01 Jan

Looking Back at 2018

It was an intense year. There was death in the nearby family, alarming political events, and much much more that were a great weight on the year.

I am glad it’s over. And I know that I am not the only one to feel that way.

Professionally, though, I had an amazing year. That made for a strange dissonance within me.

I saw three short stories appear in professional venues for the first time ever:

A Different Kind of Place – Apex Magazine (Jun. 2018)

Sunset – Lightspeed Magazine (May, 2018)

A World to Die For – Clarkesworld Magazine (January, 2018)

Two of those were reprints from my Patreon, and A World to Die For was something completely new.

At my Patreon I wrote a number of new stories for backers that I would never have been able to write if not for their generosity.

My short story “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance” was reprinted in five Year’s Best collections, and translated into two different languages. It was nominated for some awards, and it came awfully close to being nominated for a Hugo, it turned out.

I finished writing a draft of my novel “In Empire’s Ashes.”

I spent two months searching for a new agent and signed with Hannah Bowman. It’s a big change, but it’s injected a new blast of energy into everything for me, and that’s just what I needed.

I lost a major freelance gig, then lost another, in the freelancing I do on the side to keep the income steady, leaving me with six months of coasting on savings there. That’s been challenging.

Got an offer to become a faculty member at the Stonecoast MFA program.

Got an offer to be the Esteemed Visiting Scholar and a Visiting Professor of English at the University of Alabama-Huntsville for this Spring semester.

Both of those positions start in a week or so, so that’s taken a lot of time and attention.

And I ran a Kickstarter for a book on writing that I am very late on delivering, but will get done this January.

There are other things going on, and great things I got to do in 2018. I volunteered in politics, made calls, donated every bit we could spare to bail funds, action groups, and the ACLU, all for the first time ever. I traveled to the Bahamas for the first time ever to be the guest of a literary conference, to the USVI, and around the US. All of it let me meet amazing people for the first time ever who loved my books.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, all in one year.

01 Aug

How I Came to Write My Novel The Trove

I often tell people I pay attention to a rubric that goes something like this:

If you do something you hate and you’re successful with it, you’ll still be stuck doing something you hate. It’s a 50% satisfaction situation. Because you’ll be successful, which is great, but you’ll be doing something you hate, and that’s not as much fun. That’s one bad thing and one good thing wrapped up together. There’s a ceiling on your awesome, even with success.

And if you do something you hate and you fail at it, then you’re going to be really bitter. It’s a two bad things wrapped up together. Double ‘argh!’

But if you do something you love and fail at it, then by definition you are already at one good thing and one bad thing and so the failure level of a passion project is already the best case scenario of the hate/success plan.

And if you do something you love and you succeed with it, then that’s the sweet spot we’re all looking for.

Writing my novel The Trove was a passion project that failed in an interesting way, but that I really loved writing.


Collaborating with a dead author

I was testing some eBook design and an eReader when I snagged some classic novels from Gutenberg’s online repository. I started reading Treasure Island, and I suddenly realized that the version I read when I was a kid had been sanitized. All the dark stuff with drunken pirates had been edited or altered.

I was outraged, but then also drawn in to re-reading the book and seeing a drunken Billy Bones bully and beg Jim Hawkins into enabling him into a spiral further down into drunkenness. There was the violence, and outlandishness of the pirates that caught my attention as well.

I thought about the flamboyantly dressed pirates, drinking, violent, alien to the polite and mannered towns folk, and I began to wonder how you translated that into another setting.

Right away, the opening chapter presented itself to me. Transhumanist pirates, with cooling vanes on their shining heads to dump waste heat for the supercomputers in their heads walking into an Inn on Earth as respectable folk stared.

I loved the image so much that I wrote it, and within a night I had a first chapter mirroring the first chapter of Treasure Island, but with space pirates, and Jane Hawkins.

It quickly became a passion project. I began writing The Trove wherever I could find time. I was obsessed with it. The novel came hot, and all the twists and turns as I made my own version of the classic tale made me entirely happy.

I would re-read a chapter of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, and then I would write my own space opera cyberpunk version. Chapter by chapter I alternated reading with writing, following the classic along with my own crazy version. It was liberating, easy, the entire book flowed in a way I hadn’t flowed into a book in a while.

I was in the middle of a strange call and response with an author who had died a long time ago. And yet, in a strange way, it was a collaboration. It was like nothing I had ever done before, and it was one of the cooler writing experiences I’ve had.

It was 2012.

Writing the book was fun, writing the book was passion, writing the book was the easy part. Nothing else after that was.

But I would always have that six months of crazy passionate fun. And I loved the book.

Damn it, Disney! Treasure Planet

I couldn’t sell the book to a publisher, frustratingly enough. It was the Treasure Planet thing. Treasure Planet was a Disney animated film that came out in 2002, and it did $109 million at the box office but was considered a failure and panned by many, and also cost $140 million to make.

It’s also Treasure Island in space.

Treasure Planet poster

We came close, but, Treasure Planet.

There was also the fact that The Trove danced somewhere between YA and Middle Grade in its feel, I hadn’t set out to make it one thing or another, I just wrote it as I read the Treasure Island chapters and reacted to reading things I had forgotten or where never in the version I read.

It was just a hard sell, I guess.

I was a little hurt. It was the most fun I’d had on a project up to that point. I felt I’d done something special, and that with the Treasure Island background, a project a lot of people who would otherwise not get me might check it out. I thought it had so much potential.

But Treasure Planet. So many people I would talk to would go ‘oh, it’s like Treasure Planet?’

But it’s got trans humanist pirates, and sparships that rip along at the speed of light and crews that join their minds together to sail the ship and the Black Spot is viral code and and and…

…’no, it’s not’ just doesn’t quite encompass my reaction to that comparison.

But, at least I had fun writing it. I learned a lot. And that, in and of itself, was a win.

Kickstarter and my readers come to the rescue!

So I decided to Kickstart the book last December. That’s a bad time of year to do it, honestly, but I was facing something of a cash crunch, trying to get my Patreon growing a bit, and in between some freelance stuff and publishing contract stuff. The time worked well for me. Or so I thought.

But I wanted people to get their hands on The Trove. Six years after writing and revising it, I still enjoyed opening it up and reading what I’d done. It still made me happy that the book existed.

Almost 250 readers got on board with the plan, I released the first 3 chapters for people to read for free, and The Trove got rolling with its second life.

I got the eBooks out promptly, but a family emergency I could not have predicted meant I had to duck out. The physical copies were delayed a couple months, as were the bookmarks. But I did get them all out in April, a four month turnaround.

And now, The Trove is available for all to read as an eBook or trade paperback this August.

It was a winding road to get here.

But we got here.

The Trove is a stand alone book, a strange one-shot I did because I was captivated by the original book and wanted to have this conversation with it. Out of that came a science fiction adventure about Jane Hawkins that I hope you will find as fun and rewarding as it was for me to write.

I know I enjoyed doing this, even when it was frustrating, I hope everyone else finds even a fraction of the joy I had in this project.


(Click the picture above to go the Amazon page for The Trove.)

10 Jul

Free Short Story: The Alien from Verapaz

The Alien from Verapaz

by Tobias S. Buckell


At five’o’clock, agents working for ICE swarmed through the doors of a childcare center on 35th Street, across the road from Eastern Park, and arrested the children of a superhero.

Simeon got called in at six, when he was already on the Scozi Island ferry and thinking about passing by the store at the terminal for a pet six-pack of something as hoppy as he could stand to bring home and put on ice so he could watch the sunset in his backyard. Maybe he’d even sit there and toy with the idea of getting some of the awl grip done on the boat’s hull, so that he could take the trailer up to the north end slip and get out for some recreational fishing.

But someone had fucked up, the phone started buzzing, and Simeon turned to look back toward the gleaming spires of the Financial District.

Nothing good would come of an all hands on deck alert, he knew.

After letting the buzzing go on long enough to establish that someone really, really wanted to reach him, Simeon opened a battered old flip phone.

“Simeon,” he said.

There was a pause on the other end. “You on the ferry yet?”


“Shit.” The voice Simeon was listening to was one of his superiors, a boss of a boss much removed and high up the heirarchy. Not someone he was used to hearing over the cheap phone. Bob somebody or the other. A red-faced, perpetually harried man in a well-tailored suit and a greying haircut that was aspirationally military short even though Bob looked a century away from any sort of boot camp experience. “We’ll send over a harbor patrol boat, stay on the pier when you get there.”

“That bad?”

“It’s ICE. They picked up El Fantastico’s children.”

“They what?”

“They rolled up El Fantisco’s kids in some sort of raid. We’re trying to figure out what dickless judge signed the warrant, but they probably hid who the kids where from the robe. There’ll be a car waiting for you. Unmarked Brick City unit.”

The call cut off, and Simeon stared at the water from the railing. He would need to stop and get a big mug of coffee when they docked.


The harbor patrol beat the ferry in, and there was no time for coffee. The officer on the semi-rigid inflatable looked annoyed at being used as a taxi, but didn’t take it out on Simeon, just gave him a bright orange PFD that smelled of gasoline and sat him down on the bench in front of the steering console.

Simeon thanked him and apologized on the other side. He scrambled awkwardly out with the help of the plain clothes officer waiting for him at the wharf.


“Lars Erikson,” the detective said, showing Simeon his badge.

“Simeon.” Simeon pulled his wallet and showed his ID. They were gliding up between steel and glass office buildings a moment later in the detective’s unmarked, boxy car.

“This the ICE thing?” the officer asked.

“Word already around?”

“My buddy Eddie said they took a super’s kids.”

“Something like that.” Simeon watched a drunken cluster of dark-suited traders stagger out from a bar. Already blowing that Financial District money.

“Fucking baby-cagers. They tried to get the 43 to do some surveillance for them, chief refused, then sent us to watch them instead. Our territory, you know? Fucking cock-suckers, the lot of them.”

Simeon felt a blow, the words an impact that left his chest tight and a swirl of reactions whipping past him, each one fading away as the seconds ticked by. He tamped anger and hurt down, looked over, and said calmly, “I’m gay.”

“Yeah, okay,” the detective said, not missing a beat. “That’s the good kind of cock-sucker, I’m talking about those asshole cocksuckers.”

Simeon let the rest of the ride lapse into an awkward silence.

When Lars stopped the unit and Simeon got out, the detective looked over at him. “You have to wonder: stealing a super hero’s kids? That sounds like the origin story for a godamn super villian.”


“This is Brick City,” said one of the officers standing outside the daycare center, Incredible Minds. “I can’t believe they found El Fantistico’s kids. I can’t believe they took them.”

Simeon joined the small cluster of uniforms inside after his ID was checked, and he was waved through. A young woman in a floral print dress sat on a chair in the corner of the room, her face puffy from crying. An officer was holding her hand and reassuring her.

“You’re the liason?”

It was a police chief asking. He looked nervous as hell, sweat dripping down the side of his face despite the soft kiss of the AC inside the old brownstone that had been converted into a daycare.

“I’m SRD, yes,” Simeon confirmed, showing his ID again.

“Someone played ‘not it’ and you get the shit job here,” the chief said, shaking his hand. “Superhero Relationship Department got called the moment we found out so that none of us had to… you know.”

Simeon felt sick. “Does he know yet?” He didn’t need to say who ‘he’ was.

“No press, and no one has leaked, I think, or he’d be here already.”

“When does he pick the kids up?”

“Any moment, according to her.” The chief jerked his chin toward the puffy-faced woman in the back.

“Shit.” Simeon wanted a coffee. Or a cigarette. Just something to do with his hands while he thought. “Where’s the rep from ICE?”

“They left a statement.” The disdain dripped from the chief. “‘No person is above the law in this country, even one with powers. ICE was following orders and the law.’”

Simeon kept a neutral expression on his face. “Where are the kids? I need to be able to tell him where his kids are.”

“ICE won’t say. Undetermined location. But I have a friend who works the buses.” The police chief scratched his forehead. “He really needed the job, been down and out for a bit. He got it out of dispatch that they have them in the addition to Collyhaven, the addition they made with that private prison company for holding illegals.”

“Illegals like the children of an alien from outer space who has unlimited powers, can fly around the world and shoot laser beams from his eyes?” Simeon asked. “That you know want me to go out and tell that we’ve locked his kids up in a cage upstate somewhere?”

The chief let out a deep breath. “A shit show, yeah. Will my men even be safe, staying here, or should we withdraw?”

“I don’t know. What the hell is ICE hoping to accomplish?” Simeon groused.

“They’re saying it’s a deterrent. If even a super hero can’t be here without papers, and the whole world sees this, then other people won’t try to come here.”

“Everyone knows that El Fantistico’s parents sent him here to escape Cataclysm, who’s sworn to kill him and his family. Breaking the kids’ identity like this risks their lives.” Simeon straightened up. “They’re going to go after El Fantistico, too?”


“How can you stop him from just going up to the jail and ripping it apart?” Simeon asked.

“I’m told that, if he finds them, the cages are wound with adamonite, from the pieces the Department of Homeland Security confiscated after the battle for Brick City, the first time Cataclysm attacked Earth. That saps his powers.” The chief handed Simeon a folder. “You’re supposed to give him this.”

There was a ‘woosh’ outside, a murmur of awed voices.

Simeon tasted acid in his mouth. He didn’t want to do this. But it was the job, right? He hadn’t grabbed the kids. He was just the messenger. He hated it.

He took a deep breath and went to deliver the news in person to the super hero that ICE had taken their children.


El Fantisco would be forever remembered for his role in fighting the Gruesome Five in the skies over Brick City, and we had all cowered as the skies had roiled dark with awesome power in the first duel against Cataclysm, who controlled dark energy from his gauntlets of fury. El Fantistico had created a frozen ice dam to hold the water at bay against the tsunami of ’83, and even disappated hurricanes at sea so that they couldn’t threaten the subways and homes near the beaches.

And that didn’t count the thousands and thousands of small things, too many to count. Muggers stopped, bullets stepped in front of, bridge jumpers saved, and cats pulled out of trees.

During the blackout of ’91, El Fantistico had lit up the sky over the city with his eye lasers. He’d been blind for a month afterward, depending on his finely tuned sense of hearing and clicks to navigate by sonar.

He never missed a day of protecting Brick City.

Why do it?

“Because when I had been thrown free of my own dying planet, you took me in,” he told a reporter by the foot of the Statue of Liberty once. “Because, when powers like this are gifted, it is a great responsibility.”

Now Simeon was looking at that same chiseled jaw, the dark hair with curls at the end, and those dark brown eyes. His cape, with the American flag stitched into it, brushed against the ground as he walked toward the steps.

“Mr. Fantastico,” Simeon stepped forward, wondering if those eyes could see right on through the fake calm he tried to project.

“You’re Simeon, from the SRD.” El Fantistico stopped in front of him. “I remember you.”

Simeon’s knees wobbled slightly. “I’m sorry it’s under these circumstances.”

There were fifty years of clippings: El Fantisco’s exploits began when he was a teenager, and his powers had bloomed, but he looked like he was in his late twenties. He always had. That deeply tanned skin always looked flawless, the brown eyes ever curious and patient.

Even now.

“My secret identity has been uncovered,” the super hero said. “So I skipped taking the F-train over and flew.”

“How did you find out?”

“Super hearing, I overheard a tip line calling another reporter in my office that ICE had taken El Fantistico’s kids. I’m guessing you’re here to give me the bad news?”

Simeon wet his lips. “Yes.”

He handed the folder over.

El Fantistico read it, his mouth a tight line. Then he closed it, wearily, and looked back at Simeon. “They’re scared, in there. I can hear it on their breath.”

Simeon nodded.

“Walk with me, Simeon. Let’s reassure them, I don’t want anyone shooting at me, there’s a camera over there from the Post.” El Fantistico’s mouth twitched, an expression of disgust leaking through. “You know them, the ones who called my children ‘anchor babies.’ I would bet they’re the ones who uncovered me and told ICE where my children were.”

Simeon followed the caped superhero along the road to a bench in the park. El Fantastico sat down on the bench and pulled out a pack of cigarettes.

“You smoke?”

Simeon looked around, as if this was a prank, then took one. El Fantistico lit it by looking at the tip, his eyes glowing, and then lit one for himself. Together they took long drags as confused joggers passed by.

“Back in the 80s I used to do TV spots telling kids to not smoke for the Ad Council,” El Fantastico said. “Truth is, my lungs eat cancer for desert and I like the taste. Nicotine’s okay, too. I wonder if we had it back on the home planet?”

Simeon didn’t know what to say. But the cigarette stopped his hands from shaking so much, so that was a relief.

“I find it a ridiculous element of just sheer chance that, had my pod veered just slightly as I tumbled through the Seventh Dimension, I might have landed somewhere like… Iowa, instead of Verapaz.” El Fantastico blew out a long cloud of smoke that hung in the air above the path. “With corn bread, rural American parents, I could have had white skin and blue eyes as my genetic profile adapted itself to appeal to the people who found me. Do you think, Simeon, that my children would be locked up right now if that had happened, even though I still would have been an alien from another world?”

Simeon knew the answer to that, because ICE wasn’t knocking on the door of Amazing Woman, or locking up British or Irish babies at Logan International. But the superhero who’s parents carried him across the Rio Grande, led by a coyote, running away from death squads and crime, he was being treated differently.

He stubbed out the cigarette. “Look, I can’t stop you from going after your kids. I can’t imagine—”

El Fantistico interrupted him. “Do you have kids, Simeon?”


“Then you’re right. You can’t imagine. You have no idea. When I first got the call, the first time this happened, I thought about destroying them all. Every single one of them. Every uniform. They wouldn’t have even had time to realize I was coming for them.”

Those brown eyes were slightly aglow, either with anger or actual rays.

Simeon glanced down at the ground. Just a blink, and he could be vapor. El Fantistico was right, he didn’t have kids. But he could imagine. And even just imagining, he could see the anger in people’s faces at the idea of detained children.

“What do you mean, the first time?” Simeon asked, frowning.

El Fantistico took another deep pull from the cigarette, drawing it all the way down to just ash in his fingers that blew away in a slight wind.

“They shot me when I tried to rescue them, my powers sapped by the crap they’d put on the bars. You warned me, but I had to try. I barely lived. The caped vigilante, he refused to come with me. He’s a billionare playboy, he voted for all this. But the speedy guy came and got me, so I got away. And when I healed up, I flew to the sun and went back in time.”

Simeon stared. “You can do that?”

“I can.”

There was another long exhale from the superhero.

Simeon had a thought. “If you can do that, you can go back and warn us–”

“I’ve been doing that forever. What do you think all the truth, tolerance, and the American Way speeches were about? And yet, here we are again. Repealing the fourteenth amendment, taking back citizenship, the camps. I think, it’s something you all have allowed to happen and I am going to have to leave it. Even a superhero alone can’t fight millions unless there are other millions willing to stand by my side. I can’t afford the bond payment they wand, not on a journalist’s salary. They’re cutting my position to hire more online listicle staff.”

El Fantistico stood up.

“So what now?” Simeon asked. “What should I tell the department?”

“Tell them that they could have stopped this. That you could have worked together to stop it. But everyone stood around, doing their job, instead of stopping something that should never have happened.”

And then, El Fantastico was gone, jumped into the air, a small divot in the asphalt where he had stood.

“That could have gone a lot worse,” said a worried officer, standing at the edge of the jogging trail.

Simeon wasn’t sure.



Simeon didn’t bother reading the article the next morning, but the front pages all showed the same grainy security camera footage of El Fantastico, his cape riddled with bullets, blood dripping down the red and white bars, terrified children huddling under his arms.

The city was in shock.

The city was unsure. What would happen if Cataclysm ever returned? Only El Fantistico had been able to stop him.

The future was suddenly uncertain. And the same ICE agents who’d been interviewed saying that, under the new rules their jobs were ‘finally fun again’ were now reporting someone on 8th Street tossed a bottle at them. And the beat cop nearby had refused to give chase on foot to the perpetrator.

Simeon left his badge at home, crossed over on the ferry, and took the north train to Collyhaven. It was packed with the sorts of people Simeon had always regarded as drains on society. Coddled students, do-gooders, the overly concerned.

But there was an old veteran in one corner with a sign that said ‘FREE THE CHILDREN’ and a mother with two children. The northbound was packed shoulder to shoulder, and there was a grim camrederie in the air.

“This your first one?” the mother asked. “Protest?”


“Mine too.”

The train rocked. Simeon thought about the fact that he would be facing officers he knew, officers that worked with on a daily basis as he liaised between superheros and the police force.

It wasn’t millions, he thought, looking around at the train full of people headed toward the Collyhaven detention center. But it was a start.

A train full of small heroes.


About this story:

This story was written for my Patreon. If you’re reading this and are not a subscriber, Patreon is a way for people to subscribe on a monthly basis to support a creator to keep making great art.

For as little as $1 a month on my Patreon you can read these stories. If you enjoyed this story, consider getting more stories like this in your inbox every month!

Check it out at www.Patreon.com/TobiasBuckell.

30 Jun

Why this author downgraded his 2017 MacBook Pro to a 2015 MacBook Pro

For the past 11 months I’ve been using a 13″ 2017 MacBook Pro after my old 2014 MacBook Pro was dropped going through airport security by an agent who picked up my bag without realizing the bag wasn’t zipped. The 13” was a workhouse that did well for me, and I’ve been using the model since it was a 12” form factor.

But I’ve not really been enjoying the 2017 MacBook Pro. Two things happened that were noticeable. One, the new butterfly keyboard by Apple was a huge adjustment. This is to make the laptop thinner. The butterfly keys don’t have much of a ’strike’ and are hard to get used to. It feels like the keys are moved closer together as well to create the smaller laptop. Then, the new USB ports left me scrambling to try and get all my stuff connected to the laptop. Within a week of getting the new MacBook one of the USB-C ports died. But I was trying to get work done and didn’t have time to turn it in to get it fixed. I managed to find a hub and dealt with it.

Now, Apple has done things before that were slightly ahead of the time and left me scrambling for a few months to adjust, and then a year later seemed no problem. I wrote my dissatisfaction off to this. But after 11 months I’ve constantly felt cramped and unhappy with the keyboard and then the keys on the right hand side started not working. Which makes it useless as a laptop. And I couldn’t get under the keys to clean or check why with the new design.

So I took the laptop to the Apple Store and turned it in to get fixed, and I used some of my business credit to set up a payment plan and buy a 2015 15” MacBook Pro. Apple still has older MacBook Pros in stock, advertised as ’MacBook Pro Silver’ for a discount. My thinking was: go back to the old keyboard tray and see how it felt while the 13” was in the shop.

I am, after all, a writer. And it seems like a ridiculous thing, but how well keys work with my fingers every day matters. A lot.

And the older 2015 Mac felt like I’d gotten an upgrade. For the first time since I jumped into using Apples in 2000, after 15 years of using MacBook Pros, it was an upgrade to jump back a unit for me. Here are the four quick reasons why:

1) The Keyboard!

Without a doubt, within just an hour, it was clear I couldn’t go back to the butterfly keyboard of the new MacBook Pros and the MacBooks. Getting the old keys back felt buttery, they were more clearly spaced apart. My fingers knew where they were and they could hit a rhythm easier. A week later, you’ll get my older model MacBook Pro when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

This is such a big deal. I had been testing out a friend’s Lenovo Thinkpad not too long ago, because the keyboard was so nice it was the first time I looked at my own laptop and felt I was compromising. But back on the older Pro, I was happy and back to my fingers feeling happy.

To be honest, I suspect half the reason I learned a way of typing to keep my fingers on the home row more often, detailed here, was due to my hating the keyboard of the 2017 MacBook Pro.

2) USB-C

While I know that USB-C is the future, the new MacBook Pro dropped having even one old USB port. Which meant that my iPhone needed a hub to connect to charge while on the road, as did my watch, as did my external battery that rides in my backpack.

Moving back down to a 15” meant that I could toss out a portable hub, a convertor, and two extra cables that I had acquired to deal with most of my travel stuff using regular USB and the new Pro not having any. This isn’t life changing, but downgrading the laptop made life and cable management simpler. You shouldn’t feel like a downgrade was an upgrade, but it does.

3) Magsafe connector!

The new MacBook Pro gets rid of the Magsafe connector, that pulls off easily if you trip on it. How cool to get that back! Again, if felt like an upgrade. The USB-C cord could come out easily, but some experimenting showed me that at a hard angle, it dragged the laptop with it. And by experimenting I mean ‘Oh shit, I just hit the cord and the laptop leaped across the coffee table and I grabbed it just in time.’

Getting Magsafe back is peace of mind.

4) Loss of windup cord

Okay, this is small, but it’s yet another ‘oh, I love that this is back,’ but the old wall brick power plug for the 2015 MacBook Pro has little pop up hinges that let you wind the power cord around it and store it neatly in a bag. The new one? It was a USB-C wall plug and a USB-C cord. No pop up hinge, so you had two separate items.

And if you accidentally mixed the cord up with some other cords in your bag and left them?


Oh, and the 5th cool point is that I can now use a HengeDock to dock the MacBook Pro easily when I get to the office, and grab it and go when I am leaving. Just another small thing that greases the workflow.

So the 15” 2015 MacBook Pro is huge compared to the 13” 2017. Much more laptop than I usually prefer, but I have decided that it’s worth it for the keyboard. The extra pound is not as exciting, and the 15” will be harder to use on an airplane, certainly. However, the extra screen space is nice, particularly for when I’m away for more than a day or so on a trip and need to get lots of work done.

It’s pricey for me, but I will put my head down and make it work. Because, as a friend of mine pointed out, this is how I make a living and it’s okay to invest in tools that actually work and don’t get in my way. And the new butterfly keyboard gets in the way.

Hackernoon has a great post about the frustrations and unreliability of the new MacBook Pro design that echoes some of my frustrations.

Charg.d blog has a review of the SurfaceBook 2 that I think is dead on and I can’t argue too much with. I’ve played with it and it’s an amazing piece of hardware. I’m still deep in OS-X, but I think this 15” MacBook Pro will hopefully last 3-4 years, as it’s a pretty powerful beast, before I have to make a difficult decision. The nature of the keyboard on Apple’s professional equipment will go a long way to how I make my decision then.

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!


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).


Edited by John Joseph Adams.

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


Edited by Jonathan Strahan (Table of Contents)

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


Edited by Gardner Dozois (Table of Contents)

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


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:


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:


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.


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.


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:


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:


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.


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.


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.’


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.