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Category Archives: Writing

Most of this blog is about writing, so most of the posts will be categorized, ‘Writing’. You can select this if you don’t care about anything that’s not writing.

My Boskone Schedule

The schedule has been posted for Boskone 53, this coming February 19th through 21st, and I have several items on it! First, if you’re in the Boston area, I have a reading on Friday the 19th that is free and open to the public:

Friday, 5:00 PM (free to public)
Room: Independence
Reading: John P. Murphy

I have a couple stories I might read, including some flash fiction and portions from my novella The Liar (which will have just hit newsstands, if I’m not mistaken). However, you should show up an hour early, because Ken Liu and Carrie Cuinn have the room for  readings at 4 and 4:30.

 

On Saturday I have two panels, both of which I expect to be lots of fun:

Saturday, 11:00 AM
Room: Burroughs
Drone Technology: Watch the Skies
Drones keep buzzing further into public consciousness; the FAA has begun to regulate them. But what do we really know about these small aerial vehicles? What are their limits? Can they be useful (deliveries of books, DVDs, and pizza anyone)? Are killer drones hovering in our future? Are drones destined to become simply another artifact of living in the 21st century?
Mark L. Olson (M), Jeff Hecht, Janet Catherine Johnston, Jordin T. Kare, John P. Murphy

Saturday, 5:00 PM
Room: Marina 2
Holmes, Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian sleuth has been interpreted and re-interpreted in countless ways (Mr. Holmes, Sherlock, Elementary, etc.). As a result, this iconic “difficult genius” investigator is the inspiration for many of today’s fictional and filmic PIs. Why is it that Holmes can be interpreted in so many ways and still be identifiable as Sherlock? How does this character continue to speak to us on such a deep level?
Stephen P. Kelner Jr. (M), Dana Cameron, Jim Mann, John P. Murphy, Sarah Smith

And one panel on Sunday, conveniently on a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about lately:

Sunday, 10:00 AM
Room: Marina 2
Right and Wrong: AIs and Us
Artificial intelligence raises many questions of morality for us … and for them. Can/should self-aware AIs be controlled? Is it slavery to own an AI? Can we terminate lower-functioning units, even if self-aware? Do AIs warrant a vote? And how and why could we/should we instill morality into AIs? Are Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics appropriate, or enough?
Janice Gelb (M), Tom Easton, John P. Murphy, Charles Stross, Django Wexler

 

 
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Posted by on 23 January, 2016 in Conventions, Writing

 

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Audio, Email List, Treadmill Desks

First, some Claudius Rex news:

The Year’s Top Short SF Novels 5, an audio anthology which includes that novella (along with stellar entries from Ken Liu, Cory Doctorow, and others), is available on CD and from Audible.com. I’m very pleased with how it came out, and if you’ve got a lot of travel coming up it might be just the ticket for a long drive or boring flight. If you’re just curious how it came out, conveniently the audio sample is from the middle of Claudius Rex (I’ve listened; it’s pretty spoiler-free).

Also, I’ve finished work on the novel-length sequel to Claudius Rex and have begun shopping it around. I don’t currently have an agent, so it may be some time before there’s news on this front. I’ll keep everyone posted.

Second: The email list that I’ve been planning is almost ready. I’ll be sending out the first email probably in January. If you’d like to be on the list, you can drop me a line via the contact form, or just wait until I announce it later.

Third: I’ve gotten word that my novella The Liar will appear in the March/April issue of F&SF. I’ll keep everyone posted once that’s available.

Fourth: I recently moved to a new house (which is a large part of my silence here lately; I haven’t even seen Star Wars yet) and am putting my office back together. I’ve decided that I’m dissatisfied with my treadmill desk. The treadmill itself is great, but the table I had been using just isn’t cutting it. If any of you use standing or walking desks, do you have any suggestions?

 
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Posted by on 22 December, 2015 in Bloggery, Mystery, Novellas, Writing

 

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Updates

It’s been a while since I posted, so here are a few quick updates on what’s been going on for me.

My novella Claudius Rex has been reprinted by Prime Books in its anthology “The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novellas“.

I’m working on the page proofs now for my other novella, The Liar, to appear in F&SF probably early next year. I’ll post here as soon as that’s available on newsstands.

Finally, my novel-length sequel to Claudius Rex, THE WRONG CLIENT, is finished and in the hands of the first round of beta readers.

 
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Posted by on 18 September, 2015 in Writing

 

Quick Question

If I were to make signed bookplates available, how many people would be interested in getting one? (No charge; you’d just tell me who to make it out to and where to send it, and then put up with my procrastination)

 
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Posted by on 19 July, 2015 in Writing

 

My Approach to Beta-Reading

I’m in the process of beta-reading an enjoyable book, and it has reminded me that every now and then I use the phrase “beta reading” and people don’t really know what I mean by it, and that when I describe the way I like to beta read, occasionally it becomes clear that I do it a little differently than other people. So, I figured I would write up a quick post about what I do when I beta read a book and why I do it that way. If you find yourself asked to do a beta read and you haven’t done one before, I think this is a darned good way to go about it. But then, I would, wouldn’t I?

First, that term “beta read.” It is often referred to as “critiquing,” but I prefer “beta read” because I think it is a little more accurate: my first job as a beta reader is not to critique the manuscript (though that is important) but to pay very strict attention to my own reaction to it. Just like beta testing a program, I need to go through the process of operating a story in order to see where it doesn’t work. The only way to do that is to be a very attentive reader, not only to the work but also to my own reactions. This is something that the writer cannot easily do for themselves, except at great remove in time, so the beta reading process is invaluable to them in determining whether they have done what they set out to do.

That’s not always easy to do for other people either, especially when you’re engrossed in a story. What I try to do is always beta read with a pen in hand or with Word comments open, so that at the very least it’s easy to indulge in the urge to mark something. There are a number of things I find useful to mark:

  • Where I was surprised
  • Where I was confused
  • Where I laughed or was delighted
  • Where I was dismayed
  • Where I didn’t buy what I just read (both, “no way she would say that!” and, “um, computers don’t work that way”)
  • Where I lost interest
  • Where I got jolted out of the reading experience

(I’ll also put in little jokes or asides, which aren’t actually useful usually) There are two key pieces to this: I’m focusing on my reaction, and I’m non-judgmental about that reaction. I don’t know what the author wants me to feel right then, I’m just faithfully reporting. These little comments, when done right, are like tracer rounds. If the story is working as intended, then those surprises, laughs, “huh?”s and so on are confirmations that everything is landing right. If not, then they can help figure out what’s going wrong.

I’ve also started stepping back periodically to summarize my thinking. Most readers, whether they notice or not, are filling in bits of information on the story as they read, keeping track of who the protagonists are, who the antagonists are, what they think the main conflict is, and how they think that conflict will resolve (plus how they WANT that conflict to resolve). Think about reading a mystery: even when you’re not actively tracking the clues, you usually have some sense of who you find suspicious, and how lost you think the detective is. What I’ve been doing lately is stopping at every chapter and before I move on, thinking over what I just read in some of those terms, and just making higher-level notes. The best thing to do, if possible, is to provide a kind of core dump: “This is what I think is happening, this is what I want to happen, but this is what I think will happen instead. You bastard.”

You have to trust the writer when giving this kind of feedback. First, because you’re going to look dumb. You’ll make wild guesses (like all readers do) and you’ll miss important things (like all readers do) and get off in the weeds (like all readers do) but unlike all readers, your predictions will be down on paper. It’s OK to look dumb as long as it’s an honest dumb. Second, and more seriously, because very often the last thing a reader really wants out of the ending of a book is to get what they wanted on page 10. You’ve got to trust the writer you’re beta-reading for to not give in (or at least, to only give in when presented with a genuinely better idea) before you really let them have it. It’s like, if you’ve quit smoking, you don’t confess your cigarette cravings to someone who might offer you one. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t tell the writer of this gothic horror story that halfway through you desperately hope everyone comes out unscathed… just that you should maybe remind them that what you want for Mr. X on page 150 isn’t what will actually satisfy you at the end of his character arc.

Lately, I’ve been sending my feedback a few chapters at a time rather than all at once. I started doing that when reading a long book in which I doubted I could finish critiquing in time, but found that it had some useful side effects. For one thing, it lets the writer dig into feedback early, instead of getting it all in one enormous chunk, and guide my attention where needed. For another thing, it keeps me honest: if I guessed something embarrassingly wrong, well, I’m already on the record, so there’s no temptation to go back and revise. If I have a later thought about something I read earlier, I can just say so later. It also gives me a convenient opportunity to sit back and discuss some of the really high-level stuff like theme and characterization, and whether the story was working for me or not.

My job as beta reader is also to act as a kind of Comic Book Guy for the world of the book; you know, the whole,”you say in issue #95 that it is impossible for Spider-Man to shoot green webbing, sir, but that directly contradicts issue #36, page 8, where Spider-Man did not only exactly that but…” thing. That is, less obnoxiously, to become immersed in the book’s rules and get a sense of what’s possible and what’s not possible within them. This is especially true when beta-reading mysteries, because very often that “impossible”/”possible” distinction is what the case hinges on. I’ve got to know the world well enough to be confident in saying “what you just described seems impossible given what you’ve told me.” Also, sometimes, in this role I can offer advice along the lines of, “That doesn’t seem to be working for me, but have you considered this?”

This Comic Book Guy role sounds like it’s separate from my previous role as super-self-attentive reader, but it’s not. We as readers develop mental models of the worlds we read about. We learn through a story what’s possible and what isn’t… but our mental model may not actually fit what the writer has in mind. This is a much harder thing to get across in a beta read than instantaneous reaction, except in the case of “this right here surprised me”. Offering suggestions is a way of opening a window onto that mental model, and in that way isn’t just offering suggestions, but offering a hypothesis. (I’m still trying to find a better way to get that mental model across in a beta read, by the way, and am open to suggestions.)

The last part is hardest: don’t read the same piece twice, or at least not until it’s published. It’s really easy to get proprietary about one’s suggestions, and that doesn’t serve anybody well. The point is to help a friend improve their story, not to try to become a collaborator. Not reading the same piece twice removes entirely the temptation to notice that someone did or didn’t follow your advice, and the temptation to say, “this draft is better/worse than that one” which is rarely helpful advice. And anyway, it’s just too hard to read what’s on the page the second time around, versus what you remember from the previous draft. All in all, I think it’s best to read and comment on one draft, then wait to see it in print.

So, that’s my current approach to beta reading. And of course, there’s always room for other comments and suggestions alongside what I describe above. Essentially what I’m describing here isn’t so much the act of critiquing a book as of examining my own reactions to a book, and examining my understanding of it. It’s not a process that requires super-sharp insight into literary theory, or the skills of a brilliant writer; it requires only honesty and self-awareness.

 
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Posted by on 1 July, 2015 in Writing

 

Sale: The Liar

Since I’ve got the contract in my hands, it is my great pleasure to announce that my novella “The Liar” will appear in the pages of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

This sale is especially sweet to me. Not only am I excited to work with F&SF’s editor CC Finlay, but F&SF was the very first market I submitted to back in 2009 — I still have the rejection slip — which makes this magazine the one I’ve been trying the longest to crack.

It’s an odd little story and I’m rather proud of it. Novellas are hard to fit into print magazines, so it may be a while before it comes out, but I’ll be sure to let you all know when it does.

 
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Posted by on 27 April, 2015 in Business, Fantasy, Novellas, Writing

 

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Can we please criticize Clean Reader without insulting readers?

So, there are a number of readers who object to profanity or obscenity or other “bad words”. Can’t say I’m one of them. And while I do sometimes think that popular culture has gotten a bit coarse, I don’t hold the position that I ought to have a personally-sanitized version of it. I do have private opinions on that position, in fact, and have expressed those opinions privately. But suffice it to say here, people do want those things and nobody in the history of the world has been persuaded to enjoy art differently because they were called a prude. Anyway, for pete’s sake, this is the internet: people want weirder crap than that, and usually get it.

There is now an app. (Isn’t there always?) It is tied to a particular vendor’s ebook store, and for any title purchased in that store, the app will go through and mechanically change ‘objectionable’ words to other words. The list and transformation rules are created by the app writers. The transformation rules are not terribly good. The resulting text is, from all I have seen, clunky and imperfect, sometimes risibly so.

Now, I use profanity in my work, albeit sparingly. I like to think I use it carefully, to achieve exactly the impact I need (though I acknowledge that the impact might be larger on some who aren’t as accustomed to it). I don’t have an enormous stake in this fight, except on principle. But I do have a small stake and that principle, and I consider them important.

There is much to criticize about the Clean Reader app, and a lot of folks are piling on. But I feel that most of them are aiming a little too widely in their criticism. I’m not interested in blaming the people who want this app. (Again: Internet. Weirder) By criticizing both the app and the people who want the app together, Clean Reader gets to cloak themselves in the mantle of “we’re in this together! we’re protecting this vital segment of the readership!” Aside from it being distasteful to attack readers (a decidedly endangered population it seems sometimes), attacking readers just gives the app makers cover to do some problematic things.

And boy howdy is what they’re doing problematic. The big issue with Clean Reader is simply this:
1. They are offering a service to their paying customers to perform that clunky mechanical alteration
2. They are only performing this service for books purchased through their platform — that is, money is changing hands as a required component of this service
3. They are not seeking or receiving permission from the author to perform this service using the author’s work as a basis

What it comes down to is that they have an ebook market, and they are seeking to distinguish that market (get people to buy from them instead of from Amazon) because the ebooks you buy from them can be “cleaned up”. Their version of my text is more palatable to a certain readership.

Here’s the thing, though: their is no “their version” of my text. They can use nicer fonts, a better store experience, intelligent bookmarks and dictionary services. But there is only one text. They don’t get to differentiate it by doing a copyedit/spellcheck pass, they don’t get to differentiate it by adding illustrations, they don’t get to differentiate it by giving it a happy ending. We went through this in the 19th Century, people: They don’t get to differentiate the text at all. It doesn’t matter whether they’re directly altering the file or altering on demand in the reader: they’re offering to present a different text to the reader as a way to persuade that reader to buy from them instead of from someone else. That is simply not acceptable. Only I have the right to do that with my work, or to contract someone else to do it.

Knock out any of these three legs, though, and we have an acceptable situation:
1. They don’t do it at all? That works.
2. They offer an app that does this for any ebook or text file regardless of provenance, and do not profit in any way? Well, I’ll definitely grumble, but the degree to which that empowers readers is probably ultimately on the side of fair use.
3. They make this opt-in for authors on a work-by-work basis? Awesome.

Of those options, the third is the best. It leaves everyone as happy as possible. Some are arguing that the first is the best, but it leaves wide swathes of readers unhappy, which means that (all else aside — endangered species, remember?) there will be another Clean Reader popping up sooner or later. And we’ll keep having this argument until either one side gets tired, or someone finds an unassailable legal loophole and gives authors the [digit].

I’m not thrilled with #2 as an app, even in the case where they make no profit and where readers aren’t tied to their ebooks. That’s because there’s plainly a market for this type of work. I could choose to put in the effort to produce a profanity-free version, or someone like Reader’s Digest could offer me $100 to do it so that they could sell it. We’d be competing against free, but we’d also be competing against stupid — which we more or less decided was a fair trade back with the Kindle read-aloud thing.

So, number three. Like any good compromise, #3 leaves everyone mad. It’s more work for Clean Reader. It puts authors on the spot. Readers don’t get all the works they might like. But it embodies the most good for the most people while also respecting creators’ rights (which is good for society). Plus, it’s mostly self-correcting: if there are too few authors opting in, then there’s more financial incentive for any one of them to break ranks and enjoy an untapped market. On top of that, it gives authors the opportunity to say “No to the app, but I’ll make a profanity-free version that you can sell”.

Anyway, yeah: Lots to criticize as it is. Can we lay off the readers now?

 
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Posted by on 26 March, 2015 in Business, Philosophy, Reading, Writing

 

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