Santa Explained

Over at the BBC, The Infinite Monkey Cage guys explain how Santa can deliver to so many homes in so little time.  Don't miss the comments, which raise some interesting issues.  (What happens to reindeer poop when it's travelling at near-FTL speeds?)

Audio version available here.


The 14th Doctor...

...should definitely be female.

Our housemate Tabbi likes to dress up on occasion.

I think this could be described as "Doctor Who Chique'".  (Tabbi's a big Who fan.)  I'd define that as, not necessarily duplicating the actual wardrobe from the tv series, but its flavor.  A varied mix of out of period clothing and/or clashing styles (bow-tie plus sneakers) that nonetheless works and looks good.  (Weird-good, sometimes, but good.)

Slow Words: Looking For Ebooks

(An earlier version of this post appeared as a comment on SF SIGNAL, where the question "How do you find good self-published ebooks?" was asked.)

I use my smartphone for reading ebooks, with apps for Nook and Kindle. I also use Overdrive to borrow ebooks from my local library. The smartphone screen is close enough to a paperback size that I don’t have trouble reading off it; other people find it difficult.

This is a habit I’ve only picked up in the last couple of years, but I find myself reading a lot more ebooks than hardcopy books nowadays.

Finding good self-published books: Sometimes a struggle. Easiest way is to keep an eye on experienced writers who are, more and more, bringing out their rights-reverted backlist as ebooks. (Walter Jon Williams, one of my favorite writers, has brought out most of his backlist as ebooks, including the non-sf nautical adventure novels from the start of his career.) You can catch up on a lot of older books this way, and the numbers are increasing.

Sorting thru new self-published works is a lot harder.

Ratings on Amazon and Goodreads are generally useless. Even the most awful books get mostly four or five stars. I think the psychology behind this is that giving three stars or less makes you a meanie, and people don’t want to be seen as a meanie.

Actual Amazon/Goodreads reviews are a little better, but not by much. Too many of the reviews fall into the same four-or-five-stars mental trap, and give gushing approval for writing that clearly doesn’t deserve it. I find it actually better to read the three-star reviews, when there are any; they tend to give a much more realistic idea what one can expect to find in a book.

There are a number of ongoing attempts to establish websites devoted to legitimate and intelligent reviews of self-published books, but none of them seem to have really gained a reputation or foothold yet.

My occasional column here, “The Brave Free Books”, reviews mostly-ebooks that I’ve gotten for free from author’s promotions, drawings, or other sources. I tend to follow a “toughlove” model of reviewing, so some books get high marks (Sam Torode's novel THE DIRTY PARTS OF THE BIBLE, for one example), while others… don’t (but get a lengthy explanation why their work was sub-par). Also, I’m a meanie.

Amazon’s “Look Inside”, and similar features elsewhere, is your biggest friend in the search for good self-published books. Being able to read a sample has saved me time and disappointment on multiple occasions.

Other things to look at are the covers and marketing blurbs. If a blurb is poorly written or boring, the book probably will be too. (This recent post dealt with the writing of blurbs, and why some failed and others succeeded in piquing my interest.)

A decently designed cover is a promising sign. If a writer is willing to take the time and effort to make the packaging presentable and professional, it may mean they also took the time and effort to make the book’s content worthwhile as well. (This doesn’t always prove true. One of the fantasy books I reviewed had a spectacularly good cover, but I was only able to read three chapters before giving up on the effort.)

Looking for good self-published works is a lot like looking thru a slushpile. Both follow a similar bell curve: On one end, there’s a fairly small (but memorable) amount of the extremely awful my-god-what-were-they-thinking flat out BAD books. Then there’s a big climb up a hill of Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time books, with clear problems in structure, plotting, characterization etc, books that needed a rethink or rewrite before they should have been published. Then the other half of that big hill, the As-Good-As books, works that are “competent”, that are “okay”, but that don’t have a distinctive voice, don’t do anything new or fresh, that are essentially imitative, and that in the end can best be categorized as “meh”. And finally the other small end of that bell curve, where the books are satisfying, well-crafted, and memorable.

It would be nice if sorting the wheat from the chaff involved less effort on my part, or if there were trustworthy sources to do a lot of that pre-sorting for me.  But the self-publishing world is still pretty much in its Wild West, Gold Rush hullabaloo days, so all the above is pretty much how I'm stuck doing it for now.   I expect changes in coming years, but I'm sure not going to place any bets on what form they'll take.


Christmas Baking: Gingersnaps

I've been making these gingersnaps around Christmas for several years, since Molly Birnbaum published the recipe on her blog My Madeleine.  I like gingersnaps in general, and these are the best version I've found.  The inclusion of whole-wheat flour in addition to white flour gives an extra richness to the flavor and texture.

Adapted from Kim Boyce(and Amy Scattergood)’s Good to the Grain

Wet ingredients:
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup unsulfured molasses (not blackstrap)
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1 egg

Dry ingredients:
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon clove
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

To finish:
1/2 cup sugar

Mix together the melted butter, sugars, molasses, ginger, and egg.  Sift the dry ingredients into the same bowl.  Stir to form a batter.  Wrap the dough in plastic and chill for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, positioning two racks to the upper and lower third.  Grease two baking sheets.  Pour the final 1/2 cup of sugar into a bowl.

Pluck pieces of dough around one tablespoon in size, toss in the bowl of sugar, and then roll into balls.  Toss each ball back into the sugar for a second time, rolling them around until, as Boyce says, “they are sparkly white.”  Place each on the baking sheets, leaving at least 2 inches between them all. 

Bake for 10 – 15 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until the cookies are dark in color and even all the way across.  When out of the oven, immediately transfer to a cooling rack with a metal spatula. These cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to three days.  (That is, if they last that long.)

(Hint: The fresh ginger I had was fibrous enough it didn't want to grate well.  I minced it instead, then put the minced ginger and melted butter in the blender and pureed long enough to chop the ginger even more finely.)



A Little Flash Fiction For Christmas

by Bruce Arthurs

I'd never put up any Christmas decorations before.  But for Halloween, I always hollow out the middle of a pumpkin and stick a lit candle inside.  So I hollowed out an elf.



In the mail the other day came an unexpected Christmas surprise: A certificate from the Writers Guild of America, west, congratulating me for being one of the people whose work contributed to the "101 Best Written TV Series" list the WGAw recently compiled.  I got one of these certificates because of "Clues", the ST:TNG episode I wrote nearly 23 years ago.  This is pretty damn cool; I may frame this sucker and put it up on the wall.

Over on FILE 770, there's a photo of Scott Marc Zicree holding up his own certificate (also for work on ST:TNG), with a shit-eating grin on his face.  I'll settle for just this picture of the certificate and the list on the WGAw's website, but yeah, I got me one of those grins too.


Life After Dog

I finally remembered to stop by our vet's office and pick up the ashes for Madam Mim, our 14-year old Corgi we had put to sleep a while back.

She was a presence in our home for a long time.  It still feels a little odd to not have her lying at my feet whenever I sit down at the computer, or to have to step over or around her when she was sleeping (as usual) in a pathway.

I still catch myself starting to call out "Mim! Treat!" whenever I drop a bit of food in the kitchen.  Then I remember, and have to clean it up myself.



Slow Words: Some Thoughts About Self-Blurbing and Self-Promotion

Over on John Scalzi's Whatever blog, this week features his annual Holiday Shopping Guide, where he lets people post promotional comments and suggestions for holiday gifts.  Tuesday's category, 12/3/13, was for Non-Traditionally Published books.

Reading over the comments posted there by writers trying to promote their books, one thing is certain:  Writing blurbs is hard work.

From nearly 300 suggestions, I came up with a list of slightly over a dozen books that I'll probably take to Amazon and use its Look Inside! feature to get a closer look at before I decide to take a chance or not on actually buying any.

(With some traditional publishers and/or established authors, their previous track record can probably give a measure of reassurance that a book will be competently written and edited.  With so many writers in the self-publishing explosion of the past few years having only been self-published, doing a double-check to make sure they can write and spell on a non-embarrassing level is probably a good idea.  If you've been reading my occasional "The Brave Free Books" review posts, you know that some of the self-published books out there can get pretty, umm, non-rewarding to read.)

So only about 1 in 20 of the promos on Whatever caught my interest enough to want to check them out a bit more.  Not a great success rate, and I suspect I'm probably more generous than most in making such a follow-up list.  Why did one blurb work in catching my interest, and another nineteen didn't?

I'm an old, grumpy guy who's been reading SF and Fantasy for over fifty years.  So I'm kinda familiar with the standard plots and characters and tropes that have been used over and over in the field for generations.  What I try to look for these days, what I still hope for, is those works where the writer still manages to make a story seem fresh and different from the same old same old that constitutes the majority of books and stories published.

Sometimes that happens because a writer manages to present an especially vivid character or setting.  Sometimes it's because a plot takes unexpected twists and turns.  Sometimes it's because of a writer's particular "voice" or style in the sentence by sentence presentation.  Sometimes it's because of an injection of sheer what-the-fuckery and I just want to see if the writer can actually pull it off.

(Think of an average novel as a high-dive into a swimming pool.  Think of a better-than-average novel as a high-dive with a triple somersault on the way down.  Think of a novel with that WTFery I mentioned as a high-dive with a triple somersault while the diver also  sets themselves on fire and play "In-A-Gadda-La-Vida" on an accordion on the way down.  That last diver might crash spectacularly, but damn, I want to watch them try.)

So when I read a book blurb, I don't want to just be told what genre it is, I don't want just a general outline of the plot or a quick description of the main character, I don't just want to know what the book is like.   I want to know how a book is going to be different, I want to know how it's going to surprise me, how it's going to be something new for me.

Those nineteen-out-of-twenty failed blurbs?  When you come right down to it, they failed because they didn't communicate that difference or freshness I look for.  They failed because they bored me.

So how do you write a blurb that isn't boring?  Hey, I said it was hard, didn't I?

(One specific suggestion though:  Don't compare your book to other writer's books.  If you tell me your book is "like" someone else's, I'm probably going to think you're still searching for a voice and style of your own.  And if you tell me your book is like Fifty Shades of Grey... well, thanks for the warning.)

One of the other common suggestions found on self-promotion articles and blog posts is that you not only need to promote the actual book, but also promote yourself as an interesting person and writer.  Most of the self-blurbs made to the Whatever post failed to do this.  The best self-blurb there, though, the one that most caught my interest, did it very well indeed.  B. Thorn's post there said:

My e-novel “A Stringed Instrument” is up on Smashwords ($4.99, first 25% available as a free sample). It’s a modern-day romance story about two Australian women who fall into bed first and in love afterwards. 
You should buy it if you’re interested in the tensions of a closeted relationship and the contradictions of falling in love with somebody outside your orientation. Or if you want a story that combines affectionate erotica with plot and a little bit of humour. Or if you want my recipe for chicken soup. 
But the #1 reason you should buy it is that somebody told my very respectable aunt about it, and she bought it, and her first words to me were “So THAT’S what lesbians do in bed. I always wondered.” If enough of you buy it, that will help me live with the knowledge that somewhere out there my aunt is reading this and learning far too much about my personal life.  
P.S. Having lunch with my aunt on December 29. No pressure.

It tells enough, but not too much, about the plot.  And then it adds that little bit of WTF with the mention of "my recipe for chicken soup."  And then B. Thorn tells the anecdote about her aunt.  That not only establishes a bit of connection to B. Thorn's personal life, but it's so charmingly and amusingly told that it lets me know B. Thorn can  a) tell a good story, and b) that she has a "voice" of her own.  Contemporary romance is not a genre I usually read, but this particular post piqued my interest enough that I'll definitely check into the book a bit more.

(I've decided to use "Slow Words" as an uber-label for posts about writing and self-publishing for a while.  As always, I reserve the right to be inconsistent and changeable.)


The OTHER Broken Website

(Cautionary note: grumpiness ahead.)

With all the hoo-hah over the problems with the ACA's healthcare.gov website, the problems with another important website seem to have gotten little attention.  I'm talking about the "re-design" of the Science Fiction Book Club's website that was introduced several months ago.

(I call the SFBC site "important" because I've been a member of SFBC for over forty years, have bought probably a literal truckload of books from them over those decades, and it's been the source of a lot of books I and/or Hilde have enjoyed reading.  So, yeah, "important".)

Besides the general uglification of the website (what is it with the trend in the last few years to make webpages have more whitespace, use larger fonts and fewer words, make images bigger, and for some reason usually make the pages load or refresh more slowly?), there are a number of problems with the new design that range from annoying to crippling.  I made a list:
  • Items on your old wishlist no longer show price information.
  • The old wishlist items are still there, but the old "Add To Wishlist" buttons are missing.  You can't add anything to your wishlist, and if you remove an item from the wishlist, you can't put it back on.  The "Move To Wishlist" buttons on shopping cart selections have also gone walkabout.
  • When you try to browse selections, the new website sends you to a page where you have to pick and choose between various categories.  There's no "Browse All" option to look at their complete list.
  • When you do choose a category to browse, a lot of items not in that category are included in the results.  And not even necessarily in the sf/fantasy genre at all; a lot of general-history and military-history books show up in SFBC's results.
  • When you try to sort listings by "Author Name", it sorts them by the author's first name.
  • When you try to sort by "Release Date", it lists the oldest books first.
That list comes from the first time I tried the new website, in late September.  The list had one other problem -- book listings didn't link to an author's name or other books -- that actually seems to have been fixed.  Everything else on the list is still a problem when I tried using the site again several times in the past several days.

The site now seems to have an even bigger problem, one that makes it unusable for me:  Every time a webpage changes, it cancels my sign-in.  I literally have to sign-in again on every damned page.  The frustration level is so high when I try to browse offerings, or add books to the shopping cart, or God forbid actually try to checkout and give them my money, I just give up from exhaustion before I can complete a purchase.

(I was able to actually add books to the shopping cart, finally, by using my smartphone rather than the desktop computer.  So the new website works with an Android OS, but not with Windows?  But I don't like sending payments over the phone, and haven't been able to get that far with the desktop.)

The re-design went into effect a few months ago.  Are these problems affecting all SFBC members, or are they just particular to me?  Because if the problems are hindering a lot of members, I kind of expected to hear someone else's howls of outrage before now.

Or are old-fashioned hardcopy book clubs becoming passé, and frustrated members are just shifting their shopping to new-fangled, and frequently less expensive, ebooks rather than bothering to complain about the SFBC's problems?

(These same problems also seem to apply to SFBC's sister website for Quality Paperback Book Club, where I've also been a long-time member.)