Something for nothing

Nuance released Dragon Dictation for the iPhone yesterday, and they made it free. By all accounts, it works pretty well, and should make using an iPhone much more intuitive for lots of people.

So it should come as no surprise that people are already whining.

See, Dragon uploads your contacts to their servers the first time you run it. It does this because all the recognition is done in the cloud—you didn’t think it could really do nearly flawless voice recognition with the iPhone’s RAM and CPU, did you?—and Nuance figures that if they pre-recognize all your contacts, it will save time when you, like, use them. You’re probably going to be mentioning at least a few of your contacts a lot.

So what’s wrong with this? It’s an invasion of privacy, of course! How dare Nuance upload your dictation to their servers, taking it literally out of your hands, just so that they process it via a free service you opted into by downloading and installing the gorram app in the first place? The nerve! And they keep the recordings—so that they can continually refine their recognition, the same way Google keeps all your search queries—meaning that if you were to use their free service to dictate your plans to overthrow the government, and if they didn’t anonymize the results—they do—and if said government went sniffing around in those recordings because the NSA clearly doesn’t already have enough data to sift through, well, that would be pretty bad, wouldn’t it?

Get over it, people.

Look, cloud computing isn’t the devil, and it isn’t here to take all your precious bodily fluids. But a certain degree of trust/sphincter-loosening is required if you’re going to join us here in the brave new world. People need to get over this idea that they even have privacy in the digital age. Hey, you, in the shack up in Montana. Yeah, I’m talking to you. If you possess anything in digital form, guess what? You ain’t the only one with access to it. Deal. Or go back to keeping your manifesto scrawled in pencil on toilet paper.

Relax, people, it’s okay. Just lie back, close your eyes and think of England. Or better yet, here’s a radical idea. If you don’t agree with the terms of service, DON’T USE THE GORRAM SERVICE! Vote with your dollars, all zero of them! Nuance is giving you something valuable for FREE. If you don’t like the fact that, hey, they’re going to use your anonymized data to improve said service, set your boots a-walkin’, mister. It’s the price of admission, and guess what? You’re not entitled to anything. Keep banging those rocks together, you’ll make fire someday. But if you want to sit at the grownups table, act like you’ve been there.

The plan

A big part of this blog, and Writing On Your Palm before it, has always been to document my journey as a writer and serve as either a cautionary example or inspiration to others. It occurred to me recently that I have a unique opportunity to do so much more.

When I was writing my first novel, one of my idols was Joe Straczynski, the creator and writer of nearly every episode of Babylon 5. I read every word Joe published on the internet during the production of the show, and I learned a lot about both writing in general and how television is made. But there was always more I wanted to know. I wanted to see the scripts. I wanted to sit in on the breakout meetings. I wanted to see the background of the story the way Joe saw it. I never got those things, because Joe is sane and had a business to run.

But now, I have the opportunity to provide just what I wanted. I can do something no one else has been nuts enough to do. Here’s the plan.

Step 1: Write and edit Unification Chronicles simultaneously

Regular readers know I’ve committed to writing all seven books of the Unification Chronicles series in ten months, to be finished by Labor Day weekend, 2010. But now that I’ve figured out how to write 2,000 words a day and still have time for my normal life, I’ve decided to aim still higher. I’m also going to edit the books in nearly the same span of time. Basically, while I’m writing 2,000 words a day of Book 2, I’ll be editing 5-10 pages of Book 1. This is possible because the 2k-per-day rough draft I’ve been turning out is surprisingly readable, not at all the unreadable crap I was expecting. Turns out you can write well and write fast at the same time (Mike Cane, I’m looking at you).

Step 2: Blog everything

Yes, everything. I’d like to announce The Unification Chronicles Blog, where I’ll be publishing every single thing I use in writing these books, documenting every step in the process. There you will find notes, research, plot outlines, even drafts posted as I write them, and before I revise them. I want aspiring writers to see the whole package. To be able to compare outlines to drafts to the finished product, and see how it all changes. I’ve set up a wiki for most of the structured information that doesn’t work as well on a blog.

Step 3: Sell the finished product cheap or free

Once I’m done with each book, each chapter will be available as a free PDF file or a free podcast (narrated by yours truly, and a straight read, none of this voice cast business). Each book will also be available on eReader.com, Fictionwise.com and Amazon.com as a 99 cent ebook. At the end of the series I’ll also make a 7-book omnibus edition available for $5.

For those that want something to put on a shelf—or don’t take my advice about how to read ebooks comfortably—I’ll also be publishing each book via either Lulu or CreateSpace—haven’t decided which yet—for just a little bit more than it costs to print. I’m not trying to get rich here. But I want to make sure that anyone who wants a printed copy can get one. I likely won’t be doing a printed omnibus edition, however, as it would simply be too expensive.

Step 4: Embrace the Chaos

One of the reasons I’m doing this is to establish a certain setting I plan to come back to again and again throughout my career. This is the Chaos. After the events in Book 5, I basically have kicked over all the anthills and set the galaxy on fire. Everyone is at war with everyone else, humanity is in pretty dire straits, and everything has gone to hell. Book 6 actually takes place during the Chaos, but it’s far from the only thing going on. It will take years, maybe decades of this to get to Book 7, Unification, where the heroes that survived Book 5 get back together and unify the galaxy. In those years are an infinity of tales.

But I’m not going to be the only one writing Tales of the Chaos. At least I hope not. I’m going to open up that setting under Creative Commons so that anyone can write stories set there. There will be a few limitations, like not using actual characters from my books, so the new stories don’t end up contradicting Unification—and even that will be negotiable, I expect to approve a few canonical stories I don’t write—but overall, it’s an open sandbox. Most of the stories will even be hosted on the Unification Chronicles site.

Step 5: The Audition

Once I’m done with Unification Chronicles—aside from Tales of the Chaos—I’ll keep writing, of course. Homeworld (my NaNoWriMo 2006 project) and Titanus (which I developed for Script Frenzy 2009 but decided I’d rather write as a novel) still need to be finished. As does Ghost Ronin, the first in a new adventure series. These, and the works that follow them, will in all likelihood be written with the door closed. I will seek an agent and get these and future works published traditionally. But here, the work I’ve done for Unification Chronicles will give me an advantage. Agents and editors considering my work will be able to see that I can write to a specific length, finish what I start, and tell a good story. They’ll have half a million words of my fiction as a work sample, and they’ll be able to see exactly how I research and write a book. And hopefully, they’ll see you, dear readers, and see that I can build a fan base and get people excited about my work. That’s why I’m giving Unification Chronicles away for free—or as cheap as I’m allowed to make it. Because if I pull it off, and do everything right, then I get to…

Step 6: Quit my day job and write full time

I want to make my living as a novelist. I want my only requirement in life to be continuing to tell the stories that make my life worth living. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been really good at, and with your help, I think I have a way to make this happen. I expect this to take time, but hopefully I’ll be a full time working novelist by the time I’m 45 (I’m 38 now).

Let’s get started.

How to read a book on your phone

I’ve written a lot about ebooks over the years, but very little on what makes them readable. That’s unfortunate, since the defaults you get with almost every ebook reader provide a sub-optimal experience. Every time I hear someone say, “I tried reading a book on my iPhone, but I just couldn’t do it,” and I look at their phone, I realize that with those settings I couldn’t do it either. So let’s go over what makes books readable in the first place and how to mimic that on your reader of choice.

The first and most obvious aspect of readability is of course the typeface you use. The right font can make or break your reading experience. Fonts come in two main styles, serif and sans serif. Serif fonts have small ornamental lines, called serifs, that give them a more stylized look and more importantly, guide the eye along the line of text. It’s for this reason that serif fonts have traditionally been favored by typographers for long stretches of narrative. Common serif fonts are Times Roman, Georgia and even the monospaced Courier.

Sans serif fonts tend to be much simpler letter shapes, as they lack the serifs. This makes them look cleaner on the page or screen, but in theory less readable over time in bulk paragraphs. Sans serif fonts have traditionally been preferred for on screen use because they’re simpler to render. Common sans serif fonts include Helvetica or Arial, the Verdana/Tahoma/Nina family and the handwriting-like Comic Sans.

So what’s best for ebook readability? That’s not an easy question. It’s worth noting that most people don’t actually read one letter at a time. Instead adult readers take in whole words, phrases and even sentences at a time. The pattern recognition on the brain is absolutely crucial, and anything that disturbs or alters the expected patterns will dramatically impede the reading process. For anything longer than a few lines, I prefer serif fonts. On a good serif font, the serifs really do guide the eye along the line and make reading more comfortable. If I’m on a lower resolution device and have to go with a sans serif font, I prefer something like Trebuchet MS, which at least has pseudo-serifs to differentiate letter shapes. Verdana, which was also designed expressly for on-screen readability, as well as it’s compressed sibling Tahoma—and the even further compressed Nina—is another good choice if you need to go sans serif.

So now that we know what kind of font to use, which fonts in particular are best? While there’s a certain appeal to Times or Times New Roman, the “default” proportionally spaced serif font, it was designed to be printed, and doesn’t always translate well on screen. It’s a very narrow font with comparatively little white space between lines, to allow news papers to cram the maximum number of words on the fewest possible pieces of paper.

If it’s available, I prefer Georgia, which was designed for on screen readability. It has a taller x-height than Times, which means the lower case letters are taller—and generally wider—for a specific point size than Times.It also has lovely serifs that evoke the typesetting on vintage hardcovers and a clear, script-like italics version.

If you’re using a newer device with TrueType turned on, Microsoft’s new Cambria or Constantia fonts look even better than Georgia, because they’re designed not only for on screen readability, but also to take full advantage of subpixel font rendering. Basically, these fonts make it appear that you have three times number of pixels that you actually have. Cambria has a more “informal” feel to it, with rounder letter shapes. Constantia is closer to Times with a lot of straight, vertical lines.

Okay, you’ve got the right font, now how big should it be? This is balancing act and frankly the hardest decision to make. It’s dependent on several factors.

First is line length. A good rule of thumb is that you should have on average about six to eight words per line. So if you pick a font that’s too big, you won’t get as many words per line as you should and reading will feel very “choppy” as your eye keeps darting back and forth very quickly. (Conversely, this is why it’s important to use giant margins or split text into columns on wide monitors. If the line length is too long, your eye tends to wander up or down to other lines before you get to the end and reset.)

But you also need to have a reasonable amount of white space. A lot of reader software will allow you to set your margins. Believe it or not, there’s actually an advantage to having healthy margins around the text. It helps the brain compartmentalize the text and keeps the page from looking too busy and overwhelming. Try it. You’ll be more comfortable with a reasonable margin than with text that goes right up to the edges of the screen.

White space is also a function of font choice, as your font will tend to define, at least at first, your vertical line spacing. One of the reasons I like Trebuchet MS so much is that in addition to being a serif-like sans serif font, it also defaults to wider than average line spacing, with more white space between lines of text. This makes it easier for the eye to follow long each line without jumping above or below and confusing things. This is also why the latest versions of Word default to 1.15x line spacing. That little extra white space really makes a difference in readability on screen.

So what’s the answer? It’s going to be different for everyone. Find a serif font you like and then try different combinations of margins, font sizes and if you can, line spacing until you find something comfortable at six to eight words per line. In eReader on my iPhone, that comes to Georgia at Medium font size, normal line spacing and wide margins. On the iPhone Kindle app my options are more limited, so I just go with the second of the five font sizes. In Stanza, my reader of choice, you can tweak almost everything and I have it set up with nearly ideal font, font size, line length and line spacing.

Let’s talk about paragraphs. Most of time, you’ll take what you get. Some books and some readers will give you indented paragraphs, like you see in most printed fiction, where the line spacing doesn’t change but the first line of each paragraph is indented slightly. Others will give you block paragraphs, where the first line of a paragraph is not indented, but there is a blank line between every paragraph and the next. If you have the option, go with indented paragraphs. They’re no easier nor harder to read than block paragraphs, and they let you fit more on each page, so you turn pages less frequently.

Another point to consider at the paragraph level is justification. Here I differ with the conventional wisdom. All the studies I’ve read say to go with unjustified, or “ragged” right margins, where the letter spacing is uniform and each line ends where you run out of words and have no room to fit the next word in the sentence. The uniform letter spacing makes it easier for your brain to read each word.

In justified paragraphs, the spacing between each letter or each word is tweaked just enough so that the end of the line makes a straight vertical line down the right side of the screen just as the left margin does. Personally, I like this better, even if it makes things just a bit harder to read. It looks more like a real book that way. I find ragged margins distracting, so for my money, justified is actually easier to read. It helps if your reader program supports automatic hyphenation, breaking big words across lines if they fall at the line end. This means you have virtually no instances of the big honking gaps that can occasionally happen with full justification, big words and shorter line lengths.

Okay, you’ve got all the typography down. What about color? On a lot of phones, you aren’t limited to just black and white. Oddly enough, though, you’re probably best off sticking with black text on a white background anyway. It offers the best contrast, which is going to lead to less eye strain. If you want to mimic the warmer feel of a paper book, you can change the background to an off-white or cream color without losing much in the way of contrast. A lot of readers allow for inverted colors for night reading with the lights off, but I find that you’re probably better off just dimming the brightness to a black on gray that you find comfortable. Light text on black doesn’t look very good with font smoothing enabled. In general, I would stay away from other color combinations, and please, never, ever use a graphic texture as your background. A lot of readers allow for this, and even make it the default, but it’s just going to distract your eye from the actual text. Yes, it’s very cool that you can make the background look like parchment, but don’t do this if you actually want to read the book.

A lot of books will scroll the text for you, like a teleprompter. While this seems like a good idea, in that you can read not actually needing to turn the page, I’ve never made it work. My reading speed changes depending on the text. Pages with a lot of dialogue I’ll get too much ahead of the scrolling and get frustrated because I have to wait, and pages with a lot of description or interior monologue I’ll have to start skimming just to keep up. Stick with turning each page one at a time for maximum readability.

And lastly, we come to all the other stuff your reader program can display that isn’t the book. Things like title, page number, time, buttons for all kinds of functions: find, annotate, bookmark, etc. If you can, keep these to a bare minimum. Every additional thing on the page is something your brain has to rule out every time you see it. On Stanza on my iPhone, I have just the progress bar—a thin line at the very bottom of the screen showing how much of the book you’ve read relative to the total length—and the standard iPhone status bar at the top. I could even hide the status bar, but I usually read in bed, and I need to be able to see the time so I know when it’s time to put the book aside and go the heck to sleep if I want to avoid being a zombie the next day. Simpler is better, in general.

And that’s it! Now you know enough about typography and how the brain actually reads text to make your ebook reading experience as close to or even better than reading a paper book.

The muse’s radio

I’ve noticed a weird thing recently. No matter what kind of mood I’m in when I sit down to write, the quality of the writing itself is the same. It’s like I’m just a radio, and when it comes time to write the words just flow through my fingers onto my keyboard. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in my head, the words are the words. I’ve written funny scenes when I’m depressed, exciting action scenes when I’m tired. It just doesn’t matter. The book is what it is, and I’m just writing it down.

Of course, I know that can’t possibly be the case. I know that the quality of my writing is a function of my study and practice of the craft over the last two decades. I know that the story I’m writing now I wasn’t capable of writing ten years ago, five years ago. I know that at a neurological level, I’m making up a story, not recounting something that actually happened. I’m deliberately choosing each word I string after the one before it.

Only it sure doesn’t feel that way.