Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Why I use Open Office

Last week I finished the switch from Microsoft Office to Open Office on both of my computers.

I had several reasons, the first of which was practical. I just replaced my desktop computer after the last one bluescreened its way to its final meltdown. The new machine is a refurbished model from Red Rabbitt, which included a free trial of Microsoft Office. This means that every time I opened Word I got an annoying pop-up message telling me how many more times I could use it without paying. When I clicked “OK”, it would urge me on to the Microsoft page to spend an ungodly amount of cash on a software program no person should spend money on if it's not included with the new computer they buy (and unless you're buying a Mac or know where to find a computer preloaded with Linux, you get Microsoft Office).

And why didn't I shell out $150 for a program I use every day? Because there's a better one available at only the cost of a five minute download.

Open Office includes a full suite of programs comparable to Microsoft Office, but because it's open source, you can use and share it freely without the risk of criminal charges. Since I really only use a Word Processing program, OO Writer serves essentially all my needs. It has the added bonus of converting and opening Word documents, and the ability to save Open Office text files in Word (an ability that my last machine, running Microsoft Works, lacked. What a pain.).

I recently bought a Netbook that included the Microsoft 7 “Starter” pack. The only word processing capacity on it was Notepad, which I have never liked. Initially I tried installing Ubuntu on the Netbook, which includes Open Office, but the installation failed (still working on that). In the meantime, I transferred Open Office from my desktop to my Netbook on a USB stick. No piracy violations, no licensing key to enter, just a quick painless download. Plus, now that I'm using the same software on both my machines, I don't have to worry about converting files.

In addition to practicality, I'm a big supporter of the Open Source movement. When you license proprietary software, you're bogged down with restrictions: you can't transfer the program to another machine without violating copyright, and you don't have access to the source code. That means that, if you're a programmer type, you don't have the ability to alter the way your program works. (I'm not, but it's an important point for programmers.)

Open Source programs, on the other hand, can be downloaded freely, used by anyone, and altered by anyone. That means if you want to change the way the program works and share that change with others, you're free to do so.

Open Source (related to the free software movement) also builds community. The programs are free, but you're encouraged to contribute to their creation, distribution, and promotion. When I installed Open Office, I was thanked for using the software, and asked to help. Since I'm not a programmer, I chose to help by spreading the word about Open Source software. So, here I am spreading it, and happily so.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Accidental Alchemy

[This post also appears on the Locoblog.]

Sometimes stories don’t go where we tell them to.

We can set up a neat outline, with beginning, middle and end firmly in place. We could have solid story and character arcs set up. But when we lay the words out on the page, they just don’t work. The characters wouldn’t do that, or the conflict is sludgy. There’s no way this story is going to end up the way we intended. Naturally, plotters are more likely to run into this than pantsers, but anyone can end up dead on the page at any point.

When I find myself staring dumbly at an obstinate story, I like to think of the Zildjian Cymbal Company.

14/366 Zildjian
Photo by Hillarie

If you’ve seen a drum set with cymbals, you’ve likely seen the Zildjian name in flowing script atop a high hat. But Zildjian cymbals were never meant to be.

The company’s story goes back to the seventeenth century,* when an Armenian alchemist set about experimenting with his craft. The proto-science of alchemy sought dual goals: 1) transmuting base metals into gold; and 2) the acquisition of the ‘elixir of longevity’, which would grant the alchemist life far beyond the natural span.

Our alchemist accomplished neither of these. He combined a mess of tin and other metals into thin discs which were, frustratingly, not gold. However, the discs did produce an unparalleled clarity of sound. So unparalleled that Sultan Osman II named the man Zildjian (literally 'cymbal maker') and hired him to create cymbals for his Janissary bands. The bands used the cymbals as noisemakers to frighten enemies in battle.

Zildjian's heirs continued the company business, eventually shifting to producing musical instruments. This led to an international company of cymbal makers, all bearing the Zildjian name.

When our secret-seeking hero set out to combine those metals, he failed in his original goal: no transmuted gold, no life-extending potion. However, he gained massive amounts of gold working for the sultan, and even today, the man’s name and story are known worldwide. His metal craft has served millions of musicians. I would argue that he achieved alchemy’s goals through unexpected means.

'Unexpected means' are a key to story development. I have never written a story from beginning to end where I knew every move it would take along the way. Connections always happen in the process, new approaches that make the tale fresh and interesting. I can't know what shape those connections will take beforehand; I have to work through the unknown, tolerate the less-than-expected or -stellar, and let the work create its own shape.

So when faced with a story that’s failed to produce intended gold, don’t despair. Keep writing. Trust your craft. You may end up with a tinny mess; or maybe, you’ll find transmuted glory in a twisting path of words you could never have planned.

*The history of the Zildjian company is fascinating; you can view a time line of it here.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Gary Wedlund's thoughts on writing

Over at the Locoblog, Gary Wedlund tells us what he's learned about the craft of writing, and why it's important that we teach one another. Check it out and share your thoughts.