01 Feb

Read ‘Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance’ for free at Lightspeed Magazine Online

Lightspeed Magazine has reprinted my story ‘Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance’ today online for all to read. Also, Locus put the story on their 2017 Recommended Reading List. This is the story that will be in 3 of the Year’s Best anthologies.

I’m grateful to everyone who has highlighted this story and talked it up. Thank you so much for the word of mouth. I can’t tell you how psyched I am that anyone can now head out and read it online. I hope you enjoy it.

Here’s an opening snippet. You know what to do!

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Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance

After battle with the Fleet of Honest Representation, after seven hundred seconds of sheer terror and uncertainty, and after our shared triumph in the acquisition of the greatest prize seizure in three hundred years, we cautiously approached the massive black hole that Purth-Anaget orbited. The many rotating rings, filaments, and infrastructures bounded within the fields that were the entirety of our ship, With All Sincerity, were flush with a sense of victory and bloated with the riches we had all acquired.

Give me a ship to sail and a quasar to guide it by, billions of individual citizens of all shapes, functions, and sizes cried out in joy together on the common channels. Whether fleshy forms safe below, my fellow crab-like maintenance forms on the hulls, or even the secretive navigation minds, our myriad thoughts joined in a sense of True Shared Purpose that lingered even after the necessity of the group battle-mind.

I clung to my usual position on the hull of one of the three rotating habitat rings deep inside our shields and watched the warped event horizon shift as we fell in behind the metallic world in a trailing orbit.

A sleet of debris fell toward the event horizon of Purth-Anaget’s black hole, hammering the kilometers of shields that formed an iridescent cocoon around us. The bow shock of our shields’ push through the debris field danced ahead of us, the compressed wave it created becoming a hyper-aurora of shifting colors and energies that collided and compressed before they streamed past our sides.

What a joy it was to see a world again. I was happy to be outside in the dark so that as the bow shields faded, I beheld the perpetual night face of the world: it glittered with millions of fractal habitation patterns traced out across its artificial surface.

On the hull with me, a nearby friend scuttled between airlocks in a cloud of insect-sized seeing eyes. They spotted me and tapped me with a tight-beam laser for a private ping.

“Isn’t this exciting?” they commented.

“Yes. But this will be the first time I don’t get to travel downplanet,” I beamed back.

I received a derisive snort of static on a common radio frequency from their direction. “There is nothing there that cannot be experienced right here in the Core. Waterfalls, white sand beaches, clear waters.”

“But it’s different down there,” I said. “I love visiting planets.”

“Then hurry up and let’s get ready for the turnaround so we can leave this industrial shithole of a planet behind us and find a nicer one. I hate being this close to a black hole. It fucks with time dilation, and I spend all night tasting radiation and fixing broken equipment that can’t handle energy discharges in the exajoule ranges. Not to mention everything damaged in the battle I have to repair.”

This was true. There was work to be done.

Safe now in trailing orbit, the many traveling worlds contained within the shields that marked the With All Sincerity’s boundaries burst into activity. Thousands of structures floating in between the rotating rings moved about, jockeying and repositioning themselves into renegotiated orbits. Flocks of transports rose into the air, wheeling about inside the shields to then stream off ahead toward Purth-Anaget. There were trillions of citizens of the Fleet of Honest Representation heading for the planet now that their fleet lay captured between our shields like insects in amber.

The enemy fleet had forced us to extend energy far, far out beyond our usual limits. Great risks had been taken. But the reward had been epic, and the encounter resolved in our favor with their capture.

Purth-Anaget’s current ruling paradigm followed the memetics of the One True Form, and so had opened their world to these refugees. But Purth-Anaget was not so wedded to the belief system as to pose any threat to mutual commerce, information exchange, or any of our own rights to self-determination.

Later we would begin stripping the captured prize ships of information, booby traps, and raw mass, with Purth-Anaget’s shipyards moving inside of our shields to help.

I leapt out into space, spinning a simple carbon nanotube of string behind me to keep myself attached to the hull. I swung wide, twisted, and landed near a dark-energy manifold bridge that had pinged me a maintenance consult request just a few minutes back.

My eyes danced with information for a picosecond. Something shifted in the shadows between the hull’s crenulations.

I jumped back. We had just fought an entire war-fleet; any number of eldritch machines could have slipped through our shields—things that snapped and clawed, ripped you apart in a femtosecond’s worth of dark energy. Seekers and destroyers.

A face appeared in the dark. Skeins of invisibility and personal shielding fell away like a pricked soap bubble to reveal a bipedal figure clinging to the hull.

“You there!” it hissed at me over a tightly contained beam of data. “I am a fully bonded Shareholder and Chief Executive with command privileges of the Anabathic Ship Helios Prime. Help me! Do not raise an alarm.”

I gaped. What was a CEO doing on our hull? Its vacuum-proof carapace had been destroyed while passing through space at high velocity, pockmarked by the violence of single atoms at indescribable speed punching through its shields. Fluids leaked out, surrounding the stowaway in a frozen mist. It must have jumped the space between ships during the battle, or maybe even after.

Protocols insisted I notify the hell out of security. But the CEO had stopped me from doing that. There was a simple hierarchy across the many ecologies of a traveling ship, and in all of them a CEO certainly trumped maintenance forms. Particularly now that we were no longer in direct conflict and the Fleet of Honest Representation had surrendered.

“Tell me: What is your name?” the CEO demanded.

“I gave that up a long time ago,” I said. “I have an address. It should be an encrypted rider on any communication I’m single-beaming to you. Any message you direct to it will find me.”

“My name is Armand,” the CEO said. “And I need your help. Will you let me come to harm?”

“I will not be able to help you in a meaningful way, so my not telling security and medical assistance that you are here will likely do more harm than good. However, as you are a CEO, I have to follow your orders. I admit, I find myself rather conflicted. I believe I’m going to have to countermand your previous request.”

Again, I prepared to notify security with a quick summary of my puzzling situation.

But the strange CEO again stopped me. “If you tell anyone I am here, I will surely die and you will be responsible.”

I had to mull the implications of that over.

“I need your help, robot,” the CEO said. “And it is your duty to render me aid.”

Well, shit. That was indeed a dilemma…

Go to Lightspeed Magazine to keep reading.

23 Jan

Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance to be in THREE different Year’s Best Collections and Year’s Top Ten Tales

My short story ‘Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance’ has caught me off guard with just how much people seem to be singling it out. As of right now, I have signed four contracts for the story to appear in Year’s Best collections.

I am beyond amazed and incredibly grateful for the honor. Here are all the reprint requests I have signed contracts for:

– – The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year Volume 12 (Apr. 2018)
– – The Year’s Best Science Fiction #35 (Jul. 2018)
– – The Best Science Fiction of the Year Volume 3 (Apr. 2018)
– – The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 10 (Jun. 2018)

But that’s not all! On February 1st, Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance will be going live online, reprinted somewhere for all to read. I can’t wait, as I love this story deeply and look forward to more people reading it.

Here are all the covers (clickable links to buy the collections if interested), tables of contents, and editors:

Original appearance: Cosmic Powers, Saga Press (April 2017).

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Edited by John Joseph Adams.

The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year Volume 12 (April, 2018)

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Edited by Jonathan Strahan (Table of Contents)

The Year’s Best Science Fiction #35 (July, 2018)

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Edited by Gardner Dozois (Table of Contents)

The Best Science Fiction of the Year Volume 3 (Apr. 2018)

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Edited by Neil Clarke (Table of Contents)

The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 10 (Jun. 2018)

I’ve also signed the contracts for the story to appear in the audio and text collection “The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 10”.

Edited by Allan Kaster (general page here)

09 Jan

Why I stopped using QWERTY and switched to an entirely different key layout

I’m prone to being into the cult of self-improvement. I keep track of how much I write via spreadsheets and have figured out when in the day I can write more, and when I am more creative. I have kept body weight, body fat, and tape measurements since 2003 (I an not super fit, if anything since 2008 I tracked because I had a heart defect and not allowed to exercise, so I had to be careful about fighting the pounds as they added strain to the heart and I wanted more life, as Roy Batty once famously said). I occasionally will identify things that bug me and set out to change them.

One of the things I had been suffering from over the last few years is wrist pain.

I love being a writer, but I hated that on days when the words would flow, I would end up back on my armchair with bags of ice wrapped around my wrist. So I decided that I would set out to attack it.

Part One: A Better Keyboard

First I decided to try a new keyboard. I had been using a Microsoft Sculpt for ages:

I really liked it, and when I briefly tried a flat keyboard again, went running back as wrist pain got even worse.

I had long been eyeing a Kinesis Advantage. The bowl-shaped tray for the keys seemed wild, but the reviews were so positive I kept a link to one bookmarked on my desktop for years. But the idea of dropping over $300 on a keyboard seemed far out. But then, I thought, how much would damaged hands cost me?

I used some old Christmas and birthday money I had lying around and ordered the Kinesis finally, realizing that if it worked it would be well worth the investment and I could return it if it was a total disaster. It came, if purchased from Kinesis, with a 30-day guarantee.

It looked wild when I got it. Taller and taking up more space than my trusty old Sculpt.

Right away, I saw that getting the keys broken up in the middle created a more natural spacing for my hands. The bowls for my keys also meant that my wrists dipped down, a more natural position for them to hold for long periods. The bowl of keys also meant that my fingers didn’t have to stretch as far to make a strike.

Having more keys for my thumbs was a bit weird at first, but I adapted.

Adapting to the whole keyboard was a trip.

I took a test of how fast I could type online before I ditched the Sculpt. It was about 70-80 words per minute, and I had a high accuracy rate of 98%. By comparison the average touch typer is around 41 words per minute with a 92% accuracy rate (that 92% accuracy rate would kill me, by the way).

Now to clarify: I don’t write fiction at that speed, that’s just how fast I can type words flashed at me on a screen on an online test. But it does give me a good idea of how comfortable I am on the keyboard.

My first day on the Kinesis, October 31st, my ass was well and truly kicked. The bowl shape meant the muscle memory of the fingers would often make me reach too far and trip over the keys.

By the end of the first day I managed to get back up to 41 words per minute. Enough to know that I could make the switch. I felt ‘slow’ and the keyboard felt alien, but I could see myself adapting in real time. I really wanted to be able to get past 55, but tripped whenever I tried to force it.

On the second day my speed kept improving and I soon hit 70 words per minute, though I kept tripping over the N and M key.

It took another six days before I hit my pre-switch comfort and speed levels:

So there, it took a week for me to make the switch.

Was it enough to make me fall in love with the keyboard?

Yes, because two things happened:

1) My speed kept creeping up. I didn’t notice it until I checked my speed again a few days later, I hit scores in the high 80s. Then a few days later, I logged a typing score in the 90s. And finally, 10 days after feeling fully adapted and 17 days after getting the Kinesis in the mail, I passed 100 words per minute on a typing test online.

2) My wrist pain fell off in those 17 days. And I was even able to write four thousand words in a day without needing to ice my wrists.

I was sold.

In fact, just getting a Kinesis may be one of the greatest writerly life hacks I’ve stumbled across. I radically increased my typing speed and decreased wrist pain in one stroke.

But, like Daedalus given wings and the ability to fly, I decided to see how close to the sun I could fly. I wanted more improvement, more help for my hands over the decades of typing to come. Because while the Kinesis would help me in my office, I still used the laptop keyboard when at the coffee shop, or traveling, or upstairs. And whenever I used it my wrists howled.

I decided I would abandon QWERTY…

Part Two: I rearrange all the keys on my keyboard!

So the thing about QWERTY is that it is not an efficient layout of keys and this is pretty common knowledge. When mechanical keyboards first came out and typers got faster and faster, the typewriters started jamming. QWERTY wasn’t, as some folk say, designed to slow typists down, it was more designed to scatter the more common combined strikes apart to prevent jamming. That results in forcing the typist to have to have more common keys scattered among less common keys, which is efficient for keeping mechanical systems working but not for the amount of travel the fingers do.

You can see this on the home row of the QWERTY keyboard:

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How many words can you type on the home row of a QWERTY layout?

About a hundred.

Most of the letters you have to type are on the rows above the home row where your fingers rest (52%). Only 32% of the strokes you make on a QWERTY keyboard are on the home row.

Contrast this to the Dvorak layout, where 70% of your typing strokes are on the home row, 22% are on the top.

Another issue that QWERTY has is an unevenness in the English language that often forces fingers to hurdle whole rows, hit the same keys with the same fingers, and only use a single hand for some long words:

QWERTY typing tends to degenerate into long one-handed strings of letters, especially strings for the weak left hand. More than 3,000 English words utilize QWERTY’s left hand alone, and about 300 the right hand alone. (Try typing exaggerated and greatest, then try million and monopoly). The underlying reason for this shortcoming is that most English syllables contain both vowels and consonants, but QWERTY assigns some vowels (A and E) as well as some common consonants (R, S, and D) to the left hand, and others (I, O, and U, plus H, L, and N) to the right hand. Hence, for about half of all digraphs (two consecutive letters) in a typical English text, QWERTY allocates both letters to the same hand.

There’s even evidence that this causes us to favor different words in our writing:

A past study published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review tested the QWERTY Effect, even asking English, Spanish, and Dutch speakers to rate words. They found words that used right-hand letters were favored. They even asked people to rate made up words like “pleek” and “ploke.”

One of the sites that I found useful was Carpalx, a site that brings a lot of thinking together about various keyboard layouts into one place.

While CarpalX recommends a computer generated keyboard layout, I found that there were two already installed on my Mac laptop, both of which promised tremendous improvements over QWERTY. Those were DVORAK and Colemak.

Here is the Dvorak keyboard, invented in the 1930s:

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It puts more common letters on the home row and alternates the consonants and vowels to create an alternating strike system, which allows the other hand to move to position itself.

Dvorak is used by many super fast typers, and running a test of words typed on it (running the entire Gutenberg collection through a virtual test of it) showed it nearly halves the distance your fingers travel in a day compared to QWERTY.

Dvorak also has a lot of use in various circles, and it is usually offered in the keyboard layout of most Operating Systems, so it would be very easy for me to use anywhere I went.

Many keyboards will also come with keys in DVORAK.

But…

The idea of relearning not just letters, but all my punctuation, it daunted me.

Additionally, the N and S key, two very frequent letters, being on the two weaker right keys, meant that I could see some difficulty in adapting.

Lastly, I have a lot of muscle memory devoted to hitting CTRL and C to copy something with a left hand while mousing with my right. Losing that on the DVORAK looked like a tall order.

Which is why I decided on Colemak.

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Like DVORAK there was a strong lean toward alternating the vowels and consonants, with the vowels on the right. Most of the most commonly used letters are on the home row. That means that while one can make around 100 words with QWERTY, you can type almost 6,000 on the home row in Colemak.

I could type words like disorientation or station or tender all on the home row without ever moving the fingers about!

I also liked that the more common letters were placed under the strongest fingers. No S on a pinky.

That and I would not have to relearn all my punctuation and keyboard shortcuts, plus similar efficiency improvements, meant that I decided to adopt Colemak on November 15th. I switched my keyboard layout in the settings for Keyboard Inputs and there it was.

Cold turkey. Jump right on in.

Part Three: What is like to actually use a whole new keyboard layout?

Day one was spent memorizing the new keys. I had a print out of the new layout on top of my monitor and I started working with a new typing tutor. My initial speed was 10 words per minute and it hurt my brain.

But I figured I had only taken a few days to learn my new keyboard, so surely that showed I would be a quick study at this.

I thought all I had to do was learn all the new placements, and then it would be a case of building my speed up.

On day three I learned about something called the Colemak-DH variant.

Even after just three days of using Colemak, I noticed something annoying on my ergo keyboard: the most common digraph that I employ is ‘HE’ in the English language. On Colemak that meant hitting the H by moving the index finger over one, which pulled the middle finger over the N key with it in that motion. Then to strike the E key I had to reposition. There were enough other benefits, but that was a weakness on my ergo keyboard, though the travel distance was less noticeable and annoying on the more cramped laptop keyboard.

It looked like this:

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This was amazing, because my pointer fingers naturally slightly ‘curl’ and rest on the very bottom of their respective home keys. The folks behind the ‘DH’ mod argue that this curl makes the key right under your pointer finger a next best thing for effortless strikes:

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With D and H moved down for a curl and strike, I felt the new layout to be more powerful. Of course, I had to relearn things yet again on day three as B, G, V and M, K and J moved around. But the new layout scored very high, keeping the benefits of Colemak and getting rid of its one big pain point that made me really worried about adopting it.

My speed dipped again, but within a day or so was back into the low 20s:

Now, for me, typing at about 25 words per minute felt so slow as to be falling behind in work. I was drilling on the typing tutors, but a whole week had gone by and I didn’t feel like I was making amazing progress. I did not feel confident enough to type and get that ‘flow’ where the words appear on the screen as I will them. I had to think of a word, then spell it out, then think about the letters, and type those letters.

It was painful.

After quick, easy to see growth periods, I got stuck at just under 30 words per minute:

In my second week of the experiment I legitimately panicked. Unable to really type much at under 30WPM I briefly thought I would switch back to QWERTY for a few days to get work done. I tried to use QWERTY and couldn’t. I was torn between two worlds. I couldn’t type in either.

I freaked out.

I couldn’t write! That was what I did! To make money! To earn!

What an idiot I was, I thought. I broke myself!

Well, I was standing at the crossroads, wasn’t I?

One of the things I was learning was that muscle memory is what we use to type with, and just memorizing a new keyboard layout wasn’t the only thing going on. Learning each individual key, that would take me from 10WPM to about 20WPM. But, it turns out, to touch type, we have learned not just individual keys, but combinations of letters.

As I got above the 20 WPM speed, my fingers knew where the Colemak keys were, but when I tried to quickly type a combo, they would then type that combo out in QWERTY, giving me gibberish. So then I had to start memorizing and relearning combos. ‘HE’ is the most common. But ‘IE’ ‘EI’ ‘ED’ ‘ON’ ‘ONE’ ‘ION’ and so on and so on are all baked into my head.

In fact, when I taught myself to touch type 20 years ago I finished up at 35WPM. Over the 20 years, I had slowly burned more and more combos into my finger muscle memory, and that memory kept trying to take over the moment my mind wandered, got flustered, or tried to speed up past where it was ready.

I focused not on speeding up, after that, but on just practice. Just kept drilling, realizing that this was an extreme exercise in neuro-plasticity.

After a couple days I finally broke out of the sub-30 WPM doldrums.

I put in hours of practice every day. In fact, I undid the healing the Kinesis had brought to me. I got so obsessed with getting back to 70 WPM I started drilling 6,000 and then 7,000 and then finally somewhere almost near 9,000 words of quotes in a drill. I started waking up in wrist pain in the middle of the night. I didn’t understand what was happening until I pulled the stats of the typing tutor and realized what I’d done: written almost a novel’s worth of words in a week.

If I had this to do over, instead of spending two weeks drilling on the keyboard for over five hours a day, I would follow the advice of neurologists for the changeover and learning of a new physical skill: use the tutor for 40 minutes before bed, let the physical pathways develop in sleep. The rest of the time, slowly type as accurately as you can.

I went full obsessed.

By the middle of the third week I was as fast as an average typist and slightly more accurate, at 43 words per minute. By the fourth week I was able to get into the mid 50s. And that was when I took my winter break and a break to let my hands heal.

I would also add that there is a third layer (one is just memorizing where the keys are, two is memorizing common patterns) to learning a new keying system. This is that as one hand types, the other positions itself to hit the next letter. From about 50wpm and up, I noticed that my waiting hand moves to the old QWERTY position, so that even as a struck a Colemak as I switched over to it, I’d be placed on the wrong row! So that’s also being retrained now as well.

I now seem to be able to type in the 55-62 words per minute range, with about 50 being comfortable. I fall into the low 40s when I get tired or confused. My accuracy rate is high compared to the average touch typist, but still low for me personally. I am hitting 94-96% accuracy, and I prefer 99%. I feel like I am a month or so away from the old speeds, and sometimes I fall into a nice rhythm here and it’s like, ‘yes, there it is, that’s just typing without me having to think about it.’

My hands are slowly healing again from the stupidity of my typing drills, but it is not as fast as I would like. I wish I had not been so driven, but just went with the flow. I was so determined to make the switch as fast as possible it may have actually backfired and slowed me down and hurt my wrists. This wasn’t the fault of Colemak, but me pushing through pain due to being stubborn. I’ve done it before on novels for deadlines, I did it again here.

However, typing on the laptop doesn’t aggravate my wrists as much. And the keyboard feels… I don’t know, easier. Like the keys I need are always right nearby. The new keyboard on the new MacBook Pro has really sucked for me, I keep missing the right key, and with Colemak now, I am actually starting to not hate it.

Now, to answer some questions:

Part Four: Am I glad I did this?

Yes. If for no other reason than there are few moments in this world to retrain the core muscle memory of something you’ve done almost all your life. I could feel my mind pulling against doing something so profoundly new. I could feel new pathways being etched in.

I don’t feel so restricted by the cramped laptop keyboard now. I strongly suspect this will help me save my wrists some when using the laptop keyboard.

Do you think you will end up faster?

I’m not sure. In theory since more of the common keys are on the home row I might end up faster, but since I am using a whole new system I am probably going to take a while to get back to where I was.

What about when you need to use a keyboard on another computer?

That was a serious question I asked myself. But I mainly only ever use my computer. Plus other keyboards all have the QWERTY printed out on them, I can hunt and peck in the rare event I need to. My phone is in QWERTY, so I haven’t forgotten where the keys are, actually, I’m just slower at it. Eventually as I get stronger at Colemak I’ll go back and practice QWERTY again. I view it like being bilingual.

Would you recommend anyone else do this?

Buy a Kinesis keyboard and that gets you 90% of all the benefits, most likely. This is months of relearning something you’ve spent years learning. If you’re obsessed only with speed, you want to learn stenography. The machines for court reporters use ‘chording’ (striking two keys at the same time’) to get up to 225 WPM and higher, they move at the speed of speech.

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I just thought, after seeing so many writers with RSI in their later years, that a few steps toward ameliorating that would be something valuable for me to do. I don’t regret that down payment on my future at all.

Anything still frustrating about the switchover?

Yeah, the S key. If you looked at the images I shared you will note that the S key moved over one. Just one space. And the reason is a good one. But for some reason the most common mistake I make is to hit R instead of S. When I get going fast it it still the most common mistake I make and have to fix, or get flustered by.

I also have trouble with the M key a little, but I had trouble with the N in the same place on the Kinesis. On Colemak-DH, the K goes where the H is in regular Colemak, that means that words like ‘know’ require a single finger reposition. Because you hardly do that on Colemak compared to QWERTY it stands out a bit.

Mostly I have to remember to slow down and focus on accuracy because even though I have absorbed a lot of it, I still have 20 years of QWERTY lurking about. When I get tired, flustered, or impatient my mind falls back into old patterns and I start making mistakes… which makes me more flustered. Right now I still have to be a little mindful as I type.

05 Jan

Why I Wrote a 21,000 Word Outline for My Novel…

(Note: this originally appeared to members of my Patreon in October)

One of the most well-read posts on my website is the post I titled “How I outline a novel” which I then updated several years later, which was mostly a summary of how I approached writing my first novel Crystal Rain. Some (cough) years later now, I mentioned that I’d written a twenty one thousand word outline for the latest novel to someone, and they looked somewhat stunned.

In my thirteenth year of writing novels I’m writing my thirteenth novel. Slowly I’ve started writing more and more detailed outlines and have surrendered to the fact that I work best off detailed outlines.

But in that process I’ve learned everything I thought I knew about outlining and that kept me from doing it consisted of misperceptions and hang ups from school.
In grade school, I was often forced to outline an essay before writing it. I really, really hated this. I cannot emphasize how much. For me, a well read kid who could dash off a three page paper quickly after dinner, it was often quicker for me to write the paper and then create the outline afterward. I also had a moment of cross-cultural drama. The academic system I came from perceived essays as a journey toward a final understanding that you bring the reader along with. A reflection of how you got from point A to point B, or maybe back to A. An introduction, a thesis of sorts, and an intellectual journey to a final point. In the US in college, it relied a lot more on ‘thesis, point 1, point 2, point 3, conclusion.’ None of my favorite essays used that structure.

Additionally, as an English major, I encountered very little material talking about outlines in fiction. The impression was that most Great Writers chipped away at the statue, uncovering their subject from underneath.

If only I’d actually taken more arts courses, I would known that Great Masters often did studies and test drawings and prep work to a great degree. They didn’t just all sit before a canvas and then, suddenly, ART!

My first outline was roughly a few thousand words of collating my existing notes about the novel I wanted to write, and writing up a rough idea of the structure and the larger ‘movements’ of the novel. I divided the novel into various parts, and then started writing.

The outline was created more as I went along, on a piece of software called Omnioutliner. Different point of view characters were tagged by different colors in the software. OO let me create columns, so I also added word counts of each chapter as I went along as well. That let me do two things: see the rhythm of point of view switches visually with colors, and word counts let me see the length of reading time of each chapter.

Each chapter had a line summarizing it, and if I clicked, I could access a longer paragraph description. As the complex novel grew, the outline grew. I could quickly refer to the outline as I went along and needed to remember something for the current chapter.

You can see what that looked like here.

As I wrote more novels, I wrote slightly longer outlines. The outline for Ragamuffin was slightly more than the three thousand word outline for Crystal Rain. Sly Mongoose had a similar length outline. But in those books, I ran into structural problems and issues later in the book where I painted myself into corners and had to rewrite, backtrack, toss out major sections, and more, all because of problems I hadn’t foreseen.

When I wrote my first Halo novel, I had to write a more detailed outline as the property owners kept asking more questions, the sorts of questions I would have to answer as I wrote. Every time I replied and folded in those answers the outline grew. At nine thousand words, when I started that novel I felt I had a fairly good idea of what the novel was before I started it.

I took that knowledge into writing Arctic Rising, developing a similarly long outline. When it came time to write Hurricane Fever, I then also sat down and invested three weeks in sketching out the book. By now I’d moved from using Omni Outliner to just using Scrivener. My outline for Hurricane Fever was almost fifteen thousand words!

And now I have a twenty one thousand word outline. A friend of mine joked that at this pace, in another ten years, I’ll just be back to writing the novel out in one go! And that may happen, one thing I’ve embraced is that I can change as a creator. I may come all the way back around to no draft in a full circle.

That being said, I had a tremendous amount of fun outlining a novel in twenty one thousand words.

Why?

For one thing, it’s a two week period where I just took all the notes and dreams I’d written down for the novel and created a mission statement. What is this book about? What’s important about it? Why am I writing it? Once I did that, I was able to filter out the ideas that didn’t really need to be in the book, even if they were cool.

Secondly, there was no pressure. It was a blue sky period where I brainstormed all the things I could based on my core ideas and research. I mulled things over and tried things in the outline that would have taken weeks to try out in a first draft in just hours. I could write sloppy and fast, jot down impressions, ways I want a reader to feel, things I’m trying to do as a writer. This is a meta document. It doesn’t have to read clean for a reader, it’s just for me. It’s a half fevered dream of what the novel might be.

That for me was how I could write twenty one thousand words about the novel. Getting past the idea and pressure of what an outline is supposed to be. My outline isn’t a formal structure, a document that I’ll prepare like a business plan for potential funding. It’s a letter to myself, as I’ll be writing the book, that’s about what the book IS.

Yes, I’ve taken all these impressions, ideas, lectures, chapter descriptions, bits of dialogue, bits of world building, and put them all in a single document in Scrivener that I’m working off to write the novel. But they’re for me.

One of the bits is a fake screed I wrote by a minor prophet. Will it make it into the book? I don’t know, but it sets up a scene where I introduce an idea about that religion. I hope I can make it into a piece of dialogue or narrative, but the idea is that I’m trying to convey to my future self what I want out of that chapter. Sometimes a chapter note is ‘the reader should feel gut punched by this character’s action here, because it should be at odds with what we think of them’ or something like that.

The outline is almost a stream of consciousness document, at first. I write it in notepad, pieces of paper, text documents, and more. This year, I moved all of that into Omni Outliner, returning to an old friend. I then spent a week organizing it all into what I thought the structure of the novel was turning into. I created chapters, fiddled around, and then just kept fiddling until I felt everything was organized on a chapter by chapter level.

Something I learned, and this happens overtime I take all my notes and the outline and try to make it a chapter by chapter document, was that even though I though I had the entire novel in my head, once I structured it I realized I had some big gaps that needed filling.

So then I spent time inventing chapters and events that weren’t there.

That is how I got to twenty one thousand words of outline.

I often get asked if the outline reduces my enthusiasm for writing the book itself. No, if it did, I wouldn’t outline. A tool is only good if it works. The outline, seeing my excitement in letters to myself about the characters, their deeds and struggles, gets me excited to now narrow down and depict them. I have created a pencil outline, now I am going to put down the paint and bring this ghostly image to vibrant life.

Will I struggle some days with my writing? Yes. That happens with or without an outline to me. That’s part of what Maureen McHugh calls the Dark night of the soul part of writing. Outlines actually help me get through that section quicker because I tell myself ‘I was excited as hell when I outlined this, trust past me, past me’s enthusiasm is evident in the outline notes.’

I also get asked about getting better ideas, and whether an outline isn’t like a straitjacket.

Again, if I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t do it. Like the doctor that tells a patient if it hurts, stop poking it, I don’t want to do something that hems me in. The outline, when I create it, is the best possible idea I have for the book. I think, “this is the minimum amount of awesome the book can be.” But if a better idea comes up as I write the book, yes, I’ll absolutely go there.

But here’s the kicker, I workshop that better idea in the outline. In other words, and this does happen, if I get an idea I love while writing, I stop, go into the outline, and begin changing the outline to see if that idea works and what consequences it has down the line. With an outline in place, I can hold the idea up to it and see if it’s a good idea for the whole book.

I once went into my outline with what I thought was a brilliant idea for the book. As I opened the chapter notes, I saw a parentheses with a note that included something to the effect of ‘you could do BRILLIANT IDEA! but this would negate what you want to do for the character arc and require a total rewrite for the last half of the book and then you negate all these other cool ideas.’ Yeah, I’d forgotten I’d already had a great idea, considered it, and discarded it.

And sometimes, I’ve gone through, made updates to the outline, and folded in a whole new idea. The outline is not a hard and fast set of brick walls, it’s a living document, a conversation I have with myself about the novel.

And as I get further along the writing path, I’m having longer and more detailed conversations with myself about the novel before setting out to write it.

04 Jan

Here’s everything I published in 2017 that’s eligible for an award

Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance

Without a doubt, the most awards-eligible story that I have to promote is a short story of mine called “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance.”

Initially published in the John Joseph Adams anthology Cosmic Powers it has gotten a flurry of reprint requests. Right now I can confirm that is publicly going to be in:

– – The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year Volume 12 (tbd, 2018)
– – The Year’s Best Science Fiction #35 (tbd, 2018)

Those are the two of five reprints that I can announce right now, so I am really amazed by the reaction the story is getting. I hope to soon have it somewhere everyone can read it.

Patreon Stories That Are Award Eligible:

I have no idea whether Patreon is ‘prior’ publication or not by the various award lists, there’s been no precedent set there as far as I can tell. I think all of these are eligible, however:

Shoggoths in Traffic was reprinted in Lightspeed Magazine and people have sent some very kind mail about that one. I personally think Sunset, which is my worst title, is my strongest piece in the Patreon this year and it is due to be reprinted in Lightspeed SF sometime soon. A Different Kind of Place is due to be reprinted in Apex Magazine.

Here are all the stories I wrote for Patrons this year:

November 2017: Lifeguards (2,800 words) – When Three Laws Robotics collides with varying definitions of ethics and politics, things might get a bit… messy…

October 2017: The Boneyard (3,000 words) – A boy and his dragonet…

September 2017: The Hand That Wields (3,500 words) – To get into the city Ki’s going to have to risk his life by bonding his life to a pact that swears he is not planning malfeasance, on pain of death. But Ki is an assassin…

August 2017: Sunset (6,300 words) – A starship crash lands on a far off planet to retire, and meets a headstrong young boy…

July 2017: The Placement Agency (3,500 words – What’s the weirdest temp job you can imagine? One outside time and space…

June 2017: no story…

May 2017: A Different Kind of Place  (4,000 words) – When Zombies and filter bubbles collide in a small town, what happens next?

April 2017: Shoggoths in Traffic  (3,900 words) – Ever wondered why your GPS sometimes takes you off on a random course?

March 2017: The Man Who Spoke (3,800 words) – A Xenowealth story: when your entire body is engineered to serve someone else, what will resistance look like?

03 Jan

2018: Looking Forward

My 2017 wrap up was a bit of a meaty look at a complicated year for me. What does 2018 look like?

Well, I have a story to write every month for my Patreon, so that will keep me busy. I spent 2017 just trying to see if I was even capable of writing a short story a month. I was. The $500 a month from it was a welcome addition to my income stream but I’m eyeing the savings and know that eventually the runway ends, so a goal is to grow the Patreon. I’ve been looking at a variety of author Patreons and I note that backers are often interested in the ‘how’ of writing as much as the raw stories. I have to set aside a week and think about my own Patreon and how to attract enough to hit $1,200/month as a goal.

Right now I’m toying with the idea of weekly essays about writing that come out in the Patreon first and then make their way to the blog? Let me know what you would be interested in and would like to see. I am still in the spitballing stage.

I need to finish the Fantasy novel I am working on. As I mentioned in the 2017 wrap up, it is a passion project and been so much fun to work on.

I need to finish the revisions of a Fantasy novel that David Klecha and I are working on. It’s hella fun, another fun project.

I need to revise a middle grade novel that I promised a long time ago. I mentioned not being in a good headspace last year. The story behind this book is complicated and involves it getting held up for years before being taken back out. The whole situation stressed me out so much that every time I opened the file to look at it last year I would just get furious and unable to work on it in anything like the headspace I needed.

There’s more floating around in my personal life, and some other writing projects I’m noodling around on. Some ‘BIG’ questions I have are:

Can I centralize posting for the Patreon here and offer more ‘early’ content for backers that then goes live after an exclusive period?

Would it be better to use Patreon to serialize a novel? More people read those than short fiction…

Should I continue writing the second Fantasy novel or even the third as well before trying to sell the first? The money would be welcome for the first, but submissions, contracts, and checks from the publishing process are so slow that even were I to finish soon I won’t see a payout for a long time. Long enough it won’t help me this year, likely. So why not keep writing the books in a healthy space without deadline and drama?

That’s what I am facing for the new year.

While those are tough questions, the things I was thinking about last year where about whether to throttle back or stop writing for a period, so I am looking forward to figuring these things out…

In the meantime, I do have a new novel coming out in February that I co-wrote with Paolo Bacigalupi, ‘The Tangled Lands.’

NewImage

The early NetGalley reviews from readers are very positive, whereas the review from Publishers Weekly less so, which is fun as usually things break in the opposite direction for my projects. Readers felt in the current world climate the stories resonate, even though the book is a bit dark. We wrote it before all this, but I get why that may be. Dystopian stories often hit a nerve in times like this.

01 Jan

2017: A Year’s Wrap Up

2017.

What a year.

Well, the TL;DR is that:

I saw a new novel come out, HALO: ENVOY, which seems to have been well-received by fans.

My story High Awareness (written with David Brin) appeared in Overview: Stories in the Stratosphere.

My Patreon story Shoggoths in Traffic was reprinted in Lightspeed Magazine and reviewed by Locus Magazine.

My story Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance appeared in Cosmic Powers. This story is getting so many reprint requests, but the two (of many) that I can share with everyone are:
–The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year Volume 12
-The Year’s Best Science Fiction #35

I wrote a bunch more stories for my Patreon, and half a new Fantasy novel. And like every one else, I somehow managed to survive the year. Go us!

Here’s the more in-depth stuff…

World Events

https://twitter.com/JohnMoralesNBC6/status/905554914302144512/photo/1

I knew a whole year under the new administration here in the US would be challenging and it was. I saw it hit the creativity of many writers hard. And it wasn’t fun seeing so many people I value being harmed by the administration.

When the election happened, I sat down and wrote a journal entry to myself detailing all the concrete steps I was going to take to have what impact I could against it all. I decided that I wanted to retain my health and energy, something I would not sacrifice as this would be a fight that could take years. During the Bush administration I spent a lot of time blogging and in comments sections. For this round, I focused on calling senators, and then faxing when that became too stressful for me. I sent money, lots of it, to wherever I felt I could make a difference, even though this was a lean fiscal year. Whenever I got frustrated I would turn back to concrete ways to move the ball forward. I’m doing some small local volunteering as well.

So even though I feel I was less involved in the shouting matches online, I’ve done a lot of real life stuff compared to the last time around.

I also was horrified by the disaster response to the hurricanes that hit this year. The devastation is like nothing that had been seen before. I did some interviews and a blog post about how to help that was widely passed around and that I feel got money to some direct places where they needed to be. People who knew I was from the affected area reached out to me and I was able to connect some folk to each other. Again, I tried to focus on ways to help and not succumb to feeling personally helpless.

Even if I am just a drop of water, many of us together can make an ocean.

My Life

2017 was what I consider one of those years where there are no giant successes that leap out, but where the work you do lays the foundation for success that come later.

One, I decided that I would totally jump all in on Bullet Journalling officially just before the start of the year. I kept doing that and found it helpful for keeping the year going strong and organized. Turns out making lists when things go pear-shaped helps me a lot. I’ve been able to cope with this year much better than I had any right to.

Two, I cleaned up the basement and put my office in there, something I had been wanting to do since it had been flooded.

I also cleaned up a section and built a home gym. I also cleaned up another area for tools and lumber. Getting the basement mostly cleaned and organized felt like a major coup.

Three, I hand built a custom PC, something I had wanted to do since I was a kid. I use it to play Kerbal or Civilization. Mostly it sits and mines Ethereum when I don’t use if for a game.

Four, I kept playing Ultimate Frisbee and getting outside as much as I could and moving more, which I noticed was a great mood booster.

My resting heart rate is down dramatically. Like, scary dramatically. I went from the mid 80s as a resting heart rate to the mid 60s, with my Apple Watch claiming that at sleep I frequently now drop into the very low 50s.

Five, I have been experiencing some really bad RSI as a result of years of writing a ton, but also a lot of mousing was starting to wear on me. I decided to take serious steps to reducing the pain instead of just dealing. I finally ordered a Kinesis Keyboard after years of eyeing them. It’s really gone a long way toward reducing pain. But I also set out to learn a whole new keyboard layout called Colemak to help reduce pain from using the laptop keyboard. I’ll write about that more soon.

Meta career stuff

This is some neepery.

At the start of the year I learned that one of the most lucrative freelance gigs I had ever had was being shut down. But, to be honest, that gig had been eating up all my brain time. I had been putting money aside, so I knew that I could take some risks and spend the rest of the year living off savings.

While I hate losing the savings pile, I did need the time to really reset my writer mind. The words, I could drag them out, but they were getting harder and harder. I’d written two novels under a pseudonym and a HALO novel. I had spent three whole years away from living and breathing ideas that were one hundred percent my own, and I learned from that while doing a fun work for hire project once in a while was great, spending three years working hard at a freelance gig for money and putting all my creative work outside my own control really made me feel boxed in.

So I eased back to focus on writing short fiction. Trying to find more joy. And thinking of Tim Ferris’s challenge to himself about work “What would this look like if if were fun?” I decided that I would not work on things that weren’t looking like fun. That isn’t to say I avoided hard or challenging work, I just wanted to avoid a certain level of drudgery that I was starting to feel like was setting in.

In fact, January 2017 was the first time in 17 years of being published that I struggled with core questions about whether all the work was worth it. I did enjoy the wins, but the negative stuff was piling up throughout 2016 to the point where I wondered if it might not work out better to treat writing as a hobby and double down on freelancing to be a more responsible family guy and earner. I’d gotten a taste of what regular, decent income could look like, and it took a lot of stress out of the constant balancing of irregular income, delayed payments, contracts that take forever to negotiate, that come with writing.

Knowing that I was down, I returned to first principles: why did I want to be doing this? Because I loved books. I spent a chunk of time reading at the start of the year. I ripped through audiobooks, played frisbee, and read books at a rate I hadn’t since I was a kid on summer vacation. By the end of February I had my head coming back together and understood I’d been burned out. And while the freelance money had been great, I was seeing lots of people in that industry getting laid off or experiencing stress as bad as mine. So I found a headspace after some rest that let me reset.

I did a lot of writing down thoughts to myself about my mental state about writing. I’d achieved so many of my goals in terms of a career that I’d wanted since I was 13 by 30 that I did find it hard to figure out what the new ‘thing’ I should focus my aim at should be. I’d been dealing with so much business side stuff that all my new aims were contract, reader-sizes, and money related. All of which are good focuses, but in some ways, out of my control and stormy because the tide of how shiny the world finds you comes and goes.

I often tell people, don’t chain your goals to events you can’t control or you end up whipsawed around, feeling unsuccessful because success is out of your hands. “You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this and you will find strength.” -Marcus Aurelius.

A quote by Henry Miller ended up in my Bullet Journal. “Writing is its own reward.”

What would my daily writing look like if that were true to me? I wondered that at the start of the year. If I focused on writing for fun, and not for outside events, I figured I’d find that contentment again. I needed to follow my own advice and define success very carefully.

In March I decided that I would set out to solve two issues with one project: I created a short story Patreon (I wrote about some things I learned from launching it here) to bring in some steady money while writing stories that were just fun for me. I set a strict time rule for how long each one would take, and focused on joy and experimentation.

That was a confidence builder. I won’t lie and say I wasn’t hoping for the Patreon to get more backers than it did, but being able to write a pre-sold story every month that was just me riffing and cutting loose for fun really got me back into the places I needed.

Another quote from my Bullet Journal: “Anyone who keeps writing is not a failure.” – Ray Bradbury.

Three of the stories from the Patreon have been sold to great markets as reprints. Shoggoths in Traffic, a story I’d wanted to write forever now, ended up on Lightspeed SF.

Shoggoths got reviewed in Locus Magazine, a rare thing for a story created like that.

I started noodling around with some novel ideas in the middle of the year rescued from a fantasy novel proposal from a few years ago that just never left the back of my mind. By June I was building maps in Acorn, a Photoshop-like program, all based off some chapters I’d written up earlier in the year. I test wrote an early chapter and read it at a reading, and it went down well. I began to think that, yes, this was it.

“Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you want to say. It’s the on and only thing you have to offer.” Barbara Kingsolver

By September, I started working on outlines and ideas with excitement because after all the reading and time to think I found that I had things to say that consumed me fully, and that even if no one ever read the scenes they were once again forming in my head without my demanding them. I was having trouble sleeping because I would lay awake and scenes would play out in my mind’s eye. My old fried, creative insomnia, was back. I welcomed it.

It was time to start a big book again.

I am little over half way through a draft and there is no contract, no expectations or deadline. I found something I really want to see exist and I am making it.

What happens next I don’t know, but writing this Fantasy novel has just been fun, satisfying, and challenging in the all the right ways, and not the stressful ways. It has added to my daily routine, not dragged at it. I hope people get to read it sometime, and that they enjoy it as much as I did writing it.

So I end the year having written 12 short stories, one with a writer I was a big fan of in high school. I am enjoying the daily slog of writing books again, to a point where I feel much like I did when I got into this with passion and enthusiasm. I have half a book written as well.

I have no idea what 2018 holds, how much longer I’ll be able to keep the focus on writing this much before I will need to up the freelancing to balance income, but I found my back after the biggest slump I’ve had since starting this strange vocation.

There are still many things to navigate, and strong headwinds, but I feel like the compass started working again.

And that wasn’t something I felt at the start of 2017. It was just spinning.

05 Oct

Quick Book Review: A Red Peace by Spencer Ellingsworth

So, honestly, I have a to-read pile that could kill a small child. I’m currently looking at 25 books that I really, really want to get to on my to-read shelf in the office. I have 4 books to look at to possibly blurb on my iPad right now. It’s overwhelming.

I ended up getting sucked into A Red Peace even though it’s #26 on the list of books I’ve purchased to read and gotten in the mail because when it came in the mail, I cracked it open and started reading out of curiosity because it was on the table with mail and I had a few minutes. Then two hours later I finished it up before bed. I was a little uncertain of first person POV after a switch from the very quick prologue, but after a couple pages I sunk in and had a blast.


A Red Peace is a fast-paced, rollicking soap opera that is just the sort of thing I love. It’s not a big fat galactic adventure with a thousand points of view, it’s a stiletto of a book that gives you two points of view, drops you into the middle of a story all wound up, and lets the story go.

Like space battles? Got it.

Like creepy aliens? Got it.

Love plucky, blue collar down on their luck types living in the garbage but going on to do great things? Jaqi is that.

There’s more, I promised a quick review, so I’ll wrap up.

Yes, I’m a little less excited about the ‘half-breed human star navigator’ description in the book flap copy, it almost kept me away from buying the book because the term has such a freighted history for me as a mixed race dude, but Spencer shows there is oppression in the world and doesn’t make a landmine of it. I think the publisher mis-artfully used it on the back. I know it’s a long SF tradition, but, meh.

That aside, I gobbled this book up and recommend it, and was bummed I couldn’t pre-order the second book right now because I kinda want to do that before I am given a chance to forget about it.

This was fun, and some escapism right now is really fucking welcome.

12 Sep

Read ‘High Awareness’ a story I co-wrote with David Brin for free online in Overview: Stories from the Stratosphere

I really was a huge fan of David Brin’s Startide Rising in high school. Enough so that when an opportunity came up to collaborate on a short story with Brin, I had to do it just as a way of sending a message back to my 15 year old self to say ‘see the cool shit you’ll be up to in your 30s?’

The opportunity to collaborate on a short story came through the Arizona State University Center for Science and the Imagination which created an anthology of stories imagining the future of stratospheric ballooning and sub-orbital communications and observation. I promise a rollicking ride.

You can read the story Brin and I wrote for free by going over to the Center’s book page for Overview: Stories in the Stratosphere.

Stratsphere cover bright 01

11 Sep

Cover for my next book ‘The Tangled Lands’ released

TangledLands crop2

Last week Saga released the cover and art for my and Paolo Bacigalupi’s next book project, The Tangled Lands, with a big cover reveal at Tor.com.

Krzysztof Domaradzki is the artist, who created some very evocative and cool art for this book.

TangledLands final

Here’s the official book description:

Khaim, the last great city of a decaying empire, clings to life. The living memory of the empire’s great city of Jhandpara is told in the hovels of the refugee camps across the river in Lesser Khaim; the other cities are buried under cloying, poisonous bramble.

It is a world where magic destroys. Every time a spell is cast, a bit of bramble sprouts, sending up tangling vines, bloody thorns, and a poisonous sleep. It sprouts in tilled fields and in neighbors’ roof beams, thrusts up from between cobblestones and bursts forth from sacks of powdered spice. A bit of magic, and bramble follows. A little at first, and then more—until whole cities are dragged down under tangling vines, monuments to people who loved magic too much. Teams of workers fight a losing battle to preserve the environment against the growing bramble. To practice magic is to tempt death at the hands of the mob, yet the city of Khaim is ruled by a tyrant and the most powerful of defilers, the last great Majister of the world.

Award-winning authors Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell explore a shared world, told in four parts, where magic is forbidden and its use is rewarded with the headman’s axe—a world of glittering memories and a desperate present, where everyone uses a little magic, and someone else always pays the price.

The Tangled Lands will be released in February.