Posted by: Glenn Pettit | June 11, 2014

Lessons hopefully learned

I always hope that I have learned from what I’ve read and seen, and that I will remember the good stuff and won’t repeat the bad stuff. For example, while I have enjoyed the work of the late Michael Crichton, I found that his exposition concerning characters tended to be a bit long. In fact, a couple of times while reading Crichton’s books, I zoned out as I was reading two pages of backstory on a newly-introduced character, only to find later in the story that out of those several paragraphs of biography, one sentence really did matter. Another example is JRR Tolkien’s works, wherein the greater part of the story is travelogue, while the heroes spend surprisingly little time actually fighting the villains. Sorry, but as much as I enjoyed those stories, I can’t write that way. It pays to know one’s limitations.

I have trained as an actor and director, and so I am very critical of many films I see—and, conversely, very appreciative of good acting. I remember in particular a scene from the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, and watching Simon Callow as he watched a friend’s wedding: how he subtly showed us what he was going through as the events unfolded, rather than telling us. The best actors say very little. When I am reading, I am quite conscious of that same idea: I want authors to tell me what a character is doing, so I can work out their emotions, rather than them telling me that a character was saddened or happy. Actions really do speak louder than words.

I am a very visual person. Like most people, when I see words on a page, I cannot help but picture the scene in my mind. And so when I write, I write what I see and hear in my mind: sounds, smells, sentences/conversations, scenery. Plus, I am acutely conscious of how a scene plays out. Scenes should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Conversations have a flow to them that isn’t just sentence-and-response. Characters have motivations that begin before they enter the scene and often aren’t resolved until the end of the whole story.

I remember reading some letters between the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov and his brother, and in one he wrote that you don’t put something onstage or in the scene that you don’t intend to use later. A good example is in his play The Sea Gull. In his stage notes for the first scene, he describes the room with an eye to detail, including a shotgun hanging on the wall. That gun is completely ignored until the final act, when we finally become aware of why it was there. I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice to say, it was an important bit of set dressing. I just hope I have such an eye to details and yet an economy of words.

So, I hope I have learned from what I’ve read and seen. There are many more things that come to mind, but I don’t need to cover them all here. In short, I’m not writing a screenplay, but I hope that what I am writing plays out like a movie I would like to see, complete with great acting and just the right mix of exposition, description, and dialogue–and with none of the bad stuff I wouldn’t enjoy seeing.

Posted by: Glenn Pettit | June 8, 2014

A book after all

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to truly getting down to writing, but I wasn’t sure what form it would take. I had originally thought I would compile the “best” from my blog of devotional writings, but that never really took shape. Besides, why would people pay for what I already have made available for free?

Another idea that occurred to me is to take some of the blog entries and expand them into full-length chapters in a book about…well, about something. I even thought that perhaps I would take that idea and run with it with new material of chapter length, working through a larger passage than I normally did. I had several passages in mind, and I had almost settled on one.

I decided I needed to talk to my pastor about this whole thing. I already had an idea about what it might take to self-publish. (I’ve been looking at that for a couple years now.) And I had been talking to Pastor before about how he went about getting his recent book published by an actual Christian publishing house. Still, I wanted to bounce ideas off of him and let him know that I had finally reached a point where I would be writing in earnest again.

Well, I went in with one idea, came out with another, and then got basically shot down. Don’t get me wrong, my pastor told it like it is, and after our meeting and a couple of subsequent emails, we came to the conclusion that I didn’t have the credentials to write seriously about Scripture. Sure, I have had a small measure of success at working on messages about short bits of Scripture, and the Bible studies I have been leading are all coming from a great deal of personal study on my own time, but truly I have never had any formal training nor much ministry experience beyond my role as a deacon and teacher. What right had I to be issuing a call for repentance or personal holiness or sanctification or revival when I have had so little experience “in the field”, much less formal education? I had no such right.

You might think I was deflated at that point, and honestly, I was…somewhat. But I also took it as a challenge. I was all ready to argue with Pastor about how several well-known Christian writers made headway without much experience. I was ready to justify my calling with extensive research supporting what I planned to write about. Instead of lashing out, I decided to sleep on it.

And then the next morning I woke up early with a clearer vision: I would write fiction. I could still write about the same themes, but I would fictionalize the account and work in the themes through the story. I had no sooner thought of that than the plot and characters started to take shape in my head. I could see the town where it would take place, name some of the characters and their roles in the story, and the main character was already fixed in place. I don’t need “credentials” to write fiction!

To be sure, my favorite Christian fiction book is “In His Steps”, which of course was written by a pastor, Robert Sheldon. Still, what mattered was not whether I had the experience as a pastor. What truly matters is that I have the chops for writing and a great story to tell. And I have to thank God Himself for the story, because it really isn’t mine, it’s His.

So now the real work begins. No trying to work up something to book length or compiling old stuff. Now the task is research, plotting, characterization, and a whole lot of writing, writing, and more writing. And, of course, lots of prayer, too.


Posted by: Glenn Pettit | April 29, 2014

Time to Retire? No, not me!

Like that title? I’m not talking about myself, of course. I’m only middle-aged, not nearly old enough to retire. I’m talking about my old Windows XP laptop. I had literally inherited this 2005 Toshiba laptop from my late wife Pam–actually, I inherited it from Pam and then gave it to the church to use and then they gave it back when they upgraded a couple years ago. Honestly, the timing then could not have been better, as my old desktop was starting to have motherboard problems. SO, I ended up with a decent laptop with a keyboard I really liked, and I have kept it going.

Of course, my new wife Teresa has a newer Windows 7 laptop, and so the kids often complain when going back and forth between them. They tell me, “You’re computer’s too slow to read my online textbook!” Can’t win ’em all, I guess. Still, this laptop has had a lot of pages written on it, and will have many more, too. And that’s why I hated to put it down as Microsoft finally stopped supporting Windows XP: this is a good computer for writing. Of course, if I was to keep writing and accessing the Internet, then something had to be done about that XP problem.

“So I rewired it!” Tim Allen would say.

Okay, so I didn’t exactly rewire it. I set about doing research on switching to another operating system. Upgrade to Windows 7? No, not with an old Celeron processor and 1GB of memory. I work on PCs at my shop every day that have low memory with newer operating systems, and I was not about to wish that on this old laptop. (I will admit that I DID do a trial run of upgrading to Windows 8. I was suprised it installed at all, but, yes, it was really sluggish.)

In doing a few searches, I found several articles talking about switching old XP machines over to Linux, an open-source (FREE) operating system that actually is less demanding on hardware. With the right “distro” (that’s Linux-speak for “distribution”), my machine could actually run faster and more efficiently than it had with Windows XP on it–AND it would be more secure on the Internet. That made it definitely worth exploring.

I backed up what mattered. And I figured that if I couldn’t remember what else I wanted to save, then I didn’t care enough about it to need it.

Then I ran some trials with Live DVDs of various iterations of Ubuntu, an open-source operating system that is based on Linux. (For those who care, Android is also based on Linux.)

I started with Ubuntu itself, and I REALLY didn’t care for the Unity desktop environment (a.k.a. “shell”). My screen was too small to really take advantage of panels and sidebars and such. Besides, searches were achingly slow.

I tried Xubuntu and Lubuntu (two offshoots of Ubuntu), but for some reason I couldn’t get them to recognize the graphics capabilities of the laptop’s motherboard.

I tried Kubuntu, and I generally liked it, but once again the graphics were dull because it wouldn’t use the full range of the laptop’s display card.

Linux Mint (similar to the Ubuntu family) was a bust as well, as it tried to load a desktop that was too big for my screen.

Just as I was about to give up, the Ubuntu family got a big refresh with version 14.04, and so I started the process again.

Now, at this point someone may be wondering why I am even bothering with all this. For one, I couldn’t stay on the Internet with Windows XP, because it was destined to be a massive target for malware. By its very nature as an operating system for servers (you know, the computers that actually serve us up the Internet), Linux is more secure. In fact, you have to have passwords to do just about anything major on Linux, and that stops malware dead in its tracks. You flat-out can’t get those stealth-installing toolbars and junkware on Linux. (Besides, that awful bug-magnet Internet Explorer is nowhere in sight.)

And let’s face it, the main reason I wanted to install something different is just so I could tinker. Having started my personal computing with the old MS-DOS operating system — i.e. pre-Windows and Mac — I’m not afraid of a command-line. Much of Linux CAN be handled from a graphical interface, but the best stuff happens typing in a terminal window. It’s simpler and more precise, and much of the stuff going on is so far down in the operating system that you really can’t have the engine running while you tinker with it, so to speak.

So, with Ubuntu 14.04 available, I started running through the Ubuntu family again. I ran Ubuntu for all of 3 hours, and it was even slower than before. (Think of the difference between Windows XP and the much-hated Windows Vista with its excessive eye-candy that slowed everything to a crawl.) I installed Lubuntu for a few days, which was indeed lighter (that’s what the L in Lubuntu stands for), and it finally supported the full range of graphics on my laptop. But it was perhaps a little TOO light. I do like a LITTLE eye-candy. Xubuntu was still too heavy. Finally, this laptop Goldilocks settled on Kubuntu.

So now the computer runs as fast as it was in its prime. It still has all the right hardware drivers. It connects to the Internet very nicely. And it is more secure than ever. Hmmm… Still a big win, I’d say.

Trade-offs? Well, while I can’t run MS Office on here, if I am so inclined I CAN stream Office 365 in a Chromium or Firefox browser window. I also have LibreOffice, an offshoot of OpenOffice, which will create and edit all my normal Word and Excel and Powerpoint documents. A substitute for Publisher? Haven’t really found the need yet, but if I do, I am sure there’s something out there I can use. Everything else is present — Banshee to handle music, GIMP to edit pictures, and even BibleTime so I can keep studying the Bible in various translations and with extensive references and notes.

Yep, it all just works. No retirement for this machine until the machinery and circuitry itself dies. Until then, it’s open-source (i.e. FREE) software all the way.

Perhaps this machine will last until MY retirement… No, probably not.

Posted by: Glenn Pettit | May 11, 2013

Everything changes…even in Windows

So a young college student comes into my shop last night with a problem on his touchscreen Windows 8 computer. He keeps getting this error that indicates a minor hard disk problem. I take a quick look at a couple of his settings, and notice that he’s running too much stuff in the background. So I do an uninstall here, a little trimming there. No biggie.

And then I open a window to the old DOS command line to run a check on his hard disk. He sees the black screen with the text and blinking underline cursor, and he asks, “What’s that? I’ve never seen that before.” I explained that before Windows was added on, we ran applications full-screen and had to TYPE the name of the app we wanted to run, like “word.exe”. “Wow! Really?” he said. I had to smile.

And then I remembered all the negative reviews I’ve seen about Windows 8.

A generation of people raised on iPods and smartphones are complaining that the new interface of Windows 8 is too jarring a difference from “older” Windows versions–like XP, Vista, and 7. Have ANY of those fools ever faced a command line, much less Windows 3.1? Have they lived through 14 full version changes in MS Word? Would they recognize the old DOS version of Excel and know how to navigate it? And don’t get me started on sending jobs to a printer, or using CompuServe in the days of dial-up! Anyone remember Program Manager? And yet these folks complain that Windows 8 is too different and too hard to learn.

Sigh. I may be 50+ years old, but even an old cuss like me can learn something new now and then. I really haven’t had any choice, and neither do people buying new computers today. I can and have learned how to use Windows 8, AND I still remember the old stuff well enough to fix the younger generation’s computers. There is one absolute truth in computing: Nothing is ever as perfect as we want it, and everything changes.

So here’s my advice: Get over the changes, kids, and LEARN Windows 8 before you complain about it. And if you have a problem, come see an old guy like me. I’ll gladly charge you for fixing what you could learn to fix yourself. 🙂

Posted by: Glenn Pettit | November 4, 2012

Message to Star Wars fans: GET OVER IT!

A few years ago, when news came out that a new Star Trek movie was coming that did NOT include most of the original cast–a movie which we now know has thrown the Star Trek canon out the window–there were more than a few Trekkies (yes, I called you “Trekkies”) who were up in arms over the changes that plainly were coming. Equally disturbing were the rumors over a decade ago when George Lucas decided to do two unimaginable things: revise the classic Star Wars trilogy from the 1970s and 80s, and make new films that told the back-story leading up to those films. Never mind that Lucas had always said there was more to the story. Never mind that the original films were never truly director’s cuts. And truly never mind that special effects had come a very long way since ILM’s foundational work with computer-controlled cameras and miniatures. “NO, NO, NO,” said fans, “you may not sully my childhood by making more movies.”

Now, I am an original Trekkie, having watched the first episodes in black and white, then later episodes in color when Mom got a better TV. I watched all 3 seasons and avidly awaited the movie over a decade later. No, I never wore a Starfleet uniform, nor did I go to conventions, but my view of what is good sci-fi is largely shaped by watching those first episodes. When Next Generation came along while I was in college, I enjoyed it, too, because I knew there were many other stories to tell in that future history. All along, through good and bad, I have been a Star Trek fan, but I never tried to tell the producers what to do. Heck, it’s just a TV show.

Similarly, I went to see Star Wars (now known as Episode IV “A New Hope”) SEVEN TIMES during the whole YEAR it was at my local movie theater. I saw each of the sequels and prequels as they came out, and I enjoyed them. I have read Star Wars novels, watched the cartoons with my kids, and generally enjoyed seeing Star Wars grow beyond that first groundbreaking film. I never told George Lucas he couldn’t do whatever he wanted with his story and characters. It’s his money, his story, his copyright to do with as he pleases. After all, it’s just a movie.

I have lived long enough and seen enough good and bad sci-fi on the screen to know one thing with utter certainty: movies and TV shows come and go, and each generation has its favorites, but NONE of them last forever. I just keep living my everyday life, and no TV show or film makes any difference in whether the sun rises, whether people buy things at my store, or whether my kids get straight A’s in school.

If Disney wants to buy out George Lucas and continue the Star Wars saga, I’m fine with that. More importantly, if Mr. Lucas wants to sell his story and company to Disney and then retire, I’m good with that, too. If JJ Abrams wants to re-imagine Star Trek, that’s fine by me. (Maybe Khan will come back as a hero next time!) Sure, I don’t always like it when someone decides they absolutely must revise or remake an old classic–unless they do it better. (Let’s face it, the original Dune film was awful, but the Sci-Fi channel flick followed the novel much better.) And we all know that TV and movie adaptations of novels rarely live up to the original material. So why complain?

You know what really matters? My faith, my family, my nation, and my friends. If your whole life was built around George Lucas’ money-making franchise, then you need to get a new life. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

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