## New resource for authors

27. November, 2010

Writers – Stack Exchange is for authors, editors, reviewers, professional writers, and aspiring writers.

So if you have a question about writing the next bestseller, you know where to go. 🙂

## I write like…

26. October, 2010

According to I Write Like, I write like Cory Doctorow:

I write like
Cory Doctorow

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

My German posts are more like Ildiko von Kürthy:

Ildiko von Kürthy

Does that mean the publishers will soon kill each other to hire me?

Nah! 🙂

17. August, 2010

Everyone always argues “we need a strong copyright to protect the authors and their work” (here, for example). Frankly, I’m very suspicious how many authors are in this “we”. Usually, this “we” includes publishers, lawyers and people living off the work of authors but rarely those who actually do the work.

Just two days ago, I stumbled over an article (German) that compared the book market in England and Germany around 1800. The time is interesting because Germany had no copyright before 1837 and England had one for almost a century by that time. Of course, everyone in Germany was arguing that authors were starving and they needed a stronger copyright – just like England.

Before these copyright laws were enacted, the book market in Germany was between five to ten times bigger than that of England. A book in England would cost as much as you’d make in a week – between $500 and$1000 today. As a consequence, only very few people had books. In Germany, everyone could afford books. In 1800, only 700 news books were published in rich England while in poor Germany, they had 4000. They were cheap. Since only a few people could afford the expensive English books, print runs were tiny. A “successful” book would means a print run of 500 to 750. Reprinting was outlawed, so as soon as a book went out of print, it wasn’t available anymore. And who would reprint something that sold only 700 times?

And, surprisingly, the authors could live from their work. Around 1810, the author of a monograph could make 25% to 50% of a year’s income. In England, bestsellers got more but there are only a few bestsellers. It’s nice that 5 or 10 of the most successful authors make millions but isn’t it better when most people make enough for a living?

Yearly income of the most successful authors 2008

Why did that happen?

Because so many books were printed. Publishers always needed new material, so the authors were in a position of power. Also, “unsuccessful” books sold many thousand times. Publishers also had to keep them in print (as long as it was reasonable) to keep reprinters at bay. With a strong copyright, authors had to beg to be published (except for the few successful ones). Guess what that meant for income.

What happens today? Anyone can publish. Google has written software that collects interesting bits of information all over the globe and presents them in a nice, accessible way. Suddenly, the publishers cry out: “We need a stronger copyright.” I bet they do. But I don’t buy it when they add “to protect the rights of our authors.”

Which rights? The ones they take away with slave contracts? “Author gets 4% of the price printed on the book and publisher gets the right to publish the work in any way, forever.”

How many authors do you know which made a fortune from their books? Name five. King. Rowling. Patterson. Clancy (doesn’t even have a web site; poor guy only makes $35 Million/year). Steel. (Source) I didn’t know two of them and the difference between #1 (Rowling,$300 Million) and #5 (Steel, $30 Million) is tenfold. See the graph for an idea where this leads. Penguin sells books for £786 Million/year. This weeks bestseller in “Stolen” by Lesley Pearse. Amazon rank 118. I wonder how much of the$780m Ms. Pearse makes.

The next time someone tries to sell you that the copyright is good for authors, you know they’re lying.

## Engineering SciFi

10. May, 2009

There are two types of people playing role playing games (RPGs), I call them the “story gamer” and  the “power gamer”. The story gamer likes a grand story while rules and dice rolls are a necessary evil. The power gamer enjoys the story but they relish in taking the rules to the limit. And they have their own definition of “limit”. While a story gamer likes to her “you switch on your personal force field and the bullets bounce off, sparking blue ripples that run over the surface of the field,” the power gamer asks “how does this screen work? Can I fry an eggs on it?”

In traditional SciFi, the inner workings of something are often a mystery. Space ships activate their force fields, protective screens, incoming fire gets deflected — or not, depending on what the author needs. But how do they work? Really? While this might sound like a silly question, it opens a whole new world: When you understand something, you can be creative with it. So how does a force field work? Can it be activated when something is blocking the space it will occupy in a moment? Is it a quantum effect or psionic? Magic? If it’s a personal shield, does it flow around the body or is it like a big bubble? If it’s a big bubble, how do you plan to charge through this door? If it can’t be activated when something is blocking it’s path, do you have to back away from any kind of cover to turn it on? Or if it can be activated, what happens when you lean against a wall? Are you stuck? Can you use the same effect to block a door, then? If nothing can pass through, how do your bullets get out? How about sound? Air?

Is the surface dull or slippery? If it’s slippery, how can you walk? If the field is guided through a mesh in the soles of your boots, how long does it take to rise after stumbling when you hands can’t get a hold? How do you plan to stand up when the enemy knows all this and tries anything to pin you down on the floor like a slippery fish? If it’s dull, what causes this? Is the field uneven? Is it static uneven or is there a ripple which sands off any surface you touch? Does it only stop solid matter? How about liquids? What happens when you’re pushed over a cliff? Get hit by a Molotow-cocktail? If the field stops bullets, how about light? If you can look out, can I blind you with a bright light? Cut you with a laser? If the laser is stopped, how can you see anything? And why is the field clear? Shouldn’t it be completely opaque in this case?

The answers to these questions tell us how a force field works and this gives us the basic blocks to build strategies. If the shield stops all matter, I must avoid lasers and heat weapons. And I need both an air supply and radio, so I can still talk to my team. If the air supply fails, that doesn’t render the screen unusable but I can only keep it up for a few seconds. Don’t forget that, in battle, you need much more oxygen than normal. If air can’t pass, I can use it as a space suit. It also means that the shield is rigid: It must create am opposing force to stop the matter trying to get through. So how can I move? How can the shield tell apart bending an arm from deflecting a baseball bat? Will it help when someone is bending my arm? How about being crushed under a tank? When something comes in, where does the energy go? In this universe, energy can’t be destroyed, it has to go somewhere. So when bullets come in, do I get pummeled? How is the shield projected? Can I put the projector in my pocket or do I have to wear a projector mesh that covers the whole body? Can this mesh have holes for your hands and head? Does that mean these parts are unprotected? That would allow to wear the shield as a flack vest. Or can I have projectors in the sleeves and around my neck which extend over my hands? Is the field perfectly clear or does it have a color? If there are holes, how about malfunction? Is there a chance to cut off my own head by switching it on? If the shield needs a lot of energy, how do I carry that along? How do I camouflage this? Or does a shield turn me into a beacon with a large sign “kill here”?

As you can see, all these questions have an impact on how I can use the shield during a game or in a story. It makes things more complicated, but it makes things more rich because I can start to work with these things. Story gamers expand the horizon but power gamers give it detail.

## “Hunderte von Milliarden” auf Perry-Rhodan.net

19. November, 2008

I’ve published a story 🙂 Since the story is in German, this post is, too.

Ich gebe es zu, ich bin ein Perry Rhodan Fan. Nicht nur, weil es die grösste SciFi-Serie der Welt ist (mit inzwischen 2466 Heften à 64 Seiten jede Woche, seit nunmehr fast 50 Jahren! Die aktuellen Ereignisse um Roi Danton und Dantyren haben mich so lange beschäftigt, bis ich eine Geschichte zu Papier (oder in diesem Fall zu PDF) bringen musste.

Arndt Ellmer war so freundlich sie in der LKS Galerie auf der Homepage von Perry Rhodan zu platzieren. Der Titel ist “Hunderte von Milliarden” und enthält meine Interpretation von Aussagen wie “Der Erbe des Universums”.

Viel Vergnügen!

Feedback ist erwünscht. Entweder als Kommentar anhängen oder per eine Mail (digulla at hepe dot com bzw. dark at pdark dot de).

## Heroes (TV Show)

29. October, 2007

*gasp* (Sound after emerging from a two day Heroes Season 1 marathon). If you haven’t seen this, yet, you should.

As an author and SciFi fan, I’m always looking for good movies and TV shows. Here is my summary of season 1 (with a few spoilers further down below).

Overall, I’m very impressed. The show delivers depth and atmosphere like few I’ve seen before. It’s as smart and logical as CSI or Dr. House but the cast is much more complex and the story is a beautiful example of an interwoven stream of events which happen independently but influence each other in a very special way. Nothing in that series is set into stone; events happen, the viewer feels he knows what is going on just to stumble over another small piece of information which turns everything around. The same happens to the characters which often find themselves having to make hard decisions they feel they aren’t prepared for. Babylon 5 showed a glimpse of what can be done in this regard, Heroes goes the whole nine yards: Storytelling at it’s best, rich, believable characters, super-human action without losing a grip on the special effects.

Spoiler Warning: The following text is only safe to read after seeing all of season 1.

There are a few dark spots, though, and they show a few of the problems an author/storyteller faces. Let’s start with the “perfect prison”. The prison itself contains almost nothing except for a few pipes which one of the heroes uses later to make an escape. I didn’t notice them when Sylar was in that cell, so I’m giving the author the benefit of doubt and assume that Sylar was in a similar cell but one without the pipes. Alas, if you have ever seen a real prison, you’ll know that surveillance is ubiquitous. Furthermore, with dangerous criminals (especially ones with special abilities), guards never visit the inmate alone. Not so in Sylars case; no one seems to care who visits him and when and what they take along. When Jessica Sanders is imprisoned, the authors don’t make this “mistake”: Guards never handle her alone; they are even afraid to come close to her in rather large groups!

I’m calling this a “mistake” because actually, it is quite easy to create a prison that no one can escape without help. Unfortunately for the show, Sylar has to escape which renders the whole “perfect prison” idea into a death trap for the writer. Authors: If you ever feel you have written yourself into a corner, take a step back and check where you came from. If you can, try to find a real instead of a cheap solution, because when Sylar escaped, I thought: “Oh, that’s so silly.” I didn’t believe the show anymore for some time. When you write a story, the reader trusts that you produce a logical, believable world. Whenever you betray that trust, the reader will feel that your work is not worth the money she paid for it and this not what you want.

In the Sylar case, a possible solution would have been to rewrite story to make the attack on Claire happen far away from any “Company” location. Sylar could then have escaped much more believable from a make-shift prison. Or how about having more people around? It’s unlike Sylar to just slaughter anyone in his path but he could have just rendered the “normal” guards unconscious and then go after the persuading girl (so she can have her grand moment).

The ending of season 1 is something else entirely. At first, I thought is was impossible for Sylar to be alive. Mr. Bennet knows how dangerous he is and would surely have put a few more bullets through his head if he had had any doubt that Sylar was dead. Some of that is solved in season 2 where the writers come up why the heroes didn’t notice Sylar … “escaped”.

Just to round this up, here are a few more blunders which probably only happened because the writers had written themselves into a corner or vital information had to be cut away to fit the time slots of the show:

• In the scene in the future when the guards smash in the door and shoot “Future Hiro”: Why doesn’t he stop time when he hears the door give in? Why doesn’t he stop time as soon as the Haitian is taken out to tell Hiro everything he knows just to be safe? There is no apparent reason to wait until the last moment (except to allow for a dramatic and tragic (a.k.a stupid) death). Or why doesn’t he stop time as soon as the Haitian is down to take out the guards trying to smash down the door?
• When abducted in Las Vegas, Nathan Petrelly can fly away despite the Haitian being close by. Oh, and if that was a sonic book we’re hearing, Nathan ought to be dead but maybe his ability turns his skin into something more durable than steel while he flies. That only leaves the question how his clothes make it …
• Again in the future: In all these years, Matt Parkman never noticed that Nathan Petrelli was in fact someone else? Never? In five years? Okay, again the benefit of doubt: Maybe the ability to create illusions can fool a telepath, too. Still, it seems uncomfortably odd.
• After Claire ran the car into a wall, her father Noah has the brain of the quarterback erased so he “can’t make her life even more complicated that it already is”. Later, the whole school knows that Claire is somehow involved in the event. Having his brain erased just makes everything worse for her. Seems like an unlikely mistake for someone like Mr. Bennet.

All this might give you the impression that the crew around Tim Kring did a sloppy job. Well, think again. If you have seen Star Wars, you probably noticed the 264 mistakes in the first movie. For a TV show with a budget that is probably close to what Goerge Lucas spent for rubber stamps during the shooting, they did an incredible job.

Conclusion: Well done.

Lesson for authors out there: Strive for perfection and try to eliminate all logical mistakes and “easy ways out”. Otherwise, your readers will spend their money on the authors that try harder than you do, the next time they buy a book.

## Heroes (Storytelling)

25. October, 2007

As an author, you need to love your characters. You need to love them so much that you can make their lives really miserable. That doesn’t mean slaughtering their families. Killing is easy. Giving them depth is hard.

Characters must have reasons for what they do. Take the doctor in “Alien”. In the beginning of the movie, he opens the airlock blocked by Ripley and lets the contaminated crew members in. At that point, we think he’s doing this because he’s a doctor and he wants to help. Later, it turns out he is an android specifically programmed to gather alien lifeforms, ever at the expense of the crew. This gives the character depth that he doesn’t have when you just make him do things to move the story on.

It’s not necessary to explain everything to the reader; but every action should have a reason and at least you as the author should know that reason. Otherwise, the actions will soon start to become erratic and random. The readers will notice a pattern: There doesn’t seem to be a reason why someone does something except to drive the story on. If you want to check your story against this, ask yourself: Does the character at this point in the story even know why he should do this? Or is he just making life easier for me?

Rambo is another good example for this. It also demonstrates my main point: You must make life as hard as possible for your character. When Rambo decides to stand up against the sheriff, that is the hard decision (just shrugging and walking away would have been much more easy). After that event, things get out of control. The deputies handle Rambo like any other petty criminal, only Rambo is not your standard drunk picked from a gutter. Their abuse triggers Rambo’s instincts that kept him alive in the jungle. Blood is spilled.

Again, all characters could make the decision to step back, calm down, think. Instead, everyone tries to corner Rambo. They are driving him. Rambo escapes them as good as he can and only shoots down the helicopter when his own life is in danger. Again the pattern: Take the hard way.

The “Die Hard” movies work along the same lines. John McLane has a lot of chances just to hide in a corner and wait until everything is over but he never does. He always struggles to get the upper hand. That is what makes a character into a hero.

Many authors don’t get this (at least, it doesn’t make it to the screen). They put big and bigger guns into the hands of their “heroes” (“Eraser”, anyone?) They add bigger explosions or make the evil guys commit worse atrocities. Cameras zoom in deeper and longer when blood is spilled. Guts fly around. Special effects take over. When Norman Bates killed the woman under the shower in “Psycho”, Hitchcock keeps the camera on the drain. We don’t even see the act itself but the scene is more intense than anything I’ve seen in the last twenty years.

If you as an author take the easy way out, so will your character. If you put a lot of effort into making life miserable for your hero (little or no ammo, no shoes, no food, no shelter, no help, no way out) and you can still come up with believable reasons why your hero can survive against all these odds, then your hero will be great.

Or to put it another way: How could your hero be better than your effort writing about him?

## How To Write, Part 1

9. September, 2007

In this ongoing series, I’ll talk about how I develop and write stories. If you’re interested in writing stories, getting tips and improving your style, etc., here are two great places to start.

First, browse the OWW, the Online Writing Workshop. It’s mostly for SciFi, Fantasy and Horror writers but it contains lots of good advice and background references in the mailing list (ever needed to get some ideas on time travel stories? Who had already done what and how it worked out? Here is a good place to ask.

Next, have a look at the live journal of Joshua Palmatier. I have to admit that I haven’t read any of his books but I greatly enjoyed his explanations, for example how scene, character and plot work together to build the complex immersion readers want to enjoy (and therefore, are willing to spend money and/or time on). I’ve rarely seen an explanation of these topics which was so easy to understand, so much fun to read and so helpful at the same time.

Tools

Next, you’ll need a set of tools. Since I want to be able to write anywhere, I travel lightweight: jEdit, TreeLine and, since English isn’t my native language, Office-Bibliothek. Being a seasoned software developer, I keep my stories in a Subversion repository. I do this for backup purposes and to be able to access them with a simple web browser for anywhere on the globe.

jEdit

jEdit is a text editor written in Java. This means several things: It will run on Windows, Mac and Linux. If there is a computer where I am, chances are, I can use it. The keyboard mappings are the same. The menu structure is the same. It can do all I need and it can do it well.

Furthermore, since I write my stories in an XML dialect, I don’t need a more complex text editor. Later, I’ll convert the text to TeX from which I can generate PDF or DVI. Or I can use another small tool to convert the XML into HTML.

Why not use a more complex editor like Office or Frame Maker? Because it gets in the way. I want to write, I don’t need a complex UI, software that crashes on me or gets in the way (do I have to say “paperclip”?).

The only drawback of jEdit is that the spell checker sucks. But if I cared, I could fix that. It’s open source software.

TreeLine

If you write anything that goes beyond 30 pages, you’ll eventually strangle yourself in the strands of information. What happened when? What was the name of this character? How old was she? Where was she born? Did I mention that place already?

An outliner is like a file explorer for information. To the left, you have a tree-like outline (hence the name) with characters, the time-line, places and other knowledge. On the right side, you can see the details.

There are more complex tools, suited better for writers, which allow to move around events on the time-line, which help to organize relations between characters, which contain name generators and such. For some reason, they are all Windows-only. For me, that means, I can’t work at home because there, I have Linux.

I can waste as much time as my employer likes as long as they pay me by the hour. At home, I need to get work done.

TreeLine is the outliner of my choice since it runs on any OS and because it’s written in Python which makes it simple to extend. For my purposes, I’ve added a “quicklink” extension which allows me to define keyword fields and then creates links to those entries in other texts automatically (for example, I get a link to the character description when I use its name in the time-line).

I’m using version 1.1.9. Don’t mind the warning about “development version” on the download page, it’s rock solid.

Office-Bibliothek

If you start to write, you’ll find that you often repeat yourself. “He said, he said, he said.” Don’t worry too much about that, this will go away as you learn to use them words better. On the other hand, you don’t have to make your life unnecessarily difficult. Get a thesaurus, a dictionary and a good spell checker.

My choice was Office-Bibliothek, again because it runs on Linux. The prices for the data files are in the same range what you would have to pay for the books and you get a much better user experience (less hefting a big tome around, searching is faster than you can type and you can search for words which are not in the index; try that with a paper book).

Subversion

Subversion is a version control system, which will remember any change you ever made on your text. Not strictly necessary but it makes it much more simple to keep several versions (one at home, one at work, one on my palm and one on an usb stick) in sync, it automatically creates backups just in case I make a mistake and delete something I shouldn’t have.

TeX

For many people, TeX is an anachronism. Why use a tool that expects you to write “this is a chapter” in your story when you can simply select the text in Word and chose “Chapter 1” in the toolbar? Well, because “simply” isn’t so simple after all.

With tools like Word, OpenOffice and FrameMaker come a couple of price-tags which many people just have got used to and they don’t question their motives anymore. First, we have the very real price tag. If you’re not working with a pirate copy or one, for which you don’t really have a license anymore, then you know, Word is not exactly cheap, even if you buy it alone. OpenOffice is free (as in freedom) and you just have to pay for the download but it’s not available everywhere. Just imagine to try to talk the owner of a cyber cafe into installing OpenOffice for you so you can work an hour on your story.

Then, we have to issue of usability. I can work with Word and OpenOffice which means I can enter text and format it. Unfortunately, it will look like crap when it’s printed. Both tools just have no idea what “beautiful” means and I frankly don’t have the time or skill to teach them.

TeX, on the other hand, knows exactly how good (or bad) a text looks and it will even tell you so:

Underfull \hbox (badness 1789) in paragraph at lines 1041--1041
[]\T1/ptm/m/n/10 ^^PLook,^^Q the gen-eral started but she in-ter-rupted her:
[7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14]
Underfull \hbox (badness 2073) in paragraph at lines 2165--2165
[]\T1/ptm/m/n/10 A smile split Forne's face. ^^PThank you, Ad-viser
[15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24]
Underfull \hbox (badness 3148) in paragraph at lines 3705--3705
[]\T1/ptm/m/n/10 ^^PCertainly,^^Q an-swered the po-lite voice from above.
[25] (./haul05en.aux) )

Notice the “badness XYZ” warnings. They are just warnings. You can still print your text. It just won’t look as good as it could. And in my humble opinion, a reader should not only get something that reads well but it should also look great. If you don’t understand what I mean, print a page of text formatted with TeX and one page of text from any word processor and place them next to each other. Even if you don’t know anything about font design and layout, the TeX version will make the other version want to roll up in its paper in shame.

Furthermore, since all markup (that’s the information for the computer how it should treat a part of my text, i.e. if it’s a heading, something someone says, a thought or whatever) is visible in the text, I never have to fight with the mouse to select just that part of my story that I want to select right now.

It’s no accident that TeX is also the most stable software on this planet that I know of and that I use. The first version is from 1969 and the last update was December 2002. It’s not dead, there is just nothing to improve anymore.

XML

XML is both the greatest idea since ASCII and the worst nightmare. It is a great concept, it finally allows to store data in a format that anyone can read (Ever tried to open a document you wrote ten years ago?). Unfortunately, some things had to be added so even computers from the stone ages can still read it and some definitions make perfect sense but are hard to understand.

For my SciFi stories, I use a special XML dialect that I call “story”. It won’t validate but it’s simple to transform into valid XML. Here is an example:

<content>
* Surprise, Surprise

<<T I'll show them,>> he thought and jumped out of his hiding
place, waving his rifle like a madman. <<Y Back off or I'll
shoot!>>

The muarhar<fn>Marauders of the south</fn> stopped dead, unsure
how big a threat he might be.

...
</content>

The part inside the content element is the meat of the story. It’s a wiki-like format which allows me to write quickly (since I haven’t found a single XML editor which would let me do that). The stuff between double pointed brackets encloses text that someone says or thinks. After that follows a single option character for thoughts (T), yelling (Y) or foreign language (F). In addition, I’m using a few XML elements like fn for footnotes, em for emphasis and q for quotes.

Note that I don’t enclose paragraphs in p elements. In the beginning, I had a special key-mapping in jEdit to insert the empty element but I got rid of it. By adding a few simple rules to my “story-to-XML” converter, I made it add these by itself, freeing my fingers and eyes from such superfluous markup.

That’s it. Now you just need a great story.