Sunday, December 27, 2009


Just a piece of dialogue I really wanted to put back into the piece I'm working on now, but there's just no room, and it doesn't serve much purpose except a laugh. Posting here for your enjoyment (and so I don't lose it)

“You ever hear the story of a planet called,” he pronounced it carefully, “Ah-show-lay?”
His companion shook his head. “No, never.”
“Oh, that’s a good one. See, a long time ago when they first started settling planets, before the Colonial Confederation, there was an expedition planned to this new earthlike they’d found, and kept the location under wraps. The expedition leader was a real careful sort — the kind of person who you really need for a new colony. Well, they took their time getting ready, and people got antsy. Finally, a group of them said, forget this, and they launched their own attempt.
“Well, that pissed off the original group something awful. Purely out of spite, they launched their own attempt early, just a couple dozen of them, not well-equipped. But damn it if they didn’t arrive first by a couple days.
“You see, in those days the tradition was that the first colony on a planet got to name the whole planet. And so when the splinter group arrived, they were very unhappy to see that they’d been beat — and unhappy beyond belief to find their prize planet newly christened, ‘Asshole’.”
His companion barked a laugh.
“But what could they do? They couldn’t just turn around and leave, they didn't have the fuel and had sold their homes and burned all their bridges. They had to go through with setting up their colony. The first one packed up not too long afterward, and the second group tried to rename the planet. But by then anyone who heard the story pretty much agreed it was an appropriate name. It stuck. So what could they do? They decided that the name was spelled A-S-S-H-O-L-E, sure, but it was pronounced ‘Ah-show-lay’. And damned if they didn’t sic their lawyers on everyone who didn’t pronounce it the way they said. But the more they did that, the more people heard about the whole thing. The Assholians finally got fed up, they weren’t making much progress anyway, so they gave in.”
“So how come I haven’t heard of this place, then?”
“Like I said, the second colony folded not too long after, and the next group to take a crack at it got to rename the place.”
“What did they call it after that?”

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Missing the point

So, I just cooked my takeaway salmon sashimi in a toaster oven. With the lemon, soy sauce, and wasabi that came with it, it was very tasty -- some of the best cooked salmon I've ever had. In retrospect, the very intense heat of the toast setting was just right for something like this.
(In my defense, I got back to my office and discovered that the sashimi was still mostly frozen.)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Death in a Tin Can

The first draft of my latest short story is finally DONE! Inspector Crandall has his work cut out for him: there are space ships and robots and (of course) a murder. Can he solve the murder? Will his space sickness get the better of him?

Well, you can find out for yourself if you volunteer to read through it and tell me your thoughts ;)

I'm intending this piece as my submission to Viable Paradise. The word limit for that is 8,000 (this draft stands at 7,900 words). As such, I want it to be as good as I can get it by early January, while hopefully tightening it up enough that I can add things as necessary. I will also be sending this to Critters for feedback, but they work best when the piece is already reasonably polished.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Insert Tor Pun Here

(Like Tor-n or 'taking a deTor' or 'gzipped Tor file'. Something like that. I'm tired and it's too late to be inventing puns for my adoring public (let alone you lot).)

Those of you who are fans of science fiction/fantasy and like listening to audio books should have a listen to Tor's new weekly podcast. First up is one of my favorite pieces of John Scalzi's, "After The Coup" read by the author. I'm not sure why they say it's unavailable via iTunes -- I went into iTunes, and pasted the RSS link into the "Subscribe to Podcast" box, and it worked like a charm.

Tor's published some great (free!) short fiction on their site over the last year or so, and promises to continue doing so. I'm excited!

Monday, December 14, 2009

My God, It's Full of ... Puns

Just when I thought that there was no hope for artificial intelligence, my mind is blown by this. (h/t to PhysOrg) That's right: a computer that formulates and tells jokes, all based on that apex of humor, the pun. It is a little scattershot in its basic approach based on using Princeton's WordNet as a relational database / expert system (using the phonetic form to roughly judge whether two words sound similar. It seems to come up with some interesting results -- they remind me in some ways of the kinds of jokes five-year-olds tell. Some samples:

What do you call a cross between an emporium and a success?
A department score

What do you get when you cross a choice with a meal?
A pick-nic

And (possibly the best of the bunch)
Why is a bronzed handle different from a fringe benefit that is lordly ?
One is a tanned grip, the other is a grand tip

Oh my sides, they split.
(More here)

So, now we know how the inevitable robot armies intend to kill us all. I didn't think they'd be this cruel or ruthless, but I must now stop to wipe away a tear of pride. *wipe*

The software will eventually be available for download. I think that (with permission) this would actually be worth learning how to write iPhone apps.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Screw Celsius

I am in general in favor of the metric system. It makes sense, it's easy to use. But the Celsius scale (while fine for many scientific endeavors) is not appropriate for day-to-day human life.

Think of it this way: for most of us, the range of human temperature experience just fits the Fahrenheit scale better. 0F - 100F is a good range, matching quite well what many of us experience. One degree is large enough to be reasonably meaningful (with useful decades), but is fine-grained enough to not need decimals. Going outside the 0-100 range is really something: a particularly cold or blistering day.

When it comes down to it, the water cycle just isn't that relevant to day-to-day life. Water doesn't magically freeze completely when the weather hits 32F/0C, there's a considerable hysteresis going on there. Besides, you don't want your freezer right at freezing, you want it more like 20F, and your fridge below 40F. There's a distinct difference in the clothing you wear at 50F, 60F, 70F, 80F.

That's not to say that the Celsius decades are useless. They're not bad for broad generalities: -10 is quite cold, 0 is cold, 10 is chilly, 20 is warm, 30 is hot. But there's a big difference within those decades in terms of what you wear, what activities you plan, etc. When you're sitting at a desk for a long time, your preferred temperature may well be a fraction of a degree Celsius.

So, make a stand for Fahrenheit! For a more understandable people-friendly tomorrow!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Still Working...

Sorry for the radio silence lately -- I've been hard at work on the third Jonas Crandall mystery, tentatively titled "Death in a Tin Can". Yes, there are robots in this one, sheesh.

This one has a hard 8,000-word limit, because I'm planning to apply to Viable Paradise, a writing workshop in Martha's Vineyard. It's a long shot and expensive, but given the list of instructors, it's really worth it. I'm planning to use Tin Can as my application piece, hence the word count. That means it needs to be shorter than the other pieces, and hopefully better than them too.

Shorter pieces are tough for me. I don't think I ramble, but I do tend to be able to deal out the verbiage like nobody's business. This plot is, I think, easily simple enough to fit in 8,000 words, but having not really accomplished something so short yet, that makes me worry whether it will actually be any good.

Well! There's only one way to find out, right?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


In an age of print-on-demand and e-readers, there is NO EXCUSE WHATSOEVER for a book to be out of print and available only at extortionate prices. I'm looking at you, Peter Cannon and Barry Hughart: If used copies of your books are selling for $50 or more and you don't bother to make new copies available, you need to be kicked in the head. (Or your heirs do if you happen to be dead -- which is no excuse!)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Turkey, Divided

Every year I wind up cooking the Thanksgiving turkey. I don't mind it, but it's a tad stressful: it's a long cooking time and it's tough to tell partway through how well things are going. And of course, if you get the dark meat done properly, the white meat won't be done right, and vice versa. The turkey is just a poorly-constructed animal, really.

So this year I decided to fix that. With a nice sharp knife I completely dismembered the turkey. The breast and torso went into the oven with a temperature probe set for 165, with the wings put in upside-down (that is, tips down, limb up) The legs, however, were done on the stovetop -- I browned some pearl onions and mushrooms, set them aside, then scorched the skin side of each leg. I flipped the legs back skin-side up, put the onions and mushrooms back and glugged in some marsala wine, added some black pepper and salt, then set the whole thing to cook on low heat for the several hours the breast spent in the oven.

The white meat came out no better or worse than expected (I'm not a fan anyway), but I was able to cook it exactly as long as I wanted. But the legs just came out fantastic. On top of that, since I cooked them with the lid shut there was plenty of great stuff in there for making gravy, which went very well over everything.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


I just came across a reference to Kanazawa and Perina's recent paper, "Why night owls are more intelligent". Unfortunately I am off-campus until I get back from Thanksgiving break -- so I can only imagine what gratifying secrets lie await in its pages! (OK, it's probably bullshit, but it's the kind of bullshit that justifies all my pre-conceived notions about me being better than everyone else, and isn't that just a synonym for "truth", really?)

What an awesome web we weave

The last thing that you want your robot army to do, when asked "Are you exterminating the human race?" is answer "Yes." Public relations fiasco right there. You can't possibly go on Oprah often enough to make up for that one.

The solution? Make sure your robots know how to lie. Fortunately, there have been great strides in this very field recently. Some folks in Lausanne, Switzerland have been working in evolutionary robotics: they developed a pretty nice platform (the S-bots, shown in that link towing a terrifically tolerant tot) that have a number of general-use actuators and sensors. At the same time, they developed a decent computer simulation of those robots so that they could try out control schemes -- including multiple iterations of an evolved controller.

Note that they have both light rings (three colors of LEDs) and light sensors. The robots are each controlled by a neural network, the inputs for which include input from those sensors, and the outputs drive motors and other actuators. The weights of each node are determined by elements on a single long string, which is treated as genetic material for a genetic algorithm. They run the robots with a randomized genome, and those robots that "survive" (get to a power source) have their "genes" passed on to the next generation (that is, the next iteration of the experiment) Neural networks are a nice handy way to bridge the gap between genetic algorithms and programmed behavior, actually. Anyone who's interested in playing around with these techniques would not do badly to start off with something like this.

Anyway, I haven't read the paper too carefully, but it sounds like the deception involves the fact that the power source (the "food") has one colored light, and the robots can change color to that same color when they are there (thus helping the other robots with different genes) or they can turn off their lights or turn a different color to give themselves a larger relative advantage! Of course, robots that are attracted to both color lights would gain a further advantage, thus increasing the dominance of that particular strain: a bunch of them with the same set of mutations could effectively hide the power source from other robots.

There's more coverage, with more videos at Singularity Hub. If you're interested in the bots themselves, the older swarm-bots have a page here, and the newer version is over here. The papers there are pretty approachable for technically-minded folks not in robotics, I think, but are not quite to the level of general consumption. Good stuff.

I guess the only remaining question, then, is that, having now learned to lie, will robots ever learn ... to love?

The answer is no.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Incidental Food in Science Fiction

I've been thinking a bit about food in fiction. I read a lot, and I cook a lot, and so scenes with food stand out to me. When those scenes are done well, they can really add a lot to characterization and place.

Mysteries in particular tend to be remarkably full of food: You've got the gourmand Nero Wolfe, of course, but Robert Parker's Spenser has a much stronger relationship to his food. Parker's descriptions of food and cooking are quite remarkable, they're plainly written by someone who enjoys good food and knows how to cook. Poirot's habits as well extend to dining, though more often as a way to emphasize his foreignness -- and of course food plays a significant role in several cases as a vehicle for poison or in one case a ruby, or to show how many people sat down to dinner. Important stuff, but for the plot, not for the scene. (I find that Christie pays more attention to coffee than to food, anyway)

It seems to me that food can be a remarkably useful tool to the science fiction writer. But (and maybe my memory is selective here) it also seems to me that food in that genre tends to be super-important/significant, or not really mentioned at all. It figured in Stranger in a Strange Land, of course (in a way I won't give away), and food/drink generally in Dune and other harsh-environment settings. And then of course there's Make Room! Make Room! with its themes of starvation and overpopulation. (You may know it by its very loose movie adaptation, Soylent Green) Vegetarianism plays a similar role in many stories.

In all those, food was important -- too important for what I'm getting at, really. I'm trying to think of science fiction scenes where food made for a memorable scene, characterizing people or place, but not crucial. Anyone have any scenes like that come to mind?

Killing Google $1M at a time?

Mark Cuban wrote a fascinating post on his blog, a scheme to kill Google by offering the owners of the top-ranked sites money to remove themselves from the index.

It's an interesting idea. I see a couple flaws, but they are interesting flaws.

Morally, I think it's abhorrent: it would fundamentally make the Internet a worse place for the sake of cementing an artificial lead by a company that by and large wouldn't do good things with it. Basically, it would be buying rather than earning a monopoly.
However, for a handful of popular sites, that much money could mean the ability to offer a lot of things they currently can't. Moreover, it raises an interesting question: Search right now is built on the backs of the popular sites, under the assumption (mostly correct) that for each site, more traffic is better than less. Advertising revenue is not split with those sites -- they have to find their own funding models, but there is the promise that users who come to a site by being guided by a trusted search engine are more likely to look at ads, spend money, and generally not waste bandwidth.

For one thing, this risks playing out as a large-scale Prisoner's Dilemma. If Microsoft approaches a thousand sites with a million dollars each, then many of them will sit there thinking, "If I defect from Google alone, I get a million dollars... and then very little traffic. Meanwhile, my competitors will get the Google traffic that would have gone to me." For many retailers, if they make the move but Amazon doesn't, then they're sunk. It doesn't matter, though, we can postulate a number that would make it worthwhile. After all, if Bing winds up the top search engine as a result of the bribes, then these retailers won't be losing much money.

But, what if Microsoft ceded to Google the top retailing sites, and went after specific markets? With a scheme like this, Microsoft could potentially make itself the go-to search engine for gaming. EA is hurting right now, a few mil would definitely help their bottom line, and most of these companies develop either for XBox or PC. Game review sites don't exactly operate on great margins, ditto sites that offer forums, walkthroughs, and cheat codes. And something like this could jump-start the indie games movement in a huge way, providing the kind of money most of them only dream of. Microsoft could be seen as a benefactor of the industry in this case, and there would be a lot of spillover: users who bring up a Bing window to look for information on an upcoming game might leave it open to search for someone selling that game.

Aiming at less technical markets, Microsoft could do something similar for sports. Or, it could go after non-English sites. Cornering the market on, say, Italian language sites could be much easier, though probably less lucrative.

IF Comp 2009 Results

The results are in! Congratulations to everyone who is happy with their scores! Given the stiff competition and the fairly slim margin of victory, I think the authors of any of the top games should be proud.

Those of you who are new to IF or don't have much time to play, this is the best time of year to pick up a few games and try them out -- they've already been ranked for you! I haven't played #4, but certainly the top 3 are all very good. (Note, by the way, that Broken Legs, while a great game, is very hard. If you're not going to use the walkthrough, it would be better played with a friend so you can bounce ideas off each other)

Friday, November 13, 2009

A few moments to rest

I was up late last night getting things ready for the movers. The way I figure it, the more I do, the less time it will take -- and the less I will ultimately have to pay them. This is not as good a motivator as you might think. However, the desire to not pay people to move things that I will then immediately throw out is pretty strong, and as a result I have several trash bags ready to go out, not to mention the 180 lbs of computer stuff I brought to WinCycle yesterday.

I slept on the couch, having already basically disassembled my bedroom, so I was woken up by the sun in those big south-facing windows. I'm not much of a breakfast person, but I do generally require caffeine in the morning. I turned out to have one last Starbucks Via packet in my coat pocket, which I prepared using water boiled in a skillet. (Having earlier given away the microwave and the kettle)

The movers will be here in about half an hour. Before they arrive I will need to take out the trash, put away the cleaning supplies that need to stay here, and figure out what I'm going to do with the glass/plastic recycling.

But for now I get a moment of calm in my apartment of seven years, to relax and enjoy a cup of coffee.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Kitchen Gadget Idea

How come nobody's ever made a deep fryer using gallium instead of oil? It's liquid at cooking temperatures (but stays liquid for thousands of degrees), appears to be non-toxic, and doesn't look like it reacts with food or wooden spoons. (It does seem to be highly reactive with certain metals, though, so the cooking chamber would need to be carefully designed, possibly enameled)

It would be an interesting cooking medium. You'd want to avoid food that would really trap it in little pockets, but think of the benefits: no oils would seep into the food, it would have terrific thermal rebound, you'd get nice even browning. Further, handling it would be great -- because it stands such high temperatures you could toss it in a self-cleaning over and burn out any leftover food at 500 degrees. Plus, unlike many other things in the kitchen, it would be obvious whether it's too hot to touch or not: if it's hot, it's liquid, if it's cold, it's solid.

Ok, it would probably poison a whole lot of people. But there are always technical details to be worked out. Come on, people, we can do this!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Be A Dragon, Stomp the World

Anyone with an iPhone or iPod touch should check out Earth Dragon (reviewed here if you want a second opinion)

It's a fun little game where you play a dragon tearing down castles, stomping on its defenders and its cows, and setting anything and everything on fire. It makes nice use of the interface: you wave your iPhone to fly and glide, and tap or slide to wreak mayhem. It's a couple bucks and it's awesome.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Power of a Dollar

Here's a fun little video (h/t to Marginal Revolution) that goes a long way toward explaining the sheer amount of money pouring into politics. The question at hand: How do I sell a dollar for more than a dollar?

Friday, October 30, 2009


I am conflicted -- should I make another attempt at National Novel Writing Month this year? I have other writing projects to work on, but no new story ideas, just editing older pieces and getting them ready for either workshops or submission. If I were to do that much writing each day, perhaps it would be better to channel that energy into Critters critiques, another short story, or blogging (like, say, finishing the Labors of Hercules).

This is complicated by the fact that the only new story idea I have right now would be reasonably good for NaNoWriMo (fun to write, should be easy to get 50k words) and that it might do me good to just throw words on paper toward a deadline.

What do you think? (Check the poll -- it's got a very short deadline)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

National Languages... by just one vote!

I think most of us have heard the story that German almost became the national language of the United States. If you haven't heard it, the basic story is that at the time of American independence, German was spoken by many more people, and that either the Continental Congress or the US Congress (depending on the version of the story you hear) voted on whether English or German should be the national language. English, goes the story, won by a slim margin. (The linked story is more colorful than the version I learned as a kid)

I am reminded of this because I found out this evening that there is a similar story for China. There, the question was between Mandarin and Cantonese, but again: up for vote by a new revolutionary government, very narrow victory.

I just thought that was entertaining.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Interactive Fiction

Just a quick reminder: IF Comp 09 has started, and has some great entries. (Naturally! I beta-tested two of them ;) Go play a bunch, and vote!

eReaders and subscription services

I am getting to a stage in my life where I am willing to pay extra for less clutter. I have come to the point where lack of space is more of a constraint than lack of funds, at least as far as books are concerned. I am therefore an enthusiastic user of my electronic reader, my Kindle 1. But at the same time I share a lot of the concern about DRM that other people have. If I buy a copy of a book, I should own that copy: I should be able to lend it out, I should be able to make a print copy for my personal use. Current DRM regimes appear to me an unseemly mixture of panic and greed.

I think part of the issue is that the current eReader situation is somewhat bizarre. The devices are being sold and supported by booksellers rather than by publishers or groups of authors. I think that this is what is leading to the artificiality of the situation. I've been thinking a lot about what I think the reading industry is going to look like in the coming years.

The easiest way for me to think about it is in terms of the question, "Who adds value (that I find valuable)? What value?" There are several kinds of value. First, the text itself: is it good at what it does? For fiction, does it tell a good story? For non-fiction, is it well-written and factual? For fictitious non-fiction, does it ... provide whatever the hell it's supposed to provide? (Don't look at me, I don't read that kind of thing) There's a lot of value too, though, in guiding selection, value that's increasing all the time. Every minute I spend looking through lists of books is a minute I spend not reading. The cost of missing a book I'd enjoy or find useful is difficult to quantify, but I'm reminded of the 20-odd years of my life spent not knowing that Terry Pratchett existed, and that cost can seem pretty high. That selection applies not only to finding books for yourself, but in finding books to give as gifts.

So, who adds that value? Authors, of course, create the text, and frequently are wonderfully consistent: once you find authors you like, coming back to their work is a great way to skip a lot of searching. Editors and agents help weed out sub-par work, but also work with the author to improve the text. They are less consistent than individual authors, as they work with many more texts, but that can be a very good thing (I'll touch on that again later). Printers (and now device manufacturers) add a lot of value, perhaps not to the text itself, but in producing a comfortable, appropriately-durable reading experience. Marketers perform a needed service, usually badly. (Any occupation that shoves Dan Brown's books in my face and practically hides Charlie Stross's books is irredeemably lost) Libraries, book clubs, and book stores perform similar tasks, of helping you find books that you're likely to find useful or enjoy.

So, thinking in those terms, how do I think things are likely to shake out?

I strongly expect something like the following scheme to surface in the next five years, having seen bits and pieces of it floated in various articles. I think that publishers (particularly strong genre publishers like Tor) and author groups like the Authors Guild or SFWA will begin offering subscription services. A subscriber to this service will pay, say, $50 a year for unlimited digital access to an online catalog. [1] This access would entail unlimited downloads to mobile devices like Kindle, Nook, iPhone, and Microsoft's inevitable me-too eReader (I'm guessing six months until that announcement, BTW), and probably a PC-based reader with search and limited print capability -- you can print to any printer, but it'll be heavily watermarked. The files would probably DRM'd, because let's face it, you're renting, not owning. There will be grumbling, but I don't think much, especially if they let you buy DRM-free copies of books you particularly like. I mean digital by that, though the savvy services will probably work out exclusivity deals for discounts on pre-printed dead tree versions (with all sort of additional enticement, such as exclusive artwork, leather binding, authors' signatures, gold leaf, charity profit-splitting, a sprinkling of cocaine, etc.)

Now, I've been focusing on eReaders above, but that's not the end of the story by any means. Print on Demand services will come into play here in a big way. If the subscription services are smart, they'll embrace it, as will brick-and-mortar stores. Your corner bookstore (or library or coffeehouse) could very well wind up being basically a front end for a couple POD machines and subscriptions to a lot of different services. You walk in, and use either their subscription or yours or print out a copy of a book you'd like to read, paying an appropriate surcharge. I'm guessing that coffeehouses will wind up with a nice big bookshelf full of "donated" used books (read: left behind, not too soaked in coffee) and that libraries will be willing to eat the cost of a book in exchange for keeping it on the shelves when the user is done.

That suggests to me that the regular BaM stores are likely to keep stocks primarily of nicely-bound books (for gifts, particularly beloved books, or to have signed), books that don't do well as POD (coffee table books, books for small children), and very popular books for which people won't want to wait for the machine (and which can be sold more cheaply pre-printed). As today, they'll probably increasingly try to be combination bookstores/something else -- who wants to bet that Barnes and Noble will be thought of primarily as a coffee chain in 20 years?

As to remuneration: The subscription services would likely be ostentatiously fair to authors, since I wouldn't be surprised to see certain books available from multiple groups, and they will live and die by continued customer trust/support, as well as being dependent on links from authorial blogs. I'm guessing that it'll boil down to most publishers taking a certain % off the top, then distributing the yearly earnings proportionately among the authors whose books are downloaded. And while that seems fair, it's likely to be hotly debated. For one thing, it will basically pit authors against each other. Second, it creates a financial incentive to split books up. The readers won't care (unless it causes an outbreak of Dickens Syndrome), but fellow authors will likely get very angry when they see that happening. I'm confident that something reasonably equitable will get worked out, probably something slightly different for each service. (Authors will likely figure out which service gives them the best deal and steer people that way, much as they currently do with Amazon links)

It would be interesting to see what this does to the short fiction market. Right now it seems that novels rule the roost, and for genres like fantasy, serial novels are giants. [2] I wonder whether, with something like this, short fiction and novellas will become more popular. As John Scalzi recently pointed out, short fiction used to be a much more reliable income stream for authors. I wouldn't be surprised to see that happen again. Nor would I be surprised if manga/comics become more popular when digital readers become appropriate for displaying them.

One more prediction, by the way: as metadata becomes more important to people trying to skim through thousands of works, I think we're going to see the re-rise of the celebrity editor. There are already editors known for being associated with good work (The name "Neilsen Hayden" springs to mind) after all, and any decent matching algorithm will surely take editor into account when matching readers to new books. I would not be at all surprised if the author's agent also becomes a useful piece of metadata. Moreover, I'm betting that if "editor" and "publisher" are searchable pieces of metadata, then "editor != none & publisher != none" will become a very common search criterion.

[1] This is not new, by the way. O'Reilly already has something very like this, and it works very well. It is, however, prohibitively expensive for many people. And of course professional societies like IEEE have been doing this for journal papers for years, but they skip over the difficulty of compensation by simply not compensating any of their authors -- indeed, we are charged for membership and conference admission.
[2] My take on it is that this is a consequence of a couple things. First, readers strive for consistency, and finding a prolific author you like is much more valuable than finding one who isn't. This is not only true for readers but for agents and publishers. Second, world-building is a time-consuming task, and setting multiple stories in the same world saves a lot of time. Moreover, once the world is built, it becomes easier to think of stories in that world than in another. In some ways, this results in better stories set in richer worlds. People like Jim Butcher who are very good at planning things out way in advance gain a lot of natural advantages

Friday, October 23, 2009


I forgot to mention the results of sending my short story (well, technically novella) Where Do They Bury the Survivors? off to Critters: I got eight very thoughtful critiques, almost uniformly positive. This is quite heartening, but I got several times a disheartening criticism: it's too long for a new writer. Very few short fiction markets take 20k word stories, and I'm told that those that do, are highly unlikely to take one from a new author. If they're going to devote that many pages to someone, they want the name to sell copies.

I have a dilemma, then. Do I shorten the story, perhaps using some of the lessons I'm learning from Dame Agatha? Or do I lengthen it into a short novel and find a regular publisher? I admit, I'm awfully tempted to try the novel route, but I just don't think the story will take that much extra text. Even the shortest novels are usually twice the length of this piece.

Of course, this dilemma is false. Nothing stops me from revising the story according to the feedback I got, and sending it out to one or two of the markets that might consider it. I lose nothing but printing, postage, time, and possibly self-respect doing this, after all. In fact, that's the most sensible next step for this story.

I say "this story" -- I've been working on another one this last two weeks, trying to apply some of the lessons I've been learning from The Labors of Hercules. I just finished the first draft, at about 9,000 words -- a much better length. I'll send it to Critters this week, I think. If it gets a similar positive reception I think I'll shop it around while I work on Survivors. If that gets sold, then that will be a significant boost to the prospects of the other.

The stench of death

No, not another murder mystery. Just another Microsoft marketing campaign. And I *like* Windows 7! I think it's a fine OS! (Don't watch more than a minute or two of that, by the way, it's not healthy)

This, however, is a pretty watchable version of that video. Probably a more enjoyable party, too.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Labors of Hercules: The Augean Stables

The next Labor of Hercules was to go to King Augeas, who assigned him to go to his stables, kill ten rats, and bring him their tails. Erm, excuse me. [1] King Augeas was the proud owner of a herd of 3000 divine cattle, which he kept in a stable, which he never cleaned. In this way, he is often credited with the invention of factory farming. Augeas, so convinced that this nasty, demeaning job would conquer Hercules, bet him a tenth the herd that he could not do it in a single day.
Hercules diverted two rivers, cleaned out the stables in an hour or so, then went to claim his reward, whereupon we learn the moral of the story: don't mess with a naked bodybuilder. Augeas didn't pay up, Hercules killed him. A lot of people wind up dead around Hercules -- isn't that how he was assigned the Labors in the first place?

Hercule Poirot takes on the modern day equivalent of the Augean Stables: Politics. A popular prime minister has recently stepped down, and his son-in-law (by all accounts a "sound man") has taken office. Almost immediately, a tabloid gets wind of scandal, and manages to prove that the previous prime minister was a total crook. The new guy looks into it and discovers that it's all true. He and one of his ministers come to Poirot for help. Poirot seriously considers whether to take this case.

What follows is more of a caper story than anything else. Poirot attempts bribery somewhat half-heartedly. (And here Christie breaks the fourth wall in a way she very rarely does, remarking that this refusal was his excuse to do what followed)

Most of the rest of the story is in a very broad view: no characters as such, just very short snippets of reaction to the news coming out. We get a surprise -- the allegations about the Prime Minister take a back seat to allegations of his wife's improprieties. There are pictures of her with some lothario, and there are rumors of all manner of debauchery until finally she has a nervous breakdown!

Her husband, the current (good) PM sues for libel. A star witness is produced who completely refutes the charges. Now nobody believes anything the tabloid says, and it folds. Poirot emerges at the very end, and explains that he was behind the false charges -- he swept away the muck with a different force of nature: sex.

On a personal level, I vacillate on whether I like this story or not. On the one hand, it's well-written and exciting, and a refreshing change of pace from the other stories. On the other hand, it's not very satisfying. True, he allowed the tabloid to do itself in: if it had not been greedy and salacious, it would have never fallen prey to Poirot's trick. But it drives me nuts that he didn't suggest the simple expediency of coming clean, beating the tabloid to the punch.

Anyway, from a writing point of view, I was struck by the sort of zoom effect: it starts focused tightly on Poirot, then completely zooms out for an omniscient view of public reaction as it evolves over weeks. Then it zooms back in.

I have seen this technique before, in works that I thought were not well done. Here, I think it works primarily because it is coupled with a change in style. The writing becomes choppy, abrupt. Several short segments, each starting with, "People were talking." In each we get snippets of nameless people talking, showing how these representative samples are focusing on the salacious details and leaving alone the (true!) political matters. It works well, but only because it is short. The alternative, focusing on Poirot, would have been weaker: he would have betrayed himself to the reader, for one thing, but he would also merely be a filter between the reader and the public whose reaction is at the heart of the story. (There's also a reprise of the "no smoke without fire" theme from earlier, which I thought a nice touch)

I'm also struck by how hard Christie works to make the prime minister an obvious "good guy": oh, he wants honesty, he mocks himself for being just another politician. This is where his companion is useful: the other minister (who wants to hush it up) is an excellent contrast. Tom DeLay would look moral and forthright next to this guy. Oh, and the fellow who would win the election if this government fell would be most unsuitable! Out of the question.

In the end, it's not a bad story, but I think it's fatally weakened by not addressing what I feel is the obvious solution, that of coming clean. By not addressing what looks like an obvious potential solution (it need not be done, just discounted) I felt a little like the whole rigmarole was a bit of a farce. More than that, I felt it broke Poirot's character a bit.

Lessons learned for me: brief periods of "clever" reaction writing can work well. If you're presenting the reader with a Gordian knot, clean the area of would-be Alexanders. (It need not be too explicit, just enough to let a reasonably intelligent reader discount it)

[1] But seriously, I've been struck several times by how similar the Labors of Hercules are to modern RPG quests. "Go here, kill this thing, come back." All it needs is pixellated graphics, a repetitive soundtrack, and a 3/4 perspective and you've got half the RPGs ever made. Most platforms would require the characters to wear more clothing, though.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

short hiatus

For those of you who've been reading the Labors of Hercules posts, sorry for the unplanned hiatus; things are crazy at work right now and I haven't had time to take notes. I figured I could either wing an entry on the Augean Stables (which I reread yesterday), or take my time with it in a couple days, and the latter sounds better to me since I intend to be using these posts for my own reference later.

Unmoderated comments from the peanut gallery

I've figured out how to turn off captchas for commenting, and done so. Let's see if that turns this place into a haven for pharmaceutical ads.

Comments from the peanut gallery

A number of people have pointed out that Blogger's comment system sucks and frequently gives users a hard time. I enable anonymous comments, which includes a Name/URL option. Just select that from near the bottom of the dropdown list, and it should work OK for you. (At least, it does in Firefox)
(Feel free to use this post to experiment)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

eReader war gets interesting

Barnes and Noble just announced/leaked the Nook. I immediately dismissed it as a "me-too" device. I have a Kindle 1, I think it's fantastic, I've spent a lot of money on books for it (though I only buy books that I don't intend to lend to people), and... wow, the Nook is shiny. And it has wi-fi. And PDF support. And a very nice-looking user interface. And it runs Android OS. And hey they were smart and found a way to let you share books with people. I have not gotten my hands on one, obviously, so it could turn out to be cheap crap, but it looks like they did a really good job and thought through things very carefully. I should not be buying gadgets to replace one that works perfectly well, but should I happen to spill a cup of coffee on my Kindle, I'll have to think very seriously about replacing it with a Nook.

(Also, odd coincidence: I live not too far from a store named Kindlenook. Weird.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Labors of Hercules: The Erymanthean Boar

The next labor of Hercules was the live capture of the Erymanthean Boar. This is the sort of thing that Hercules excels at. The more interesting part of the story, in some tellings, is that he got drunk with a centaur buddy, the other centaurs got angry at him for drinking their sacred wine, and he shot them with poisoned arrows. And shot Chiron, a kindly and immortal centaur, who was so tormented by the poison that he voluntarily gave up his immortality. So, Hercules kinda screwed the pooch on this one, but he did get around to capturing the boar by driving it into deep snow, and brought it back to his cousin the king, who was terrified of it. (Presumably they ate the boar)

Hercule Poirot's Erymanthean Boar is the French murderer Marrascaud, a dangerous and desperate criminal. He receives word of the criminal's planned rendezvous at the same remote Swiss chalet at which Poirot is staying, but fortunately there is a policeman already on the scene. (The person who passed the note would have recognized Poirot's mustaches anywhere!)

There are very few people staying at the chalet: an over-friendly American, a woman who visits every year, a trio of horse-racing enthusiasts (apparently at this time these people are seedy or dangerous and not hopelessly quaint), and a famous Austrian doctor. Poirot is sure that one of these is the killer Marrascaud -- but who?

The waiter reveals himself as the police officer mentioned to Poirot, and the two consult. He took the place of the old waiter, who the chalet owners were happy to get rid of as a complete incompetent. During the night, the train up to the chalet had broken down -- a suspicious accident. They are trapped with the killer, and those horse enthusiasts are surely his gang! But who is Marrascaud? And why did he choose to rendezvous here?

The investigations are cut short, however. The "waiter" is assaulted in the night, and his face cut up very badly. Poirot is also attacked, but fortunately the American, like all Americans, is carrying a pistol and rescues him from those knife-wielding Frenchmen. (... yeah...) They search the chalet, and find the body of the old waiter, stabbed and with a note on him indicating that this was Marrascaud, and this is what happens to people who cross his gang! But Poirot knows exactly who Marrascaud really is, and why he was there.

So how do you tell an effective thriller in *estimates* 5,000 words? Christie gets a bit of savings out of the fact that chasing a killer is always prime Poirot provender: no need to explain! She jumps into the action relatively quickly. She takes a mere thousand words to set the scene, including the lengthy letter from the Swiss police (pro tip: apparently learning about your case in a letter removes the need for lengthy dialog!) and introduce most of the characters. Another short section introduces the scene, the little hotel in which Poirot is staying, posing briefly as a silk merchant.

These scenes still managed to be fairly slow, but coming after the information about the killer on the loose, I think that serves the story rather than detracts: it adds a little to the tension. If the letter had come later, say after Poirot arrived at the hotel, then the long discussion of his fellow passengers on the funicular train would take on a much different cast. He would be merely people-watching (as he does in many of the novels) and the short scene would be more difficult to take, I'd have been much more likely to skim.

There is very little madness in Poirot stories. The violence is rarely senseless. Christie's killers may be passionate, but they do not kill or wound indiscriminately. When the policeman shows up with his face bandaged, I've been trained to wonder: why was he not killed? What imbecile thugs merely leave a threat cut up and not put out of the way for good? And once you think of them as rational, then why on earth would they leave a note on Marrascaud. Really, the only point of the note was to say, "Hey, the guy you're chasing is dead, stop looking!" ... and nobody really believes that.

That brings me, I think, to my real take-home lesson from the Erymanthean Boar: crazy villains are a cheat. The villains might be reckless or desperate, but they're not killers just for the sake of killing, nor can they be beyond rational acting. I am sure that there are authors out there who understand mental illness well enough to be able to actually write an insane villain, but for most of us "insane" just means "I'm going to have this guy do this, and I don't have to think up a reason because he's craaaaaaazy!"

To put it another way, in a fair mystery, whenever the reader starts to think, "That was really dumb of the killer" the reader should always be able to conclude, "I'm not getting a clear picture of what's really going on." Confusion should be an excuse for re-examination. The point of seeing the policeman's bandaged face should for the trained reader be the first point of saying that, and the point of finding the body should be the second.

And Christie does something else interesting: there's almost no time to breathe between those two points. The reader could stop and think, I suppose, but there's just a few more pages... I think that once the main clues start coming in like that in a short story, pauses are fatal. Only after it is all in place, and she's had a little opportunity to sow some doubt, does the story slow down again. And there is a somewhat satisfying length of time before the twist, which I also appreciate.

Had I been in Christie's editor's shoes, though, I'd have advised against the bit with the American and the gun. There's no reason for it, and it's such a Deus Ex Machina -- especially when Poirot boasts about having been so careful in another matter and of knowing all along certain identities. Maybe she felt bad about having gently mocked the character [1], but if she feels the need to have Poirot pre-emptively complain that it might have well been "a drama upon the stage" then it could have stood a rewrite. (Of course, she also disliked Poirot, so maybe she enjoyed the opportunity of having him slip up in a potentially fatal way)

Anyway, it's getting late. Next time, the Augean Stables.
Edit: I had forgotten to point out a subtle way that Christie has been fitting these stories to the originals. While the dangerous killer is very much like a wild boar, it's true, there's also an interesting parallel between Hercules catching the boar by driving it into deep snow, and Marrascaud being caught while trapped in a snow-bound Swiss hotel.

[1] Among other things she called him a "bore" which I had hoped was a pun and the American would turn out to be Marrascaud, but no. I would not be at all surprised to learn that in a previous draft, the American had been the villain, though.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Labors of Hercules: The Arcadian Deer

Hercules was charged for his third (or fourth) labor with the capture of the Arcadian Hind, a sacred deer belonging to the goddess Artemis, an uncatchable animal. Hercules chased it all over Greece until he got sick of the chase and shot it in the leg. He then carried it back, but who did he run into but Artemis? He talked his away out of that one and brought it in for full credit. (Presumably they ate the deer)

Poirot's Arcadian Deer is a beautiful young lady's maid being sought by a poor country mechanic who met her at a rich fellow's house when he was there to do repairs. Poirot discovers that she was the maid to a Russian ballet dancer. His chase leads him all over England and to the maid's native Italy... and a graveside. Does Poirot give up there? Mais, non! On a hunch, he goes to Switzerland to the hospital bed of the dancer herself. Guess who was playing lady's maid at a friend's house and met a cute mechanic? Aww.

Didn't enjoy this one as much, it seemed like a straight-forward chase with a predictable end. Christie flirted with a subplot involving blackmail, which had the effect of confounding the chase, but I felt it didn't amount to much.

What to learn from The Arcadian Deer? If I were writing a chase story, sure: the irrelevant subplot wasn't bad, and Christie gave the reader credit by not allowing the story to seriously consider the death theory for long. But it's not a mystery. Only the one twist (the mechanic's lady not being a maid) is fair in the sense that it was telegraphed, but I thought it was pretty weak.

Edit: I may have written off that subplot too soon. While at first I considered it weak, I thought it over and realized that in addition to confounding the chase, it did so in a clever way: it introduced the theme of mistaken identity into the plot. Everyone thought the maid being asked about was the more recent maid, not the dead one. Poirot got led down the garden path because he was not specific enough about his quarry. There are lots of potential ways to confuse a chase, but this confuses matters in a thematically appropriate way, and constitutes an additional clue.

Sorry, kid, they can't all be winners. But hey, this puts Poirot in Switzerland, just in time for the story of the live capture of the Erymanthean Boar!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Labors of Hercules: The Lernean Hydra

[Spoilers of very good stories]
The Hydra is one of those monsters that people tend to still know: the many-headed beast, whose heads grew back double when amputated. The Hydra of legend also had incredibly poisonous blood and a single immortal head. Hercules did not take on the Hydra alone, he went in a-chopping while his nephew used a firebrand to sear the bloody stumps, thereby preventing the heads from re-growing. When he finally found the immortal head, he tore it off, and buried it so that while alive, it could not regrow. On re-reading these old stories, I'm impressed by how much each story has a component of outsmarting (which we'll revisit for the Augean Stables) rather than just pure strength.

Hercule Poirot's Hydra is a rather more slippery beast: Rumor. Dr. Oldfield, a middle-aged country doctor, has discovered just that with the death of his wife. Now his practice is falling off, people give him stares on the street, and he's even received nasty letters. Poirot eventually gets out of him the particulars: people believe that he poisoned his wife with arsenic in order to marry his pretty young assistant.

Poirot visits the town and interviews a few people, including a servant (dismissed immediately after the wife's death) and a nurse. He tells people in "strict confidence" that he is there to investigate Mrs. Oldfield's death, so naturally word gets around town much faster than otherwise. The assistant, Jean, is horrified by the idea of exhuming the body for an official investigation. Nurse Harrison, on the other hand, comes around to the idea, and recounts an overhead conversation that seems quite damning to Jean and Dr. Oldfield. Poirot calls up the Home Office, who exhume and autopsy the body, and discover lethal levels of arsenic.

Someone comes forward with further information: another suspect behaved quite suspiciously in the days leading up to Mrs. Oldfield's death! Poirot encourages her, but when she comes forward with news of a compact filled with arsenic, she's gone too far. She's been followed in secret by Poirot's valet Georges, who saw her purchase the compact and hide it. She is the one who poisoned Mrs. Oldfield, under the delusion that Dr. Oldfield was in love with her and would marry her. She started the vicious rumors, and then seized on the chance to do away with her rival when Poirot arrived -- oh, but she overstepped.

This story is even shorter than the first, between 5,000 and 6,000 words by my estimation. The cast of main characters is kept small, and I noticed that the character names are very different so that it's easy to keep track. Which is helpful, because the story is entirely populated with stock characters and stock motivations. That doesn't make it a bad story, but it's hard for a character to catch in one's mind without anything interesting to grab hold of. Ergo, differentiating the characters as much as possible through names and speaking styles.

"There's no smoke without fire" is the most important phrase of the story, almost a theme. It's a horrible phrase in terms of spreading gossip, circular logic that lets a rumor perpetuate itself. But instead of repudiating it, Poirot takes it as true in a way that Dr. Oldfield refused, and that was enough of a clue for him to find a way forward.

I had been thinking of this as a very fair puzzle, but in that case it's hard to account for the compact. I spent the morning thinking about it, and I decided that a mystery in fact has two basic parts: figuring out whodunnit, and figuring out how to prove it. I believe that the Fairness Doctrine applies only to the first part by necessity.

My thinking is as follows: the reader has only access to a certain subset of the clues available to the detective, and has the inability to act in the detective's space. The first part of the story, then, is a matter of presenting all the information needed to come to the correct conclusion. This is do-able, like writing a logic puzzle. With care, you can ensure that the reader has all the information that the detective uses to solve the crime (or more!) and thereby make the puzzle fair.
The second part, however, is where real art comes in. In a good story, the reader can become convinced of the guilt of one of the suspects -- but a real mystery can remain about how on earth to prove it. And this second part, it seems to me, is often where mystery stories fall down. This is where the detective tends to do things behind the scenes, where coincidences tend to most help the detective, and where suspects do dumb things and fall into traps. And frequently the reader doesn't have a fair chance to evaluate just how artificial it all is, because he or she does not know who the detective is targeting (even if it is known exactly what the detective is doing!).

Proof, the essential element of this second part, requires certain things: a solid understanding of the setting and the people, and the ability to act in this space. In order to feel fair, the reader needs as much of the first as possible in order the judge the outcome -- but the reader will never have the second. There will always be more than one way to do it, as Mr. Wall would say. One person would have Georges follow the suspect, another person might lay a careful logical trap and prove a contradiction, another might reconstruct the crime and prove that only one person had means, motive, and opportunity.

I'm unsure about how well Christie manages the second part in The Lernean Hydra. She loves these "induce the criminal to incriminate herself" endings, but they're so hard to get right, and the reader is left with a sense of a house of cards, that by making one sensible move, the criminal could have evaded detection. Remember too that often in this step the detective is proving his case not only to the characters but also to the reader! Poirot's actions in this story just seem reckless on first examination. If the murderer had just remained calm, then Dr. Oldfield would likely have been hanged. Of course, Poirot relies always on "the psychology": he tailored his plan according to the sort of person the criminal was. (And had this plan failed, we assume, he would have had another up his sleeve.) This is not the sort of plan he would have used for a stolid and cautious individual who doesn't care about blaming someone else for the crime.

From a craft point of view, this suggests an easy way to expand a short story into a novel: making plans fail and then recovering from them, or simply taking more time with it. Stretch it out, throw in lots of red herrings to make it look like someone else might have done it, and build up the tension a bit more. The best example of this is Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles (public domain in the US), where it was perfectly clear who did it and why, but proving it was a terrible ordeal that involved shifting attention from the real criminal.

So, what did I learn from the Lernean Hydra? Again, a simple plot is necessary, something that won't take too long to explain, giving you room to elaborate and confuse the issue. Second, that as long as you're careful and spend a lot of thought on it, you can save a lot of space in the proving step with a trap rather than a careful (and potentially boring) logical analysis. If you writer the story knowing how the criminal will get caught, then you can probably do a better job of setting the stage early on. Third, Christie's use of stock characters is interesting to me. The country doctor, the invalid wife, the inveterate gossip -- varying too much from the stereotypes would attract too much attention. It might have made the doctor more interesting as a person to have a passion for juggling, but it would be distracting and Chekhov would definitely disapprove.

Friday, October 16, 2009

RSS Change

I'd gotten a few... not complaints, exactly, but comments, about the length of some of my posts when viewed in peoples' feeds. With a number of posts planned that spoil stories I particularly like, I thought I'd look again and see if I can make it truncate posts in the RSS feed, with a link back to the full post. I believe I've accomplished this.

If you saw the above paragraph in your feed, but had to go to the site for this one, then it worked! I apologize if this is an inconvenience, but the old way was also an inconvenience, so hey.

The Labors of Hercules: The Nemean Lion

[ As mentioned earlier, these posts will contain spoilers. I do recommend you read the stories involved, because they're good and they're short ]

The original story of Hercules and the Nemean Lion was simple: go kill this ginormous lion that's been gnawing on the peasantry. After an arrow or two, Hercules discovers that the lion, like Achilles, has an impenetrable hide. Unlike the entire freaking Trojan army, he realized that the solution was to simply (depending on the version) either strangle it or beat it to death -- no need to break the skin! He then used the beast's own claws to skin it, and thereafter wore its hide (somewhat ineffectively) as armor. That's a big cloak to fill for the little Belgian detective!

Hercule Poirot's version of the tale is rather more mundane. His attention is caught one morning by a letter set aside by his secretary: a society lady has lost her Pekinese dog. Not exactly the stuff of legends. And yet he is intrigued, for while he receives no end of letters from society ladies who have lost their yapping little dogs, this is the first he has received from one of their husbands!

Things get more interesting: the dog has already been recovered! The husband (Sir Joseph Hoggin) objects, rather, to his wife having paid the £200 (without consulting him), discovered that one of his friends' wives had paid £300 over a similar kidnapping and wishes the thief to be caught. His wife objects to bringing in the police, so Poirot is consulted.

Poirot interviews Lady Hoggin and her companion, an older and somewhat batty woman named Carnaby who is much put-upon, not least because she was the one who was walking the dog at the time of its capture. There's some observation of the pair, and the cut leash is produced. Poirot then interviews the companion's references, visits both the scene of the kidnapping and the hotel where the money was to be sent, goes to visit the other victim (another society lady with a Pekinese and a timid put-upon companion), and goes home. From home, he instructs his valet to make certain investigations (we are not at this point privy to the instructions) and an address is produced. Poirot arrives at the address and finds the first companion, Amy Carnaby, along with her invalid sister... and a third Pekinese dog.

The plot, then, had been simple: Carnaby had taken advantage of being called upon to walk her employer's dog. She brought the dog home, then walked her own dog, Augustus. She'd go to the park, be seen by lots of people, then cut the leash. Augustus, being well-trained, would simply trot home, and she would make a big scene, then tell her employer that she'd been distracted by a baby in a perambulator. She had in fact done this many times, enlisting friends of hers whose employers owned Pekinese dogs, and sharing the ransoms in a pool. Augustus, the Nemean Lion of the story, had a hide that made him not invulnerable, but invisible: one yappy dog looks just like another, after all.

I estimate the length of the story (25 mass-market paperback pages at the standard 250 words per page estimation) to be between 6,000 and 7,000 words: just about the length I'm hoping to learn about. The simplicity of the plot seems to be a major help. And Christie has developed a number of ways to get a lot of information across quickly. For example, by naming the second Pekinese dog "Nanki Poo" she really doesn't need to describe the dog's owner very thoroughly: the reader already has a very clear image of the sort of people who give Pekinese dogs that sort of name. In fact, she gets a lot of mileage out of stereotypes.

One thing that fascinated me is that she didn't make use of all the clues she dropped. Poirot didn't explain himself that much when he confronted Carnaby. Two clues in particular were not mentioned: there was a nod to Conan Doyle in that the stolen dog did not yap at its kidnapper (though instead of knowing the kidnapper -- yappy dogs yap at everyone anyway -- there was no kidnapper), and the fact that the case involving Carnaby was for less money than the others (she was not splitting the money with an extra partner). I think that last one was important, as there is otherwise a bit of a plot hole: if there really were dozens of these kidnappings, who's to say Carnaby was the mastermind and not just one of the serial accomplices? But then, paying the money into a pool seems to defeat this, perhaps this is a remnant of an early draft? Either way, there's a kind of confidence at work in letting clues slide that I don't think I developed in my own stories. I'll have to give this some serious thought.

The final lesson from this story is the significant role played by inter-personal relationships. The story revolves around how wealthy society ladies relate to the world: their relationships to their paid companions, to their husbands, and to their dogs. All combine to expose a neat little blind spot through which money may escape. The relationships and the results need very little in the way of explanation.

All told, a neat little story. By having a fairly simple mystery behind the scenes and leaning pretty heavily on the personal relationships, Christie had a lot of space in which to work. She was also very clever in identifying which bits of the story did not need to be shared: no need to go into the effort to track down Carnaby's invalid sister, for example, nor more than one other kidnapped Pekinese to establish the pattern. So, by keeping these details to a minimum, using easily-grasped personal relationships, and not even going into all the clues, there was plenty of room for setting and texture (not to mention a subplot I haven't gone into here!).

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Labors of Hercules

When I started reading mysteries long ago as a teenager, I went straight for Sherlock Holmes. I still like those stories. But on vacation one year, visiting my grandparents, I was up late and had finished the last of the books I'd brought. Fortunately my grandmother has a good collection of books, including some nicely bound volumes of Agatha Christie -- the one that grabbed my eye was entitled, "The Labors of Hercules". I don't remember what I thought it would be when I picked it up, but I enjoyed it thoroughly... and then picked up another Poirot book, then another. Fast forward to now where I've got a notebook full of partial mysteries of my own devising, one of them completed and just finished with a round of workshopping.

I've been thinking a lot lately about effective short mysteries -- how do you tell a compelling mystery story in so few words? I decided to go back to the Labors, reread them and take notes this time: what works, and what doesn't? And while I'm at it, why not do the classic blog move of posting my thoughts on each one? That never gets old!


So, I'll probably be posting spoilers for the stories in this book over the coming days as I go through each one. [1] I'll try not to gratuitously spoil them, of course, but now would be a great chance to pick up a copy from your local library :)

Anyway, the basic conceit is pretty simple. Hercule Poirot, nearing retirement, has become wealthy and famous and wants to pick his last cases with care. Having a glass of wine with a friend, the subject comes up of his unusual first name. What a difference between this dandified little gentleman relaxing in his modern sitting room, compared to his namesake! Poirot would never retire and breed squash (ugh, what a thought) because his were labors of love, not the punishments of Hercules. Poirot rejects the thought: is he not a modern version of that ancient hero, roving the countryside righting wrongs? He'll pick his remaining cases, then, to correspond to the Labors of Hercules. Ta-da.

Christie then has Poirot take on each Labor in turn -- with, of course, a modern twist and a healthy dose of humor. Some of them are a stretch, most are at best tangentially related to the original story. But they're all entertaining, and as I recall, they're all good short mysteries.

Coming up next: my thoughts on The Nemean Lion.

[1] OK, OK. I realize that there is something of a time limit on spoilers. Hamlet's dad was murdered. Odysseus gets home. But mysteries have a longer time limit, it seems to me, and there's just no sense in spoiling a good one, I don't care how old it is.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

In Summary, You Drive Like a Maniac

After my trip to New York, I've been thinking that there needs to be a driving version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. The way you drive changes the way you think. Or to put it a snappier more quotable version for all the link-texts, "As go the drivers, so go the pedestrians." New Yorkers (at least the ones I saw) have a very aggressive driving style, pushing their cars in wherever there's an opening, but at the same time they respect the traffic signals. I noticed that the pedestrians acted much the same way: walk quickly without acknowledging the people around them, no pushing but no patience for people standing around gawking -- and surprisingly little jaywalking, really only doing so when they know from experience that the light is about to change or when there's no crosswalk nearby. But when they expect to be able to walk, they walk with perfect confidence. Pushy, pragmatic, but in their own way polite.

Compare that behavior to the drivers here in New Hampshire, and you see a kind of wishful timidity: people generally obey the speed limits (well, add 10 mph to the posted limit, and people obey that number pretty faithfully) but they'll gladly speed up when a Beemer comes along even faster to act as a lightning rod for police irritation. Drivers here tend to be abundantly cautious, to the point of stopping at yellow lights, or slowing down just in case that pedestrian might be thinking about crossing the street. You'd expect that sort of thing in an area where the pedestrians are kamikaze jaywalkers, but the folks on foot are often just as timid as the drivers, waiting far too long before taking that second step into the crosswalk, waiting patiently for the walk sign on a street with no cars, etc.

In other words, if there were not some shared element going on, I would expect the NYC driving environment to produce NH-style timid pedestrians, and the NH drivers to produce NYC-style pedestrians. And at least in the latter case, it does: but only in a college town like Hanover where the pedestrians are usually not also drivers!

I'd extend this example to Boston, but I think there's a highly promising paper to be written on that one, maybe for a journal of abnormal psychology...

Friday, October 9, 2009

Eyes on the Prize

I'm somewhat puzzled by the selection of President Obama for the Nobel Peace Prize. I like the guy, I voted for him, but is he really the person who's done the most to further the cause of peace in the last year? I appreciate that his nuclear disarmament work is important, but it's still in progress -- and anyway, a lot of the progress I don't think was his doing. Iran is desperate for international legitimacy right now, and North Korea is almost certainly being strong-armed by their Chinese patrons. That leaves the Russia/missile defense fiasco, and the best that can be said there is that he undid one of Bush's dumber international moves. More to the point, the botched Afghan election was under Obama's watch, and I'm still quite unhappy not to hear him make a clearer stand on the vote-rigging allegations. What, it's not OK when it happens in Iran, but we wink at it when our puppet government does it?

There are plenty of people who could have been selected either for their work or for the symbol of the award. I think they missed a serious opportunity in not selecting Mir-Hossein Moussavi, personally, but they could also have selected Iftikhar Chaudhry (the Pakistani Chief Justice whose dismissal and campaign for reinstatement played a large role in restoring that country's democracy), Aung-San Suu Kyi (who was yet again denied release from house arrest this past year), or the Dalai Lama (who showed impressive restraint during the riots in Tibet, and it seems to me had a significant role in preventing a bloodbath). Heck, they could have picked Bill and Melinda Gates for the work of their Foundation.

It seems to me that the classiest thing Obama could do at this point would be to decline the prize and say, "Thank you, but you ain't seen nothing yet."

Monday, October 5, 2009

Thought of the day

It is a deep public shame that movie companies are still allowed to region-encode their DVDs. Seriously, what the hell?

Instant Coffee

It has long been a pet peeve of mine that it's so difficult to get good instant coffee in the US. Even brands like Nescafe, which are perfectly drinkable in Europe (and, I'm told, in South America) feel the need to sell swill to the US market: a thin, harsh, acidic brew that tastes like it was underbrewed then burnt. Maybe they think that's what we like.

So it was with trepidation that I tried Starbucks's new offering, Via, specifically their Italian Roast. I'm somewhat pleasantly surprised. It's not perfect: it tastes burnt to me. But it's reasonably full-bodied, and it's not acidic. It even has an OK aftertaste. It's actually quite acceptable as an instant coffee, and I'm willing to believe that the burned flavor is their idea of an Italian roast (that is, it's intentional, not accidental). A little one-dimensional, but acceptable as a substitute, and probably quite useful for things like coffee ice cream.

Doing a little digging, it looks to me that Via is actually a combination of traditional instant coffee (that is, brewed coffee that's been freeze-dried and powdered) and powdered coffee beans. This is clever: It's like making a super-smooth (but thin) Turkish coffee for the oils and other more obvious flavors, then making up the rest of the flavors that we don't notice as much with a probably very muted brew. (In this way it's a bit like karaoke: there's a background flavor trying as hard as possible to be inoffensively competent, and most of the effect comes from the predominant flavors that are added on) Because the coffee is ground so finely, I'm guessing that the extraction of flavor is basically finished by the time you finish pouring the water, so they don't have to worry about you tasting it too soon, or leaving it on your desk too long. (As an experiment I let the dregs sit for half an hour before finishing them. Not quite as good, but not horrible)

Anyway, I guess my recommendation is, if you periodically find yourself with access to hot water but not decent coffee, find a flavor you like and carry it with you... but don't use it unless you have to. (You'd still be better off carrying K-cups, scissors, and a funnel, but this is not always an option)

Saturday, October 3, 2009


I've returned from my trip to New York. I had a great time, but my feet are killing me. We met up with a few old friends, spent several days visiting museums, saw Wicked (which was very good), visited a Japanese bookstore, and ate a lot. A lot. All together, a great vacation.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Jazz on the speakers, a cup of black coffee in hand, a good manuscript to critique, and a warm pair of slippers, all while sitting in a comfy chair in a sun-warmed room. This is not a bad afternoon by any means.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I caved!

I did not cave to the extent of getting an iPhone (I still refuse to deal with AT&T) but I did get an iPod Touch. I have to say, I really like it. The thing that clinched it was the Kindle app: the text is nice and clear, and while you don't get a lot of it on the page, it's not bad for when I want something to read and a book or my Kindle is not available.

I'm still getting used to the apps, and I was a little nervous that after spending all that money it wouldn't be a major improvement over my iPod nano, but the addition of wifi really makes it worthwhile. I'm hoping also that it will reduce the amount of time I spend on the computer: one of my major time-sinks is opening up my laptop or turning on my desktop "just to check one thing"... and then I'll have been surfing the web for a half hour. So... we'll see how this works!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Public Service Announcement

*cough, cough*
[Microphone feedback]
Is this thing on?
[tap, tap, tap]
(Oh, good.  Ahem.)

Ladies and Gentlemen, can we please stop pretending that the word "data" is plural?

Thank you.  Good night everyone, drive safely.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hatchet job

Under 20,000 words! Man, that was rough going -- but i think I like the result. I axed a minor subplot, tightened up the beginning a lot, and generally went through slimming down the text. I think that I like the result: I don't think I sacrificed anything I need, and the story is better as a result. I'll do one more run to proofread it, but I think I need to stop touching it now, lest I fall prey to the temptation to keep tinkering. The current wordcount makes it eligible for a few more markets, plus Critters.

Speaking of workshops, I've heard that S&SF, together with Gardner Dozois, are going to be doing an online workshop -- but they announced it months ago, and there hasn't been a peep out of them since. The website's not even live. It'll be a pay workshop, but I would consider it worth a good sum of money to get feedback from Mr. Dozois, who I admire greatly: I've been reading his anthologies for many years, and generally feel confident in buying anything with his name on it.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

It's hard to talk or think about detective fiction without bringing up Sherlock Holmes. To be sure, there were detective stories before Conan Doyle came along: Poe, Wilkie, even Dickens came before him, many of them originally inspired by real life detective stories. But Holmes created a mold that would go pretty much unbroken until 1929 by Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest [1].

Conan Doyle pioneered a number of things. Although it would be left to folks like Knox and Van Dine to formalize the idea, the Holmes stories made a stab at the concept of fair play: these were stories based on science, where the reader could in principle solve the mysteries based on the clues therein. Indeed, Holmes was himself a published author of various criminology pamphlets, and was continually performing experiments to find ways to further the art, and was said to be based on Dr. Joseph Bell.

He also introduced the, er, Watson: realizing that a story written from the point of view of the Great Detective would be insufferable (not to mention not very suspenseful, though he pulled it off a couple times later in his career) this viewpoint character was added. One important point that's often lost is that John Watson was not dumb at all, he was a successful physician, after all. A lot of the impression of stupidity comes from the framing story, that of Watson retelling the story afterward for publication in a way intended to highlight Holmes's genius.

Lastly, although the stories drip with Holmes-worship, Conan Doyle was careful to make his detective distinctly imperfect. His personal habits include slovenliness, drug use[2], and playing the violin at all hours of night. Moreover, he suffered for his perfection, having a personal life almost devoid of anything but work. This notion of the flawed genius is repeated very often in detective fiction: Hercule Poirot's fastidiousness, Nero Wolfe's obesity and foul moods, Peter Wimsey's obnoxiousness (that one might have been unintentional, actually), and more recently Adrian Monk's crippling phobias and Gregory House's general personality.

With all that in mind, I recommend the following short movie from Hulu, The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes, which includes old interviews with Conan Doyle himself (also features Christopher Lee, who's definitely styling):

[1] Red Harvest, by the way, would later (by way of a film adaptation) be the inspiration for Akira Kurosawa's classic samurai flick Yojimbo, which in turn inspired Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, which spawned pretty much the whole spaghetti western genre, plus Clint Eastwood's career. If you watch these two movies, you'll get a lot more of Quentin Tarantino's references. Red Harvest also happens to be a pretty good book, with the detective playing the new role, that of gritty avenger: this idea in turn gave rise to, among many others, the Batman.
[2] I am fond of repeating Holmes's saying, "The best rest is a change of work" and then noting, "But then again, Sherlock Holmes was a cocaine addict." To be fair to Mr. Holmes, cocaine was at the time considered something of a wonder drug (advocated by none other than Sigmund Freud on behalf of Merck), and he did eventually kick the habit.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Fair Play

I've spent a lot of time thinking about detective fiction lately. I'm an unabashed fan of Golden Era detective stories: you know, the ones with the brilliant detective who goes to an English country house and discovers that the doctor killed the matron of the family even though everyone says it's either the butler or some mysterious outsider. Agatha Christie is widely regarded as the queen of the format, and remains one of the best-selling English-language authors ever. If you're going to strike up a literary conversation with a stranger, you're statistically better off bringing up Hercule Poirot than Harry Potter.

But there are Commandments to be obeyed when writing GE-style fiction! Knox's list, as posted in Wikipedia, is pretty useful. Reasonably applicable to sci-fi mysteries, too. I'll annotate with my thoughts.
  1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know. Agatha Christie famously broke this one in a book that a lot of people think was a total cheat. What Knox is getting at, I think, is that the reader shouldn't be coerced into identifying with the criminal. For a sci-fi story this has a different reading: it is traditional in these works to have a character stand in for the reader. Knox would say that this character should not be the killer.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course. This holds true, of course, for science fiction, but I'd go further: any science related to the murder itself ought to be impeccable or the story will feel like a double cheat. I've never seen this broken in a way that was done well: this may very well be the one truly unbreakable rule on this list. A number of excellent stories have had the appearance of breaking this rule, right up until the last page, but these days you'll just invite unflattering comparisons to Scooby Doo.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable. My take on this is that the reader deserves to know the lay of the land as soon as possible. One twist on this, says Mr. Knox, is acceptable in the name of an interesting plot, but more than one wears thin. I'd go so far as to say that any such cartographical twist ought not be introduced after the first two-thirds of the story. As far as science fiction goes, I think this can be extended to the laws of physics and the rules of the milieu as well: all of a sudden faster-than-light travel turns out to actually be possible? OK, there's your one allowed "secret passage," good luck with it. But there's a caveat...
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end. This one's a lot more important in sci-fi, I think. Part of fairness is understanding what's possible. But also, these things let the readers off the hook, lets them say, "Oh, I had a good excuse not to get that." Rubbish! This gets back to #3, in terms of knowing what's possible. One twist is fine, but it had better not be the key to the whole mystery!
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story. Like the man says, no Chinaman. Er, wait. How about, no inscrutable foreigner who the audience simply can't relate to, and automatically suspects? (Aliens might well apply, depending on milieu) Even then, this is kind of a lame rule. I'd rephrase it, "No Chi -- er, no inscrutable foreigner should be the killer" Otherwise the author is pretty much let off the hook for a believable motive, and the reader's only clue will be simple xenophobia. Then again, the presence of the Chinaman can't be an excuse not to cast doubt on some other character.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right. This one holds up pretty well, but is damned hard to pull off. This commandment is most often partly broken in the "Dimwitted assistant accidentally says something that puts the detective on the right track" trope. Watson did this, Captain Hastings did this, Magersfontein Lugg did this, countless one-appearance befuddled Scotland Yard detectives did this -- and then were obliged to feel good about having contributed! This trope can be done well, especially if it is a way of giving an extra clue to the reader, but often is not, and just seems like an unfair insult to the poor benighted Dr. Watson.
  7. The detective himself must not commit the crime. This is related to the first commandment, as the detective is also often a focus for audience sympathy. This is not to say, however, that the detective must not commit a crime, just not the crime being solved. Otherwise you're just toying with your readers, making them play catch-up.
  8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover. This is an important one, and so often broken. The clues don't have to be declared in a way that highlights them ([BLINK]CLUE HERE!!![/BLINK]), but the reader should have access to all the information the detective does, at about the same time (if not more and earlier!) Context is key during an investigation: you'll read an interrogation differently if you already know that the suspect's alibi has been blown. If the detective merely suspects something, however, that information can be safely kept. As far as science fiction goes, that means that relevant science and facts about the milieu have to be trotted out as early as possible. It's not fair for a detective to sit and interrogate someone who obviously doesn't know how anti-gravity works and not clue in the reader.
  9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader. If you're going to have such a character, he needs to be a comfort to the reader, as a companion and guide through the universe being inhabited. Any story with a Watson tends to result in a dozen put-downs: if Watson's ahead of the reader, those are going to sting. This is not to say that Watson should not have information in his own right! Just that any information he has (such as resulting from his medical training) should be provided quickly and clearly to the reader. Having a Watson who knows the milieu well can be a real benefit in a science fiction story, but I would say that there's a serious risk of being ham-handed here, overwhelming the reader with exposition. Tread lightly!
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them. Ditto clones, holograms, and someone time-traveling from the future back to his own timeframe.
If you read through that list thinking, "Argh! I can think of a dozen potential stories that break this rule to result in a good mystery!" then rant about it here, then go write that story! The rules aren't hard and fast, and I believe that Agatha Christie went out of her way to break every single one. Like many rules related to writing, the key is not to avoid breaking the rules, but to only do so explicitly and with understanding of why they are there.

I'm a bit too tired to go into Van Dine's 20 commandments in this much detail, not least because there's so much overlap. A few do stick out, though:
  • There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much bother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader's trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded. This one makes me laugh, and yet it does give me pause. Grand larceny plots (jewels, natch) are a favored exception to this rule, and yet it's hard to imagine this translating well in a future society. The scarcity and value of physical belongings may seem odd, even tawdry, in many possible settings. If the victim's response to the loss of a diamond the size of a bowling ball ought to be, "Damn, I'll have to grow another one. At least my poor aching back will get a week's rest." then grand larceny may not work. Grand larceny has to be really ludicrously grand for this to work in many milieus. And of course, "Recover the secret files!" plots (except maybe blackmail) are in many ways already outdated: cats leap out of their bags and simultaneously pop out a million kittens these days. Also: be careful in choosing your metaphors. Moving on.
  • A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn't ordinarily come under suspicion. No robot killers, unless you're Asimov. And, as I recall, not even then.
  • Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds. Agatha Christie famously broke this one in The Big Four, and it was pretty much her worst book ever, by an enormous margin. This notion that the murderer ought to be individually culpable can be broadened in a science-fiction to include, for example, the Borg. The military and government tend to be far more sinister in the sci-fi tradition than in Golden Era detective fiction, or Van Dine would probably have included them as well.
  • A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no "atmospheric" preoccupations. such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude. This one is a challenge to the science fiction author, who must carefully weigh the needs of the milieu. If the setting is so cliched that the reader won't need much introduction, then you may lose that reader for whom the science is first and the mystery second. On the other hand, if the setting is so outlandish that explaining it takes forever, your story might only progress at a snail's pace.
Of course, in all of these rules, there is one unspoken: The story must make sense. The murder method may need to be novel and clever indeed to fool the forensics tools available to a 2Nth-Century detective! John W. Campbell thought it impossible, only to be proved wrong by Isaac Asimov. But that's another post.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Hard Part, V - Hack 'n' Slash

I've managed to shave about a thousand words off the current draft, down to 21k. Man, that is hard work: I spent an hour reworking and refactoring one section, only to save ten words when all was said and done. I think I've identified a subplot that can be dropped, though: my protagonist sets a trap for his quarry through the use of a light sensor, but in retrospect all that does is further highlight a red herring. In a novel, that would be good. In a short work, I don't need it. Maybe I'll be able to reuse that one later.

Still, that won't save me a thousand words. Something must be done. I could potentially get rid of the entire subplot of the flask, but that makes me uneasy -- I'll produce a draft without it, maybe, and see how it reads. (Besides, this lets me try out some of the more unusual features of Scrivener, which has so far proved to be an excellent tool.)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Ridiculous Gadget Lust

Someone give me an excuse to buy one of these mini-monitors, please? They would be pretty awesome for gameplaying, or watching a show on Hulu or Netflix while I'm doing work on the main monitor...

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Google Scholar

... is an absolute goldmine for anyone interested in writing science fiction. The story I'm working on takes place on a tidally-locked planet: that is, where the planet's rotation has slowed/advanced due to gravitation so that one side of the planet always faces its sun. (Like the moon with respect to Earth, except that the planet's "dark side" really is dark)

A quick Google Scholar search turns up a ton of information; I need to look up this fellow Manoj Joshi and see if I can pick his brain. In one of his papers there's an interesting discussion of likely weather patterns. Giant permanent hurricane on the sunward side? Awesome. And convenient.

EDIT: I notice that this entry gets a lot of hits courtesy of -- Welcome to my friends in Korea! I'm curious what it is that you're looking for that brings you here, and whether I can help out somehow. (Or does Google simply place this post on the first page of results when you're looking for information on Google Scholar?)