Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Tricks and old dogs

What a fun trip down memory lane we are having on Type M this week. Typing and typewriters. I can relate to so many of the stories! Back in the mists of time when I attended high school in the early '60s, students were streamed into academic or commercial (and within academic, into Latin or science, the former being more prestigious). There was flexibility to mix some science into Latin, which I did, but there was no room in the day to fit in typing. It was strictly for those heading to the work force after high school, rather than university.

Although I never took the classics in university and instead focussed primarily on science and psychology, I have never regretted those agonizing two years I spent learning Latin conjugations and struggling to translate Virgil under the fierce glare of Latin teacher Mr. Marcus (I kid you not). Not only is Latin the basis of so many languages, but knowing the Latin root and the connections between words is very helpful in enriching understanding and vocabulary.

I have often had occasion to regret that I never took typing, however. Like Aline, I learned to type haphazardly on my mother's very old typewriter that banged and clacked and regularly jammed into a tangle of keys if I typed too fast. The ribbons were two-toned - red on the top and black on the bottom - to allow for more interesting presentations. I became quite proficient at the hunt and peck technique and also at the liquid white-out that was supposed to correct mistakes. All the way through university I typed up papers on the noisy old machine, usually at 3 a.m.

When I first worked as a psychologist, I wrote my reports long-hand, and these were typed either by someone in the "typing pool" or by the secretary down the hall. Both approaches involved much back and forth to correct errors and edit text. At home, however, I was writing my first fictional masterpieces first on that old typewriter and later on an electric typewriter. I recall the sheer joy of typing my first manuscript on a computer word processing program. No more white-out or correct-o-tape. No more typing pages again and again to edit and re-edit material. Word Perfect was a dream.

Sometimes I long for the simplicity of that early word processing program. I told it exactly what to type and it did it. If it did something peculiar like double-indent a piece of text, I just selected "reveal codes" and I could see exactly what code I needed to delete. It did not attempt to anticipate my formatting or insert sneaky codes that I couldn't see and couldn't delete. It was not full of complicated  options that I would never figure out how to use and would never need anyway. It was a very sad day when Word Perfect was discontinued and I had to switch to MS Word.

I think we are products of our time and become comfortable with what has worked for us well for decades. I still write first drafts in long-hand, and I do not use any of the fancy writing and editing software available to writers to help them organize their ideas and keep track of story points. I just write and keep lists. Like hunt and peck, my technique is laborious and certainly not efficient, but it works for me.

However, I do wish I could touch-type, so maybe I will hunt down Mavis Beacon and give her system a try.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Mavis Beacon changed my life!

by Rick Blechta

This week’s post is in answer to Aline’s post yesterday. I, too, once suffered from a lack of typing skills, but fortunately for me, a new piece of computer software had just been released and was being used in the schools in which I taught. That program was Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.

But first, a digression…

Like Aline, I’d become an Advanced Hunt and Pecker on the typewriter. I could type pretty darn fast. My high school graduation present from my mother was a portable Olivetti. Funny thing was, my mom never suggested that I take a typing course (I used her typewriter all through high school).

In those days, “college-bound” students didn’t take “lowly” courses like typing. Why this was the case I have no idea. Did the educators think that we’d hand-write term papers and then pay someone to type them for us? Because when I got to university the professors made it pretty clear they didn’t want handwritten submissions.

So in the late ’80s when Mavis Beacon was released — the same time as the rise of the computer — it had finally been realized that all students should learn how to touch type. For me, it was simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Listening to my students, I was hearing that they really liked learning how to touch type.

So in 1989 I plopped down $29.95 and bought this program. Never have I spent money more wisely.

Knowing what I did about learning from my musical studies, I realized the clearest way to success was to spend time every day using my new program. As in learning to play an instrument, you can’t expect good results if you only sit down and practise for an hour every four days. Fifteen minutes a day will work far better in the long run whether it’s learning to play a Mozart minuet or learning to touch type.

I made it my business to do my keyboarding practice between the time I got home and dinner. If I hadn’t gotten to it in time, I’d feed our two sons and do it while they ate. My goal was a minimum 10 minutes every day with 15 as my goal. Surely I could find that amount of time in every day.

Surprise, surprise, in a month I could touch type pretty well, maybe 40 words a minute which was more than sufficient for my burgeoning writing career. The Mavis Beacon program is geared towards kids (games and such as a learning tool) but I found it relatively fun and practising never seemed onerous.

I am thankful I took the plunge every time I sit down at the computer to work. So Aline, and anyone else out there who only hunts and pecks, take a few minutes out of your day for one month and you will be a much happier writer. I guarantee it.

Mavis* is my hero!


*While there are other software programs that will successfully teach you to touch type, I have a “relationship” with this program, so I’m recommending it.

And here’s an interesting factoid I just discovered courtesy of Wikipedia: “Mavis Beacon’s first name was taken from Mavis Staples, lead vocalist for the Staple Singers. The surname derives from beacon, as in a light to guide the way.”

No wonder I was drawn to this program. I love the way Mavis Staples sings!

Monday, March 18, 2019

The Qwerty Keyboard

As yet again, I realise I've written the word 'hosue' (a favourite mistake) and murmur grateful thanks as my spellcheck changes it to 'house', I regret the fact that I never learned to touch-type. When I was at school it was pretty much discouraged if you were on a academic syllabus since you'd only need it if you were going to be a typist.

Of course, when it became obvious that this was a serious, all but essential skill in the internet world, I could have taken time out to teach myself but by then I was really quite speedy in a slapdash sort of way and so I've gone on.

The typewriter that I was first allowed to try was an ancient model, the kind you see in old black and white movies, used my my minister uncle for his sermons. I was seven, I think, and I was enchanted. I already wrote stories, but how much more like real, proper stories they seemed when they were printed, even if the letters jumped sometimes. I got my own, very similar, sit-up-and-beg typewriter when I was eleven, and I loved it to bits. The much slicker one that eventually replaced it never had my heart in the same way and my computer keyboard is just a means to an end. I miss the triumphant ping! and slam back as you came to the end of each line.

I never gave much thought to the weird qwerty arrangement of letters, an arrangement that has been in place unchanged for well over a hundred years. If you'd put me on the spot, I suppose I'd have said it was probably based on the letters most frequently used in the English language and the quickest way of reproducing them.

Then I heard the theory that this was entirely wrong; they were actually arranged in such a way as to slow down typing speed, since if you typed so fast that one key had not gone back to its place before the next one was hit, the machine would jam - and yes, when I got ahead of myself I certainly remember that happening.

But apparently this isn't accepted as entirely true either. When Christopher Sholes, a newspaper editor and senator from small-town Pennsylvania became enamored of the idea of 'playing the literary piano' instead of using a pen in 1868, he first devised a machine that did indeed look like a piano, or organ, perhaps, with two rows of ivory and ebony keys. Over the years it was modified and altered as its uses became more defined in a rather haphazard way, but after Remington started producing the qwerty arrangement on their typewriters, somehow that was what stuck.

What it most definitely isn't is the most efficient arrangement. In 1936 August Dvorak designed a much more ergonomic keyboard. Using the qwerty keyboard to copy a test text a typist's fingers would travel twenty miles, compared to one mile on the Dvorak version.

And what happened? Nothing. We all just stuck with qwerty. There are new systems on offer now that can easily be installed on a computer. But I think the reluctance to take time away from our feverish typing, which stopped me learning to touch-type long ago, still operates and qwerty is still king.

I have to admit I now wonder exactly how many typing miles I do on an average working day. Anyone got a fitbit for fingers?

Friday, March 15, 2019

(BSP) Blatant Self Promotion





Charlotte Hinger

Starred Review in Library Journal

“Readers who appreciate historical accuracy in their fiction will find this a powerful read. The impressive degree of realism and Hinger’s skillful weaving of personalities and story lines make it a real page-turner.”

I know this is shameless. But it really makes me very happy. More along a proper writing post next time.

STARTING OVER by Guest Blogger Tom Savage

Hi, folks. I was delighted when John Corrigan invited me to submit a guest post here, and I wondered which aspect of the writing life I should address. I’ve chosen a subject that isn’t exactly pleasant, but it’s a reality for many of us.
I’m talking about starting over. I don’t mean abandoning or rewriting a story or a novel; I mean hitting the Restart button on your writing career. It may have happened to you, and it’s definitely happened to me. Twice. Here’s my cautionary tale:

I wrote my first novel, Precipice, in 1990-91, and went shopping for an agent. After 20+ rejections, I found one. He sent the manuscript around to all the big houses. There was an auction, and the highest bidder gave me a two-book deal. Precipice was published in 1994. My second novel, Valentine, was sold to the movies, and they actually made the movie! I wrote two books in a detective series for another big house, and I eventually wrote two more thrillers for a third big house. That’s six books for three big houses in six years, plus one movie.

Then, in 2000, I walked away from it all. Why? Your clue is in the three publishing houses. Every time I got momentum going somewhere, my editor either got fired or ran away to another house. Two of my novels had one editor at the beginning and a different one by the time they were published. The new editors weren’t interested in me. My books faded and fizzled. So, I stopped.

I didn’t stop writing, mind you, but I stopped publishing. I parted ways with the agent and went back to my day job as a bookseller at Murder Ink®. I wrote several manuscripts that stayed in my computer, unseen and unread, until 2008. That’s when my friend SJ Rozan asked me to join her writing group. I started reading those manuscripts aloud to a gang of fellow writers who convinced me to go out into the marketplace again.

I found a new agent, and she found me a publisher—a new, ebook-only imprint of Penguin Random House called Alibi. My first novel in fifteen years, A Penny for the Hangman, was published in 2015. I started a new series about an actress named Nora Baron who becomes a field agent for the CIA, and Alibi published three Nora Baron titles over the next three years. Of course, my acquiring editor was fired in 2017, so I ended up with a new editor who wasn’t interested in me. Sound familiar?

Two months ago, I didn’t just lose the new editor—I lost the whole publisher! Yep, Penguin Random House did a clean sweep, firing dozens of editors (including mine) and shutting down several imprints (including Alibi). They’ll publish the fourth Nora Baron thriller, The Devil and the Deep Blue Spy, next month, but that’s the end. I’m back to square one.

This time, I’m not walking away. I’ll have to write new books and find new publishers. I’ll have to start all over again, but I’ll do it—I’ve had practice. And that’s the moral of this tale: We can always start over. All we need is the need to tell our stories.

Tom Savage is the author of 12 novels and numerous short stories. He's served as a director on the national board of Mystery Writers of America and on the Best Novel committee for MWA’s Edgar awards (three times) and International Association of Crime Writers' Hammett Prize (two times). He's a founding member of MWA-NY’s Mentor Program, advising and encouraging new mystery writers. He lives in New York City, where he worked for many years at Murder Ink®, the world's first mystery bookstore.  You can learn more about him at his website and his Facebook page. 

Thursday, March 14, 2019


“Where do you get your ideas?” This vague question is asked in two contexts: During Q@A sessions when audience members haven’t read your books; or by readers who know your work and are genuinely curious as to the mental swamp from which they emerge.

My answer is equally vague: Sometimes writers choose the topics about which they write; other times, topics choose writers.

For me, it’s much more enjoyable and engaging when the latter occurs. A topic jumps up and grabs you by the throat and says, Write me. I’m in that mode now.

I attended a boarding school in the 1980s, when my parents were searching for an academic community to help their “learning disabled” (we don’t call it that anymore) son, and a school was looking for hockey players. It was a match made in heaven. Sort of. Like many students who arrived with large athletic dreams, I had been a big fish in a small pond; at boarding school, with students from around the globe, I soon realized Maine wasn’t the hockey hotbed I thought it was.

One student didn’t have that problem. His name was Mark Green, and, simply put, he was in a different league than I (and just about every other teenage athlete in New England) was. I now teach and live at a boarding school. And after nearly 30 years of high school, I can say confidently that Mark was the best high school athlete I have come across. He was New England’s top lacrosse player, probably the best offensive hockey player, and could throw a football 70 yards. He was six-foot-four, 200 pounds, and recruited by Div. I colleges in all three sports. He was two years older than me when I was 16, and to say that I learned the difference between what it meant to be a good hockey player and a great hockey player skating alongside Mark would be an epic understatement.

This is when Jeremy Roenick and Tony Amonte were coming up, and Mark was exceptional, even skating against them. But Mark never made it to the NHL, which, always surprised me. I never knew why. When I played with him, the accomplishment of that goal for him –– no matter how lofty –– seemed a forgone conclusion.

For years, I wondered what happened to Mark Green. Like a lot of writers, I’m interested in human interest stories, and I read the news all the time. Then, when I returned to boarding school –– following stints covering the city desk at a daily and a weekly and teaching public school and community college –– I began coaching hockey. The memories of Mark and that team (four players were chosen in the 1987 NHL Draft) returned. And my curiosity led to some late-night Internet digging. One story led to another, and I stumbled upon this one.

It led to so many questions and hopefully to a story, not fully realized yet but one that’s tapping my shoulder and whispering scenes. It’s a story that’s complicated and has more questions than answers and won’t be told completely, but one that offers a starting point for a novel. And it’s one that is certainly worth telling.

Sometimes you choose your stories. But when you’re lucky, your stories choose you.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Calm Between

I’m turned my book in, I’m back from Vegas and I’m enjoying a bit of calm before I receive comments from my publisher. Once I get those next week, I’ll be back at the writing biz.

For now, though I’m enjoying that bit of calm. I’m catching up on things like updating my website, taxes, cleaning and reading. The last month before my book was due, I didn’t get much reading done so I’ve been very happy to dig into several books that have been on my TBR pile for a while now. Here are the three I’m currently reading.

In the nonfiction realm, I’m reading The Library Book by Susan Orlean. It’s an account of the fire that destroyed a lot of the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986,
burning for seven hours and consuming 400,000 books and damaging 700,000 more. It’s a fascinating look not only at the fire, but also the history of the library itself.

I’ve lived in L.A. since I came down to go to college in 1977, but had never been to the Central Library until a few years ago. I admit also that I’d only briefly heard of the fire. I suspect that’s for two reasons: (1) it occurred the day after I got married in 1986 and we were more concerned about getting on a plane for Tahiti to go on our honeymoon cruise around the South Pacific than in the news and (2) Chernobyl happened at the same time so it got a lot more attention.

I’ve since taken a tour of the library, which now seems to be bigger and better than ever. If you get a chance to tour the library, do it. It’s really quite beautiful and interesting. While you’re there you can see if my first book, Fatal Brushstroke, is still on their shelves. It was there when I visited a few years ago.

In the historical fiction realm, I’m reading Tombland by C.J. Sansom. This is the latest offering in the Matthew Shardlake series set in Tudor England.
I’ve been interested in Tudor England since my sister introduced me to Henry VIII and his wives when I was a kid. This is a great series set during that period. Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer who crosses paths with Henry VIII, Catherine Parr and Lady Elizabeth over the course of the series. In this book, Henry VIII is gone and his son, Edward, is on the throne. Matthew has been hired by the Lady Elizabeth (you know, the one who becomes QE I) to look into a murder. I highly recommend the series.

The last book I’ll talk about is one meant for ages 8-12, The Sixty-Eight Rooms by Marianne Malone. It’s a charming book about two kids who discover a magic key that allows them to shrink down and enter the 68 Thorne Miniature Rooms in the Art Institute of Chicago. This is the first book in a series. It’s full of mystery, magic, history, exploration... Just a fun read even for an adult. I’ve never been to Chicago, but some day I’d like to see the gallery that inspired the book.

That’s it for me today. This is my birthday week so I’m enjoying the calm. I hope you’re doing the same.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Nihilistic Passwords

by Rick Blechta

It’s March Break up here in Ontario, and even though I no longer teach in the public school system (or at all for that matter), it still feels like a holiday to me. My wife does teach (flute) privately, so she has the week off because most of her students are unavailable anyway. Anyway…holiday!

Since I am nothing else if not a supportive husband, I’m helping her feel like she’s doing something out of the ordinary, even if we are staying home.

What I’m trying to say is that the weather is nice, the sun warm and she wants to get out of the city to do some walking. As a consequence, I don’t have time to write the post I wanted to. So what you’re all going to get is a very funny list that might help you figure out unbreakable passwords for your computer applications and webpages.

Here it is, and even if those big, bad hackers do manage to break your password, you can at least take comfort that you no doubt will have depressed them beyond belief.

And that’s worth something, isn’t it?