Sunday, October 02, 2011

Loving My Mac

I usually don't write about the geeky stuff in my life. I've always been a math and science nerd and, in my early thirties, became a computer nerd. After discovering that a Bachelor's degree in psychology wasn't a whole lot of good when it came to finding a job, I went back to school and got an Associate's degree in Data Processing, where I learned to program computers.

This skill served me well until a few years ago. I built my career on the IBM midrange computers (System/34, System/36, AS/400) and, as PCs and Microsoft took over the business world, it became harder and harder to find a job. When I was laid off from my last job two years ago and found a different type of computer-related job, I figured my days of business application programming were over. I was too close to retirement to make retraining realistic. Besides, what I really wanted to do was write mystery novels.

Writing a novel is not easy. It sounds easy. I mean, all you have to do is sit down at your computer and type up a story. Try it. What you learn pretty quickly is that the first thirty or forty pages are easy. That's all the stuff that's the premise for your story, the ideas that have been floating around in your brain, the things that inspire you. Then you get to the dreaded middle and you have to figure out how to get from that inspiring beginning to the bang-up finish. There's plotting and subplots and how do you get all those characters to play nicely with your story?

As Walter Smith said:
There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open up a vein.
My biggest stumbling block was my inner editor.  I suffer from PERFECT. I expect that what I write--the first time I write it--will read like Hemingway or Dennis Lehane or Agatha Christie. That's nonsense, of course. Even Agatha Christie's writing didn't read like Agatha Christie the first time she wrote it. My expectation of perfection crippled my ability to write anything.

That's when I discovered NaNoWriMo. In case you've never heard of it, NaNoWriMo is a worldwide effort by thousands of people who have always wanted to write a novel "someday" to actually write a novel. It's not a long novel--only 50,000 words--but the catch is that you have to write all of it during the month of November. The whole point of NaNo is quantity, not quality. If you are going to meet the daily quota of 1667 words, you haven't got time to fiddle around with each sentence or paragraph or chapter and make it just so. You have to write. Fast. You can't delete anything or you'll fall behind. You're encouraged to write nonsense, silly sentences, unlikely scenes, all with the goal of "winning" by finishing your 50,000 word novel in thirty days.

NaNoWriMo was a godsend for me. I learned to turn off the inner editor and just keep writing. I've done it five of the last seven years, winning four times. That means I've completed four "novels" for NaNoWriMo in addition to two novels of traditional length. I sometimes think my NaNo novels are better than my "real" novels.

On the NaNo forum boards, which, of course you go to when you're trying to avoid actually writing or as a reward for completing your word count for the day, there's a section for writing tools. People talk about what they're writing their novel on. It's amazing the variety of devices and programs people use. This is where I learned about the Alphasmart (now rebranded Neo), a handy portable device that, at the time, was much cheaper than a laptop, lighter, and perfect for just writing text. Being the nerd that I am, I opted for the sister Dana, which runs the Palm OS and could use applications developed for the Palm Pilot.

The other tool I learned about was Scrivener. People raved about this writing software. It sounded perfect for writing novels. But it only ran on a Mac and I, being the business application programmer that I was, had a Windows XP machine. (They now have a Windows version, still in beta, but didn't then.) So I did my planning on paper and wrote in Word and tracked my word count in Excel for several years.

Then two years ago (remember how I started this?), when I found a job a lot quicker than I'd expected to and still had severance pay in my bank account, I made a decision. I wanted to use Scrivener. In my mind I was transitioning from a career as a programmer to a career as a writer, an artiste, if you will. So I bought a MacBook Pro. Macs are cool. Macs are fun. But they're not Windows PCs. You have to relearn habits built over years. And I bought it right before NaNo started.

It didn't take too long for me to find how I needed to do the minimum on my Mac in order to use it for the things I commonly use a computer for. I switched from Outlook to Mail without too much effort. I downloaded Firefox so the browser was familiar. I'd tried Open Office on the PC previously because I knew in my heart the change to a Mac was coming, so I immediately downloaded OO for the Mac. The functionality there was a little different because it used Mac conventions, not Windows, and it was frustrating in that most of the instructions and messages on the OO forums talked about the Windows and Linux versions, not the Mac version. But I could use the word processor for most things. And I downloaded Scrivener.

Okay, there was a whole lot of learning curve involved in all of this. New computer, new software and NaNo coming. There was too much to Scrivener, a genuine Mac application, to learn it before NaNo. I wrote that year's NaNo novel in Open Office, which was enough to deal with. And I fumbled along with using the Mac as best I could.

This month, two different things happened. The Guppies decided to form a Scrivener subgroup to share tips and ask questions about how to use this software. With the Windows version being tried by a number of people and many of us Mac people not using the program to the extent we knew it could be used, we figured a group of us discussing it was a good idea. That got me interested in looking for functionality and actually (gasp!) reading the manual.

Now, in my real geek days, I would have taken the manual to bed with me. I thought IBM technical manuals were terrific bedtime reading. And, no, they didn't put me to sleep. But I wasn't about to take my MacBook to bed with me and the only manual that comes with Scrivener is a pdf that you read on the computer. Even the suggested third party books are ebooks. Now, I love my nook, but I prefer to read non-fiction in paper. I need to be able to flip pages and stick my fingers in three different places to figure manuals out. You just don't have that kind of functionality in an ebook.

As long as I was into manuals, I decided it was time to get one for the Mac. One of the paper kind where I could highlight and stick my fingers in the pages (see above) and have it open beside me as I sat at my computer. I'd read in a set of blog comments that "Switching to the Mac the Missing Manual" was a pretty good resource, so I ordered it from Barnes and Noble. Yesterday I started reading it.

Oh. My. Word.

I'm only on page 20, but already I am loving it--and my Mac. I have learned so much in those first pages. What I suddenly realized is that I have been using my MacBook and always thinking in terms of what I wanted to do on a Windows machine, then figuring out how to do it the Mac way. I haven't learned to "think Mac" or, as the ads used to say, "Think Different."

It's kind of like when you take a foreign language in school and have to answer the teacher's questions in that language in class. You think of the answer in English first, then translate it in your head into the equivalent in the foreign language. I took four years of French before I started to formulate those answers in my head in French rather than English.

The Missing Manual has opened up a whole new feeling about my Mac. I realize now why so many artists and writers are in love with the Mac. While a computer and technically a left-brain object, the whole way it works is much more right-brain. It's not all logic and formulas. It's movement. It's freeing. I can't believe it took me two years to get to this point. I wish I had found this book earlier, but at least I found it now. I'm going to have a lot more fun on my computer than I have in a long time.
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