submitted Storm Lake to two agents for publishing review (one got back to me a few minutes ago and wants to talk with me) and have an appointment set up with another on Sunday.

   The tag line is getting some attention: "Nothing's quite as peaceful as a mountain lake retreat. Unless it contains your ex-husband--and a killer."

   I'm in a mentoring group of eight, led by author James Scott Bell. We each "get" a turn on the Hot Seat where, for 30 minutes or so, we receive feedback and critiques of the others. Humbling and informative--and just a bit intimidating!

   Besides the mentoring group, there are 70 workshops from which to choose. That's enough to overload anyone!

   I also have two buddies this year--two first-timers who I helped get ready for the conference. Both great guys.

   But the best thing about the conference is connecting with friends. Pictured with me is Rebecca Miller. Becky and I met six years ago at Mount Hermon. We've been in a critique group together and she's a great writer of fantasy. You can read her blog at A Christian Worldview of Fiction.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Published yet?

Are you published yet? I get asked this just about every time people find out I'm a writer.

The short answer is: No.

Longer answer: It takes a while. You work on the craft for years, polishing and honing, and then you network and make contacts until the planets align. Right now the planets are crashing into one another.

The publishing world is in upside-down chaos these days, sort of like the Poseidon Adventure, only less fun. Both Barnes and Noble and Borders are hanging onto bricks and mortar book stores, but they are hurting. People are browsing, then buying online from Amazon or other e-retailers. This means they are having a hard time making the building lease payments, which pressures the mall owners, etc.

But what this all really means is books are being sold for less than ever--either p-books (printed) or e-books--from online retailers. Even physical books sold at Walmart and Costco pressure the price. That puts the squeeze on the publishers' profits, which further cuts into the authors' receipts. Pretty soon, it just won't pay to write books. Oh, wait...that's pretty much the way it is now, at least for most authors.

Check out the well done blog on this topic by literary agent Steve Laube: "Is This the End of Publishing?" He has some links to rather discouraging blogs about the state of publishing, but also a very creative video that gives some hope.

Now, does all this doom and gloom mean no one will write books? No. Writers write--gotta do it. It's like a bad habit: once you pick it up, it's hard to put down.

So I'm excited about the new publishing world. We're going to have many more choices of where we get our reading material. Sure it'll be confusing for a time, but the possibilities are almost endless.

And those possibilities take me one step closer to publication.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Making Characters Real

How do you make characters real?
    Lots of opinions and methods around this one. Some writers sit in malls and observe people for hours, others record dialogue in restaurant booths or use acting techniques to go deep into the motivations and mindset of the character. Whatever combination of tools, the character must become a real person whose story unfolds.
    I joke that I know my characters better than my friends. Sadly, it’s not a joke at all, but I think that’s okay. You see, by the end of a book, I know everything there is about my characters. I know their hopes, dreams, fears, failures, guilt. I know how they feel when someone loves or slights them. Their favorite foods are different than mine, but I understand their tastes and cravings. 
    What’s revealed in the book is only a small part of the “real” person. You don’t see all the backstory that made them who they are: breaking a tooth in a bike fall as a kid, being picked last for the grade school team, having your toy accidentally broken by your drunken father, watching as a kitten gets run over in the street. Oh, wait...those are all my backstory.
    Friends ask me if real people show up in my stories. Well, contrary to all the disclaimers in the front of books, the answer is a qualified yes. My mom shows up a lot. She’s a funny person with a flamboyant personality. Who better to include? However, it’s not really her in the book. I might include a funny line of hers, a mannerism, a story, but the character has different goals and abilities, more or less money, and usually isn’t as entertaining!
    Characters are as complex as real people--and as a writer, I have to know them better. The good news is if I get tired of them I can change them or write them out of the story!

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Kindle is Dead. Long Live the...?

   The Kindle: Holds up to 1,500 books, has wireless capability so you can download and begin reading a book in less than a minute wherever you are, thin and light weight. Technology that only a few weeks ago was THE Christmas gift, THE hot ticket. Amazing!

   Then on Jan 28 Apple announced the iPad. It isn't even out yet (April 3 according to the commercial seen during the Academy Awards show on Sunday, March 7), but it's already made the Kindle look like a 1972 Buick, complete with clunky design, forgettable plastic, and--horrors--a non-color screen that doesn't even respond to touch.

   Search for "Kindle" on Google and "iPad" comes up as one of the sponsored links at top. And, of course, there are at least half a dozen other ebook readers on or hitting the market right now, all vying for the privilege of showing you text and/or graphics.

  So what do competing ebook reading devices do to the publishing world? Craig Mod has an interesting post on this. He discusses the difference between Formless and Definite content. Essentially, Formless content is what we fiction writers do, a flowing story that could pour into any container (Craig's description), whereas Definite content needs the structure of a consistent physical view, such as photos embedded with the text, or description that refers to adjacent graphics, etc., (think textbooks).

   The Kindle does Formless content very well. But the iPad is going to absolutely kill the Definite content space. And, of course, the argument goes: why not have one device that does both?

Just Touch Me
   After owning an iPhone for five months, I expect EVERY screen to respond to my touch (even my home heater thermostat a couple of years ago had a touch screen for setting the temperature). Other Smart Phone manufacturers are scrambling to release their next "iPhone killer." Why? A huge part is because of the touch screen interface.

   Touching is normal for us. We understand it. It's kind of like ... reading a book! Yes!! We just touch the screen page and turn it to the next one. What could be easier?

   But I think Amazon will jump forward. They already bought a company with touch screen technology a few days after the iPad announced. Touchco, Inc has flexible screens, so if Amazon can merge this technology with Kindle, it gives a new definition to stuffing a book into your beach bag.

   Bottom line, though, is that it's going to get a lot easier to publish books. The barrier to entry--previously a mighty high wall--will drop to the height of...well the thickness of a Kindle or iPad: 1/3 to 1/2 an inch.

   Happy reading.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Writing by Melody

    Many people are surprised to learn I write while listening to music. Doesn't everyone? Guess not.

    My current book, Storm Lake, revolves around the female lead singer in a symphonic metal band in the Netherlands. During the biggest performance of her life, on-stage during the finale, someone tries to kill her. Now before you go off on several tangents, let me explain. She's originally from Nebraska, so this isn't a "foreign" setting as such. And symphonic metal music probably isn't something you're familiar with. Until I started researching it, neither was I. It's not Aerosmith or Kiss. Symphonic metal really hasn't caught on in America. It's certainly not everyone's easy dining music, but I find it fascinating, especially since there are a lot of references to hell, God, sin, passion plays, angels, redemption, vindication and evil. Talk about great themes! But that's a bit off topic.

    Because this music is so much a part of my character's life, I listen to iTunes while writing. For a few reasons:
  • When I turn it on, I'm instantly in the writing mood (think Pavlov's dogs) and into this particular story
  • My earbuds block out the world around so I can concentrate
  • The energy of the songs gets my blood pumping
    One drawback is that this does cost me some money because I keep finding cool songs on iTunes or Amazon mp3. Pandora got me started but now is my downfall!

     A common question is, isn't it distracting? And do I listen to songs with lyrics. Sometimes it's distracting, mostly because the music doesn't fit the particular scene I'm in, or I'm trying to fix story continuity which is more mentally taxing than character interactions. And no, the lyrics don't bother me. Weird, I know.

    I'm not the only weird one out there; quite a few writers plug in the iPod while writing. You might just give it a try. And if you think you're too old to change your ways, I was well into my 50s before I discovered this helpful trick.

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