29 Jun

How to collaborate on fiction in 2016 using pair programming, Skype, and Google Docs

I just finished a new collaboration. It’s a short story of nearly 10,000 words that will be in Bridging Infinity (you can pre-order here), edited by Johnathan Strahan “The latest volume in the Hugo award-winning Infinity Project series, showcasing all-original hard science fiction stories from the leading voices in genre fiction.”

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The writer I collaborated with was Karen Lord, who currently lives in Barbados (author of Galaxy Games, Redemption in Indigo, you’re reading her, right?).

There are a lot of different ways to collaborate. I’ve done many of them. But for seamless and rapid writing, one method stands out to me that was first introduced to me by Karl Schroeder.

In 2007 Karl and I spent a weekend in Toronto writing a short story called ‘Mitigation.’ The story would eventually spark my time spent on the novel Arctic Rising a couple years later. To write this story, Karl invited me to spend a three day weekend at his home while we worked on the story (also a 10,000 word story).

We spent the first night there drinking scotch and spitballing ideas, and the next morning in a diner scribbling ideas on the backs of paper mats. The fun, world building stuff that could go on and on.

But back at Karl’s office the work started. Karl had a plan, one he said he’d done with another writer before, where we would share the keyboard. One of us would write a single sentence. Then the other would revise that sentence, then write a next one. Other writer would revise that sentence, then write another.

Starting can be the hardest, but with one line at a time, swapping in and out of the chair, we soon had a few paragraphs. In fact, it was starting to get hard to stick to just a single line. Karl commented that once we started being unable to stick to a line, we’d switch to paragraphs.

This had the effect of blending our styles. It also forced us each to check in with each other, live, line by line, on what we thinking and trying to do. Get stuck? Jump out of the chair and usually the other writer could jump in.

We did this until we had 2-3 pages in short order. We broke for lunch and spitballed some outline ideas, coming up with upcoming scenes.

At that point, we then each took alternate scenes, not paragraphs, concurrently. I’d work on my laptop, Karl on his desktop, and email the scenes into a final document and edit them. In three days we had a clean, tight, 10,000 word short story that ended up being in a Year’s Best anthology.

I’ve done many other forms of collaboration. Handing the document back and forth, outlining for others to write, muddling through it on an ad-hoc basis. But Karl’s method really jumped out at me and I proposed trying to use it despite the fact that Karen and I are thousands of miles apart.

The methodology we used is something programming friends of mine indicated were similar to the idea of ‘pair programming.’ According to Wikipedia:

Pair programming is an agile software development technique in which two programmers work together at one workstation. One, the driver, writes code while the other, the observer or navigator,[1] reviews each line of code as it is typed in. The two programmers switch roles frequently.

While reviewing, the observer also considers the “strategic” direction of the work, coming up with ideas for improvements and likely future problems to address. This frees the driver to focus all of his or her attention on the “tactical” aspects of completing the current task, using the observer as a safety net and guide.

Karen was willing to try it. To write the document we used Google Docs as we could both use it at the exact same time, creating that concurrent use atmosphere and live ability I found so fascinating when I worked with Karl.

To get the live Pair Programming aspect, we used Skype. To write like this, I really found the live ability to talk to a partner to be killer. The reason is this, in past collaborations, I’ve found a lot of communication can be lost in text, emails back and forth, and people going around in circles without realizing it.

I found that just talking live to the person, I can see their face the moment I suggest an idea and more accurately assess whether we both truly love it, or whether they really love it and I don’t, or whether it’s something we’re both ‘meh’ on and should keep talking about. There is so much more you can figure out, and faster. You can tell when someone is just spitballing, as opposed to really hung onto something.

Karen and I spent a two hour Skype spitballing ideas on the first day, from which we came up with a skeletal idea for plot, some world building, and what we wanted to accomplish from the story.

The second Skype session was a half day of using the same method I described Karl and I did, but with Karen and I meeting over Skype and using Google Docs. One of us wrote a line, the other edited it and wrote the next. Then the other would come on and edit that then write the next. Soon we were doing paragraphs. Then sections.

The next two days we traded off sections, and then we did a series of revision passes that were not done live on video.

It took about four or five days to create a 10,000 word story called The Mighty Slinger for Bridging Infinity. Calypso singers, hard SF megastructures, idea SF. It was a hell of a lot of fun to write and I’m pleased to see that for a second time this process of ‘pair writing’ in a near-live situation works well, and that fact that it can work over great distances was a pretty amazing experiment, I felt.

Writing can often feel isolating. Being able to spit ball ideas and gain energy from another writer’s enthusiasm over the project made this a great experience.

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28 Jun

Dear new writers: you do have the power to speak

Several times a year I encounter moments where a writer, or a new writer, or a writer yet to be, is reluctant to write an essay or talk about a position they are passionate about. This is doubly so if it’s political. They believe that they’ll be blackballed from publishing or their career will falter.

Since it’s a political election season, I’d like to note:

The ‘industry’ of writers/critics/readers/etc are not nearly monolithic enough to blackball you. It’s easier to die quietly in a midlist spiral. Or to never get noticed at all.

This fear of blackballs existed when I was an egg as well. I was told a lot of things to do when I joined up by older writers.

Don’t talk about politics, you’ll lose readers. Don’t talk about controversy, you’ll lose readers.

Don’t lose readers!

Don’t be too ‘strident’ or no one will want to work with you.

I’m not going to lie and say you won’t get labeled. I’m not going to lie and say that you won’t lose readers.

But…

Most readers aren’t online, they’re aren’t involved in the bubble of who’s saying what unless you’re being quoted in major magazines. Most readers want to be entertained. Most editors want to sell a book to readers that will do well. (and, ps, you’ll also *gain* readers).

Speaking up doesn’t preclude a career. If so, some of my favorite writers today wouldn’t have one. And some of my least favorite as well.

Yes, you do have to pick where and when you’ll fight. Choose where to spend your energy. I try to invest most of my energy into the fiction.

Yet, the blackballing thing keeps coming up. Over 15 years observing, this is one of those things that people believe that I try to dissuade. Obscurity is far more a threat to a career than blackballing. You’d also be surprised at the number of voices that people in the field become aware of due to speaking up.

So if you really want to, tell us what you’re thinking. Really.

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27 Jun

Node has a collection of interviews with science fiction writers, of which I’m one

James Cambias, Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, Vandana Singh and I all responded to a number of questions about SF/F for Node:

Do you think that science fiction can or should predict the future?

I think science fiction should engage with the future. That doesn’t mean predict it, though that’s often the common perception. We also warn about the future. Beg you not to go down a certain path. Warn incessantly about horrible possible futures. Wonder if a certain future would be interesting. Dream about a certain future. There are many different ways to engage.

(Via Can science fiction predict the future? A collection of interviews with science fiction writers : Node.)

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26 Jun

Ultimate weeding tool recommendation

The front of house was getting a bit weedy, despite all the mulch put down at the end of last summer when I paid to have the entire front area re-graded, as well as the beds pulled out. Our suspicion, confirmed by a recommended landscaper, was that the large raised beds along the front of the house were holding water against it, adding to our basement wetness issues we’ve been struggling with since 2008.

I hate weeding. One thing I’m quite fond of is using a flame thrower to keep the weeds back that come up between our patio stones and walkway stones. That reduced what used to take weeks of fishing around between pavers to yank weeds to just a yearly half hour burn.

But I’ve never been able to really keep up on weeding the mulched beds out front of the house. Leaning over, back unhappy, grubbing around for the damn roots. And for some reason my front yard, whether through years of struggle or just aggressive weeds around here, is aggressive as hell.

I was noodling around online and came across this beast, a stand up weeder:

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The basic idea is that you step on bit sticking out to shove the 4 claws deep down into the ground to wrap around the weed and all the way down to its root. Then, to pull it out, you lean back on it and use leverage that both forces the claws to grab the root and the lever lets you pull up with great force yet minimal effort:

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The weeding tool arrived last weekend, but I was out of town. I finally took it out for a spin on Tuesday. I stood it over a massive chunk of crab grass, stood on the lever and my bodyweight drove it down seven or so inches into the ground. I then pulled back on the handle and the whole weed just popped out.

I then flipped it into a bag, all without bending all the way over.

Reader: it was a transformative moment.

It was a slower process than weeding by hand, but not by much, and way less struggling and pulling and leaning over. I put on an audio book and set the timer for an hour to see how far I could go.

Turns out, pretty far. With just an hour here and an hour there, by the end of the week the entire front of house beds were weeded. Something that, by hand, I would have spent a couple weeks tackling and was dreading.

So this weekend, with so much weeding done, I tacked the third bed that lies along our pathway:

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You can see one of the main beds up behind it that is mainly weeded thanks to the weed tool.

Here is the walkway bed weed free, I used the weed tool on the spiky dug in weeds, but the grass I did by hand as the bed there is not very deep:

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Then Emily and I replanted:IMG 1762

I forget what the yellow flowers are, but they’re supposed to stay six inches tall and bush out and have yellow flowers all summer long.

The creeping phlox that survived an accidental miscommunication with landscapers who took out some weeds a couple years ago, and also led to them removing all the perennials we had in that walkway bed, that I split into three. Hopefully it roots and spreads, as that will lead to a few inches high phlox that produces lavender buds.

I reseeded grass in the muddy bits in front of the house beds, the grass last summer didn’t take out front. The weeds did, though, which were a big part of what I removed. Here’s hoping a second attempt at getting grass into those muddy sections work. Those were the edges of the old, high beds out front.

But this would have been a horrible, long, dreary thing were it not for that stand up weeder. A few days weeding, then I got to do some fun stuff. Rather than the usual weeks of horror or just giving up and paying for someone to come in and do it for me.

Next up, I need to re-mulch the bed down by the walkway and I need to burn the weeds between the pavers.

There’s a part of me that really hates yard work and shit like that. I just fume about the fact that I could be inside creating something, or consuming something created. But that weeding tool…

…that thing’s the shit.

I’ll likely be doing a better job of keeping up on the weeding too, now.

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24 Jun

After six years, I’ve decided to reopen comments. So, say hello or something

Six years ago, overwhelmed by moderation duties to keep the comments a safe place and facing health issues that left me with very little energy, I shut down comments.

People predicted doom! Well, I kept blogging and the blog grew.

Then I stopped blogging, basically. I retreated to social media. But then, slowly, I stopped feeling like that was home as well. Social media impact grew, but blogging tailed off hard, and the readership on the site as well.

So, now this year I’ve experimented a little with video. Last year I took a six month hiatus from social media. All of these experiments to see where I was headed.

And they took me back to this direction. Opening comments.

So if you missed them, say hello!

Tell me what you’re up to.

And hopefully I can keep this rolling…

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24 Jun

A Reaction to the #Brexit Vote

Many of you probably don’t realize this, but I’m not American. It’s always a shock, and some folks in essays have continually flubbed it, but I’m actually a Brit in technicality.

Truth is, my mom’s the real Brit. Born in Middlesex, time spent in London, then sailed with her family around the Mediterranean and ended up in New Zealand for her equivalent of high school before rejoining the family who had sailed to Grenada. Grenada then, being a part of the last bits of British Empire.

Grenada achieved independence the year I was born, and mom was still a Brit, so she opted for the UK passport for me. My understanding is that I’m eligible to apply for a Grenadian passport if I visit. I’m also eligible for a US passport and citizenship after classes and tests.

I have kept hanging onto the UK passport all along as it is one of two things that I have from my childhood. As a kid who grew up always moving, it was one of a few roots that I got to hang onto.

The first time I visited the UK, despite being a subject of Her Majesty the Queen, was a few years ago. We went to visit some of mum’s family and see Wales, where her family originally hailed from. And the third time I visited, I used the passport to easily enter the EU and move about France and Spain.

It was one of the reasons I valued the passport. The knowledge that it gave me the ability to plug in to a larger community of 300 million.

This has been one of the biggest cutting off a nose to spite a face scenarios I think I’ve seen. It’s stunning. I’m still sorting through my reactions.

Basically, when Donald Trump, Iran, Moscow, and right-wing racist groups are all totally psyched, you fucked up.

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23 Jun

Tumblr crossposting test post

Okay, so I don’t have a Facebook page (I don’t know why, I hate Facebook, I grudgingly use an account for local and family stuff, but that’s it), but I have set up a Tumblr account and am testing cross posting from this site.

That is all this is.

update: The Tumblr is here. Testing what happens when I update a post after the fact!

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23 Jun

Ratcatcher a Best Science Fiction of the Year: Recommended Reading List

Neil Clarke at Clarkesworld posted a short list of 2015 short stories recommended for reading, and that included my short story Ratcatcher:

All of those stories are represented in the anthology, either as a reprints or in the recommended reading list at the end of the book. They were all great stories that deserve attention, so with my publisher’s permission, I share that list with you now:

(Via Best Science Fiction of the Year: Recommended Reading List – Neil Clarke.)

Rat catcher is the original story available in Xenowealth: A Collection.

Not bad for a story that Kickstarter backers helped usher into the world.

Thank you to both Neil and to everyone who helped Xenowealth: A Collection become real.

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20 Jun

I’ll have a story in Fractures: Extraordinary Tales from the Halo Canon

This may have been dropped between the cracks as I was in the middle of another deadline when news dropped. But one of the more frequent questions I get is, is anything more Halo coming out from me? Well, I can reveal that on September 20th, I have a novelette coming out in a collection of Halo stories called Fractures:

Launch once more into galaxy-spanning conflict and legendary heroism…shards of an ever-expanding journey where human and alien alike find their finest hours in facing their greatest challenges. These scattered stories span untold millennia, from the age of the ancient custodial race known as the Forerunners…to the aftermath of the Covenant’s bloody war against humanity…and even the shocking events surrounding the resurrection of the mysterious Guardians. Halo: Fractures explores mythic tales of bravery and sacrifice that blaze brightly at the very heart of the Halo universe.

(Via Fractures: Extraordinary Tales from the Halo Canon: Various: 9781501140679: Amazon.com: Books.)

The short story I have in it will be called ‘Oasis.’

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07 Jun

SpaceX plans first launch of a reused first stage rocket in a few months

This is the next big milestone, now that SpaceX is regularly re-landing first stage boosters, that SpaceX relaunch a booster and begin testing how that lifecycle works.

This article I’m linking talks about SpaceX talking to insurers about how the system is working so they can basically certify a used booster for launch in the new few months, and how much that will bring down their cost (to the $40 millions a launch range. Compared to $225 mil for their competition.

Pretty amazing stuff:

lists its starting price for the Falcon 9 rocket at $62 million. The average price of a launch with United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. that competes with SpaceX for national security satellite launch contracts, is $225 million.

SpaceX executives say prices could go down even further — potentially by 30% — if the company is able to make good on its plans to offer reusable rockets for launch.

(Via SpaceX and Insurance Underwriters Will Discuss Risks of Reusing Rockets – Business Briefing on CIO Today.)

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