BayCon 2014

BayCon2013 -2

Baycon 2013 Indie Publishing panel

BayCon, one of the biggest Bay Area Science Fiction conventions, is held each Memorial Day weekend at the Hyatt Regency in Santa Clara, CA. BayCon is a lot of fun for adults and children alike; there’s a full programme of interesting panels, plenty of hands-on activities for younger guests, as well as costuming, Klingons, Space Marines, a Regency Dance, and the fabulous Slave Auction. This year’s writer Guest of Honour is David Weber, creator of the celebrated “Honor Harrington” novels.

I’ll be attending, and am on four panels this year as participant/moderator:

1. Building Your Writing Community on Friday at 5:00 PM in Bayshore

So you’re thinking about writing but don’t know how to start. Or you have a manuscript but you’re not ready to show anyone. This panel will discuss how to identify where you are in the process of finishing your book, different types of writing groups and how to utilize them, when to recognize when your work is ready for beta readers, and how to give and receive critique with grace and encouragement.

(moderating; with Adrienne Gormley, Setsu Uzume, Beth Barany, Laurel Anne Hill, Dan Hope)

2. When Good Food Turns Evil on Saturday at 2:00 PM in Lawrence

At one time, margarine was touted as a healthier alternative to butter. This ended after the dangers of trans-fats was discovered. There are still differing opinions on what makes a healthy diet, even after decades of research. What highly touted food items might not be as healthy as you think? Join the panelists as they chew the fat on this topic.

(moderating; with Christine Doyle, Sydney Thomson, M.D., Laurel Anne Hill)

3. Self Publishing: Where does it fit in the Literary Food Chain? on Saturday at 3:30 PM in Ballroom A

Between Amazon and Barnes & Noble, self-publishing has taken off; no longer the classical vanity press, often seen as the redheaded stepchild. Is it? Should it be? Where does this fit in the food chain, or is this about to become the Shark?

(moderating; with David Friedman, Kyle Aisteach, Emerian Rich, Ursula Vernon)

4. Surveillance and the End of Privacy on Sunday at 11:30 AM in Bayshore

Between government surveillance of citizens and ubiquitous cameras, is privacy a lost cause? What can you do to preserve your privacy? 

(with Jason Malcolm Stewart, David Friedman, Griffin Barber)

The link for BayCon 2014 is http://baycon.org/2014/

I hope to see you there!

 

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Back in the Saddle

As some of you know, I’ve been stretched very thin of late. The demands of running Panverse Publishing singlehandedly as well as my part-time CAD work and the need to balance work with some of sort of real life and family time–I will not yield it all to work!–hasn’t left a great deal of time for my own writing in the last year. I had started work on a new novel last Spring, but made a conscious decision to put it on hold at 30k words while I took care of getting Panverse off the ground in its new incarnation as a publisher of novels rather than simply anthologies.

I’m happy to report that my business partner in Panverse, co-owner Herma Lichtenstein, is now able to join me fulltime; Herma will be taking over the vast bulk of the marketing and promotion, as well as some of the developmental editing. This means that I can now get back to my own writing. In the past few weeks I have in fact been flexing the muscles by completing a number of short stories that I’d either begun and stalled on, or simply didn’t have the craft to raise to the level where I thought they were ready for an audience (one of the double-edged issues with being an editor is that your standards tend to climb all the time, and of course your toughest criticism is reserved for your own writing).

So the good news is that before long I’ll be publishing a number of my short stories–possibly even a small collection. You have been warned! And once the shorts are done and earning their keep, I’ll be back to the novel…unless I get sidetracked into writing another Billy Sutherland novel. So many readers have asked for a sequel to “Sutherland’s Rules” (though a prequel is likelier), that I’m very, very tempted. I’ve never had so much fun writing as I did with “Sutherland’s Rules”, and readers have certainly responded to that.

I’m also delighted to say that YA author and superstar writing maven Janice Hardy has invited me to guest blog regularly on her shiny new Fiction University site. As one of six “visiting professors” guesting for her “Indie Author” series, I’ll be blogging there once every six weeks on some aspect of indie publishing. In fact, I have a shiny new post on Fiction University today on the ridiculous and needless war between the promoters of Traditional and Indie publishing–click here to check it out.

Thanks as always for your time and your interest. I’m going to try to blog here a little more frequently; so what would you like to see me blog about?

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Heartbleed Password Blues

The most commonly used password in 2013 was 123456. That’s a change from the previous most commonly used password, which was… password. Facepalm? You bet!

Long before the Snowden revelations, I was always fascinated by the issue of internet security. I also have several close friends who work in the field. Most of them are pretty cutting about not only the average web user’s lack of awareness of the problems of safeguarding data, but also the reluctance of executives in industry, including banking, to get serious about data protection.

The Heartbleed vulnerability, while not necessarily an immediate threat to any of us, does raise the risk that one or more of your inline accounts will be hacked. Some accounts are more important than others. If your Goodreads or NYT account gets compromised, it isn’t the end of the world, but someone getting access to your banking, email, or Facebook page can wreak havoc.

The ease with which a hacker can get into 99% of people’s accounts is hard to believe—we’re talking seconds and minutes. Even if your password is a bit better than those mentioned above, a great many people use easily researched and identifiable personal data, such as their birthday, wedding anniversary, kids’ names, etc…many of which can be conveniently found on, say, your Facebook page. And people often use a single password across several accounts, resulting in a nice domino effect bonanza for someone who gets hold of it. Two-thirds of internet users only use one or two passwords across dozens of accounts.

There are services now that will manage your passwords for you, typically using the cloud—which is fine except that if they suffer a breach, you’re in trouble. Biometric data, such as fingerprint ID (Apple and Samsung are using them, and apps are out there) are more secure, but the stakes, should they be compromised, are huge—you can’t change your fingerprint or iris.

At its worst, someone getting into your key accounts can ruin your life.

The good news is that it’s actually not hard to secure your major accounts without having to remember many complex and meaningless alphanumeric and symbol combinations: think in terms of passphrases. While a “brute force” or “dictionary” attack—a computer crunching every possible combination or trying the most common words—can crack many passwords in minutes or days, a passphrase comprised of three common words like, say, one happy camper, will take in the order of centuries to break using these methods—and you can remember it far more easily than, say, J_15v0*As2, as pointedly and memorably illustrated in the classic xkcd cartoon, “Password Strength”.

A passphrase, as the word implies, is more than a single word—it’s a string of them, a short sentence. Here are some easy rules:

  • Don’t use obvious ones (iloveyou was the 9th most popular in 2014; letmein was #14)
  • Don’t include personally identifiable data (birthday, pet’s name, etc.)
  • Don’t use keyboard patterns (e.g., qwerty)
  • Use at least three words
  • Do pick a phrase that has meaning to you, but that even someone who knows you wouldn’t automatically associate with you
  • Don’t put capital letters at the beginning
  • Incorporate some numbers and at least one symbol
  • Use a phrase that you can easily associate in memory with a site or adapt to different sites

Let’s look at this last item, which is especially important and interesting, and generate some examples.

To create a strong passphrase for an email account, you might start with an idea like, cursive is lost—there’s the association with writing, but it’s not a phrase with meaning to anyone else, or a common one; yet it’s super easy to remember. Remove the spaces (most sites don’t allow them) and you have cursiveislost.

Now start to adapt it to meet common system requirements. Put in a capital or two (not in the obvious place), so we have cursiveISlost. The trick is to create a rule and stick to it—in this case, caps will always be used for my middle word.

Add in a symbol or two…hey, you could even use an emoticon that connects with how you feel about the passphrase! If I think of the loss of cursive (or “joined-up-writing”, as we called it in the UK), that would be an unhappy face. Now you have cursiveISlost:(

Finally, most sites will require a number. Pick a favourite; more than one would be great, but this passphrase is already complex enough that a single numeral would do, maybe your lucky number, or something that has meaning to you. So we’re now at cursiveISlost:(9. A bit more complicated…but if your email account doesn’t require symbol or numerals, you could dispense with these and your passphrase will still be very strong.

And guess what—you’re done with your email passphrase. Type it a few times and think about it for a few moments, retracing the reasons you chose each item, and you’ll never forget it.

Now move on, using a similar process for your banking password. Here you could begin with, say, if i were a rich man; first lose the spaces, then proceed as above.

Another, easier still, strategy is to use a single phrase but have a way to customize it for different sites.

So I could begin with a line from a song—I fear earthquakes and lightning would work; but it’s a little long to type, so I might pare it down to earthquakes and lightning…it’s still three words not commonly used together. I add in my caps, numbers and symbols and get to 9earthquakeSandlightning! (notice a new rule…I put the capital at the end of the first word. Again, create a rule and stick to it for easy retention).

To modify that passphrase for different sites, you could do something as simple as take the first letter of the site name (say, “B” for your Bank of America account) and add it to the end of your passphrase. Your BoA passphrase is now 9earthquakeSandlightning!B. The same phrase applied to, say, Facebook, would now be 9earthquakeSandlightning!F. This simple rule—on which you’ll create your own variation—makes it possible to adapt the same passphrase across a variety of accounts.

Now, although it’s true this violates the “domino effect” advice above, the chances of the original phrase being cracked are so remote as to vanish. But passwords don’t have to be hacked; they’re typically simply stolen or intercepted. So let’s add in one extra tweak. Instead of using the first letter of the account site for your variant, use the second.

If you’re thinking, “this is so complicated”, trust me that it’s not, and here’s why: because when you create your own ruleset and passphrase following the methods outlined above, it’ll have personal meaning to you, and will be easy to remember. Again, make up a system and rules that have meaning to you. Try it—you’ll be surprised. Just set a rule, be consistent, and do change your passwords for key accounts once every few months.

And—if you have a really rotten memory and all else fails—you can always make a paper note of the core phrase(s) and your rules, and keep it somewhere far from your smartphone and computer!

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On Honesty and Self-Censorship

Among all the other fallout from the Snowden/NSA revelations was a PEN America survey of 520 writers which found they are “not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship as a result.” The survey states that,

- 24% have deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or email conversations.

- 16% have avoided writing or speaking about a particular topic and another 11% have seriously considered it.

- 16% have refrained from conducting Internet searches or visiting websites on topics that may be considered controversial or suspicious and another 12% have seriously considered it.

Then just yesterday I came across a self-published author’s post about why he no longer swore in his books. Although the author goes on to give several lengthy and variably credible artistic reasons for the decision, he candidly admits that part of his reasoning includes the concern that some readers are turned off by coarse language, and that he’ll probably sell more books if he stops using it.

My reaction to both the above? I don’t fucking believe this. What are we coming to?

Last case first. It’s true that the gratuitous overuse of coarse language can be obnoxious, attention-seeking, and a crutch for poor writing, especially in dialogue. And some fine writers, among whom Charles Portis (True Grit, The Dog of the South, Norwood, et al), arguably one of the very best American authors of the twentieth century, have written several books without using a single swearword.

It’s also true that bad language can alienate some readers. One reviewer of my own book, Aegean Dream, says in his three-star review, “I might have given this a fourth star had it been written with fewer profanities/vulgarities.” (Meh. One reader. There are probably less than a dozen cusswords in the whole 350-page book.)

All that said, the truth is that people in real life, even the best brought-up people, do swear, often, and almost without exception when bad things happen. Some people even go so far as to use swearwords as punctuation. This is reality, people. And I take the firm view that it’s the writer’s duty, even in fiction, to represent the reality of the world*

The same thing goes for sex. In the real world, most adults spend a large amount of time thinking about sex, and—all things being equal—enjoy practicing it whenever the opportunity arises. It therefore follows that if you’re writing fiction for grownups, at some time or another your characters are going to think about, or have, sex. And yet I can’t count the number of times I’ve listened to newer writers agonize over writing a sex scene out of concern that their parent/relative/boss/coworker will end up reading their book, and what will they think of them as a consequence.

In fact, if the reader in question is also a grownup they won’t probably think anything negative about the author—unless the sex scene is poorly written, in which case they’ll think the author is a bad writer.  More to the point, if the scene is done well and feels like reality, they’ll probably appreciate the honesty. Because the truth is that readers—with the possible exception of ultra-conservative religious types—respond very well indeed to honesty, including hot bedroom scenes and, where appropriate, coarse language. It’s part of making the fictional dream real, people!

In the case of the PEN America survey, the concerns are of a different order, with the writers surveyed obviously fearing that they’ll be tagged, flagged, and perhaps even targeted by the authorities.

While there’s some sound basis to these concerns, the fears aired also show a high degree of ignorance about the way intelligence works. Simply running a few web searches on Al-Qaeda training camps, white supremacist groups, or the enrichment of Uranium for use in nuclear devices is not going to land you on a watch list or bring the DHS to the door.

In the course of writing Sutherland’s Rules, my 2013 caper novel about a pair of lovable sixty-something hippies on a crazy last dope smuggling run**, I did no end of research—online, in library books, and via phone and email with experts—on drugs, smuggling, Afghanistan, the Taliban, intelligence and police agencies, customs procedures, surveillance techniques, and much more.

If all this activity ran up enough flags (unlikely) to be brought to the attention of a human intelligence analyst, it’s just possible they checked it out, built a profile, noticed I was an author, and likely concluded I was researching a book on the subject; if not, the publication of the book would have confirmed this. But more likely it didn’t even come up on the human radar, because the reality of modern-day intelligence is that the amount of SigInt (intelligence gathered by interception of signals) is so fantastically vast that even a small fraction of it would swamp all available human resources. Face it: you’re both less unique and less important than you think. And, although mistakes can occur, these people are generally smarter than people give them credit for.

So the likelihood of a few innocent queries getting you into trouble is, really, insignificant; if, however, your contact list includes firebrand Imams, terrorist suspects, or known criminals, then, yeah, all bets are off, and you may well deserve a little attention from the authorities.

It is true that there’s always going to be some small chance that you’ll get flagged, and perhaps suffer some minor harassment down the road as a result of repeated digging into very sensitive areas. But you know what? Art isn’t safe. Artists and writers around the world daily face beatings, arrest, and even death, and it doesn’t stop them. Because honesty is more important to them. If you want safe, you’re in the wrong business.

To me, a big part of honesty—in fact, the biggest part of being an artist or writer—is having the courage of your convictions. I’d bet a year’s income that a great many of the PEN survey respondents who self-censor and fear to run web searches on “topics that may be considered controversial or suspicious” also claim to be huge supporters and admirers of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Russian feminist punk rockers Pussy Riot, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. Hmmm.

And yeah, this shouldn’t happen in the US; but, like earthquakes and tornadoes, it sometimes does. Get over it. If you don’t like it, vote; if that doesn’t work, protest (peacefully). But if you protest, don’t be wimps like Occupy, who cut and ran at the first snow flurries in NYC and the first threats of muscular action from the authorities. In Russia, crowds of protesters will stand all day in temperatures of 20 below; in other countries, they regularly face tanks and tear gas and rubber bullets. But writers in the US self-censor because they fear getting an extra pat-down or some intense questioning at the airport next time they fly, or having their activities monitored a little more closely? Give me a break.

So are we going to be honest as writers, or leave it to those of real conviction?

*          *          *

* Stephen King addresses this same point wonderfully in his book, On Writing; John Gardner has a whole chapter on honesty and truth in The Art of Fiction

**The protags in Sutherland’s Rules risk both life and freedom in pursuit of love, loyalty, and their ideals. 

ADDENDUM: And this very evening my good friend Jon Del Arroz has posted a wonderful response–check it out:  http://delarroz.com/?p=100

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Writing in the Trenches

Sometimes writing is so difficult that all you can do is laugh. The laugh is not one of humour, but more like that of Holmes as he goes over the Reichenbach falls, or perhaps one of Lovecraft’s characters as he fully realizes the depth of the unspeakable cosmic horror which is about to devour his soul. Every real writer is, I think, deeply mistrustful of anyone who claims to love the process–I mean the entire process, especially the in-the-trenches bayonet-work, when you’re locked in a life-and-death struggle with yourself, and every fiber of your being screams give up, surrender, you can’t win, because each sentence you craft, each line of dialogue, is worthless, stilted nonsense. At these times there’s nothing to love about the process, and to hell with inspirational quotes and touchy-feely nonsense. All you have is will and determination, and it had be better be up to the task.

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The Power of, uh, Stuff

I’ve always had a tendency to accumulate stuff. Not a hoarder, I’m not that bad….but paper and books are especially difficult for me to let go of, closely followed by old photos. Some of it is sheer sentimentalism (old school exercise books, etc.) some is the fear of letting go of things that might one day be useful. You know how that is.

A couple of weeks ago I decided that I really needed to start thinning the pile in earnest, and figured that if I began with the  most challenging—books—it would make letting go of other belongings easier. I’ve skimmed the top off the book pile a few times before, but now I was planning to cut into flesh. Not easy for me. (My wife, who is the opposite of me when it comes to belongings, is wonderfully patient with me.)

The  problem with excess possessions, of course, is that they eventually possess you. They make it hard to clean, hard to move homes; they cost money because you need space for them; they limit your freedom in every way.

So why do we get attached to the material? Why, even when we know the reasons for attachment, and see them for the garbage they are, can some of us still not bear to let go of surplus possessions? How much do any of us actually need to be happy? Hell, one day we’re going to have to let go of the most important thing we have, life itself. So it’s probably a good idea to become a little more comfortable with the notion..

The only time I’ve ever viscerally grasped the insignificance of all the possessions we invest with such terrible sentiment and memory and symbolism has been in the presence of death. In London, for example, fifteen years ago, while going through my mother’s mountains of belongings with an old friend, I was struck so forcibly by the irrelevance of all the stuff she’d kept that I began to laugh out loud at the foolishness of it. You can’t take any of it with you. It’s nothing.

Of course I could see that my own tendency to accumulate was at least partly inherited. But my mother had been through wartime and her family had literally lost everything they owned: I was born into a time of plenty and didn’t have that excuse.

I decided that my acid test with the bookshelves would be the question, “am I  really likely to read that book again?” And of course, quickly realized that there are many books that I occasionally pick up and read a few paragraphs of, or refer to something, or keep to loan out, etc. Oh, how quick the excuses. I resolved to be firm.

And then there’s the problem of inherited books. Like for instance a big quarto volume bound in what looked like white pigskin that I’d found—along with piles of age-yellowed Penguin Classics and Plays—among my mother’s belongings. The book was a novel, in Italian, and inside was a fascinating dedication, also in Italian: my mother (who, with her family, had endured WWII in Nazi-occupied Rome) had given it to her mother in late 1944, adding in the dedication that this was the  first book to be printed in Italy after the liberation. Sentimental value high, practical value, zero: I have no children or family that reads Italian; though I do, I would never read this book; and I don’t have the time to start advertising every book I think might have value to someone somewhere.

Somewhere in the cluttered attic of my mind a little voice reminded me that if I could make these hardest choices, getting rid of the low sentiment possessions would be a breeze.

A few days ago I took several large boxes of books to my local used bookstore, one which donates all the books they can’t sell. In the three boxes were some tough calls: a number of Science Fiction hardbacks and also some of the very first SF books I ever owned as a teenager, people like Asimov and Poul Anderson, VanVogt and Clifford D. Simak. It was hard to let them go. But I know, know I’ll never read them again: the few that I will (like Asimov’s The End of Eternity), I kept. But the others, though I loved them as old friends, were just too dated.

It wasn’t much, but it was a start. Some tough calls were made and, yes, the pigskin-bound book is gone, too. There will be more, much more, and not just books. It won’t be easy, and the part of me that is so resistant to any change will fight and scream. It’s a bit like dieting or quitting smoking—you find every possible reason to put it off and not start now.

I will do it. No, really. I will.

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Oh, Shut Up About Wordcount!

I often wonder what non-writers think about their writer friends’ preoccupations over wordcount.

As in, “Today’s wordcount was 1,150, and every one was like pulling teeth.” If you have friends who are writers (and if you’re looking at my page, you likely do), you’ll see this all the time on their social media pages. What does it mean? And why do so many writers obsess over it?

Wordcount is just a measure of progress. Most of us, particularly when working on a long work such as a novel, try to set and meet daily wordage goals. My own is 1,500. Most writers I know like to try for between 500 and 2,000 words a day. Any less, and you beat yourself up; any more, and you’re a happy camper. Hitting your wordcount is also–as two friends pointed out to me–an excellent motivator to the writer. Writing, friends, is Work.

So what does 1,500 words look like? Well, it’s around four (possibly five) regular paperback pages, or perhaps three pages of single-spaced 12pt type. When you figure the average 300-page novel at somewhere close to 100,000 words, you can see that at 1,500 words/day, I’ll get a novel finished in 67 days. Piece of cake, right?

Not quite. First of all, we’re talking about a first draft. Add in rewrites and revisions and you could easily triple or quadruple the work, depending how you write. And that introduces the second wrinkle: not all words are created equal.

I write slowly—600 words an hour if I’m hot, maybe 700 if I’m on fire. My average is probably closer to 500. Now that sounds incredibly slow, just 10 or 12 words a minute. But in the words of the immortal Douglas Adams, a novel is actually “a hundred thousand words in a cunning order”.  That’s right: you have to think about how you arrange those words, what information they convey, whether they match the voice of your character or narrator,  how they sound to the  reader, and how the sentence you just wrote meshes with those around it.

Of course, since it’s a first draft, you get to revise and revise, and you can fix stuff. But there’s no right way to write, and how we each work is entirely personal.  My first drafts are pretty polished, especially at the prose level: they read nicely. I know I’m going to have fix structural and character issues in smoothing rewrites, add in or take out description, and so on, but the prose is good enough that probably 75% of my sentences won’t need to be touched.  I know other writers who can get 4,000-5,000 words a day down, but their first drafts are barely legible. I know one who doesn’t even include punctuation other than periods in her first draft.

For those of you who aren’t writers, here’s a fun exercise: type a four-page letter to someone, single-spaced in 12pt type . Then go through it and revise till it’s polished enough that you could print it in a book or newspaper. Repeat sixty or seventy times.

Of course, you might just prefer to read a book. If so, send some good vibes to the author who probably spent upwards of seven hundred hours to bring you that story. And next time your writer friend posts a wordcount on their Facebook page, give them a big, “like”!

This post was around 550 words. ;-)  And the title, of course, is jokingly intended.

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