Carolyn Ives Gilman at Capclave

David Keener and Carolyn Ives GilmanI had a chance to talk to Carolyn Ives Gilman at Capclave 2013. It’s amazing who you can get a chance to talk to when everyone else is in line to get an autograph from some guy named George R. R. Martin. Anyway, she’s written two of the most interesting novellas that I’ve read in recent years:

  • “The Ice Owl” (2011)
  • “Arkfall” (2008)

The first time I ever saw a story from her was when “The Ice Owl” was nominated for the 2012 Hugo award. As a Hugo voter, I had access to all of the nominated stories in PDF form. I thought at the time: I’ve got to find more stories by this author because I liked the story so much.

She’s one of those writers who tackles ambitious stories with a great deal of quiet but powerful emotional intensity. She’s been writing genre fiction since 1986, but she’s never been very prolific. Nevertheless, a number of her works have been nominated for the SF field’s highest awards, including both of the stories I previously mentioned.

The Ice Owl by Carolyn Ives Gilman“The Ice Owl” is an excellent coming-of-age story about a young girl realizing both the limitations and importance of her family as she inadvertantly stumbles across the lingering ripple effects of a long-ago genocide. It was powerful, evocative and captured the sweep and flow of history excellently. It was nominated for the 2012 Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novella, and is available as an ebook or in a very nice but economical print edition from Phoenix Pick.

I also came across an excellent interview online in which the author discusses the genesis of the story.

Arkfall by Carolyn Ives Gilman“Arkfall” tells the story of Osaji, a young adult who must try to earn a living while taking care of the aging grandmother that nobody else in her family wants. She lives on the planet of Ben, a Europa-like planet covered by massive ice sheets with a liquid water ocean underneath. The planet’s population lives within that internal ocean, far underneath the ice. Osaji’s people have adapted to the close, confined spaces of their undersea existence by developing a culture of deference and cooperation. Her culture and her need to care for her grandmother have limited her opportunities and left her completely frustrated with her life. When a crisis occurs, the ensuing events may change her life completely, as well as having a lasting impact on her entire world.

“Arkfall” was nominated for the 2009 Nebula award for Best Novella. The story is available as an ebook or an economical print edition from Phoenix Pick.

I can’t recommend these stories highly enough. What affects me the most about these stories is how real they make their respective worlds feel and, consequently, how involved you become in the the lives of the young protagonists. Both stories are part of Gilman’s very loosely connected “Twenty Planets” series of stories.

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Neil Clarke on Producing Ebooks

One of the workshops I attended at Capclave 2013 was “Producing Ebooks,” hosted by Neil Clarke. Neil is eminently worth listening to because he knows what he’s talking about. He’s the founder and editor-in-chief of Clarkesworld, a monthly online magazine that he started in 2006, which is also distributed via ebook subscriptions.

Each month, a new issue of Clarkesworld appears. Readers can peruse it online for free, or subscribe for a small fee (currently $1.99 per issue) and receive each issue automatically as an ebook. The fiction stories from each year of the magazine are collected and published in anthologies, which are available in both print and ebook form. Additionally, Neil provides contracting services to produce ebooks for other publishers. So, Neil knows a thing or two about the practical aspects of producing ebooks.

As one might expect for a workshop like this, the audience encompassed every skill level possible when it comes to publishing ebooks, from advanced web developers like me to newbies who didn’t even know HTML. Neil did his level best to ensure that everyone went home with knowledge that they could use.

For me, the biggest lesson was that ebooks are simply HTML. My career knowledge of HTML and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) applies directly to the production of ebooks.

Here are some of Neil’s technical tips about producing ebooks, focusing mostly on the HTML aspects:

  • Keep the CSS simple. A minimalist approach to designing an ebook leaves the most power in the hands of the user and provides the fewest opportunities for device differences to mar your ebook.

  • For an ellipse, i.e. – the standard “three dots in a row,” use periods with a non-breaking space between them (a non-breaking space is represented as “ ” in HTML). There is an ellipsis construct in HTML, but some devices don’t support it, so it’s best not to take chances.

  • The right indent is not currently supported by many ereaders, so it’s currently advisable not to use it.

  • When editing, regular expressions will be your friend. For those who aren’t familiar with them, regular expressions are patterns that are used in searches. For example, searching for “Ne*” would search this current article for all words that begin with “Ne”, allowing me to cycle through the hits and double-check that I’ve spelled Neil Clarke’s name correctly.

  • There are some interesting problems with readers and word wrapping. Here we have the HTML for a reference to Neil’s magazine in italics:

          Neil is the founder of <i>Clarkesworld</i>, an online magazine.

    Note how the comma appears outside the closing italics tag. With some ereaders, it’s possible for word wrapping to place the comma on the next line, which is generally considered a rookie mistake in epublishing. It’s best to include the comma within the italics to ensure that word wrapping doesn’t cause problems. This same issue occurs with bold tags and, sometimes, with quotes as well.

  • External links can bring special problems. Some sites like Amazon.com don’t like outgoing links in your ebook. They especially don’t like outgoing links to competitors like Barnes & Noble. Your ebook can be rendered unavailable by an eseller if they don’t like the links you’ve included. Avoid links to competitors. Minimize other links within your ebook. Be prepared to defend the validity of the links that you have included if the eseller balks at making your ebook available.

  • Internal links within an ebook are fine, especially for the Table of Contents.

  • The title attribute on h1 tags are used to produce the Table of Contents. By default, the header text will be used unless the title attribute is provided.

          <h1 title=”Stranger at the Gate”>I. Stranger at the Gate</h1>

  • Neil recommended 150 – 200 dpi (dots per inch) for ebook covers, unless the cover basically just featured stock art.

  • If possible, try not to start with text copied from Microsoft Word or saved as HTML using Microsoft Word. First, Microsoft Word documents contain some characters that are problematic in HTML. Second, when Microsoft Word is used to save documents in HTML, the resulting HTML tends to be: 1) really nasty and ugly, and 2) sometimes contains constructs that really only work reliably in Microsoft’s own Internet Explorer. If you must convert from Microsoft Word to HTML, there are many web sites that do this. One reasonably good one mentioned by Neil was word2cleanHTML.com.

  • The Adobe ePub reader is absolutely awful according to Neil. Interestingly, this makes it a good test platform, because if your ebook looks good using this ereader, it’ll probably look correct on most other ereaders.

  • Don’t underline links. When links aren’t active, it misleads people into thinking that they’re still active when they’re not.

  • If you’ve had Microsoft Word anywhere in your workflow, remember to search your document for constructs like an <em> tag followed by a space and then a </em> closing tag. This is a common remnant from Microsoft Word.

  • Neil on the “indent the first sentence” vs. “no indent” debate regarding organizing text in ebooks: “Personal preference.”

In his two-hour workshop, Neil touched on a number of other subjects related to producing ebooks. He noted that the ePub format was something of a standard for ebooks. If you could produce your ebook in the ePub format, then there were numerous tools that could convert it into other formats as needed.

While Neil used some commercial products such as InDesign for his own work, he understood that many people didn’t have an extensive budget for purchasing tools. He listed Sigil as a solid, open source tool for producing and manipulating ebooks, particularly in the ePub format. Scrivener was also mentioned as a relatively low-cost commercial tool that a lot of writers were using ($45 based on my research, but with a 30-day “try before you buy” option). Neil said that he’d also heard good things about draft2digital.com but hadn’t tried them out (they convert documents and publish them to esellers for roughly 10% of the money earned by the ebook).

Calibre was another open source tool that was mentioned for converting between formats. It’s also good for examining the metadata associated with ebooks. Neil noted that it was an excellent choice for converting an ePub file into a Mobi file (the format used for Kindle ebooks). Another free tool was validator.idpf.org, an online ePub validation tool provided by the International Digital Publishing Forum.

InDesign is considered to be the gold standard for producing ebooks. It’s not cheap, and it has a steep learning curve.

Interestingly, Neil was not a fan of SmashWords, an eseller that has carved out a niche with short stories, and has added services to distribute those stories to other esellers.

One thing that struck me as amusing was Neil Clarke stressing that PDF files (Adobe’s ubiquitous Portable Document Format) were not ebooks. They were representations of what a document would look like if printed. While I can see his point, I’m not entirely sure that I agree with him. I’m a practical guy…if my ereader can present it to me, then it’s an ebook. Or, to put it another way, if it quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck.

Overall, it was an excellent workshop, filled with useful information. Neil did a good job of trying to make sure that 1) everyone left the session with a solid idea of what it took to produce professional quality ebooks, and 2) everyone had been exposed to tools that could help them in their endeavors. He also promised to provide the attendees with sample HTML and CSS code that he uses in ebooks (which he recently published in his own blog entry, Capclave Ebook Workshop).

I’ll leave you with one last quote from Neil Clarke:

“Minimize the automated processes. Give your ebook the time that it needs to look right.”
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Creating Realistic Worlds, Part 1

World Building - By David KeenerHow do you design realistic worlds?

This is a problem unique to science fiction and fantasy writers (and sometimes even game designers). The challenge is to create a world that seems realistic, without rousing the ire of fans who rightly point out things like unrealistic locations for mountain ranges, implausible deserts, unlikely climates, overly regular coastlines, etc. Additionally, the world shouldn’t seem so artificial that it was clearly designed solely to support the needs of a story.

Designing a realistic world can be a daunting task, so the first principle we need to apply is “divide and conquer.” Let’s separate the design process into components, and deal with each section of the problem separately. Here are the major components that I’ve identified:

  1. Mapping Strategy: There are lots of ways to produce a map of a world. Since worlds are typically spherical (yes, yes, I know about Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and a few other counter-examples, but I did say realistic worlds), all two-dimensional maps involve some degree of distortion. Our goal is to choose a mapping strategy that will support our efforts to design a realistic world.

  2. Geographical Features: Our world needs features like continents, oceans, mountains, volcanoes, etc. Our goal is to develop a step-by-step process for generating these features on our world map in a natural and realistic fashion.

  3. Climate: We want to develop a realistic world so we can avoid the dreaded “It was a rainy day on planet Mongo” syndrome. If our world has realistic geography, then we should be able to specify climate features like ocean currents, deserts, jungles, and rivers with some degree of plausibility.

  4. Flora and Fauna: Given the opportunity, life will develop. How do we create plausible lifeforms in realistic ecologies?

  5. Solar System: Planets don’t exist by themselves (unless they’ve been ejected from a stellar system, in which case they’re really cold and boring). What does the rest of your world’s solar system look like?

I’ve always enjoyed the technical aspects of world building, and I’ve engaged in world building for years — most often for elaborate worlds for roleplaying games. I’m also just a little tired of all the stereotypical “Class M” worlds, all narrowly constrained copies of some particular Earth climate, that I see in a lot of science fiction. Accordingly, I decided to produce a series of “World Building” installments covering the diverse areas that must be addressed to design realistic worlds.

I’m a “kill many birds with one stone” kind of a guy, so I’ve got some wide-ranging goals that I hope to accomplish with this series. First and foremost, I hope to inspire other writers to develop more fully realized worlds, with obvious benefits to their writing and to the experiences of their readers. Second, I’ll be using these techniques and strategies myself to design some of the worlds that I need for my upcoming projects. Third, I hope to gather this content eventually into an ebook and sell it online (although I plan to keep all of the installments online for free as well).

I hope you enjoy these “World Building” articles. More importantly, I hope you find them useful and relevant to your writing process. Let me know what you think of them. Your feedback is welcomed.

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Japanese Raptor Prank

This is seriously worth watching.

Compliments of Curtis Bryant, a co-worker of mine, who brought this Japanese raptor attack video to my attention. It wasn’t until the second time that I watched it that I spotted the legs of the guy in the hyper-realistic raptor suit.

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Meeting Ryan Avery

Ryan Avery and David Keener in Washington DC

I recently had a chance to meet Ryan Avery, the Toastmasters 2012 World Champion of Public Speaking on Monday, September 30th, at the AARP building in downtown Washington DC. Toastmasters District 27 and 36 teamed up to host his two-hour workshop, “How to Make It a Great Speech.” The event drew such a big crowd during the online event registration period that they had to add a second edition of the workshop to handle the overflow.

Ryan Avery and his wife Chelsea were both friendly and gracious. Moreover, the workshop itself was also excellent. The worksop was part of Ryan’s whirlwind public speaking tour to promote his new company, How To Be A Speaker. Since his championship win, he’s specialized in keynotes, inspirational training sessions, and workshops on speaking-related topics.

Ryan’s workshop, “How to Make It a Great Speech,” was introduced by the leadership from Districts 27 and 36. When Ryan subsequently came on stage, he started out by introducing himself, outlining what he was going to cover in the workshop, and generally engaging with the audience. Then he showed us two videos of 5 – 7 minute talks that he had done. One was, of course, his championship-winning talk for Toastmasters, entitled “Trust Is a Must,” which everyone was extremely interested in seeing. The other was an inspirational speech for a college.

Here are some public speaking tips that he gave that directly related to the videos we’d just watched:

  • Title: He emphasized that he believes titles are vital to the success of a speech. They help set the expectation of what a speech is going to be about. A memorable title may also linger in the minds of audience members, helping the audience to retain key points that were made in the speech. He used his title, “Trust Is a Must,” as an example of a memorable title.

  • A Strong Structure: Ryan pointed out afterwards that both speeches had the same structure, which he proceeded to describe to the audience. His basic outline was a brief introduction that established the theme of the talk, three short stories that matched the theme, and a conclusion that tied the stories together and echoed the message from the introduction. He added that it was essential for the conclusion to end in the same place as the introduction, which he summed up succinctly as: “Where you pick ’em up, you need to drop ’em off.”

    Bear in mind that this outline is perfect for a short, impactful speech, such as those required for speech contests. It may not be appropriate for all types of speeches, or may need to be adapted for other types of public speaking engagements.

  • Constant Object: Whenever possible. Ryan liked to have a “constant object” to help link the stories together. For his speech, “Trust Is a Must,” it was his mother’s slippers that featured in some way in each story.

  • Heroes: According to Ryan, “you can’t be the hero of your own story.” If you’re the hero, then it sounds like you’re bragging, which diminishes the experience for the audience. You can be in the story; you just shouldn’t be the hero.

  • The Five Senses: For more impact, try to engage the audience by appealing to the five senses. Highlight colors, emphasize a smell, or describe sounds. Paint a picture for the audience.

  • Drop the Prop: Ryan was not a fan of props. His view was that props interrupt your speech and, more importantly, disengage the audience’s imagination. He stated that in many cases, he considers PowerPoint slides to be an unnecessary prop, although he conceded that they can be appropriate for informational talks (his own workshop included a sparse set of slides, as an example).

  • Active Voice: Be active. Be assertive. Don’t let passive voice creep into your speech. When you say “was,” you’ve entered the Passive Voice Zone. Get away from there.

I thought those speaking tips were excellent. There was quite a bit more to the workshop, so it’s hard to sum it all up. There were some excellent messages sprinkled throughout the workshop, though, and I’ve captured some of them below:

  • Don’t look at the excuses, look at the opportunities.

  • Who is that one person you’d hike across the Grand Canyon for?

  • You should never “give a speech.” Speak from the heart and send a message.
              — Randy Harvey

  • You must impact yourself before you can impact an audience. To accomplish great things in your life, you should:

    • Put it out there. Go for your dream.
    • Delete negative people from your life.
    • Visualize your reality. Change the story in your own head to be what you want it to be.
    • Set up visualization stations, aids that help you imagine where you want to be, or what you want to become.

  • Never tell a joke. Share a failure instead.

  • Make you speeches Simple, Impactful and Relatable.

  • Remember the acronym, SMILE:

              SSimple stories.
              MMistakes; talk about mistakes, and lessons learned.
              IImitate, e.g. – imitate characters for effect.
              LLaugh; look like you’re enjoying yourself, and so will the audience.
              EEnthusiasm; add some energy to your speech.

  • Dress to relate to your audience.

  • PRACTICE. How you practice is how you will play. Get serious about practicing.

I had a great time attending Ryan Avery’s workshop, and I felt like I learned a lot from it. If you’re interested in public speaking, and the opportunity arises, attend one of his workshops. It will be worth it. Additionally, he’s got a book on public speaking coming out in early 2014, so keep a watch for it.

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