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No, I'm not trying to sell you anything; but for those of you who come here because you've got an interest in how I go about writing, I'd like to commend you to a website called SF Novelists. It does what it says on the tin — that is, it's a group blog by a bunch of professional SF novelists, revolving around their work, their writing (the two are not the same), and the sort of stuff you'd expect a bunch of jobbing novelists to talk about. I find it fascinating — but then, I'm one of them.

42 Comments

1:

What I saw on a quick click-through (three-four of the entries) it does seem like it could be interesting.

2:

Pity the site design is unusable arse, really.

3:

Design can be fixed. But what in particular is arse about it?

4:

An interesting site. But, I think I'll just use my limited time to read the few writers' blogs I already have on my list. Of all the blogs I've looked at, Stross's is one of the best for hitting upon subjects that I find interesting. He's also good at being snarky, which can be funny (as long as I'm not the target!). Doctorow's is good too. Let's face it, there aren't that many opinions worth searching out; Stross is one of those rare finds.

JJ

5:

Hey Warren, is there anything in particular you think is arse about it? We're always open to constructive criticism, though sometimes I know it's easier to just leave out the "constructive" part, we'd appreciate what you have to say.

6:

Let's face it, there aren't that many opinions worth searching out; Stross is one of those rare finds.

ass kisser!

An eclectic mix of authors on that site. Some I really like, some I really don't like, and some I have never heard of! Which are which is left as an exercise for the reader. I'll delve into the archives today but what I've looked at is quite interesting. Thanks for the link.

But, uh, I have to say that "Science Fiction and Fantasy Novelists" is about the most mind-numbingly unoriginal name I can imagine for such a site. It's like naming your cat "Cat."

Other than that, though, cool.

7:

The site looks good to me. Maybe if you could jump to all of the posts made by a particular author, that would be nice.

8:

I can't speak for Mr. Ellis, but what I'm seeing is a page that's 1/3rd header and footer. Of the remainder, half the page is "sidebars" of various sorts. Then, we actually get entries, but they're condensed down, rather than full entires, so I get to play jab-the-link, rather than just simply read the blog.

Worse, at least one column is a fixed size, which means we now need a horizontal scroll at almost all times. I'm not sure what happens if you expand the window *really* wide, but at 1024px wide, the only thing that increases in width is the whitespace on the sides.

IOW, for a blog, well over half the page isn't blog, and what's left is condensed and won't scroll nicely. Since the point of a public weblog is to read the entries (and comment upon, if such is enabled), and since this particular blog makes the bloggy parts small at hard to read, as a page design, it is, well, for lack of a better term, arse.

See: It's a sporty car, but where do I put the groceries?

But that's just me, a web curmudgeon.

9:

Thanks for the feedback Erik.

To address your resolution issues: we designed the site aiming at a browser resolution of 1024*768 resolution and higher - we needed it to fit everything we wanted and thought that with increasing resolution sizes we could afford to inconvenience that small percentage not using such a high resolution.

This might also be why you're seeing most of the page as a header and a footer (though you're obviously exaggerating) and your need to scroll horizontally.

What we're aiming for is a community site, not just a "blog". If it were the latter, we'd have dropped in any Wordpress theme that we could find online. As such we wanted to show what the members in our community were saying on their own blogs, and showcase some of their upcoming books and short fiction, all to help build our community. We thought this all needed to be within the "fold".

Either way, thanks for the feedback, we appreciate your time to let us know what you thought, and we'll keep them in mind.

10:

Complete arse, M. Ellis? It's boring maybe. And the teaser's on the front page are woefully short given that everyone in their audience reads. And I was going to compare it unfavorably to your own site (or one of them) which had illegible typography. But it seems to have been redesigned (looks good too). At any rate, the things I disliked about your old site and the things I dislike about this one are solved by the same thing. An RSS feed reader pointed, in this case, at http://www.sfnovelists.com/feed. Much better.

11:

Tony, on your Our Authors page, you have the last four on the list, plus Louise Marley, without links attached to their names like the others (Marley may be because there are two websites). Also, you misspelled Eleanor Arnason's first name.

12:

Tony, 1024x768 is considerably higher resolution than most of the gizmos I use for web browsing.

Nokia 770/N800/N810: they're 800x480.

Mobile phone: that's 320x240.

Lots of older laptops ate 800x600.

Asus Eee: 800x480.

(I aim to do websites that degrade gracefully to fit a WVGA screen -- or preferably to fit a text-only palmtop screen. This isn't rocket science; just use CSS.)

13:

Looks fine to me, but I'm going to lurk a while. I'm not sure I could be described as `professional.'

14:

I agree about the website's feel and usability issues.

I prefer something like this:
http://planet.debian.net/
or some random
http://blogspot.com/
sites.

Quibbles:
*The author's name should be more prominent for each post.
*Give me the full post, unless it's huge. I don't want to click through to see if something is interesting.
*http://www.sfnovelists.com/authors is not alphabetized. Had to do find-in-page to see if our fearless leader was listed.
*You've got two sidebars on the right. I'd stack one on top of the other.

15:

Tony, 1024x768 is considerably higher resolution than most of the gizmos I use for web browsing.

Point of fact, I was on a 1024x768 screen, and I usually have many more pixels to play with. But the point of a windowing system is windows, so expecting my browser to have 1024x768 pixels, much less the 1600x1200 I'm currently on, is a bad bet. The browser *will* be smaller than the screen, either somewhat, on the notebook, or very much so, on the desktops.

As Charlie said -- the whole point is graceful degredation. If I'm concerned about layout, I don't want CSS -- I want a PDF. If I'm concerned about the content, layout that hampers me getting to the content is a bad idea.

Give the Blackberry/Treo/iPhone revolution, assuming 800x600 is a bad bet.

16:

I agree with Charlie. I've got a desktop here that's effectively 2000-odd pixels wide, but I tend to run browsers at less than 1000px wide (and I don't understand people who maximise everything on huge screens). My laptop's screen is only 800x600, all up. I can't see anything on that site that needs to be a fixed width, apart from the images of the book covers.

Relative widths are easy to set in css, and graceful failing is supposed to be one of the points of using it...

17:

Okay, now it sounds like I'm grumpy. The real reason I point this out is one I hope you'll understand as a writer -- I want to read your text.

I understand the book covers in the sidebar, and why you want them to be above the fold -- you're trying to earn a living. But it just seems to me that there's way too much not text window, and not enough text window, for a blog. I don't look at weblogs. I read them.

18:

Personally, I like the layout. Lots of different stuff to poke around in, and the excerpts on the front page mean I can quickly scan for a headline or author I am interested in without tons of scrolling through full-length posts. And as far as I'm concerned, the header area is fine - clean lines, nice colors, nice design.

Of course, I have a nice, big monitor and do tend to surf full-screen. (I'm too ADD to have other stuff in my field of view when I'm reading - my saving throw vs shiny is worse than Charlie's.) And I like the community aspect of it, as well - I'm always on the lookout for new books and other interesting reading.

Different strokes and all that. But, FWIW, your header is definitely Photoshopped. I can soooo see the pixels. :-D

19:

This is a strange beast. The RSS feed is *better* than the original site since you can read the full articles without playing "jab-the-link" ...so into Bloglines this goes for me. Thanks!

(As for sites that post only summaries to their RSS, life is too short...)

20:

Agree with other comments; too much white space. Charlie's blog is an exception in that it's got lots of content which I like a lot. YMMW.

21:

I don't know - I think Charlie's site could do with an overhail. Maybe some big jpegs scattered around, strange use of some javascript without proper closing tags, and perhaps sprinkle some blink tags around the place...

You know - make it more user friendly.

Thanks for the link though. As someone who would like to get into the business, the points of view of other authors is quite interesting.

22:

Sorry to hijack your thread Charlie, but this has turned out to be a really interesting conversation.

Re: comment 15 by Erik, I was very careful to say "browser resolution of 1024*768" as I don't maximize my browser windows either :)

And regards to mobile devices, the interesting thing is most of them completely disable CSS and javascript and in that case the site degrades really well. Some other devices like the iPhone and PDAs don't, and then we get some display issues re: resolution.

Thanks for all the constructive feedback everyone.

23:

I like the site. Just thought I'd throw that out there. My two cents.

24:

Jeff said: "Let's face it, there aren't that many opinions worth searching out; Stross is one of those rare finds.

post # 6: "ass kisser!"

If I were going to kiss ass, I guess Stross's butt isn't so bad. ha ha ha.

Jeff

25:

I'm curious as to what tools you use for writing fiction and/or technical writing.

I assume most writers are using MS Word, but you've got a strong enough geek background that you could be using vi. (Assuming I translated your geek code right).

26:

Diane: this got covered some years ago ...

I used to write in perl's POD documentation macros (which are sufficient for the needs of a jobbing novelist), using vim, rcs for source code control, and a custom toolchain hacked together from bits of perl and glued around a makefile to spit out HTML, RTF, PDF, and other output formats.

Then an editor insisted he wanted to use Word change tracking to copy-edit a file, so I started using OpenOffice. It's corrupting, but ...

My main concern is that my files remain accessible and readable in the long term. Microsoft don't care about that; they care about getting me to buy a new word processor every couple of years. Hence their traditional tendency to rev their file format every two generations. That's not good enough for me; I figure the lifetime of one of my books is probably closer to 30 years than 3, and I need stability. Microsoft have gotten better since the mid-1990s, but still, OOXML is a dog's dinner, which is why I prefer ODF as an archive format. When you get down to it, data integrity and accessibility is more important than the tools you use (although cross-platform open-source apps are likely to remain accessible long after proprietary stuff has gone the way of the dodo -- anyone else got files locked up in Microsoft Word for Mac 5.1 format?).

NB: I am just now installing and customizing eeeXubuntu 0.3 on my Asus Eee, and getting ready to tune it so that it doesn't hose the flash disk: this should tell you where I come from.


27:

I don't know about MS having a "traditional tendency" to change their file formats. They have been pretty stable over the last decade - Word 2007 is the first change since Word 1997. Even old formats like W4Mac5.1 are easily accessible using installable/downloadable converters, or at very worst you can open the file in a text editor and suck the text out. I think computer pros protest too much about the complexity of such matters.

There has been a historical tension in popular file formats between longevity and editing/presentation features. A living/working document may not be destined for as long a life as the published result. Sometimes you just need one set of tools for putting the doc together, and another for archiving. I keep hearing of newspaper compositing tools that still don't have even spell-checking capability, or you get ones that can't do simple text layout like superscripts leading to "the biggest typo in history"
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005236.html

Chris Pratley's article on Word is interesting background if you've never worked on mass-market software.
http://blogs.msdn.com/chris_pratley/archive/2004/04/27/120944.aspx

28:

Mike, one change in a decade is one too many for me. I'm thinking long term. And hint: the downloadable converters you're talking about are written by Microsoft to run on Microsoft operating systems. Guess what I work on?

(Yes, I have worked on mass-market software, thank you very much. Shudder.)

29:

The needs and time-horizons of you and your copy-editor are quite different, even at the bitstream level. If I were the copy-editor, I would want the best tool to get my shittily-paid job done, and I would probably upgrade as often as I could stand and afford. To work with the maximum number of writers' outputs, that will mean mass-market software for the forseeable future.

I suspect that in the long term any intelligent document editing tool would be able to decode most old formats on-the-fly. If they can't I would be very disappointed.

30:

Mike: To work with the maximum number of writers' outputs, that will mean mass-market software for the forseeable future.

Absolutely and utterly wrong. This is a common misconception that many people who haven't got involved in the commercial publishing industry harbour (including me, when I first began to get published).

The reality is, a significant number of authors still work with fountain pens on paper. Or manual typewriters. And the ones who do this tend to be the long-established authors who you need to keep happy. (Or there's Jerry Pournelle, who still -- I believe -- uses XyWrite; or Jo Walton, who uses Protext on a 386 running MSDOS 5. Or me, using vi and POD macros.)

You simply can't do lossless two-way file format conversions on this stuff. Not reasonably, not on a universal and ongoing basis, and not in more time than it would take you to whip out a red pencil and do the job on hunks of dead tree. Sure you could say "Word documents only" and 80% of your writers could comply, saving a buttload of time ... but the other 20% would have Problems, some of which would be terminal, and before you untwizzled everything you'd discover that a number of bestsellers or strong backlist authors had said "sod this for a game of soldiers, I'm getting a new publisher". And you don't want that.

So the reason the editorial pipeline in commercial publishing works at the most old-fashioned, lowest-common-denominator level is because it's reliable. And when you're processing 150 novels a year, reliability is important for your project management and your acid indigestion -- more important than throwing money at shiny new technology. It's no accident that the editor who worked on "The Atrocity Archives" and "The Jennifer Morgue" using change-tracking and email was working for a small press that published 3-5 titles a year: he could afford to use non-standard processes.

31:

OK, setting aside those writers who don't exchange bits with their editors, I can't see that two-way conversions between software is that difficult unless you've got an author who wants to specify page layout to the kerning level.

Or am I misreading the 20% of problems as being simply not "absolutely and utterly" unproblematic?

32:

Damn.. I suspect charlie has EXACTLY the background to understand the problems of the last few comments.. - and I realized I've been missing some of his gems hidden in the comments (Charlie, you do have a way to "promote" comment 30 and all of its thread to a new post.. I mean without copying it, right?) .. But I was going to weigh in with a little comment about the SFFauthors blog.. as In comment #8.. yes the header + footer take (as close as I can measure without another dead tree and a rule) 1/3 of the vertical height of the page.. at least when parsed by firefox..
My (ancient) Treo 600 is too slow for rss browsing, but I might try to write my first novel on it.. (just kidding) I'd use the laptop, and Ooffice (or Nedit?)
But who wants to change tools? I've been unhappy with
the new Yahoo feed reader but still haven't invested the time to find a good one.. But Maybe you should re-think the purpose of the front page.. Its just there to generate hits so that someone googling for stuff related to Science Fiction (or fantasy) will find the feed and add it to their feed reader.. right?

I really enjoyed Halting State! From MY point of view, I don't really care that much about that site, Charlie.. CRANK out another book for me to enjoy!!.. Get back to work!
Jonathan

33:

Ok maybe this will be a _useful_ comment about the formatting of that site..
the Archives..
I can only see them by DATE, and only know the title?
Can you add "tags" to the posts, and let us find them that way? or by the author.. (EVERY blog post is a writing sample.. and every read (by me at least) is another data point to see if I'm going to like how this person thinks, and how much I'm going to let them into my mind.. and for how much $$ out of my wallet)
--- then of course, once tagged.. we should be able to subscribe to tags as feeds?
-- Later, Jonathan

34:

Personally I like LaTeX a lot. You can, and IMO really should, decouple the input format (which should contain instructions) from the output format (which should contain representation). For durability, I doubt anything can beat LaTeX, and even if somehow the macros change the text is perfectly readable. I read somewhere on comments to this blog though, that CS finds LaTeX too complex.

35:

Jonathan David: you're asking for Work. The guy who maintains this Movable Type installation is Yours Truly. The next upgrade -- due about three months ago -- is a major version number, and involves merging Charlie's Diary wit The Prattle, which is also hosted on this server but uses an entirely different MySQL database and has the same MT blog ID number, just to add to the happy fun games.

It will get done, probably some time when I do not have a book that's three months behind schedule waiting to be written. Only then will I think about trying to add extra features.

36:

Mr. Stross said: "The reality is, a significant number of authors still work with fountain pens on paper."

Are you suggesting that these hold-backs are influencing the direction of standardized software? I think the market place is probably the main factor. And people like you, and what you have to say can influence the market also. I'm not sure complete standardization, the ONE software used by all, is for the best. It's probably not even a requirement in a highly adaptable software culture. Translation programs can do the work for you, old code updated by machines for machines. But then again, primitive old paper (acid free), can stand up to a lot when stored properly. Long term storability and access to-ability may end up being something sub-quantum. The ultimate base-foam-code.

37:

Jeff, you're thinking in terms of software. I'm thinking in terms of how a business works -- and it's a business that predates computers. Software is a spurious distraction; you need to think about process.

As for some kind of quantum foam storage; isn't that going to be kind of easy to lose? All it takes is one breakdown of civilization and you're up shit creek. Unlike engraved baked clay stellae, which tend to last quite well unless someone chops them up and uses them as house-bricks ...

38:

im facing a dillema here , two authors whom i admire greatly for their sheer scientific and speculative creativity (insert ken and charles)seem to constantly remind me that my nationality (american) is something to be ashamed of. now i cant speak for every atrocity committed
by nation but i would love to read a story by either of these two which reflects some if any good done by my nation if not in a

humanitarian aspect , at least a scientific one.

39:

David, if you're looking for nations to be ashamed of, and aren't above a little schadenfreude, can I commend to you Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis? Or remind you which nation gave us the term "Concentration Camp"?

Your nationality isn't a problem. Rather, you problem is a side-effect of your nation's current position as imperial hegemon. Power corrupts, and imperial power corrupts really unpleasantly. The good news is, the USA has some redeeming features that most hegemonic imperial powers lack -- and we'll probably still like you guys when the American century is over and it's someone else's turn to be the biggest bastard on the block.

40:

C.S said "...and it's a business that predates computers. Software is a spurious distraction; you need to think about process."

I got the feeling you were talking about long term storage of your work. I'm not sure I know how to think about the process much more than I do. I'm doing business every day, and for the most part it still seems to boil down to providing something that people want and being able to make a living by doing so. As for data stored in the very small part of the universe: access to those data would require technology (I assume), or a mind that has been engineered to access that part of reality. Maybe it would be like using magic, a way to view the Big Book, God's library (or non-god's library for atheists). Greg Bear also used that idea in Moving Mars, and Herbert used it with his ultra DNA library, and the idea was used in the movie AI. I'm sure the ideas been used a lot. How would you prevent the data from being lost?

Jeff

41:

Jeff: the question isn't "how would you prevent the data from being lost?" -- it's "how would you go about retrieving the data if you've forgotten that it's there?"

One of the reasons dead-tree books persist is because, if they're produced and maintained properly, they've got a half-life measured in centuries, and you need no special technology to access the contents.

42:

C.S. said, "..and you need no special technology to access the contents."

Sorta true. Yes clay, paper, velum can last a long time. And hopfully there are some humans that can read what's on that clay or velum. But the "technology" required to understand this old stuff is our brain, combined with our scientific data base. We change our brain selectively by learning what we want. Also, a Rosetta Stone is often needed, and without it an old language isn't always translatable. So, let's say that all our information can be stored in a substrate that will last for hundreds of billions of year, maybe longer. If we find a way to change our brain so that we can look into this "record" then we can't lose it. I know that's very sf-ish, but we are talking about long term storage and access. You must have thought about this long term issue, since you also write about ancient technology and people who still know how to make it work. What format would an Elder civilization use?

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