Friday, December 31, 2010

Motivation and Resolutions

Today, blogging buddy Charmaine Clancy provided a wonderful reason to NOT make New Years resolutions in the form of this TED talk:

The tl;dr version (er, or should that be that too-long-didn't-listen version?) is:
Psychologists have found that if you tell someone about a goal, you're LESS likely to do the work necessary to achieve it because you've already derived some satisfaction just from the act of sharing your dream.
The speaker, Derek Sivers, does note you can share your goals as long as you do so in a way that doesn't allow you any satisfaction from the other person's attention.

For example, saying, "I need to lose weight, so I'm going to have to go to the gym three times a week this year. Kick my butt if I don't, okay?" is acceptable because you're going to hear your friend say, "You bet," and not "Oh, wow; good for you!"--which would give you a pleased feeling that tricks your brain into believing you've already made progress.

This means McKoala's Public Humiliation Writing Challenges are a great way to motivate yourself. No waxing eloquent over your big dreams is allowed there--you must produce results or you risk a Koala smack-down!

Also of relevance to this issue something I read recently on Discover Magazine's website (although I can't find the link to the specific article anymore, sorry;) which reported the findings of psychiatrists who discovered that:
You can increase your likelihood to follow through with a resolution if you ponder whether you will do it, rather than telling yourself you will do it.

It turns out we all have a tendency to resist orders, even if it's ourself who is giving the order. You'll make better progress toward your goal if you ask yourself "Will I do this?" rather than telling yourself "I will do this."
So apparently, resolutions really don't work (something I'm sure we've all suspected.) You can motivate yourself better by pondering whether you want to chase your goals, and then, if you decide to, by getting to work rather than telling anyone about it!

Of course, this probably means your blog's rate of new posts will suffer terribly.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Science is Beautiful!

Whoa-oh! Behold the first-ever x-ray photograph of a lightning strike:

You can click through on the image to read Geekosystem's short article about the image. Apparently the camera was the size of a refrigerator and had to be shielded in lead!

Image via Geekosystem

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Day After Christmas

(with apologies to Clement Clark Moore and Henry Livingston)

'Twas the day after Christmas
And all through the store
There were backstabbing buggy-thieves
And price-cuts galore

Nan's stockings were sagging
And Gramp's temper was hot
As they trawled for a parking stall
In the boxing day lot

The grandkids were nestled
Six-deep in the back
Envisioning gizmos
Snagged cheap off the racks

And Ma in her sweatpants
And I in my britches
Had just settled down
To shiv some rude bitches

When out of Security
The guards sprang like a shot--
We aborted our fisticuffs
Afraid we were caught

The lights on the breast of the hard-worn lino
Gave the lustre of death to us sale-hungry souls
When what to our greed-brightened eyes should appear
But a mask-wearing fat man and eight deadly reindeer

They elbowed and headbutted
Jabbed antler and boot
They nabbed all the deals
And they bagged up the loot

More rapid than eagles
His coursers they came
And he swore and he shouted
And he called them by name

"On Dancer! Get dollies!
You, Prancer! The TVs!
Comet, to hardware,
And Donder, get movies!

To the backs of the stockrooms
To the ends of the mall
We've laid off the elves
So we must take it all!"

With Security chasing
His bad-antlered boys
He knocked out a clerk
With a big bag of toys

And squeezed through the gates
To the scream of alarms
While the shoppers all flung themselves
Sideways out of harm

But I heard him exclaim
As he bowled over a bruiser
"It comes back in your stockings
Next year, you big losers!"

The travesty that is these words was perpetrated, for your entertainment, by J. J. DeBenedictis

Peace on Earth (yeah, I'm looking at you, fat man)
and happy holidays to all!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holly-days!

Big bro has wafted in from Iceland and adjusted enough to keep awake past 7 PM in the evening.

Li'l sis and her husband have already opened their presents.

Mom bounds up and fetches us food at the least provocation, despite our attempts to coax her into just sitting still and chatting.

Dad is very stoic and gracious about how little access he has to his own computer while we're all here.

The inlaws and the outlaws and the over-99- and under-5-year-olds are all due to descend in the morning for the festive paper armageddon.

And I'm really happy to be here.

I hope all of you are happy too, wherever you are and regardless of whether you celebrate the same things I do. Best wishes to you all, and peace on Earth.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tissue Paper to Fill the Corners With

I didn't post this week and I'm feeling guilty about it, but (as is common this time of year) I'm distressingly busy.

So I'm going to do something that is somehow easier and just write silly poetry for you.


Lament of the Physics Student
Sung to the tune of Jingle Bells

Fudging data, fudging data
My write-up's due in an hour
My error bars are bigger than Mars
And the voltmeter's got no power

Oh! Fudging data, fudging data
I wish I could hand it in late
I hate to cheat but I need a 'C'
Or I won't graduate

Dashing through the halls
Looking for my prof
Ask him for some help
He just starts to scoff (Ho, ho, ho!)

Data tables I will fill
Caffeine I will swill
Goodbye I'll say to my GPA
If the T.A. isn't thrilled

Oh! Fudging data, fudging data...
(Chorus repeats)


Lament of the Physics T. A.
Sung to the tune of Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Students whine
I'm not listening
In their eyes
Tears are glistening

Things didn't go right
They need some more time
But I'm locking up the lab for the night

Label your graphs
And show your units
If you went to class (once in a while)
You would know this

I'd be filled with delight
If they'd get out of my sight
But I'm locking up the lab for the night

On your benchtop you can build your project
And pretend that you have read the lab
I'll say, "Are you done yet?" You'll say, "Almost,"
Then take three hours to put it in my hands

They screwed it up
When they did it
They're begging me
For five more minutes

But it's late and its dark
And I still have to mark
I'm locking up the lab for the night


Untitled, and somewhat un-silly

Sing a lament of unwrapped presents
Of unmailed packages and unsigned cards

I'll sing a song of happy children
Of paper fallout and cookie shards

Wring your hands over stretching credit
Stretching waistlines and stretching nights

I'll rub my hands for delicious feasting
Loved ones near me and sparkling lights

The stress is real, it's not all play
I feel your worry, I know your strain

But for all this havoc under skies this grey
You'll know it's worth it come Christmas day


(I didn't write the words to this one, but I love it, mostly because whoever made it up knew their physics.)

We Three Quarks
Sung to the tune of We Three Kings

We three quarks
Fine particles are
Strange and Charmed
We traverse afar

Fields and forces
Spin, of course
All divided by
ħ ("h-bar")

Oh, quarks are wondrous
Quarks are light
Quarks have colours
Clear and bright

Ever intriguing
Ever misleading
All the physicists in sight

We three quarks
Trade gluons all day
Are made in this way

Confined inside
We always hide
Unseen forever, stay

Oh, quarks are wondrous
Quarks are light
Quarks stay smugly
Out of sight

Ever intriguing
Ever misleading
All the physicists in sight


Have any of you written, or do you know of, some silly holiday song parodies? Post them in the comments! Let's get festive, folks.

Fame and glory--or perhaps only a good-natured sing-along--await you here.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Friday, December 10, 2010

This may sound weird, but did anyone send me candy? From, like, Spain?

I got an odd package in the mail.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010


Brought to you just because it's beautiful!

Image via EpicWinFTW

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Sunday, December 05, 2010

What Works: The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan

This edition of What Works focuses on one of the most rip-snorting, unrestrained and wonderful fantasy novels I've read, The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan.

This book doesn't hold anything back, and for that reason I'd only recommend it to people who know they can handle foul language, graphic violence and graphic sex. That said, hoo boy do I recommend it! The novel is brilliant and shocking, with wonderful characters, great writing, and a hugely imaginative, quasi-science fiction take on the idea of elves.

Ahem. Enough fan-girling. Here's an excerpt, and please note there is some very rude language here.
The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan

And from within the closed iron cylinder, more precisely from the mouth of one downthrown open hatch in a row of five that were set into the underside of the hull, came the furious, repeated clang of metal pounding on metal. The sound, it seemed, of something trying to escape.

Glances went back and forth, hands dropped to the hilts of well-worn weapons. The Emperor's messengers drew closer at a pace that declined with every step they took into the shadow of the fireship's propped bulk. Finally, they piled to a halt just inside the circumference of the dry-dock framework that supported the vessel, and a good dozen paces back from the hatch, all of them careful not to step on any of the drooping feelers that trailed from the hull and lay flopped in the shipyard dust like so many discarded carriage whips. No telling when something like that, no matter the intervening years of disuse, might twist and snap to sudden murderous life, coil about an unwary limb and jerk its owner off his feet and screaming into the air, to be lashed back and forth or slammed to a pulp against the grimy iron flank of the ship.

"Syphilitic son of an uncleased, camel fucking CUNT!"

A massive metallic crash fringed the final word, but could not drown it out. The messengers flinched. In places, blades came a few inches clear of their sheaths. Hard on the echoes of the impact, before anyone could move, the voice started up again, no cleaner of expression, no less rabidly furious, no less punctuated by the clangour of whatever arcane conflict was raging in the confines of the hull. The messengers stood frozen, faces sweat-beaded from the fierce heat of a near-noon sun, while recollected witch rumours crept coldly up and down their bones.

"Is it an exorcism?"

"It's krinzanz," reckoned a more pragmatic member of the party. "She's off her fucking head."

Another of the messengers cleared his throat.

"Ah, Mistress Archeth..."

"...motherfucking close-mouth me, will you, you fucking..."

"Mistress Archeth!" The Reachman went up to a full-scale shout. "The Emperor wills your presence!"

The cursing stopped abruptly. The metallic cacophony died. For a long moment, the open hatch yawned and oozed a silence no less unnerving than the noise that had gone before. Then, Archeth's voice emerged, a little hoarse.

"Who's that?"

"From the palace. The Emperor summons you."

Indistinct muttering. A clank, as the engineer's hammer was apparently dropped, and then an impatient scrambling sound. Moments later, Archeth's ebony head emerged upside down from the hatch, thickly braided hair in stiff disarray around her features. She grinned down at the messengers, a little too widely.

"All right," she said. "I've done enough reading for one day."
There are a bunch of things that work really well in this excerpt, so I'll outline the ones that stick out to me.

001) The group of messengers are treated as a composite entity, not individuals. Their emotions and actions are described homogeneously.

This is useful because one of the things novels don't do well is deal with complex scenes featuring lots of characters. When there are too many elements in a scene, the reader can't keep the positions, names and conversations straight in their head.

If you must portray a scene with many people in it, either you need to focus in on one small piece of the scene at a time, or work very hard to keep the reader clear on what is going on, or you need to do what Mr. Morgan does and simplify things.

Describing a group of people as if they're a single entity accomplishes this. None of the messengers are given names and they're either described as a homogeneous group or treated as interchangeable. Anything else would be confusing to the reader.

010) Almost every action and emotion is shown, not told.

The messengers bunch together and slow their pace; they touch their weapons; they sweat. Fantasies about murderous ship-tentacles and witch powers pass through their (collective) mind.

But the author doesn't say these men are frightened. That's implied.

Likewise, Archeth's rage, and then her silence and subsequent movement to the fireship's hatch, are only described. The author keeps us firmly inside the head of the group entity that is the messengers. The scene's action is something the reader has to work out from pure description.

The reader can also work out that Archeth is black (in a book that has thus far only featured white characters) without the author needing to say so explicitly. Archeth will prove to be a starkly unique person in The Steel Remains--literally half-alien--and this is a natural way to introduce one of her most obvious differences.

011) The character of Archeth is set up in a memorable way, and in a way that will likely make at least some readers empathize with and like her.

She's an engineer, but when we meet her, she's beating a machine with a hammer and swearing viciously at it. This is a moment most of us can empathize with.

When she then gets surprised by the Emperor's representatives, she is probably embarrassed, but she recovers quickly, offers zero apologies and even makes a joke of it. In other words, she's a confident and bold person, although possibly a little gonzo. This makes her quite likable.

In Summary: What works best about this excerpt is the author makes some very smart choices and shows a firm grasp of his craft. He simplifies the thing that would be most confusing (the individual identities of the group of messengers), skillfully shows (rather than tells) the reader what the characters are doing and feeling, and establishes his major character in an engaging and memorable manner.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Slippery Green Energy

Some things just don't need much introduction. Here's a Christmas tree powered by an electric eel:

Link via Discover Magazine

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ooh, pretty!

I'm a geek; I find this beautiful.

Behold the sun glinting off a liquid lake on the only bit of land in our solar system--other than Earth--to have such things. This is Saturn's moon Titan:

Image via NASA and Gawker

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Post For a Day When Your Backpack is Heavy

Okay, this isn't merely an "Oh my stars, how cool!" post, but the discussion starts below the video because the clip is relevant to what I want to say.

So. That looked incredibly thrilling, right?

So. How did those (gender-neutral) guys get to the top of the mountain?

I saw fences up there. It may be they lucked out and there's a gondola or a road that takes them to the top.

Usually however, with these kinds of sports, each of those amazing flights down the mountain involves a lengthy slog up with a backpack full of equipment. And maybe the skiers had to wake before dawn to do this. Maybe they had to camp in the snow to be ready for their moment.

So the connection with writing becomes apparent--it takes a writer one or more years to write a book, but it only takes a reader a few hours to sail through that thrilling ride and alight upon "The End" wanting more.

And this is true of all kinds of endeavours; it takes days to paint a portrait but only an instant to look at one. It takes months to develop a mathematical proof and only a few minutes for your colleagues to read through it.

Which brings me to the idea of motivation. It can be dispiriting to anyone to know their work can be consumed (and forgotten) so quickly by its intended audience.

So why are we writers doing this?

Here's a potential reason: I read an article recently (and am having trouble finding it now, unfortunately) that studied what motivated a group of children to draw with crayons. It found the children were most motivated when they decided for themselves that they were going to draw, and they were least motivated when offered a reward as incentive to prompt them to draw.

This isn't a surprise to me, because I've noticed this tendency in myself regarding a wide range of pursuits. If I decide it would be cool to paint a picture/write a book/create a computer program, then I can work very hard for quite prolonged periods on that project.

I don't find it a huge incentive to consider that I might ever make money doing whatever it is--and an offer of payment beforehand sometimes even sours my enthusiasm. The "ooh, wouldn't that be cool?" factor far outweighs "hmm, could I sell this?" as a reason for me to start working.

The tricky bit is when I don't feel the "ooh, wouldn't that be cool?" incentive. Then I have to substitute in a solid "this would be worthwhile" belief and make myself plug away at the project. It isn't that I've lost the love of the activity; it's just that at a certain point, inspiration gives way and I have to adopt a work ethic.

I've read about many writers who say they don't exactly like writing; they like having written. They're immensely proud of what they create, but they don't find the process itself all that fun.

And again, that's not really a surprise. All they're saying is that the mind-searing, glorious flight down the mountain is often the sole reason for slogging up it in the first place.


Do you like writing, or do you like having written?

What motivates you to write? What spurs you to start, and what spurs you to finish? Are they different things?

And, tangentially, would you climb a mountain if you could fly down it?

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Power of the Sun | Hummingbird in the Snow

The power of the sun: Awesome!

PS - This is why you use telescopes in the daylight only with extreme caution. Even a just-swinging-the-tube-around glimpse of the sun will destroy your retina instantly, and you can also set things on fire pretty darned fast by leaving the telescope pointed in the wrong direction.

Link via Epic Win For the Win

In other news, we have a hummingbird hanging out on our balcony! The proximity of our feeder coupled with shelter from the snowstorm is apparently a winning combination as far as this fellow is concerned:

This shot shows how iridescent-red his face is. You have to catch him at the right angle or he just looks black.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Sunday, November 21, 2010


The end of this makes it all worthwhile.

Link via Discover Magazine

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Literary Agents: Finding a Good Fit

Livia Blackburne pointed out, via Twitter, this great article about how five writers got, kept and fired agents. It covers a great range of experience, from "We tried hard but couldn't get the sale and lost the love because of it" to "This agent cared more about keeping the publisher happy."

Livia's link was a nice bit of serendipity because I'd been thinking about a related topic for today's blog post: What questions to ask an agent when you get "the call".

I've got some not-often-suggested questions to ask an agent who offers you representation, but I'll get to those later in this post. First, I consider it a public duty for anyone who talks about this topic to discuss how writers can protect themselves against scam and incompetent agents. Hence:


There exist con artists who use a writer's dreams against them in order to scam money from the writer. These include vanity publishers and predatory editing services, as well as scam literary agents.

However, there also exist literary agents who have no real experience or expertise, i.e. who are incompetent at their job, who can do as much harm to a writer's career as a scammer does.

Always remember Yog's Law: Money flows toward the writer.

In other words, people are supposed to pay you to publish your writing; never the reverse.

How this relates to agents is that an agent should never charge you up-front fees. They should work on commission only, with fees (for things like photocopying and the mailing costs associated with sending your book out on submission) deducted only after--and if--they make the sale.

Anything else is a conflict of interest. The agent is parasite if they're making money when you are not. However, if they only make money when you do too, then they are in a symbiotic relationship with you, and that's what you want.

Thus, to protect yourself against scam- or incompetent-agents, you ask the questions:
  • "What have you sold?" or
  • "Since you're a new agent, where have you worked (in the industry) before this?"
The answers to these questions help you determine whether the agent is a legitimate one and how much relevant experience they have. Note! You may need to check out their answers; scammers do lie about these things.

I have to say, however, that here in the internet age, I really think you should have a good idea about whether the agent is legitimate before you talk to them--even before you query them.

AgentQuery screens its listings, and for the most part those agents are legitimate, but don't assume so. Cross-check the agents you want to query at Preditors and Editors, which keeps track of publishing industry scammers of all stripes.

You can also go to the Absolute Write Water Cooler, a writer's forum, and search for the agent's name. You'll often find a thread where someone has asked the questions you want answered, i.e. "Is this agent legitimate? Is this agent okay to work with?"

The important thing is to be aware and educated about the dangers that exist. Reading Writer Beware, created by the SFWA, is a good way to teach yourself what things to watch out for.


All good? Okay. Now I'll talk about a few questions I think are useful to ask when you're certain the agent on the other end of the line is a professional and your only real question is whether they're the right agent for you.

How involved in the writing process will the agent be?

Some agents really like to workshop with their clients during the writing process, and some only want to hear from you when the book is done and polished to (your standard) of perfection.

So what would you, the writer, prefer? Lots of people would sacrifice their teeth to have a publishing expert act as their critique partner, but personally, I get neurotic if I'm soliciting opinions about my writing while I'm still working on it. It's different for everyone.

So what do you want? Once you've decided that, it becomes a useful question to ask the agent where they fall on the spectrum. Do they want to workshop and help you create a fantastic book, or do they want the delight of receiving your polished, final product like an unexpected present in the mail? Their answer will help you determine whether you and that agent are going to be a good fit.

And what if it sounds like you won't be a good fit, at least with regard to this one point?

Thankfully, people are flexible; this doesn't have to be a deal-breaker. Just admit to the agent that you prefer to work a different way, and mention in what ways you'd be willing to be flexible. Then, ask if they'd be willing to be flexible on this point too.

Agents are used to negotiation; most of them will be completely reasonable provided you're not too timid to bring up the matter in the first place. And if they're not, that's a red flag. You might want to re-consider working with them.

How aware of the selling process will the writer be?

One of the most common complaints you hear from writers who have fired their agent is that there was a lack of communication. The agent wouldn't answer emails or phone calls, or did so in a perfunctory, unhelpful manner.

The thing is, a lack of communication might have birthed that problem. Did the writer ever tell the agent what level of interaction they expected?

Stop and consider how often you want to hear from your agent when your book is on submission. Of course if something big happens you want to know immediately, but what about when nothing much is happening? When it's just out there with editors, awaiting their responses?

When I had an agent, I asked her to email me a status report about once a month, and that worked out beautifully. Of course she occasionally got busy and I had to prompt her, but she was always speedy about getting back to me when I did so. I think outlining right from the beginning what I wanted (and my request being a reasonable one) helped keep our relationship smooth and angst-free.

If you suggest the agent touch base with you once every [X] weeks with a brief status report, and then ask the agent whether they consider that request reasonable, the two of you can thereby negotiate a communication schedule both of you consider fair.

This functions as insurance, too. Often, the writer who has complaints about their agent's level of communication spends many months fretting about whether they have a legitimate peeve or not. If you tell your agent from the outset what you expect, then those months of uncertainty can be avoided; if a lack of communication occurs, you have grounds to open a discussion with your agent immediately.


What other questions do you think would useful to ask an agent if you're trying to determine whether the two of you will be a good fit?

Alternately, if there are agented or previously-agented writers who read this blog, what headaches have you encountered with your agent? (Anonymous commenting is on.) Maybe we can brainstorm ways to help prevent those issues from occurring in the first place.

Do you have any other comments on this issue? I'd love to hear them!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Snerk, snerk, snerk...

Link via Epic Win For the Win

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Space Porn

Discover magazine has posted a magnificent gallery of satellite images here. Click the image of the Nile river below to get to it:

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Friday, November 19, 2010


You know how there are some things from back in the misty mists of your childhood that just plain make you bound-around-like-a-puppy happy, even now?

This song is one of mine.

How about you? Got a [song/something else] that does this for you? Let us know in the comments! (Yessir, getcher red hot nostalgia right here, folks.)

UPDATE: FairyHedgehog has officially turned this into a meme! Post a video for your nostalgia song on your own blog so we can chair-dance along with you!

If you let me know in the comments here that you've posted, I'll add a link to your blog below.

The Chair-Dance Enablers:
Kate In the Closet
Janet Reid

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Gentle Reminder for Tumultuous Digital Times

Freedom of speech means:
  • you get to say whatever you want.
  • everyone else does too.

Freedom of speech does NOT mean:
  • that anyone is obligated to provide you a forum in which to speak.
  • that no one's allowed to call you an jackhole for what you just said.

Thank you for your attention to this rant that doesn't apply to you, because you are a lovely and sensible person. Unlike some folks on the internet. Snarl. Ahem. Forget I said that.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, November 15, 2010

Free Stuff, Redux

Josh is doing it again!

Prizes, prizes, prizes--freeeeeee books!

All you need to do to enter Josh's contest is get on Twitter and:
"Simply send me (@JRVogt) a tweet with any message and the hashtag #genrebookgiveaway and you'll be entered."
The contest ends at midnight, Mountain Standard Time, this Friday. Good luck!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Nine and a Half Thoughts

I've been serious about writing for a few years now, and I've come to a few conclusions. Here's a list of some of the things I've learned on this journey:
1) Complacently allowing yourself to not write may be more dangerous to your dreams than all the publishing industry's pitfalls.

2) Keep your hero worship on a leash. No one has all the answers. An expert, at best, only has the correct answers for themselves. You follow their teachings not to find out what works, but to to discover whether it will work for you. There's no guarantee it will.

3) Despite that, you always benefit from trying to learn something new; no exceptions.

4) The things you think are truisms about your writing style usually aren't. Often, you haven't tested yourself to see whether that 'truism' is true--you're just mentally defending your status quo.

5) All kinds of things work. The writing 'rules' exist to train us out of bad habits. Once you've learned to write according to the rules, you'll have the wisdom to know when it's alright to break them.

6) You always feel least talented and least happy right after taking a step forward in your craft. You only see what's wrong when you're capable of seeing what's wrong. Therefore, never give up: the pain only means you've graduated to the next level of understanding.

7) No amount of hype will turn a mediocre book into a bestseller. Don't go crazy over the wrong things; focus on your writing.

8) Your mental space is your work space. When your mental space is cluttered with anger and angst, you often can't function as a writer. Keep your desk clear. Walk away from those juicy internet fights.

9) You're only competing with yourself. Everyone else is running in a completely separate race.

9b) So don't trip anyone. Just cheer.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

I watched this great TED talk recently about how displaying data graphically can really help the audience understand it quickly. I totally recommend you watch the video!

The talk demonstrates how statistics get trotted out because they're shocking, but those same values often imply a different--and more accurate and valuable--picture when you provide their context. As an example, everyone knows China has the largest army in the world, but if you divide the size of the army by the country's population, then China drops to 108th position! Burma has the largest army compared to its population.

So here's another statistic: E-book sales will likely reach $1 billion dollars for 2010. That's a pretty impressive number isn't it? And it's certainly the number being trumpeted in headlines--as is the statistic that e-book sales are up 127%.

But the number that puts these values in proper perspective isn't being trumpeted as loudly, because ONE BEEEEEELLION DOLLARS just sounds so impressive all by itself.

The publishing industry makes about $35 billion dollars a year.

E-books sales are growing enormously, but out of every 100 people who buy a book, only about 3 of them are buying an e-book.

This is an important, growing market, but at the moment, it isn't a large market. Amid all the hyperbole, we need to keep that in mind.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, November 08, 2010

Opportunity to get a Query Critique!

Blog buddy Lynnette Labelle is looking for queries to critique on her blog! If you'd like an extra set of eyes to help you pinpoint how to make your query letter stronger, then read this post and get in touche with Lynnette!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Woot! Free stuff!

Blogging buddy Josh Vogt is holding a book giveaway--the first of several, in fact!

Entering is easy: Just leave Josh a comment on this post. The deadline is one minute before midnight (Mountain Standard Time, I assume), this Thursday (Nov. 11.)

Good luck! Josh's prizes look awesome.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Private Service Announcement

For interested family members, my parental units are now back in the country with lots of kangaroo products stuffed in their baggage.

For everyone else, here's a loldog:

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, November 01, 2010

Oh, No--I Mean, Go, Go, NaNoWriMo!

I've got my pompoms out and my short skirt on for everyone doing NaNoWriMo this year. I am already shouting, "Go, mighty fingers, go!" and "You can do eeeet!" at all you brave souls, for this is a gutsy and inspiring thing you do!

But note where I'm standing? Over here on the sidelines? Yeah, this is where I plan to stay. And quite happily so too, thank you.

As I've told a few of you, I did the Three Day Novel contest once, and as far as I'm concerned, that gives me a lifetime exemption from doing NaNoWriMo.

That said, I'm going to unofficially try to increase my own word count this month, because for the past three, I've kinda been sucking golf balls in terms of my output. I doubt I'll make 50,000 words like you stalwart NaNoers are aiming for, but I wouldn't mind getting an honest ten points from The Koala (which means 22,000 words.)

The NaNoers are free to mock that piddling goal. I shall have my pompoms and my sanity to console me!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, October 25, 2010

Letting Go--Of the Old Ways?

I announced last week I had ePublished a book. Today I'll talk about why I did that, but it's really part of a larger discussion: mentally and emotionally letting go of a book you've written.

I'll start by not talking about that book. I'll discuss the one I wrote before it.

I invested a lot of effort in my first novel, and as a consequence, I had a lot of emotion sunk into it. It took me a while (about twenty-five rejections) to find an agent, and in the meantime, I was still getting feedback on the manuscript from online critiquers.

One suggestion I got from a person (who hadn't read it) was that maybe I should stick that manuscript under the bed and write a new one.

To which my (private) reaction was, "NOOOOOOOOOOOOoooooo...!!"

I couldn't imagine just...letting that book die. Giving up. I had sunk so much time and emotion into it, had twined it so tightly to my dreams, that my mind balked at the possibility.

After I began writing my second book, it became...possible to let the first book go. I still wanted (and continue to want) to get it published, but once I was busy with the next book, I no longer had fits of apoplexy over the thought of setting the first one aside. My eggs weren't all in the same basket anymore.

The book I ePublished last week was my second book, not my first.

And that might seem a bit weird. The truth is I've still mentally got the first one set aside for traditional publishing.

Why not the second book? Because the second book was problematic to write, and I'm not sure I like it--in the sense that it isn't the sort of thing I read, and I thus don't feel comfortable recommending it to others because I don't know how many people are into that sort of thing.

Also, my agent and I parted ways (amicably) over this second book. It wasn't her cup of tea either, and that means the second book carries some emotional baggage for me; trudging back to the start of the road to publication did make me pretty sad.

The result of all that was, after racking up about twenty-five rejections for this second novel also, I decided I wanted to let it go. I was already writing a third book (and enjoying the process again), but the second one nagged like a hangnail. I felt frustrated and impatient with traditional publishing, but at the same time, I didn't think this book would be the one to let me break into traditional publishing. I just wanted to mentally wave goodbye to it and not care so much anymore.

Five years ago, I would have stuffed the manuscript under the bed, dusted my hands, and said, "Mischief managed." However, the publishing landscape has changed rapidly in the past few years, and J. A. Konrath's success with self-publishing has really intrigued me.

For a start, self-publishing an eBook is something you can do for free. This makes it a very different beast from vanity publishing in that you might be a fool to do it, but at least you're not being fleeced by some predator while you do it.

I decided my second book was the perfect one to experiment with. It's unlike the stuff I normally write, so why not release it under a pseudonym and satisfy my curiosity about self-publishing at the same time?

I'll pause here to note that one thing I find off-putting about some people who self-publish is they're zealots. They see themselves as voices crying in the wilderness, or trailblazers struggling against a conspiracy of monolithic traditional publishers, and that insecurity seems to make them desperate to convince everyone (including themselves?) that self-publishing is the way of the future.

I am not a zealot. It's not at all clear to me that self-publishing a book isn't an idiotic thing for me to do.

What I am is a dork and an experimentalist. I want to see what happens; I want to know if this would work for me instead of continuing to wonder about it. (Plus, I can do it on a shoe-string.)

If any of you are curious about my experience with this, feel free to ask at any time. I'll always be honest, I'll try to be objective, and I don't mind telling you the embarrassing stuff.

So here's my as-objective-as-possible opinion of self-publishing thus far:

Trying to do it right, i.e. putting effort into creating a (hopefully) professional-looking cover, copy-editing the text, making a promo, etc., took up about two months of my time and I got very little writing (or reading) done in the meanwhile. I consider that a big negative. Writers must write!

I sold six copies, all in the first two days. Okay, so six is a really teensy quantity, but during those first two days? It was so exciting!

I now believe at least half of those sales were to family members (thanks guys!), which feels a bit like cheating to be honest, although I very much appreciate it.

And I haven't sold any books since, so the emotional roller coaster is officially back in the ground-level station again.

One thing that has hit home to me is just how gruesome and monumental a task self-promotion is--how very invisible you feel, and how very unwelcome you could make yourself by trying too hard. For example, I think it's a completely valid choice for book review websites to exclude self-published books, but it's disheartening for me to finally notice that--my goodness--they all seem to.

The one thing I like is I don't have to stress out over a slow start. This book isn't coming off the market until I decide to take it off, and that means if I hit upon some fabulous marketing plan six months from now, I still get to reap the benefits. If I were traditionally published and my book had a slow start, it would likely be taken off shelves long before it could build any momentum and my career would essentially be finished.

It's a tough road, either way.


Do you have any thoughts to share? Any uncomfortable observations you'd like to point out? There's a lot of talk these days about self-publishing, about the allegedly-oh-so-imminent death of traditional publishing, and about what a serious writer should be trying to do with their career in these digital days. I think there's merit in having an open discussion about it and in being critical of some of the claims made by both sides.

Would you consider self-publishing? Have you already self-published?

Do you think it's dangerous to your writing career to self-publish? Do you consider it a cop-out made by people who aren't talented enough to make it in traditional publishing?

Do you think traditional publishing is dying? What do you think will rise from its ashes?

Do you think all the predictions of doom are just a new spin on the publishing industry's decades-old pessimism and everything will settle out just fine?

I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Kittens On a Roomba

Face it. This is perfect video for a Sunday.

Link via The Daily Squee

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

You Art What You Eat--It's More Fun That Way

Thanks to Adam Heine (who has a very good blog series on query letters right now) for emailing me this link--behold! Pancake art (click the image to see a gallery of photos):

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Cult of Conspicous Consumption - now on sale

Okay. Big scary thing is now done.

I've ePublished my novel,The Cult of Conspicuous Consumption, on Smashwords, and under the pseudonym "Jen Deben".

And ooh, look! I figured out how to embed my promo (still no sound, sorry):

By the way, if you want to share this Flash game with others (and naturally I would love it if you did), just copy-and-paste the text below into your website or blog:
<object classid="clsid:d27cdb6e-ae6d-11cf-96b8-444553540000" codebase=",0,0,0" id="CofCC_Promo" align="middle" height="500" width="600"><param name="movie" value=""><param name="quality" value="high"><param name="base" value="."><embed src="" quality="high" name="CofCC_Promo" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" pluginspage="" base="." align="middle" height="500" width="600"></embed></object>

Finally, just so nobody feels awkward, I firmly believe you should only buy a book if it appeals to you and never out of guilt because that book happens to be written by your internet buddy.

In other words, it's totally fine with me if this sort of novel isn't your cup of tea. You don't have to pretend otherwise; I promise I still like you!

I mean, heck, this is a novel I would emphatically tell my mother not to buy because my mom doesn't appreciate bloodthirsty, cynical books, and oooooh my, yes--this is one such a novel. So it would hardly be sporting for me to strong-arm anyone else into it, would it?

I do hope, however, that you'll all at least take a look at the novel's blurb and free sample and consider it.

Oh, and play the Flash game lots while making "Rawr! Rawr!" noises. :-)

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Friday, October 15, 2010

No Trolls Left Under the Bridge; We're Seeking New Conquests Now.

The best way to tweak someone's nose about their hubris is to casually--seemingly effortlessly--demonstrate just how small their accomplishment really is.

Mother Nature's an expert at doing this to humanity.

Click the image to see some other amazing images of the goats at the source site. (Click on the thumbnails, once you get there.)

Link via io9

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Trees Eating Things

Click for a gallery of images. In my opinion, this is the best one.

Link via FairyHedgehog (And sorry for the original oversight!)

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, October 11, 2010

Time to Play!

Happy Canadian Turkey Genocide Day Thanksgiving! Truly, today is "Meaty Monday".

Could I use you as a guinea pig, gentle reader? Please visit the link below, play the game, and would you tell me if you see any glitches?

It's a big game, so it will take a few moments to load. I still want to add sound, but the game-play itself is complete and I want to make sure it works on a variety of systems. Hence, my invitation to you!

Flash Game Promo

So--any problems? Does it play well? Did it do anything odd? Is it too hard/too easy? It is too herky-jerky?

Erm, and yeah. That bit at the end. I am planning to ePub something in the next month or so. I still have to get an ISBN. I will keep you posted!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, October 04, 2010

Using Word to Format a Manuscript for the Web

My apologies, but what you see below hasn't been proof-read. I tried to type it up before work, and now I'm running late for work! I will fix things later today; sorry for the rough state of this.


This week's "meaty" post deals with how to use some of Microsoft Word's more advanced search and replace features. They're useful to understand because you can use them to take (for example) a manuscript and add HTML tags so you can post an excerpt of it on the web. You can also used these features just to quickly hunt for subtle formating errors, like a tab inserted on a blank line.

Unfortunately, this post describes how to do these things for Word 2003 or earlier. Me and the new Word are frenemies, not friends. That said, a lot of what I'll talk about can be done in the new Word if you're familiar with its interface.

Show Non-visible Characters

First, turn on Word's formatting symbols. This inserts a non-printing symbol into your document for "invisible" items like carriage returns, tabs, and spaces. To do this, look on your icons for the pilcrow symbol, which looks like this: ¶, i.e. a backward "p" thingy.

Click that. Ooh, now your manuscript looks ugly, doesn't it? Don't worry; all those new symbols do not print out.

In principle, you can go look for invisible formatting errors now, but a search-and-replace would be easier.

How to Search For Non-Visible characters

Begin the search-and-replace the usual way: Click "Edit", then "Replace...".

Let's say you want to find a tab followed by a paragraph break (or "carriage return", which is where you hit the "enter" or "return" key on your computer to form a new line.)

In the "Search" box, type the following:


What does that mean? The ^t tells Word to search for a tab. The ^p tells it to search for a paragraph. Now type your correction into the "Replace" box. You presumably want rid of the tab, so enter:


Click "Find Next" or "Replace All" as usual to complete your search-and-replace.

A list of useful characters:

^p paragraph break
^l a new-line (these are different than carriage returns and can mess up your formatting in subtle ways, so it's good to know they exist)
^t tab

^- an optional hyphen
^~ a non-breaking hyphen

^+ an em-dash
^= an en-dash

^m a manual page break
^s a non-breaking space

How about searching for extra spaces? You can just type those into the search-and-replace boxes and go hunting. I recommend doing it that way if you're looking for a double space, or want to insert a double space after a period, but it's possible you have a more problematic situation, like a manuscript where the "tabs" were created by typing in a variable number of spaces.

For a situation like that, I recommend using wildcards and regular expressions.

Using Wildcards and Regular Expressions (a.k.a. RegEx Expressions) To Replace Extra Periods

First, let me say I don't recommend using wildcard expressions unless you absolutely need to and have done some research to understand what they are and how they work. You can find more information about them on the web by googling appropriate terms, like "ms word search wildcards" and "ms word search regular expressions". This website is a decent place to start, but is still a bit cryptic.

Never mind that, however; we're going to use just an eensy weensy little bit of this stuff to find multiple periods.

Open your search-and-replace dialogue. See the little box at the bottom that says "More"? Click that, then click the ticky-box beside "Use Wildcards".

Now, in the "Search" box, type:


where • is a space (you might not see a dot in the box; just make sure you typed the space.)

The {3,} means "hunt for 3 or more of the character I typed before this". You can change it to {2,100} and it will search for anywhere from 2 to 100 of the previous character.

Add your ^t symbol to the "Replace" box and complete your search-and-replace as usual to change multiple spaces into a single tab.

Adding HTML tags to the Document

First, I'll note that we're using Word to do this only because its search-and-replace feature is so lovely. When you're finished adding your HTML tags, etc., you need to save your file in .txt format, which is to say as a plain text file. Word adds aaaaall kinds of formatting to documents that will utterly bork your HTML. Plain text is what you want at the end of the day.

Before you start, click "Tools" on the menu bar, then "Autocorrect...". Now, turn off almost all the options on the the "Autocorrect" and "AutoFormat as You Type" tabs. This will save you heartache later.

A really useful trick I found when working in my Word document is to highlight all the things I want to add tags to in another colour so I can spot them easily.

Finding BOLD, ITALIC and CENTRED Text in Word

Open a find dialogue by clicking "Edit" > "Find..."

To search for text in italics, click into the "Find What" box BUT DO NOT TYPE ANYTHING. Instead, hold down the "Ctrl" key and type "i" on your keyboard.

You should see a bit of text appear below the box saying that you're looking for italics text. (You would click Ctrl+i twice more to turn it off.)

Now click the ticky-box for "Highlight all items found in:" and make sure "Main Document" is selected.

When you click "Find All", Word will select all the italics items in the document.

This doesn't add colour, however. To do that, click the highlighter icon and choose a colour.

A list of these useful "hot-keys":

Ctrl+i for italics text (twice more to turn it off)
Ctrl+b for bold text (twice more to turn it off)
Ctrl+e for centred text (once more to turn it off)

Now we're ready to add our HTML tags.

I recommend you add your italics (e.g. <i> and </i>), bold and centering tags before you do your paragraph (<p> and </p>) tags.

To add <i> and </i> tags around all italics text, first open a search-and-replace dialogue.

In the "Search" box, type no text but click Ctrl+i to select italic text.

In the "Replace" box, type <i>^&</i>

You (hopefully) recognize the HTML italics tags. The ^& symbol indicates to Word that whatever text it finds that fits the search criteria (i.e. text in italics) should be left as is between the new <i> and </i> tags.

To add similar tags to bold and centred text, repeat the process by changing the search criteria from italics to bold or centred, and then changing your HTML tags in the "Replace" box.

Once you've finished with the formatting, you want to surround your paragraphs with paragraph tags (<p> and </p>). This is a bit trickier. The way I do it is the following:

I add the <p> tags first. In the "Search" box, I type ^t because I have tabs at the start of all my paragraphs.

In the "Replace" box, I type <p> I complete my search-and-replace as usual.

Next, I do the </p> tags. In the "Search" box, I type ^p to register the ends of my paragraphs.

In the "Replace" box, I type </p>^p where the ^p at the end is there for legibility only. It keeps my paragraphs from running together on the page and won't affect the final HTML document at all.

But WAIT! It would be a very bad thing to just hit "Replace All" at this point, because I use paragraph breaks to add vertical white space to my document. Having a bunch of </p> tags with no <p> tags would make very broken HTML.

So I click into my document and select just my paragraphs, then apply the </p> tags to them only, and not areas of white space.

Helpful hint: You probably know how to highlight a few paragraphs with your mouse, but what you probably don't know is that if you highlight one section of text, then press and hold down the Ctrl key, you can highlight other sections too without highlighting the bits in the middle (which would be areas with white space.) This allows you to highlight just blocks of text and skip over the vertical white spaces around scene breaks or chapter headings.

Replacing "Curly" Quotes, etc., With HTML Entities

Word uses some nice-looking characters, like curving quotation marks or apostrophes, that don't necessarily translate over to HTML well. These characters are the reason why when someone emails you text they cut-and-pasted into their email program from Word, there are sometimes odd characters sprinkled throughout it. The email program couldn't understand what the curly quotes (etc.) were.

Thus, it's a good idea to strip out these characters and replace them with the corresponding HTML entity.

An HTML entity is a code that translates into symbol. For example, if I type "& # 60; p & # 62;" without the quotes and with all the spaces removed into an HTML document (or even into Blogger when I'm typing this post), the result when I look at that document on a web browser is the following collection of characters: <p>. The "& # 60;" gives me a < symbol and the "& # 62;" gives me a > symbol.

Do a simple search-and-replace and switch in the following codes for their corresponding characters. I've left off the &# symbols so the numbers show up. Just remember to sandwich all these numbers between &# and ;

8220 Left-hand-side curly quotes
8221 Right-hand-side curly quotes
8217 Apostrophe (right-hand-side quote
8216 Left-hand-side quote
8212 Em dash
8230 Ellipses

This website provides a more complete list of codes.

Convert to Plain Text

When you've completed all your preparatory work on Word, you want to save your file as plain text. Click "File", then "Save As...", then change the "Save as type:" box at the bottom to "Plain Text (*.txt)" option and save the file.


Open up the file in a text editor like MS Notepad (DO NOT use MS Wordpad.) To make your file an HTML document that can be read on a web browser, add the following code to the very top of the file:


<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8" ?>
<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN"

<html xmlns="" lang="en">
<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html;charset=utf-8"></meta>

<title>YOUR TITLE HERE</title>


and the following code to the very bottom of your file:




Save it, and you should now be able to look at it on a web browser by opening the browser, then clicking "File" > "Open File...".

Now a big fat caveat: It might look great, but there might still be many, many errors in your document. HTML is a very forgiving language in that it will ignore code that it knows is bad.

If you're happy with how your document looks, great, don't worry about the hidden errors. However, if you the reason why you converted it to HTML was so you could (for example) ePublish it on the Kindle, then what you see may not be good enough.

There are many websites that will validate your code, but you have to actually put your manuscript on the internet so they can access it. Obviously, only post your manuscript temporarily and take it down as soon as you're done checking it.

I like this validator (type your manuscript's URL into the box at the bottom of the page), but it is a fussy one. It will require you get every error out.

Don't panic, however, if it gives you several thousand errors at first. What's happening is that there might be one error (say a missing or an extra HTML tag) that makes everything after it into an error also. If you fix the first typo, often a bunch of other ones appear to just evaporate.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Friday, October 01, 2010

A Two-fer of Squee

First art. Then science.

The art consists of leaves with hand-cut scenes depicted in them. (Click the image and scroll down the resulting page to see a gallery of other leaf art.)

The science consists of a demonstration of how potassium chlorate reacts to gummy bears (and other forms of sugar.)

Links found via Geekologie

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Thursday, September 30, 2010

But Don't Swans Have Very Pointy Toes?

OMG, OMG, the Great Chinese State Circus does "Swan Lake".

The whole video is worth seeing, but if you want to understand very quickly why I say OMG, OMG, skip ahead to 3:00 and watch for 20 seconds.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Pageloads since 01/01/2009: