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Climax and the Cigarette Moment

The Cigarette Moment

Yesterday I went trolling for blog post ideas.  I’m more or less on the brink of not having any, or, as one of our group members put it, when we were doing a short story a week, “Every Saturday I get up and stare into the abyss.”

This is worse when there are things going on in my life/life in general that require my attention.  I probably won’t be giving anyone great news if I say that I don’t blog about my private life in detail, even when I seem to.  It used to be, when the kids were much younger that I deliberately obfuscated anything having to do with them, because I was afraid the younger one would get kidnapped.  (The older on?  From about the time Robert was five, I pity the fool who’d try to grab him against his will.  Dangerous under any conditions comes to mind.  Took me a little longer to get the younger one up to snuff.)

Now, let me start by dismissing fatal illness or divorce or any of the big nasties.  There’s nothing like that going on in my life.  It’s mostly “Stuff that needs to get done” in the administrative sense which, because G-d has a sense of humor, all hit in the last couple of months, and also my awareness (since precious little has been done about it) that this house needs to be readied for sale partly for our financial survival, partly because we’re likely to move (though it’s now at least two years.)

It’s just some days I feel as though I’m being pulled in five different directions, I’m exhausted by noon, and I’ve yet to do any writing.

Which brings us to the going trolling for blog ideas – on my facebook conference – and getting a request to write about ends.  What makes a satisfying end?  All books end, of course, but how many do you close and walk away feeling “curiously unsatisfied?”

First of all, I intuited the importance of ends in fourth grade.  When writing school essays, I was aware that if I started well and finished with a bang, the teacher would forgive any number of noodling in the middle.

So – this works for essays – I borrowed from poetry and started with some big evocative image, which I would then bring the essay around to again, in the end.  Say the visual was Atlantis sinking, in the end I’d bring it again, to the waves closing over the land mass, as if it had never been.  Even if the metaphor were being used for… things people would rather ignore, or someone’s feelings, it worked.

Second, unfortunately it turns out that novels aren’t essays.  You need more than a cute image to open and close, and if you lose the plot in the middle, people are likely to tell.  Unless you’re writing for the sort of refined sphere from which the books came that we had to study in Modern Literature.  But then again, if you come from there it’s also perfectly all right to chop your novel to pieces and put them together in random fashion.  I’m not sure what a satisfying end is in that case, but it’s probably a Nobel prize of literature.

For the rest of us… for the rest of us it still needs to work.

Third, what makes the ending satisfying is what comes before – be it the beginning of the essay or, in a novel, the slow build of theme and problem in the middle.  In other words, what makes an ending satisfying is when the people you’ve been rooting for win and the right sobs you wanted dead die.  This might seem simplistic.  “But what if there’s no one whom you want to win?  No one you want to lose?”  Well, then it’s possible you’re writing grey goo.  Look, weirdly, people don’t read to experience what they experience in daily life.  The difference in fiction is that it makes sense and we know whom to root for.  This is, btw, the difference between Marlowe and Shakespeare.  Marlowe was far more realistic, and in a way, probably “better” in the sense that he tried to make it harder to root for someone.  (Oooh, so sharp he cut himself, right?) But Shakespeare, by clearly signaling who to root for, grounded people in the story and left the way open to concentrate on the really important stuff, like “real” characters and making everything else seem vitally important.  In other words, he used the “whom to root for” as scaffolding and upon it built the “slice of humanity” important stuff.  Because humans like things to make sense, that gave him a huge advantage.

So – give us someone to root for, and build upon it, so we really want the problem resolved the way we want it.

Four, of course, that is not all.  The minimalists, who can never be sufficiently reviled and who, for choice, should be hoisted on a stake – minimalist.  Made of clear glass.  It would make them so happy.  All function, no form – for years wrote how-to books telling you that when the action is over the novel is over.  This led to books where the couple finally got sort of together, and the minute it became clear she would say yes, the book… ended.

This is somehow very frustrating to human instincts.  Campbell talks about the return from the journey and seeing the hero again in his normal environment.  Heed the man.  He knows of which he speaks.  The other is a fable for grown up children who attend graduate school and want to be hip and speshul.

Or, as my husband explained to me when I briefly succumbed to the siren song of minimalism, “It’s like you just had incredible sex and as the last tremors pass, your lover kicks you out of bed and gives you cab money.  Most humans prefer cuddling and if they smoke maybe a cigarette.”  (He started critiquing my books’ “cigarette moment.” – i.e. the reward for what you just put the reader through.)

 

Five – sometimes ends don’t come naturally.  Oh, right.  Yes, when you start the book, you sort of know how it will end… by and large.  “They end up together” “the colony thrives”  “he gets shot in the fracas’ – whatever.  BUT once you’ve gone 300 pages, that end might no longer feel “right.”  Or it might feel too strong or not strong enough.  Or there’s some minor character who wasn’t even in the original idea whose end needs to be tied up.  (I can see this post will unleash no end of puns.  Go on then.  I’m not afraid of you.)

Just finish it anyhow, then work on the end in revision.  And run it by your beta readers, who will tell you if you got it just right.

Lately I’ve been plagued by double climaxes (what?  You complain about this? – Shuddup, you.  I’m talking in writing, of course) which means that I find the book is having its big to-do battle before it should, and still leaving things untied.  It’s very annoying, but it’s part of increasing complexity.  (Witchfinder is headed that way, btw.)

After struggling with one of the ends, it finally hit me this is perfectly all right, provided the second climax is bigger than the first.  (Shut up you.)

Anyway – so, to have a good end to a story, make sure you have a strong plot, build upon it by letting us know who to root for, and in the end spare not the cigarette moment.

Oh, yeah, and for the record, strong imagery at the beginning and end still works – provided everything works in between.

So, finishing a book is easy… provided you know how to write it.  And yeah, guys, I’m still working at it.

Which is why this ending is kind of lame.  Deal with it.  Anyone got a cigarette?  I need cab money.

 

Random Penguin

Last week I received an email from a friend — hi, Taylor! — who asked if I’d seen what was heating up the twitter feeds from a lot of folks in publishing. That was the first I’d heard about the possible merger between Random House and Penguin. I read the initial articles and then read the next group where it was speculated that Rupert Murdoch might throw his hat into the fray. I’ll admit, I both laughed and shook my head in bewilderment at the way some folks were greeting the possible merger with tempered joy and yet the thought of Murdoch getting involved sent them scurrying like rats looking for shelter. Whether it was because they don’t like Rupert’s (AKA Fox News) politics or were afraid he’d actually require writers to write what readers wanted and not the politically correct tripe some of them have been cranking out, I don’t know and, frankly, I don’t really care.

We now have confirmation that the two publishing houses will be merging. Random House’s parent company will be the majority owner and will have more members on the board of directors. (You can see the official announcement at the Random House site.) It is anticipated that it will be the second half of next year before the merger is concluded — and that assumes there are no legal complications along the way. Considering the fact this is a merger of multi-national companies it is possible that it will take longer and that any significant delay might cause the agreement to fall apart.

Still, it is interesting to see how the media is handling the announcement. The New York Times notes that this merger could “set off a long-expected round of consolidation as the industry adapts to the digital marketplace.” John Makinson of Penguin who will serve as the new company’s chairman noted that they decided to make this move now, so they wouldn’t be “a follower”. Sounds to me like he realizes they were late getting into the e-book era, or at least adapting to it, and is now trying to avoid doing that as the landscape of publishing changes. The question is, is this concern not to be left behind again so great that the companies made a knee-jerk reaction and jumped before they should have?

Some hard facts. The merger will create the largest “consumer book publisher” in the world. It will have a global market share of something like 25%. This market share is based on such current best sellers as Fifty Shades of Grey as well as Penguin’s backlist of classics from authors such as Orwell.

There is speculation that one reason for the merger was to combat the growing influence of Amazon and, to a lesser extent, Apple. Forbes specifically noted Amazon’s growing footprint in publishing as the company continues to woo authors to the KDP platform as well as expanding its own publishing lines. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if that wasn’t one of a number of considerations for the merger. However, whether the creation of a Super-Publisher will take much of a chunk out of Amazon remains to be seen. My own thought is that it won’t. At least not unless the new Random Penguin figures out how to have a consumer driven user interface with good customer service.

Other details of the merger have continued to emerge. Random House’s parent company will own 53% of the new Random Penguin and will nominate five directors. The remaining four directors will come from Penguin’s parent company. There is also a clause requiring the two corporations to retain their interest in the merger for at least three years. Makinson, Penguin’s chairman and CEO, will chair the new company and Random House CEO Markus Dohle will be the CEO. It is claimed the new company will save money on warehousing, distribution, printing and “central functions”.

But this is what interests me and, to be honest, is something I find hard to swallow. “We will have more than 250 imprints in this company,” Dohle said in an interview with Reuters. “We want to preserve and give those imprints even better and richer resources.” Okay, color me skeptical, but how often do two companies merge and there aren’t changes in the way both companies operate? If this merger is to make more money, does anyone really believe they won’t cut those imprints that aren’t pulling their weight?

And this is what worries me as a reader and as a writer. Not only does the merger of two of the Big Six mean there are now fewer players to bid on works out there making the rounds, it means there are going to be even fewer slots, at least for a couple of years, for new authors to break into. It also means that authors who are publishing through the imprints that will be cut — and don’t fool yourselves into thinking there won’t be casualties — may very well find themselves with orphaned works they can’t get back without jumping through legal hoops.

I’ll be honest, I’ve already talked with a couple of authors I know who have books with one or the other of these publishers. I’ve told them to check their contracts and their statements. If they have rights they need to get back,, they need to do it now, before they get tied up in the lengthy merger process. Authors and their works are nothing more than assets to these companies, something to be traded on and used. So here’s my advice to each of you. If you are an author with either of these houses, check your rights. Do what you need to do to protect yourselves because the companies won’t.

If you work for these companies as editors or support staff, I hope you are getting your resumes together because there will be personnel changes. You’ve seen it before as the companies downsized. Get ready for the next round.

As an aside, I hope everyone in the New York/New Jersey area is safe this morning. My thoughts have been with all of you in the path of Sandy.

Back to the kitchen…

First off: as your gesture of support to independent authors please consider going here to look at this petition. I am …ing sick of giving my dear friends in the banking industry 25% of my Amazon checks (given the fast, vast cashflow – still welcome, Amazon tends to pay me just over 100 dollars when they do pay – which means yes, I get 75 and the bank takes 25) and an extra six weeks (so they have the money to play with – multiplied by hundreds of thousands of small transactions) for a service that costs them fractions of a cent, and takes a fraction of a minute. Yes, Amazon might not be prepared to do it via paypal, but perhaps they have a better system than the present one to offer. And it’s a good idea to let them know.

Secondly I’ve been reading with some degree of wry amusement about the ‘merger’ talks between Random House and Penguin – as a result of the new challenges of e-publishing (Like we no longer have a command economy in which we can sell left boots, and pay producers in old spittle. Is that the challenge?). Various authors have gloomily wondered what will happen to them, and editors they work with/know at Penguin or both. And then came the news that News Corp had entered the fray, and tragedy and outrage were suddenly out in force. Oh noooooo! What had been worry and sadness was now tragedy and disaster. The subtext was obvious. The evils of Fox News etc were about overtake publishing (Those promoting diversity think it a good thing, so long as it’s only their kind of diversity (ie. It’s not diverse, just those they like), I’ve noticed.) How could something awful like this be let into the wonderful world of publishing. It’s all quite hilarious as HarperCollins (considerably larger than Penguin) is owned by NewsCorp and has been for nearly 25 years. One cannot see much difference in editorial selection and business practice between HC and any of the others, really. NY publishing seems pretty homogenous, and very alike. They trade staff and all seem to draw from the same pool, and have little in common with the world outside their universe. Heh. As a real fear that one came in at halloween pumpkin. It’s just business.

Still, it is a thought for the folk at NewsCorp. As it is business Maybe what worked for news might also stop publishing quite so much red ink. It would actually do authors, (and if they had to stop selling left boots, and find out what customers wanted) publishers right across the political spectrum the world of good. Personally I am sad publishing is still doing mergers. I suspect digital revolution actually calls for splintering and providing niche products rather than the other way around.

And now onto something completely different. I am working on an Australian set story where a kid in trouble finds himself sent of to grandma in the remote country. Grandma is, for reasons of her own, a recluse with very little spare money. Her kitchen still has the wood-burning stove and linoleum floor. There are no appliances and it is not far removed from, well, 1930. I knew farm kitchens like that back in South Africa (very well) and it’s been fascinating seeing just what translated, was common, and what wasn’t. Of course this shared pool is a rich place for evoking memories and getting your readers to care. I asked on my self-sufficiency island blog for people’s memories and experiences of kitchens like that. It was wonderful, but I want more! So help me out: dig in your memory banks and tell me about your grandma / great Uncle Fred’s kitchen?

Reconnecting

Having finished off a rework of Tau Ceti Diversion (SF), and the third Jakirian book, I thought it was time that I went back and fleshed out the whole novel for an Urban Fantasy concept I wrote in 2010 called Distant Shore. At the time I did a lot of work on backstory, generated a good idea of the characters and the storyline, then went ahead and put together three sample chapters and a proposal.

This was something of an experiment for me. When I stopped, I could remember feeling a tremendous pressure to keep going. Hey – I love writing when everything is finally coming together. But true to my plan, I put the stops on and sent the thing out. So far nothing.

The whole thing was part of plan to perhaps do a series of proposals, backed by three sample chapters, in a variety of areas to see if I could snag any interest. What I discovered is that I absolutely HATE working this way.

To get going at all, basically I need to ‘front end load’ the entire story and the characters – before I can type a word. I need to understand what is going on inside each of the characters at an emotional level. I need to do enough plot work to have an instinctive sense for what is moving in the background of the story, for what threads are weaving in through the main action. I also need to have a fundamental confidence in the core concept – particularly if it is science fiction (which this one is). I love the ‘wow’ concepts, but there is enough engineer in me to need the things that surround that to be entirely credible. All that stuff takes time.

So to start. Then STOP. It really hurts.

What I have discovered hurts even more is trying to go back to the original concept cold and finish the damn thing off!

I have just worked my way through an extremely painful month of reconnecting with Distant Shore. I would sit for ages staring at the page, trying to find some way into the next scene in the plot sequence. Nothing.

I had to go back and duplicate all the crucial elements of my process. Go back to the characters. Delve deep enough into what was blocking me to see each little hurdle as they came: perhaps I needed to understand this character better, or I needed to do more research into the key elements that drive the book or crucial pieces of setting (in this case criminal psychology, organised crime in New York, how long it takes to identify a body, how dental records are used etc)

Finally I managed to write that scene. God what a relief!

With the major plot hurdles jumped, I’ve decided to use NaNoWriMo as a spur to get some wordage down.

Where is everyone at with their WIP? Anyone doing NaNoWriMo?

Cross-posted at chrismcmahons blog.

Conformity and the Writer

So, Sarah blogs here about the lies, damned lies, and funny statistics used to keep the non-favored down and quiet, and over at her place about the ever-growing tendency to medicate the oddlings into compliance (which not only damages the oddlings, it does bugger all for those unfortunate souls who really can’t function in society at large (or small, or medium for that matter)). There goes any attempt I was going to make towards a nice, non-ranting post about writing craft.

Oh, well.

This is a stultifying time. Outside small, mostly self-selected enclaves of oddities (like this place – we don’t call it the Mad Genius Club for nothing), the demand is not just that you follow whatever the rules are. It’s that you kiss up to those in power, imitate their habits and beliefs, and basically brown-nose your way to success. The Process is more important than the result.

Don’t get me wrong: a consistent process matters when it comes to things that need to be consistent and have the same basic standards. Things like mass-produced widgets or even – $DEITY$ protect me – a typo of programmers all working from the same source material and modifying it at a rate that gives good testers hives. Even writing, because the consistent process is the framework that you don’t need to think about, so it becomes the launching pad for all those interesting flights of imagination.

Where things come unglued is this insane notion that because something works for you, it must not only be right, but be the only way it can possibly work for anyone, and then trying to make everyone do it that way.

It’s something those of a certain political persuasion (known to me as wannabedictator, official political affiliation be damned. It’s dictatorship when they arrest you for having non-approved sex as much as when they ban supersized soda. Both are someone who thinks X is good imposing their view on everyone else) are horribly prone to, and it’s a big part of why so much in the land of traditional publishing stinks worse than week-old shrimp in midsummer.

Not that the movers and shakers of the industry intended to gut it and replace the guts with boiled tapioca. It happened because a critical mass (not to be confused with the physics term of the same name, although there are certain similarities) of people from the same basic background with the same basic beliefs all wound up in the same industry at more or less the same time (Yes, otherwise known as the boomer/new wave generation). They all thought the same way, and so did everyone else they knew, so it never occurred to them that anyone might think, do or need anything different.

The natural tendency of people who depend on the goodwill of those in power to echo their prejudices back at them only amplified things, leading to the bizarre world-view that permeates so many traditionally published pieces. The editors pick the books that show their views, so the writers who get picked up try to write more like that. With no-one (the perennial exception of Baen doesn’t count, here. Baen has been marginalized by the rest for years) who saw things differently able to get inside the bubble (and don’t even think about breaking it. By now the establishment will defend its bubble to death and insanity and beyond), the world inside drifts further and further away from the one most of us park our shoes in.

Worse, since traditional publishing, traditional media and such have until recently been the only way most folk could learn about anything beyond their immediate experience, those of us who see things differently have been left wondering if we were crazy because there was nothing else remotely matching our view available anywhere. Then the teachers started medicating kids who saw things differently. Now some of the kids do need medication. Most are just… kids. Kids aren’t made to be obedient little drones – you have to train them to do that. When the alleged teaching institutions turn out obedient little drone teachers, they of course will train their students to be obedient little drones. They don’t know how to do anything else, and many of them don’t realize there is anything else. It’s a self-perpetuating conformity enforcement system that destroys all but the strongest of the oddlings and leaves the survivors scarred.

I won’t bullshit here: I waver between bitter misanthrope and hopeful idealist. The latter is my natural mode: the former is what I learned from experience. I try to keep either extreme from dominating. Sometimes I even succeed.

Ultimately the wannabedictators win when we oddlings shut up. There are two principles I’ve picked up over the last few years that I’ve found helpful – although it takes no small amount of courage to follow them.

The truth at any cost, even my life.

Look at everything as if I’ve never seen it before.

As guidelines to live by in a time of tight-sphincter conformity (which always happens in times of perceived hardship) they’re invaluable – and oddly enough begin prepared to pay whatever the cost of speaking up ends up being seems to make that cost much more bearable. Perhaps it’s because the unknown is always more frightening than a known quantity no matter how horrible it is.

The truth at any cost.

Find your truths, and speak them. If nothing else you’ll never be at risk of not being able to look yourself in the mirror.

They’re P*ssing Down Your Neck and Telling You It’s Raining

How do you know when you’re being lied to?

The truth is that these days few of us can know for sure. We rely, most of us, on other people to tell us what is going on everywhere else.

In general, this is getting better. Blogs are a great boon to this. If local newspaper reports a large crowd came out to greet a national celebrity and your buddy who has a blog shows three dogs and five people in an empty parking lot, you usually know who to believe. And even if bloggers aren’t any more impartial than journalists, there’s enough of them you can imagine the evidence and figure out who’s lying.

The problem, of course, is that the old institutions – Heinlein once said that nothing the Times magazine reported that he’d also been present at had ever been true. I can say the same for Newsweek and most US newspapers, particularly in foreign news – don’t like that and are fighting a battle by doubling down on the lie. Oh, wait, that isn’t a problem, since they are by and large underbussing themselves. (Totally is a word. And a sign of the times.)
But once you go outside the general and to the particular – in your field, say, particularly if you work in a highly subjective field – how do you know when they’re lying to you?

Well… Again, it’s getting better, at least in publishing.

First of all, there are little indications, like the fact that your statements are or might be mathematically impossible. That’s a new thing, and a sign of desperation. Beyond that, there are other signs: for instance, you’re supposedly selling five thousand copies of each work, but the book is still on the notoriously scarce bookshelf space at bookstores three years later; or random repair people have read you and you live in a relatively small town; or you’ve got more fan letters than people admit you sold books… or…

And then there is the other side of this – other people talk. You find out some of your colleagues are getting statements that swear they sold less than their Nielsen numbers which EVERYONE KNOWS are 1 to 2/3 of your sales, because of collection issues.

So, the “big lie” is getting harder to maintain.

But let’s take a time machine trip back ten years shall we? You’re a writer striving to break in. You’re also a reader. You read the magazines and the book publishers to find out what’s selling (to them, and which you assume they’re selling to the public, because they tell you they are.) And nine tenths of what you read you wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, if you didn’t have to read for research. Meanwhile, you’re sending out your best efforts and they’re getting rejected partly because you’re naïve enough to believe they want to see “passion about your beliefs” and don’t realize it’s only if they agree with theirs. And no matter what you do, no matter how much you study, how much you improve, you can’t break in. And yet, beta readers, random strangers whom you show the work to, someone’s third cousin five times removed a friend asked to show your book to – all love it.

Then you start selling, and even though you have signing lines at cons, they tell you you’re not selling enough and you’ll have to change your name. And they keep paying you beginner advances that only allow you to live if you write six books a year.

And THEN they tell you that writers have a high rate of suicide and this means YOU’re crazy…
Then comes freedom, beautiful and terrible, like an army ready for battle. You can find out what you’re selling if you publish it yourself. You have access to some Nielsen via Amazon… and the lie melts.
Yes, some of us are now so cowed we’re afraid to know the truth. A lot of our writer friends are still caught in this. But I took the first chance I had to not work with lying thieves and to make for the indie hills. I work ONLY with the one publisher I like.

And you know what? Although indie hasn’t made me rich (I still don’t have novels out, partly because I’m in a fight for the rights to my series with my ex-publishers. They should be aware they’re fighting with a woman who has nothing to lose and I could get drastic: If I don’t hear soon, I think I’ll scan in and publish the mathematically inconsistent statements. Would you guys like that? Yes? Say it louder!) it’s restored my sanity in significant ways. For instance, those space opera shorts and novellas I couldn’t sell for love or money? Yep, they outsell all else ten to one. And this and my blog have allowed me to talk directly to fans. And guess what? They feel pretty much as I thought and as publishers told me they DIDN’T.

The big lie can only be maintained if you control all means of information. And they don’t.

I wasn’t crazy. I was being gaslighted. That warm liquid down my neck? It ain’t rain.

And we’ve had enough.

Anything the old publisher do now that doesn’t involve plain dealing is just more underbussing themselves. Watch and see.
(I have a different post today over at According To Hoyt)

Don’t You Just Love . . .

. . . how folks are so quick to jump on the “Amazon is evil bandwagon” without knowing all the facts? In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, the internet was alive yesterday with a story about how evil Amazon had wiped a woman’s kindle without warning or explanation. How dare they!

The basic story, as it was initially described, runs something like this: Linn, a woman who lives in Norway, owns a kindle. She loved her kindle because, since she travels a lot, she had lots of books on it. One day, she tried to read on it and, gee, her kindle content was gone and her account was blocked. So she contacts Amazon to find out what happened and, in a series of e-mails, learns her account has been associated with another that was closed for fraud and, no, Amazon can’t tell her anything more. So sorry, your books are gone and your account closed and there’s nothing you can do. Bye-bye.

Now, I’ll admit if that happened to me, I’d be furious. My first reaction upon reading the article was to wonder “what in the world?” Something just didn’t ring right to me. So I went back and reread the article and the questions starting building.

The first thing I noted was that the blogger reporting the story said that Linn lived in Norway. But, if you look at the supposed e-mails from Amazon, they are from amazon.uk. So, why is she using a U.K. account? Assuming Amazon UK has the same rules as Amazon US, you have to have an address and bank account in that country to be able to have an account there. So, was Linn using someone else’s address? If so, she was in violation of their terms of service.

The second thing I wondered was why she was using e-mail to try to figure out what had happened. On an associated thought, was to wonder if she was contacting the general Amazon UK customer support email address or the one associated only with kindle support. The problem with the information given in the reporting blog is that we don’t see the email address used for Amazon, so we don’t know. Then, frankly, I wondered why she wasn’t on the phone to customer support because that’s the first thing I’d have done. (I’ll admit, here I’m assuming Amazon UK has a “call me now” option like the US kindle support does.)

There were so many questions raised as I reread the article that I knew there had to be more to the story than we were getting. The problem was that the internet had picked up the story and was running with it — and all the Amazon haters were coming out and blaming Amazon without knowing all the facts.

My very first reaction, after one of general disbelief, was to wonder if Linn had backed up her purchases and, if not, why. When I’d posed this question on one of the conferences I follow, an author (who should know better but who has shown that they are in the general Amazon is evil ilk) responded with how there were a lot of reasons why: it was a pain to do, she might not know how, she might not have time, it doesn’t matter.

After I stopped laughing, all I could do was shake my head. Backing up your digital purchases, no matter where they’re from, is only smart. I’ve lost too many e-books to count over the years (actually early on in the e-book revolution) because they were in an early Adobe format that Adobe no longer supports and I don’t have the keys because I’ve changed computers, hard drives have crashed, etc. I’m not alone in that. So even those books I have that include DRM, are now backed up on multiple media formats. If I want, I can take a few minutes to strip the DRM — not that I’m saying you should do that because that can and is a violation of law in some countries. But it is possible to do and easily so. All you have to do is a quick google search to find out how.

Now, before you start condemning me as an Amazon lover, I’m not saying that I think Amazon is fully correct in the action it took — assuming it did as has been alleged. The kindle owner should have probably been contacted and asked to confirm or disprove the so-called accusations against her. However, I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon to condemn Amazon without knowing all the facts.

And I will ask questions and point out possible inconsistencies with the story — and with the conclusions others are reaching.

The general tenor of the articles reporting this story yesterday was that it was a cautionary tale in how bad DRM is. If Amazon didn’t add DRM then Linn wouldn’t have any problem.

The problem with this is multi-fold. First, we don’t know if any of the books she had on her kindle came from major publishers or indies. Most major publishers — basically all of them except TOR and that’s a new development — add DRM as part of their business model. Remember, their point of view is that customers are inherently crooked and will do all sorts of evil things with their e-books without DRM being added to prevent it. That’s not Amazon’s call. With regard to smaller publishers and authors who use the KDP platform to put their work on Amazon, we’re asked if we want to include DRM. It’s not added automatically.

The second problem I saw was that folks were forgetting that publishers limit where books, and this includes e-books, are sold. If Linn had set up an account in the UK in violation of Amazon’s terms of service and the books she bought weren’t available from those publishers in Norway where she does live, then Amazon is faced with a problem. This territorial limit is a remnant from a time when publishing was only print, but it’s there and it will rear its ugly head from time to time.

The third problem I have is with the assumption that Amazon won’t recompense Linn for her purchases. First of all, we don’t know if the books she had on her kindle were books she’d purchased from Amazon or if she had it loaded with books that had been offered for free. It is possible that she had few, if any, books on it that she’d actually paid for.  For Amazon to basically brick a kindle and deny access to an account — and not give a refund for purchases made on that account — I’d assume it would have a pretty strong case that the account holder had been doing something fraudulent such as using someone else’s credit card. Otherwise, Amazon would be opening itself up to not only a storm of negative publicity like we saw yesterday but also to a law suit.

Note, too, that Amazon is within its rights to delete her account and her kindle content as laid out in its terms of service. Now, it would be nice if it had been more forthcoming with Linn to explain why the action was taken.

Note also the fact that there has been little coverage of two additional “facts” in the story. According to Boing Boing, Linn bought her kindle used, not from Amazon. Also, it is noted in an update that Linn’s account has now been reactivated.

Regarding buying the kindle used, that is inherently problematical for any device that has to log into an account to get online content. If you buy a kindle second hand, you run the risk of buying a unit that has been linked with an account that violates
Amazon’s TOS. It’s the same sort of risk you run in buying a used XBOX 360 or other latest gen gaming system. If the unit has been red flagged, then you are SOL.

As for Linn’s account being reactivated, I hope it’s true and I hope we will eventually get an explanation of what happened and why. My guess is that it is a combination of issues and that she got caught in the middle of actually being in violation of Amazon’s TOS and possibly buying a kindle that had been used by someone who had been blocked by Amazon. But none of that really deals with the issue at the heart of this matter.

The bloggers who have been so quick to pillory Amazon are right. This story points out the problem with e-books: that we are buying a license only when we buy an e-book. But they are wrong when they say this is something that Amazon does. Sorry, but for the major publishers — you know, those publishers who are being sued by the Department of Justice for price fixing  and  others who have followed in their footsteps and have implemented agency model pricing — they don’t want to sell the e-book. They will proudly and loudly tell you that they are selling only a license to read the book. Why? For the same reason they add DRM. They are afraid you might go out and give the e-book away or sell it and they might lose a sale.

Is this something that needs to be fixed? Hell yeah. If we allow our readers, our customers, to buy a hard copy of a book and then give it away or sell it, we should allow them to do the same with e-b0oks. Frankly, if we did that, we’d be helping ourselves. Publishers should look at such gifts and second sales as loss leaders because that’s what they are. They can help encourage readers to find new authors and buy new books. The problem is that publishers don’t think that something you can’t hold in your hands is real. But then, those same publishers tend to believe authors are only a small part of the process that makes a book. Otherwise, authors would get a fairer percentage of the sales.

So, instead of pillorying Amazon over something about which we don’t know all the details, focus instead on the real issue — the fact that publishers are only selling us a license to read their books. Licenses can be revoked — and not just by Amazon or any other e-tailer. And, if you don’t believe me, go read their terms of service.  You’ll find there is very little difference between the TOS for Apple, Amazon, BN, Kobo and the Sony Store when it comes to the “appropriate” use of e-books and your duties as the purchaser.

(Cross–posted to Nocturnal Lives)

Tossing men out with the bathwater

It’s like watching Cyanide poured into the town drinking water because two rats were seen at a dripping tap. Watching… and keeping your mouth shut and sitting on your hands. Rats carry plague… And whatever the cost, you don’t want to chance being identified with the rats, not even to save the people in the town.

Increasingly we seem to do this. Make rules, decisions, take steps which… actually rarely affect the rats, but ruin our lives, our society, our hopes for a future, our past.

The hell with it all. I daresay this post, misquoted and/or selectively quoted will come back to haunt me for the rest of my life. Nothing dies on the Internet.
Shrug. It needs to be said.

I like children. No, let’s go further, and be honest. I love children, especially my own. In any group, I’m the one you’ll find being mobbed by dogs and kids. And yes, I am a man. Let’s be clear here. I love liver and onions too, and yet no-one assumes I want stick my personal Polyphemus into a steaming hot plateful of it, or that I might keep pictures of it on my computer to quiver over. There almost certainly is some freak out there who does this, but no-one makes that assumption about every bloke who enjoys the dish. I’m heterosexual, but really sexual immaturity has about the same appeal as eating the liver while it’s still part of the live sheep. I like women to have all the bits fully grown (And not being a gay fashion designer, who likes androgynous women if he must put up with women, I like them to look like women.) and know what those bits are, and how they work, and what to do with them. Trust me, unless my own youthful disaster areas were atypical in the extreme, the first time is not likely to be the best, unless it really got dismal after that. Experience is good. (Okay, my own take on this is that a male who wants a lack of experience, is a weakling terrified of comparison. But then I look at old men with young trophy wives and think – ‘what a loser you are, and what a slag she is’. Yes, my wife is two years older than I am.) I’ve no sympathy for those who sexually abuse children, and that drops away to less than none at all when you’re talking about pre-pubescent kids. On the other hand I believe and think the evidence is overwhelming that male affection, care, nurturing, mentoring… of both boys and girls has enormously beneficial outcomes for kids. AND MOST OF IT HAS NOTHING AT ALL TO DO WITH SEX. The Greeks — who had some mighty odd ideas — said there were many kinds of love (they even had different words for it, which maybe is what we need). Assuming they’re all ‘sexual love’ is to destroy all the others too.

I wonder if anyone ever did the maths. Look at that child sex offenders register. Assume that the capture rate is rotten. 1:100. Hell, say 1:1000, or even 10 000 -over generations. Look at the population – and even just the population to which this refers – where such statistic would exclude rural tribal societies etc… and you’re looking at what sort of percentage of the conservative 1.5 billion males it could apply to? Yes. We’re poisoning the entire water supply to destroy two rats, who probably won’t drink the water. It’s like the stupid rules about pen-knives etc on airliners. So tell me: A bunch of nutbars who think sex with transparent virgins would be better than what they can get otherwise (yes really. Old Mo’s description was not inspiring to normal men.) gets up on tomorrow’s flight to NY and threatens an airliner of passengers with box-cutters (or even machetes) — how many seconds do you think they’ll last? I’ll tell you: slightly more time than they would if most passengers hadn’t been subjected to this idiocy, but not very long. The nutbars worked it out, and they’re stupider than pig-dung, so there have been no more attempts. But it still hasn’t got through to the authorities… And the same applies to ‘all men are pedophiles’. If we were, pedophilia would be a lot more ‘normal’ than homosexuality. It isn’t. We’re excluding so much of value to the kids, often in circumstances where this could be avoided. One of the best ways to my mind anyway, would be to have more men involved with child-related situations, so there would be a group of dads with the camp, rather than making it something where you only get one male who is prepared to jump through the hoops required to teach etc.(odds increase then, that he’s the clever rat). It needs thought, and takes, however, more than the knee-jerk ‘no knives on airliners’ reaction.

Look: I’m not saying that the problem is to be ignored. I’m all for rat-poison in the holes, and rat-traps and cats and terriers. I’m all for keeping things rats like in rat-proof containers. Hunt down and destroy without mercy or tolerance those who make and put this noxious filth on the Internet. Humiliate and jail the users. Be sensible about sending your daughter – or son, off with a solitary man, or woman (yes, it’s less frequent. It happens. Women do abuse boys, and women do abuse girls, even their own kids. I’d guess it’s going to rise for reasons of our changing society. It will still be a minuscule proportion. But, if you’re a woman, thinking ‘so what: what they lose in male contact is worth their safety’ – down this route in time you’re going also get treated like a criminal for a picture of your baby Jimmy playing in the bath, never mind how often you changed his diaper).

As a writer, the part that worries me is that I’m seeing this creep into writing too. Books like Margaret Mahy’s excellent ‘PIRATE UNCLE’ (where a young boy and his sister are sent off to live with their bachelor uncle, much to the benefit of the kids, the uncle, and the parents) are conspicuously absent in the current generation of books. Solitary men, in fact men, are seen as ‘the bad guys’. And it does spill through. Men not wanting to be scoutmasters. Men avoiding teaching… It’s curious to have sat on the sidelines while a group of (female) YA writers were discussing sex in their books. Mine are terribly dull, as the Kirkus reviewer who (judging by her ‘rave’ reviews) wanted kinky teen sex for her titillation found, and don’t actually have any. The writers posited that as 50% of girls of, I forget, barely past puberty as far as I was concerned, certainly still immature in mind if not body, were sexually active, it was the norm, and the question was just how much gay, threesome, S&M and/or other variants there should be and how much detail, and explanations on condoms, rubber gloves and dental dams… after all, it was important for these young people not feel left out, isolated and strange… Several things went through my mind (beside my feet, as I landed hard). The first was well, what about the other 50%? And I bet they’re the 50% who read (and, um, I’ll bet most of these writers were in that group too, as teens.) What about that sector feeling left out, isolated, strange because they’re not? You’re not pressuring young, socially insecure humans into accepting your adult norms are you? The second was: unless the world has changed very abruptly, an age gap has always existed in the male choice of post-pubescent girls who haven’t finished maturing yet. When they grow up, partners their own age, or even a little younger are just fine. But judging by my own experiences growing up, and more recently my sons’ and their friends at a co-ed school, girls found enormous status in older boys. 2-5 years was the hunting range, largely, I think because even there, the peer pressure on boys was such that chicken-hawking is seen as the behavior of weaklings (and rightly so IMO). To pull a boy who was at college when you were a scrubby school-brat was a major status symbol, and for a girl to date a younger boy… well, she had to be brave or desperate. So: while some countries have statutory rape provisions excluding relationships between minors or where the age gap is close (South Africa was IIRC 2 years), and taking the 50%… by accepting this 50% as a norm you’re green-lighting child abuse, because a lot of the 50% will be minors, role modelling on what you write, with the sort of partner who likes chicken-hawking. Eugh!

So: here’s my position, what I write and what I’d ask you to think about writing yourselves, or if you’re buying books for younger readers, to target.

1) Adults, regardless of gender, can be decent human beings. Not have to be, but can be. Men or women behaving that way are to be admired and liked.

2) Partners / lovers of more or less your own age are pretty cool. (And yes, if you’re going to get graphic, how to put on a condom, use a dental dam etc… is important. But for heaven’s sake try to insert the concept that if the fancy already knows all the intimate details of these things… they’re probably not exactly your maturity age, and taking advantage.). Mental and maturity parity is important. It’s actually about more than just sex. (It’s why Eric and I sent Goth back in time to where she was older than Pausert in SORCERESS OF KARRES.

The original Schmitz gave me the willies. It’s why in the relationship between Clara and Tim in CUTTLEFISH is based on

developing a respect for each other, and the values of the other, and finding common ground. (Yes, and a grave shortage of angst and sex. Sorry. That’s me.))

3) The sort of ‘target’ (male or female) who will respond to someone a lot younger than themselves isn’t a sign that you’re sexy and mature, it’s a sign that they’re a weakling and a loser, who can’t cut it with their peers. It’s not much of a prize.

Crossposted in Coal Fired Cuttlefish

Titan – Archvillain’s Lair

Still continuing my fascination for Saturn’s moon Titan this week. This time adding local power production to my sketch for the habitat.

But first a few other fun facts.

Using a variety of instruments aboard the Huygens probe scientists have been able to recount a by-by-blow of all 10 second of its bounce, wobble and slide across the surface of Titan.

At first contact the probe made a dent 12cm deep before bouncing onto Titan’s flat surface. They estimate the 200 kg probe hit the surface with the impact speed of a ball dropped from around waist height on Earth. Just think about that for moment – the effect of Titan’s reduced gravity. I find that awesome.

The analysis is so precise, scientists then report the probe tilted by 10 degrees, slid about a foot across the surface and came to its final resting place – where it wobbled back and forward four to five times. (Of course what they don’t realise is that a local Methanomorph – who had the sh*t scared out of him by the appearance of this strange object – kicked the Probe five times in sheer frustration.)

You can see an animation of the landing here.

Recent radar images from Cassini – orbiting Titan – reveal a circular feature described as a ‘hot cross bun’. This tasty region, which is 70km long, is characterised by surface fractures, with steam – possibly from rising magma below the surface, driving the uplift.

Having a think about where you would want to set up a habitat on Titan, I realised heat would be a premium. So you would set up either in a geologically active area like the ‘hot cross bun’ or perhaps near the mouth of an active volcano – just like the old Archvillain’s Lair!

OK, before you tell me I’m crazy, remember that things are very cold on Titan, around -179 C (-290F). The volcanic ‘lava’ is actually a liquid ammonia and water mixture. At the surface pressure of 1.45 atmospheres or 147 kPa (~21 psi) that means water is boiling at a slight elevation of 106C (~224F). [If you want to check out this boiling point elevation effect, find yourself a set of steam tables and look at the Saturated Water section.]

Perched up on the rim of the volcano, you would have a nice source of heat, and also a source of liquid water. Of course you would probably need to drive piles down to a nice solid foundation of ice or rock to keep your hab steady.

What you also have is a power Engineer’s dream – a temperature difference! Forget the portable nuclear reactor you brought to power things while you set up, now you can generate electricity directly from the ‘lava’.

You could operate a modified Rankine cycle using local materials for the working fluids. You would need to bring the key components with you (turbines etc), but you could use ammonia (R717) as the working fluid. Ammonia has a critical point at 132C. So you could fit a conventional cycle say between the temperatures of 106C and 10C – which would give you a theoretical cycle efficiency of around 25%. Not that great, but straightforward.

But what about using liquid methane as well? If you mixed liquid methane from the surface with the water ‘lava’ (50:50), you would end up with a methane-water-ammonia mixture with a temperature of around -79C. Now, because the ambient temperature is so low (-179C), you can theoretically operate a power cycle to recover heat right down to this temperature. The theoretical efficiency of recovering heat between 100C and -70C is 46%, much better. You could improve this by playing the proportions of the mix.

Of course you would have to do something tricky with the working fluid to allow this, perhaps by using a binary mixture of methane and ammonia.

You could pump the hot water from the volcano mouth, then generate power while you cooled the water using the ammonia cycle, then get even more power by mixing some of this water with methane. Rejecting heat from the working fluid would be a snap, given the low ambient temperature.

If you are interested,  here are the temperature Vs entropy diagrams for methane and ammonia. A typical steam-based Rankine cycle on a T-s diagram looks like this:

You would probably need to set up your Lair on the northern hemisphere of Titan, the only place where vast hydrocarbon seas have been observed.

Next week – sailing ice boats on methane seas. . .

Cross-posted at chrismcmahons blog.

Why is there so much Gray Goo?

It’s pretty much a given that we Human Wavers (Waving Humans? Only if the human in question doesn’t mind being waved around like a really ratty flag) don’t like Gray Goo. For that matter, declining sales from the mainstream suggest pretty strongly that not many other people like the stuff either. It’s gray, it’s gooey, and it’s bleak, and it’s… well, you get the idea.

So why is there so much of it?

Even allowing for the current fad, why is there so much of the stuff?

Seriously, the last time I dipped a toe into a slush pile, the majority fell into the Gray Goo bucket. A rather substantial majority, at that.

Okay, I admit I’m a substantial minority all by myself, but that’s my issue not yours, and you can have my chocolate when you pry it from my cold dead hands. Or more likely, my dead stomach, since chocolate doesn’t stay in my hands very long.

Anyway. Gray Goo and why it’s everywhere.

No, there has not been an explosion in a goop factory, and no, the coloring agents didn’t go missing (actually, everyone knows where they are. They’re in the Crayola factory, playing with the coloring books. No-one wants to disturb them because they get… upset).

Gray Goo is easier to write.

Seriously. When you’re still a bit unsteady on your writer-feet, and you want to leave some kind of emotional impact, the easiest one to get is despair. It’s much easier to flatten everything in your path and leave everything hopeless and miserable.

Inspirational tends to fall into glurge or the kind of meaningless goodwill that you don’t want to examine too closely because it hides a really nasty sting. Think about 90% of the feel-good posts you see on Facebook, and you get the idea.

Straight-up happy with all-things-go-well-for-the-hero suffers from a tendency to get so corny you could make relish out of it (this is why the dialog in so many movie romantic scenes is so cringe-worthy. It’s bloody hard to write good romantic dialog. Come to think of it, that’s probably also why the move towards sex scenes instead. You don’t need dialog in that, especially if you’re writing for Hollywood. Emphasis on the wood).

Something mixed where there’s good and bad, it’s ridiculously difficult to come up with anything that manages to encapsulate what you’re trying to convey without veering into Everything Is Horrible Gray Goo or sending your readers into diabetic shock from the excessive sweetness.

Then you have the difficulty of conveying characters who need to be a bit larger than life, better than real, and flawed in a way that makes them endearing. Even those of us who get character free can commit Mary Sue/Marty Stu just because that’s easier. And trust me, Mary Sue/Marty Stu in Gray Goo is something no-one needs to see (yes, I have committed this. I’ve committed practically every evil in the writing book, and no, no-one gets to see those. They’ve been consigned to a merciful death. Most of them never got onto a computer. Which is just as well or I’d be exorcising the hard drive).

On top of that, it seems to be built-in that bleak, horrible, dark and so forth is in some way more profound than happy, or uplifting, or… And heaven forbid you should try to convince the average Literature graduate that comedy can be profound (Sarah, be quiet. You’re so far from the average you’re in a class all by yourself. It’s the one with the extra writing implements and the padded walls). It took Terry Pratchett something like twenty (ridiculously best-selling) books before the establishment started getting embarrassed by the man’s incredible sales record and started nominating him for awards. Which of course he won, because the man actually is as brilliant as all that.

Hell, even the Bible says it: “Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.” (Ecclesiastes 7:3, King James Version). In plain language, if you’re laughing you don’t care enough about the proper things. It’s that kind of thinking that leads to the idea that anything enjoyable must be sinful, and from there to the idiocy of banning anything remotely enjoyable.

The currently fading Powers That Be haven’t gone quite that far yet, but they’re trying, by Dog (you can’t call what they’re trying by “God” because they mostly don’t believe in one even when they think they do. You can tell by how they act – people who actually do believe in the Judeo-Christian iteration of God tend to be rather more inclined to leaving judgment to Him – but the moral scolds do believe that Fun Is Bad) they’re trying.

And yes, before the nitpick wagon dumps its load, I am bloody generalizing. If I stopped to qualify every trend statement I made, you’d never see me get to a point. I have enough trouble with that at the best of times without making it worse for myself. So the exceptions really don’t need to point out that they’re exceptions. I know, okay? So should intelligent readers (Sadly, so much intelligence has been beaten out by the school system I no longer feel confident that even the smartest people can figure out that something’s a deliberate generalization even if I put big flashing neon signs in front of it. You would not believe… well, maybe you would).

In view of this, here is the Gospel According To Kate (bear in mind that “Gospel” actually means/meant “good news”). Funny can too be profound, but for $DEITY$’s(*) sake don’t force it. If you force it, it just clunks. Let things happen and funny tends to follow if you’re working in that general vicinity. Even if you think it’s painfully, embarrassingly corny, let someone you trust to give an honest opinion read it. Chances are you’re like 100% of authors (yes, this is a scientific percentage, and I’m not disclosing sample size, so THP!) and can’t judge your own work. If they think it’s too much, they probably have some ideas to tone down the excess sugar and make it work. Don’t fear glurge: again, good beta readers can help clean up the worst messes and help sort the good from the omigodmyEYES.

Above all, don’t be scared to write what you want to see. There are a lot of people out there who can read. No matter how outré your tastes, there will be people who want to read it. If you have any doubts about this, consider that I’m acquiring fans via Overlord fanfiction, and tell your doubting side to just butt out and shut up.

(* $SOMETHING$ is old-school programmer for indicating a variable, so $DEITY$ translates to “insert deity of choice here”)