Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Transmitters Imply; Receivers Infer

Imply and infer—why are these simple words so difficult to use correctly? Implication—to imply—is the act of couching a subtext within speech or writing. Inference—to infer—is the complementary act of discerning a subtext within speech or writing. The concepts seem straightforward, yet I see them misused—typically by saying infer when the context demands imply—at least weekly on Twitter, on television talk shows, and in the news. And this isn’t simply a matter of un- or undereducated individuals abusing the English language. I see journalists, lawyers, and US Senators making such statements as, “My learned opponent’s declaration is clearly inferring…” or just asking, “What are you inferring?” in response to an apparent insulting subtext.

These two concepts should be easy to get right if you just remember one simple fact about each term:

-          Only a transmitter (speaker, actor, or writer) can imply.

-          Only a receiver (listener, watcher, or reader) can infer.

With that in mind, the question (that all too frequently pops up in heated exchanges), “What are you inferring?” asks, “How are you reading this?” If you want to ask, “What is your subtext?” you should ask, “What are you implying?”

This all seems pretty straightforward to me, but I know some folks prefer more concrete examples—something they can visualize, so let’s try a slightly more fleshed-out example.

At a professional conference, we see a group of old friends—Alice, Bob, Charlie, Dawn, and Ed—who have worked and recreated together for several years. Through shared experience, they’ve developed their own in-jokes, their own cant. Somewhere along the way, they started using the word brushfire to mean an STI. So, instead of saying, “I think that guy’s got the clap,” one of the five might say something like, “I think we may have a brushfire over here.”

On one day of the conference, the five attend a presentation together, at which Alice notices that another acquaintance of the group, William, is fidgeting. Later, at lunch, Alice points out William and asks the others, “Did you see the way he was squirming? I think I smell a brushfire.”

Bob, hearing Alice, thinks, “Alice thinks William has an STI.”

Of course, group cant notwithstanding, it’s always possible that Alice’s final statement is factual. Maybe she really does smell smoke. Given the context, however, Bob is probably correct.

In this example, Alice implies, “William has an STI.”

In this same example, Bob infers, “William has an STI.”

I used this same example several years ago, while I was teaching English Comp at UT Austin. A student of mine pointed out that Alice’s interpretation of William’s squirming could also correctly be termed inference. Alice infers from William’s movements that he has an STI. The student asked how Alice could infer if she is the transmitter. The answer is that Alice is also a receiver. Alice receives information by seeing William’s movements (her inference) but then transmits that information (her implication) to her friends.

It's Official: Pokémon Go Just SUCKS

 I had begun to suspect this when update 1.1.0 destroyed my seventh level trainer. I started leaning a little more heavily toward this when update 1.3.0 came out and the Nearby function was replaced by the Sightings function (or non-function, since it doesn't seem to do anything). Returning from a brief stay in California to find that the Pokémon had been decimated within the one mile radius around my house in Austin provided yet another bit of evidence swaying me toward this unkind conclusion. Tonight, though, after walking a half-mile to one of the nearest Pokéstops and then returning home, I had all the evidence I needed.

Yes, children, it's official: Niantic's ever-so-popular game, Pokémon Go Just SUCKS.

To be more specific, Pokémon Go cheats its players. With update 1.1.0, I'd heard all the internet buzz about how Niantic had decided to make catching Pokémon harder to catch by increasing the likelihood of an escape from Pokéball after initial trapping but before the game's acknowledging "Gotcha!" Frankly, I was pleased at the prospect of a slightly more challenging game. Okay, sure, getting the hang of throwing a ball was initially challenging, but once you have the mechanics of the throw down, trapping most critters is pretty straightforward. So, I was prepared for the beasties to begin escaping from trappings along the way.

What I was not prepared for was insanely arbitrary algorithms governing who tries to escape and how they might be overcome, if at all. My first truly exasperating experience of the new escape algorithms (I won't call it logic—nothing about this mess is logical) occurred on my vacation to Redondo Beach this past weekend. At the time I had just reached ninth level, I believe. I had amassed a fairly sizable cache of balls and a few raspberries when, on a walk with my wife, I encountered my first ever Pikachu. And she was huge. This Pikachu, at over 600 CP was easily the largest critter I'd ever encountered. When I prepared to toss my Pokéball, I noticed that the targeting ring was red—also a first for me. Realizing she was likely to try to escape, I threw out a preemptive raspberry, which the Pikachu accepted with a smile and a cheerful backflip. I threw a ball and trapped her. The screen informed me I'd made an Excellent throw.

And she escaped from the ball.

I threw another, trapped her again, and she escaped again. In the following several fraught seconds, I fed her three more raspberries, trapped her nine times—with three of the trappings labeled as Great. As I was reaching for a fourth raspberry, she disappeared in a puff of smoke.

I was angry. Of course I was angry. I'd done everything I knew to do, and she still escaped after every fucking throw, and ultimately disappeared, costing me ten Pokéballs and three raspberries.

That was my first such encounter. Since then, I've been robbed of a couple dozen critters and God-knows how many balls. Yes, robbed. You see, the system is slanted to make escape more likely for higher level critters, with little or no chance to actually catch the damned things. I've rarely seen a critter over 150 CP stay trapped in the first ball. Even the use of raspberries and great balls seems to add little to stop this epidemic of escapes.

Just this evening, after I reached our local Pokéstop and collected my swag (a measly two Pokéballs and a potion), my first Pokémon encounter of the evening popped up: a little Spearow. A tiny little 62 CP Spearow. My Trainer is now 14th level. A 62 CP Spearow is barely worth the bother. If it weren't worth a little experience, it wouldn't be worth the bother. So, I threw a Pokéball, made a Great! catch, and—the little bastard escaped.

I stared. Are you shitting me?

I threw a second ball, made a second Great! catch, and—the little bastard escaped—again!

Third time's a charm, right?

Wrong. Same crap again. I wondered if it was worth tossing a raspberry to the bird, but the little shit disappeared in a puff of dust.

A tiny little 62 CP Spearow just cost me more Pokéballs than I'd collected from the Pokéstop.  That, my friends, is a fucking cheat.

On the way home, a similarly maddening encounter occurred with a 190 CP Ekans. This one was a yellow-circle Pokécritter, so I expected difficulty. I threw it a pre-emptive raspberry. Nonetheless, the Ekans escaped from my first Pokéball. And from the second. And from the third. Now, I really don't need another Ekans, but I always need experience, and it's always hard to determine the point of no return. I'd already wasted three balls and a raspberry. I decided it was worth a second raspberry and switching to great balls. Ultimately, I trapped the little snake in a total of three Pokéballs and five greatballs, fed it two raspberries, and the sonofabitch escaped into the night.

This is ridiculous. I understand that the game had become too easy. Hardly ever did anything escape from the Pokéballs. Niantic should have increased the level of the challenge. I have no qualms about that decision, but they should have done so in a logical way. Simply increasing the odds of an escape in every encounter is not logical. Trainers should have an opportunity catch every critter they encounter. For the more advanced, more rare, or otherwise more desirable, I think the degree of difficulty of the catch should be higher. But Trainer experience should count for something.

The degree of difficulty should be commensurate with the desirability of the Pokécritter, and every Trainer should be able to catch every goddamn critter she encounters. That means for more difficult critters, the Trainer should have to work to get the catch. But the catch should always be a possibility. Commonplace critters worth less than a hundred CP should never cost more Pokéballs than the Trainer can win at a local Pokéstop. Otherwise, it's an irrational ripoff.

Niantic needs to fix this. Fix it as soon as possible. Itty bitty birds absconding with several balls after multiple fair catches is not a fair system of play. It's just a cheesy mindfuck. This game was promising when it began. It was fun. I was happy to be playing, happy to be recommending it to everyone I knew.

Fix it Niantic. Fix it before we're all too embarrassed to admit that we play "that shitty Pokémon Go Fuck Yourself game".

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Updates, updates, and more updates

First update, of course, is this entry. Because I haven't posted anything in the past half-decade or so, whatever I said here today would be a update. So, news items:

Yes, I'm still alive.

Second update, yes, I'm still working on a sequel to Gifts. In fact, I'm planning to have a series of four books when I'm done. Talents is the sequel to Gifts, to be followed eventually by two more books, Skills and Mastery. If I'm being honest with myself, the sequel has given me fits because the series follows a different line than the first book. Gifts was a book about the effects of a single magic spell on four diverse men and the people in their lives. My goal with the sequels was to tell the story of the magic. Of course, to some extent that means introducing new people and taking a lot of emphasis off the main characters from Gifts. I've had a hard time giving them up, though.

Third update: in the middle of this month, the Mrs and I will be attending the Climate Reality Leadership Corps training in Houston, TX, learning to be Social Justice Warriors and to combat the voices of evil and ignorance (*Cough* Donald Trump *Cough*). Holy crap.

Finally, fourth update. The update update. See, for he past week or so, I've been caught up in the same stupid gaming craze as the rest of the country. My stepdaughter started playing Pokémon Go, so of course, that meant the Mrs had to try. After hearing about the game for a few days, I got interested (okay, I was feeling left out and wanted to do whatever she's doing) and downloaded the game. Damn, that is some kind of seriously addictive shit. I don't know how long I'd been playing—might have been a couple of weeks, might have been just a few days—but I had walked many miles and amassed a decent collection of little cartoon monsters. I was already evolving critters and beginning to strategize my next evolutions and power increases. I had an egg in an incubator that was just about to hatch. Then I downloaded the latest update.

I installed update 1.1.1, which I DO NOT RECOMMEND for anyone interested in continuing that game. It wiped out my ninth level character. All my data were overwritten. If I wanted to continue playing, I had to start over at level 1, with absolutely nothing. I was absolutely gob-smacked. I know: it's just a game. Just a silly video game. All my accomplishments within the game are imaginary. Still, losing all of that work really hurt—I felt like I'd been gut-punched—HARD.

Well, I've started playing again. I'm not putting as much effort in any more. I don't know that I'll ever amass as many critters or get back to that excited place where I'm strategizing future game-play, but I've started. We'll see.

Meanwhile, if I ever meet anyone from Niantics, if YOU work for Niantics and introduce yourself to me, cover your face and be prepared to duck. I say that because, if I still feel like I'm feeling now, somebody's probably going to get smacked in the face.

Monday, September 1, 2014

What's Wrong with Tit for Tat?

I self-published my first novel this year, on Kindle in March and again for Print-on-Demand via CreateSpace in July. Like every indy author out there, I've been scrambling for reviews. Ten years ago, the number of reviewers online appears to have been sufficient for the number of active authors. At the time, new book review websites seemed to be popping up every day, begging authors for review copies and responding with  thorough and vivid reviews. Fortunately, many of those review websites are still active, and about half (just an educated guess) still provide instructions for submitting books for reviews. The rest often still maintain posted instructions for submitting reviews but also have added notices that they are no longer accepting reviews or have suspended acceptance of unsolicited reviews for some unspecified period.

In the past four months, I've posted about five dozen requests for review. I've received only three return offers to accept my submissions, and none of those reviewers have yet responded with a review. I've also asked several of my readers for Amazon reviews. So far, only one has responded by posting an Amazon review. The other two reviews Gifts received on Amazon were unsolicited. Remarkably, the unsolicited reviews are both outstanding and were quite humbling. I'm grateful for what I've received, but it would be good to get some broader coverage. Like, I suppose, any indy author, I believe my novel is well-written and worth the read. I'd like to believe it's as good as the reviewers on Amazon claim (the first reviewer said the book deserves 6 stars out of 5), but I would still like to see a broader range of inputs. And yeah, to be perfectly honest, I would also like to make a little more money on the novel, considering how much time and effort went into it.

With these concerns in mind, I've looked into the efforts of other indy authors. How did they get the word out? How do they manage to turn enthusiastic reader responses into enthusiastic word of mouth? I've seen a lot of interesting advertising in this regard, and frankly, a lot of it strikes me as just plain wrong. At last year's WorldCon in San Antonio, for example, I saw a number of indy authors hawking their books in the merchants' area. Authors handed out bookmarks, coasters, leaflets, even ball caps printed with their book title, a logo from the cover, or even a copy of the cover image. Some of these freebies included URLs for accessing free copies of the books in question. I'm sorry to say, the three such novels (ebooks) I looked at were universally bad—badly written, grammatically flawed, clumsily plotted, full of lifeless characters and bland morals. Why do so many seem to think the ease of publishing an ebook means good writing is no longer necessary? And what's with all the zombies and vampires? Perhaps I just missed the good books that were being promoted in this fashion. I hope that's the case. I hope one of those clever entrepreneurs was promoting a little-known masterwork. Sturgeon's Law, right?

Still in all, the pushy, heavy-handed sales methods I saw at the WorldCon have the virtue of being, at least, honest. I never felt that any of those authors were being anything but straightforward and enthusiastic. I wish I could say the same of the games I've seen other indy authors pulling via Facebook and Twitter and in the Amazon reader reviews. Recently, I saw another author complain about indy authors who attempt to sell their wares on Twitter. She said that she is quick to unfollow anyone who does such a thing. Another practice she says she unfollows is authors who quote their own novels. I knew exactly the authors she meant. I've seen them do this in an attempt to gain interest for their novels. I suppose, if the quotes were at all interesting, that might be worthwhile, but seriously, how much context can you establish in 140 characters? Those quote tweets are typically just silly. Still, silly strikes me far less a misdemeanor than the evil of tit-for-tat requests.

Ironically, just before the first time I saw one of these requests, I read a blog entry from another author who recommended against offering to review someone else's work in return for a review. He said (more or less, I'm not quoting) such a choice involved too many minefields. What if the other author's work sucks? If she gives you a five-star review, are you beholden to return the favor? Or what if she just doesn't like your novel? Ultimately, if you offer to cross-review another author, you'll run into one or the other of these situations: either one of you is dishonest or one of you winds up feeling cheated. Even if you both give one another good reviews, one of you could inadvertently insult the other. Some people don't take criticism at all well. For example, I recently had an incident in which another author tweeted a line from her own works about a belly dancer and included the phrase "with a clinking of cymbals." Now, I saw nothing actually wrong with the overall quote; in fact, I rather liked her use of verbs. I had one tiny problem with the sentence. The word cymbals jarred me out of the moment. When I read cymbals, I think of 18" diameter pieces of spun brass, one held in either hand, crashing together. To me, cymbals don't clink. So, I tweeted back, "@<author's name> just an FYI, those little finger cymbals are called 'zills.'"

From the author's response, you'd think I'd just written a scathing one-star review of her novel. In response, she posted that she knows what they're called and that she had been teaching belly dancing for several years.  She also listed a couple other names for zills. I apologized in a direct message, explained that I'd meant no criticism of anything but her use of the word cymbals. She told me I was "arrogant" to offer my one-word correction without first finding out about her background (think about that: before mentioning a word choice disagreement, I'm supposed to review her CV), unfollowed me, and tweeted out several angry versions of how I had criticized her entire oeuvre as inaccurate based on some passing acquaintance I'd had with belly dancers in the past. Not one word of what she posted was true, but after a half-dozen such malicious tweets, I unfollowed her. I know, some of the people on Twitter are not altogether there, but I never expected such a violent response to a disagreement over one word.

Now, imagine what might have happened if I'd agreed to trade reviews with someone like that. Clearly, anything anyone says by way of critique is out to get her. Worse, I've seen what happens with the opposite end of the tit-for-tat review scale. Earlier this week, I was followed by an indy epic fantasy writer who self-published his premier ebook on Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing platform (KDP) and CreateSpace, about a year ago. Currently, he's selling the ebook for 99 cents (the paperback for $9.49), and I went to the Amazon page to have a look. I read the author's product description for the novel, and I was disappointed. The summary is hard to read, it throws in too many characters and tries to give too much information about everything happening across multiple races, including passing judgment on each character's motivation, while spouting dozens of cliches and managing to really tell nothing much of any consequence about the novel. In a phrase, the description is badly written. In my experience, this bodes ill for the novel. I know, everyone makes mistakes now and then, and most of us hate writing those synopses, and a typo or even a missing word or two I can overlook. When the entire description is such a mess, I usually find the author's works in exactly the same state.

Still, this author has accumulated 18 Amazon reader reviews: 14 five-star,  four four-star, and one two-star. Not a bad set of reviews, I thought. As usual, I checked the outlier first: the two-star review. I expected to see the usual two-star review—a pair of angry sentences disdaining some minor aspect of the author's work or complaining that he was just another hack ripping off Tolkien or Pratchett or Martin. Instead, I found a detailed, multi-paragraph review of the novel, describing what the reader (Alexander Crommich, who also operates one of those book review websites) found promising in the work but also carefully explaining what the reviewer believes are the author's weaknesses and foibles. Despite the length and thoroughness of the review, it doesn't read like an English teacher or professional editor taking apart and examining every little nit. The two-star review reads like an earnest effort to help the author.

Next, I looked over the five- and four-star reviews. Most of them were written within two weeks of the book's publication and appear to have the same voice. I hate to cast such aspersions, but that voice is awfully similar to the author's voice (in his product description). A few of the positive reviews are from other indy authors who admit they are writing reviews as a favor for a fellow author based on interactions in social media. Altogether, the four- and five-star reviews are badly written and as jam-packed with cliches as the product description. Deciding that I wanted to write this blog post, I surrendered my 99 cents and purchased the ebook. Perhaps I can be faulted for approaching the work with too much prejudice, but I really hoped I was going to be pleasantly surprised and find a hidden gem. Sadly, the book reads pretty much like Crommich says. It's a misshapen conglomeration of tenses, peppered throughout with cliches and just all 'round bad writing. Metaphors are mixed; descriptions tend to be highly detailed without delivering up much real information; subject-verb agreement is often lost in the mess; the author seems to confuse telling us what's going to happen for foreshadowing; heroes and villains alike are stereotypes; and the entire plot reads like a ripoff of Moorcock's Eternal Champion series (long-dead hero rises from the grave to kick ass and restore the Cosmic Balance between the forces of Law and Chaos) filtered through someone's Dungeons and Dragons campaign.

I considered returning the ebook and writing my own one-star review, but—screw it. Let the guy keep his $0.64. As for a review, all I'd be saying would be tantamount to "Look at Crommich's review. He nailed it. Don't waste your money." You may have noticed that I did not mention the author's name or the name of the book. Nor will I. Yes, it's a badly written book. Yes, I feel shenanigans are at play in the author's accumulation of unwarranted positive reviews. Just as with the psycho-author who turned a one-word disagreement on Twitter into a war over the validity of her every written word, I will not lambaste someone in a public forum. I would like to see those fallacious four- and five-star reviews go away, but as I really have no solid evidence of wrongdoing on the author's part, that wish will have to remain a personal preference.

(Now, I will privately, however, point any curious individual to the Amazon page of the novel in question. Drop me a line, and you can read the reviews and decide for yourself. I strongly recommend you not buy the novel, though. Trust Crommich's review.)

My point? When it comes to reviews, tit-for-tat is a bad contract. Bypassing the obvious point that authors who agree to such nonsense are unlikely to give an honest assessment of your work, even a writer you admire can occasionally produce a work of lesser quality. What are you going to do then? Pretend the lesser work is worthy of praise because she usually produces good work? Bad plan. Better to avoid these contracts altogether.

NB: I am not saying authors should never review the work of other authors. Author reviews are among of the best reviews. I just don't think any strings ought to be attached to the review requests—especially not "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine."

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Bit More on that Sequel

As I explained  before, Gifts pretty much said everything I wanted to say about my four changeling characters. Thus, initially, I considered the novel a complete, standalone product. Since my primary interest is in SF with a political or police-procedural bent, having completed my first Urban Fantasy was something of a relief.

It's not that I didn't enjoy writing the book. I got to know and respect my characters; some of their voices I'll probably be hearing in my sleep for years to come. Creating a system of magic, however, and maintaining a semblance of verisimilitude in descriptions of that system is something of a pain in the ass. It's rather like creating a new branch of science, complete with axioms, laws, and theorems. Just the simple act of keeping in mind which principles are inviolable and which are merely traditional becomes something of a headache. I solved a large set of problems by simply postulating that my system of magic would not violate the First Law of Thermodynamics. Of course, most magic in epic fantasy is designed precisely to allow violating that Law, so I was, in a sense, making things hard for myself. It's not all that difficult to manage, though. It's just a matter of controlling the scope of the system in any given conjuration. Of course, that's only one aspect of the magical system I devised. I also had to specify—off-stage, so to speak—classifications of magic, sources of power, methods of spell casting. I had to decide whether names like mage, sorcerer, witch, wizard, and thaumaturge had any caste significance (they don't) and how I would differentiate between conjuration, manifestation, transformation, glamour, illusion and how or in what manner I would invoke clairvoyance, clairaudience, prescience, and telepathy.

Ultimately, it was that system of magic (and two other lacunae I'll address in a moment) that convinced me I still had a wealth of story-potential begging to be tapped. Before I could get the continuation of Gifts corralled into some semblance of plot, I had to come up with a framework. The system of magic provided that framework. Actually, it was a combination of the system of magic and the politics of the collective of mages (which—both the politics and the collective—I only hinted at in Gifts) that gave me the outline for the series, which I currently plan to include Talents and a third book yet to be named. In Gifts, one of the first claims Melchior makes is that no written record exists describing the Supernal Fyrd. No histories; no biographies; no directory of mages; no books of spells, runes, incantations; no compendia of rules, regulations, laws, traditions, best practices—not even a (much needed) glossary of magical terms. Now, while it's easy to justify such a tradition, it's damned near impossible to police it. Nor, in a world of 10,000 mages hiding among seven billion mundanes, is consensus on such a practice likely. Zane, the antagonist of Gifts, says he doesn't consider himself a member of the Fyrd nor subject to their legislation. Surely, I thought, others would share this attitude. I began compiling a likely structure of the politics of the Fyrd, and the plot followed.

As for those lacunae, first, I wanted to explore at least one case of the opposite transformation: one female-to-male transition. The patriarchal hegemony is, sadly, alive and—eh, I wouldn't say it's "well," but it isn't showing many signs of dying. The vast majority of US Senators are male. We still haven't elected a woman president or VP, and the average woman in the US still only makes $0.79 for every dollar her male counterpart makes. Sexism alone might be enough to make remaining male worthwhile for a woman magically transformed to male. Of course, the transformation is still difficult, energy intensive, and would likely require a loss of life to accomplish. All good reasons not to try reversing such a change.

The other lacuna I meant to address in Gifts (it just never seemed to fit anywhere) is a matter of how people in a supposedly-scientific, civil society react to magic. I think magic could easily be all around us, and that we ourselves would provide the majority of the propaganda of disbelief as a matter of course. If, for example, a man were standing on a sidewalk in the downtown area of any major city and suddenly collapsed into a pile of serpents, which then wriggled out of his clothing and writhed en masse into the gutter and down a nearby storm drain, how do you think onlookers would respond? I believe they'd applaud. Even if several people videoed the entire event on their smart phones, pundits, panelists, entertainers, and "experts" would spend the next day or so dissecting the event on the news. Every unexplained glint of light would be proof of mirrors. Speculation would abound that this event was advertising for a coming movie, TV special, or broadway extravaganza. Holographic projection and such names as Chris Angel, David Copperfield, and Penn & Teller would be bandied about. Do you seriously believe anyone would openly say, "I think it's a magical transformation"? Of course not. Everyone knows such a thing is impossible. Denial is a powerful weapon, and we tend to wield it against ourselves.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Writing a Sequel

So, I finally got the trade paperback version of Gifts (publication on demand) up and for sale via CreateSpace.
Kathy did a brilliant job on the book design. Take a look with the Amazon LookInside feature to get some idea how the whole thing turned out.

Also, if you buy the trade paperback, the Kindle version is free.

For the past few months, I've been trying, off and on, to write a sequel to Gifts. I say "off and on because" I've also been working on another novel (a very stubborn novel) and occasional short works. Anyway, I'm finally making progress. The sequel has a definite direction, so to celebrate, I've put the ebook version of Gifts on sale for the following week. Act early this week and get the electronic version of Gifts for just $2.99.

Gifts concentrated on the effects of a curse on four men turned into women and unable to turn back. Their experience was my primary concern in Gifts, but in thinking about following up with a continuation of their story, the scope has expanded considerably. In Talents, Angelica and Georgia are still major players, but their personal interests are less important. Talents is about the larger question of how to survive as a mage in a world where, generally, only the gifted know that magic is a real possibility. I'm calling the series the Unofficial History of the Supernal Fyrd of the Gifted and Talented. The book I'm currently writing, Talents, will be book two of a trilogy. Book three is not yet named.

Just as a taste, here's the opening paragraphs of Talents.

Angelica closed her eyes and saw the man as clearly as if he stood there in the closet-sized space with her: head shaved a few days before and now covered in a thin scurf that outlined a receding hairline, taller than average height, thin but strong, the tendons on his wrists standing out like tram cables. The tension in his wrists was because of the guns. They looked light, plastic, almost like boxy toys, but the strain in his arms told the truth about their weight. The guns fired, one after another. She could see each bullet, as though they were spaced a second apart and flying with no more speed than a badminton bird. The screams of the retreating audience reverberated in low tones—another effect of everything moving so slowly. Angelica could feel her guitar strings, could hear the strumming, but she didn’t know what she was playing. This wasn’t one of their songs—one of the band’s numbers. This was something from deep within her psyche. She didn’t know what or why, but she knew she had to play it. She felt Slim’s strong hand grab her ankle, heard him shouting to getdownAngelOGodgetdown, but she had to keep playing—had to play the bullets back whence they’d come.
The detonation blossomed slowly, time-lapse film of an opening flower, the split black strips of gunmetal—the broken barrel of the blocky machine pistol in the man’s left hand—opening like black sepals beneath the expanding, brilliant blue-white rose petals of unexpected pyrotechnics. The bloom expanded improbably large, already a yard wide and spreading to blot out the gunman’s face.

Angelica opened her eyes. She crossed herself and began, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been—quite a long while since my last confession.”

Sitting in the dark booth, looking down, Angelica could see the tops of her thigh-highs peeking out from her black skirt and wondered if her attire was quite as appropriate as she’d initially hoped. This was, after all, the same outfit she’d worn a month before to her own funeral. Even with black stockings, she wondered, Am I dressing appropriately? Is this too short for church? What a stupid thing to fret over.

The heavy shadow through the screen shook with silent laughter. Angelica couldn’t make out any kind of distinct silhouette through the screen, but the priest was a huge, warm, imposing presence. She could feel his every exhalation—slow, ponderous—hear his seat complain with every tiny adjustment. “Come now, Child, the formula is there for a reason. How long—ah—roughly, is ‘quite a long while’? Weeks? Months? A few years?”

Angelica frowned and did the math. She could feel the heat of her reddening face. “Sorry, Father. It’s been twenty—uh, twenty-five years since my last confession.”

The confessional echoed the silence of the entire church—tiny sounds creeping in—footsteps in another space, sparrows rustling in the rafters, wind cutting across the buttresses, traffic on some distant freeway.

The shadow cleared his throat. “I see. Tell me, my child, are you carrying any sort of identification? A driver’s license? Passport? Something like that?”

Angelica frowned. “Yes. Is it standard these days to card penitents in confessional?”

“Tut. What is the—ah—date of birth given on that ID?”

“June 29th, 1991.”

“I see. Well, that answers a number of my questions.”


The shadow chuckled, a heavy but warm rumble. “I think you know what I’m getting at, Child. You asked for me by name, but I only do a limited number of confessions these days. I’m a supernumerary apostolic protonotary—something of a glorified accountant for the see.”

Angelica could feel her face heat with unseen blush. “I’m so sorry, Monsignor, I didn’t realize.”

“That’s fine, Child. The—ah—folks in this church have explicit instructions to contact me, immediately—ah—if anyone requests me by name. You say your last confession was before your registered birthdate. Thus, I think you know at least one of the—ah—reasons. Now, who gave you my name?”

Angelica sighed softly. “I know him only as Melchior.”

“The adjutant. No doubt the recommendation came with warnings. May I ask what those warnings were?”

Angelica blushed. “He said I should avoid talking Fyrd politics with you, but I don’t know anything about Fyrd politics. Nor do I care.”

The monsignor chuckled. “Typical. All right, then, let’s start with who and what you really are. So, what was your—ah—original date of birth? Don’t worry, no one else can hear you.”

Angelica swallowed. “August , 1952. Terrence Murphy.”

The monsignor hmmed. “Interesting. I’ve never known a Talent who—ah—who could change genders. Unless this is a glamour, of course.”

Angelica shook her head. “No, father. No glamour. I’m still not clear on what that means, actually. I was caught in the crossfire of a curse. It’s a long story.”

“And not, I take it, the one you’re here to tell. I apologize for interrupting, Child. Please—ah—continue.”

“Monsignor, I believe I’ve committed a mortal sin.”

The confessor remained silent.

“Monsignor, I think I killed a man.”
That's just a small chunk of the first chapter. I might add a bit more over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, check out Gifts on Kindle, on sale for a limited time.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Publishing My First Novel - the Adventure 'Til Now

The link to my ebook is over to the right of this entry. I thought perhaps it was time I explained why I have an ebook available without having published a print version. First, I should note that I am in the process of making the printed version available through CreateSpace. I've already proofed the digital version of the book and should be receiving the physical book this coming week for final proofing. More on that process next time. For now, back to the matter of the ebook:

I've done my research, and the traditional publishing route looks less penetrable and less appetizing all the time. The major publishers prefer to publish known quantities, and the smaller houses have a similar bias. If you've published in popular magazines (including ezines), some of the smaller and genre-oriented publishing houses are more likely to give your work a serious look. My experience here is all with fantasy, SF, and horror, but what I've seen suggests the same is true across other genres as well. Getting a book published is very much about getting a foot in the door—getting someone above a slushpile reader to give the work a careful read. If you have short works in publication, the editors believe they know something about your abilities. Don't have short works in current circulation? Well, you can try the direct route, but very few writers get published that way. And most of the few who do, see only minimal support.

The next possibility often recommended is getting an agent. Of course, the process in getting an agent is pretty much the same as cold-contacting publishers. The agents have slush piles, too. I've spoken with several writers who've had luck with agents, and their stories all fit into a small number of categories:

  1. They were already published and needed help with extended book rights, international rights, sequels, and so forth
  2. A corollary to that first item, many were approached by the agents, not the other way 'round. (Quite a few long-standing professionals say this is the only way you should ever get an agent).
  3. The author contacted and got to know the agent before ever suggesting a business arrangement.  

Method number 2 is the only method endorsed by successful online novelist Hugh Howey. It's also quite close to the advice Frederik Pohl used to give, forty years ago. Pohl always said authors should already have a novel before ever considering an agent. Pohl was a successful SF author, editor, and agent, so I tend to value his advice—even with the advent of the internet and the explosion of ebook and POD publishing.

It's hard to miss the evolution in publishing occurring all round us. Some days it seems everyone who can string together twenty or so pages of story or advice, and publish same as a Kindle ebook, has done so. No, it's really not that bad, but it is getting a bit outrageous. In some ways, it's bad. The noise-to-signal ratio is getting outrageously high. I'm truly thankful for Amazon's LookInside funtion. Without it, I might have been tempted to buy some of the crap that been published. You look at the description and think, "That sounds pretty good," but then the LookInside says otherwise. I think some of these people are asking friends to write their descriptions for them. Either that or their skill with a synopsis is far and away beyond their ability to carry a narrative or capture a dialogue.

So, it's easier? Is that all there is to it? No gatekeepers?

Well, it helps. At times I wish Amazon at least imposed some sort of editing standards on their Kindle publications, but the fact that anyone can publish, choose their own price structures, and have a completed book online for sales in under 24 hours seems remarkably democratic. It's also quite in keeping with the ideals of laissez-faire capitalism. You'll succeed if the market will bear it. Advertising helps, but most rely entirely on word-of-mouse. Good reviews help (though some authors tell me they help less than you'd think they should), and Amazon screens their reviewers pretty effectively. You can only review if you are an actual person who has actually made purchases from them. This, of course, doesn't stop people from getting endorsements from friends and family, but it does make it damned nigh impossible to flood the site with fake reviews.

I have to admit, the advice of other Kindle authors struck me as hard to refute. Consider the first-time published author with a book offered by one of the small genre houses. Ignoring, for the moment, the fact that a few of those have gone belly-up in the past decade, how much support does the publishing house really provide for a junior author? From what I've seen, they get front page promotional advantage from most houses on the house web page and they get a few paid ads with major genre magazines and ezines. As far as I can tell, however, those ads only stay up for a few months. The publishers will also likely schedule bookstore signings. This is usually contingent on the author getting to the stores. Most small houses can't afford to fly junior authors around the country. If the author is so lucky as to get a nomination for a major genre prize (Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, Tiptree, Dick, Campbell), the ads might go up again for a month or two before the awards are determined. Of course, winning the award means the ads will continue to get paid for another six months, and the author might then actually get financial support in making a tour, but what then?

I don't fault the publishing houses for ceasing to promote books after such a short time. Who can blame them? They have other new authors, and old authors, to promote. The problem, however, remains. Books don't die after a year and a half. Even after three or four decades, many novels maintain their relevance—regardless of genre. Not all, of course, but many do.

On the other hand, how many traditionally-published novels have managed the run of popularity of Hugh Howey's Silo Saga?

Well, I have a long way to go before I can compare my success with Howey's. I've sold a few dozen works in the US, UK, and Germany. So far, I have only three reviews up on Amazon, but they're all glowing reviews from strangers, which meant a lot to me.

Next time, I'll discuss the CreateSpace experience. It's been interesting.