Charlie's Diary

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Wed, 10 May 2006

A word from our sponsors

It's that time of year again ... the birds are singing, the sun is shining, and the author's promoting his books.

If you liked the first two Merchant Princes books -- or just the first one because you don't buy in hardcover -- you might like to know that both the first two books are now available in paperback, and the third, "The Clan Corporate", is due out next week in hardcover, which means it should be showing up in the shops any day now. Publisher's Weekly seemed to like it:

Stross's lively third volume in his Merchant Princes SF series (after 2005's The Hidden Family) finds 33-year-old Boston journalist Miriam Beckstein still caught in a "barely post-feudal" alternate world where she's part of a mafiosa-like family called "the Clan." The Clan is holding Miriam's mother hostage in an effort to force the reluctant, thoroughly modern Miriam to make a politically advantageous marriage. Also dragged into deadly Clan politics is Miriam's ex-boyfriend, Mike Fleming, a DEA agent who has infiltrated Miriam's world on the orders of Homeland Security. Miriam's foolish, headstrong decisions help propel the fast-paced plot. Mike's discovery that the Clan may have planted nuclear weapons on our world raises the ante. While Miriam can be frustratingly dense, playing right into her captors' hands, the book gallops along to a cliffhanger ending that will leave readers eagerly awaiting future installments.

(Go on, buy a copy from Amazon. You know you want to. Right?)

But wait! There's more!

Accelerando should be out in paperback real soon (end of this month, basically). And My next SF novel, the stand-alone "Glasshouse", comes out in hardcover on June 30th in the US, and July 6th in the UK. And this is what Publisher's Weekly had to say about it in their starred review:

The censorship wars -- during which the Curious Yellow virus devastated the network of wormhole gates connecting humanity across the cosmos -- are finally over at the start of Hugo-winner Stross's brilliant new novel, set in the same far-future universe as 2005's Accelerando. Robin is one of millions who have had a mind wipe, to forget wartime memories that are too painful -- or too dangerously inconvenient for someone else. To evade the enemies who don't think his mind wipe was enough, Robin volunteers to live in the experimental Glasshouse, a former prison for deranged war criminals that will recreate Earth's "dark ages" (c. 1950-2040). Entering the community as a female, Robin is initially appalled by life as a suburban housewife, then he realizes the other participants are all either retired spies or soldiers. Worse yet, fragments of old memories return -- extremely dangerous in the Glasshouse, where the experimenters' intentions are as murky as Robin's grasp of his own identity. With nods to Kafka, James Tiptree and others, Stross's wry SF thriller satisfies on all levels, with memorable characters and enough brain-twisting extrapolation for five novels.

Still not convinced? Kirkus Reviews had this to say in their starred review:

A perfectly tuned combination of gravitas and glee (the literary/cultural references are a blast). Stross's enthralling blend of action, extrapolation and analysis delivers surprise after surprise.

Be brave, remortgage the house, and buy both new books in hardcover. What can you lose?

We now return you to the usual blank-channel hiss and occasional muttering and grumbling.

[Discuss Writing (3)]

posted at: 13:58 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 29 Apr 2006

Slow News Day

I'm back home from a trip down to London, for the Clarke award — not the award for British achievements in space, but the similarly-named award for the best SF novel published in Britain in 2005 —, which was won this year by Geoff Ryman for Air. Congratulations to Geoff, who's one of the best writers in the field and whose low profile is little short of scandalous.

While I was away from home, about a third of a million people were born; a slightly smaller number died; the government was hit by a series of scandals, some of which are clearly serious enough to demand the resignation of senior cabinet ministers; and the price of light sweet crude blew past US $70 a barrel and nearly peaked at $75. (This latter news item would be more alarming if the dollar had not weakened against the Euro and Sterling at the same time, suggesting that the spike in oil prices might have more to do with the dollar's weakness than with the black gold suddenly turning scarce.) Mexico decriminalized posession of small quantities of cannabis, cocaine and diamorphine (that's heroin, to you) for personal use. New Scientist ran an article suggesting that yet another physical constant — the ratio of the mass of the proton to the mass of the electron — is actually a variable (a couple of other inconstant constants are already under investigation this decade). Intel announced that by 2010 they expect to be working with nanolithography on the 32 nanometre scale in their consumer microprocessors — an if-this-goes-on straight line extrapolation would put us firmly in the Drexler-style top-down nanotechnology scale by 2016 to 2019 (although that's contingent on a whole bucketload of other things).

While I was in London I spent about £50 on a gadget. Like all too many modern gadgets it's basically a silvery plastic box with an aerial socket and a couple of LEDs, and it's made in Taiwan. This one still requires a bit of DIY assembly on the part of the owner, but nothing much more complex than replacing a light bulb. You need to buy a laptop-size hard disk drive and install it in the box, then add electricity. (Not too much of the latter, if you want to avoid letting the magic smoke out.) The box contains an embedded system-on-chip computer running Linux, and it's about as powerful as my 1996-era desktop workstation. It's got a WiFi base station and it basically turns the hard disk into a wireless-aware file server, accessible to any computer that's got the password and a wireless network connection. We have a technical term for this: Network Attached Storage. (Prepend "wireless" to taste.) It used to cost thousands of pounds, oh, five years ago. Now it's a cheap-ass gizmo you take with you so that you can stream digitized movies to your personal media player. Doubtless Bruce Sterling would have something pithy to say about it's Spime-worthiness, but for now I'm almost at a loss to describe what it means to me — it's vastly significant and simultaneously completely meaningless. I must be growing old, or something.

Future shock is everywhere.

Meanwhile, I'm back at work. I've just checked the galleys of "Missile Gap" (a novella, forthcoming as a limited edition hardback from Subterranean Press), and begun signing my way through a twenty centimetre high stack of signing sheets for the leatherbound limited edition of "Glasshouse" (due July-ish). I don't normally use a pen to write anything longer than an address on an envelope, so signing my way through a thousand sheets is time consuming, to say the least. And beyond that, there's the problem of how to write "Halting State".

I started off writing "Halting State" on a mobile phone. All right, so the phone in question was an Orange SPV M5000. (VGA screen. Pocket Word. WiFi. External keyboard and mouse. 4Gb storage card. We're talking 1997 laptops here, aren't we?) This seemed like the way to go — the M5000 is an early forerunner of the spime-o-sphere, a machine that could only be explained via infodump to a resident of the quaint pre-technological era of, say, 1990. But the M5000 has its problems. Notably, just carting a static dump of WikiPedia around on my phone is no longer enough for my research needs. Somewhere along the line, I've turned into a Google junkie. "Halting State" is a very near future novel (a decade is just about within the horizon for tech prognostication and social change) so doing research online is a necessity. As is some kind of technology for maintaining my own mini-wikipedia of ideas, automatically generating cross-linkages, carrying out in-depth web searches and building conceptual maps, and indexing everything.

Interestingly, one company, Devon Technologies, appear to produce a couple of products that fit my needs precisely: DEVONAgent, a web search agent that does the boring data reduction job on the output from the main search engines and produces a digest of the results, and DEVONThink Pro, which is somewhat hard to describe but has features of a free text database, outline processor, web browser, word processor, and concordance generator. You can dump huge volumes of text (or web searches) into a DEVONThink database, then tell it to identify associations and connections between documents and classify everything. Or you can write notes and rapidly turn them into a wiki (which is exportable to static HTML if you need to make it available to other people). It can digest the text out of PDFs and import Word and RTF files or mailboxes — if it had a way to talk to a scanner I'd be declaring the arrival of the paperless office at this point.

For my purposes, these tools look like a promising way of organizing my research and notes on "Halting State". In particular, being able to hyperlink from a name in the text of the manuscript to my notes on the character (and thence to any other characters they have strong opinions about) is coming in handy for spotting inconsistencies. It's the sort of technique that only becomes viable when we've got masses of computing power to throw at the problem of writing books — if this was a technical manual rather than a novel I'd be calling it a power tool for organizing research. But for now, let's just say that while bits of the novel will continue to be jotted down on a mobile phone, the heavy legwork of integrating everything is going to be left to my AI-derived research assistant.

[Discuss Writing (3)]

posted at: 20:50 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 20 Apr 2006

Conjugate characters, not verbs

(Taps microphone. Blows off dust. "Is this thing switched on?")

Take a story, any story: a sequence of events in time. It's possible to tell this story in a myriad of different ways, depending on where you stand in relation to it.

Imagine you're a camera, capturing a sequence of events in time. You can capture the events from outside, standing off-stage as it were: an external narrative, "he/she/it does ..." [whatever]. We call this a third person narrative. Or — in a work of written fiction, or machinima, or other suitable media — you can strap yourself to the forehead of one of the actors and make it an internal narrative: "I do ..." [whatever]. We call this a first-person narrative. And you can either capture the sequence as it happens, in the present tense — or, in a suitable medium (like prose) you can recount it after it's all over, the curtain fallen and the deeds completed, weaving in and out of the imaginary present of the story as the requirements of narrative take you through the past tense.

These are the basic modes of storytelling, but they don't tell the whole story: we have options that are seldom used. The basic verb conjugations apply: "I am", "You are", "He/She/It is" — but whereas we routinely put the first person and third person viewpoints behind our camera, we rarely use the second person ("you do ..."), for a reason I'll get around to shortly. And we have other tenses than present and past. But these underused camera angles are hard to bring into focus. How do you tell a story in the future tense? I'm going to go into the kitchen and make a cup of tea while I think about the rest of this paragraph, then I'm going to come back into my study, sit down at the word processor, and explain by example. (Ba-ding!) Future tense works for declarations of intent, but it makes it impossible to hide — if all is known ahead of time, then how do you inject suspense into a story?

The second person is also hard to use, and rarely applied even to short stories, although there are some notable exceptions. For example, Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInery's first novel, is narrated in the second person. But even though it works surprisingly well, I can't help feeling that McInery is cheating — it's an interior monologue, the narrator talking to himself and keeping up a running flow of stream-of-consciousness, and as such it's actually a first person narration reflected off the mirror of his narcissim: you could re-write it in the first person with no loss of information.

One of the reasons the second person is so rarely applied to fiction is that it's directly intrusive into the reader's head. Instead of staying decently outside the narrative and peering at the actors, the second person directs — you become part of the story, bouncing around uncomfortably inside it. And the biggest reason this is uncomfortable is ... characterisation.

Writing is the nearest thing to telepathy we have discovered (to steal a leaf from Stephen King's On Writing). It's a technique we use for serializing a stream of consciousness, freezing it for posterity, and injecting it into other human heads whereupon, by some process we don't fully understand, it is unpacked and hopefully creates a structural cognate of the original author's conscious experience in the reader's mind. Alas, it's also a piss-poor substitute for real telepathy (whatever that would feel like): you never read the same story the same way twice, and no two readers ever read it quite the same way. The structural cognate that a book gives rise to in the reader's mind is intimately dependent on the state of that mind, and human minds evolve over time.

The big advantage that writing (and especially written fiction, my preferred art form) has over other media for conveying experience is that the writer can try to incorporate bits of other, imaginary minds in their serialized stream of consciousness. Writing isn't just a camera, or even a technicolor camera with Dolby surround-sound recording: it's a camera with flickering, blurry, black-and-white, routinely-malfunctioning telepathy bolted on the side. (The telepathy recording module works best when operated by an expert, with tender loving care.) And when we revisit the issue of first-person v. third-person, past v. present narrative with this in mind, we can add another mode: how we kibbitz on the actor's thoughts.

First person is relatively easy and unintrusive. The story is told by one actor, with a camera strapped to their head, and imaginary electrodes in their brain: they can keep up a running commentary, injecting their own opinions into the narrative, and the worst that's likely to happen is that they'll irritate the reader by being overly chatty.

Third person telepathy is a bit harder to arrange. We have literary conventions for this &emdash; he pauses to think about his next sentence carefully, while across the drawing room his wife wonders why he has stopped talking. That's an omniscient telepathy cam weaving among the actors like an attention-deficient mosquito, landing to suck a moment's thought here then buzzing across the room to slurp a transient meme there. In general omniscience is frowned on, at least among amateurs, because the writer really has to know what they're doing in order to differentiate the different thought-streams they're injecting into the reader's mind. So the usual compromise for third-person narratives is to stick to one viewpoint (one stream of a character's interior insight) per written scene, with clear cut-points — or to eschew the trick completely because, let's face it, cinema and TV work fine without telepathy, and some folks feel that telepathy is to some extent a crutch that allows stories to hobble along despite poor external characterisation.

So what about the second person?

You've been wondering when I'd get to the point for a minute or so by now, and you're not alone. (Obviously I couldn't figure out how to set this punch-line up without weaving all over the map in a drunkard's walk, but you're still reading because there's got to be a pay-off somewhere.) The second person is more irritating as an external viewpoint than the other camera angles we employ, because it constrains the reader to a set position within the action. And when the author switchs on the god-module telepathy box on the side of the camera, the itch becomes intolerable because the author is going to inject their thoughts straight into your brain through a syringe the size of the Channel Tunnel. And it's going to hurt because they're telling you to think this or think that and you don't really want to experience the raw trauma of someone else's drama from the inside.

(It gets even worse when we go multi-viewpoint in the second person. Second person plural is not a common fictional mode because to pull it off you've got to get your reader to do the world's fastest costume change between scenes — and it's not just the external costume, but the internal props of ideas and attitudes and serialized consciousness that has to change. To go multi-viewpoint in the second person mandates a delicacy of characterisation that simply isn't needed in multi-viewpoint third (or even multi-viewpoint first). And as for multi-viewpoint second person future ...?)

But I digress, as usual. Second person is our normal mode for communicating experiences. You're reading this essay right now and quite possibly scratching your head — there! Break out of the text for a moment and look back at that last sentence. Second person narrative is uncomfortable because it has the power to coerce our behaviour and direct our vision. If the first-person telepathy module is a bunch of electrodes in the brain of one actor, feeding us their stream of consciousness, and the third-person telepathy module is a brain-sucking mosquito bouncing around the actors, the second-person telepathy module is an alien mind control parasite that gloms onto you, sticks its electrodes into your brain, and tells you what to think. It's got amazing potential for fine-grained insight into the guts of a story — after all, the second person is the most immersive viewpoint — but it's a very hard tool to use without tickling the reader into noticing it. Alien mind control parasites tend to be one of those things that make most humans go "eek!" and run away very fast, and the same is true of this story-telling mode.

So I'm probably not going to surprise you if I tell you that I'm currently experimenting with using this format at novel length. I might end up having to go back and re-write in a more conventional voice, but right now I have a sneaking feeling that when properly deployed, the omniscient second-person-plural is a really strong story-telling tool. You will get right inside the action and understand what the protagonists are thinking and doing — at least, that's the theory. Most importantly, for a work of near-future science fiction (a story set in a recognizably close future, perhaps ten years hence), by injecting the character's attitudes to their surroundings directly into your head I'm hoping to get away from the traditional science fictional snare of obsessing over the trappings of technology, the surfaces and sheen of the new. In other words, I'm fumbling after a new way of writing SF. Let me hasten to explain:

Obviously, you know what it feels like to read a blog. But cast your mind back in time ten years &mdash, no, make that fifteen — to a time before you encountered the net and before blogs had been invented. Try to imagine yourself as an aspiring SF writer who's read about this internet thingy, and about some experimental hypertext tools (from Xanadu and Hypercard to Hyper-G by way of Gopherspace and WAIS, with a side-order of this funny compromise thing some guy with a double-barreled name is tinkering with at CERN). As this aspiring SF writer, you've decided to write a novel set in 2006, a novel in which this internet thingy your tech-head friends keep gassing about in the pub is everywhere. And you start trying to work out just what that might mean. You've heard about email, and that intuitively makes sense. You've possibly heard of AOL or CompuServe or CIX and, if you move in academic circles, of USENET, and the idea of a bunch of people talking on a multi-user bulletin board isn't that strange. And there'll be some kind of easy-to-use hypertext system that lets ordinary folks add data to it.

But what are the ordinary folks going to add to this hypothetical global hypertext thing? What are they going to talk about? How are they going to use it and what's it going to feel like?

Asking these questions, your traditional, instinctive, bad-SF approach is to explain everything in nauseating detail: "Johnny sat down at the HyperTerminal and typed in his password. The computer verified his identity and let him in, throwing up a picture of the InterWeb. Johnny thought for a moment: where do I want to go today? The answer was obvious. Like all other communications media, the InterWeb had only really taken off once it was adopted by the porn industry as a replacement for Betamax tapes; now, finding anything useful in it was like walking down a strip mall full of flashing red neon signs and questionable window displays. But Johnny wanted to research his dissertation topic. So he typed in the address locator of Google, a popular information clearinghouse that scanned the rest of the InterWeb daily and indexed it, allowing keyword searches." (And so on.)

A more sophisticated approach that increasingly became the norm in more literary SF over the past couple of decades is to show. "Johnny picked up his laptop and logged on. Windows opened on its desktop, pop-up ads flashing garish offers of hardcore porn at him. Annoyed, he brought up a browser and headed to a search site to continue researching his dissertation." This mode is a whole lot less clunky, but it's got a crippling handicap: the author has to make the leap from technical description ("typing his password into the HyperTerminal's keyboard") to action ("he logged in") in a manner that is comprehensible to the reader. Because, let's face it, if you've never seen a computer the second version of this story is a whole lot less accessible than the first. Early SF was seen by its authors and their self-ghettoized readers as a didactic, educational medium exposing them to new ideas about technology and the way we might live. You could show the first version to a 1930s reader and they'd be able to follow the plot: the second remix is incomprehesible, because the referents for the action simply aren't there ("laptop", "logged on", "browser", "search site").

Is there a better way to do it? Let's crank up that magical telepathy box again. I'd like you to imagine that you can download into the reader's head the experience of "logging in" and "opening a browser". That might put the references into a form that the reader can grasp, as long as it's external to the narrative. It's one of the ways that hypertext (a notoriously poor medium for fiction) nevertheless manages to work, with discursive links embedded in the text to provide illuminating metainformation. (As in the paragraph above that set out the parameters of this thought experiment about re-inventing the web.) The second person is the discursive medium par excellence — hard on the characterization though it is, it's a great way to shoe-horn information and thoughts into the reader's head. "You pick up your laptop and shift it around your lap until you're comfortable with its weight and the hot spot under the processor isn't burning your knee, then you type in your password. Instantly, a bunch of flashing ads pop up all over the screen, anoying you until you click on them to kill them. While you're waiting for the search form to load you wonder if maybe you shouldn't take your cousin's advice and install a program to block the nuisance ads, pyramid schemes, and other junk that gets in the way of your research."

The second person's big strength is that it lets you show by doing, and it renders infodumps — those big, intrusive gobbets of metainformation that are so useful to the jobbing science fiction writer who's trying to portray an unfamiliar world — transparent. (It's big weakness is that if it isn't done carefully, it feels like an itchy straitjacket to the reader, but you already know that, don't you?) It's not so much about metafiction as about metainformation for the fiction at the centre of the narrative process. If you fine-tune your use of the interior monologue you can illuminate your character's experience of their universe, lending the "showing, not telling" narrative some experiential references and weight so that it feels familiar, even if it's full of novel placeholders. And you can banish the old didactic mode for good, consigning it to the howling wilderness of pulpish prose where it belongs. (After all, we're trying to commit literature here. Right?) You have the technology to tell this story the way it needs to be told. All you have to find now is the courage to use it.

(That's my theory and I'm sticking to it — at least, until I'm far enough into "Halting State" to see if it survives its collision with reality.)

[Discuss Writing (3)]

posted at: 14:30 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 12 Apr 2006

A brief word from our sponsors

I have in my possession a book contract with the titles "The Atrocity Archives" and "The Jennifer Morgue" inscribed on it, in proximity to the name of the British publisher formerly known as Orbit or Time Warner (and now evidently eager to be called Little Brown). The first of 'em could be showing up in paperback as early as summer 2007.

Oh, and it's a three book contract; the third title being "Eschaton 3" (i.e. a sequel to "Iron Sunrise").

(In other news, the Infernal Realm has been found to be surfaced with solidified dihydrogen monoxide; and no, this is not a belated April Fool.)

posted at: 13:43 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 22 Mar 2006

2006 Hugo shortlist

The shortlist for the 2006 Hugo awards is now officially out, and I'm very happy to announce that "Accelerando" is on the ballot for best SF or Fantasy novel of 2005.

I'd like to congratulate everybody else who's on the Hugo ballot; and I'd especially like to single out John Scalzi, who's still new enough at this game that he's on the Campbell Award ballot for best new writer as well.

Incidentally, if you're an eligible voter and haven't read "Accelerando" yet, you can download it for free as an ebook. (Or get the paperback when it ships, probably sometime in June.)

posted at: 10:11 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 21 Mar 2006

I love the sound of deadlines whizzing past my head ...


Ah well. I think that's it — the first draft of a book provisionally titled "The Merchants' War", #4 in the Merchant Princes series, sputtered to a halt yesterday evening. Normally I expect to know damn well when I've finished a book, but this one is the middle of a three book story within an ongoing series: it's there to recomplicate a pre-existing plot, add character development, ramp up the tension, and end on a high note of anticipation. I think. (Doubtless my editor and I will have lots to say on the subjectwhen he gets his hands on the MS, but I'll jump that fence when I come to it ...)

Incidentally, that's not the only reason I've been quiet lately — I've done two SF conventions in the past four weeks, and have another two to go to in the next four weeks, plus the Clarke Award ceremony ("Accelerando" is on the shortlist this year). And today I started writing the next novel. Both books are due on their respective editor's desks in September. They're very different: this next one, "Halting State", is going to be a near-future thriller set in Edinburgh about ten years from now, in the hazy zone where contemporary crime novels cross over with science fiction. In fact, it's going to be so close to the moment that I'm in danger of perpetrating a work of mundane SF.

Being inclined towards crazy stunt performances, I'm planning on writing "Halting State" on my mobile phone. This is technologically feasible because the phone in question has more memory and online storage than every mainframe in North America in 1972 (and about the same amount of raw processing power as a 1977-vintage Cray-1 supercomputer). It's a zeitgeist thing: I need to get into the right frame of mind, and I need to use a mobile phone for the same reason Neal Stephenson used a fountain pen when he wrote the Baroque cycle. Afters all, I want to stick my head ten years into the future. Personal computers are already passé; sales are declining, performance is stagnating, the real action is all in the interstitial networked devices that keep washing up on the beaches of our bandwidth ocean, crazy-weird things like 3G phones and battery-powered network attached storage boxes and bluetooth-controlled vibrators. (It's getting weird out there in embedded intelligence land; the net is alive to the sound of pinging toasters, RFID chips are the latest virus target, and people are making business deals inside computer games.) The internet's old hat too, even with a second dot com boom (and bust) looking: in ten years' time we'll be up to Web 3.1415926535 and counting. Gibsonian cyberspace fits the picture about the way the US interstate highway system fits in a 1960s road movie. It's time to move on.

As part of the research for "Halting State" I've been wallowing around in a whole bunch of blogs. You can get the official line on a community or culture by reading its publications, things like "RFID World" magazine or The Job (the London Metropolitan Police's newspaper), but the view at worm's eye level is very different and I suspect more likely to give you an idea of where things are really going. Strange communities are popping up everywhere on the web as it integrates ever more closely with our ordinary society. On the one hand, there are the academic and technical specialists: I'm inclined to wonder what Jaron Lanier or Michael Benedikt would have made of Terra Nova if you'd waved a dot matrix printout of it at them back in 1990? And then there's the furtively anonymous subculture of the blogging cops — Cough the Lot, A year in the life of a Police dispatcher, The Policeman's Blog, and so on. (Why focus on these two? Well, among other things I'm interested in seeing what happens when you mash the two cultures together, the VR eggheads seeing the 1980s skiffy idea of cyberspace turn into a 2000s commercial phenomenon and a 2010s social scene, and the police who're going to end up with a whole lot of new headaches as the physical world acquires a virtual mapping.)

But that's enough for now.

[Discuss Writing (3)]

posted at: 16:58 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 02 Mar 2006

Hugo nomination deadline approaching

Just a reminder that if you attended last year's world science fiction convention, or are registered as a member of this year's con, you can nominate works for the Hugo awards. You can vote online here, or by post. Nominations are closing soon — midnight PST on Friday, March 10th.

Hint: my eligible novels are Accelerando (which you can download for free from that link) and "The Hidden Family". My eligible short fiction is "Snowball's Chance" (published in Nova Scotia: the new anthology of Scottish speculative fiction), and, um, that's about it.

[Discuss Writing (2)]

posted at: 16:03 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 28 Feb 2006

Ebook news

Sorry 'bout the lack of updates: I've been knee-deep in work, then took off for five days of meetings and stuff, only to succumb to a nasty cold when I got home — the kind that leaves you feeling like a dishrag for a week afterwards. Normal service will be resumed, etcetera ...

One of the questions I periodically get asked is "can I get an electronic version of [insert book title here]?" The answer has, all too often, been "no". With the exception of the free version of Accelerando, and a crippleware version of "Singularity Sky" (from Ace, by way of Fictionwise — DRM-locked to a single reader). However, the situation is now changing. Ace have added a DRM-locked release of "The Atrocity Archives", if you really need it ... but the big news is what Tor have been doing.

For about eight years now, just one SF/F publisher in the English-speaking world had been doing the right thing with ebooks: Baen Books. Baen more or less have a corner on the military-SF market, and are a relatively small player in the US market, with maybe 50 titles a year (to Tor's 300 and Ace's 250). However, they're small enough to be agile and innovative, and since 1997 or thereabouts they've been running an effective subsidiary,, which was doing the job properly.

You sign up with Webscriptions to get an account, then order books from their web site. You pay by credit card, and then you can download the books you've paid for as many times as you need to. The books come in a range of file formats, including HTML, RTF, and the popular ebook reader formats ... and they're not locked to one specific machine; you can use them anywhere. (Rule #1: the customer is not a PDA, they may change computers. Rule #2: trust your customers, don't treat them like shoplifters.)

There are other aspects of the Webscription service model that are attractive. You can buy books individually, typically for less than the price of a paperback (guess what? The ebook editions of my Ace novels sell for as much as a hardcover or trade paperback, despite being much less useful to readers), or you can buy an entire months' worth of books for a flat rate of roughly $15. From the writers point of view, the royalty rate ain't bad — they pay twice the percentage of a hardcover, reflecting the lower cost of production and distribution. So they're cheaper for readers but pay the authors enough to live on. (Rule #3: don't rip your customers off. Rule #4: don't rip your suppliers off, either.)

I'm pleased to say that Webscriptions have been doing good business, and, despite the marked lack of success of the rest of the ebook biz, they're expanding. I'm even more pleased to note that my largest publisher, Tor, have noticed that Webscriptions are making money where other folks aren't, and have decided to join in. From March onwards, a number of Tor titles will be sold through Webscriptions, including my own Merchant Princes books (starting with "The Family Trade" and "The Hidden Family" immediately, and to be followed by "The Clan Corporate" in parallel with its dead-tree publication).

All I need is for Ace to issue an ebook edition of "Iron Sunrise" — preferably via Webscription, but I'll take whatever I can get — and I'll be happy!

[Link] [Discuss Writing (2)]

posted at: 19:47 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 10 Feb 2006

Frogs and trilogies

Quiet, isn't it? Yes, I know, I haven't been updating my blog recently. That's because I've been busy writing — half the first draft of a novel in the past six weeks, another 20% to go, and then another novel. (It's not my fault: if you folks didn't buy them I wouldn't have to write them ... and if you believe that, I have a very attractive Victorian railway bridge to sell you, just up the coastline from here.)

Anyway, in addition to being busy with work, I've got to make a trip to the US next week. (It's a business trip, honest. Go on: point to where I said I would shun the shores of that continent forever. Yes, astute convention-going SF fans may spot me at Boskone — where do you think I'm doing business?) I've also got a trip to Dublin next month. And a trip to London the month after that, with a week in tropical Glasgow sandwiched in-between (for the Eastercon). I'd be right on top of the day job if I wasn't taking all this time off for travel, honest. In fact, the incessant travel has led me to buy a five-year old computer, just because it's a sub-notebook so tiny that I can type on it on the tray table in economy class. Yippee. (Not.) It's CPU is half the speed of my new mobile phone's, although it has slightly more RAM and a much friendlier keyboard. Technology marches on ...

One of the things I've been grappling with lately is the long haul — coming to terms with the difference between writing a couple of linked novels, and writing a series, a huge, articulated structure in which individual books are mere chapters. This is because I'm currently wrestling with plot octopi and setting serpents down in the mire of the fourth Merchant Princes book. Back in the dim and distant days of late 2001, I originally figured I'd write four of them: four fat, self-contained novels expanding upon a common setting and background idea. No plan survives contact with the enemy, though, and big, fat, fantasy yarns are not entirely fashionable this decade.

The first book, "A Family Trade", suffered the fate of many a stage magician's assistant: its truncated torso was followed into print by "The Hidden Family", and the second book, "The Clan Corporate", became the third in the series. Moreover, I'd originally intended "The Clan Corporate" to be a 750 page doorstop. The book of that name that's coming out this June is a svelte, shapely 300 page novel — unlike its predecessors, I got the signal about how long it was to be before I got my teeth into it. However, it's not the second planned big fat book from 2001 — it's the first third of it, the first installment of a trilogy within an ongoing series. And you know what? I've never written a trilogy before.

A common complaint about the trilogy as a literary format is that the middle volume tends towards flab. Book one establishes characters and setting, and puts them in jeopardy or starts a plot-related ball rolling: book three resolves conflicts and brings thematic closure, but the middle volume just seems to keep rolling that ball along. From inside the belly of the beast, however, it's a very different picture. One of the necessities of any dramatic plot is an increase in tension between the initial situation and the climax. The middle volume seems to drag only because it is, in the terms of the memorable boiling frog, turning up the heat under the critters. By the end of the middle volume the heat ought to be just barely survivable, leaving the readers in no doubt that in the next book the frogs are going to start hopping. But for the frog-boiling bits themselves to be memorable ... well, it's like watching a kettle, isn't it?

(Incidentally, the folk tale — that if you put a frog in a cool kettle and apply the heat gently, it won't notice the water temperature rising — is apparently untrue. But it's a neat metaphor for gradual intensification of stress, so I'm going to keep using it as such.)

Back to the topic in hand. I'm currently boiling a frog, or several frogs, in a middle-volume kettle. And to keep it from getting too monotonous I've spread out the omniscient viewpoint (which spent most of "The Clan Corporate" watching a single individual) until it's time-sharing between half a dozen pivotal players as they gradually discover that their world — or rather, worlds — are not as they thought they were. And that's another headache, because broadening the scope of a story from the personal to the political brings its own problems of pacing and insight. The first three books were personal, the portrayal of one woman running head-first into cultural and economic structures that proved increasingly difficult to deal with. Now I'm trying to demonstrate how her impact has reverberated through those structures, and there's no way to do that from a single constrained viewpoint. So in some ways the story is mutating (as of book four) into an entirely different type of beast.

'Twas ever doomed to go this way, I think. A brief confession: I've always been uneasy with the Fantasy label that was pinned on "Merchant Princes" from the outset. "Fantasy" carries a lot of baggage with it — expectations of an essentially romantic or pre-modern world-view, or at any rate of a weltanschaung that is not compatible with the technocratic ideological underpinnings of early SF, or even the Enlightenment-rooted humanism of more recent strands within the field. It seemed to me that what I was trying to do is very much more at home in the science fictional tradition, because I'd set out to explore the way in which certain technologies might dictate the structure of a society that employs them — or even to handicap its development. Which is essentially a job that requires a disruptive story arc, one that does not return to the eternal status quo ante — one of the characteristics of SF.

Luckily for me, as of the latest round of book contracts, I'm no longer required to describe the series as Fantasy™ every time the subject comes up. Having shed one label I'm in no hurry to grab another for it, and you're welcome to keep calling it fantasy for as long as you think the hat fits — but you can take this as advance notice that the series may well take some wild swerves in the near future.

And therein lies my hope for avoiding middle-volume-of-trilogy boredom: just when you, gentle reader, are settling down to knit yourself to sleep beside the simmering kettle, I'm going to let off some firecrackers and fill the bathtub with brightly-coloured machine parts.

If nothing else, it'll be interesting to see which way the amphibian jumps, won't it?

[Discuss Writing]

posted at: 23:43 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 04 Feb 2006

Got typos?

I'm staring at the galley proofs for ACCELERANDO, the paperback edition (actually, at the laser-printed PDF output from Quark, but it amounts to the same), and I'm looking for typos. But one pair of eyes is never as good as ten thousand. Spotted something? Let me know about it here.

posted at: 14:12 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 29 Jan 2006

More shameless self-publicity

It has been drawn to my attention that "Accelerando" has been shortlisted for the 2006 Arthur C. Clarke award for science fiction. (Unlike the BSFA award, which is voted on by members of the British Science Fiction Association and the British Eastercon, the Clarke award is awarded by a small jury of writers and critics. The winner will be announced on April 26th in London.)

The shortlist for 2006 consists of:

  • Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)
  • Learning The World - Ken MacLeod (Orbit)
  • Pushing Ice - Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz)
  • Air - Geoff Ryman (Gollancz)
  • Accelerando - Charles Stross (Orbit)
  • Banner Of Souls - Liz Williams (Tor)

[Discuss Writing (2)]

posted at: 11:45 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 23 Jan 2006

Shameless self-publicity

Accelerando (the novel, not the separate stories it grew from) has been shortlisted for the 2006 BSFA Award for best novel of 2005. (BSFA is the British Science Fiction Association.) The awards are voted on by BSFA members and members of the British Eastercon, and will be announced in Glasgow at the aforementioned Eastercon (Concussion) on April 16th.

[Link] [Discuss Writing (2)]

posted at: 13:44 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 23 Nov 2005

Stupid authorial mistakes, #965

How hard is it to break open a padlock by shooting it?

This hard.

On the one hand, I'm glad someone's actually done the research and demonstrated that your hoary old fiction trope is, ahem, rubbish. On the other hand, as it's a trope I've used myself ... groan.

[Link] [Discuss Writing (2)]

posted at: 11:12 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 06 Oct 2005

Filling In

So, on Monday I finished the final presubmission draft of "The Jennifer Morgue" and mailed it to my editor. Then I got my teeth into some other administrivia that had been building up while I went over deadline (my own personal one, not the one in the book contract) on TJM. I'm off next Friday to an SF convention in Ireland, so I thought I'd get everything nailed down and ship-shape before departure -- TJM is the last novel I've actually got a signed contract for at present, so I could go away knowing I had actually finished everything.

Which is probably why I promptly came down with the cold from hell; nose auditioning for an SFX role in a low-budget Lovecraft movie (green ichor generator), occasional racking cough (caused by breathing through my mouth and getting dried out -- see nose, above), the usual. It's beginning to ease off now, but I'm basically in sick-day mode (slouch around in dressing gown, drink lots of orange juice, surf various web comics, read a non-challenging novel). And guess what? The minor bits of work probably won't be finished before I go away, and I'm expecting a couple of new book contracts to show up Real Soon Now (if not a bunch of copy edits to keep me company when I expected to be on vacation).

On the subject of previous ramblings: it looks like the worst-case outcome from this year's season of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico has been averted -- at least as far as the aftermath of Katrina and Rita is concerned -- but the consequences are going to be with us for years to come, echoing around the world. Governments have suddenly noticed that there's not enough elasticity in the oil supply chain; the move by the big US oil companies to shut excess oil refinery capacity in the 1990s and move to a just in time model has given us the first real large-scale demonstration that just-in-time logistic systems are very brittle and can be broken by relatively predictable spikes in demand or once-a-decade problems.

The reason I keep rambling around this isn't because I've got some kind of axe to grind over the petrochemical economy or global climate change (although I'm pretty sure that anybody who doesn't believe in the latter is axe-grinding at this stage), but because I'm fascinated by the behaviour of complex systems.

Our civilization runs on a much slimmer margin than most of us realize. As a cost-saving measure, the corporate policy of the past three decades has been to abolish warehouses and stockpiles wherever possible and to use information technology to streamline logistical processes. If you go to Apple or Dell's web site and order a computer (or if you go to your local Ford dealership for a car), you may think you've bought one and it's being delivered -- but in practice, the computer (or car) doesn't exist yet; what happens is, your order triggers a series of cascading requistions for parts, almost all the way down to the factory in Taiwan that makes the resin the chips are embedded in, and those parts are shipped to factories and assembled, and the assemblies are shipped to a final factory for final assembly and packaging, and the package is shipped to your door (or the car dealership) via a packet-switched network of considerable complexity.

Stockpiles represent capital that is locked up, not in motion generating wealth. If you minimize your stockpiles of parts (or oil, or pork bellies, or whatever) you can make your investment capital work more efficiently. But efficiency is the enemy of flexibility. If your computer factory works the old-fashioned way, building boxes on a production line and warehousing them until someone buys them, then a hiccup in the supply of some vital widget won't stop the company selling computers -- it'll just cause the stockpile to drop. In contrast, a just-in-time system stalls instantly if just one critical component becomes unavailable.

There's an added twist to consider: our high-tech consumer gadgets are deflationary. Their value drops rapidly from the moment they're manufactured. Two years ago, a 42" plasma TV would have set me back £3500-5000; today, I can buy one (if I want) for £1000-1800. If you do stockpile goods, the stockpile is not merely an inefficient use of capital -- it's a drain on your profits.

The consequence of this is that high-tech businesses mediated by the internet ( is the classic example) are far more brittle and vulnerable to external disruption than their old-fashioned predecessors.

Oil is the obvious choke-point. We need oil to power our transport infrastructure -- all the delivery vans that bring supplies to our neighbourhood shops, or our doorsteps. We also use oil to deliver oil -- to filling stations, to refineries via supertanker -- and if the pipeline stalls, not only does the oil become expensive but, by and by, the means of delivering the oil becomes inaccessible.

I need to go and read some more on the collapse of complex civilizations. But here's a parting thought: these brittle networks propagate the side-effects whenever a single node breaks down. It may be that some time in the future, the US economy is brought low not by a hurricane in the Gulf taking out domestic oil refinery capacity -- but by a typhoon in the Pacific damaging some unmapped critical dependency in the supply paths used by the world's largest companies to keep their pipelines moving. Simply making the USA -- or the EU -- self-sufficient in energy supplies isn't enough; to address the problem, we need to wean ourselves off the cult of efficiency at the expense of resilience.

[Discuss market anomalies]

posted at: 17:33 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 29 Sep 2005


I have just vetted the copy edits for "The Clan Corporate", the next book in the Merchant Princes series. Why is it that, given a 95 page batch of pages to scan, my HP flatbed scanner will work perfectly until page 92, then gulp down the last three pages and jam, losing all memory of the preceding pages in the process?

No, don't answer that.

I'm also on the final read-through of "The Jennifer Morgue", before I had the manuscript in. That'll leave next week clear for getting my accounts filed and writing the afterword to TJM, at which point I'll have a clear desk, right before I head off to Octocon in Maynooth.

A clear desk -- there's something unnatural about it. I'll have finished everything I've currently got on my to-do list, and be into a brief period of aimless indirection, before I have to start the next book. It feels weird. Usually there's one overlapping job or another. (Probably there'll be an overlapping job: I've got a feeling Ace are likely to drop the hammer on me in the form of the copy edits to "Glasshouse" the day before I head off to Ireland. But it hasn't happened ... yet.)

Anyway, that's why I've been quiet lately: I'm busy trying to nail down a bunch of loose work-related ends in time to take some time off before I dive back into the job.

[Discuss Writing (2)]

posted at: 17:07 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 09 Sep 2005

Sleuthing the Sneaky Typo

It has come to my attention that Penguin (in their Berkley imprint) are publishing "The Atrocity Archives" on January 3rd. And they've finally got proofs.

If you own the Golden Gryphon edition now is your chance to show off your eagle eyes! If you stubbed your toes on any tyops (sic), just post on the discussion thread below (including if possible a page number and some context) to get your very own grovelling apology and promise that the forthcoming trade paperback will be empty of such errata.

[Got typos? Click here!]

posted at: 14:27 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 27 Aug 2005

Why input devices suck

I'm behind schedule on updating this blog because I've been away from my desk for two of the past four weeks, I'm behind schedule on a book, and I'm tired from too much traveling. I'm also behind schedule because I'm recovering from an attack of RSI (repetitive strain injury). I get stabbing pains in the backs of my hands every couple of years, and it's invariably -- in my case -- the result of using a lousy chair/desk combination. RSI is usually triggered by postural whoopsies of one kind or another, and I'm lucky enough to have discovered that mine can invariably be cured within a week by switching to a better chair.

In the case of the current attack, it started after my wife's office chair died of old age; I gave her my old Aeron, switched to a cheap camp chair while the order for the new one went through -- after all, this was about two days before I had to fly off to Austin -- and by the end of the first day my arms were feeling funny. Fast-forward across a trans-Atlantic flight to my arrival at a hotel, where the office chair turned out to be impossible to adjust to the correct typing height for the hotel room desk, and the provided ethernet cable was about a metre too short for typing on my lap, and crossing the road to the nearest mall involved a ten minute drive, and you've got a recipe for disaster.

(Luckily, I knew what not to do, and allowed myself to get further behind schedule rather than damaging my wrists -- a two-week hiatus I can deal with, two months with my arms in splints is another matter. The new second-hand Aeron chair is due to arrive on Tuesday and normal deadline-meeting activities will be resumed immediately afterwards. There is no cause for alarm.)

This got me thinking about input methods -- trivially, ways of shoveling data into computers -- and about why they all suck.

The oldest and most familiar input method still in use is the QWERTY keyboard layout, from 1876 or thereabouts. There are a number of explanations for its persistence and prevalence. Personally, I think the fact that you can spell the word TYPEWRITER using only keys from the QWERTY row is a bit of a giveaway, especially if you think in terms of underpaid traveling salesmen with no time to learn how to type properly. Another giveaway: despite the semi-random looking layout, English word frequency is such that the letters you type don't cluster at one side of the keyboard but alternate from one side to the other, reducing the risk of two typekey arms colliding (if you ever used a manual typewriter, where the keys are connected to type characters on the end of a hinged arm, this was a major annoyance and interruption).

QWERTY is, all in all, a fairly reasonable compromise. Despite the advocates of alternative layouts such as DVORAK, there's not a lot of evidence that we can speed up text input and accuracy by switching to a new two-handed layout. The speed record for QWERTY is around 130 words per minute which is slower than continuous speech but fast enough for most purposes -- if you could come up with the ideas fast enough and your fingers didn't catch fire you could write an entire 150-page novel in eight hours! (Take that, Lionel Fanthorpe!)

What's wrong with QWERTY is more subtle. It was designed for a desk-mounted machine that would be operated two-handed by a typist. Old manual typewriters involved lots of arm-waving and muscle contractions to run the carriage back over, insert paper, remove paper, and so on. It was all good exercise, back in the day. Modern computer keyboards don't. So we sit for long periods in a fixed position while our fingers clatter like crazy and we seize up like rusty pieces of machinery. Worse: because QWERTY takes a while to learn, it has achieved institutional inertia -- it blocks out alternative input methods. And because it's designed for two-handed typing it makes using a mouse, or a PDA, kind of a drag. What are we supposed to do, grow another arm?

Now we get into the horrible alternatives the computer industry has tried to inflict on us ...

First and worst are all the virtual QWERTY layouts. These are what you get when a programmer with no idea about ergonomics and a short deadline tries to come up with a way to let punters get data into a computing device without a physical QWERTY keyboard. You get a picture of a QWERTY keyboard on-screen to peck at with the mouse or a stylus. In extreme cases you get a little laser doohickey the size of a cigarette packet that projects a picture of a QWERTY keyboard onto whatever's in front of it -- a tray table, a sleeping cat, your neighbour's lap -- and monitors where your fingers block the light.

One-fingered QWERTY typing is no fun; because of the word-frequency element of the design (what I was talking about earlier, right?) you have to keep jumping from one side of the keyboard to the other, which really slows you up. I haven't done any precise timing tests (life's too short, especially for a rant) but I figure the slowdown is roughly 90%, if not more.

The thumb-board isn't much better. I've got one of those on my phone; itty-bitty buttons in a QWERTY layout designed so that you cup the phone in both hands and alternate between thumbs. Two-thumbed typing is a lot faster than one-fingered typing but it still tops off at around 20 words per minute. I don't know about you but as I speak at around 200 words per minute, I don't call that particularly useful. Also, you tend to sprain your thumb sooner rather than later, which is a bit of an embarrassing drawback.

Far better to look beyond QWERTY and consider alternative input methods, right?

Let's start with handwriting recognition. I'm left handed and my handwriting resembles the perambulations of a drunken spider who's just blundered through the inkwell. After signing my name fifty times in a row I can write "Cthulhu P'thagn" on the title page of a book and nobody will be any the wiser. Thanks to years of typewritten debauchery I get writers' cramp holding a pen for long enough to write an address on a mailing label: the fine motor control isn't there any more so I unconsciously grip the pen harder and harder until my arm cramps up. Even back when I was condemned to scrawl answers to exam questions every couple of months, I had trouble: after one particularly harrowing set of finals I had a crescent-shaped depression with associated bruising in the tip of my left index finger that didn't fill in for a week.

Computers are not good at recognizing my handwriting. Handwriting recognition works best on neat copperplate. Neat copperplate is incompatible with speedy text entry. The fastest I can go by hand is about twenty words per minute -- timed during a desperate mock exam many years ago -- and to be readable I'm down to maybe ten words a minute, enough to make one-finger QWERTY appealing.

About twelve years ago, Apple was busy failing to sell the Newton on the basis of its' vaunted handwriting recognition. To be blunt, the original Newt was too feeble and underpowered to do the job in real time for anyone who could write faster than me. A couple of guys with a software company called Palm figured out that if they just taught the owners a rudimentary shorthand that the computer was better at reading, they could speed things up by an order of magnitude. What they came up with (with some input from Xerox's labs -- those guys invented everything) was a piece of software called Graffiti. Graffiti is written in a letter-sized box, one character at a time (not joined-up), with simplified strokes that even a dumb Motorolla 68000 can recognize. It became the must-have piece of software for Newton owners, which just goes to show how dumb Newton owners are. They went on to sell a tiny tablet-shaped notepad called the Pilot that was basically a gadget that used graffiti for taking names, addresses, and notes, and the rest is history.

What's wrong with Graffiti is that it's still handwriting recognition, of a sort. It's improved, more accurate handwriting recognition, but it relies on the use of a pen. PDAs were mis-sold in the early 90s as a tool for thrusting MBA-wielding executives who (back then) weren't expected to know how to type. High-end ones even had -- and still have -- built-in voice recorders. These people don't need high-speed data entry. They need a cute secretary back in the outer office taking dictation, and an extra round on the golf course. They were not a large enough market to count. And they've permanently warped handheld computing in a very counterproductive direction indeed. (Spot the disgruntled former Psion user, okay?)

Speaking of dictation, I haven't whacked on speech recognition yet. Speech recognition has been the great white hope of dumb engineers who want to put computing power into the hands of the unwashed and functionally illiterate masses for, oh, about thirty years now. It doesn't work because while the English language (and others) are phoneme based, our written representations are ambiguous and often make no sense. Quick: say "Cholomondley-Featherstonehaugh" to your computer. (It's pronounced "CHUM-lee FAN-shaw.") Speech recognition software gets around this problem by using dictionaries to map phoneme sequences to words. If you want to see how brain-dead this is, fire up your copy of ViaVoice or DragonDictate and see how it recognizes "Charlie Stross". I don't know about you, but the usual results are guaranteed to stress me out.

I've experimented with speech recognition. For starters, my BBC English accent doesn't work very well with most speech rec systems, which are trained to expect English with a mid-Western drawl. Excuse me, but I do not expect to have to pretend to be Texan just so my computer can take dictation! But with a few hours of training I can reach the dizzy heights of speech recognition accuracy -- say, 90-95% accurate -- and then the fun begins.

When you make a mistake with QWERTY input, you are most likely going to end up with two transposed letters, a missing letter, or an incorrect letter. Spelling checkers are pretty good at spotting this kind of blooper and putting a wiggly red line under it.

In contrast, when you make a mistake with speech recognition the most likely error state is that the recognition software will insert a correctly spelled homophone in your text: "their" instead of "there", "bear" instead of "bare", "narcotic" instead of "narcissist", and so on. This is a complete pain in the arse to correct because at a stroke it renders spelling checkers impotent. Worse than the ludicrous errors ("narcotic"/"narcissist") are the plausible ones -- if it mis-hears "lovely" as "lonely" you may end up with one adjective replacing another, in which case a grammar checker or even a mark one sub-editor's eyeball may not be up to spotting the error even though it changes the meaning of the text drastically.

Finally, I'd like to add that I write science fiction. That's made-up stuff. Including some of the words. Long experience shows me that in a 150,000 word novel I probably coin some 500 neologisms (plus another 500 plurals and tenses based off them) that aren't in Microsoft Word's dictionary. I have a functional vocabulary that exceeds any speech recognition system's competence. This drastically increases the rate of homophone errors to the point where, when dictating to a computer, I am forced to back up and fix every error immediately before I lose track of what I'm saying, because on average one in every two short sentences comes out with an error in it that completely changes its meaning.

Overall text input speed using speech recognition: two words per minute. Backwards.

Finally, we come to an entirely different input method. It's pen based but it's not cursive real-time handwriting recognition, or shorthand. It bears about the same relationship to QWERTY that Graffiti bears to handwriting recognition: it's the alternative single-finger keyboard layout. There are several of them. The idea is, you use a virtual keyboard on a PDA or tablet PC that is optimized to minimize pen or finger movement, so that the commonest characters are grouped at the center of the keyboard where they're easy to find.

FITALY is what I use on my PDA. It's a pain in the neck to learn -- takes an hour to get minimally proficient at hunt and peck, then several hours more to acquire some speed -- but once it sinks in it's much faster than single-finger typing. The folks who sell it claim that it maxes out around 70 words per minute, which I think is an exaggeration, but I'd certainly believe 30-40wpm is achievable. Subjectively it's faster than Graffiti and much more accurate.

An alternative is MessageEase. Rather than being an optimized layout, MessageEase is a stroke-based system -- you get a grid of nine squares, the commonest characters are entered by tapping in a square, and the rest are accessed by scribing a stroke from one square to another. It's a bit more confusing than FITALY and takes a little longer to learn but is similarly fast -- and supports more devices. The drawback is, it uses the same fine motor control as handwriting; less of it, so your hand doesn't cramp up as fast, but it's still a pain. FITALY, in contrast, is amenable to hunt'n'peck; it'll eventually get you when you've been holding the pen wrong for three hours at a stretch, but it's not intrinsically the work of the devil.

Either of MessageEase or Fitaly is probably fast enough for creative writing, avoids the problems of one-fingered QWERTY, doesn't insert new and curious grammatical errors on the fly, and works in places where a full-sized keyboard won't go. They suffer from the learning curve (I estimate 10-20 hours until they begin to sink into your fingertips and become instinctive). They suffer from the size of PDA screens; even my iPaq hx4700, which is huge by PDA standards, is much smaller than a reporter's pad, so you have a choice between seeing maybe twenty words on-screen at any time and having to do the fine motor control thing again. Or you could buy a Tablet PC with Windows for Tablets on it and add the PC versions of these input methods (if you're willing to run Windows at all -- and I'm not).

Damn it, is it possible that the entire behemoth of the IT industry is unable to produce what I need -- namely a gadget the size of a reporter's pad with a battery life of at least four hours that lets me input text as conveniently as that pad, that doesn't force me to re-learn longhand, and that lets me edit on the fly? Unfortunately it appears that the answer is "yes". We're trapped in here with no way out until the industry learns to pay attention to ergonomics. And I'm still waiting for my new chair to arrive ...

PS: That's 2600 words in 90 minutes and my left hand is still mostly okay. Right. Back to work ...

[Discuss Writing (2)]

posted at: 14:26 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 12 Aug 2005

On foreign travel

Next week, I'm flying out to Austin, TX to be guest of honour at ArmadilloCon 27. It's a privilege to be a guest of honour, and I'm looking forward to it. But. But. There's a fly in the ointment (and it's nothing to do with my hosts).

Over the past few years, my wife and I have visited the USA pretty regularly -- twice a year, typically -- and we have a lot of American friends. However, we're unlikely to be going back there anything like as much in future. She isn't accompanying me to ArmadilloCon, and I'm not planning any more visits to the USA without a pressing reason. Next year's worldcon can survive without me. The reason is quite simple: the US is becoming an increasingly frightening, intimidating destination for the foreign holidaymaker.

The first sign started about a year ago, when those of us who travel on the Visa Waiver scheme (residents of officially friendly EU states) were required to submit to being fingerprinted and photographed as a condition of entry. This procedure is one more normally associated with arrest and criminal prosecution; it's not something you do to your friends. While I understand the motivation behind it, which is not so much to be arbitrarily unfair to visitors as to do something -- anything -- about the huge, porous borders the USA shares with the rest of the world, it's a worrying sign of the times. Visitors are no longer welcomed, they're made to feel like suspects in a criminal investigation. Fortress America is raising its drawbridge.

Now, according to the New York times, the office of the Attorney General is contending in court that foreigners have no rights: "Foreign citizens who change planes at airports in the United States can legally be seized, detained without charges, deprived of access to a lawyer or the courts, and even denied basic necessities like food, lawyers for the government said in Brooklyn federal court yesterday."

This legal theory is being advanced in the context of the Arar case, of a Canadian citizen who, changing planes in New York, was arrested on suspicion of involvement in terrorism (for which he was later exonerated), held in solitary confinement without access to legal advice or any charges, and subsequently bundled off to Syria for interrogation under torture.

I'm a forty-something law-abiding white British science fiction writer, and the probability of my being mistaken for a member of Al Qaida is, shall we say, low. I should have no reason to feel threatened by reasonable measures taken to prosecute terrorists. But all actions have consequences, and this legal theory has potentially devastating consequences for all visitors to the United States if it is upheld. "Anyone who presents a foreign passport at an American airport, even to make a connecting flight to another country, is seeking admission to the United States. If the government decides that the passenger is an 'inadmissible alien,' he remains legally outside the United States - and outside the reach of the Constitution - even if he is being held in a Brooklyn jail. Even if they are wrongly or illegally designated inadmissible, the government's papers say, such aliens have at most a right against 'gross physical abuse.'"

I am more alarmed by what is not being said here than by what is. The government is contending that aliens who have not been explicitly granted leave to remain have no right to due process of law, no privacy, no safety, no protection of property, nothing except a reasonable expectation that they won't be subjected to "gross physical abuse", whatever that is. Which is drawn up in such narrow terms that physical starvation and sleep deprivation -- hallmarks of torture in most civilized jurisdictions -- appear not to be included.

This isn't just about terrorists. It applies to tourists, too. In fact, it applies to anyone that any member of the immigration department doesn't like the look of. If I sneeze at the wrong time or catch the wrong eye in the INS queue as I wait to hand in my I-94 and have my passport stamped, my number just might come up. And the War on Tourism claims another victim.

If this legal theory stands up in court -- and I hope it doesn't -- then visiting the USA, or even flying on a route that crosses through US airspace, will become a profoundly uninviting experience -- much like flying into the Soviet Union during the early 1980s. There'll have to be a pressing purpose at stake before I'll risk endangering myself in that way, by putting myself beyond the legal protections offered by the courts to any law abiding person.

This doesn't mean I'm going to stop visiting the USA, but it means that I'm no longer going to do so for trivial or recreational reasons. I'll change my mind if the courts rule that aliens on US soil have rights after all, and I'm still going to ArmadilloCon -- because I said I would -- but I won't be attending SF conventions in the USA again until I feel I can do so without putting myself at risk. And I'm afraid I will have to vote against any future Worldcon bids held in the United States (or any other country that introduces such outrageous loopholes in the rule of law) until it is possible for foreigners to attend them safely.

[Discuss 9/11]

posted at: 18:36 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 09 Aug 2005

I'd like to say ...

A big thank-you to all of you who've emailed me to congratulate me over "The Concrete Jungle".

(If I haven't replied, please don't take it personally; I've been swamped, and I've still not caught up on my sleep deficit from the worldcon.)

posted at: 22:36 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 07 Aug 2005


I just won the Hugo for best novella for The Concrete Jungle.


(I am now about to install a killer hangover on /dev/brain. Normal communications will be resumed in a day or two.)

[Discuss Writing]

posted at: 22:31 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 05 Aug 2005

Shameless publicity seeking

I'm at Interaction (the worldcon) and I've been shamelessly consorting with the press. Here's an article about the con from the BBC; here what the Scottish Herald has to say, then back to the BBC, and over to The Scotsman.

Meanwhile, the first copies of the UK edition of "Accelerando" have been sighted in bookshops and on the dealer tables at the convention.

posted at: 09:22 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 23 Jul 2005

Q & A about free ebook editions

A month ago, a reporter from The Book Standard got in touch with me, to ask some questions for an article they were researching on the topic of authors who release free ebook editions of their novels. Well, the article surfaced in the due course of time – but most of their questions and my answers failed to make it into the final piece (which was, in fact, shorter than my Q&A).

As these questions keep recurring, I thought I should blog them here.

Q: The first question is, of course, why you chose to make an electronic version of the book available before the print version comes out – and why you decided to make one available at all.

A: First, let me say that it's common practice these days for publishers to release a couple of chapters of their new books on the web, as a teaser. The rationale for this is that the ecommerce business needs some sort of equivalent of shelf-browsing. Readers don't buy totally unfamiliar works or authors, but if you can make a reader in a shop pick a book up and open it you're halfway to a sale, and the same is true of the web. If you've ever read one of these samples, it may well have motivated you to order a hardcopy book. So I'd say that the practice of putting extracts on the web is on a sound footing (and note Amazon's support for it of late).

Putting the entire book on the web is a bit more controversial – at least, to people who haven't investigated the marketing response from it, or realized that it happened as long ago as 1992, when Bruce Sterling released the text of "The Hacker Crackdown" after the paperback had been in print for a year. But these days, a number of publishers are experimenting with it. There is one clear advantage to it: readers like samples, and the ultimate sample is the entire book. People are more likely to download the entire thing, because there's the promise that they can read it all on their computer. However, in practice most people don't like reading on a screen or a PDA. If they get hooked, they'll continue reading until it hits their personal pain threshold – then they're highly motivated to seek out the paper edition (in hardcover, if necessary).

A secondary consequence is that you get lots of coverage very cheaply. In the first week on the web, I've logged 22,000 direct downloads of ACCELERANDO from my web server. (Update: 57,000 downloads in the first month.) Another 500-1000 users have downloaded it via BitTorrent. I can't put a figure on the number of readers who have acquired copies from direct consumers yet, but I've got the logging facilities in place to produce some figures in due course. (There's not much point in doing so in the first month.)

Q: Are you concerned that the electronic version will affect sales of the hard copy?

A: Yes – that's the whole idea!

When Cory Doctorow released the entire text of his first novel, "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" (Tor, 2003) on the web, he got 35,000 downloads in the first month, and probably a total in the hundreds of thousands over the first year (including secondary download sites). For an anonymous midlist novel, it then went on to sell very well indeed in hardcover and trade (I believe both editions were reprinted). Given the huge number of readers who may download a free ebook edition, even a 1% sell-through rate translates to a rather nice boost in the bottom line.

Again, Baen Books – a medium-sized SF/fantasy publisher – have taken to releasing free ebook editions of some of their titles, when their paperback sales peak is past. They've noted a strong secondary sales blip, mostly affecting hardcovers, when the ebook comes out. It seems that readers like novel-sized samples and in many cases they aren't content to own just the e-text – they want the paper artifact as well.

Q: Is this the first book you've made available online? (and it's the full text, right?) How long has Accelerando been online?

A: It's the first published novel I've made available online – for values of "published" that approximate to "coming out next week". ACCELERANDO will be published by Ace on July 1st, and in the UK by Orbit (Time Warner UK) on August 4th. The ebook went online on the 17th of June, two weeks ahead of first US publication. This release schedule was discussed and agreed with input from the editorial and marketing people at both publishers, for maximum impact. It takes readers time to digest an ebook, and by running it two weeks ahead of the official publication date we're aiming to give them enough lead time for anticipation to build, while not so much time that the memory goes stale.

Q: Do you think this kind of strategy would work for authors like Dan Brown or Stephen King or J.K. Rowling as well?

A: In a word, no.

The primary commercial reason for pursuing a free ebook strategy is to build market awareness of your product. It's a supplement to word-of-mouth and conventional marketing, not a replacement. The best-selling authors have already reached saturation in this respect, and giving away free samples won't help build their sales further. For example: I have not read Dan Brown's novels, but I know enough about them, through word of mouth, to know that they're not the sort of thing that appeals to me. Free samples probably wouldn't add anything to this.

In contrast, like all midlist writers I face a major obstacle: most people who might buy my books haven't actually heard of me, or read enough of my work to get hooked. So I can benefit a lot by making myself more accessible to the audience.

Q: Do you think it hurts the Biggest-name authors more than it hurts midlist writers?

A: I don't think it hurts at all.

Here in the non-internet world, we have a technical term for people who, without the permission of the authors, take copies of their books and give them away for free to lots of readers: we call them "librarians". Complaining about readers "hurting sales" by reading free ebook copies "instead of" buying the paper edition is a bit like complaining that library withdrawals hurt sales. It assumes a false either/or dichotomy. In the first instance, some library users are too poor to buy the book in the first place – hence, they are not a lost sale: they were never a potential sale in the first place. Secondly, many library users go on to buy copies of books they first read via the library. The library is a great browsing opportunity, and only drives sales in the long term. I think that sector of the publishing industry that angsts loudly about "ebook pirates" is missing the point by the mile – the readers are not your enemy, and once you start viewing your ebook rights as a marketing opportunity to boost your paper sales, rather than as an unfeasible and unusable profit centre, things fall into place and the pain is replaced by gain.

Ebooks are worth much less to readers than a paper edition. They're harder to read, they're not useful and ornamental artefacts either. If they're encrypted using DRM they're worth drastically less than a paper book – you can't lend them to a friend and say "read this" – frequently you can't even copy them to a new computer when you upgrade! Commercial ebooks therefore sell rather poorly compared to paper editions. But by the same token, a freely available ebook edition is a hugely powerful viral marketing tool.

If we're talking about sources of pain, the real pain comes when someone starts producing unauthorized commercial editions of a work. That's why I released ACCELERANDO under a license (from Creative Commons) that explicitly forbids the creation of derivative works and redistribution on a for-profit basis. If anyone breaks that license, my publishers and I want a cut of the money. But it hasn't happened yet: the availability of a free ebook actually undercuts the profitability of pirate paper or electronic editions.

Q: Why do you think more publishers don't use this as a marketing device?

They're beginning to do so. The main problem is inertia; nobody wants to risk the company, so proposals to do this sort of thing tend to get referred to a committee where they die. Baen were able to start aggressively using this technique because as a small company (about 8 staff, total) they had no such barrier to adopting a new technique. They've been doing it for about six years, now. Meanwhile, the larger publishers are beginning to do it. When I first proposed it to Ace and Orbit, the idea was met with blank incomprehension – then they discovered they'd already been doing it (in a parallel non-fiction imprint) and it slotted right into place immediately. As more imprints and more staff become familiar with this device it will become commonplace.

A final word: obviously it's too early to tell how well ACCELERANDO is doing from the publisher's sales figures (it's only been out for a month), but if you use's sales rank as a rough indicator, ACCELERANDO has been significantly out-selling my earlier SF novels at the equivalent point in their publication cycle (for values of "significant" that approximate to "is ranked twice as high as the other books ever got").

So I'm not complaining.

[Discuss Writing (2)]

posted at: 12:30 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 18 Jul 2005

Report from the trenches

I'm head-down in "The Jennifer Morgue", about 70% of the way through the first draft and trying to get it nailed down. I was aiming to finish by the end of July, but I think that's unlikely; mid-August is looking more like it. On the other hand, it seems to be working so far. Anyway, that's why the long silence.

It is now one month since I put Accelerando on the web, and two weeks since it officially went on sale in the US. In that time, I've had 54,000 downloads from my website; there are probably thousands more that I don't know about. (As a random comparison, Cory Doctorow reported 35,000 downloads in his first month for "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" – but that was a first novel and this, er, isn't.) Anyway, since the initial release "Accelerando" initially peaked at 440 in Amazon's sales rank, and has been happily bumping around the 2500-1500 range ever since. This average level is about as high up the Amazon charts as "Singularity Sky" and "Iron Sunrise" ever peaked – in both cases, with transient spikes rather than solid sales – so I think I can safely say that the early indications are that the free ebook release hasn't prevented "Accelerando" from significantly out-selling my previous novels.

I have about two weeks to go until Interaction (the Worldcon that's about to land on my doorstep) and the UK launch of "Accelerando", to be followed by a trip to Texas for Armadillocon 27. It's funny how time is telescoping towards a collision between a deadline and two cons ...

[Discuss Writing (2)]

posted at: 19:38 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 04 Jul 2005

Hugo voting reminder

If you're eligible to vote in the Hugo awards (because you're members of Interaction, the 2005 world science fiction convention) and haven't done so, please vote now. Votes must be received by 11:59pm, BST, on July 8th, i.e. this Friday.

You can vote on-line here.

posted at: 20:29 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 29 Jun 2005

Coming in February ...

Ace/Berkeley Books/Penguin/[insert brand name here] have acquired the paperback rights to my novels "The Atrocity Archives" and "The Jennifer Morgue" from Golden Gryphon, a small but perfectly formed hardcover publisher. The first of the books is due out next February in trade paperback (in the US only – weirdly they haven't sold in the UK at all). And now, the cover: it looks as if the art director has actually read the book!

Atrocity Archives cover

(If you're wanting a sample, you might want to know that the book consists of a short novel, "The Atrocity Archive", and a sequel novella, The Concrete Jungle, which is on this years' Hugo shortlist as well as the web.)

[Discuss Writing]

posted at: 15:51 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

Quick links:

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Buy my books: (FAQ)

Missile Gap
Via Subterranean Press (US HC -- due Jan, 2007)

The Jennifer Morgue
Via Golden Gryphon (US HC -- due Nov, 2006)

Via (US HC -- due June 30, 2006)

The Clan Corporate
Via (US HC -- out now)

Via (US HC)
Via (US PB -- due June 27, 2006)
Via (UK HC)
Via (UK PB)
Free download

The Hidden Family
Via (US HC)
Via (US PB)

The Family Trade
Via (US HC)
Via (US PB)

Iron Sunrise
Via (US HC)
Via (US PB)
Via (UK HC)
Via (UK PB)

The Atrocity Archives
Via (Trade PB)
Via (Trade PB)
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Singularity Sky
Via (US HC)
Via (US PB)
Via (US ebook)
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Via (UK PB)


Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Engadget ]
Gizmodo ]
The Memory Hole ]
Boing!Boing! ]
Futurismic ]
Walter Jon Williams ]
Making Light (TNH) ]
Crooked Timber ]
Junius (Chris Bertram) ]
Baghdad Burning (Riverbend) ]
Bruce Sterling ]
Ian McDonald ]
Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
Cyborg Democracy ]
Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
Atrios ]
The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ]
This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
Jesus's General ]
Mick Farren ]
Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
Tangent Online ]
Grouse Today ]
Hacktivismo ]
Terra Nova ]
Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
Justine Larbalestier ]
Yankee Fog ]
The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
Cough the Lot ]
The Yorkshire Ranter ]
Newshog ]
Kung Fu Monkey ]
S1ngularity ]
Pagan Prattle ]
Gwyneth Jones ]
Calpundit ]
Lenin's Tomb ]
Progressive Gold ]
Kathryn Cramer ]
Halfway down the Danube ]
Fistful of Euros ]
Orcinus ]
Shrillblog ]
Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
Hitherby Dragons ]
Counterspin Central ]
MetaFilter ]
NTKnow ]
Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
Fafblog ]
BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

Older stuff:

June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004
December 2003
November 2003
October 2003
September 2003
August 2003
July 2003
June 2003
May 2003
April 2003
March 2003
February 2003
January 2003
December 2002
November 2002
October 2002
September 2002
August 2002
July 2002
June 2002
May 2002
April 2002
March 2002
(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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