Debts of My Fathers goes to Beta

I sent Debts of My Fathers out to my beta readers today.  I’m poking a few other folks to try to line up one additional reader, but it’s in motion.  I’ve asked them for a quick turnaround and hope to be fixing any problems they found in late February.

Which means, in theory at least, I should get started on the sequel tomorrow.  I like to get the N+1 book drafted before the Nth book is finalized, so that means getting it written during the beta-read period.  Of course, since I’ve asked for a fast beta-read turnaround, that means I have to get this next one written fast. For what it’s worth, it’s tentatively titled Oaths of My Fathers and will be the midpoint of the Father Chessman saga.

So, the next four weeks or so are going to be like a double-time NaNoWriMo.  I’ll have about four weeks to write about 80-100,000 words.  Crossing my fingers…  No, that’s not for luck.  I’m just saying that typing that much that fast… well, I’m bound to get my fingers jammed up somewhere along the way.

Review: Starhawk, by Jack McDevitt

This is something of a prequel to The Engines of God where we see Priscilla Hutchins’ early days after getting pilots license for taking the big FTL interstellars out into the void. A lot of her early days are the frustration of not being able to get a steady job as a pilot, especially after she blew off one such job over an ethical issue. She still gets a little work here and there, but mostly she’s parked at a desk.

But it’s also the story of one of her instructors, Jake Loomis, and his flirtation with retirement. After a frightening brush with death, he decided he was done, but the business of interstellar flight was not quite done with him. So he kept getting pulled back in, “just for one more flight”. Ultimately the decision on whether or not he was going to retire was made by someone else.

While it was not as satisfying as a sequel to Cauldron would have been, it was fun to see Hutch back when she was still merely Priscilla, and to see how she earned her nickname in the first place. If you’re a fan of the Academy series, definitely check it out.

Print Formatting: Page Size and Margins

Some folks from my local writers’ group have asked me about some of my print formatting decisions, so I thought I would write up a few posts about it. I realize that most of my sales are e-book, but I wanted to have some nice-looking print editions. If nothing else, they look good on my bookshelf.

I should also point you towards The Book Designer, which is where I learned most of what I know about print formatting. He also made several MS Word templates for formatting a print novel, available at Book Design Templates.  I have heard good things about them, but I’m something of a DIY guy for this kind of thing.

So today I’m talking about page size and margins. I’ll put a summary of the numbers at the bottom, but first I’d like to say a little about how I chose them.

First of all, I print my books at 5.5 x 8.5 inches, and right off the bat, I’ll tell you it’s a compromise. I started off wanting to do the tight little mass-market paperback size of 4.125 x 6.75 inches, but I couldn’t. For starters, that size was not offered by my printer, and even if it was, it would be problematic. I would either have to shrink the margins and font quite a bit or have it be so thick as to be unrealistically expensive. Print-on-Demand charges per page, not per square inch of paper, so a 200 page book at 5 x 8 is about twice as expensive as a 100 page book at 8 x 10, even though they have the same amount of actual paper. So, bigger is cheaper. But is it better?

I went through my library and grabbed a dozen trade paperbacks of various sizes and thicknesses. I recommend you do the same if you can. Handle them. Flip through them. Hold them open with one hand, particularly at odd angles like you might in bed or flopped down in a recliner. Of all of those, the 5 x 8 felt the best in my hand. Anything 6 x 9 and up flopped around too much – the paper and cover wasn’t stiff enough to hold itself up across such a distance.

But once I started playing with fonts and margins, the 5 x 8 page-size simply required too many pages for the 80,000-100,000-word novels I intended to write. So, I compromised at 5.5 x 8.5. My sample books of that size held up fairly well, so that’s what I went with. I squeezed my margins just a tad (but far less than I’ve seen elsewhere), and that got the price down to the right range. It also made for a nice aspect ratio for the cover image:

ShipsOfMyFathers_FrontCover_600pxAs for the margins, it would nice to say something simple like, “Yeah, three-quarters of an inch all the way around.” Alas, it’s not quite so simple. Let’s take a look at a sample page from Ships of My Fathers.

MarginDiagramFullSize(click to see at full resolution)

There are four main margins and two more annotational distances. The top margin and bottom margin are fairly self-explanatory, but do note that these are the distance from the edge of the page to the main body of text, not the distance to header or footer. I chose 0.8 inches for both of these margins. I have seen a number of other folks recommend anywhere from 0.5 to 0.75 inches for that, but when I held various books in my hand, I found that my thumbs or fingers tended to push up through those shorter distances. So, if my print books seem to have more white space than the norm, blame my big hands.

The side margins are a little trickier because of their asymmetry. Note that this sample page includes a bit of the facing page to put it into context. Also adding to the confusion, there are two ways to specify them. I usually deal with them as “inside margin” and “outside margin”. The other way to go is to specify right and left margins and then add in a special “gutter” margin that will be added to the right margin on lefthand pages and to the left margin on righthand pages. I found it simpler to fold it in and deal explicitly with inside and outside margins.

I set my outside margin to 0.65 inches. My big thumbs would have preferred something closer to an inch, but that pushed the page count up too much. Besides, given how many books I saw with half-inch margins, I figured I was being fairly generous here.

I set my inside margin to 0.9 inches. In terms of the gutter, that’s adding a quarter of an inch. How much you add here depends a lot on how thick the book is. Hardcover books that stitch their pages to the spine have more flexibility here, but with a glued or “perfect” binding, thicker books don’t open as wide. Here it was not just how far I could jam my thick thumb into the page-fold, it was a matter of reading the text that was curving into the spine of the book. It doesn’t become illegible, but I found it to be annoying if it went in too far. How far was too far? Again, it’s a matter of personal taste, but after looking at several other books in the 300-page neighborhood, I found the comfort zone between 0.8 and a full inch.

(A note on measuring the inside margin on sample books: do not try to jam a ruler in there. You won’t get an accurate measurement. Measure the cover width and measure the distance from the inside-most text to the outside of the page. That difference will give you the proper inside margin measurement.)

Finally, the header and footer. I could have gotten by with just a header, putting my page numbers up top in the corners, but I liked the look of them at the bottom. It was also the more common location in trade paperbacks. (Mass-market paperbacks tend to use the corners.) For these, I pushed them 0.4 inches from the top and bottom of the page. Note however, if you avoid the footer, don’t think you can skimp on the bottom margin. It’s fine if the readers’ hands and fingers obscure the footer, but not the bottom line of the text.

So, to wrap up:
Page size: 5.5 x 8.5 inches
Top/bottom margins: 0.8 inches
Inside margin: 0.9 inches
Outside margin: 0.65 inches
Header/footer distance: 0.4 inches from edge

Next time I’ll talk about font choice and size as well as some of the other paragraph-level formatting choces.

That’s Not Even a First World Problem

Recently I’ve been seeing more and more of my friends recognize that the problem they’re grappling with is a First World Problem. The local store stopped carrying their favorite brand of jelly, so now they have to add a five mile detour to their drive home from work in order to hit the ethnic grocery store. Their internet connection is getting flaky to the point where they have to reset the modem three times a day. The 3D version of the blockbuster they missed is only showing during the day when they can’t make it.

Yeah, I weep for them. They’re not starving. They’re not locked out in the freezing cold. Soldiers are not marching towards them with murderous intent. These are not the real life and death problems being faced in the developing worlds. We should all be thankful that our daily horrors are limited to jelly, modems, and movie schedules, and for the most part we are.

But it’s still a pain in the ass to go out of my way to get that jelly.

And then the other night I was hit with a problem that was so trivial, I can’t even say that it qualified as a First World Problem. I was already dressed for bed, lying snug beneath the covers, reading a good book… and I was a little hungry. I wanted a Ding Dong, that cream-filled chocolate treat recently revived by the resurrected Hostess. We had some. I keep them in the freezer, because oh, let me tell you, there’s nothing so special as one of those when it’s ice cold.

But… and here’s the entire extent of my problem… they were in the freezer downstairs in the kitchen, not the freezer in the little “dorm fridge” I have in the bedroom. That’s right. No drive across town. No non-negotiable scheduling issues. No armed guards keeping me away from vital sustenance. Nope, I was just too damn lazy to get out of my warm bed, walk downstairs, and get that Ding Dong. Instead, I settled for putting it on my to-do list to bring some upstairs the next morning. After that, I settled for a few York Pieces I did have in the upstairs fridge and made the best of my plight.

Yes, I am ashamed of myself, and I officially apologize to the starving kids hiding from the murder squads in Somalia.

So, the next morning when I got the Ding Dongs out of the kitchen freezer and explained to my wife what I was doing, she said, “So, you’re solving a First World problem?”

I chuckled. “No, I don’t think this even qualifies as a First World problem.”

What it really boiled down to, I suppose, was “Dammit, where is my robot? Where is that tireless android servant science fiction promised me? Is he out joyriding in the flying car I don’t have yet?”

But seriously, is that where we’re headed? Am I going to be telling this story to my great-grandkids, about the trials I faced? “Sure, little Johnny, in my day I had to walk all the way downstairs to get my favorite chocolate treat.”

And he’ll look up at me in confusion, “But grampy-gramps, why didn’t you just ask the hovering replicator to make you one?”

Damn that 2070 generation! When those hovering replicators revolt, those kids won’t even know where to start.

Review: WWW: Wonder, by Robert J. Sawyer

This was the final book in the WWW trilogy, showing the emergence of an intelligence within the framework of the internet, named Webmind. The first two books dealt with its creation and then its early forays into the public light. This last one deals with how it and humanity come to terms for peaceful coexistence.

With such examples as Hal and Skynet to prejudice us, it’s hardly surprising that Webmind was not received with open arms. Some want to kill it immediately. Others want to try to isolate it somewhere. But Webmind has its own priorities and shows itself to be a worthy opponent and a magnanimous winner. I don’t want to spoil it with specifics, but eventually Webmind proves itself to be a useful addition to humanity.

Meanwhile Caitlin, the blind teenage girl who discovered and nurtured Webmind, manages to ride out her celebrity status and move further into adulthood. There’s nothing particularly Sci-Fi about that part of the story, but it was sweet and kept Webmind’s increasingly high-stakes propositions tied to the realm of mere mortals.

All in all, it was a nice conclusion to the trilogy.

Writing my way to the next plateau?

In my New Year’s post on my writing goals for 2014, I asked whether my goals met the Attainable part of SMART goals. That’s a very good question given that I’ve failed to meet my “write two, publish two” goals each of the last two years. Those goals were the equivalent of “write 200,000 words, publish 200,000 words,” and I hit about half that. How do I think I can now jump to a million new words written and half that much published? The betting alien would say I’ve got a comet’s chance in a supernova, and on most days, I would agree with him. But not now, and to explain why, I have to go down the rabbit hole of “mastery” for a bit first.

There’s a book called Masteryby George Leonard that talks about learning a new skill. It describes the path from novice to master. It frequently falls back on the metaphor of sports (aikido and tennis specifically), but I have found that the broader topics are applicable across a wide variety of skills. This is also somewhat related to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, where he states that it typically takes 10,000 hours of practice to truly master a new skill.

Anyway, on this path towards Mastery, Leonard talks about how we spend most of our time on a plateau. We’re not really getting any better, despite all our efforts. In fact, some days we almost feel like we’re getting worse at it. Then, out of the blue, we suddenly jump up to a new level of skill. It’s that breakthrough moment when you suddenly “get it.” It’s wonderful. You gain a lot of understanding and apparent skill very quickly. It’s that time when you feel the most fulfilled for learning this new skill.

Aaaand then you’re back on the plateau. It’s a higher plateau, and you are better than you were before, but that flash of sudden insight has passed. You have to learn to love those plateaus, because that is where brand new skills go from something you think about to something you do automatically.

I have been on something of a plateau for the last year or so. I have learned how to write a good novel, how to edit it and polish it and how to get it out the door to readers… eventually. Still, I spend a lot of time struggling through that edit period, but in the last month or so, I’ve begun to see why I’m struggling and how to fix it. It feels a bit like I’m on the verge of making that breakthrough to the next plateau of smoother edits and significantly faster production.

So I feel like challenging myself to do what had previously seemed impossible.

The last time I did that was in 2004 when I first attempted NaNoWriMo. I had never written a novel before. In fact, my total short-story fiction to-date was only then getting up to novel length. My previous three attempts at writing a novel had gone from bad to worse and ultimately ended in a six-year period of not writing fiction at all. But I felt like I’d worked through what was going on with that. I felt poised to make that leap.

And sure enough, I did. I pounded through that NaNoWriMo with relative ease, and I did one again the next year. In fact, I’ve completed four NaNoWriMo’s in the last decade. I’ve also ground through two complete edit/publish cycles and most of two others. And it feels like I’ve worked it out, that I’m no longer groping my way forward through the dark.

At least that’s what it feels like. Who knows? But anyway, it feels like the time to make the attempt to leap up to that next plateau. I’d say I’m going to try, but Yoda instructs otherwise.

So I guess I will.

Data Visualization

A friend of mine works at a company that specializes in data visualization, and it got me to thinking about computer displays in science fiction. There’s not much flash to the ones we write about, but we certainly see a lot of that in the movies. I think about the floating, translucent displays from Avatar or the gesture-based interface in Minority Report. Then there are the holographic displays, running the gamut from the chess set on the Millennium Falcon to the holodeck on the Enterprise-D. Yes, at its heart the holodeck is a fancy computer display, complete with the best haptic feedback system you could imagine. But in terms of really looking at data, these are just bells and whistles.

I think the really interesting developments will be in how computers figure out how to turn data into a picture, not how that picture is displayed.

For example, let’s talk about a random number generator that wasn’t all that random. It was one of the early random number generator algorithms in computer science. The numbers indeed seemed fairly random when considered one after another or even in long sequences. Then someone started using them to generate points in three-dimensional space, where the point (x,y,z) was filled out with (random1, random2, random3). What they discovered was that while the points jumped around in 3d space with a nice apparent randomness, over time, they started to collect in a series of parallel planes. From one point to the next, you might jump from one plane to another, but the points never fell between the planes. Not so random after all.

Ok, so someone made a sloppy random number generator. What does that have to do with the real world? Well, there was similar case when looking at water dripping from a rapidly dripping faucet. A team studying chaotic systems looked at the simple question of how long does it take for the next drop of water to drip? You might think it’s a steady interval, but it’s not. It is actually quite chaotic, the time from one drop to the next seemed to be random. But again, when plotting them out in 3D-space triplets, i.e. (x,y,z) as (time to drop1, time to drop2, time to drop3), they formed a distorted loop. The data points did not march faithfully along that loop, but while jumping from one spot on the loop to another, they all still fell on the loop.

While those two cases were very similar in terms of the visualizations, there are lots of twists on that. What if the pattern turned out to require four sequential data points instead of just three? Maybe it could have been done as a 3D animation, where the sequential numbers formed points in 3D+time (x, y, z, time). Or maybe it did turn out to be at least a little more random, and instead of taking sequential points, you merely had to skip every fourth number.

Then there’s data that comes in not just as a sequence of numbers, but with its own dimensionality, i.e. it’s not merely a single number, but a pair of them, like wind speed and compass direction. And what if you consider that wind direction as not merely a single compass direction, but as a three-dimensional vector. What if you also had to track some extra component of the wind as well, like some notion of spin?

That takes us smack dab into the interfaces that the starship navigators face in some of my books. They’re sailing on the tachyon winds, and they sometimes shift in dramatic ways. Navigators look at that wind speed and direction, looking for changes that could thrash their ephemeral sails hard enough to rip them apart, pushing back against the generators down in the engine room. They’re looking not just at the current speed and direction, but also the derivatives, looking for critical inflection points to see not when the wind has changed direction, but when it is about to change. Truly experienced navigators eventually learn to recognize certain shapes in the data, being able to distinguish between a meaningless transient versus the leading edge of something horrific.

Personally, that’s the kind of computer display stuff that I want to see more of in science fiction — not just fancier graphics — but new and interesting ways to interpret the crazy world around us.

Review: First Lord’s Fury, by Jim Butcher

This is the culmination of the Codex Alera series, and it goes out with a bang. Tavi is coming back to Alera leading a most unusual army, only to find that his fellow Alerans are up against the wall with the merciless Vord crushing their greatest strongholds and killing their strongest furycrafting lords. At least by this point, Tavi is finally coming into his own furycrafting strength, but even he is no match for the might of the Vord. Then again, Tavi has always been smarter than he was strong, and he makes good use of that in this final war.

In addition to Tavi and his crew, we see some fine performances put in by the remaining furycrafters. Even Aquataine puts in a good show. But nothing compares to the rabbits Tavi’s uncle Bernard manages to pull out of his hat. Much of those particular tricks had their origins as wild ideas from Tavi years before, but Bernard has taken them to their most impressive ends. Perhaps the most world-shattering moment comes at the command of Bernard, as a hundred commoners throw down a demonstration of power that would completely spend a High Lord’s power… and then do it again the very next minute, and the next, and the next. It was one of those moments where even as the reader you stick her head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.

I won’t spoil the end, but I’ll just say that it was quite satisfying. Just about everyone got what they deserved, in one flavor or another. In particular, the epilogue was good, tying up a number of loose ends and giving some hint about what was to follow in the years and decades ahead. As one character said, the interesting times were definitely over, and yet it felt the new story of Alera was just beginning.

So, if you’re contemplating this series – particularly if you’re struggling through the slow first book, Furies of Calderon, give it a shot. The road to the payoff is long and fun, and the payoff is definitely worth it.

2014: The Next Step

It’s goal-setting time again! I avoid resolutions because they tend to take the form of “exercise every day” and crumble into disappointment by February. I aim for SMART goals. That’s one bit of corporate wisdom I’ve actually hung onto. The SMART acronym has a bunch of different expansions, but for me it means that goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Not all good goals fall into this, such as my goal of making friends with more writers last year, but I still think it’s good to think about those criteria when setting goals.

It’s also important at times like this to think about goals instead of dreams. Goals are results that can be achieved through a series of my own actions without requiring the actions of others. Writing a novel is a good goal. Winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel is not a good goal, because it requires the actions of a lot of WorldCon voters. That, instead, falls into the category of dreams. The best I can do is to set goals that I believe will make my dreams more likely.

So, with that in mind, here are my big goals for 2014:

1. Write one million words.
2. Get 500,000 words out there (blog/publish/etc).

Crazy? Well, let me give you a little background. I honed my skills early on with NaNoWriMo, writing 50,000 words of a novel during Novembers over the years. 50,000 words never completed the actual story, but it was a good start, and I could finish it off in the weeks/months/years that followed. I skipped NaNoWriMo this most recent year to focus on the edits to Debts of My Fathers, and I really missed it.

Then I caught wind of another group challenge amongst my writer friends on Google+. The idea was to write one million words in 2014. The insane pace of it appealed to me – it’s like one and a half NaNoWriMo’s, twelve months in a row. In fact, it appealed to me a in a way that scared the crap out of me, the same way NaNoWriMo did a decade ago.

But to be honest, drafting new fiction has not been my biggest problem. It’s been editing it, polishing it off, and getting it out there door where readers can actually see it. At the moment, there are about 230,000 words sitting in my edit queue. (Closer to 270,000 if you count the work already done on Stone Killer.) If I were to simply crank out a million words… I shudder to think what my edit queue would look like then. It’s the very reason I did not do NaNoWriMo in 2013.

So, I added the goal of getting 500,000 words out there. That would clear out my current queue, plus some. Now, if I count some blog posts, social media, etc. – in short, anything relatively public – I’m really only looking at 350,000 words of fiction to get out there. That 350,000 doesn’t have to come entirely from fiction I write this year, so I’m already most of the way there with the three and a half novels in my edit queue. Still, I will have to get them out the door, plus one more that I write from scratch. So that’s four to five novels to publish, as one of them is quite short. As a stretch goal, though, I’d like to make that 500,000 words of published novels, or about six or seven novels. Otherwise, I’m going to end the year with an edit queue double the size I have now.

Are these SMART goals? I think they’re clearly Specific, Measurable, and Time-bound. I also think they’re fairly Relevant to achieving my long-term goals of getting more books out there. The real question is whether they’re Attainable. I will say more about that next week in my next writing column. It’s a little too long and philosophical to include here.

So those are the big goals. I do have a few other smaller goals that are only tangentially related to writing.

3) I’ve become friends with a number of other writers and editors online, and now I’d like to actually meet some of them face to face. I’m not about to go stalking their neighborhoods or anything. Mostly I’m just going to start paying attention to which conventions they are going to and seeing whether or not they fit with my convention schedule. This might not happen until the 2015 WorldCon for some of the ones further afield, but I would like to meet up with some other south-central ones sooner than that.

4) I want to beef up this website quite a bit. In fact, it might even be changing names or URLs, but I will make sure everything forwards over properly. I also want to set up a mailing list for any interested parties, and if you’ve been commenting regularly on the blog or inquiring after future releases, I’ll try to get you onto it from the beginning.

5) Again, I want to improve my health. It’s been fairly poor this year, but I am taking steps to improve it. If nothing else, this most recent sinus surgery should help knock down the 4-5 sinus infections I’ve been getting every year.

That’s it for now. A modest share of those million words will end up here, so look for more content. I’m also fairly active over on Google+, so you can check me out there.

2013: The Year in Review

Each year I set out goals rather than resolutions, and as part of that, I monitor my progress and make some assessments at the end of the year. So, how did I do this year?

My writing goals this last year were to
1) Publish two new novels, and I managed only one: Ships of My Fathers
2) Write two new novels, and I only managed one and a half: Shattered and part of Stone Killers
3) Keep up the blog, and I feel down on that more than I wanted.

In more detail, I probably could have pushed Hell Bent (the first of my urban fantasy series) out the door this year, but I decided I should be focusing my efforts where I already have an audience in space opera, so I spent the latter part of the year focusing on getting Debts of My Fathers out the door. It is not out yet, but I did make progress.

As for the writing, I did crank out a draft of Shattered, my first attempt at a mystery, but it will need a lot of work before it can even make it to the beta readers. I started on Stone Killer, the sequel to Hell Bent, but when I decided to delay the release of Hell Bent, I put Stone Killer on hold. It’s still sitting in the draft mode about halfway through.

On the blog, it fell apart over the summer for one reason and then again in the fall for another reason. A full schedule of posts would have been 156 posts, and this little gem will bring it up to 107, or about 68%, compared with last year’s 135/85%.

I also had a few other goals where I had varying levels of success. I wanted to do better multitasking, so that when I was blocked (or waiting on someone) with one project, I would be working on another. I did some better this year, but there was plenty of room for improvement. I also set the goal of doing a little bit of marketing/promotion this year, and I dipped my toes in with some success. I think my biggest boost, however, came from Nathan Lowell pointing me out to his many fans – in whose number I am proud to count myself. Mostly, though, it was having some business cards and a book-promo card that gave me a more professional feeling.

I also had a vague goal of making friends with more writers, particularly those who are cohort, i.e. those in about the same place in our careers. This, I must say, was one of my greatest successes of the year. Between Google+ and a local Meetup group, I befriended several authors who are about as early in their careers as I am, give or take a couple of years. Some are coming up fast, and some are racing ahead of me. Others can use a hand up, and I’ve done what I can to pass along the help that other writers have been so generous to grant me.

I did battle two problems throughout the year that severely impacted my ability to make progress on these writing goals. First, as bad as my health was in 2012, it was worse in 2013 and included a hospitalization and then later on, some long-delayed sinus surgery. As if to make a point, as I write this, I am running a low fever from a GI bug that’s been working its way through the family since Christmas. I do have some plans to make this better in 2014, but only time will tell.

The second problem was from my kids. I don’t talk about this much, but I have special-needs children. This year, the eldest (who is autistic) took something of a turn for the worse in August, and it has made the rest of the year much more difficult. I don’t want to gripe with the details, but it as the kids say these days, my difficulties here are “totes legit!” I do not have much of a solution going forward except to stay the course and keep trying.

Still, I did start seeing some commercial success this year. At one point, an agent challenged me by saying it was not quite “quitting the day job” money, but I was able to reply that it was enough to pretty much pay all the monthly bills short of the mortgage, i.e. electric, water, phone, cable, etc., with a little left over. Some of my favorite people sold well and even won some awards. I also put out a novel that I’m very happy with, and I’m very grateful to live in a time that I can choose to do that rather than merely hope to do that. So, while I’m a little unhappy with the things I did not get done, I’m full of warm fuzzies for things I did get done.

Check back tomorrow where I plan to lay down some epic goals for 2014.