List of Unsolicited Advice Posts

5 Software Development Skills That Make Me A Better Writer

It’s no secret that I don’t earn much money from book sales. The bulk of my income comes from my day job: I’m a software developer for a big Canadian health care organization. If you’ve been in a hospital in British Columbia in the past eight years or so, there’s a good chance your doctor used the app I work on.

I don’t talk about my software job much, mainly because it’s not that interesting from the outside looking in. Still, I’m glad to be doing it. It’s challenging without being overly stressful, the people I work with are great, the pay is good by almost any standard, and it leaves me with just enough free time to bash out a book every year.

The importance of a good day job was recently highlighted by Robert Jackson Bennett, a talented, award-winning author who also works a nine-to-five. In particular, Robert suggests you need a steady day job while you’re building your backlist. I agree — in fact, I’ll go one step further and say a good day job might even teach you how to be a better writer.

Looking back on Winterwakers, I notice that a lot of the things I did right involved skills I acquired from the software biz. I’ve compiled (nerd pun intended) the most important ones here. Some are quite obvious, but some may surprise you. Continue Reading

The Addictive Allure of Outrage

Admit it: you love getting mad.

It’s okay. We all do to some degree. The adrenaline surge from a perceived threat is a primitive, powerful high. Responding to that threat with primal outrage is a marvelous release of tension. We’re designed to get excited by conflict, even if it frightens us sometimes.

When someone is wrong on the Internet, we feel that surge. And when we hit the reply button and vent our outrage, we feel satisfied. We’ve identified a threat and fought against it. We’ve done something good and righteous.

And when someone we like gets outraged, we join in. Combat is a team sport, after all, and we all want to reap the spoils of victory. But when it’s one of our allies who’s attacked, we take up arms and repel the invaders. We must protect our tribe at all costs.

An eye for an eye until we’re all blind.

I’m a fan of stand-up comedy. It’s one of the purest forms of creative expression that exists. As someone fascinated by stand-up, I enjoy reading interviews and articles where comedians talk about their craft. One central topic that keeps coming up is how much the game has changed for them in the social media era. Before Twitter and smartphones existed, comedians would go to the clubs and deliver their fresh material to a small crowd — essentially a beta test for new jokes. Some jokes would work, others would not. The jokes that got laughs stayed in the act, the rest were cut and never heard again. There was an implicit understanding between the comedian and the club audiences that this was a proving ground, and that mistakes would happen from time to time. To err is human, and when a real, live human is standing in front of you performing a labor of love, it’s only natural to cut them a bit of slack. Continue Reading

Lenovo vs. Mrs. Perkins

Three weeks ago, my mom told me she needed a new laptop, and wanted some recommendations. I pointed her toward a Lenovo with a 15 inch touch screen, a model I considered to be a great bang-for-buck high-end laptop that met her specific needs (she’s visually impaired, so the large touch screen is a must-have).

This weekend, I had to take a break from editing Winterwakers Part 3 so I could spend some quality time with said laptop, repairing one of the worst security holes in the history of computing.

The whole situation really drove something home for me: when it comes to computing, there are two worlds. I live in one of them, and my mom (and most people) live in the other. In my world, computers are an open canvas, one that is frequently shat upon by companies like Lenovo. In my mom’s world — the world of the “normal” computer user — computers are mysterious black boxes that work most of the time, but occasionally act malevolently for no apparent reason.

I learned about Superfish on Thursday morning because I follow the right people on Twitter, and understand what they’re talking about. My mom learned about it because I sent her an email titled “Lenovo severe security/adware issue,” in which I volunteered to fix it for her because I knew it was beyond her capabilities.

Let me be perfectly clear on that point: my mom would have never even known about Superfish, or how serious a problem it was, if it weren’t for me personally warning her.

What if my mom had bought a Lenovo laptop without telling me? What if I was on a trek through the wilderness this week, missing the whole Superfish story? More to the point: what if my mom was one of the millions of normal-world Lenovo users who didn’t have someone in the tech world to tell her about Superfish, and impress upon her how serious an issue it is?

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Every Writer Deserves a Mechanical Keyboard

keyboard_cmstorm2 One of the great things about writing, when compared to other artistic pursuits, is that it doesn’t cost much. As I said a while back, anyone with a half decent computer has everything they need to write a book. Compare that to the cost of working in the visual arts, music, or film, and writing looks like a pretty sweet deal. (I should know–I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of money on music equipment over the years.)

However, in my experience, there are definitely two things a writer can buy to make writing easier and just … nicer. One is an outstanding software product called Scrivener. There are plenty of blogs out there already singing its praises, so I’ll just say that it’s wonderful, and that I’ll never, ever, ever go back to writing in That Blue Application Which Shall Not Be Named. Today, I’ll focus on the other great writing tool I’ve bought: my CM Storm Quickfire TK mechanical keyboard. It’s wonderful, and I’ll never, ever, ever go back to typing on cheap, squishy keys.

Okay, I’ll bite, Matt: What’s a mechanical keyboard?

The simple explanation: it’s a fancy keyboard for people who type a lot, or people who demand a high degree of accuracy from a keyboard. Writers fit both those categories, especially the typing a lot one.

You can also think of it this way: it’s a high-end keyboard for people who aren’t satisfied with the mushy feel, imprecise action, and slow speed of your typical came-with-the-computer slab. Said people might even remember when keyboards were somehow intangibly better, and yearn for those days. Those people aren’t just crotchety old nutjobs–they’re actually on to something. (Seriously though, you should probably get off their lawns before they throw their canes at you.)

You see, many years ago, every computer keyboard was mechanical. They were much more durable, and noticeably more pleasant to type on. Today’s keyboards are–and I’m not exaggerating in the slightest here–utter garbage in comparison. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say the keyboard is the only piece of computer hardware that has gotten demonstrably worse since it was invented. Continue Reading

Why Deep Space Nine Should Be Your Gateway to Star Trek

Deep_space_9I love science fiction, and I love when people new to the genre take their first steps into it.  There are a lot of negative stereotypes around sci-fi (some admittedly well-deserved), which makes it all the more impressive when non-fans make the courageous jump.

As a massive sci-fi franchise of seven television series, twelve feature films, and countless books, graphic novels, and games, Star Trek is a daunting universe for the novice to get into.  From the outside looking in, the bulk of that material can seem dull, pedantic, and devoid of feeling.  But beneath the slick surface of transporters, warp engines, and holographic doctors, Star Trek is, at its core, a story about the triumph of the human spirit.  Trek shows us humanity at its best: flawed in many ways, but capable of astounding ingenuity, bravery, and compassion.  These themes and story-lines are relate-able to anyone, hard-core sci-fi geek or otherwise.

So, how does the non-Trek-fan break in?  Which show offers the path of least resistance for the modern pop culture consumer?  My answer–and I am 100% firm in this–is Deep Space Nine.

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