Archive for October 2011

I was just looking through my Amazon wishlist, and I see that most of the books on there are now available in Kindle versions as well as paper. But while I looked through it with every intention of buying one or more of them, in the end, I didn’t.

Why?

1. Several of them are more expensive on Kindle than paper. I can have a paper book printed, shipped to a warehouse and shipped to me for less than the cost of buying a few bits that take a fraction of a second to reach me over the Internet. That is insane, for obvious reasons.

2. DRM. Every one of those books has DRM which restricts them to my Kindle. So unlike a paper book, I can’t sell them, I can’t lend them to people who don’t have a Kindle, and I can’t read them on any computer which doesn’t have Kindle for PC installed (and, let’s face it, the Kindle software really sucks).

So the books are expensive and crippled. Cheap and crippled I could live with, but expensive too? No thanks. Hence I’ll be sticking to buying indie books for the forseeable future since they’re generally reasonably priced and DRM-free; I’ll borrow the others from the library.

There was an interesting thread on a web forum I frequent about the EU mess and how none of the politicians involved seem to know what to do or want to take charge to do anything about it.

This reminded me of a book I read some years ago, On the psychology of military incompetence, a study of incompetent military actions and the reasons behind them. The general theory was that in peace time the military promotes people who do as they’re told, and then when they reach the top levels and are expected to take command, they have no idea of what to do; most people capable of making independent decisions have been weeded out at much lower level. Only in war time does the need for effective action override the demand for obedience to higher ranks.

The same process would seem to apply to many professional politicians, who’ve spent all their lives doing what they’re told in order to progress up the party hierarchy to the point where they’re suddenly able to give orders. Then they don’t know what to do, and because giving orders means taking responsibility for them, they’re not even willing to try because failure gives their opponents ammunition to use against them. Putting off decisions or pushing them onto committees in order to pass the buck is far less risky.

Until they face a crisis where important decisions have to be made, and not making a decision becomes an important decision in its own right. The political system then works against promoting the very people who are required in such a crisis and they can’t be promoted as fast as military officers in war time.

Hence when we look around the world today we see a lot of political ‘leaders’ who’ve spent most of their life getting to that point yet most of them would prefer to play golf than actually lead. It’s no wonder we’re in such a mess.

So I finally bought myself a Kindle; I have to say, it’s much easier to read on than a laptop screen and it also turns pages much faster than the other e-reader I’ve used (I forget whether it was a Nook or a Kobo, but it was an old generation model either way).

Two things I’ve found so far are that it doesn’t like being told to download hundreds of books in one go, and when you have a thousand books on the Kindle search takes forever and locks up the device with no way to abort it. Twice I rebooted it (hold the power switch over for thirty seconds) because I didn’t think it was going to come back, the third time I left it and eventually it did.

I do wish it had number keys, because entering a 63-character random Wi-Fi key was painful when I had to keep figuring out which key was which number. But at least that’s something that you only do rarely. Overall I’m pretty happy with it and it should help with book reviews as I can’t read more than a few dozen pages at a time on my laptop.

Tartarus is finally up. It’s on Smashwords and Amazon and will take a while to filter through to the other sites.

Next step is NaNoWriMo where I’m planning to adapt another of my unproduced movie scripts. This is more of a historical story but told in a horror story style. I’d like to get that out by Christmas but I’m guessing it’s going to take more than a month to go from NaNo quality to worth publishing.

Finished the tweaks to Tartarus; in total it’s lost about two thousand words and gained another three, so it’s about a thousand longer than it was before the first readers got it and I think the changes they suggested were real improvements. Now just a final copy-edit over the next couple of days and I can get it out to Smashwords and Amazon by Halloween.

It also gives me the opportunity to write a prequel and at least two sequels if readers like it :).

Onto the last few tweaks to Tartarus, then I want to do a full read-through to copy-edit before uploading it.

Also, NaNoWriMo is coming up shortly so I’ll be adapting another of my old screenplays for that; it’s one that I never finished, so I have the start and end and some good ideas for what should go in between and hopefully it will work out. It’s really a war story, but the intention is to tell it in the form of a horror story.

Meanwhile, here’s a piece of writing advice I’m finding useful for revision, relating to the characters in the story, both major and minor:

They are each the hero of their own stories. They don’t know that they aren’t the main character and are only there to move the plot along.

I’ve forgotten where this came from: I think it’s James MacDonald, but I’m not entirely certain. However, it’s an important part of making the characters seem real, and useful for working out where the story should go. Each character should behave as though they are the most important character in the story from their viewpoint, not as someone who’s just there to provide plot for the major characters. Not only does that make them seem more real, it introduces more conflicts for the main characters to deal with.

Good article on how to deal with the troublesome middle of a novel. It’s an old one, but it packs a lot of useful advice into one article.

Years ago, when Google was young, it was the best search engine around; you typed in some words, it looked for them and it displayed the results. It had the best coverage, the best performance, and the most useful results.

But that wasn’t good enough. Having little competition, the Google developers seem to have decided that they had to make the search ‘smarter’ to keep their jobs, because there wasn’t much point paying them to sit around with their feet up when the search was already pretty good.

And it’s all been downhill since then. Now, instead of searching for what I asked it to search for, it searches for what it thinks I wanted to ask for. That’s an absolute disaster for technical queries where it take acronyms then adds or removes vowels, adds an ‘s’ on the end, or searches for synonyms. So even when I know precisely what I want to look for and there are only a few pages on the Internet which have that information, it produces thousands of results which are nothing to do with what I’m actually searching for.

Even in non-technical searches it’s becoming painfully useless. Recently, for example, I was searching for information on Victorian-era Irish housing. Could it just look for those words? Nah, of course not. The results I was actually looking for were swamped by results for Queen Victoria and Irish Home Rule (since housing is kind of like ‘home’, right?).

Google search sucks, because it now believes it knows what I want to search for better than I do. Sure, that gives far more results, but I don’t want more results, I want results that contain what I’m looking for. Now, I can use magic to tell it to search for what I actually asked it to search for, but why should I have to do that? Why should the default be to not search for what I asked it to search for? Computers are dumb, any time someone tries to make them ‘smart’ it merely ensures they’ll annoy the humans trying to use them.

And this is before we get onto the disastrous new interface which tries to search before you’ve finished typing, steals the page-up/page-down keys so that instead of scrolling the page as they do elsewhere they move from one result to the next, and adds pop-up previews of pages from God knows where that I don’t want to visit whenever I happen to move the mouse in the wrong place.

Does anyone know of a search engine that doesn’t suck?

I’m going to be helping with the indie SF and fantasy book reviews at Sift Book Reviews. I’ll be interested to see what comes through there.

I’m about half-way through the final revisions to Tartarus.

Meanwhile, there have been a couple of blog posts at Elf Killing And Other Hobbies about a publisher not paying royalties, not releasing books and not returning rights to writers.

While self-publishing risks obscurity if no-one ever finds your novels, at least you don’t have to worry about losing rights to your books or all the royalties; one e-book retailer might get into financial troubles and not pay, but the odds of all of them doing the same are slim.

Which is not to imply that writers should never publish through publishers, but clearly life isn’t always as easy as signing a contract and then waiting for the publisher to send you money. Hopefully this isn’t a common occurrence.

This is an interesting site: How To Write A Novel Using The Snowflake Method. I like the idea of starting with a one-line description of the story and working out to a full outline, though I suspect it’s too constrictive for my taste.

However, by doing the one line to multi-paragraph outline, I have realised that the character I thought was the main character in The Thing is probably not, and that The Thing is probably the villain rather than the MacGuffin. So some rewriting is probably required when I get around to revisiting that story.

That said, I’d half-realised the former already because I’d spent a lot more time writing his story than the story of the character I thought was the main one. Also, I’d been thinking that I should make that character’s family less sympathetic, so this gives me an excuse to do that.

Perhaps I’ll give this a more serious try for the next novel I write.

How to stop Kindle for PC bugging you about upgrading every single time it connects to the web site, even when you’re already running the updated version:

Got to Tools, Options, Network. Set a manual proxy of localhost, port zero.

Now every time it tries to connect the connection will fail and it won’t bug you any more. When you do want to connect and sync up set it back to no proxy, sync and then enable the proxy again.

Neal Stephenson’s article has been causing a fuss among SF writers as he calls for them to ‘start pulling their weight and supplying big visions that make sense’.

I certainly don’t plan to join a Big Things Crusade, because if the 20th century taught us anything it should be to run screaming from anyone who demands that we must do Big Things. A century ago, for example, SF writers were extolling the wonders of scientific socialism, which was going to make the world a utopia; instead it’s bankrupt the planet. Big Things have wasted vast amounts of money, imprisoned billions and murdered tens of millions (possibly hundreds of millions if some estimates are to be believed) over the last hundred years.

If anything, my stories are an anti-Big Things Crusade; governments are small and local and the groups who are really into Big Things are the bogeyman that parents threaten their kids with when they’re naughty.

Going back to Wells and his utopian socialism, that is probably a good way to compare the opposite ideals in SF writing. ‘Alien’ was a great movie largely because it wasn’t a ‘Big Thing’ SF story but was about a bunch of ordinary Joes just doing their job, which happened to involve travelling through space. At the other end of the scale, ‘Things to Come’ was a movie about Big Things which was probably considered a glorious prediction of the wonders of the future when released. Now, with decades of hindisght, we can see that it was actually a glorious paen to fascism and outside of the Soviet Union no-one has ever made its like again.

One of the biggest of Big Things, and among the most beloved of SF writers, is the Apollo program. I’ve met some of the engineers involved and it was a marvellous achievement that pushed technology to its limits, but with hindsight it was a failure; we built a massively expensive rocket to put two people on the Moon for a few days at about a billion dollars a ticket. Because it was a rush program with near-unlimited budget no effort was made to make it efficient or to build infrastructure which would have allowed lunar trips to continue after the initial landings. As soon as the Saturn V was cancelled, it was dead.

Worse than that, it was probably actively harmful to future exploration. Prior to that point, we could still dream of being the first person to set foot on the Moon and it was a significant goal to work for through the usual process of starting with small steps and building up to reach the destination. As soon as Neil Armstrong’s billion dollar boots touched lunar dust, that goal was gone with nothing to follow on from it; go to investors with a business plan based on landing on the moon and exploiting the publicity and they’d just laugh at you.

Today we’re close to returning to the Moon, not because taxpayers are funding Big Things, but because companies like SpaceX are building spacecraft which can do it at a price that companies or even tourists can afford. A Falcon 9 Heavy and Dragon capsule should be able to make a circumlunar flight for a couple of hundred million dollars and a landing probably wouldn’t cost more than twice that once the development costs of the lander are amortised. That is the kind of story that SF authors used to write, trips to the Moon paid for by private companies with a few thousand employees, not massive government programs funded by billions of taxpayer dollars.

Stephenson complains that we haven’t made progress on solar, tidal and wind power since the 70s. The reason why we haven’t made progress is that none of those things makes financial sense; oil, coal, gas and nuclear power are at least as cheap and more reliable, so there’s absolutely no reason why we should have put much effort into those areas. High-speed rail is another money-sink which fails not because companies aren’t willing to invest money in long-term profits, but because it makes no financial sense in most of the world.

If we want the human race to do big things, then we won’t get there by wasting vast amounts of money on Big Things that make no sense.

Just got some good reader feedback so I’m going to do a final revision based on their comments before I upload it. That will probably take 2-3 weeks to complete.