Messy desk report for November 2013

December 1, 2013

The desk has reached new heights of messiness, which coming from me is saying something.

It’s been a hectic time, as marked by a rare miss in schedule–there was no MDR for October. There are big changes coming in the paying-the-bills day job, which is stressful. I did not NaNo this year but did commit to (and successfully accomplish) a goal of having no zero-word days during the month. This is both a blessing and a curse, because it seemed to establish a baseline of a few hundred words a day. The episodic project is progressing slowly because of this, but mainly because I’m really terrible at writing episodes. Practice, practice, practice.

As part of the ritual of new beginnings accompanying the new job, there will probably be a large-scale office/desk cleaning in the near future. I’ll be on the train more–let’s see if that translates into more reading, or even better, writing time.

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How much is widespread surveillance chilling writers?

November 16, 2013

Nice look at this issue in the LA Times.

Of more than 520 American writers surveyed, 16% have avoided writing or speaking on what they consider controversial topics, and 11% “have considered doing so.”

I think part of it is the ridiculous power imbalance. Writers know better than most that having any player with so much easily-available information is ripe for abuse, as scandalettes like LOVEINT have proven. Doubly or triply so when oversight is cloaked in secrecy, which breeds corruption. Anyone even loosely familiar with cyberpunk/technothriller fiction (not to mention actual news coverage) has visions of early morning armed raids resulting in the seizure of all computers, tablets, routers, phones, pocket calculators, remote controls, coffee makers, extension cords, and so on–equipment never to be seen again. Makes you really think about your disaster recovery planning, especially if you assume, as most people now commonly do, that pretty much every online backup service is compromised and could at a minimum be frozen on a moment’s notice.

Think about how many important pieces of fiction have crucially pivoted on controversial topics or stances. Sucking the lifeblood out of that would be a huge blow to our culture. I worry about this often, though selfishly more about how it affects me personally.

Enough that when I’m working on a piece of cyber-satire, I have a pervading sense of someone looking over my shoulder. I write notes to the faceless handler(s) who are poring over mountains of keyword searches. For example:

It feels a bit weird to be writing this piece of satire, knowing who might be reading it as I go. I keep backups of things on Dropbox, and have at one point used AT&T as an internet provider, so you’ve pretty much got me covered. I apologize to any analysts who get to trawl through my rough-draft fiction that has to be triggering all kinds of keyword alerts.

Since you’re wondering, none of the people here are based on particular individuals, though if I’m doing my job right, they should seem familiar to native Silicon Valley dwellers. I also tend to avoid particular companies as satirical targets. Any code names I refer to here are completely made up, or widely available via Google searches, or both.

I have no particular insight into any classified anything. I merely read the news, know a bit about technology, and have a good imagination for how things could go. If you have questions about any of this, I’m happy to talk. Let’s grab a beer some time. Please don’t knock my door down and scare my children.

Your harmless, law-abiding citizen,

And yes, I’m fretting over even posting this on my blog.

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October 15, 2013

On this week’s This American Life, a fascinating tale of a false confession. If you write stories with humans (or human-analogues) you need to be a connoisseur of the soul. It’s shocking how easily we can be convinced of counter-factual truths simply by repetition combined with fatigue. Worth a listen. P.S. 2 + 2 = 5.

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Writing longhand

October 14, 2013

I’m starting a new longer project, and doing so longhand. I have a 100-sheet notebook (graph paper, natch) and am beginning to densely fill the pages. I counted 634 words on one side of one sheet, which means an entire novel-length piece can comfortably fit in one notebook. I haven’t done serious longhand work since roughly college days* . A few observations.


Seriously, this is cramping my style, literally. I’ve invested in a few of those funky-shaped ergonomic pencil grippies, and we’ll see how it goes.

I’m by no means a fast writer, but this slows it down even more. My high point over the past week was only both sides of one sheet, or ~1250 words. Not even NaNoWriMo-level output. At this pace (and this was my peak) it would take 71 days to write a 90,000 word draft. Then comes retyping.

But, at least so far, I’m happier with the writing. Going slower means that things seem to come together better, and the draft feels higher quality than starting out in a word processor.

But, I fear for larger-scale issues. There’s no document search here, people. Perhaps this will force me to embrace just writing, and fixing problems in post.

A blank sheet of paper is a lot different than a blank screen. Getting started on a new chapter requires flexing a different set of muscles.

Any writers out there like to work in longhand? What are your tips and tricks?


*(Not counting one 70-page disaster that I shall not speak of again)

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Messy Desk Report for September 2013

October 2, 2013

September flew past. Work is work.

I have, tentatively, started running again. The right supplements (glucosamine) and hardware are helping.

But where did the month go?

I began the arduous process of querying agents on my novel.

I had zero caffeine yesterday. I got eight hours of sleep last night.

A few new stories have left the nest. Another is coming along well, but still needs that last bit of oomph before it’s ready.

I want to start a new longer piece of fiction–and finish it before the end of the year.

I want to update this blog more often, but I’ll be traveling for a chunk of October.

My desk may qualify for federal disaster remediation funding, if only the government was still functioning.


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Oyster: in depth review

September 27, 2013

I’m trying out a new app called Oyster. It’s iPhone specific for the moment. Think of it as Netflix streaming, except for books. I’m paying $10 out of pocket per month for the service, the standard rate.

The reader

Everything about the reader seems aimed at a smooth reading experience. Pages scroll upwards, like Reader view in Mobile Safari except that it’s divided into little phone-sized pages, not a continuous scroller. Turning the page is an easy upward flick of the thumb. There are no overall page numbers–at the level of an entire book there’s no real indicator of how long it is. Your reading position is tracked as a percentage. Within a chapter, it does tell you how many teensy phone-sized pages are left to the end of the chapter, a small feature I find a close match with how I read paper (I tend to peek ahead to keep track of how close I am to the next major boundary). It also estimates time to end of the chapter, but for my reading rate I found the estimates to be almost exactly 3x too big. Each page is about 100 words with an estimated reading rate of 5 pages every 3 minutes. So apparently the app is calibrated at a reading rate of 166 wpm, and I read somewhere around 500 wpm.

The iPhone screen resolution is sharp, and the fonts the developers have chosen are easy on the eyes. I never had to change the defaults.

The app can render a table of contents, a “read privately” switch, and a mark completed feature. There is no search-within-the-book. You can highlight and even copy to clipboard passages within a teensy page. There is also a dictionary lookup feature.


It’s quite useful to have things to read on your phone. When you’re stuck in line at the grocery store, or at a doctor’s office, or driving (kidding!) you probably have a phone on you but not necessarily a mid-size or full-size tablet device.

I’ve read two books and am currently working on a third. First I read City of Truth by James Morrow. It was an easy, pleasurable experience, not to mention a fantastic story. The hardware/software didn’t get in the way at all. A great deal of this story I read on a train, and it was well suited for this environment.

Next I read The Goldilocks Enigma, a science book by Paul Davies. Here some of the limitations of the format began to show. The book has many diagrams, some of which were on the small size. When the text references or cross-references a diagram there is a small angle bracket you can follow to jump there, but in several instances this affordance was missing. The book also had extensive endnotes, which worked like little numbered hyperlinks, but due to a bug (which might be fixed by now) sometimes the return link would get confused and take you back to the start of the chapter, losing your place–and it may a hundred page swipes to get back. This only happened occasionally.

If you like to read the first bits of a book in order to see if you’d like it, this is also a good platform. There were several books which I will not call out by name that looked interesting or that I’ve heard about, but by about 6% of the way in I decided wasn’t for me. If you do this often, you’ll find this service useful.

Currently I am reading The Best American Short Stories 2012, a format for which this is just about perfect.


During the sign-up process you pick five books, and I had no problem finding five things that interested me. They advertise “Over 100,000 books” but that’s little consolation if they don’t have what you’re looking for. How does someone writing an in-depth review categorize this? 100k titles could be either fantastic or terrible, it depends. So let me mention a few searches I did, and see what comes up. Aside: the in-app search doesn’t have any autocomplete to help guide you. I presume this standard search feature is coming soon.

[Count of Monte Cristo] -> Returns a all-in-one title as well as separate parts 1-4, as well as another book of that title by Monica Corwin plus other stuff from Alexandre Dumas

[Neal Stephenson] -> Cryptonomicon, plus two of the three books in the Baroque Cycle. Not present: Snow Crash or Anathem, the two things I was looking to re-read.

[Pynchon] -> Nothing from Thomas. Interestingly, one of the three results was Ubik by Philip K. Dick.

[Neuromancer] -> Not the title itself. The one result was a William Gibson biography.

[Libriomancer] -> Heard wonderful things about this new title from Jim C. Hines, but no results in Oyster.

The Netflix streaming comparison is probably apt in terms of selection as well. Behind the scenes, I’m sure lots of negotiating with rightsholders is going on, and the list of available titles changes frequently.

Oyster vs. library?

In discussing this with friends, the inevitable question comes up: why pay for this when you can go to the library for free*? A few reasons: the grocery-line thing may be significant depending on how busy your life is. If you tend to sample lots of books but always find yourself on the go, it’s useful. In my neck of the woods, we’re talking about the Northern California Digital Library, which also doesn’t have the latest from Thomas Pynchon or Jim C. Hines, nor any available ebook edition of Anathem. When they do have titles available electronically, it can be in awkward formats (did somebody way protected Adobe PDF?) and/or with outrageous wait times. I’m not opposed to reading print books, far from it, but even there, the current hold list for popular titles like the Pynchon book is multiple weeks. And I don’t treasure lugging huge hardcovers on the train.

I’m an omnivorous reader. I also usually get my one-book-a-month from Amazon Prime, but that’s annoyingly restricted to actual Kindle hardware, and I don’t have my Kindle near me 24×7. I regularly come back from the library with more books that are strictly advisable. And now I read more on my phone. If a month goes by and I haven’t used the service at all, then I’ll probably cancel.

I have one remaining invitation to Oyster (at full price, natch). If you’re interested, let me know.

*taxes not included

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Brainstorm: the story you wish someone would tell

September 23, 2013

What is the spec fic story that you wish someone would write but hasn’t?

In an effort to flex my self-promo muscles I am going to (gasp) produce more on-topic, useful content on these pages.

So join the discussion. No promises, but if any of the ideas grabs me, I just might do something with it.


Clearing tabs

September 9, 2013

Sometimes I come across useful, interesting, our just plain cool pages, and these tend to accumulate in open tabs in my browser. Here’s hoping that writing about them is enough of a digestive process to close some out.

Get My FBI file which sounds interesting, but does asking for one put you on a list? Does mentioning this link in a weblog??

Literary analysis: 26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss and an ridiculously close read thereof.

The Best Life Advice I’ve ever heard – Amy Sundberg.

Flytrap Kickstarter, more good stuff from Tim Pratt

Rahul Kanakia’s blog is brilliantly written, and reveals a side to him I never experienced even after being in a writing group with him for months. Lots of good advice, and the tone is exactly the same as sitting across from him at a table. I wish I could blog like this.

Story notes on You Have to Follow the Rules, as recently seen/heard on Strange Horizons. (also SH fund drive)

How to write a novel synopsis also this

Thought Verbs by Chuck Palahniuk

and because I’m always looking for it, a link to Finding Source Code on the Web for Remix and Reuse, in which my fiction appears as the closing chapter.


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Messy Desk Report for August 2013

September 1, 2013

Something incredible happened–I cleaned my desk. Then I changed ISPs [good riddance AT&T], in the process locating the domestic NOC into my office, and moving stuff around for the installer guy. Net result: pretty much a wash.

Maybe even a bit worse. I see in front of me notes for four different revisions of the story I had critted at FOGCon this year. I think I’ve finally got it. I see Story Physics by Larry Brooks. I see an awfully large amount of yellow sticky notes.

The main enemy is tiredness, which is probably connected with my involuntary break from running. And crushing work schedules. Despite this, I still have two new stories nearly ready to go out. Another is ready to start hitting the reprint circuit. My contest story got a nice nod from non-fiction editor Simon St. Laurent.

Despite giving up on the WriteAboutDragons replay class, Some good stuff came out of it. And I’ve got another few ideas just bubbling to the surface as stories.

Best advice for the month: get enough sleep.

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Some constructive criticism for Write About Dragons

August 20, 2013

Scott Ashton over at WriteAboutDragons had a wonderful idea: as part of his Masters project in Instructional Technology, he’s posting lectures from a writing class taught by Brandon Sanderson at BYU. Hundreds, nay, thousands of people are following along week-by-week, as well as writing their own fiction and sharing it for critique. I wish more people would set up sites like this.

But I’m not able to continue with the class. Here’s why:

  • The website lacks basic functions like search. (A third party has come the the partial rescue by writing a crawler, but it doesn’t see all the stories, and is really limited. I can’t see this search tool linked from the main site–which leads to the next bullet…)
  • The site navigation is not useful. For example, as I write this, under the Learn header is the FAQ and Lecture 1 and archives of a previous year’s lectures. There’s no sign of lectures 2-7, for which links you need to closely follow the site’s blog. When the videos do post, they are often out of order, have long titles so you can’t see the ‘part 6 of 9′ tags. As I write this, all of the week 7 lectures are marked as ‘private’ and completely unviewable. It’s hard enough to carve out time to view these lectures, and this added element of unpredictability makes it that much harder.
  • Scott seems unimaginably busy, and doesn’t fix problems quickly (or in many cases, at all). The comment sections in the blog often turn into giant complaint-fests.
  • The ‘kismet’/karma/reputation system is confusing and apparently broken. On the same page, it reports me as having “30 reputation”, “50 kismet credits” as well as describing me as “Freshly ripened wheat” (huh?) I have no idea what any of these mean, or even what they’re talking about. The pages ask me to cash in some of my credits to see critiques, and yet I never need to because every critique gets mailed directly to me anyway. Incentives are completely broken, and accordingly participation is dropping week after week.
  • The critiques are of a suggested size of about 1000 words. This is partly due to following Brandon’s own suggestions in the class, but there are different constraints in a face-to-face group of 3 or 4 people consistently meeting week after week versus an online system where random pairings are more common. It’s hard to give a good critique of the 7th 1000-word chunk of someone else’s novel. It’s hard to find the previous pieces, and even if you do, it’s time consuming to read that much, just to critique the next 1k word chunk.

I guess you could summarize these points as ‘poor community management’. For whatever reasons, Scott doesn’t seem to be devoting the level of attention to the site that would make it really shine. Assistants would help, and there are several “Geek Gods” listed on the main page, but again for reasons that are not apparent, none of these folks seem to be assisting in any immediately visible manner. I hope this gets straightened out, because it’s a fantastic idea.

For me, one of the most valuable aspects of a writing class is the permission & environment & deadlines needed to crank some serious wordage out. I’m not getting that, so I’ll probably sit this one out. I’ll gladly go back and view the lectures when I they’re all posted. I’m pretty happy with the few thousand words I cranked out as part of a new story, and quite possibly they’ll see light of day at some point.

There’s some lessons here for community management.

  • Focus on the individuals in the community.
  • Get frequent feedback and act on it.
  • Make full use of web technology. Off-the-shelf search is great for this sort of thing.
  • Let community members do their thing at their own pace.
  • Ask people to help you. Delegate.
  • Think carefully about incentive systems and how they will shape the atmosphere around your community.


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