Sunday, December 29, 2013

A sense of expectation

A few random updates as 2013 draws to a close...

On the writing/publishing front, I've been filling in some gaps and lining up preparations but holding off on anything involving actual expenditure until January. As we are so close to the end of the year I decided to formally launch the business in line with the new tax year.

But meantime I've been putting together cover blurb and author bio, and have located a couple of book designers and some photographers here in Victoria. I felt that a local presence was important, because I want to discuss things face to face - especially the book cover. I'm looking for critical artistic advice, not just font and technicalities of layout, so I need to feel comfortable that the designer has relevant experience and value to offer and that we can work effectively together.

Things have returned somewhat to normal on the health front after my earlier scare. After a week off resting, I was cleared to return to work. So far, test after test is coming back negative or all clear, which is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I appear to be healthy. On the other, it leaves the cause unexplained and nothing specific to tackle.

Slipping into seasonal mode, we enjoyed a quiet family Christmas with Ali's parents visiting from the UK. The leftover turkey lasted another two meals and is now gone, apart from a few liters of turkey stock in the freezer for future soups. We enjoyed a dip in the pool at the local leisure center today, and I'm trying not to get too addicted to Candy Crush after spending far too much time watching Ali gnash her teeth over some of the more difficult levels.

How was your Christmas?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

When will we learn to get along?

Traditional nativity scene
banned from park

Multi-culturalism and tolerance does not mean saying "you can't" all the time and neutering your own beliefs because you're shit scared of offending some small-minded bigots.

Multi-culturalism and tolerance means saying

You can ...
And you can ...
And you can ...

And rejoicing in the richness this brings to all our lives

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

More nerdish stuff

The Minecraft battleship is finished. I don't want to dwell on medical stuff right now*, and everyone is posting about seasonal stuff if they're not doing their regular writing-related posts, so I thought, what the heck, today just to be different you get a tour of the ship.

First off, a general fly down the length from stem to stern. I'm slightly hampered in getting an overall view because the pocket edition of Minecraft only renders things up to a certain distance away, then it vanishes into fog.

So far, a lot like building in Lego. But now the advantage of computer-based work shows. You can land on the deck and take a walk around on and inside. Here is a view of the aft turret from standing on the quarterdeck.

The interior of the ship is all detailed, from the sumptuous admiral's quarters in the stern... the spartan mess decks huddling between the forward turret mountings.
Through a maze of windowless corridors...
To boiler rooms...
Engine rooms...
And workshops...

There's lots more, but that is enough for one post. Another time I might post a more detailed tour as a separate blog page like the others listed under the banner.

* BTW - thanks for your words of support this week. Still awaiting test results but no further symptoms so fingers crossed that will be the end of it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

MIA due to TIA

I paused a while before posting this, then I decided that not many people visit this blog anyway, and the ones who do so regularly I like to regard as friends. This is something I choose to share with friends.

Thursday night I had a serious wake-up call. I suffered a minor stroke - a Transient Ischemic Attack.

As such things go, a TIA is quick and leaves no lasting damage. But it is a warning - not to be ignored - of possibly more to come.

The event itself was strange and disconcerting. I was about to drive Matthew downtown but hadn't yet left the house, which was frighteningly lucky.

I turned to put something down on the stairs, and was surprised to see this strange arm reach around in front of me. I turned to see who was there...nobody. But...there was that arm again. It took me a few seconds to recognize it as my own. The recognition was purely visual and intellectual, there was no feeling of ownership there. I felt utterly disconnected from what I was seeing.

That scared me, and told me that something was wrong. I called for help. My voice came out slurred. That's when I suspected a stroke.

The ambulance arrived a short while later, and while the paramedics checked me over and asked lots of questions, the symptoms evaporated leaving me shaken but unharmed.

Off in the ambulance for a long evening of more questions and tests. All clear - whew! - but leaving one huge big elephantine question unanswered: what next?

So, now I'm walking around gingerly, trying to avoid stress and exertion, feeling like I'm carrying a ticking bomb in my head. I haven't yet figured out how to come to terms with that or what in practical terms I can do about it. And of course my family is freaked out.

To put things into perspective, though, we all carry our ticking bombs around with us with a greater or lesser chance of setting them off. And I must have been carrying this one with me for a long time. I just didn't realize it until Thursday. This could be just the first of many episodes leading up to a serious and lasting stroke, or I might never experience anything like this again. I just don't know.

Meanwhile, I'm treating this as one of those perspective-altering moments, time to decide and act on what is really important in my life...while trying to persuade everyone around me that I'm not a bloody invalid!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Way to make me feel old!

It's come to my notice that much of the civilized world is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who.

That brought back fond memories...

Then a pause for thought...

Then the realization...

50 years? But...but...I remember those early days.

I was one of those kids hiding behind the couch when the Daleks first glided onto the screen. They were bloody terrifying! They must have traumatized a whole generation, because I remember them!

OK, I can't have been too traumatized, because I also remember that I spent many long hours happily drawing them.

Who are you calling "old", punk?

Monday, December 2, 2013

So this is where November went

No - not NaNo :)

Just over a month ago, we started on a renovation project that we've been talking about for a few years. The kids' bedrooms open out into a basement room that we turned over to them as a playroom. There was a bathroom in one corner, so they had a small self-contained part of the house to themselves.

Trouble is, the main room was also where all the plumbing for laundry was too.

Not good for them. Not good for us, shoveling piles of crap out of the way whenever we needed to do laundry. The situation needed to be remedied.

This is the playroom right now.

We have professionals doing all the tricky stuff, but to save cost we are doing whatever we can - mostly running around buying materials, and things like painting. Their bedrooms are relatively inaccessible, so they are camped out in our room, and we are in the guest room. With all the upheaval, November seems to have disappeared in a blur.

The laundry-room-to-be is taking shape. You can see that we don't hold with the typical Canadian interior decor of "fifty shades of beige". We like our color, and we've learned to trust our instincts and be bold.

And next door, a rather stylish bathroom is starting to emerge.

Things are starting to come together. Trouble is, we are wondering what to call this newly-revamped space. Somehow, "playroom" doesn't seem right for teenagers. Any suggestions?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The business side of writing - sticking to the plan

Earlier this month, I talked about my plan for publication.

The first step was oodles of research. I've done that.

The problem with research is that it can become an end in itself. Many people (myself included) don't want to make a major leap until we're good and ready. If we just do enough research and preparation we'll be better prepared to make it - whatever "it" is - a success. The problem is that there is never "enough" preparation you can do to really feel confident, so you can spend an eternity talking about it. and never actually doing it.

At some point, you have to accept that the leap still needs to be taken, and it will be uncomfortable.

So, the real first step was to look into publishing/distribution options, make a decision, and then determine the formatting requirements for the chosen outlets.

Notice the "decision" part? That is what turns this into a real step rather than simply more research.

Why start there?

Because until I decided where I was going to publish, I couldn't give a designer any meaningful instructions. There are several different e-book formats out there, and formatting for print is different from electronic distribution. Having a concrete target means you can talk about tangible products, so choosing outlets logically came ahead of talking to a book designer.

And the decision is...

There's probably all sorts of arguments one way or another, but to get me off the ground I've chosen Smashwords for the e-book format, and Lulu for print.

The big plus in both cases is that these are major and reputable publishing companies, and they make money from sales rather than upfront fees - that is a vital consideration. A secondary factor is that in both cases I can use my own ISBN. I decided that I want my stories to be associated with my own publishing "brand". In author circles, I've heard good things about both companies and no horror stories. Lulu even gets a "Recommended" on Preditors & Editors.

In both cases, I'm looking for simplicity and reach.

The main thing about Smashwords is that they automatically format for multiple e-book distributors, and the list is growing. This was the major attraction for me.

I've chosen to include Lulu purely for the print on demand capability and the fact that they distribute through Amazon. I've heard that their print costs are on the high side, i.e. I could get stuff printed for less, but I want the distribution to be handled for me.

Now I'm contacting local book designers to take the next step on the road...

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Who buys the groceries in your house?

In our household, that would be me.

I went grocery shopping this morning, like I do every Saturday, to buy provisions for the week.

After a tiring week, things can sometimes go slightly awry...

Sunday, November 10, 2013

I have a cunning plan

Writers talk endlessly about where they stand on the great plotters v. pantsers divide. I decided long ago that I'm neither, or rather, a bit of both. I've also realized that the same schizoid thinking pervades my world beyond the act of writing.

But that does not mean I flit randomly between planning and seat-of-the-pants actions. There is some structure there.

For starters, I tend to work in layers. No matter what the endeavor, I need to see the big picture, at least in outline. I need to see how the detail fits together. From there, how much I plan depends a lot on my level of confidence. The less familiar I am with the terrain, or the bigger the risk of something going horribly wrong, the more painstakingly I plan ahead.

When it comes to the business of publishing, I am on entirely unknown territory and the stakes (in my own mind, anyway) are high. So it's no surprise that I'm planning the heck out of this publishing lark like an assault on the Normandy beachhead.

Start off with lots of research: The legal aspects of running a business (like registration, tax and accounting), publishing and distribution channels, things other than the story itself that go into a book (like internal book design, formatting, cover art, ISBNs, CIP, and LCCN), marketing, website, etc.

From all of this murk an outline plan is emerging, driven largely by what obstacles stand in the way of completing any given task and working backwards from there.

  • Look into publishing/distribution options and decide how I'm actually going to publish this puppy.
  • Determine the formatting requirements for the chosen outlets.
  • Research and choose a book designer.
  • Set up business and tax registration.
This step is the psychological watershed, like Sam leaving the Shire. Everything up to now has just been an investment of my own time, but this where tangible expenses start to kick in. You'll notice that my natural caution in uncharted waters is showing here and I've left this as late as possible.
  • Work with book designer to sort out the required content, including book blurb, author photo, ISBN etc.
  • Create web site.
  • Publish.

Of course, each of these steps has lots more detail beneath it, but I'm happy now that I've planned out the big picture.

Sounds simple, no? What can possibly go wrong...

Friday, November 1, 2013

Minecraft battleship laid bare

Following on from an earlier post, as the hull rises above sea level, here is a bird's eye view of the main deck fully laid out and furnished.

This is the only level on the ship where you can walk from stem to stern under cover. Below here, shown in my previous post but now decked over, the ship is divided by transverse bulkheads into twelve separate compartments for machinery, magazines, and storage. Above, still to be built, the covered area will only extend from the bow to level with the funnel before breaking up into the aft superstructure.

This deck is the main living and working area of the ship. From the stern...
...the view is dominated by the aft 16" turret now sitting on top of its barbette. To the far left are the spacious admiral's quarters, then officers' accommodation.

The midships section contains the wardroom, sick bay, chapel, bakery, laundry room, washrooms, and offices.

The towers along either side are the 6" gun supports, which will be topped off by twin gun turrets. Then we come to the bow section mostly consisting of crew mess decks.

Again, everything is overshadowed by the massive three-gun turrets of the main armament.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Time and measurement

Quick aside: We almost didn't notice it, but this week we passed our ninth anniversary of landing in Canada. Nine years! It feels unreal. So much has happened in that time.

Earlier on in the summer, I did a couple of posts about the business side of this tangled mess we call "writing".

I'm a bit of a measurement freak, and I firmly believe that you can't hope to manage something unless you measure it somehow. One thing I want to manage better is time. Your own time is a huge investment. In the writing world, it is probably the biggest single raw resource you consume in producing your finished product.

I can't imagine any serious business surviving without some reasonable understanding of how much time it takes to do things, so I've built this handy little spreadsheet that acts like a stopwatch. Click on the "start" and "stop" buttons and it adds the time into a running total against whichever task I've got selected.

This is my first step to getting a handle on things in a more businesslike way.

What I've learned so far

Since July, with all the demands of Real Life, I've averaged only 45 minutes a day on writing-related activities.

Note that none of this was actual writing. Right now I'm not in writing mode, I'm in between critiquing and revising and I'm including all the multitude of roles that wrap themselves around the writing process.

The lion's share of this effort has been pushing through the critiquing process. Most of the rest was on drafting cover art.

The bad news is that, at 45 minutes a day, getting anything done is a long process.

The good news is that I can better see what needs to be done, and gauge the success of any strategies I come up with for spending more time on writing.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The nerd within

I've always been an avid builder, needing to create things from some blueprint or other in my mind. As a child, this showed up in the hours I spent playing with Lego and Plasticine (modeling clay), and later on building model planes, tanks, and ships. Warships were my favorite. I was always absorbed by their visual appearance and physical intricacy.

Nowadays, my creative urges are fulfilled by all those grown-up building projects over the years, such as the pirate ship and tree fort, by writing and painting, and occasional wistful plans for when we win the lottery.

All these things take a lot of energy and concentration, and sometimes I feel the need for less demanding outlets, something that brings more immediate gratification. For this, I've turned to Minecraft. I use the Pocket Edition in Creative mode, solely for construction projects.

Right now, I'm building a WWII-era battleship - generic design, not meant to represent any real vessel. I did one of these a while back, just to see if I could, but at that time I only focused on the exterior. Apart from the engineering spaces it was an empty shell.

This time around, I'm building it from the keel up and trying to make a fairly realistic representation.

I've also discovered that this kind of thing is a popular subject in the Minecraft community (try Googling "Minecraft battleship" for some examples), which is kinda scary. I guess it officially reinforces my nerd status :)

So, I know this may be of limited interest to "normal" people out there, but what the heck, this is my blog and you can always skip if this isn't your cup of tea.

Here are a few screen shots of the battleship project as it takes shape up to the waterline, so if you'd like, follow me on a guided tour of the lower levels...

This is the stern of the ship. I researched online for a game seed that would give me a lot of water, because I knew the ship would stretch most of the width of the world. In this case there was ice along one side, so the bum end wound up embedded in the ice.
You can see storage compartments, and three propeller shafts in yellow. The green platform rising up beyond them is the base of the after 16" barbette. The cylindrical rotating structure and gun turret will be built on top of that. On either side, the powder magazines deep in the ship are still exposed.

Next, we have the engine rooms. The after room holds two sets of turbines driving the outer shafts. Next door is the central turbine set flanked by steam condensers and other machinery.

A large part of the spadework up to this point involved building the shell of the hull and emptying it of water. This is one of the reasons my first attempt didn't pay too much attention to the interior. It's difficult working underwater in Minecraft because it gets so dark, and emptying out the water is painstaking work. But I'm glad I put the effort in this time, because this gives me a more complete structure to fill in.

Here is a side-on view of the three boiler rooms. I've used blue blocks to represent the funnel uptakes. The forward uptakes will continue curving aft to meet up, giving me a single large funnel.
Forward of the boiler rooms is the electrical generation room, and the base of "B" turret rising high above the waterline. In this view, you also have a clear view of the white columns rising up, four each side, which are the 6" shell hoists for the secondary armament.

Finally, we come to the bow section.
Mostly storage here, and a clear view of the two forward 16" emplacements. "B" turret still has the powder magazine showing, while I've started building the overlying shell room for "A" turret.

Next stage is to finish off the sections showing, and deck them over ready to start the next level.

Yes, nerdy I know, but I find it strangely therapeutic.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Holidays here and there

Since moving to Canada nine years ago, we've found the cycle of seasons has been marked by a very different calendar of holidays and celebrations.

Back in the UK, the only really festive celebrations were Christmas & New Year (which tended to get rolled together into one long orgy of food and drink) and Guy Fawkes night (which slowly crept from a one-night firework party to weeks of traumatized pets).

Halloween was a recent and not especially welcome interloper, with trick-or-treating seen as an excuse to roam neighborhoods demanding money with menaces.

This side of the Atlantic, we seem to have more excuses to party, and each one has its own distinct flavor.

Christmas here is very similar to Britain. Lots of food and festivities...and ugly commercialization. The big difference is sniveling reluctance to actually use the C word, which I ranted about a couple of years ago.

Halloween is a hugely different affair here, and is a really fun family time. Children dress up, many households make a big effort to decorate, and there are bonfires and fireworks.

Then we have Canada Day, parades and parties all round. And more fireworks.

I was astounded to find Remembrance Day marked here more widely than Britain, with crowds of all generations still turning out at cenotaphs across the country.

Of course, this weekend is Thanksgiving in Canada.

Whereas most holidays are highly visible to anyone wandering through, I think of Thanksgiving as our secret celebration. It's such an intensely personal family affair, marked by gatherings of friends and families behind closed doors and with little outward show, that it's hard for an outsider to see just how big it is.

We've been privileged to be invited to a few Thanksgiving parties here, which were memorable experiences. With no family of our own here it's usually just a quiet turkey dinner for four, but it's still something we've grown to take seriously.

So, Happy Thanksgiving, Canada!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Cover art

Hellooooo...Anybody out there?


I've been a mostly absent blogger this summer, and I've found the blogosphere in general rather quiet lately, but I hope a few folks are hangin' in there because I want to ask some advice.

As I mentioned a few posts back, I'm throwing around ideas for cover art for Ghosts of Innocence. I've done three rough drafts, all based on scenes from the book, and I'd like your opinions. Bear in mind, these are only rough and meant to illustrate the idea. My hope is to work with a book designer on details and develop one of these into a proper cover.

#1 - Swords Cleansing Eloon

#2 - Seeking refuge on a starhopper

#3 - Flight from the Palace

Do any of these catch your eye? If you saw this on a bookstore shelf, what kind of story would you expect to find behind the cover? Do they manage to convey military sci-fi? Are there any particular elements that you think work, or could do with improvement?

Thanks for your help!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Writing - what business are you in?

A few more random thoughts on the business of writing.

Last time, I mentioned a load of different roles a businesslike writer should be aware of. I reckon that if you think about what you're doing, you'll find all of them are there to some degree, whether front and center and employing a high degree of discipline and maturity, or just enough to get by, or simply glossed over in passing. And you'll have made your own decisions those things you choose to do for yourself, and those you farm out to others.

If you intend to be in any way businesslike about things, one role that I suggest you should pay attention to - but which I bet most people wouldn't even think of - is that of business planner.

Do you have a business plan?

Was that a roll of the eyes there? Or a grimace of distaste? If the very idea sounds way too serious, then maybe that's because you don't truly understand...

What is a business plan?

There's all sorts of information out there, with guidelines and templates, and intimidating business jargon. It can all get a bit daunting, and it sounds way over the top for a humble indie writer.

To me, the one real purpose of a business plan is to get down on paper what is it that I'm trying to achieve - my goals. In other words, why am I doing this?

Put it like that, it's a lot closer to home. Have you ever asked yourself why you write? More tricky maybe, why do you want to be published?

Why is a business plan important?

To put it simply, if you don't understand why you're doing this, how do you know what success looks like? You've set off on a journey that will consume many hours of your time over many years, but how will you know when you've arrived somewhere worthwhile? And how can you tell whether or not your efforts are taking you in a worthwhile direction?

Well, if you make a few millions and can retire comfortably on your writing income then that would count as success in most people's books. But what if you put years of effort into earning those millions, only to realize that you're still not happy and you can't quite put your finger on why? More importantly, what about the other 99.99% of writers out there who will never earn enough to live on? Are they all failures?

Thing is, success comes in many different guises, not all of them measured in dollars. Defining success is an intensely personal process, which is why each of you should have your own business plan.

My own (very early and embryonic) plan is very brief and mentions a few goals, mostly to do with recognition: to be recognized by friends and industry colleagues as a successful writer; to hold a published copy of my work, and see it on bookstore shelves; to see my own artwork on a book cover. It only mentions one, extremely modest, financial goal: to break even in the second year of trading. In other words I just want my hobby to pay for itself.

This is very rough, and it could do with some tightening up to make the goals more "SMART" (= Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timebound), but it encapsulates the elements that are most important to me in my journey.

You'll notice it is not in any way ambitious financially. I wouldn't turn my nose up at a comfortable income, but that is not my goal at this point. This means that if I achieve these goals and it remains nothing more than a self-sustaining hobby I will be happy.

Of course, at some point in future I may wish to revise my plan and set myself new goals. That's OK. A plan is meant to guide me and free me from distractions. It is not a prison. If I want to change it, I will. But I will do so in my own time and on my own terms.

This is not something you can leave to an agent or publisher. They will define success in their own financial terms. Your business plan captures what is important to you.

So, what are your goals in writing? I don't just mean "publish novel X by date Y", I mean what are you trying to get out of your writing endeavor?  
What is important to you?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

How many hats can you wear?

Last week, I talked about the business of writing, meaning taking a businesslike approach to the process of getting your writing out there into the big wide world. Even if you don't intend to create an officially registered business, it's worth asking yourself how serious you are about the whole process and how businesslike you want to be.

Being businesslike simply means applying suitable disciplines and making informed and deliberate choices to stack the odds of success in your favor.

As I've researched the ins and outs of self-publishing, it's become clear that an independent writer hoping to make a serious go of self-publishing has to juggle an awful lot of hats along the way.

That doesn't mean you actually have to wear all these hats, but you should at least be aware of them and decide what (if anything) you need from each.

Skipping the rather obvious role of actual writer (which is probably what most of us would like to concentrate on and skip all the rest), there are other obvious roles directly related to writing a novel, such as researcher, editor (in various flavors) and critiquer. Many of these, you may well do largely yourself or with the help of critique buddies.

These get you the meat of your product - the words on the page. To turn this into a marketable product (assuming you don't have a traditional publisher to do this for you) you need to throw in things like cover artist, graphic designer, book designer and formatter. Most of us would do well to get some expert help in these areas.

That gets you the content, and from there it seems a deceptively easy step to publication - pop it up on Amazon in a few minutes and wait for the $$ to roll in.

Yes? certainly can do that, and therein lies the problem. It's so easy, and a lot of people are doing it. Trouble is, will it achieve your publication goals - and do you even know what those are?

To be businesslike in all this, there's a milliner's paradise of ancillary hats to consider. Just from a quick brain dump I came up with: business owner, business planner, project manager, accountant, resource manager, lawyer, contract manager, promoter and sales person, web site designer and administrator ... maybe you can suggest some more that I've missed!

Of course, as I said earlier, you may not actually need all (or even any) of these. But before you discard them out of hand it's worth understanding what they might bring to the table and whether or not they might help you reach your goals. Some might be useful disciplines even with a traditional publishing deal. After all, the publisher's first interest is their own bottom line. Who's really looking after the dreams and ambitions of you, Solitary Author Inc.?

The question to ask in each of these roles is: how much (if anything) do you need to support your publishing efforts, and how much can you/should you do for yourself?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The business of writing

I haven't talked about writing in a while now, but it's still very much in the forefront of my non-work life. After family and vacations and other such things, of course.

Tiamat's Nest is still working its way through the critique queue. Should be finished in October, then I'll let it rest a while before getting stuck into revisions.

Meanwhile, I'm skirting the fringes of self-publication of Ghosts of Innocence. This is a three-steps-forward-two-steps-back kind of dance. I'm a planner in most aspects of my like, and this is no different.

Having the text of a novel is only the first (and an obviously important) prerequisite. But step back a bit, and there are all the other elements that go into a finished book, not least of which is the book design and formatting. Back up further, and you need cover art. Long before I started writing, I had dreams of seeing my own artwork on the covers of books. Now maybe I can realize two dreams at once.

But that means I need relevant artwork. Right now I'm working on some rough drafts and at some point will post the results for feedback.

So far, so good. But to get to the point of this post - how much do you treat writing like a business? I'm curious because I'm considering setting up a formal business to handle the sales (if any) of my books.

Yes, you can self-publish with very little financial outlay ... if you don't care too much about the end result.

However there are costs involved in doing it properly. And costs are tax-deductible if you are a business rather than just an individual.

The above-mentioned book design for a start. Plus setting up and running a promotional web site. And if I'm planning to distribute through US-based avenues such as Amazon, they'll automatically deduct 30% US tax unless I register either as a non-US individual or a business. The former route is complex and involves hefty fees. The latter is easier and free, and alone is worth the expense of registering as a business.

So, those of you who've trodden this path already, how much do you treat writing like a business, rather than just a hobby?

Friday, August 16, 2013

Google Minus

There's a creeping infestation spreading its ugly way through the blogging world these days.

It's called Google+.

A few blogs I follow have switched over to using Google+ comments. And I have sadly stopped commenting on them.

I have two issues with Google+.

Firstly there's the way comments are shared.

Maybe I'm just out of step with the rest of the world, but if I wanted every one of my online acquaintances to know every time I speak, breath, or scratch my butt, I'd go on FaceBook.

I don't. So I don't like the way Google+ assumes you want to share everything with everyone who knows you.

When I comment on a blog, the implicit deal is that I'm sharing my comment with the blog owner and anyone else who visits that blog. In my mind, the connection and community is centred around the blog and its readership.

I might visit and comment on two entirely unrelated blogs, and to me those are two separate communities. A bit like separate conversations with different circles of people at work, at home, or in the gym.

But Google, in it's infinite wisdom, seems to have turned this on its head. The sharing of comments is now centred around me and my circles of friends. It's cut the blog and its community out of the picture, unless I want to share my comment with everyone who knows me - regardless of whether they care about the blog in question. It's as if instead of the blog being the centre of a community, the blog is now a subject of discussion about it amongst groups of strangers whispering secretively amongst themselves.

Sorry, but that to me has seriously eroded the point of blogging.

That might be tolerable, but then there's the question on online identity. I've spent years establishing myself as "Botanist" both here and in other forums. It's not that I'm strict about remaining anonymous - folks out there who know me know who I am - but I chose not to broadcast my real name everywhere I go.

Google+ has taken that choice away from me.

Sorry, but when I want to go online as my real self, I would rather it was on my terms and for reasons that make sense to me. It's not up to some faceless executive or gormless tech-head to make that choice for me.

So if I still visit you but have gone quiet on the commenting front, please know that it's not personal. It's not you, it's Google.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Flying platypi, and fields of puppies and kittens

I felt it was about time to toss out another Blog of Outstanding Natural Beauty award.

Today I'm honoring Valerie, lady of the Flying Platypi.

Valerie's blog never fails to make me laugh. It's a surreal slice of life, with mannequins, drunk texting, and puppies. And nothing is safe from the impulse to lick everything in sight.

There is nothing to do on receipt of this award, no obligations, no questions to answer, no requirement to pass it on. Just bask in your own awesomeness.

And this award is free for anyone to hand out. If you see a truly beautiful blog, feel free to bestow this award. You do not need to be tagged first. Just grab the image, say why you are awarding it, and let the recipient know.

So if anyone's still out there after my highly sporadic blogging this year, pop on over to Valerie's blog and say "hello". And give her a big hug. She likes hugs.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Meanwhile, back in the Real World

I'll post about the Writing World another time, but today it's time to take a breather from all that and talk about the Real World.

Seems like July is nearly over before it's begun. Canada Day feels like a mere blink of an eye in the past. Ali and I found our usual spot to watch the Sidney parade, where we've been every year since we moved here in 2005 (when not actually taking part in some way or another).

The sporadic and heavy rains that had characterized the year so far stopped at the end of June, and we've had unbroken summer all July. I just hope it remembers to hang around for August, when we're taking our usual camping vacation!

We got an exceptionally early delivery of firewood this year...
This is now all stacked away ready for winter. One less job to worry about later on.

The blitz on all things botanical that I talked about in May has withered in the heat. Battle will be resumed when things cool down again.

With Megan getting ready to go off soon for three weeks on a Guides international jamboree, I took a couple of days off work to make an extra-long family weekend.

On Thursday, we packed up the propane barbecue and a picnic and headed off to French Beach.
Note for future reference, although the sun was out, there's always a strong and chill wind coming off the Pacific. We sunbathed for a bit, played bocce on the grass, then the kids wrapped themselves up in towels and picnic blankets to keep warm.
Next time, bring sweaters!

Yesterday we played mini-golf.

In between times, we've had long rounds of cards on the deck (did you know Uno could be so competitive?) and badminton on the front lawn. Megan and Matthew both started playing this year and are both getting good.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Under Heaven

This is a first for this blog. I've sometimes mentioned aspects of books I'm reading, more than anything to comment on how reading/publishing tastes have changed over the years, but I've always left the books themselves firmly anonymous.

Until now.

I've just finished Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay, and felt the need to rave about it! Only rarely do I find it so hard to put a book down, and so easy to make excuses to abandon other tasks in order to pick it up again.

Shen Tai, mourning the death of his father General Shen Gao, pays homage by setting out to bury the bones of thousands of warriors killed in battle high up in the mountains. The site is said to be haunted, and no-one willingly ventures near there, let alone stays after dark.

During his lonely assignment, Tai is kept supplied by monthly visits from military outposts on either side of the mountains, from his own Kitan empire to the east, and from the rival Tagurans to the west. The visits are staggered so the rival soldiers never have an excuse to fight, and they are careful to leave again well before nightfall, leaving Tai to his labors and the sounds of a hundred thousand ghosts moaning outside his cabin walls.

One such visit becomes anything but ordinary, when Tai is handed a letter. While he's been cut off from the outside world, the world has nevertheless taken note of his courage and determination. The Tagurans have gifted him 250 prized Sardian horses. An extravagant fortune beyond imagining, and an unwittingly deadly tribute. Tai realizes he has no way of claiming his gift and staying in one piece.

That same day, an assassin tries to kill him. He realizes he has to abandon his labors and re-enter the cutthroat world of Imperial politics that he'd set aside while in mourning. He develops a plan to ensure he is worth more alive than dead, while he tracks down the person behind his would-be assassination and fends off the powerful factions vying to trap him and claim control of his fabled horses.

His journey takes him into the heart of the Imperial court, through a maze of intrigue, and into a cataclysmic civil war.

The novel is set in Tang dynasty China. It is classed as a fantasy, but the fantastical elements are very subtle - hints of sorcery with just enough substance impinging on the story to lift them above easily-dismissed superstition.

Throughout, Kay did a first class job of immersing me in another culture, distant in space and time and yet portrayed with such everyday detail and matter-of-factness that it felt like home.

His writing style took a bit of getting used to, with sentence structures and lengthy departures and asides that made some demands on my patience and memory. Kay delights in making teasing statements and leaving them dangling for a while before eventually circling back with an explanation. But he always does tie up the dangling ends, and once you commit yourself to his storytelling care the waits are worth it. It's a bit like re-discovering the hidden treasures of winding country roads after too long on the highway.

If you like mystery and suspense, intrigue and action, with breathless rollercoaster twists and turns, along with historical detail so vivid you can reach out and touch it, then this is a must-read.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Being critiqued - you're the boss

Wow! I'm shocked at how long it's been since my last post. Real life is drowning me this month, mostly with end-of-school-year activities, but also doing some reading and relaxing too.

Plus pushing Tiamat's Nest through the queue on CC, critiquing, and being critiqued.

Oh, look! Back on topic!

In this mini-series on being critiqued, I've talked about the pain of hearing things you don't want to hear, some tips for recognizing comments worth paying attention to, and some cautionary tales about comments best set aside.

I want to wrap this theme up with some final thoughts.

When you put up a story for feedback in a good forum, the good news is that you'll get lots of impassioned feedback. The bad news is ... you'll get lots of impassioned feedback, and you'll have a hard time deciding what to do about it.

The hardest part of receiving critiques is developing your own judgment about what advice to accept, and what to set aside.

Regardless of all the tips and techniques for sorting the wheat from the chaff, there is one fact that you need to engrave in granite and hang on the wall above your writing space, tattoo on the back of your hand, and scribe on a large sheet of paper in mirror writing and staple to your forehead so you see it every time you gaze in the mirror wondering if it's really all worth it.

This is your manuscript, 
and regardless of all the critiquing, 
the end result is up to you.

Don't ever forget it.

Some folks will tell you that you have to kill adverbs, make the MC more likeable, cut the description, throw in a love interest, rewrite the whole chapter... You must, must, must follow their advice because otherwise your manuscript sucks and they know best because you asked them for your opinion, didn't you?

Yes, you asked them their opinion, and what they gave you is exactly that - their opinion. Not law. Not inviolable edicts that you are bound - on pain of testicular separation - to follow to the letter. They gave you an opinion, which it is up to you to decide what to do with.

That doesn't mean simply ignore any advice you don't like. After all, some comments will hurt like heck but may be just what your manuscript needs.

It means exercise judgment and discretion and make a choice.

Easy to say. So hard to do well.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Being critiqued - treading the minefield

Being critiqued can be overwhelming. I've talked about the need to pay attention to things that you might not want to hear, and not disregard painful advice out of hand. Now, I'm cautioning against the other extreme - trying to pay heed to everything.

There is a skill to scanning a critique and picking out things to take action on. An equally important skill is deciding what to ignore.

Not all advice is equal. Not all advice is good. Even good advice is not always applicable.

Here are some reasons to be cautious, and things to watch out for...

The compulsive rules junkie: This is the critiquer who likes to wave the rule book at every opportunity. Some "rules" seem to acquire inviolate tablet-of-stone status. No adverbs. No passive voice. No telling. I'm sorry, but adverbs and passive voice have their place. If I see someone embarking on a relentless mission of adverb annihilation then I can see that actual critical thought - the point of a critique - has flown the nest.

Inaccurate advice: More insidious than the blatant rules junkie is the "wrong rules junkie" - the critiquer who insists on some rule that simply isn't true. I once had someone tell me that every piece of dialogue absolutely had to start on a new line. He'd clearly misunderstood the actual rule where someone new is speaking, but was most insistent. He then went through my MS pointing out every single instance of my "error". The trouble is, that was the sum total of his critique.

Plain old unhelpful: "Boring" or "this sucks" is simply not helpful. If you make no effort to explain why something is not doing it for you, I'll probably make no effort to listen.

Personal taste: Some advice amounts to little more than personal preference. That doesn't necessarily mean it's worthless - it is a genuine reaction from a reader, after all - but neither is it gospel.

Trying to rewrite your story: Personal taste taken to extreme can lead the critiquer to try to rewrite your story how they would have written it. This is far more dangerous. Write your own darned story and leave me to get on with mine!

Wrong audience/just doesn't get it: Personal taste is especially dangerous if the critiquer is clearly far removed from your target audience. There's no problem critiquing outside your comfort zone, you can give a fresh perspective as well as general writing comments, but if you don't "get" the specific conventions of the genre then be wary. If this is a hard military sci-fi story, don't bleat about the technology or the lack of a mushy love triangle.

Wrong advice for your story: This is very hard to detect, and needs great confidence and judgment to stick to your guns. Sometimes none of the above is true, and the advice might even be good in its own way, just not right for you.

Conflicting advice: In my previous post I mentioned looking out for things several critiquers agree on. The converse is also something to watch out for. If different critiquers are leading you in conflicting directions then it's a sign you're in territory where there's no clear right answer. This is bad news if you are looking for definite advice, because you're on your own. The good news is, you're on your own. If you aren't doing anything clearly wrong, then you are free to carve your own path.

Cheerleading: It's always good to be told nice things about your story. The trouble is that if the critiquer is overly complimentary then you probably aren't getting any worthwhile advice. I am more inclined to pay attention to odd bits of praise if the critiquer has also shown no qualms about shredding bits that needed shredding. Then I know it's genuine, and not just empty cheerleading.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Being critiqued - panning for gold

Okay, you've got a critique, preferably more than one, from people who can be trusted to be blunt and honest.

It hurt, but you got over that. Now, you need to glean some goodness out of all that commentary. After all, that's the whole point of the process, right?

I'm not going in to all the details of how to read a critique, but here are some pointers I use to help me decide what nuggets to pay attention to.

The blindingly obvious

Some things - obvious typos, for example - make me go, "Doh!" *Facepalm*

More subtle, but equally obvious, are those light bulb moments. The moment the critiquer says it, you wonder why you didn't think of it yourself. These can be anything from wording or sentence suggestions, to plot points or character development.

These are so obviously right, that you don't need to put much effort into accepting them, though what to do about them isn't always so clear.

Things you don't want to hear

But handling critiques isn't all plain sailing. Sometimes you need to hear hard truths, things that go against the grain, things you don't want to hear.

How to identify nuggets of gold that you are inherently resistant to seeing?

One thing I look out for is if more than one critiquer makes the same observation. That is always a good clue that there's something worth further consideration.

Another group of comments I pay close attention to is gut reader reactions. Things that are running through the critiquer's head as they read. These may appear as criticism, or a good critiquer may identify them as running observations, but either way they are worth looking at. Whether the reaction is what you wanted or not, it is a window into how your story is landing in someone else's mind. That kind of feedback is golden.

Similar, are comments that give you a new perspective on your work - I didn't see it could be read like that! Again, a window into another world. If a reader mis-reads your words, you don't get to beat them over the head and say, "That's not what I meant, dummy!" All you have to play with are the words you choose to put on the page, and it's useful to know if they are not conveying what you intended - whether you like it or not.

That doesn't necessarily mean you need to do anything about it. The reaction may be exactly what you want, or it may be clear that the reader is too far removed from your target audience, but discarding comments should be a reasoned choice on your part, not a gut reaction.

It's not all bad news

Not all critique comments need be bad news. Sometimes, they just make you think, maybe lead you to new ideas, new avenues to explore in your story.

And sometimes, you get to hear what people actually like. As long as you can trust this is genuine, and not the dutiful gushing of a doting relative, it's invaluable to know what is working for that reader.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Being critiqued - handling the pain

Getting your work critiqued by someone else is an essential step on the way to producing a publishable work.

But it can hurt.

A lot.

Here's your writing - your baby - that you've agonized over for months, polishing it within an inch of its life. It's perfect. How can anyone not love it?

You put it out there to your critique group, expecting nothing but unstinting adulation - the next New York Times bestseller! Agents will be flocking to your door to represent you! Publishers will be bidding six figure advances to snag the honor of putting your novel on bookstore shelves. Movie deals are in the offing ...

What you get, instead, is carping criticism from ungrateful Philistines. Boring! Infodump! Characters flat and uninteresting. Confused - what's happening in this scene? Plot inconsistencies. Disbelief - this character would never do that. Your writing sucks!

It's easy to be discouraged, especially when you get a harsh critique on your favorite scene. It's equally easy to dismiss a painful critique out of hand. Both paths are problematic. Do you want to be a writer, or don't you? Do you want to improve, or don't you? If the answer to both is "yes" then you need to persevere and listen to what others have to say.

This first group of tips is all about coping with that pain, because you need to get past that before you can move on and get real value from the critique.

This is meant to help

Critiquing, no matter how painful, is all about making your story better. It's meant to help, no matter how harsh the comments, no matter how offensively they may be delivered, the purpose is to help.

Keep that in mind. Cling to it, even when the critique seems to be hell-bent on trashing everything you have to say. Even when the critiquer has made it perfectly clear that they are not, in fact, interested in helping but only in showing you how much your writing sucks, they are helping nonetheless.

It just may not feel like it at the time.

Distance lessens the sting

Read, but don't respond. Accept the emotion, but don't try to do anything with the critique just yet. Let it sit a few days (or weeks, or months ... whatever it takes) before coming back to it. You will often re-read with a more objective mind and be more able to decide what to pay attention to.

Another distancing trick is to pretend the writing belongs to someone else. Read what the critiquer has to say as if you were eavesdropping on someone else's critique.

It's only one person's opinion

Give this to a hundred different readers, and you will get a hundred different reactions. Remember that what you are reading is just one person's view, and it's just an opinion. It's not truth, engraved in tablets of stone that you are expected to absorb, worship, then swallow with a glass of milk.

It's not a competition

Whatever you do, don't ever ... ever ... argue with the critiquer. They've voiced their opinion. They are entitled to it. You asked for it, for heaven's sake!

The critiquer is always right, even when they're wrong. If a comment is blatantly, factually wrong, just make yourself a note that it is wrong, and move on. This is not about you versus them. It's not a competition to see who's right. From your end of the deal, the only purpose of the critique is to improve your writing, not the critiquer's.

Of course, it is always good to double-check your facts too. I've been surprised from time to time with things I was sure were correct.

It's not personal

Always remember, the comments are not about you, they are about your story. Specifically this story.

A good critiquer will always make that clear. They will refer to the words on the page, not to you as a writer.

Not all critiquers are good at critiquing. So remember, the comments are all about the story, even if they are worded personally. When they say thing like "Your writing sucks" or "You suck as a writer" all they are really saying is "This specific example of your writing sucks ... in my humble and inexpert opinion."

Some critiquers really are trying to be personal. They've decided to make it about you. Remember, they don't know you, except through the words you've written, so it's still only about the story.

OK, this assumes you don't actually know the critiquer personally. If you do, and this really is personal, then there are bigger things going on. This is no longer about the critiquing process and is outside my territory!

You're the boss

No matter what the critiquer says, no matter how emphatic they are that you need to do things their way, remember ... always ... that you're the boss. You are not obliged to pay any attention. They've given you their opinion, but they have no say in how you choose to use it. The next part is up to you.

So, finally, if you get an especially stinging critique, remember that you have the last laugh. Print it out and use it as toilet paper if it will make you feel better.

Phew! That was a long post. My apologies! More posts to follow on the specifics of processing critiques but I think that's enough for now.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The art of being critiqued

I am beavering away, putting Tiamat's Nest up on Critique Circle. I'd forgotten how hard it can be to let other people see some writing for the first time, and openly invite brutal commentary.

In the case of Tiamat's Nest, I can see there's work to be done, which is what I was expecting. Luckily, there's also a lot of positive feedback too, which suggests I haven't been completely wasting my time.

Now I'm in full-on critiquing mode for the next few months, giving as well as receiving, I am reminded that there's a distinct art to the whole process. There's already all sorts of advice out there on how to give a constructive and useful critique, so I'm looking at how to receive and make use of critiques.

Being critiqued can be...

Confusing - one person says they love this part, another says they hate it!

Frustrating - dammit, it's obvious, I explained all that back in chapter three!

Overwhelming - so much advice to deal with. Where to start?

Soul destroying - you mean I have to go back through the whole novel and change my main character from an angsty emo teen to a no-nonsense snarky goth?

Heartbreaking - doesn't anyone like anything about my baby? Why do I bother?

It needn't be

Over the next few posts, I'll share some of my own critique survival tips. I hope there's something someone out there will find useful.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Life beyond writing

I'm lining up a post or two about the process of critiquing, but meanwhile, more on that thing called Real Life that has a habit of intruding now and then.

Nothing bad, I hasten to add.

* Pays silent homage to many blogger friends who've been quiet lately because of more serious Real Life events. You know who you are *

No. My diversions are much more prosaic and non-threatening.

Botanical battles

I have declared war on all things that send runners through beds and borders choking the life out of them. I like my plants to know their place, and not attempt world domination. Not on my patch, anyway.

Public Enemy Number 1 - Couch grass

We spent long weekends last summer trying to keep this invasive pest under control in the shingle bed we built a few years ago.

This is our reward.

The problem is the layer of stones and the membrane we put down - ironically, intended to stop weeds - mean we can't easily get at the roots. At least we seem to be winning the battle in the rose bed, which is only covered in loose soil and mulch.

Any wayward bit of green that dares raise its head is simply guiding me down to whatever bit of root I managed to miss last time around. Mwahahahaha...

Note: Those green shoots are gladioli, not couch. So Ali assures me.

Number 2 on the hit list - Lemon balm

At least we think it's some variety of variegated lemon balm.

Although horribly invasive, this is easier to keep under control and more rewarding to remove. Unlike couch, you can spend a few hours removing it and it does not bounce back three days later yelling the botanical equivalent of "Bazinga!"


Although prickly, these are relatively benign in comparison. Having said that, anyone who thinks wooden spears and arrows would be child's play to fend off would think again after tangling with some of these thorns.

Plants are not soft and cuddly.

The saga of the patio table

Taking a break from gardening, we spent last weekend getting the deck ready to use. Power washing done, we unpacked the new patio furniture we'd treated ourselves to this year.

Eight seater table, for entertaining. Metal base, tiled top.


F***ing heavy.

Ali and I half killed ourselves getting it out of its box, let alone across the drive and up the stairs.

But we made it. Got it all set up.

And then it started raining.

Two solid weeks of unbroken sunshine, and within minutes of looking forward to enjoying our deck for the first time the heavens open up. And it's been raining ever since.

This Monday is a public holiday in BC.

Dammit! Monday will be beer and barbecue day, whatever the weather.

Monday, May 13, 2013

April seems so long ago

Yes, I made it through the A to Z. Admitted, it took a lot more of my time than I could really afford, and I didn't get around to visiting half as many blogs as I would have liked. I think I only finished the month out of sheer stubbornness, but I still managed to find some amazing new blogs out there.

One of the reasons I wasn't so into the A to Z is that Tiamat's Nest is slowly moving through the queue on Critique Circle. I've taken it as far as I can on my own, and it needs a thorough going-over by independent and critical eyes. This means I am also in mad critiquing mode myself, building new critiquing relationships with folks currently active, and earning the credits needed to keep a stream of chapter-sized submissions flowing.

While all that's going on, I am taking the first tentative steps researching the ins and outs of self-publishing for Ghosts of Innocence. I'm taking this slowly, because it will certainly involve some outlay and I want to work out how much it's realistic to expect. Once I start, I want to be able to follow through to completion.

There's that stubbornness again.

On top of that, of course, there's work and Real Life...but that's for another post.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Z is for Zen and the art of software development

All month, I've been talking about software development.

I've talked about a lot of things that I believe are important to writing good software.

If you've been following any of these posts, you may have noticed one peculiar omission. Nowhere, in any of these posts, do I make anything more than a passing reference to programming.

I said at the start that this was not going to be a geek-fest. In fact, it has been something of an anti-geek rant. I'm especially grateful for the comments mentioning that posts were easy to understand, even for the non-IT person. That was the whole idea. I was on a mission to make things accessible to folks with no IT background whatsoever.

Because, the theme of this month has really been about putting you, non-technical folks who just happen to use software for work and for leisure, front and center of the development process.

Software development is about far more than writing code.

The paradox is, to write good software, you have to start by forgetting about writing software altogether.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Y is for Yes, Minister

In an ideal world, a project sponsor would commission a new piece of software, or a significant enhancement to something in place, and let the experts thrash out the details. The business experts would say what was needed and provide the business case for it, while the development experts (i.e. you!) would say what was feasible and estimate how much it will cost. Between them, they will hopefully arrive at a workable proposal.

Sometimes the sponsor will have to make hard choices if there is a mismatch between cost and funding, or time and deadlines, but the result should always be a project that is scoped to be realistic and achievable within the constraints.

This is not an ideal world

The reality is that your project will often be subject to political interference of some sort, whether it be big "P" or little "p".

This often shows itself as a drive to achieve a given objective with arbitrary and unrealistic constraints.

By "arbitrary", I mean set by some outside authority on the basis of factors that have nothing to do with the realities of the project. The constraints will be anything but arbitrary to the person setting them, but they are not based on any consideration of factors that you can manage within the project.

"Unrealistic" speaks for itself.

Sometimes you can negotiate more realistic expectations. Sometimes not.

This is where I would argue that good habits of thought, the theme of this series of posts, come into their own.

When it comes to negotiating changes in budget or deadline constraints, clear thinking based on experience will help build a case. Moreover, if you've already established a track record for accurate estimates and delivering on promises (both of which are made easier with sound discipline) then your assessment will carry more weight.

If the answer is still "no" then these good habits become even more important.

People often view quality as a cost. I see it as an investment: expend more effort now, and see the results in better results and lower support and maintenance over the life of the system.

But I've also found that good habits of thought and retaining a focus on appropriate quality lead to shortened development times and lower costs at the outset. Maybe it really isn't possible to deliver everything in the time available, in which case you want to be sure to recognize the most important bits and to understand the implications of leaving some aspects out.

Now is the time to home in hard on what's really important to the business - and to the person calling the shots. Now, more than ever, is the time to design for the future, to separate out elements so they can be developed quicker, or even added in later, to make your system robust so you aren't bogged down in support and rework and can move swiftly on to delivering the rest of the package.

When your back's to the wall, you really want the best tools possible at your disposal, because sometimes all you can do is grit your teeth and say, "Yes, Minister."
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