Everything But Backwards

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Ellery tugged my sleeve as we walked through the park on that last golden day of autumn.

“Daddy, why is that man all alone?”

He was five then, full of questions. If I didn’t answer quickly I knew he would race over and ask the  man himself. That was Ellery in a nutshell. Impulsive to the last.

“He’s not alone, son. He has the birds.”

“But he looks so lonely. And old.”

Before I could answer, Ellery was running full trot, jolting to a halt in front of the  bench where the old man sat with a small paper bag perched in his hand. From time to time he reached in and scattered a few seeds, quickly pecked up by the burbling pigeons. He looked up at Ellery.

“What do you see, boy?”

“Birds. Two of them look just alike.”

The man nodded. “They are mirrors. You have seen a mirror, boy?”

“Of course.”

“What does your mirror tell you, then?”

Ellery stuck out his lip, the way he always did when thinking hard. “Everything, but backwards.”

The man smiled, his gums the color of old sneakers. “Yes, that is right. But when you have two mirrors, then the world is put right again.”  He handed Ellery the bag of seeds, got up with some difficulty. “You try it yourself. Two mirrors.”

Ellery, eyes wide, said nothing.

 

Last Night’s Tornado

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Shards of glass and ribs of jagged metal, splintered two-by-fours, sheets of galvanized roofing from a barn twenty miles away. Wreckage as far as you could see in any direction.

“Look at the trees,” she said, sweeping the vista of twisted stumps and branches with her hand.

“Yet the McDonald’s is unscathed,” I said. “Wonderful.”

We picked our way through what was left of our neighborhood. Some of the houses were utterly destroyed while others had been left untouched. One brick house looked fine until you noticed its roof was missing, everything inside sucked out and scattered by the terrible winds.

 

To Scrivener or not to Scrivener?

That is the question. Sure, we are used to Microsoft Word, but is it really all that great? Let’s take organization. If you halfway know what you’re doing you can create a style with chapter headings. Hell, you might even go down the rabbit hole of Microsoft formatting and set your margins, tabs and all that. Before you know it a half hour has gone by. You flip back and forth between your notes. Maybe you use Evernote or a Moleskine in your pocket. Maybe you use the dreadful Word sticky notes or even the comments. Then you start to write. You can scroll to the chapter or click on the link, but sometimes that doesn’t work as well as you’d like. Maybe you auto-selected the entire chapter and deleted it. Maybe your older PC is still dealing with your aquarium screensaver and decides to give you the blue screen of death. Whatever the situation, chances are you have at least one Word horror story.

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Word was created in 1983  by Charles Simonyi and Richard Brodie, former Xerox programmers hired by Bill Gates and Paul Allen in 1981. It was designed for Xenix and MS-DOS. It had several versions, none very successful because back then  computers were for playing chess and maybe figuring out how to calculate interest payments. There was also program for Macintosh called Microsoft Write and a one-off version  for Atari.

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In 1989, it was slightly modified for  Windows. It was a colossal success and pretty much cemented Microsoft’s place  as the Catholic Church of software companies.

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Neither writers nor designers were consulted. There was no user experience research done at all. They gave us the program and it was up to us to learn to use it.

Most writers back then used a simple method. They wrote in a notebook or on a typewriter. They kept notes and went to the library for research. Sometimes they might spread their various chapters and drafts on the floor to arrange things. They certainly did not work in the linear way dictated by some computer program. But after the demise of Word Perfect, a slightly better  program designed to do the same thing, Word was the only game in town. Use it or screw off. Other programs came along, most of them cloning the crappy interface decisions and again repeating the crummy, non-writerly user experience.

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And we still use it. Submit any work anywhere and you will find the default format is .doc or .docx. Microsoft: it’s not that it’s garbage. It’s not that it’s everywhere. It’s that it’s garbage and it’s everywhere.

Enter Scrivener. Originally designed for Mac, it is now available for Windows machines. According to Wikipedia (another staggering innovation for writers)
Features include a corkboard, the ability to rearrange files by dragging-and-dropping virtual index cards on the corkboard, an outliner, a split screen mode that enables users to edit several documents at once, a full-screen mode, and “snapshots” (the ability to save a copy of a particular document prior to any drastic changes). Scrivener allows photos to be dragged into its interface as well. Because of its breadth of interfaces and features, it has positioned itself not only as a word processor, but as a literary “project management tool,” and includes many user-interface features.

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You hear that?  A project management tool. That’s right, and the project you’re managing is a writing project. Non fiction? Fiction? Blog? Yep. You want notes? You want a corkboard? You want multiple drafts conveniently located in the same place? How about pictures, audio clips, scanned documents, websites? Yep. All right there, all out of the way until you need them. And don’t worry about the formatting, because that’s a separate operation. As is editing.

Yes, you need to rethink the way you work, but really–when you think about it, you are merely unlearning a crappy workflow dictated to you a couple dorks who are now fat millionaires whiling away their endless idle hours staring at Elliot Bay through their mansion windows while sipping from a bottle of wine that cost more than your last vacation.

This program is fantastic. It will help you write better. It will help you become more efficient and organized so you can focus on story problems, not software problems.

It’s not just me who thinks so.

Our redeemer is Scrivener… software that jibes with the way writers think. As its name makes plain, Scrivener takes our side; it roots for the writer and not for the final product… The happy, broad-minded, process-friendly Scrivener software encourages note-taking and outlining and restructuring and promises all the exhilaration of a productive desk… Scrivener, then, is one of us, at home in the writer’s jumpy emotional and procedural universe.”
—Virginia Hefferman The New York Times

“Scrivener 2 has been a long time in the works, but it proves to have been well worth the wait. Its first incarnation was an innovative writing tool. With automatic backups, revisioning and snapshot provision, its second is an indispensable one.”—Nik Rawlinson,  MacUser: Editor’s Choice

In perhaps the quintessential example of small, independent developers creating best-in-class applications on Mac OS X, today we’re going to look at Literature & Latte’s Scrivener… It might sound like I’m being a little overzealous with my praise, but I really am quite impressed with both the application and the developer.”—Nabil, AppleGeeks

“I have tried nearly every writing tool available for the Mac and finally stumbled upon one that is, basically, brilliant. I love it. It has replaced every other writing tool in my arsenal.”—Ricardo Sanchez, Conform & Obey

and dozens of other raves.

So seriously, writers. Check it out. You won’t go back to the Microsoft nonsense. I promise. The program is available free for thirty days. Then it’s forty bucks, the cost of eight wedding cake lattes at your Barnes & Noble Starbucks.

I Fear They Will Find Us

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“Where did they go?” she asked again, her voice tight with ensuing panic.

He shook his head. “Maybe they thought we got lost and decided to look for us.”

“But we’ve only been gone a half hour.” Her eyes were wide as she scanned the empty desert rippling with heat. “I wish we’d brought water.”

He had felt vague unease in his stomach turn to cold nausea when they crested the hill and saw the  jeep had gone.  He tried to keep the dread from his voice, but it shook nonetheless. “We’ll be okay,” he said. “Let’s get off of this ridge, though. Let’s go back to the caves.”

“But don’t we want to be up here? They can’t find us if we’re in the caves when they come back.”

“We should stay in the shade,” he said as he started down. He felt a cold spot in the center of his chest, as though it was being held in a sniper’s crosshairs. “They can find us without too much trouble.”

He hoped this wasn’t true.

 

Best I Can Recall

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I admit I was a little drunk when it happened, so I am not perhaps the most reliable witness. There was a girl on the cruise, much too young for me, not that this fact lessened my interest. I had managed to convince her to come ashore with me to a small café I knew where the proprietor made the most delicious saltimbocca alla Sicilia, served with a wine so wonderful it defied superlatives. Of course, being a stranger to this port I knew of no such place, but experience has repeatedly shown me that such difficulties, taken on the wing, can be turned into marvelous opportunities.

 

Alas, this occasion was not so fortunate. The young lady had no head for alcohol and the few aperitifs we took at the dockside bar rendered her pale and speechless. I escorted her back to the ship where the purser took her in hand, escorted her teetering up the gangplank and presumably back to her cabin. I returned to the bar, my appetite quite gone. I was in the process of reviving it with a series of martinis when I heard the splash. I looked up to see the man alone in the bow, looking into the sea with an expression of triumphant malice.

 

During the Storm and After

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The windmill howled like a man being boiled alive, blades turning fast as an airplane propeller, dry  gears gnashing as the  fan-tail whipped  against the fresh black gale. A moan of the tornado sirens in town started up, fought the wind to drift across the fields to my porch where I sat in my cane-back chair leaned against the shake shingles.

I took a pull of whiskey and thought about death in general tornadoes in particular. I wasn’t afraid of either in those days, my reason being that they stood on the opposite ends of predictability and thus cancelled each other out.

 

The Answer Lies Within

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The old woman held up a hand demanding  silence, her gauzy sleeve almost trailing into the candle. I had a hard time not laughing, but Cherie was  wearing what I recognized as her “church face,” somber and pious and overtly attentive. If she was allowed to talk she would likely have used big unfamiliar words and slathered her questions in tones of  utmost respect. Why she would be this way for a dime store spiritualist like “Madame Zaharias” was beyond me.

“You have come with a question,” Madame said, her deep voice rising and falling in an unnatural way. I assumed this was to tell us that the messages were coming from the spirit world. “The answer lies within.”  She waved her hand at the Tarot deck and the large crystal ball set before her on the scarf-draped table.

I wanted to ask how much all this would cost. Cherie was desperate. Personally, I was 99% sure the baby wasn’t mine.

 

Sunday Photo Fiction

Survivors Can Be This Way

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He noticed as soon as he came into the room.

“My bottles. What have you done?”

“Now, Papi, don’t work yourself up. She’s only trying to make it nice. Such a good granddaughter she is for you!”

He grunted, limped from the room.

“I saw them in a box,” the girl said. “I thought they’d look pretty on the shelf.”

Yanna hugged her arm. “Papi can be strange about his things.” She considered the bottles on the shelf. “He will come to like it. So pretty, as you say!”

“Is he like this because of the—the camps?”

Yanna nodded.

 

September 1940

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The photograph does not tell the story.

The faces, improbably fresh, betray little but youth. The uniforms are new, the flying boots unbuckled over battledress trousers. One fellow wears a jaunty scarf tied around his neck in the manner of Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks as he leans against the ops shack in an attitude of studied coolness, cigarette poised in his fingers.  Others around him sit in camp chairs balancing tea and cake on little saucers.

The photograph does not show the line of Spitfires parked along the grass, the canvas patches on the wings plugging bullet holes, the mechanics working in fury to get even one more aircraft ready to fly at a minute’s notice despite the strain of six to ten combat sorties a day for weeks on end, the impossible odds of fighting an enemy more than twice your size.

Nor does the picture betray the knots of raw fear in the young pilots’ stomachs, the knowledge that in twenty minutes they might be trapped in a burning plane spiraling to the ground. It shows nothing of the nightly drinking games in the mess, when the men—boys, really—would place mugs of beer atop their heads and dance on the tables trying not to spill, the group getting smaller every night.

No, it is just a photo of pleasant-looking young men in RAF uniforms relaxing in the sun. They seem to be staring at something in the distance.

 

Sunday Photo Fiction

 

Here’s a link with more on the subject.

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A Walk in the Woods

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The snow was deeper than it looked, cresting the tops of his thin shoes, soaking his socks until his toes were numb except for the occasional needle pricks of cold. His hands were warm enough, deep in the pocket, wrapped loosely around the coil of rope.

With irritation he saw that, on this of all mornings, the Round House was open. People cradled steaming cups as they joked and laughed with one another.

He had forgotten how bare trees were in winter, how far you could see through them, especially something hanging from a branch.

He would go further, then.