Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Proofread Your Stuff

Let me say this again: Proofread your stuff!

Not everything about writing is fun. While some of what a writer does is grand and glorious bursts of creativity, or basking in the adulation of the readers who love the writer’s stuff, a lot of it just seat-to-the-chair hard work, and some of it is real drudgery.

One of the most drudgesome tasks a writer has to perform is proofreading. This is the business of going through your manuscript word by word, correcting spelling errors, fixing grammatical mistakes, making sure there are no omitted words, making sure the paragraphing is correct and seeing that opening and closing quotes match.

Proofreading is no fun. That is why beginning writers can come up with the most amazing ‘reasons’ not to do it.

Which is a deadly mistake. Proof your work. Proof it carefully. If you don’t, your chances of ever making a sale are just about zero.

Still, the excuses keep coming from beginners. Among my least favorites are:

“Proofreading is the publisher’s job”

If you don’t do a careful job of proofreading your manuscript no publisher is going to consider it.

●”Proofreading is uncreative”

Proofreading is damned uncreative. It is about the least creative work I know. It is also a vital part of being a writer.

●”The editor will see past all that to be basic quality of my story.”

What the editor will see is that you’re either lazy or illiterate. Either condition promises trouble for the editor down the road. Editors hate authors who cause them trouble and authors who cause them unnecessary trouble are shunned.

●I’ve got a spellchecker, so my spelling is fine.

Like bloody hell! That attitude is why spellcheckers are one of the worst things to happen to basic literacy since Dick and Jane.

A spellchecker deals with strings of characters, not meanings. If a character string appears on its list, it will pass it without comment. That means it can’t distinguish between “to”, “two” and “too”, even though the differences jump out at readers.

There are worse examples and you see them all the time in amateur writing. “Horde” means a bunch of people, canonically Mongols. “Hoard” is a collection of something, usually treasure. And “Horded” means you desperately need to curl up with a nice, warm dictionary. “Principal” is the guy in charge of a school. “Principle” is a fundamental rule. “Capital” is a building. Capitol is the city where you find the building. And on, and on, and on.

If you’re not sure what the word means, look it up before you use it.

Sometimes a spellchecker can get you into trouble with more than just your editor. When I was working on the college paper, one of the reporters was assigned to do a story about a sociology professor who was just back from West Africa where he had been studying the problems created by educated Africans leaving their home countries for the West. Throughout the interview he kept talking about expatriate Africans.

Now this is a very sensitive issue in Africa because many Africans see expatriates as turning their back on their countries. So the professor was furious when the newspaper article kept referring to ‘ex-patriot’ Africans.

I don’t recall seeing that reporter around after that semester.

If you’re not a natural at proofreading, join the club. Almost no writer is. Most of the writers of my acquaintance are naturally lousy spellers. I didn’t learn to spell until I worked on a newspaper copy desk in college and even today I’m not good at it.

But you’d never know any of that from a professional writer’s manuscript. The worse you are at spelling and such, the more carefully you go over every word of every line on every page

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Intelligence Amplifiers vs Amplified Intelligence

One of the standard gimmicks of science fiction is the “intelligence amplifier”, a wonderful gadget that makes you smarter.

Great idea. But if we want to really build one, instead of creating it in fiction, we need to know more. For starters we need to know what we mean when we say intelligence.

Like most really simple concepts, intelligence turns out to be a real bear to define effectively. The obvious definition is that “intelligence is what makes you smart” – which is massively unhelpful. A more sophisticated definition is that “intelligence is what intelligence tests measure.” Which is tautologically true and again absolutely unhelpful.

So let”s take a look at the typical intelligence test. It contains questions on completing sentences, drawing analogies, matching patterns, inferring the next item in a sequence and, of course, mathematics. Given modern computer power, it is not that difficult to design software that will function as an electronic cheat sheet. That would undoubtedly increase anyone”s score on an intelligence test, but intelligence is supposed to measure a quality that is useful in the real world. How often do you have to complete sentences or decide what a box will look like when it is folded up?

To further complicate the picture, the current wisdom is that there are different kinds of intelligence. Not only is there the sort of intelligence measured by the grab bag of concepts on a conventional intelligence test, but there is also “emotional intelligence”, which measures how well we deal with others. Considering all the super-bright, super-maladapted social retards out there, I'd argue that emotional intelligence is about as important in life success as conventional intelligence.

This isn't getting us anywhere, so let”s look at a simpler question: What's an amplifier?

The obvious answer is “an amplifier is something that makes things louder.” Or in a slightly more sophisticated version an amplifier increases a signal of any sort.

However unlike “intelligence”, “amplifier” has an easily stated, but not-quite-obvious-definition. Technically an amplifier is a device that controls one power stream with another.

Since I”m of a certain age, let's start with a triode vacuum tube, the first real electronic amplifier. (A basic transistor works the same way.) A triode tube, for those of you who have never seen such a beast, is essentially a light bulb on steroids. You've got the glass envelope (the bulb) enclosing a filament (the thing that lights up and burns out in a light bulb) and two other components: the plate and the grid. The plate receives the electrons boiled off the filament and the grid, which can be charged, sits between the two.

When the tube is turned on electrons flow from the filament to the plate, passing through the grid. That produces a nice, strong flow of current (power) from the filament to the plate. But if you turn on the grid you interrupt the flow of current. Even a very small amount of energy applied to the grid can strongly reduce the filament-to-plate flow of energy and enough charge on the grid can completely shut off the flow, like flipping a light switch.

Now if you modulate the energy supplied to the tube”s grid in some way – say by speaking into a microphone – you also modulate the energy flowing through the tube, but on a much larger scale. Even a minuscule amount of energy from the microphone can produce an enormous change in the energy flowing through the triode. Enough to drive a bank of powerful loudspeakers say. Voila! The sound is amplified.

With that out of the way, let”s go back and look at the notion of intelligence again. All forms of intelligence seem to be made up of two components. There”s reasoning ability, or how well you can work with information, and there”s knowledge, or what you know about the world around you. In the case of a conventional intelligence test you have to be able to define words, know the basics of mathematics and understand such ideas a “car” and “miles per hour”. Even the folding box questions require knowledge of how objects fold. (There”s also memory, but for reasons that will become clear in a second, we”ll fold that into “knowledge.”)

So far no one has figured out a good way to increase the reasoning ability of a normal person, although there are some drugs that apparently have a small effect. We can teach logic and general semantics, and we can provide people with heuristics (rules of thumb) to help them analyze situations, but all those things only work if the person is able to reason in the first place. In other words, they are basically forms of knowledge.

If we can't increase reasoning ability, can we increase knowledge? The answer here is not only “yes”, but “hell yes!”. In fact the story of human civilization is in large part the story of increasing knowledge.

Until recently the difficult for the average person was getting hold of the knowledge. We spend enormous sums to impart that knowledge through schools and universities, with highly varying degrees of success. We have libraries packed with it, but unless you were able to visit those libraries that knowledge wasn't available to you.

A more fundamental difficulty is that we seldom want to know all, or even most, of what humanity knows about anything. We just need enough information, in an appropriate form, to solve specific problems or perform specific tasks. Our educational system is focused on providing a broad background on subjects, which may or may not answer our questions. To find the answer in a library requires knowing enough about the subject to know where to look.

I say “until recently” because computer networks, especially the Internet and its successors are changing all that. A few years ago Jerry Pournelle predicted that in a couple of decades we”d have all of human knowledge available through our personal computers. It looks like “all human knowledge” is stretching it, but certainly a good part of it is becoming available.

Already I can make a couple of mouse clicks and type a few words and get answers to most of the answerable questions I can think of. I can't discover the Secret of the Universe (and “42” doesn't qualify unless you know “base what and modulo what”?) but I can find out how to do anything from open-heart surgery to making fancy wooden boxes, I can communicate (or at least listen in on) experts discussing nearly any subject I can name, and I can ask them questions. (Which they may or may not answer.) If I want to learn a subject from quilting to tensor calculus there are tutorials available on the web to teach me – and usually if I can”t understand one tutorial there will be two or three others to choose from.

This is a long way from perfect. We still suffer bandwidth limitations that impede our access to that information. A bigger impediment is the old question of knowing how to find the information. Often this becomes a matter of spending a couple of hours trying to guess the magic words that specialists use to describe the things I'm interested in. The search and organizational features of the Internet are still pathetic. The signal-to-noise ratio is bad. In short it takes special skills in everything from critical thinking to search engine operation to get the most out of the system.

But all this is changing. Searches are getting better as more sophisticated search engines and completely new search methods are developed. Organization is improving. And bandwidth, processing power and accessibility are exploding.

For now most of us access this information sitting at a desk. If you want you can get a laptop with a wireless connection that lets you work just about anywhere. The next step is going to be an appliance we can always carry with us, with input and output devices that don't tie us down.

Suppose instead we had something that looked like a pair of sunglasses for a display and a microphone for voice input (or better yet something we could control with brainwaves). Let's also suppose that it had the bandwidth to maintain several high-capacity connections at once. Let's back this up with software that could monitor hundreds of channels of information and bring the stuff we might be interested in to our attention automatically. We could be accessing several sources of information, interacting with four or five people and monitoring a whole bunch of additional information, all while dealing with the real world.

At that point you”re using the relatively limited amount of brainpower possessed by a human being to control the enormous flow of information in a sophisticated computer network, the result is not an intelligence amplifier, but amplified intelligence – which is almost the same thing.

Almost, but not quite. The output of an amplified signal depends largely on the quality of the signal being amplified. In other words if you apply amplified intelligence to a moron you don”t get a smarter person, you get a more knowledgeable moron. This is easily demonstrated by a quick scan of Usenet news groups.

One of the problems you find in the news groups is that some of the morons have laid hands on a lot of knowledge. They don”t understand what they've read, they can”t really apply it, and because they are morons they don”t understand their output is not merely useless and annoying, it can be downright dangerous. (Check out some of the processes for making explosives circulating on the web.)

Traditionally one of the things that held people with severely impaired judgment in check has been their lack of knowledge. Most of the time they didn't know enough to be dangerous because the processes necessary to gain knowledge pretty effectively winnowed them out. (This wasn't an absolute protection, as the many examples of well-educated jackasses demonstrate, but it was some help.) Now the morons can find that knowledge on the Internet, but they still don”t have the reasoning ability to use it, or even really understand it in most cases.

If you wanted to, you could use the knowledge on the Internet to build anything from a web page to an airliner. Fortunately, AFIK none of the morons have tried to build an airliner yet, but the number of absolutely awful web pages out there gives you some hint of the magnitude of the potential problem.

Or try a more nightmarish case. The information on gene splicing is widely available. It”s also pretty well known that there is probably a way to create a strain of smallpox that is not only resistant to vaccines, but can re-infect the same person multiple times. Suppose some moron decides to try it out?

The good news is the same amplified intelligence will make it possible to find a cure for such a super-bug a lot faster. The other good news is that even simple gene splicing requires not only knowledge, it requires experience as well. The techniques aren't all that complicated, but making them work requires a fair amount of hands-on laboratory experience. The web doesn't amplify experience, except indirectly. (There”s also the fact that the remaining stocks of smallpox virus are carefully controlled.)

Are we doomed? Will we wind up surrounded by morons with megaphones? Not necessarily. Certainly the morons we will have with us, but we can build much more complex amplifiers than the simple triode example described above. We can take the input energy stream and modify as we amplify it by the use of things like filters. We can amplify only part of the energy stream and suppress the rest.

In principle we can do exactly the same thing with amplified intelligence. Through good design and “smart” software we can suppress some of the noise and amplify the real signal – the information we truly want.

Where does amplified intelligence lead us? Darned if I know. One of the things not even amplified intelligence can do is predict the future.

Not yet, anyway,

Monday, August 20, 2007

Why Pros Won't Read Your Stuff

One common complaint from beginning writers is that they can't get professional writers to read their work for comment and criticism.

In general, they’re absolutely right. Most pros have a horror of reading stuff by amateurs and will only do it under special circumstances. This frustrates and angers a lot of beginning writers who don't understand why pros act this way.

Speaking as a professional, I'll tell you, first, that there are some very good reasons why we act this way; second, it’s not going to change any time soon; and third, getting a pro to read and critique your stuff isn't nearly as important as a lot of beginning writers think.

The pros’ attitude is the result of a combination of bad experiences on the part of the writers and a whole series of common misunderstandings on the part of the would-be authors. Taken together they mean that most writers have scars from previous experiences and damn few of them are willing to undertake the project again.

For a professional writer, reading an unpublished writer's work is usually an exercise in frustration. Most pros did it a few times when they were young and innocent and at least one of the resulting experiences was so bad they never want to do it again.

Remember pros usually don’t even read each other's work in progress, except under special circumstances. Most writers have a horror of leaving their fight in the gym and don't want to expose their work to others before its time. It’s also true that for almost every writer, much of the goodness in the work comes from the final stage of reworking, rewriting and polishing. Until that’s done it's very hard to judge a piece of fiction. And of course once that’s done it’s ready to be submitted.

You will occasionally find a published author who is a member of a writers group that reads and critiques each others work. (The other kind of writers’ group, such as the Full Moon Club, of which I am a member, meets for a combination group therapy and bull session. This is much more common among professionals.) Usually these are pros who made their first sales while members of the group and remain with it out of friendship, loyalty and because they feel they benefit from that particular group. However this isn't exactly common and such professionals are usually just as reluctant to read “outsiders” work as any other author.

Pros also have a much more realistic appreciation what you can get from having others read your work -- which is pity damn little, unless it’s being read by an editor, publisher or your agent.

There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes if a pro is stuck, he or she will share part of a work with a trusted colleague to help decide where the piece went wrong. I have a select group of friends who, if bribed with pizza and beer, will review my novels before I send them off to my publisher. However this is for the limited purpose of finding continuity problems and similar contradictions. They all know better than to mess with the prose.

There are also times and places when a pro will read an amateur’s work. These are usually situations with very well-defined boundaries. For example, some authors will agree to critique one or more manuscripts as part of being a guest of a science fiction convention. Others will teach courses in fiction writing that involve reading and critiquing students’ work.

However even those exceptions are limited and can be unpleasant. When I taught science fiction writing at the local junior college I would have the occasional student who simply wanted me to read what they had already written -- typically a novel -- and critique it. They weren't interested in the class work, or the exercises, or the lectures, they wanted me to plow into their masterpiece. This is at best insulting and usually schizophrenic. The student is saying, in effect, that he or she doesn't need the material you as a teacher have worked to put together, but they want your opinion of what they have written.

It is also a sad fact is that a lot of the people who ask authors to read their work don’t want a critique at all. As Sharyn McCrumb put it in her send-up of science fiction conventions Bimbos of the Death Sun, what they want is effusive praise and the name of your agent. The members of this group are particularly likely to be insulted if you give them an honest opinion of their work.

Critiquing a non-professional’s work is as dicey as criticizing a mother's baby. Even more than mothers, writers are sensitive about their productions and easily offended. Of course pros are sensitive about their work as well. The difference is that part of becoming a professional writer is learning to deal with criticism. Beginners usually haven't developed those calluses on their egos yet and they get obviously and often vocally offended.

Critiquing fiction is also not easy. In fact, the better the pro is, the harder it is. Analyzing a piece of fiction is laborious work. It's not the same as reading it for pleasure and if you're going to do an honest job of the critique, it requires careful, word-by-word analysis of the piece. Please note that my reading parties, with their very limited goals, typically last between 10 and 12 hours for a complete novel and most of that time is spent hunched over copies of the manuscripts, red pencils in one hand and beer or pizza in the other.

The second-worst problem is that in general, amateurs have completely unrealistic expectations from the professional reading their work. Most of them think the pro can tell them how to fix whatever is wrong with their work.

In fact neither the pro, nor anyone else, can do any such thing. The most a perceptive professional can tell you is what is wrong with the piece in general terms. It's up to the writer to figure out how to fix it.

Now if I wanted to go through someone else’s work line by line, I could tell them precisely how to write a second-rate Rick Cook novel. But publishers don't want second-rate Rick Cook novels, even from Rick Cook. (Trust me on this one!)

What I can’t tell someone is how to make the work both publishable and authentically theirs. That requires practice and experience on the part of the author and no amount of critiquing can provide that.

But the worst problem is that amateurs want to argue with you. This is utterly futile, wearing for the pro and demonstrates conclusively that the wanna-be writer has utterly missed the point of the exercise.

First, it’s rude. Look, if you ask someone for advice, the appropriate thing to do is listen politely, thank the adviser for his or her time and then do what you think is best. Arguing with someone not only gets you nowhere it irritates the person who did you the favor of giving you the advice you asked for.

It may be appropriate to ask the adviser's reasoning for the advice he or she gives, but that’s a different thing from arguing about it.

Second, and much more importantly, the desire to argue also attaches vastly too much importance to the person who is critiquing the work. The hard fact is that is doesn't matter what the pro thinks. The pro isn't going to be buying it. In this business there are only three opinions that count: The writer’s, the publisher's, and, ultimately, the readers’. What another writer thinks of your work doesn't amount to the proverbial hill of beans.

Good Advice, Badly Taken

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.

--Ralph Waldo Emerson

In general, writing advice is a series guidelines rather than Received Word from On High. While there are some things that you never do, most advice is given in the nature of suggestions and must be applied appropriately.

Unfortunately beginning writers all too often take advice as Holy Writ. The result can be pretty damaging to a writer.

The classic example is AE Van Vogt, an immensely popular writer of science fiction's Golden Age. Early in his career Van Vogt read a book titled "The Only Two Ways to Write a Story", by John W. Gallishaw that included a number of rules for fiction writing. One of those rules was that scenes should be about 800 words long and the author should introduce a new plot twist or surprise in every scene.

As advice, that's not bad. It's on par with the admonition to "shoot the sheriff on the first page" when writing adventure fiction. Unfortunately Van Vogt took it not as advice but as a command. He tried to use it in every scene in every book he ever wrote.

The result was an unholy mess. It resulted in bizarrely complicated plots with more loose ends than a poorly knit afghan. To see what I mean, try to read, say, "The World of Null-A". (The problem wasn't helped because Van Vogt was an enthusiast for just about every movement that roiled through science fiction in that era, from General Semantics to Dianetics, and some, such as eye exercises, that never made it into the mainstream.)

In an essay titled The Cosmic Jerrybuilder in his book of criticism "In Search of Wonder" fellow author and SF critic Damon Knight attempted to analyze the plot of The World of Null-A and its sequel The Players of Null-A. The result made painfully obvious what an utter mess the books were.

In an interview late in his life Van Vogt claimed that Knight had misunderstood his use of the 800-word scene. Personally I suspect that Van Vogt misunderstood what Knight had said, since he referred to it from a second-hand source and his paraphrase differs significantly from Knight's actual point.

In a sense it doesn't really matter. The system Van Vogt described in the interview of dividing each scene into five steps and using fictional sentences', each containing a hang-up' is sufficiently rigid to produce pretty bad fiction.

It's important to note that what's wrong here isn't so much the advice as the rigidity with which it is followed.

Believe it or not, it's possible to rise above such handicaps. Van Vogt was such an outstanding natural storyteller that he was able to carry the reader along in spite of his method B at least the relatively unsophisticated reader of the 1940s. It's significant that when Van Vogt returned to SF in the 1970s he was much less successful.

Far too many beginning writers commit the same sin of literalism. Unlike Van Vogt most of them don't have the natural talent to carry it off.

Almost every single rule or aphorism or piece of advice has counter-examples. Even something as important as >show, don't tell' doesn't always apply. Taken literally it produces large sections of prose which don't add to the story and do it in minute detail. Summarization and abstraction are important tools of the writer.

Fundamentally, it comes down to judgment. A writer must have the judgment to select the appropriate tool from her toolbox and apply it to the situation at hand in an appropriate. Eight hundred words is not a bad length to shoot for in a scene, but other considerations are much more important to writing a good scene than length.

How do you develop the judgment? Practice, practice, practice. You write and rewrite. You study authors to like to see what works. Above all, you think about what you're doing.

This isn't nearly as easy as internalizing a rulebook and following it to the letter. But anyone who thinks this racket is easy is severely mistaken.