Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Numbers don't tell the whole story

As I suspected, since my last post on revision goals, the lead-up to Christmas was a no-go zone for writing.

I left off at 21% revised on December 12, and there it stayed until yesterday. The good news is that I blasted through another 7% since then.

This leaves me way short of my original target of 50% by the end of December, but that doesn't tell the whole story by a long way.

I'm a lot happier with the process than I was a few weeks ago, because I think I'm getting better at deciding how to handle critiquers' comments. The Critique Circle inline comments feature makes is easy to compare everyone's comments on the same paragraph to look for trends. My triage process is also getting slick, sifting through the line edit nits and weeding out more serious feedback: Yep, suggestion makes sense (usually accompanied by a "Doh! Why didn't I think of that?" moment); Nope, it already says what I wanted it to say; Hmmm...you have a point, rework paragraph in my own way (and maybe preceding/later paragraphs too); Or deeper edit needed - park the thought for the next pass through.

I'm glad this process is getting easier, because I can now see light at the end of the tunnel. It was threatening to become a chore and my attention was becoming torn.

On the one hand, I desperately want this puppy to see the light of day, and every adverb culled, every paragraph tightened, every plot hole filled, is a necessary step closer to publication.

On the other hand, I have three other projects vying for attention. I've been in revision mode far too long, and I am desperate to get back to some real writing.

How about you? Do you ever feel this conflict between the seemingly-endless polishing of "completed" work, and getting some new words down on paper? Do you ever find yourself so stuck in the revision doldrums that you despair of ever again writing an original scene?

Friday, December 23, 2011

The "C" word

Each year, I despair at the steady elimination of the "C" word from our collective vocabulary.

I have been wished "Happy Holidays". Recently, my department held a "Winter Celebration" lunch. Everyone around me bends over backwards till they can see between their ankles to avoid the "C" word.

And I bite my tongue and go with the flow.

No longer.

Today, I got a cheerful postcard from my MP inviting me to a Town Hall meeting and wishing me, in nine different languages, "Happy Hanukkah!"

Let's be clear about one thing: I am thoroughly agnostic, so I have no axe to grind in favour of one religion over another. I also despise this timorous tippy-toe-on-eggshells-around-people's sensibilities, but, if we're going to impose politically correct blandness on the world, then let's do it equitably or not at all.

The PC brigade seems to equate multi-culturalism with "let's show how open-minded we are by kowtowing to all and sundry while suppressing our own right to our own opinions." That's bullshit. To me, multi-culturalism means understanding and tolerance of other people's cultures, and enjoying reciprocal tolerance for our own. This is a two-way street.

More to the point, although this is a politically secular country, there is a very specific reason why we traditionally have a holiday on December 25, which we should not forget. We don't mince words about celebrating Canada Day, or Labour Day, or Thanksgiving, so why does this holiday get such short shrift?

So, I am genuinely happy that someone to whom it means something would wish me a Happy Hanukkah.

In return, and in the same spirit, I unashamedly wish you all a Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas past and present

Now that all our family lives the other side of the world, we write a four-page newsletter each year, with the year's news and lots of pictures. We were late starting this year, with so many weekends taken up by Guide and Scout camps, and then at the last minute we ran out of ink. But the newsletters are finally printed and cards mailed. Way too late to make it, but better late than never.

Now that's done, I finally feel like things are more-or-less under control and I started reminiscing on Christmas memories and family traditions.

My memories of Christmas past

From my earliest memories Christmas day was always special, long before my child's mind even associated it with Santa Claus and gifts.

I remember sounds and smells. The house felt different as Mum and Dad both set to preparing for dinner. I remember the sense of anticipation. The turkey cooking in the Aga and filling the house with a delicious aroma all morning. We had just a handful of Christmas albums which my Dad played and hummed along to, and which I came to associate with the season.

As I grew old enough to recognise the cycle from one year to the next, certain patterns became established. Unwrapping gifts in the morning. Turkey dinner with my Mum's parents. Then a big party with my Dad's family in the evening - lots of aunts, uncles, and cousins, a huge spread of cold food, and games and laughter. Lots of laughter.

Christmas present

Now we are on our own, in a different country, things have changed. We've started to establish our own traditions.

The leisurely preparation of turkey dinner is still there. And the early morning invasion of excited children, except now we are on the receiving end of it, rubbing sleep from eyes as the bed turns into a recycler's nightmare of shredded paper and discarded packaging.

Most of our present traditions are in the lead-up to Christmas. The newsletter. Putting the outside lights up. Visiting the Christmas Tree Farm to select the perfect tree.
School concerts and skating parties. Christmas in the Village at Heritage Acres, with the nighttime ride on the miniature railway and hot drinks in the bustling schoolhouse.
The festive lights at Butchart Gardens, and a drive around the neighbourhood to see the houses all lit up.

One thing do I miss is those raucous parties with the extended family, and I'm sad that I can't offer that to my own children.

I wonder, in years to come, what memories will linger for them?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Global suckishness revisited

A group of awesome bloggers, Lydia Kang, DL Hammons, Creepy Query Girl and Nicole Ducleroir, had a great idea for a blogfest.

This is your chance to do some major catching up, and re-post a favorite blog post of your own that NEEDS to see the light of day one more time.

On December 16, re-post your favorite/most informative/most life-changing announcement/most ANYTHING blog post you want to re-share with the world.

Don't let a great post fade away into the ever-expanding blogosphere without one more shout-out!

Well, I can't pretend to post anything life-changing, or even especially informative, but this one, originally posted October 23, 2010, rather spookily foreshadowed the Wall Street protests a year later.

The Global Suckishness Index

I guess it's just coincidence, but there's been a bit of a trend in some of the recent blog posts I've been following. For example (and ignoring the many blogs dedicated entirely to rants about the state of the world) there's Sam's and Lettucehead's sad experiences in today's employment market, and David talking about the perils of the New York subway.

Anyway, it sparked some thoughts about the general suckishness of the world at large, and why this might be so.

And I came to a startling realisation.

There's a lot of natural danger and hardship out there, and disasters regularly hit the headlines - hurricanes, floods, droughts. But in reality those are minor blips and there is more than enough wealth and resourcefulness in the world to deal with them. Nature really accounts for only a tiny proportion of hardship.

The only logical conclusion is that the vast proportion (I'd guess maybe 95%) of human misery is entirely man-made!

Worse, much of the man-made misery is deliberate, and all of it is avoidable.

Some of it is down to religion - "my belief is better than your belief, and you'd better believe it!" - but most is caused by people wanting to get more out of the system than they are willing to put in.

And that's almost always expressed in terms of money.

Money is the root of all evil?

Here's a little thought experiment.

What if I suggested that money is unnecessary?

What would happen if we all woke up tomorrow in a world without money?

Chaos! Mayhem! Everyone suddenly penniless and starving!

But wait. Why should that be? Did the sun fail to rise on this penniless world? Did crops stop growing?

Stop and think for a moment. What if everyone simply carried on as they did yesterday? You got up, went in to work and did whatever you do. You went to the store and took from the shelves exactly what you would have done before. The shelves are still stocked because the people who stock them turned up as normal. The delivery trucks arrived, fully loaded, as normal because all the factories and warehouses kept working.

It gets better. You walk out of the store a lot quicker because you didn't have to line up to pay. OK, spare a thought for all those cashiers who suddenly don't have anything to do. Aren't they in trouble? Out of a job? But why would they be in trouble? In a world without money they don't need a job. Every other part of their life could carry on as normal. But then they could pitch in and help unload the trucks and stack the shelves and then everyone could go home early.

And think of all those millions of people working in banks across the globe. A whole industry, suddenly redundant. But nobody need go hungry because nothing important has stopped happening. And all those spare pairs of hands that could be turned to doing something genuinely productive.

When you look at it like that, the whole concept of money is nothing more than a vast and unnecessary drain on the planet.

OK, there's one glaring hole in this scenario. Everyone wouldn't just carry on as before. How many milliseconds would we be into the new day before somebody, somewhere, said to themselves "why should he get fillet steak while I'm making do with a Kraft dinner?" Human nature would kick in PDQ, and we'd all start taking more out of the system than it can sustain. That is why everything would descend into chaos and mayhem.

The truth is that there is more than enough food and water, space and energy for us all to live comfortable lives. But human nature compels us to want more, and to take it unless something stops us. Money may have its problems, but it's the most effective mechanism we have for putting a throttle on what we take from the world.

For me, the most frightening thing that global capitalism has unleashed on the world is a new and insidious form of life, and this is where the endemic global suckishness comes from. All the big corporations and financial institutions have taken on a life of their own and they are out of control. They've become self-serving and self-perpetuating, all-powerful, and utterly divorced from any moral or social conscience.

I don't think we're going to change human nature in a hurry, we probably can't do without money as a means of regulating access to resources, so as far as I see it the answer must lie in changing how we manage the flow of money. What we need are financial and corporate mechanisms that put the welfare of the general population back into the frame as the most important shareholder.

I don't pretend to have answers, this is only a rant after all, but I'm happy to accept any suggestions...written on the back of $20 bills.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Revision targets - mixed news

I am actually making progress with revising Ghosts of Innocence. Just not very fast.

On November 30, I started at 14% complete (from earlier efforts this summer) with a target of 50% by the end of December. Last night I hit 21%, so you can see I'm falling way short. Worse, I suspect my time will be even more limited than it has been so far with this thing called "Christmas" looming. Oh well, we'll see.

In my defence, Yer 'Onour, that 50% was entirely arbitrary and I had no idea whether or not it was realistic. I was sure it would be a stretch, and it is proving to be so. But then, what good are targets if they aren't challenging?

I have better news on my other target of staying below the magic 100k word count. I started the month at 98,800, and my revisions so far have had the net effect of trimming words. Current total is 98,550.

Of course, this pass through isn't the final round. I'm concentrating on the sentence-, paragraph- and scene-level edits. I'm collecting notes for bigger-picture issues to be worked back in later. That is likely to add words, so I need a bit of headroom to play with.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A star to steer her by

More about Shayla's world.

Last time I talked about the spread of star systems, so I thought today I should delve into the actual space travel bit.

Space travel in Shayla's world depends on two things:

Folded space

This is a sci-fi staple. The idea is that our familiar 4-dimensional space-time is embedded in a higher-dimensional space. If our universe is folded up in these higher dimensions then it might be possible to take a shortcut across the gap, allowing you to disappear from one point and reappear somewhere else. Interstellar travel depends on you finding shortcuts that allow you to travel vast distances in our universe for very little actual distance in the higher dimension.

In Shayla's world, I've decided that this folding of space happens very tightly, so folds are very close together, and is also fractal in nature. In other words, space is folded up on all sorts of scales from subatomic up to light years.

This part is important, but before we get to that I need to talk about...

Gravitational fields

Yes, Shayla's technicians can manipulate gravity. Another sci-fi staple.

This one mechanism is put to several uses.

For conventional travel, everything from small air cruisers to the secondary drives of large starships, an artificial field can be made to interact with a surrounding field of a planet or star for propulsion. In its simplest form, the device producing the field generates lift, and anything else bolted on gets lifted with it.

An extension of the same principle, usually only used in larger craft, can enclose a volume of space in a gravity field isolated from the outside world. This simultaneously produces artificial gravity for habitation, and protects the inhabitants from the crushing accelerations - anything up to 40g - used by starships maneuvering in normal space.

Bring the two together

Because gravity isn't confined to our visible world, but "leaks" into the higher dimensions, a variation on the gravitational field is able to pull a volume of space across those higher dimensional folds.

The principle is very simple. You are sitting on one side of a fold in space. Lying right next to you in higher dimensional terms, but invisible to your eyes, are neighboring folds in all directions. Reach a few atoms-width "sideways" and you might hit a patch of space a few feet away. Stretch further, and you can reach into space miles distant.

All your gravity drive has to do is reach across, anchor itself to one of those folds, and haul your ass across the gap.

This is where things get interesting. Flinging something the size of a starship from one fold to another, you have to be darned careful that every patch of space you are moving into lines up exactly with the patch you just left.

Or bad things happen.

Very bad things.

In practice, imperfections are inevitable but are managed within safe limits. But the further you try to reach, the less perfect the fit. Once you go beyond safe limits, it affects biological and electrical systems a bit like radiation damage. Push your luck even further and you start getting large scale structural failure.

Luckily, those clever engineers have figured out how to tune the drive to make sure things line up pretty darned good, but this puts a practical limit on how far you can safely jump in one go.


The primary hopper drive typically jumps hundreds or thousands of miles at a time, depending on the power and quality of the drive. That may not sound impressive, but the field cycles fast - anything up to a million times a second. This gives practical speeds ranging from 1,000 to 10,000 times the speed of light.

Hopping becomes increasingly dangerous in the distorting presence of a gravitational field. Within approximately 2 AU of a sun-sized star, safe hop lengths reduce to less than a mile bringing speeds down to just over light speed. Get closer, and the dangers mount up in exactly the same way as stretching too far in open space. This means ships usually have to drop into real space and switch to secondary drive some distance out from their destinations.

When a ship hops, it jumps sideways from one point in space to another. Momentum in real space is conserved so it will reappear with the same velocity it started off with. This means a ship will almost certainly need to spend time adjusting its velocity at its destination.

The most efficient way to approach a planet is to hop to somewhere "upstream", so your existing velocity carries you straight in. All you have to do is slow down at the right time.

Direct approaches like this are generally frowned upon by planetary authorities, partly because of the potential danger an incoming ship would pose if it lost power, but mainly because that kind of approach is usually the sign of an attack.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Oh! Rats!

While Ali and Matthew are off at Scout camp this weekend, Megan and I thought we'd make use of a sunny afternoon to get the Christmas lights up on the house. It would be a surprise for them when they got back tomorrow.

Started hauling out boxes of decorations from the shelf in the garage where they've been stashed all year.

What's this? I don't remember that box having a hole in it.

Pulled a bit more, and found another hole and lots of shredded cardboard.

Then Megan shrieked as something scampered out from the box and darted off to a corner of the garage.

A rat had made a nest in our Christmas decorations.

So, before we even started we had to haul out and inspect all the extension cords and strings of lights for damage. He'd completely demolished a box of spare bulbs. He'd chewed through a few cords. We patched up a few more with duct tape where it was just a bit of insulation scraped away. Our lovely Christmas tree made from a spiral of lights was ruined.

We put up the rest. No lousy rat is going to get in the way of decorating!

I think we'll manage for this year, but I guess we'll have to budget for some new decorations next year.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Target one annihilated

Back in September, I set myself some writing targets for the rest of the year.

I'm pleased to say that my first target - 100% critiqued by the end of November - has been achieved. It is now the end of November, and the last chapter finished in the queue yesterday.

It was touch and go, though.

The sci-fi queue in Critique Circle is usually pretty quiet, and all year there has been virtually no waiting time. At any one time, I've usually had one chapter in review and one waiting in the queue. As soon as that review cycle finishes my waiting chapter goes into review, and I then queue up another one confident that it will make it into the following week's batch. That way, I can get a chapter a week critiqued.

Sometimes I'd have more chapters ready, and I might queue up two or three at a time to come out in consecutive weeks, but it gets increasingly expensive to post chapters the more you've already got lined up.

Anywhooo...I was steaming along readying my final few submissions, when all of a sudden I saw the queue going crazy. I'd never seen so many submissions waiting in the wings, and my final chapter now looked like it wasn't going to appear until December!

Well, right at the last minute, their batching algorithm must have decided to take the larger queue into account and my submission just sneaked into the period I'd been aiming for, so all was well.

So, now I seem to have no excuses for not cracking on with those dreaded revisions...


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Belated awards

I have a couple of awards that I've been holding on to for a few weeks now. Bad Botanist!

First off, Gary's owner, Penny the Jack Russell and Modest Internet Star, at Klahanie handed me the Friendly Blogger Award. I am honoured to be considered a friend by such a fine canine blogger.

Then, Saloma at About Amish passed on the Tell Me About Yourself tag. Saloma gives fascinating insights about her life amongst the Amish people of Ohio.

Thank you Gary/Penny and Saloma.

Now, according to the rules of that second tag...seven things about myself:

1. I don't have a favourite food. There are lots of things I like, but it depends far too much on the mood of the moment.

2. I only started creative writing a few years ago. Before then, the whole idea was utterly alien to me. If you'd told me ten years ago that I would one day be seriously seeking representation for a completed novel, I'd have laughed at you.

3. If I do finally get a book published, the idea of *takes deep breath and screws up face* ...marketing...fills me with deep dread bordering on paralytic terror.

4. Despite its logic and rigour, I believe that mathematics is an art, not a science. Few sights, words, or pieces of music can rival the sheer beauty of an elegantly-expressed proof or concept. Furthermore, I believe that the pursuit of mathematics is an adventure of discovery rather than creation. The deep linkages between one branch of mathematics and another, the truths and theorems, have always been there like diamonds deep underground waiting to be uncovered. The creative element we bring is in the lenses through which we choose to view the mathematical landscape. I know many people will vehemently disagree with me on these beliefs.

5. I am a cat person. I know we have a menagerie, but the other animals all belong to other family members. Cats are the only animals I would be likely to have as pets for myself.

6. I am highly "face blind". If I meet you for the first time, there's not a hope in hell that I'll recognise you again the following day. I will have a strong sense that I should know you, but it takes several meetings, preferably in a variety of settings, before I could see you in the street and be confident that I knew who you were. Even then, my chances of putting a name to the face are remote until I get to know you well.

7. I love blogging awards but I dread the act of passing them on. It always feels like two close friends asking me to tell which one is my "best" friend, and that for every one I nominate, there's many fine blogger friends that I feel I have slighted by omission.

So, this time I'm ducking the problem and issuing an open invitation: anyone who follows me, and who either feels friendly or who wants to talk about themselves, please claim one of these awards. Please leave a comment with a link back to your blog so we know who you are.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Shayla's world

In my last post, I skimmed through some of the deep history behind the story in Ghosts of Innocence. This time I'm talking about some of the physical landscape at the time of the story.

Mine is bigger than yours

When comparing one interstellar empire with another, census officials and financial lizards talk about things like populations, manufacturing capacity, and gross domestic product. However, most ordinary emperors just count how many inhabited systems they own.

In the early days of interstellar expansion, people counted inhabited worlds, meaning those where there was an established human presence.

This measure gave rise to problems and ambiguities. Alongside the primary world, do you count all the moons with permanent bases? Some of them were nothing more than observation posts manned by a handful of staff, clearly not worth counting, but others were larger than some planetary colonies. What about those planets with no surface populations, but with a thriving flock of orbiting bases? What about the large mining populations spread thinly through an ore-rich asteroid belt? Exactly what constitutes a "world" was becoming a nightmare of arbitrary and meaningless definitions.

And you thought Pluto had it rough!

An inhabited system is defined simply as a star system containing a self-supporting permanent population. This measure makes no mention of how the population is distributed or housed, so avoids many of the problems of earlier definitions. The "self-supporting" qualification has some more specific definitions attached, but essentially ensures that the system has enough critical mass of population and resources to be significant in political terms.

Deep space and politics...

In Shayla's time, an official census recorded 523 inhabited systems.

These were spread unevenly through a disc of space roughly two thousand light years across and five hundred light years thick. This is a tiny fraction of the galaxy, which is a hundred thousand light years across.

To give some perspective on what this means for travelers, the fastest ship would take about two months to cross from one border of human space to the other.

Of course, inhabited systems account for only a tiny fraction of stars in this region of space. The common convention, other than for navigational charts, is for maps to show only inhabited systems and to ignore the vast numbers of stars in between.

Just over half of these systems were under the control of six Grand Families, either directly ruled, or through long-standing allegiances. The Family Skamensis was the strongest with 83 systems. The Family dom Calvino were the paupers at the table with a puny 27.

The remaining systems were independent, or owed only transient allegiance.

With these six power-hungry sharks in the pool, independence was difficult and precarious. Some worlds were strong enough, either individually or by banding together, to keep the Grand Families at bay. At the other extreme, many "outworlds" on the periphery of civilization were too small and remote to be worth subduing.

A privileged few, the Freeworlds, maintained their neutrality by treaty. Freeworlds usually had a dedicated purpose, or charter, and established themselves as highly specialized centers of excellence for academics, artists, or artisans.

The Families were prepared to honor the Freeworlds' independent status in return for the strictly impartial value that these worlds brought to all of humanity.

It is no coincidence that Freeworlds also typically lacked natural resources worth fighting over.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A sense of history

Ghosts of Innocence is nearing the end of it's round of critiques - the penultimate chapter is in the queue right now - so it will soon be time to get serious about revisions.

I don't like revising at the best of times, and I've spent so long in critique mode that the thought of going back and working all that feedback into the story is daunting.

So I thought it might help me get in the mood if I talked a bit about Shayla's world.

This is the far-future setting for Ghosts of Innocence, and The Ashes of Home.

Deep time...

Events take place roughly fifteen thousand years in the future.

A thousand years from our twenty-first century lives, humanity developed practical interstellar travel. Not a moment too soon, the first ships left a climate-ravaged and polluted Earth behind and began looking for new homes.

Within a few decades, the expanding search found planets suitable for colonisation. Not yet truly habitable, they were at least rocky worlds with atmospheres, liquid water, and in stable orbits in their stars' "Goldilocks zones."

The fledgling colonies made extensive use of geoengineering techniques that had been refined over the centuries in desperate attempts to keep Earth itself habitable. Decades of patient terraforming bore fruit three hundred years after the departure of the first interstellar explorers, when the first colonists were finally able to walk freely under alien skies.

Moderately peaceful expansion continued for another four millennia.

But by then, many early colonies had grown strong enough to rival Earth itself, and began to exert not only independence from an increasingly fragile central rule, but desires to establish their own multi-system mini empires.

Good old human nature reasserted itself, and the spreading civilisation disintegrated into a thousand years of vicious conflict. Terraforming was slow and cripplingly expensive, so truly habitable worlds were prized targets. Many worlds lost contact and degenerated to a pre-industrial state. Many perished, unable yet to sustain themselves. Only a few kept both the technological knowledge and the industrial capacity to build starships.

Starfaring society re-grew from these centres, which eventually hosted the ruling Grand Families. The world of Magentis lay in a region relatively rich in habitable planets, and was always the most powerful. Its ruling family established itself as a dominant and stable force over the next eight thousand years.

I have tried to bring this sense of history into Ghosts of Innocence. The scenes in the Imperial Palace especially touch on layers of antiquity, of new rubbing up against ancient.

I drew heavily on the impressions and atmosphere of places like London, and Oxford University. All the pomp and traditions of the British monarchy. The grime and mechanical heat of the London underground. The soaring cathedral spaces of medieval architecture. The stone staircases of an Oxford college, steps worn into smooth undulations through centuries of use.

All these influenced my thoughts as I wrote those scenes. I have tried to convey something that can only be felt by someone who has spent time surrounded by buildings that were around when America was discovered.

It is worth noting that at no time did the Earthly explorers discover native life on any planets they visited. All people, plants, and animals, can trace their lineage back to Earthly origins.

Ironically, by Shayla's time Earth itself was nothing more than a little-known legend. Earth's dwindling resources were spent with the effort of supporting those early colonies. Its location was lost in the disintegration and rebirth of interstellar civilisation. Its people have likely regressed to primitive, non-technological cultures if they survived at all. It is out there still, waiting to be rediscovered, just another failed world from before The Collapse.

This is why the book only mentions people. No alien species, no beings with three eyes, green skin, or tentacles. And no mention of Earth.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


I'm sure I'm not alone in saying I hate telemarketing. So this little gem made my day.

Please have a look, and enjoy! But remember to return for the rest of this post, because there's a serious point to be made here.

I said I hate telemarketing, not I hate telemarketers. There is a difference.

As some of the commenters on the baby video pointed out, telemarketers are doing a thankless job, and are only trying to earn a living.

I understand that.

My beef isn't with the individuals involved, although I have to say that everyone has choices in how they live their lives, and it is still a choice whether or not to enter into a business that I believe to be fundamentally immoral.

My rant is against the whole principle of telemarketing.

So, my phone number is in the phone book. I pay for my account, and my purpose in publishing my number is so that I can be reached by people who have legitimate business with me. This means, people I have chosen to deal with in some form or another.

It is not, and should never be interpreted as, an open invitation for you to try to exploit me.

That is what telemarketing is about. Exploitation.

My rant is against the idea that every individual on earth only exists as a potential consumer of your products, and that you have some God-given right to invade my life in whatever way you can in order to sell things to me. I find that particular tenet of free market capitalism to be abhorrent and offensive.

That is why I enjoy seeing telemarketers pranked. Not because I have anything against the individuals, but because I would dearly like to see consumer power render the telemarketing approach ineffective and ultimately consigned to history. The more people resist telemarketers, waste their time, refuse to reward them with sales, the less attractive it will be as a marketing strategy.

For myself, my approach is to say that I have a policy of never doing business with people who've chosen to approach me in this manner. In other words, your unsolicited and unwanted phone call, rather than gaining a sale, has forever lost a potential future customer for your employer. That is my small contribution to the war against telemarketing.

BTW - If you like rather more serious "get the f*** off my line and don't ever call again" telemarketer pranking, a guy called Tom Mabe has perfected the art of dealing with telemarketers. Examples of his approach can be found here and here.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Practice makes perfect...eventually

We're still a long way from perfect, but this weekend we went through the process to winterize our trailer for the third time, and we are at least improving.

We've been waiting for a good opportunity, because we are now into November, and this...
...could be just around the corner, as the folks out on the east coast already know.

First time around, two years ago, it was all new to us. The owner's booklet had a pages-long checklist of things to do to systematically drain all the water out of the system and flush it through with antifreeze. We went slowly, double- and triple-checking each step to understand what was happening and confirm that it made sense.

We had to find the right tools, and we spent ages searching for all the drain plugs and valves. We got completely flummoxed when it came to draw up the antifreeze. Nothing was working right, and we almost resorted to dismantling the water pump in an effort to work out what the instructions were talking about. After hours of frustration, we discovered a valve hidden away under the sink and out of sight unless you stuck your head right into the cupboard. Bingo.

That first time took all day, and a terrible toll on our nerves.

Last year, we started off with more confidence, then couldn't remember where we'd put the tube that we'd bought the year before to attach to the draw-up pipe under the trailer. We searched the trailer, searched the garage, searched the house. Finally, slumped in my office taking a break, I spotted it up on a shelf hiding in plain view.

That took all day too.

This year, we remembered where all the valves were, and where we'd left the tools and other bits. It took just two hours start to finish, including getting the cover on. Most of the time was spent waiting for various pipes to drain fully.

Note for next year...plan on doing it in stages - a few minutes work then go off for half an hour to do something else.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Don't flip the Bozo bit

Can anyone out there make any sense of the above statement?

When I first saw it, I couldn't even work out how to parse it grammatically, let alone extract meaning from it. I kept asking myself, "Who did the Bozo bite?"

And yet, from the time I first saw it and had it explained, this rather cryptic sentence has been the mainstay of my approach to professional relationships, and it has served me well.

History lesson

I was introduced to this phrase many years ago, at a computer conference. A speaker was giving a talk entitled "How to deliver great software on time." On the screen behind him was a list of rules, which he spoke to most eloquently. In the middle of the list, amongst a number of things that I could at least pretend to understand, was this mysterious phrase.

Don't flip the Bozo bit.

The Enlightenment

When he came to explain this rule, it all made sense. "Bozo", he explained for the benefit of his mostly British audience, was a clown in America. The "bit" referred to a concept in electronics and computing, where circuit boards often have rows of tiny switches, or data records have sets of binary "flags" or "bits." Each one can be flipped "on" or "off" to denote a state or property of the circuit or data.

The concept of the phrase was to imagine each of us has such a set of "bits" in our heads. One of them is the "Bozo bit." Flip that into an "on" position and it means that the person is henceforth flagged as a Bozo, a clown. Someone not to be taken seriously.

This is a setting that you can choose to set on or off in other people.

The Lesson

The lesson is simple. Don't do it. Don't flip that Bozo bit in other people's minds. Don't assume the other person is stupid.

Everyone has reasons to talking or acting the way they do. Just because you don't understand it doesn't mean it's wrong. They may even be mistaken, but possibly for honest reasons.

If you take something you don't understand as a cue to regard that person as stupid, you do both them and you a disservice. You have effectively ruled them out as a useful contributor to any future discussions. It hurts them, it hurts you, it hurts all future team interactions.

Don't do it.

Don't flip the Bozo bit.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The harder side of parenting

Consoling upset children.

One of our guinea pigs died last night. Ali checked on the animals as usual just before bedtime and made the discovery.

So, we had to break the news this morning.

We have no idea what happened. Megan gave them all a cuddle when the kids went to bed, so something happened in the intervening two hours or so. Who knows? We've had this one over three years, so the kids have got very attached to her. Her sister seems to be missing her too.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Things I've learned as a parent

To the question "have you done homework / chores / whatever I asked you to do," the answer "yes" is best regarded as a "no."

The more emphatic the "yes," the more likely it is to be "no."

The loudest shout from one room to the next will go unheard, but the muffled clink of a cookie jar lid can be heard clearly through three closed doors.

The words "just try it, you might like it" have never had any credibility. They didn't fool you, why would they fool your kids?

Today's "must have" absolute number one all time favourite cereal / snack / soft drink will languish, unconsumed, in the back of the cupboard for the next year.

This sometimes manifests itself as a stealth attack, wherein the item will be avidly consumed week after week right up to the point where you decide to buy it in bulk.

The best way to conceal an item is to leave it lying in the middle of the floor, preferably in a high-traffic area such as the top of the stairs, masquerading as something in need of being picked up and put away. This will render it entirely invisible.

Whenever you check the kitchen clock, leaving yourself just enough time to ferry child to music lesson / scouts / appointment with parole officer, the thirty seconds it takes to grab car keys and put on shoes will have mysteriously stretched to at least five minutes by the time you reach the car. I think Einstein's to blame. Somehow.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Science has a lot of explaining to do

First up, let's be clear. This is not an anti-science rant. I'm an avid science-follower and I wish scientists were held in more esteem in the world of sound bites, spin, and outright fabrication of "facts" that passes for decision-making in this world.

This is a lament at the hubris that surrounds much of science, particularly its claims of explaining the physical world.

Physicists are searching for "theory of everything" and hunting for super-symmetry and the Higgs boson to bolster or disprove various theories. This is all very exciting stuff. At least, I think so. But while we may one day have a "theory of everything", I suspect an "explanation of everything" will prove rather more elusive.

My contention is that, while scientific theories are good at describing things in a way that allows us to calculate and predict the behaviour of the physical world with exquisite accuracy, these theories don't go very far in terms of true explanation.

In other words, theories tend to be very good at answering questions of "what", "where", "when", but fall far short of "how" and "why".

Let's have a look at gravity, for example.

Newton's law of gravity provided a remarkable mathematical description for the motions of the planets, that accurately modeled what 17th century astronomers observed. Moreover, it made testable predictions, leading two centuries later to the discovery of Neptune, and then Pluto. These planets were not discovered, like the others, by spotting a point of light moving across the night sky, but by observing the motions of the known planets and deducing the existence of another, as yet to be seen, body. Newton's laws enabled astronomers to work out where to look, and - lo! - there it was.
As far as explanation goes, Newton's law tells us that there is a force of attraction between any two bodies. That works as an explanation on one level. But if you keep poking at it, you soon realise that no-one can really explain what the force is, or why two masses should attract each other in the first place.

Einstein's theory of general relativity goes further, and describes gravity in terms of the curvature of space. Again, the theory has remarkable descriptive and predictive powers, showing how light gets bent as it passes close by a massive body like the sun.

Yet again, this seems to take the explanation, the insight, to another level. It provides a means by which gravitational attraction takes place. But it still leaves open the questions of how a mass bends space. In other words, when you look closer, it doesn't really explain anything much.

Where I get hot under the collar, though, is when we enter the world of particle physics and quantum mechanics.

Yet again, the standard model of particle physics, and the weird world of quantum theory, provide huge descriptive and predictive power. They give us ways of viewing the subatomic world that provides insight undreamt of to scientists prior to the 20th century.
But when it comes down to understanding at a deeper level what's going on, scientists tend to wave their hands in the air and say things like, "The particles exchange force-carrying particles. That explains it."

No, it freakin' well doesn't!

It explains nothing. It just pushes the explanation a bit further away.

Nothing in any of the theories really tells us how an electron knows a photon when it meets one, or how a quark gets handcuffed to other quarks by a string of gluons. Those are the kinds of questions that I really want to answer.

All the theories do is provide a conceptual analogy that we can manipulate to get results that match observations.

I'm not knocking these achievements, don't get me wrong. Quantum theory in particular has been described as the most successful scientific theory ever. It makes some utterly bizarre predictions that have been proved right time and again by experiment, and you can thank these predictions for the existence of computers, GPS, cell phones, and many more modern conveniences.

It's just that, for all these successes, we are really no nearer to understanding - on a satisfying level - why the universe is the way it is.

Yes. Science still has a lot of explaining to do.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Casting call

Before getting to the main part of this post, which is an awesome blog hop hosted by the lovely Carrie Butler, here are a few reasons for celebration...

Today is our seventh anniversary in Canada. Hooray!

Today is also this blog's second anniversary. I started it off here to mark our fifth year in Canada.

This is my 200th post. Wow! What a lot of nonsense!

So...on to the blog hop...

The idea is to feature a few characters from your book or WIP, using some kind of visual aid. Please click on the sticker above to see the list of other participants.

Now, although I liked the idea of this I tried searching for suitable images to capture my characters but nothing seemed right. Some people seem always able to lay their hands on the right graphic or clip art when they need it. I envy them. Ferreting out nuggets from the ocean of information out there is not my forte.

So in the end I gritted my teeth and got out paper and pencil. Let's be clear about this. I draw. I paint. But I don't do people or faces, so this is way outside my comfort zone.

Anyway, here are some of the main characters from Ghosts of Innocence.

First up, meet Shayla Carver, my protagonist. Badass assassin on the outside, inside she's just a messed-up little girl trying to find meaning in an ugly world. Having her home world fried by Imperial warships when she was just eleven didn't help matters.

Shayla's nemesis, Imperial Chief of Security, Chalwen ap Gwynodd. Not someone you want to meet down a dark alley. In fact, even in a brightly-lit room it's not a happy encounter. People prefer to avoid being the focus of her attention. Even a "Good morning" from Chalwen feels like a full-on interrogation.

Chalwen's right-hand man, Henri Chargon, Chief of Internal Affairs. Dark alley or not, chances are you'll never even see him coming. If Chalwen could be likened to a bear with a bad hangover, Henri is more like a snake. Sly, patient, and deadly.

There are many more characters in the story, but I want to give special mention to the overall setting. I see the worlds themselves, the palaces and deserts, the forests and mountains, as characters in their own right. So here is Jemiyal, a mining colony where the climax of the story takes place.

Thank you, Carrie, and co-conspirators Melodie and Lisa, for an exciting blog hop.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Singulars and plurals

I have a question to put to my erudite band of fellow bloggers. This is a problem I keep hitting, and which critiquers and work colleagues regularly take me to task over.

My problem is that I keep referring to certain collective nouns, specifically nouns that refer to groups of people, in the plural, rather than the singular.

For example...

Suppose at work there is a department called the Standards Office for Paperwork, or SOP (because we like acronyms at work. Yes we do.)

Now maybe I would say something like: SOP has a policy for the use of triplicate forms, which is causing us problems with streamlining our operation. SOP are working with us to find a solution.

I know this is wrong. The problem is that I keep using plurals like this without even thinking about it.

And I think I know why.

When I talk about something that can be seen as belonging to the collective, such as policy (which, after all, could never be the product of real people, only of a faceless machine) I'm perfectly fine with the singular.

But whenever I talk about something that implies real individuals, like solving a problem, I always see the people behind the collective name. I can't help it. And it's as if I mentally insert the words "members of" in front of the noun. So I envisage that last sentence as "Members of SOP are..."

Except that's not what I say. It's just implied. To me, anyway, but other folks don't see it that way.

So, I repeat, I know this is technically wrong, and that is not what I'm asking.

My question...OK, questions, 'cos I'm greedy like that...is

Do you have this same problem?

What do you do about it?

And, whether you are an incorrigible pluraliser or a knowledgeable grammarian, what do you think this says about how you see the world?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Global meltdown

The financial meltdown three years ago showed the world just how fragile the global financial machine has become. We are still feeling the aftershocks, with America's recovery hanging in the balance, and the drawn-out protests against austerity measures in Europe proving hard to contain. Either of these limping giants could fall and plunge the world into chaos again.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street protesters, and others joining them in their outrage, have a point. Where is the ordinary citizen in this equation?

They are directing their anger at the people at the top of the monetary food chain: senior executives and the super-rich.

That is a worthy ideal. Individual greed certainly doesn't help matters, and when the majority of people are struggling, it's galling to see others sitting pretty and visibly not caring.

The way I see it, though, these efforts are unlikely to achieve anything lasting unless they understand and act on one significant fact:

These people are no longer in control.

In fact, they probably never were.

What? These are the decision-makers aren't they? Surely all they have to do is choose to act differently and all will be well?

Firstly: fat chance of them acting differently. Human nature is deeply ingrained. And even if you get rid of them, every revolution in history has simply swapped one corrupt and self-serving oligarchy for another. To put it simply: shit floats.

Secondly: I don't believe these people are truly in charge, or in a position to effect real change. As individuals, they are as powerless as the rest of us.

Human society has grown into a complex ecosystem of super organisms - governments, corporations, NGOs, religions, protest groups. I use the word "organism" deliberately, because I think this is the most useful way of looking at modern institutions - as a new form of life.

I think the analogy is apt. Living cells metabolise. They take in a food sources and nutrients, and process them chemically to release electrons in a way in which they can be put to work. Along the way, they produce waste which has to be disposed of.

I don't think modern organisations are any different. Their "metabolisms" are mainly directed at producing money which can be put to work to ensure the organisation survives. They take in raw materials, knowledge, labour, and free up cash by processing these into goods and services.

The latter are, in effect, nothing more than waste products of this metabolism. The fact that these products are mostly useful, even essential, to our well-being has become only a secondary concern.

This used to be the main purpose of agriculture and industry - produce things that people need in order to survive and live well. But I think the whole setup has been flipped on its head. The wheels of commerce have taken on a life of their own, and our role as consumers has become little more than waste removal.

Does that paint a pretty picture?

Now, here's the rub. The fate and wellbeing of individuals is not the primary concern of any of these institutions. No more than your body cares about the survival of any one cell.

In other words...

People are no longer the beneficiaries of society.

Let's be clear now. I'm not saying that many individuals within these organisations don't care for the welfare of others. I'm saying that the collective, the organisation as a whole, has taken on a life of its own that does not have our interests at heart. This is an example of an emergent phenomenon, where seemingly simple rules acting en-masse can have surprising and unpredictable outcomes at larger scales.

I believe that the only way to achieve real change is to focus efforts not at the obvious individual targets, but on understanding this new ecosystem.

I think the efforts to change the behaviour of individuals is misguided. We need to change the behaviour of these new animals that we have built around us, that we are part of.

We need to understand how big institutions behave. What motivates them to behave the way they do? And, ultimately, how can we alter this intangible ecosystem to bring about behaviours that benefit ordinary individuals once more?

We need to find ways to reward organisations and governments not by how much revenue they can create for themselves or shareholders, but by how much they enhance the wellbeing of ordinary people.

In short, we need to give our global institutions a new diet, a new metabolism.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Canadian Thanksgiving

It's that time of year again. We don't have family nearby with which to share this intensely home-oriented celebration, but we do nevertheless pause to give thanks for the many riches we are lucky enough to enjoy.

Living in such a beautiful and peaceful part of the world. Even if the pressures of work and/or kids drive me to distraction much of the time, it's hard to stay wound-up in such stunning surroundings.

Friends and family, wherever they are in the world.

Cozy wood fires, and firewood stacked & ready to see us through the winter.

A roof over our heads, and food on the table. Things which we take for granted, but which are unattainable luxuries for so many.

And cheesecake. Where would we be without chocolate-covered cheesecake?

Oops! That didn't last long.

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Pesky numbers!

Last month I posted some writing targets for the year. I can now report that the "Critiqued" figure stands at 71%.

This is down on the 74% that I posted a month ago.

How come? Have I slipped into some bizarre time warp? Did I "uncritique" some previously-critiqued chapters?

No. I simply screwed up my calculation last time and included a whole segment that wasn't yet critiqued, only queued up. Damn you, Excel! The real figure should have been 67%, so I have actually made forward progress.

And, providing I don't mess up and miss a submission cycle, I should be able to make my target of completion by the end of November.

I don't expect to see much movement towards my other targets yet, because I'm frantically critiquing other people to earn credits and goodwill. This takes a lot of energy and I find I can't write or revise at the same time.

Plus, the chapters that are going through right now are getting some tough feedback. I need to work on Shayla's motivation, which is critical at this point in the story as she switches allegiance. I have a lot of work to do there, and need a clear mind with which to do it.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A daunting paint job

I can't believe it's nearly seven months since I posted about the painting I was working on, and claimed it was "getting very close to finished."

Truth is, it's been sitting there on the easel in my study ever since, defying me to pick up a paintbrush again and put my words into action.

The trouble is, I knew there was something wrong with it, and I couldn't put my finger on what exactly, or how to go about fixing it.

Then, last week, it finally hit me. The whole thing was too flat. I think I knew that already but didn't want to admit it because I knew the solution was going to be technically challenging and time-consuming to put into practice.

The paint I use (gouache) gives vibrant colours and a wonderfully precise finish, great for my style of painting, but it dries almost instantly on the paper. This makes it incredibly difficult to achieve any fading or gradation of tone, especially across a large area.

But that is exactly what I needed to do to make this planet look...well...like a planet. i.e. Round.

So I've been working at it.

Here is how I left it back in March.

And here is how it looks now.

There's still a lot of work to do, but I can finally see it moving in the right direction.

Maybe look forward to another update in, shall we say, another six months?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Save the whales

I was both intrigued and delighted to read an article recently (New Scientist, July 9) that gave new and compelling reasons for protecting whales and other large marine predators.

Now, I'll come clean and admit that my stance has always been that these animals are worth saving in their own right.
(Picture credit: Green Living Earth)

There's no good reason to hunt these creatures, and I won't even get into the specious arguments some nations use about "scientific" whaling, which is a thin disguise for commercial hunting. More than enough good science can be done with live animals in their natural environment than has ever been achieved by killing them.

But I acknowledge that such thinking cuts little ice with the decision-makers in this world.

What most delighted me about this article was that this research should appeal to some influential folks. Big business cares nothing of the lives and well-being of ordinary citizens, but it does care about the bottom line. And that's where it gets interesting...

The established view in the fishing industry goes as follows: There is a food chain. Those at the bottom get eaten by those at the top. Therefore, fewer predators at the top means more survive lower down.

So, creatures like whales and squid are seen as a bad thing, because they (literally) eat into the profits of fishermen.

But this is only part of the picture.

The marine ecosystem is not a one-way street; it is a cycle.

The top predators don't just take from the system. They are, in fact crucial to the health of the whole ecosystem.

The middle links in the food chain depend on the microscopic organisms at the bottom, particularly photosynthetic plankton. The entire system is limited by the productivity of these foundational species. And they, in turn, are limited by the nutrients available in the sunlit layers of the ocean.

Here's the catch. Nutrients tend to sink rapidly into the depths, where they cannot be used for photosynthesis.

It turns out that large animals are vital in re-circulating "lost" nutrients back into the upper layers.

Before efficient whaling removed the majority of the population of whales, the world's oceans were teeming with life. Today's oceans are barren wastelands compared to what they were only a few hundred years ago.

If the "top predators" dogma were true, fish should be even more abundant now, but they aren't. By removing large animals, we have made the oceans a much poorer place.

These predators give way more back than they take out.

If the fishing industry, the same industry that has so successfully resisted any attempts to limit catches to sustainable levels, realizes that more whales = more fish, then that gives me hope.

Sadly, the world is ruled by self-interest.

For once, self-interest may be a good thing.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Link Award

It's time for more bloggerly tag games. Both Unikorna at Why I Wake Up Every Day, and Laila at Untroubled Kingdom, have passed on to me the 7x7 Link Award. Many thanks, ladies.

Here, I have to nominate my most interesting and successful posts in a number of specific categories.

Now, some of these had me scratching my bald patch for inspiration, but I've had a go...

The most beautiful post: Right off I'm struggling. I don't think I do beautiful posts as such. Only in the sense that the brat screaming in the supermarket aisle is beautiful in the eyes of its mother. But I picked A surprise around every corner, because it was an account of a beautiful day out.

The most popular post: This one was easy, courtesy of Blogger statistics. Cogitus Interruptus.

The most controversial post: Another tricky one, because I don't really court controversy. But Never mind the matter/anti-matter photomultiplier - just give me warp speed! did trigger a bit of writerly discussion.

The most helpful post: Tricky for another reason, because I am always trying to be helpful. I thought about something from the writers' toolkit series, but finally settled on Whatever you want curry, because it wraps an almost endless variety of dishes into one simple recipe.

The most surprisingly successful post: How to write compelling characters. This was my first blogfest, and the response just blew me away.

The most underrated post: Again...so many to choose from! But I liked Homo Imbecilicus for its silliness and wished more people had seen it.

Finally, the most pride-worthy post: This was easy. It's my very first blog post, Welcome to my world. I am proud of it because it was a big step outside my comfort zone, when I had no idea (or expectation, really) of anyone else ever actually reading anything of mine.

Now I have to pass this award on to some more deserving bloggers. So, in no particular order, and looking for people I've not tagged recently, and please forgive me if you've already been tagged with this one...

Gary at Klahanie
Heather at Little Red Henry
Lindsey at Jesse Said Yes
J. Andrew Jansen at...J. Andrew Jansen
Mooderino at Moody Writing

Please check out all the awesome blogs in these links.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Christmas pudding

This is an old family recipe. It makes dark, moist, steamed puddings, traditional in England on Christmas day.

These are best made months in advance and left to mature. We are late this year, I originally planned to do this back in January but never got around to it. Never mind, any left over will be perfect for Christmas 2012.


1 lb each of: raisins, currants, sultanas, prunes (chopped into sultana-sized pieces).
Approx. 2 pints of brandy (this is our secret addition)
1 lb breadcrumbs
1 lb brown sugar
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp mixed spice
1/2 lb mixed peel
1 lb plain flour
6 eggs
1 lb suet
1 dessert spoon marmalade
1 dessert spoon coffee
1/2 pint milk

Note on quantities

These quantities are direct from our recipe, but this makes a huge amount. I guess this is from the days of larger families. We always halve this, which makes three decent-sized puddings, each one giving maybe six to eight servings.


Measure out the dried fruit (raisins, currants, sultanas, prunes) into a sealable container. Add enough brandy to cover the fruit. Seal the container and leave the fruit to soak for at least a day.

It doesn't matter if you leave it for longer (a few days), that just gives more time for the brandy to soak in.

Measure all the dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl. Add the fruit and the remaining ingredients, and mix well.

Turn the mixture out into greased pudding basins. Don't over-fill. The mixture should be just below the top.

Cover each basin with a sheet of parchment paper and then a clean cloth or handkerchief. The paper and cloth should be pleated to allow the mixture to rise. Tie the covering with string.

I always make a loop of string over the top as well, to make it easy to lift the basins in and out of the pan.

For each pudding, put an inch of water into a large saucepan, put the basin into the pan, bring to the boil and simmer gently for about 4 hours. Check the pan occasionally and top up with boiling water if needed.

Don't let the pan boil dry, and don't put so much water in that it can bubble over the top of the basin. The water level should be about 1/4 to 1/2 the way up the basin at all times.

Leave to cool, then store in a cool, dry place.

When you want to serve, re-heat the pudding for an hour or so in a pan of water, like when cooking, then turn out onto a plate. If you want to be fancy, you can pour a shot of brandy over the pudding and light it before serving. Be sure to dim the lights so you can see the blue flames.

Serve with any or all of: ice cream, custard, cream, brandy butter (the most traditional).

Any leftovers can also be reheated in a microwave, but be careful just to warm through and not to overdo it.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Once more into the valley...

Success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration - Thomas Edison

In response to my last post, Laila Knight and Andrew Jansen both asked about the critiquing cycles I've been through.

When I thought about it, I found that question remarkably difficult to answer. Like the evolution of language itself, the process is messy and not altogether linear.

So here is what Ghosts of Innocence has been through so far.

I started off using the Critters forum. About 30% went through the regular queue, but it takes several weeks to get each submission through so there's a limit to how much of a novel you can realistically get critiqued that way.

Still on Critters, I then used the "Request for dedicated readers" feature to get a handful of whole-novel critiques.

Later, I discovered Critique Circle and was impressed by the depth of critiques I received there. I am completing a round of pushing the whole novel through the public queues. As long as I can keep to my target, that review will have taken exactly a year.

The opening scenes have had much closer attention. The first chapters got posted both to Critters and to Critique Circle prior to fuller rounds of critiques. I've also made use of other opportunities out there, such as Authoress's "Secret Agent" contests, Ray Rhamey's "Flogging the Quill", and more recently the experimental "The Hook" queue on Critique Circle. These give a very different perspective from regular critiques.

In between times, I have several times printed off the whole thing and read through it to get a reader's perspective. I find this best done after setting it aside for a while so I can come at it almost like it's someone else's work.

So, in terms of how many rounds has it gone through ... pick a number!

If I look at the document version numbering I use on my laptop, where I save a backup copy prior to starting a major round of revisions, I am currently on version 8.

And this whole process has taken just over three years to date.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

After a break from the fray, I'm easing myself back into the frame of mind for critiquing and getting ready to submit more chapters to Critique Circle.

In an effort to keep myself honest and true, I'm laying bare a few numbers. Maybe the fact that they're out there on the Interwebs for all to see - yes, both of you - will help hold me to my targets.

Current Target
Word count 98,800Not to exceed 100,000
Critiqued 73%100% by end of November
Revised 14%50% by end of December

Critiqued = put through the Critique Circle queue and feedback received.

Revised = feedback analysed and relevant chapters revised accordingly. This does not include rounds of beginning-to-end reading.

There. I've said it. May small wriggly things infest my breakfast cereal if I fail to hold true to my course.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Revision valley

I've mentioned before how I find story critiquing and writing/revising to be mutually exclusive activities, engaging my mind in vastly different ways. My mind is old, creaky, and slow to change gears between one activity and the other. I need to get settled into a frame of mind before I can be productive at either, so trying to do both in the same week leads to unacceptable beer consumption, hair loss, and nil progress.

I've been on a critiquing hiatus since the middle of August so I can: (a) Enjoy vacation without battling the overloaded wi-fi at the campground, and (b) Get back to revising Ghosts.

Vacation duly enjoyed. The kind with lots of late mornings, lazy days, and nothing exciting to report (apart from the odd boat launch escapade).

Revising also progressing.

More important than the revisions themselves, though, I seem to have finally found a revision process that works for me. Something I've struggled with horribly ever since my first round of critiques on this novel three years ago.

Typically, I find a novel chapter gets on average half-a-dozen critiques from the queue in Critique Circle. Many of these are from a core of die-hards who've been following the story from early on, which is wonderful for continuity and overall thoughts. Comments vary from little nit-picks (typos, and grammar corrections), to issues of clarity of a description or sequence of actions, to bigger issues like motivation, connection with the characters, pacing, tension, and balance.

It's a lot to take in, and a lot of it is contradictory. For example I had three different suggestions for where to start chapter one (other than where I actually started it).

So, my approach now is as follows...

(And it looks a bit like crossing a valley)

Look at the big picture from the high ground: Scan the comments for common themes, other than minor line edits, and summarise what these themes are telling me.

I don't want to tackle these yet. I just make notes at the head of the manuscript.

I use MS Word, with the story split up into about a dozen individual documents to keep them to a manageable size. I often put a few carriage returns to create white space around the segment I'm working on, and put editing notes in red font to make it stand out from the text.

So, I'll end up with a few lines in red at the head of the chapter, like:

Shorten descriptions, up tension, more assassin's POV from Shayla.

Now I've parked the difficult stuff, I delve into the weeds and go through the minor stuff: This is a paragraph-by-paragraph edit, picking up the nit-picks.

The "inline comments" feature in Critique Circle makes this process a dream. I can get a view of all the comments together, so I can see all the critiquers' suggestions on any given paragraph together. Great for seeing where several people have issue with the same thing.

Some are obvious errors - easy to deal with. Some are more a matter of style and I'll filter those more carefully. Some I'll agree with on the spot. In some cases, I can see what the critter is saying but will choose to correct it my way. In some cases, I choose to disregard the comment and we'll simply agree to disagree.

These last two points I believe are crucial to keeping this "my" story. I've gone through the experience before of editing the life and soul out of a chapter in an effort to please everyone. Never again!

This phase is relatively easy for some sections, where sentence and paragraph edits work OK in isolation. But every so often I'll reach a section which needs more drastic rework.

The editing is still localised, but is more than just one or two paragraphs. Here, I'll create some space above and below the offending section, a bit like hauling a broken piece of machinery out onto a workbench. If it needs a serious rewrite, I change the old text to another colour so I know what to delete later on, and start drafting a replacement version alongside it.

When I'm happy with the editing, I go back through the whole chapter to see how well this new piece integrates with the whole. It's amazing how often I find I've echoed a phrase or idea from somewhere else, and I need to decide how to eliminate the duplication. Sometimes it's better off in its new home, sometimes not *face palm*. Or I might have introduced a continuity error in the process of rearranging something *head desk*.

With all that out of the way, I lift back up to the bigger elements. You may ask why I do this last, which may well involve messing up all the careful editing I've done up to now.

Well, I like to think with a clean manuscript. Getting rid of the smaller stuff "clears the decks" for me. I'm also worried that if I move things around I'll lose track of some of the essential line edits I was going to do.

But the biggest reason is that I need time to let some thoughts "perk", and to reacquaint myself intimately with the details of a chapter that I might not have worked on in months. I find this to be essential to get myself out of "revision" mode and back into proper "writing" mode, which is how I prefer to view these large-scale changes.
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