In Sputnik’s Orbit

A few thoughts to tide you over…


Do Hugo Awards Dream With Sad Puppy Eyes?

Brad Torgersen recently posted his opinions about the Hugo nominating and balloting process in what is fast becoming a tradition as sensible and esteemed as the minority response to the President’s State of the Union address. Sad Puppies III, it seems, will either destroy science fiction or tear down the pyres of injustice upon which it’s already smoldering.

Or not.

Brad is my friend. He’s a more-than-fine writer, a kind and decent man, and a thoughtful commentator on all things writerly, whether you agree with him about them or not. But while I’ve not made an exhaustive survey of the “Sad Puppies” blogs by Brad and Larry Correia and others over the last two years, what I have read rather reminds me of the Seinfeld episode in which Kramer says, “They STOLE my idea!” to which Jerry replies, “Which idea was that? To spend $10 million you don’t have or renovate a building you don’t own?”

The fact of the matter is, the Hugo is set up to meet the needs of the World Science Fiction Society, and key among these is to promote attendance at its conventions and their maintenance as the preeminent of their kind. It’s their party, and they make the rules. Which is not to say Brad and Larry and the other can’t have their opinions, or state them loudly, or go start (and fund) their own shindig.

I hope the result is a reward for literary quality and skill, but both are subject to complex tastes and trends, the waxing and waning of which are fundamental to healthy society. I’m not going to pander to whatever I think is this year’s anointed minority or theme, but neither am I going to shy away from writing stories that question the firmament at both ends of the political spectrum. That’s what spec fic is for, to disturb perspectives, not enshrine them.

In the meantime, I can’t worry about politics. Having won the Writers of the Future contest last year, I’m far too busy working on my own projects to worry about what WSFS is doing right or wrong. For the record, though, my stories, “Rainbows for Other Days” and “Callista’s Delight” are both eligible for Hugo and Campbell Award nomination this year—just sayin’. I’m not going to hold my breath, and Im not going to stay up late nights wondering whether the system is stacked against me. I’m just going to keep writing, and improving, and trying to connect with my audience, and I think that’s what we all better do.

David Gerrold’s Ten Essential Golden Age Science Fiction/Fantasy Books

David Gerrold wrote The Trouble With Tribbles, and has been writing ever since. He’s a curmugeon. And he’ss been around. Here is his list of “Essential Science Fiction/Fantasy Books from the Golden Age”. That is all

  • Starship Troopers, Heinlein (runner-up, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, Heinlein) Why? Because it was the beginning of a whole subgenre, military SF.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, LeGuin (runner up: Venus Plus X, Sturgeon ) Examining the nature of gender.
  • Dune, Herbert (runner up: Game of Thrones, Martin) Epic political adventure.
  • Ringworld, Niven (runner up: Rendezvous With Rama, Clarke) The large big thing….
  • The Stars My Destination, Bester (runner up: Nova, Delaney or Slan, Van Vogt) Space opera.
  • The Dying Earth/Eyes of the Overworld, Vance (runner up: The City And The Stars, Clarke) Far future adventure.
  • The Fountains of Paradise, Clarke (runner up: The Web Between The Worlds, Sheffield) Orbital space elevator
  • Stand On Zanzibar, Brunner (runner up: The Sheep Look Up, Brunner) Sprawling, multi-character epic portrayal of a future world.
  • Snowcrash, Stephenson (runner up: Shockwave Rider, Brunner) Where cyberpunk began.
  • Have Space Suit, Will Travel, Heinlein (runner up: Citizen of the Galaxy, Heinlein) Classic young adult adventures.

Thank You, John Lewis, Whoever you are.

IMAG0387A few months ago, my wife bought an Acer Chromebook 710 without realizing that well, it’s useless. Running Chrome OS made it perpetually tied to the Internet, and the Chrome OS is in firmware, so you can’t install a real, actual operating system. For those content to work totally within the constraints imposed by Chrome OS, it’s a nice little machine, $200 for a decent 16G solid state drive, 2G memory, and a dual core 1.66 GHz processor. But alas, all for naught, and no real way to redeem it with a lightweight Xubuntu installation.

Ah, but there is. This is the maker generation, and the Chromebook uses SeaBios, the open source firmware BIOS to end all BIOSes, and this nice Irish chap named John Lewis put together a super easy image that you can put on USB and use to flash the box as soon as you learn the Chrome OS developer mode secret handshake of doom.

So I did that, and that gave me a nice little Xubuntu box with no trackpoint support. Er, no. Full Ubuntu? No. Fedora? Yes! Fedora 20 gave me a fully functional box except…no, no, no!!! It crashes every time any sort of power down or suspend is attempted, and about 3 out of 4 attempts on boot. Well, that’s hardly a bargain, but I decided to run with it for a few weeks anyway, mostly to check out Fedora (pain in the ass–use Ubuntu) and the flat-topped keyboard style all Chromebooks and Ulrabooks now come with (eh, tolerable, I guess).

But this weekend, I visited the esteemed Mr. Lewis’s site and discovered he had announced an upgrade–and it looked like a simple–just run this script with power and Intranet connected–no hanshake of doom required! So did that.

Ubuntu still doesn’t recognize the trackpad, but now Fedora works perfectly. Every suspend/wake cycle completes successfully. Every boot works. No more hangs when playing YouTube videos. Sweet! I went out first thing this morning and bought an 8G memory upgrade. So now I have a fully functional writing powerhouse, running Fedora 20 in 10G of memory, with Scrivener, LibreOffice, and the usual utilities (still no Chromium, oddly, because it apparently doesn’t comply with the Fedora manifesto for commercial and narco-syndicalist purity–or something). I could not be happier unless this novel were to somehow suddenly complete and publish and negotiate foreign rights for itself. But honesty, what would be the fun in that?

The Acer C710 still has trackpoint problems, but these are static related, and I’m sure I can cure them with a little mechano improve. For his considerable trouble, I made a smal Paypal donating to John Lewis, and if you’d like to check out his work, you can find him here:

I Was Wrong

For quite some time, I resisted Scrivner. Not so much resisted, really, as ignored, as it didn’t appear to actually exist in my universe of Linux and cheap hardware and mostly free, open source software. Besides, I’ve become adept at getting LibreOffice to do everything I really need a word processor to do, or so I thought.

I was wrong.
A recent question by a friend led me to do a little research, and I soon found that there has been a free Linux beta for Scrivner for some time. In spite of its beta status and a number of old complaints in the support forum, I decided to check it out. And holy crap! This is the word processor I would have written had I wanted to spend my nights writing code like in olden days instead of chasing literary rainbows.snapshot1

Since I started writing Citadel Rules, I’ve been struggling to adapt my natural pantsing creative style to the more structured approach that years of software development experience tells me is critical to producing quality at a productive pace. I’ve bought notecards and dry-erase and and half dozen books on structure and screenplay writing. All have merits, but none gave me what I really, intuitively want, a literary take on good, old fashioned “stepwise refinement”.

Stepwise refinement is a concept from computer science in which a program is first written as essentially a mostly-English outline, and then its steps are each refined into more detailed steps, and so on and so on until the steps match the level of implementation detail of the system on which it will be executed. Similarly, I want to be able to start with a generic outline of the structure I’m going for, then progressively write down into each act, chapter, or scene.

Scrivner is perfect for this. It lets you subdivide a section at any time, and sections can be named, moved, demoted or promoted within the manuscript, or stuck down in a research folder for later reference. Better yet, Scriver lets you view your work in an outline that displays word count totals for every folder and subfolder, to help with pacing and chapter size and other length concerns that worry us writers.

And it doesn’t matter how convoluted the outline becomes, because Scrivner embraces another principle from computer science, the separation of content from presentation. Once your work is finished, Scrivner will “compile” it into any of dozens of formats, from standard manuscript format in rtf format, to any of a number of ebook formats for final consumption. Scriver even offers customizable wizards to let you, for example, convert all italics to underscore when producing a manuscript, but not an ebook.

Microsoft Word and Libre/OpenOffice have outline views, and the latter has support for breaking a large document up into component sections under a master file, but neither is really of much help in drafting out a novel, because it takes too much effort to move pieces around, and to switch back and forth between the outline and the text. Scrivner addresses this to, by providing each section with a synopsis and other metadata.

Scrivner will have it’s problems. For a start, it does not yet support all the export formats in the Linux beta, but it’s a giant step in the right direction, and it runs just fine on my little Linux-converted Chromebook.

How about you? Have you ever found the perfect tool to do what you love? Share it in a comment below.

To Our Veterans

Soldiers don’t declare war.

They don’t set policy.

They aren’t always set on a righteous path.

They show up when they are called, they do the job, and if they are lucky enough to come home, they carry the baggage with them for the rest of their lives.

Whether my daddy setting fire to the jungle, my wife training men who wouldn’t listen, or my great uncle who jumped in a garbage pit and brought home a catholic idol instead of his baby brother, we owe them, all of them, all of us, every day.

That is all.

WriteOn Right On?

So I’ve been playing around on Amazon’s “WriteOn” this week (thanks Andrea!) and here’s my first blush opinion: It has the same feel as software projects I’ve worked on in which graphic artists are put in charge of design. Graphic artists are great. I know some graphic artists who are wonderful, sweet people, and they make things shiny and beautiful. But that’s not what software is about, it’s about getting work done, and confusing “functional” for “pretty” is a costly, usually fatal design mistake.

WriteOn is an online critique site, but it doesn’t call itself a critique site. It calls itself a “story lab,” which is not what you call yourself if you are trying to serve people who know what things are called in this business–which is clue #1 that something isn’t quite tuned correctly in the old whatthehellometer. The site itself is pretty, and pretty odd. The main menu looks like a storefront, with lots of “covers” which I initially confused for Amazon advertising, but no, these are (randomly selected?) story posts presented as if they were published works. This is clue #2 than something wicked might this way may just be a coming.

A critique site is where WRITERS go to get and give feedback on WRITING and the business of WRITING. Writers work in standard manuscript format–occasionally with some accommodation to online presentation. IF a work makes it to publication, IF the author is self-publishing, he or she MIGHT become involved in cover design. But at this stage, presentation is (or should be) far from a writer’s mind. Which is clue #3, and a very big clue indeed, that you got trouble, my friend, trouble I say, right here in River City.

WriteOn offers a simple little wizard that allows–nay, REQUIRES–you to create “covers” for your uploaded works. The uploaded works, themselves, are presented in a virtual reader designed to look something like a printed book or e-reader. Why? There are only two possible reasons. Either the creators of WriteOn don’t know that real writers deal in raw words and mostly find all this presentation stuff a distraction and waste of critically valuable time, or they are trying to feed the publication fantasies of the unwashed masses.

If the former is the case, it’s a bit annoying. Since these covers exist, making them attractive becomes a critical, time-consuming, unproductive step in attracting critiques. That’s annoying, but critiques are so valuable, we’ll go along with it if the feedback is worth it. But if the later is true, then that’s unlikely.

We’ll see. WriteOn may turn out to be the greatest thing since sliced Linotype, or it may be a fool’s errand. Time will tell. In the meantime, here is my first cover:

Honey I Shrunk The Waistline

When my wife’s telecommute schedule coincides with mine, I like to make us lunch. Today’s “honey I shrunk to waistline,” offering? Egg & avocado brunch tacos on whole-wheat tortilla, with spinach and pear salad made with dried cherries, diced almonds, broccoli & cauliflower tossed with lime vinaigrette. Served with blueberry hibiscus tea.

IMAG0362Eggs are nutritious, but terrible for your cholesterol, and the egg board’s propaganda that they have “balanced fats” is wishful thinking at best–unless you serve them like this. This all comes to nearly 600 calories–far more than I usually allocate to lunch–but I’m working at my treadmill desk today and this is about as nutritious as food gets–and as delicious. Honestly, one taco would have been plenty, and then it would come in at around 350 calories.

What’s especially nice about this meal is that it’s not only a feast for me, it’s a feast for the helpful bacteria living in my gut, without whom I would be doomed where I stand. Cell-for-cell, they outnumber me three to one, so it pays to keep them happy. Almost everything we know about them, we’ve learned in the last twenty years, and the findings are transforming our understanding of nutrition and diet, month after month after month.

Eating yogurt or the odd probiotic doesn’t cut it. What you feed these guys is at least as important as what you feed yourself, and it has a huge impact on what your body gets from its meals and how it puts it to use. The science is still in it’s infancy, but one thing is crystal clear, we in the west eat far too much meat and dairy, and it’s making us very sick.

Check it out and let me know what you think. Are you a vegan or a veg? Do you swear by the modified Akins? Did your grandma live to be a hundred eating pork rinds and deep fried twinkies? Leave a comment and tell me what you think, and until next time, bon appetit!

The Real Nanny State

Denmark has enacted a tax on foods high in saturated fats. This is an effective, fair, non-intrusive way to encourage behavior that is in everyone’s interest without curbing anyone’s god given right to act stupidly.

In the US, this would raise a hew and cry from conservatives everywhere, who would decry big brother and the growth of the “nanny state”. Fine. You favor smaller government? So do I. Call your representatives and push to have all sugar and meat subsidies eliminated. Subsidies that exist today for NO OTHER REASON than that currently rich people benefit from them and use the very profits they garantee to lobby for there continuance.

Sugar subsidies cost you and me a quarter of a BILLION dollars a year. Meat subsidies are indirect, in the form a feed, water, and federal land access allowances, but are equally substantial. They also raise that price of every other agricultural product competing for the same resources, including many that better for us.

I have nothing against the wealthy, lord knows. I’d be delighted to join the club, and the persuit of wealth is what made America great. But before you go complaining about the rise of the nanny state, look at the one we already have, and look at who it’s serving. I’m cool with the rich and comfortable. Hypocrites can kiss my cholesterol.

Fedoras For The Future?

I’ve been on the Linux bandwagon for several years, ever since I bought a netbook with a stripped-down distribution called “Linpus” installed. This was on a single-core Acer Aspire One with 1.5G of memory, and when the solid state drive went bad after a few months, I started looking to see what I could run on this marvelous if modest writer’s dream.

I had another Acer running a preinstalled, striped-down netbook edition of Windows 7, but I’d already had it long enough to see the slow deterioration that every Windows machine has suffered all the way back to Windows 3.0 on MS-DOS. I tried a “normal” install of Windows 7 home edition for which I had the media, and found it’s performance laughable in the tiny memory space available. No surprise there. Microsoft’s whole business strategy has always been based on planned, or at least gleefully anticipated, obsolescence and replacement.

Unlike Windows, Linux is maintained by the user community, and it didn’t take long to find a number of lightweight distributions tailored for lightweight hardware. By this time, Ubuntu was already emerging as a popular favorite, but the full build was too slow and memory hogging for the Acer. Lubuntu and Kubuntu were both good, but for various reasons, I settled on Xubuntu, a well-supported distribution that has continued to give reliable, efficient service through numerous releases and upgrades. I even run Xubuntu on my desktop where I don’t have any resource contraints, just for the sake of consistency.

Then, my wife bought a Chromebook, an Acer C710. She didn’t know the kids had already rejected their school-provided chromebooks as hopelessly impractical–what’s the point of having an ultraportable computer that is 100% useless without a wifi connection? But hey, the C710 is a sweet little machine for $200, with an 11” LED screen, memory expandable to 4G, more and faster storage and a faster, dual-core ARM processor? What’s not to like? Well, there is one thing. She also didn’t know that most older chromebooks have no BIOS, that is, they run Chrome OS at the hardware level and there is no way around it.

Except there is. You just have to roll up your sleeves, put on your anti-static wrist band, and put some faith in YouTube and the Internets. In a couple of hours, with a USB stick, a jeweler’s screwdriver, and a bit of rolled up aluminum foil, I had flashed the chromebook into a real, functioning netbook with an open source BIOS called SeaBIOS, and Xubuntu.

And for the first time, Xubuntu failed me. Ubuntu’s kernel, running on SeaBIOS, has spotty support for the C7’s trackpad and no support for its suspend and hibernate functionality. There are workarounds for the trackpad, but after a few weeks of playing around, I decided to give Debian, and then Fedora a try. Debian didn’t solve the problem, and is obviously build for and by geeks who enjoy playing around with the techno-innards of their operating systems more than getting actual work done. Fedora, however, shows promise.

Fedora is not as polished as Xubuntu (and is totally outclassed by the full Ubuntu), but so far it’s light and stable and, best of all, the trackpad works “out of the box.” In addition, Firefox doesn’t crash every couple of minutes like it did in Ubuntu on this machine. Now if the good people supporting coreboot, the hardware layer on which SeaBIOS runs, can fix the suspend issue, I’ll have the perfect writer’s engine to replace my stash of aging netbooks.

And all for less than the cost of a good Fedora.

Just What IS Character Arc, Anyway?

UntitledWriters and reviewers and today’s literati focus a lot on character arc and depth. It’s easy for any aspiring writer to get the message: avoid shallow characters by writing characters with depth–characters who have an “arc.”

Okay. How?

This is one of those topics that is actually much simpler than it seems. Any fictional character can be thought of as having three layers of depth:

  1. The first, superficial layer, is what others in the story see: dress, manner, accent, behavior.
  2. The second, backstory layer, is what drives the first: income, upbringing, ethnicity, that time behind the church with the deacon’s son, etc.
  3. The third, “moral” layer, is what that character does with the first two. Does he become a skin-head rapist or an astronaut? When she fails, does she give up or try again? Character is revealed by a person’s choices and deeds, in literature as in life.

When the gurus talk about the “save the cat” moment, they are stuck in layer one. When reviewers complain about cliché or “one dimensional” characters, they are also talking about layer one. And when an editor says that character lacks depth or isn’t sympathetic, she she didn’t see much beyond layer two.

The fast-talking car salesman in a loud jacket is a cliché. He exists in layer one. If, as in the movie, “True Lies,” he lives in a run down trailer but uses his access to sporty cars to put the make on the town’s housewives, then cowers and denigrates himself when confronted, he starts revealing depth. We see a glimpse of why he is the way he is, and we know what kind of man he is. He’s a jerk, but we can at least pity him. If the same character, perhaps in a sequel, were to get his act together and take positive steps to make amends, that would be character arc. He would now be making different decisions based on the same inputs. He’s growing. If he grows a spine and risks his neck for the greater good, we might even start to root for this reformed loser.

That’s all there is to it. Three layers, and growth. How she appears, why she appears that way, and what she does with that reality. And how what she does with it changes over time.

By the way, it’s sometimes okay to write one dimensional characters. Giving a character depth implies something about his or her role in the story. Don’t flesh out a character who walks on to pump a tank of gas—unless doing so advances the arc of the main character.

I think it’s pretty simple, but of course, there are many places one can go wrong in execution. For now, this is my guide. What about you? As you read a novel, to these layers reveal themselves? If you are an author, do you have a different rubric you use to keep your characters on track? Like, comment, and let me know.