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Surreality Groupees Bundle

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Surreality is now available as part of the Groupees Community Bundle 7, running for the next few weeks.

Groupees is a great bundle website, featuring indie gaming, music, videos and comics as well as content from more established publishers. Long-time readers of the blog may know that I’m a fan of the bundle model as a way to offer more unique content, and as an alternative to the Amazon behemoth.

By default, 20% of your purchase of the Community Bundle goes to A Heart For Amanda, a wonderful cause helping to defray the medical expenses of a mother of two who needs a heart transplant. I didn’t know at the time I submitted to this bundle that this would be the charity, but I couldn’t think of anything better. Earlier in my 20’s I had to have a heart-ablation to correct a defect called WPW, which can cause sudden rapid heartbeat.* I can’t even imagine how much scarier it must be to need a new heart. And Groupees donates 20% as opposed to the 0.5% donated by Amazon Smile so you’re really making a difference even with a small purchase.

The Bundle is pay-what-you-want with a $1 minimum (a 75% discount on my book + a whole lot of other cool content). The rest of the bundle is an eclectic mix of games and music including a lawnmower simulator and games like Push the Crate and SweatShop. For the top-contributor (as of this writing only $5) you get a signed copy of Surreality and the entire digital catalog of one of the music contributors (Panda P.I., which raises so many questions. Is he a P.I. who investigates Pandas, or is he a Panda Detective?). The majority of the stuff is DRM free, including my book which comes in all of the eBook formats.

The bundle runs for another 13 days, so if you’ve been thinking about checking out Surreality, or you just really have the urge to cut lawns on your computer, why don’t you go check it out? Please spread the word on Twitter, Facebook and all the other social media areas we 30-somethings have probably never heard of 🙂

*Incidentally being awake while they shock your heart is quite the experience 🙂 (I’m all better now, no worries for like 8 years at least). 

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It’s Turtles All The Way Down

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Have you ever had only 20 minutes to write a blog post, and you realize you have nothing really to say that particular day, but it’s been a couple of days since you’ve said anything so you just write whatever comes to you? It’s important to check in every once in a while and let people know you’re still out there and to give a gentle reminder and plug for the various books you may have written, even some of the older ones people might have forgotten about but that are totally still worth buying. You can’t tackle anything too ambitious, with a lot of pictures or thought. We’ve all got a couple of blog posts floating around in our heads that we’d love to do if we ever sat down and had an 1.5 hours to format them and make a really good argument, but today isn’t going to be that day.

Then, just when you’ve started writing your twenty minute post, you realize that what you really want to write about is the thought process behind writing a twenty minute post. Maybe you want to get people to try to relate to who you are as a writer at that particular moment, or to offer some tip for people dealing with this situation. Sure it feels a bit meta to be blogging about blogging, but that’s only a couple of layers removed and you might really have something valuable to offer. We all have to figure out how to create quality content on a deadline, and being in the middle of an actual crisis may give you a special insight into how to help others get out of it.

Thinking about how to deal with writing a twenty minute post gets you to thinking about the best ways to give writing advice. Should you only be talking about the things you’re dealing with at a particular moment or should you write more reflective posts on the tips you’ve discovered after years of learning? Writing about what you’re dealing with at the moment can be a good way to choose topics, but it might not be the best way to offer any real insight. After all, you might just be guessing how to get yourself out of a situation without any real idea if that solution would even work. Perhaps you should write a blog post about the best ways and times to give writing advice. So we’re writing a blog post about writing an advice blog post on how to write a blog post in twenty minutes while trying to write the post in twenty minutes.

But we can go one layer deeper. We haven’t even begun to deal with the existential question of why writers write, and what’s the difference between a writer and an author. Are bloggers writers in the same sense as people who write books? If the majority of the writing you actually do is just nonsense falling out of your head without being applied to your current work, can you call yourself a writer? Sure words are magically appearing in front of you as you play the keyboard like a piano, or a well … keyboard, and that might be writing. But is it good?

Oh, I almost forgot. We could wonder if writing about how to give advice to writers is actually art, and whether such writing is considered professional or amateur. It could all be a meta-meta exercise designed to kill time and give the illusion of creating something interesting, when in fact we’ve been up our own butt for some time now.

Ooops … time’s up!

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Snap Judgment: YA Da Vinci Code

Apparently Dan Brown’s popular novel, The Da Vinci Code, is being adapted into a YA friendly version. According to Publisher’s Weekly the book will be abridged and will have content more appropriate to a teen audience, while maintaining the original plot.

Now I’ll start this brief rant by saying that I have never read The Da Vinci Code and have no particular judgment as to its quality one way or another. It is a very popular book which means that it might also be a good book. My quibble is with abridgments and “audience appropriate” books.

For children I kind of get these sorts of books. Series like the Illustrated Classics series, or abridgments of classic old works like Don Quixote and The Three Musketeers give children a general sense of the story without having to deal with some of the archaic language. I am someone who grew up with Wishbone after all. Children’s versions are a good way to teach children that old stories can be just as entertaining as newer material. But even in elementary school we were reading original versions of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Sherlock Holmes mysteries and all sorts of other books.

One of the weird anachronisms of Peanuts that somehow survived to the most recent film was having a character read War & Peace. The age of those kids isn’t firmly specified, but we’re talking an 8-10 year old reading a book with over 1000 pages. These jokes started early on in the strip’s life, and it makes me wonder if kids in the fifties and sixties were held to a higher standard than kids of today. Then again, Schulz had characters often giving Snoopy chocolate, so he’s not a perfect guide. But I think the basic idea holds up, kids are capable of dealing with the original and are more mature than we might give them credit for.

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And we’re talking about YA which is aimed at an older audience (and is in fact read by many adults). A lot of YA content deals with violence and post-apocalyptic worlds, so my suspicion is that the only edits for content in The Da Vinci Code have to do with some of the weird sex stuff. I’ll admit that’s a guess, but I bet I’m right. The only abridgment I “enjoyed” in high-school was Les Miserables, and only because it meant that I didn’t have to slog through the full text of a book literally titled “The Miserable.” Most high-school students don’t like to be talked down to, they like to be treated like adults.

The YA version of the Code is being written to inspire young people to an interest in history, but I wonder why Brown (or his publisher) assumes that such an interest can’t be inspired by reading the actual book? I could equally understand taking on a new project, targeted at a YA audience that hits on many of the same themes, but has a unique storyline more “appropriate” to its audience. But instead, he’s rewriting a book he wrote over 13 years ago. One wonders why.

Honestly, I think the YA book is just an attempt to cash in one more time on the brand and I doubt the book brings anything new to the table. I’m sure it will sell, and that people will read it. But if my hypothetical child is interested in The Da Vinci Code, or books like it, I think I’ll stick to the original. Or War & Peace, that’ll keep the kid busy for a while 🙂

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Kill your darlings (and make sure they stay dead)

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We all know variations of the “kill your darlings” quote, but there’s a companion to the quote I see almost as frequently. It can be boiled down to…

“Save your darlings for later. You never know when you might find a place for them.”

This seems like a hoarder’s mentality to me, an approach toward writing that assumes that everything you’ve ever written has a place somewhere. I believe this is objectively false.

There’s a popular notion that it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert at something. A writing variation that’s a favorite of mine converts that to “write as much as you are tall.” For me that would be a stack of paper 6’4″ tall. Considering that a ream of 500 sheets is about 2 inches and the standard manuscript page is 250 words, I need to write about 4.75 million words before I’m any good. Hopefully, that number is a bit absurd, but I think we can agree that getting good at writing takes time, practice, and well … writing.

I think a lot of ideas are like flowers. From the moment we cut them they have a set amount of freshness before they start to wither, die, and grow mold. I’m not saying that ideas can’t be timeless, but I think most of the things we write have a shelf life. If they make it to the end of a novel drafting process, then there’s a good chance they’ll survive for a long time. But if they’ve been cut out of a book, and stuffed in a drawer for later use, they may never find a place to fit in.

And that’s okay.

I wonder if this advice, to “save things for later,” is given to novice writers as a way to make cutting things out easier. It assumes something that I just don’t think is true for the passionate writer:

“You might run out of ideas.”

I’m more worried that I won’t have time to write all the books I want to write than I am about not knowing what to write next. In fact I’m pretty certain that no matter how many books I finish in a lifetime (I’m shooting for 30-40), I will always wish I had written more. At the very least, it makes sense that I would want to write books using some of my best ideas, and these are usually fundamentally different things than the “darling” moments in books that just make me smile.

What I’m writing now is a product of my life experiences and the writing I’ve done before. Because I’m changing as a writer, it can be hard to look back at something I’ve written ten years ago, five years ago, or even three years ago. The piece you’ve cut out is a time capsule of who you were as a writer when you wrote it. If you’re growing as an author, with time this fragment will seem less and less like your writing.

Share a drink or a last meal with these little bits of personal whimsy, then put them before the executioner’s ax. Revision can be ruthless, and it should be. If a moment doesn’t add to characterization, useful description, or moving the plot forward, then it probably needs to go. Being able to tell what is good and what is not is part of being a better writer, and that means throwing some things out completely.

But I do save every draft, every little thought, in notebooks and drawers for years (as do most authors). Tomorrow, I’ll talk a little about why, and how ideas can still be useful.

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How long does it take you to buy a book?

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This will come as a surprise to exactly no one but I have a big fractal book wish list. I’ve actually become kind of obsessive about it since I’ve been focusing more on a specialized area of fractals, while still considering options for broader fractal surveys.

Back when I was writing A Programmer’s Approach, my method for selecting books was simple. Search “fractal” in Amazon. Buy any book that looked vaguely helpful and that cost $0.01 (+ $3.99 shipping). Of course even then there were special books that I would pay a little extra for, but overall I was looking for a broad survey of authors and perspectives.

Considering that I have a full bookshelf now of fractal books, and that the bookshelf has started to bleed over onto my desk, I do not need more general books.

But, and again this might surprise you, specialized books are expensive. A lot of the better fractal books fall into one of two categories: college textbook or obscure lecture notes from a math conference. In college spending $120 on a textbook was a necessary evil. In later life, especially one that expects it to take a while to make $120 from a fractal book, that price is a little steep.

I’ve started to camp on books, throwing their Amazon listing into a wishlist called the “buying queue” and I’ve noticed something weird. Usually, even an expensive book, will have two sellers who have the lowest price. These two prices will leapfrog each other down by a few pennies several times a day. It can sometimes take weeks of waiting, but you can knock a couple of bucks off the book’s price if you wait long enough.

However, if you wait too long and somebody snatches one cheap copy up, the other cheap copy shoots up in price to match the second lowest price, and they fight it out again. I’ve observed this behavior on comic books, DVD’s, regular books, etc. I’m pretty sure it must be a setting in the Amazon Marketplace, coupled with an algorithm. Either that, or all marketplace sellers are exhibiting the same behavior.

With the buying queue, a good five minute segment of my day is looking at a book, gleaning as much information as I can from the preview or the reviews, and deciding if this is the day I will buy it, or if it’s the day I decide to take it off my list entirely, or bump it down to a secondary wish list I check less often. I’ve had books I’ve debated over for months, doing the online equivalent of picking it up, flipping through the pages, and putting it back down again.

With reference materials in particular I want as little overlap as possible, while still getting something that builds on other material I have. I prefer electronic books just because I will read them more often, but still acknowledge that there’s nothing like flipping through a real book. I have limited shelf space, but I’m always willing to clear away the chaff for something great. And, probably most difficult, all of these books aren’t popular, so there’s virtually no reviews or sales rank to give me a sense of whether it is actually good. Occasionally I can find an academic review if I do some digging, but that only sometimes helps.

Do you think it’s too late to start a Kickstarter campaign so I can buy more books. I’d do it for my Star Trek comics as well, but I have a hard enough time convincing others that reading comic books is “research.”

Ah well. Maybe I’ll go to an actual bookshop this weekend and stare at those books for a while. Happy Friday all.

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Waste of Time

I spent a good chunk of my weekend purging books, CD’s, computer games, console games, board games, and DVD’s from my life. The stated purpose of this latest purge was to raise some funds for a new fractal book I wanted to buy, and also the more general goal of weeding out the things in my life (and house) that are taking up space.

This is a task I meet with equal parts enthusiasm and grouchiness. I like clearing out new spaces in my office, getting clutter off desks, making it so less of my books have to be stacked on top of each other in my shelves, etc. I even get a certain good feeling from giving myself permission not to read something I thought I should back in the day.

But the task takes up a lot of time. I have media on all three floors of the house, and particularly in my office, shoved into just about every nook and cranny. To save space in my operational life, I keep the empty cardboard boxes for PC games (yes, we used to have those before there was such a thing as Steam) back in my storage area. At the moment the storage area cannot be walked into without moving a bunch of objects, and balancing awkwardly on one foot, but if I’m selling a game I want to get rid of its accompanying box.

And there are decisions to be made. I’ve gotten rid of things in the past that I’ve later regretted and re-bought. That is a waste of both time and money. Usually the two year rule works well for me. If I haven’t touched this in two years, it’s a potential for the chopping block, though there are lots of things that meet those conditions that still get a free pass.

Long story short I spent most of Friday, and a good portion of Saturday morning on this task, and earned $44 (about half of which was for the console games which took all of about five minutes to go through).

And then I determined that I didn’t want to buy the book that had kicked off this whole process in the first place.

OK, in the long run it wasn’t so bad. I got double fuel points for the Amazon gift card. After a couple of hours more weeding down my Fractal Book wish list, I did get a new book on L-systems that’s on its way, with budget left over for more. And I didn’t waste $36.80 on a book that wouldn’t have helped me much. Plus I gained a lot of space, though you’d hardly know it by looking.

I get frustrated at such expenditures of time because I would rather be spending my time creating new things. And it forces me to grapple with the fact that at varying times in my life I just let a lot of junk pile up, and now I’m trying to sift through it to determine if it has any meager value for the future. And these projects are always the sort of thing that start as a small project, and spin out into something that takes half the weekend.

I know that tasks like this are good in the long run. There’s a difference between busy work, procrastination, and actually organizing one’s life. And I got money from stuff that was sitting around gathering dust. Plus gathering research materials is a part of working on a book, even though it doesn’t feel like much. This is why authors should never figure out their hourly rate for creating a book. It would depress you to no end.

My wife says I should not let these things bother me, that the clearing away of junk is valuable in its own right, and of course she’s right. I spend a lot of time doing things that aren’t working on my book, and it isn’t all wasted time. In fact most of it are the parts of life that bring me the most joy. I wouldn’t have much to write about if all I did was work and sleep.

Now I just have to figure out how not to be such a grouch about it.

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Information Glut

One of the details that struck me in watching some of the early X-Files episodes was how Mulder and Scully looked at the case-files. In the first episode Scully is reading a newspaper clipping that has been taped to a piece of paper. I remember preparing reports and research in highschool and early college. I tended to use very “dead tree” methods, photocopying articles out of books, printing out stuff from online, and shoving all of this material into large black binders.

How much things have changed in the intervening years.

Now my process involves a combination of Google searches and bookmarking web-pages, and downloading scholarly articles, cataloging them in Calibre, and sending them to my Kindle to review. As I’m preparing material for another book, I’m amazed at all the stuff I downloaded during the production of Fractals: A Programmer’s Approach that got thrown on a flash drive and never looked at again.

In addition to making me wonder what the plural of thesis is, looking at all of these papers (many of which are frankly far above my head even with the pretty pictures) I’m struck by how I’ve only scratched the surface of this subject. Part of me thinks at some point I should study another area of significance, maybe global warming, or even other areas of math. But the truth is this one field is so rich, and touches so many parts of life, science, and engineering, that I’m probably going to spend the rest of my life working on and writing about fractals.

One of the nicknames for a PHD is “Piled Higher and Deeper” meaning you know an incredible amount about a very narrow range of things. I’m not going after a doctorate, at best I might be trying to be the next Martin Gardner, but I still find myself amazed at just how much access I have to knowledge that would have seemed unthinkable 10-15 years ago. I’ve downloaded course slides from university classes in the Netherlands, dissertations from Germany, and papers from dozens of conferences.

I’m still old fashioned in some ways. I may load all this stuff onto a Kindle, but I keep a notebook handy to take notes. And I still refer to my old printouts, if for nothing else but to find the books and articles the material came from. And I write books as signposts along the way as a way of encapsulating what I’ve learned, for fear that the knowledge is somehow fleeting. I look back at some programs I wrote in highschool, or even a few years ago for programmer’s approach and wonder, how the hell did I do that (Green ink is very important not only for other programmers but for yourself)?

How do you compile your research? Is everything on the computer, or are you still a very physically oriented sort of person?

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