On Writing a Short Story

AlphaSmart Neo (by StarbuckGuy)

I wrote my first short story last week, and I’ll never be the same again.

For instance, I can no longer say “I don’t write fiction,” as I have for decades. I can no longer read fiction and wonder, “how do they do that?” I can no longer wonder why my right brain doesn’t seem to work. It evidently does.

This is terrible. I can no longer hide behind my mantra: “I’m not a storyteller.” That gave me permission to avoid fiction writing altogether. “What? Me write a story? Don’t be silly.”

I also had the romantic notion that I could ever write a piece of fiction, from that point on, there’d be a new, creative me. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Although I knew it in the abstract, I now have a working insight into how difficult fiction is to write. Harder than anything I’ve ever written.

Forget the chapter I wrote for a SAMS book on recovering a failed Linux system. That was a piece of cake compared to looking at a blank page and attempting to coax out a story with a character who’s interesting, conflicted, and flawed, but maybe likeable.

Some part of me told me to at least try. Timid, I started by listening to podcasts of writers talking about their stories. I bought the odd book on fiction writing. I studied episodes of Joss Whedon shows to get a sense of how he and his writers created such zingy plots and dialog.

Then she came to me. A character. One I wanted to write about. The more I thought about her, the more I realized where the setting of the story should be. I thought of a plot that might be interesting. And over the course of a couple of weeks, I finished it.

How’d it turn out? In truth, it sucked less than I thought it would. Although it contained awkward spots and lots of beginner’s mistakes that need fixing, there were some genuinely positive and encouraging comments as well, from my critique group.

And now I’m terrified. What if I can’t learn the craft? Maybe I’m too old for this. Will I ever be able to write another story? Novel? Are you nuts?!

Sadly, I’m hooked. I now know, absolutely, how stories get written. One word at a time. Two words deleted for every three written. Hard work. Bum in chair work. Existential: no excuses.

But you know what? It’s also fun. Hard work, but fun.

A New Photo Chapter

Panasonic G1 & Friends (by StarbuckGuy)

Those of you who visit my Flickr photostream know that I have a new Panasonic Lumix G1 camera and Panasonic 14-45mm kit lens. The kit lens has proven to be remarkably sharp, just as I’d heard.

The G1 makes a nice walkabout camera. It’s a little smaller and lighter than most DSLRs and it has some unique features. The most radical design change over a DSLR is that the G1 uses an EVF (Electronic View Finder)  in place of the traditional mirror and prism arrangement. This allows the camera to be smaller and to offer some advantages already known to P&S shooters such as histogram preview in the viewfinder. The G1 also has a fine, large, tilt & swivel LCD that helps for high shots and low shots.

People vary in their reaction to EVF. My older Canon S3 IS uses EVF and I’ve always liked using it. The Canon has nowhere near the resolution and brightness of the G1, however. The G1 may have what is, for now, the best EVF in the industry.

My main reason for getting a G1, though, was not its advanced features, but its ability to be used with retro lenses. There are lens adapters available for lens mounts such as Leica M mount, Nikon F mount, and Pentax screwmount (perhaps bayonet mount as well). That opens the option to using classic, manual lenses, and I love using the classics.

A couple of days ago my Leica M to micro-4/3’s mount adapter arrived from an eBay dealer in Shanghai and I got to take my first shots. It was late in the day with little light left so I used a fast lens: Konica Hexanon 50mm f/2 — a lens highly similar to a Leica Summicron 50/2. With some help from my friend Peter, I learned what setting to put the camera on so the adapter would no longer cause an error warning.

I hadn’t yet figured out how to invoke Manual Focus Assist so I carefully eyeballed the focus as best as I could and got about a 30% yield in well-focused shots. Not very good, but the shots looked outstanding in terms of resolution, clarity, colour, and, especially, bokeh. The OOF (out-of-focus) areas had a creamy transition.

The next day I decided to RTFM (advice I usually give to others but hadn’t taken myself) and found the magic sequence that invokes Manual Focus Assist. And here’s where the G1 offers something unique — something I’ve never experienced before. It magnifies a small part of the image digitally and it’s amazing how accurately you can focus a manual lens this way. And then, when you press the shutter button half way, the view springs back to 100% for composing.

It’s not a fast type of photography, especially when using longer lenses, but for static subjects it works really well. Today I put on the Voigtlander 75mm f/2.5 lens Peter lent me and the 2x crop factor turned it into a 150mm f/2.5 equivalent. It yielded some nice images and showed me what a good combo this made. The only time I had trouble was when I forgot to watch the shutter speed and used a speed too low to be hand held steadily. I’ve become so accustomed to image stabilization, I forgot to think.

Best of all, the G1 meters well when the manual lenses are attached, with plenty of provision for override.

Of course with the 2x factor, you lose when it comes to wide angle lenses. I took a couple of shots with my Voigtlander 15mm Heliar today, and they were very, very sharp, but the nifty 15mm became a garden-variety 30mm prime. Still, it retains the DOF of a 15mm which would make it a pretty decent street lens. You can focus to infinity and forget about the need to manual focus every shot.

There’s one additional element to this that I find deeply satisfying: I get to ‘look through’ my rangefinder M-mount lenses for the first time ever. Rangefinder cameras use a separate viewfinder — they don’t view through the lens like an SLR. It’s a camera-geek thrill, but a thrill nonetheless.

Fun stuff, and I’m already thinking what a nice combination the G1 would make teamed up with my Bessa R3A rangefinder camera. The G1 for longer shots and colour, the Bessa for B&W (film) and true wide angle. Both cameras are compact and rangefinder lenses are much tinier than SLR lenses, on the whole.

Hmmm, but then I think of all those Nikon primes I own. Now that I know the adapter works well, I may just have to consider getting a Nikon F adapter as well.

Art Pencils (by StarbuckGuy)

Photo taken with Voigtlander 75mm lens on Panasonic Lumix G1

My Last Tweet

Tweetie Bird (by drschenck)

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t get Twitter. But with everyone advising you to use it, in conjunction with Facebook and other social media, to keep an Internet profile, I gave it a try.

I located some friends and ‘followed’ their ‘tweets’. I followed the tweets of some well known personalities. I tried Twitter as an ‘update service’ to let me know about articles, news items, and new web entries.

I understood all this, but I still didn’t get it. Twitter derives from instant messaging and from text messaging, phone to phone. Cell phone that is. It belongs to the culture that apparently wants to be in touch and available almost all hours of the day. I automatically think ‘teenagers’ but what I’m seeing belies that. The world is turning into a cell-phone/texting culture. I don’t get that either.

I own a cell phone. I’ve never texted with it and I only have it on for emergency purposes when I’m out of the house. Perhaps my mild aversion to cell phones comes naturally. For over five years I was in an ‘on-call’ rotation in the IT department of a large insurance company. It was 24/7 and often brutal. When my pager beeped or my corporate cell phone rang, it was usually not happy news.

Even so, I still don’t get why people want to broadcast one-liners along the lines of ‘I’m in Starbucks having a delicious green-tea latte’, ‘Just watched Dollhouse. It’s not going to survive’, ‘Rejection slip. I’m bummed!’, ‘Too sleepy to stay awake. Night, night.’

Sure, it’s life, as lived even. It’s also life at its most trite and banal. It’s characters acting out a part in a play with a bad script, made up as it goes. Engrossing? Perhaps to a sociologist.

Lately there has been a rash of articles in places like the Toronto Star offering advice on what constitutes a good use of Twitter, Twitter for your business needs, and so forth. Kids, when the daily newspapers start explaining how to tweet, you know whatever ‘cool factor’ Twitter might once have had is gone.

Admittedly I’m not the best judge of ‘cool’. I’m somewhat solitary, but when I see friends, I prefer to see them face to face. I don’t automatically count everyone I meet on the Net as a ‘friend.’ I’m fine with email — it works more than adequately to keep me in touch with friends, family, and colleagues. I enjoy discussion forums where something might actually be discussed.

A lot of people keep Twitter open in a window as they work, and tweet back and forth with ‘friends’ throughout the day. Although habitues of Twitter will likely disagree vehemently, I think I can say with some assurance that every tweet read and replied to lessens your concentration and efficiency.

You can multitask fluently, you say? There’s not a neurologist on the planet who agrees with you. ‘Multitasking is a myth’, is their consistent message. But we all cherish our illusions.

Life is short. As I approach my 64th birthday, it seems very short. I’ve tweeted my last tweet. My account has been deleted.

I’d rather be writing.

Panasonic Lumix G1

Panasonic G1 & Friends (by StarbuckGuy)

The Panasonic Lumix G1 has tempted me for some time. I like cameras that are lightweight and compact and after an assignment that involved carrying around a Canon 50D body, I was more than ever convinced that “lighter is better.”

Obviously what works for me doesn’t apply to others but I recently sold my beautiful Nikon D300 solely because of the weight. With some cash lying around, I thought about another prime lens for my lightweight D60 body but decided to experiment with a G1.

Part of the attraction of the G1 is that there are a number of adapters available for other lenses, and one that has been popular among rangefinder users is the Leica M-mount adapter that allows the G1 to use any lens with a Leica bayonet mount.

I have four such lenses — Voigtlander 15mm, 21mm, and 40mm, not to mention a Hexanon 50mm. The idea of a 40mm f/1.4 becoming an 80mm f/1.4 prime on the G1 is delicious. I’ll see how it works out. I have an adapter on its way.

Besides a tilt&swivel large LCD panel, the G1 has the best EVF (electronic view finder) I’ve yet seen. Very bright with high resolution. Ever since owning a Canon S3 IS I’ve like EVF’s. What makes the G1 particularly usable, especially for manual-focus lenses, is an MF Assist feature. The G1 magnifies the centre of the image while manually focusing. I’ve found this an excellent way to get sharp focus, trying the technique with the kit lens.

The optically stabilized kit lens is a sweetheart. Its 14-45mm zoom range delivers the 35mm equivalent of 28-90mm — a good walkabout range. Reviews of the lens have been laudatory. Like my Nikon 18-55mm VR lens, it gets high marks for sharpness. I’ve not yet decided about the 45-200mm kit lens, which with the 2x crop factor gives a 90-400mm equivalent in a compact, lightweight lens. For now I may keep the G1 as a more experimental camera. If I were going on a vacation trip, I’d snap up the 45-200mm in a jiff.

Another useful feature of the kit lens is that it takes 52mm filters, the same as most of my Nikon lenses. Because of this I already have a set of +1, +2, +4 diopters, ND, and polarizing filters. It’s nice to be able to use them directly on the kit lens.

I’ve not had enough time with the G1 to log extensive shooting experience but what I’ve seen of it so far, it’s what I’d hoped it would be: lightweight, compact, sharp, easy to use, and above all, fun.