Saturday, December 29, 2007


In "The Jewel Hinged Jaw" Samuel R. Delany points out that the essence of being a visual artist is not in drawing or painting, but in seeing. If you can't see really see, he says, it doesn't matter how skilled you are with the brush or pen.

Delany makes the point because the same thing is true of writers. In order to write successfully you have to observe. You must look at what's around you and really, truly, see it.

Most of us, like Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes' famous phrase, see but we do not observe. If you want to be a successful writer you have to train yourself to go beyond seeing and into observing.

It's not easy, but it can be kind of fun.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Wiz 6: The Wizard Uncompleted?

A reader asked when the next Wiz book was going to come out.

The answer, alas, is 'never', at least not in the conventional sense. But there may be an opportunity for readers to see most of it anyway.

In spring 2000 I was well into Wiz 6: The Wizardry Capitalized when I went into the hospital for emergency heart surgery. The surgery saved my life but a combination of medical problems and the effects of the drugs I take has pretty much ended my fiction career. (Non-fiction I still manage very nicely, thank you.)

Anyway, because I couldn't finish the book, and because I didn't understand the problem until it was too late, the publisher waited five years and then canceled the contract, taking his advance back out of royalties on my other books.

Not the least blame attaches to the publisher, the late Jim Baen, who was unbelievably patient through the entire experience. But I am not left with a 90 percent finished book which is not only uncontracted, it is unsalable. (And no, I am absolutely NOT interested in collaborating with anyone to try to finish it at this point.)

Now, because of the way I write, "90 percent finished" means that it is basically all there but there are great whacking gaps in the story. It has a beginning, a middle and and end, but there's a lot of the connecting tissue missing. What's more, the subplots haven't been inserted in their proper places. Each subplot is still a connected series of scenes.

A tolerant, patient reader can follow the story and probably even enjoy it, but there's stuff missing.

So here's the question: Some people have expressed interest in reading the novel in its uncompleted state. If there is enough interest I'll publish what I've got online -- in a blog or on a web page.

Anyone interested?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


This was the week I was supposed to be in Orlando to appear on a panel on project failure at a conference sponsored by project software vendor Primavera.

This was also another week when I was supposed to be at the Arizona State Fair every day I was in town demonstrating lapidary.

Last week was the week I not only demonstrated at the fair, I also attended Storage Networking World in Dallas.

I actually spent this week being deathly ill as a result of trying to do too much and a bug I picked up either at the fair or in Dallas.

One of the problems with a freelancer's life is that you don't get out much. As a result you're very susceptible to colds, flu and other nasties contracted from those around you.

In my case this is exacerbated by my health problems.

"Man's reach should exceed his grasp, else what's a heaven for."
-- Old Saying

"Not to mention projectile vomiting"
-- Rick Cook (who is feeling very old this week)

Monday, October 8, 2007


I'm not going to be posting regularly for October and possibly the first part of November.

A combination of work, travel and some rather arcane teaching is going to be eating a lot of my time, so posts will be catch as catch can.

For which my apologies. But I should be back, better than ever (?) after the first week in November.

--Rick Cook

Friday, September 28, 2007


Writing fiction is almost always a process of successive approximation. In fact most of the goodness in most people's writing comes from rewriting.

One of the most valuable skills a writer can learn is how to rewrite aggressively. That is, how to go through a piece and make every word in every sentence in every paragraph justify its existence. If it's unnecessary, it comes out. If it doesn't convey exactly what you want to say, you need to change it. Write it and then rewrite it and rewrite it and rewrite it until it's as good as you can possibly make it.

This is a difficult concept for a lot of beginning writers. Our society teaches us to think of inspiration as golden and that we don't want to stifle our creativity. As is so often the case our society is, if not utterly wrong, then seriously misguided.

The hard fact is that we tend to try to substitute creativity for almost every other virtue in everything from art to business. However there are a lot of other factors which are at least as important as inspiration. One of them is the ability to work with that inspiration until it gives the very best results you can manage.

People who are overly concerned about stifling their creativity by reworking what they do are usually doomed to failure. In the case of writers they're typically not very creative either.

Of course the other, unstated, reason for the bias against rewriting is that rewriting is the pick-and-shovel labor of writing. It is unglamorous, hard work and often frustrating. It can ultimately be extremely satisfying, but that's frequently difficult to see at the time.

Now granted, some days it just flows. Everything that appears on your screen is golden and you wouldn't change a word of it. I'm here to tell you that such days are extremely rare. If you get one or two paragraphs like that in a day you're doing well.

The other characteristic of successful writers when is comes to rewriting is that they're ruthless about it, more ruthless than most other people are prepared to be in dealing with their prose.

Once, a number of years ago in an online discussion group, three of us edited a paragraph of fiction. One of us was a copy editor, one of us was a book editor and one of us (me) was a writer.

The book editor made a few changes that made the piece a little better. The copy writer made a few more changes and the result was even stronger.

As for the writer, I butchered it. I reduced the whole paragraph to two short sentences and it was a lot stronger for it.

The lesson is that as a writer you bear primary responsibility for writing and re-writing your work. You can't depend on other people to fix it for you.

People sometimes ask me how many rewrites I do. Depending on definition the answer is anything from 'none' to 'hundreds'. For me rewriting is an integral part of the process, not a separate step. Whenever I hit a flat spot, I stop creating prose and scroll back through what I've done so far, rewriting as I go. Similarly if I need to make major changes I tend to do them before I finish. I may not do a second draft as such, but by the time it leaves my hand every word in every pieces of fiction has been gone over multiple times.

Books on writing often warn beginning writers against the dangers of excessive rewriting. In my opinion such advice is misguided. First, the problem most writers have is that they don't rewrite enough. They leave their sculpture rough and unfinished because by the time they get to the end of the project they're so sick of it they just want it to be over.

The second reason is even more important. The problem with 'excessive' rewriting is not excess; it's quality. Bad rewriting is just as deadly as bad writing.

The mark of bad rewriting is change for the sake of change. In other words, the inability to critically evaluate what you're looking at and see what will make it better, as distinct from what will merely make it different.

Always, always, the question is "does this change make it better?" If you can't honestly say yes, then don't make the change. The exception is when you're taking things out. Because so much writing is overly verbose my instinct in considering a questionable cut is to make it. Similarly if the change makes the piece longer, I am very cautious about making it. I want to make sure that the added words will carry their weight in the piece.

This kind of critical thinking isn't always fun. In fact sometimes it smacks of strangling a baby in its cradle. But whether it's fun or not it's essential to produce a finished work of fiction.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


As most of you probably know by now, Robert Jordan, author of the "Wheel of Time" series, died recently. The saga had stretched on through 11 books and Jordan was as work on the 12th and last in the series at the time of his death.

While it probably isn't important to Jordan's legion of fans, the question such a record raises for a would-be writer is "what possesses someone to write a 12-book series of novels?"

Several years ago I shared an autograph table with Jordan at a Southern California science fiction convention and I asked him how the "Wheel of Time" had come to encompass so many books. The reason, he told me, was that he simply wasn't able to wrap up the story he wanted to tell. The series had originally been intended to be much smaller, but it kept growing as the plot kept expanding and mutating. He expressed a certain amount of frustration at this, despite the series' popularity because it kept him from working on other projects.

The truth is that no sane person sets out to write a 12-book series. (How many writers are eliminated by that qualification, sane, I'll leave as an exercise to the reader.) You aren't so much possessed to write a bunch of books set in the same universe using the same characters, it just happens. And it isn't necessarily a good thing.

Broadly speaking a multi-book series comes about in two ways. One of them is to plan out a series of books from the beginning, which is what Jordan did. (I gather he was originally thinking of it as a trilogy, but that's only an impression.) The other is to write a single book and just have the damn thing grow.

In my case, the Wiz series, about a computer programmer stuck in a world of high fantasy and low puns, was originally intended to be a single book. When I planned out "Wizard's Bane", I had no intention of writing any sequels. In fact the third book in my three-book deal with Baen was originally intended to be a modern horror novel about the ghost of Dracula visiting Cleveland -- which was the most horrifying thing I could think of at the time. That book never happened. Instead I did the second Wiz book "The Wizardry Compiled" and a series was launched. However in the course of writing the first book, and afterwards, I discovered why so many books become series - and why some series seem to go on far too long.

The reason is that both publishers and fans like series. They let the publishers compound their marketing expenditures by spreading the benefits out over several books. Fans like series because they want to read more about the characters and situations they enjoy.

So a series is a win all the way around? Not hardly. There are a lot of problems with series for everyone involved, writer, fans and publisher. In my opinion the science fiction or fantasy series is something that needs to be approached with both caution and restraint, especially by the writer.

The first thing to understand is that the series will only continue for as long as the publisher finds it profitable. If sales start to fall, the series is going to end abruptly.

This can be pretty traumatic for the writer. One fantasy author of my acquaintance had her series summarily canceled by the publisher at about book six. She was especially bitter about this because up until about book four the publisher had been encouraging her to lengthen the series and they'd worked out a verbal agreement for the series to run to nine books.

Based on the (non-binding) understanding with her editor, she had started working ahead and actually started writing portions of the last three books in the series. She'd invested a good deal of time and energy and she hated the fact that her readers would be left hanging by the abrupt termination. She had also been counting on the income from the series, although she wasn't foolish enough to spend the money before it arrived.

This last point probably takes a little explanation. Because of the way fiction is published. An author doesn't see income beyond the advance for about three years after he or she starts on a new book. Needless to say, the advance is never enough to live on for three years or so.

A smart author who is actually trying to make a living writing fiction (Okay, so that's an oxymoron) tries to have two or three books in various stages of completion, collecting at least one advance a year for signing a contract for a new book. The exception is an author who is working on a series, where all the books in the works are part of the series. So my acquaintance not only lost the expected immediate income, but her entire work schedule for the next several years was disrupted.

The thing that really made her mad was the books were still profitable. Sales on the last one were down, but it was still on track to earn out its advance. However her long-time editor had left in an editorial shakeup and there was apparently a new direction at the publisher and her stuff just didn't fit any more. So with sales down, she was cut off.

While the situation can be bad from the writer's standpoint, it can be even worse for the readers. For the readers, the problem is quality. Even if you've got a story arc completely worked out for the series, it is extremely difficult to keep the quality consistently high. In fact most series go wandering off in the weeds after two or three books.

This isn't so much that the author runs out of ideas, although that can happen, as it is hard to keep working to a consistently high level when you're working the same ground over and over. The fire goes out of the concept, you find yourself starting to repeat and the series goes into exhaustion.

The other thing that happens is that editorial attention tends to slack off in a successful series. This is a problem because nearly every writer can benefit from good, tight editing. However as a writer becomes more popular, editors are less willing to ‘interfere’ with the writer’s work. No matter how desperately it needs it. To see what I mean, compare the latest Tom Clancy novel to “The Hunt for Red October” or “Red Storm Rising.” Both those novels taught me a good deal about action writing. The latest Clancy novels can’t even hold my interest. They are sprawling, loose and in desperate need of good editing and being cut by at least a third.

What is worse, a series is usually contracted for several books out. That means you're not only meeting a deadline for one book, you're committed to deadlines for two or more with not much break between them. In general publishers want to see one or two books a year in a series. That puts extra strain on the writer.

The slipping quality is usually what causes series sales to fall off, which leads to the publisher canceling in mid-series. But that has an even worse effect on the writer's career. Poor books damage the market for the writer's other work. Readers, not unreasonably, base their opinion of a writer's work on the last thing they read. If you lose readers it's awfully hard to get them back.

For all that, it's awfully difficult for a writer to turn down a series deal. For as long as it lasts it means a certainty that's hard to find in the often-chaotic life of a writer.

Friday, September 14, 2007


Okay, I'm a wine slob. My palette for wine is pretty hopelessly under developed. To me a burgundy tastes good, but in a sour, alcoholic sort of way. I can't detect the nuances and undertones a connoisseur finds in a good wine. In fact I can barely tell the difference between the plonk that comes in a box and a bottle of an excellent vintage.

This is true in fiction as well. Some characters are naturally keener observers than others. This is natural, but it's something you have to consider when you put words in a character's mouth. What a character sees and reports about the world around him/her/it (because this is SF and fantasy after all) says nearly as much about the character as it does about the world.

(And how do you know which characters are keener observers than others? If you don't you need to back up a couple of steps and work some more on character development.)

That's because what a character reports is an important way of defining the character to the reader. Authorial summation ('he was a thug') is the weakest method of establishing character. Reader experience, including what the character reports, is much stronger. If you call someone a thug and then go on for pages about his aesthetic tastes you're sending the reader a mixed message. Unless you're doing it intentionally, say for purposes of dramatic irony or to illuminate complexities of the character's society or personality, this is a bad thing.

Keep in mind character-reported observations, like any observations, divide into two classes. There are experiences and there are classifications.

Experiences are what characters notice in the around around them. They are sense impressions and summaries thereof. Often even crude and stupid people can observe closely. A psycho mountain man with an IQ of 90 who's spent years holed up in the hills may be a keen observer and sensitive reporter of the world around him. In fact a mountain man, no matter how stupid or how crazy, is likely to have an intimate awareness of the wilderness. To take another example, incarcerated mental patients and prisoners are often very keen observers of their keepers and even subtle differences in the world within their walls.

Classification is based primarily on knowledge and experience. Even very smart, sophisticated characters are likely to fall short where what's being described is outside their experience. A 13-year-old fan of whatever is being observed is likely to be able to classify much more clearly.

An unsophisticated character might say that another character is driving a "bright red car". Someone with more knowledge might recognize it as a "classic fire-engine red sports car. A buff might describe it as a "beautifully restored Mercedes 300 SL gullwing in the factory red paint job." (And guess what I lusted after in my youth.)

So what do you do if you've got a character who's a rough-and-ready type, or even a little stupid, and you want to convey a complex, sophisticated description?

This is where you switch to the omniscient narrator mode. You as the narrator don't have the limits on what you can perceive that hamper your characters. You can put a mindless animal in a breathtakingly beautiful setting and convey the beauty without breaking character.

Again, this is a small part of the thinking that goes into successful fiction. You not only create your world, decide how much of it to describe to your reader, choose how to describe it, but you also decide who will convey the information to the reader.

Hard? Yes. But anyone who says fiction is easy is a lair.

Thursday, September 6, 2007


Just as you can exercise to improve your muscles, you can exercise to improve your writing.

The point of writing exercises isn't the exercise, any more than the point of exercising your muscles is lifting weights. Like weight lifting, writing exercises increase your abilities and build capacity you need in real life.

While there are a lot of these exercises, games almost, that writers can do, only about half of them involve actually writing. That's because writing is, at best, only half about writing. The other part of effective writing is seeing. Like a painter, a writer has to be able to see before he or she can reproduce. Often the seeing is as hard as the writing. And like the writing you need to build your capacity to do so with exercises.

There's one exercise I'm particularly fond of builds skill in both seeing and writing. It doesn't take much time, it doesn't require equipment, not even a notebook and you can not only do it anywhere, it's actually better for being done anywhere.

The essence of the game is simple. Describe something or someone in just a sentence or two. It doesn't have to be less than 25 words, but capture the person or the thing in prose while it is in front of you.

This does two things. First, it teaches you to observe and second it tests your ability to put those observations into evocative prose. Additionally, it lets you check your observations while the thing or person you're describing is still in front of you.

Fiction writers are usually very close observers. They have to be. Even if the characters, places and situations are completely made up, they are stronger for being based in real observations.

You should try this game on everything: Objects, scenes, buildings, trees and most of all people.

Remember character counts. With people try for observations that capture something of the inner person. Do they seem happy, sad, preoccupied, self-satisfied, what? Now, what are the physical characteristics that give you that impression? Is there something about the set of the mouth, the slant of the eyes, the way they hold their bodies? What is it exactly?

After a while you'll find this gets a lot easier, often almost automatic. Then you can ring in changes. For example you can do a description of a person that's intended to convey a positive impression. Then you can turn around and create a description of the same person that's negative.

Above all, try for the particular and get away from generalizations. An 'old car' isn't as descriptive as a "dusty 76 Chevy with big patches of gray primer on the rear fender and a skirt of pink Bondo along the bottom."

The purpose isn't to capture these people or things for use in a story. Instead you're honing your skill to capture something and describe it concisely. It isn't easy, but like so many other things, you improve with practice.

And if happens that one day you can pull out bits and pieces of what you've seen and described and use them in your fiction, so much the better.

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.