Talking Tuesday: Tools of the Trade

“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
“And—every—single—one—of—them—is—right!”
— Rudyard Kipling, In the Neolithic Age

In my last Talking Tuesday, I laid out my simple dictation plan:

  1. While driving down the road at an average speed of 60 m.p.h., or 1 mile per minute.
  2. Dictate science fiction at an average rate of 50 words per minute.
  3. Transcribe that dictation at a cost of 1.25 cents per word.
  4. Sell that fiction at a professional rate (i.e., 6 or more cents per word).

In this installment, I’ll discuss my process and my tools in more detail. But as per Kipling, these are my process and my tools. There are other authors who dictate their work, and their processes and tools may be different. What works for me may not work for them, or for you, and vice versa. In future installments, I’ll look at alternatives and why you might choose them.

But first, there are two questions you must answer before you can decide if dictation will even work for you…

What do you expect to get out of dictation?

This is the most important question, and it’s made up of multiple parts.

  • Do you expect perfect text? Can you deal with some level of imperfection? Or can you handle more imperfection, as long as you capture your thoughts so you can clean them up later?
  • Do you expect to work faster? How do you measure faster: more words per hour, or more pages per week?
  • Do you expect to make use of otherwise lost time?

In my case, the text doesn’t have to be perfect, but I expect it to be pretty close. No more than a clean-up edit to finish it up. And I do expect to work faster, not in words per hour maybe, but definitely in terms of pages per week. And the reason why is that last question: lost time. I have 10 hours per week I spend commuting, sometimes more. That’s 10 hours that I can’t spend writing – but I can spend dictating. If I can then convert that dictation to text with minimal additional time, I end up way ahead of where I would otherwise be.

Where and when do you dictate?

This is going to have a big impact on your dictation process. If you’re dictating at your computer, you have options you won’t have if you dictate behind the wheel like I do.

My process, my tools

So first, let me get the biggest question out of the way: No, I do not use Dragon Naturally Speaking, nor Siri, nor Microsoft’s voice recognition in Windows, nor any other transcription tool. I rely on manual transcription.

There are two reasons for this choice, the big reason and the bigger reason:

  • The big reason: many (but not all) of these tools transcribe in real time. You have to be at your computer. I’m not, I’m at the wheel. Yes, there is a more expensive version of Dragon that will let you dictate now and transcribe later; but…
  • The bigger reason: the automobile environment is just too noisy. It’s largely white noise: wind whipping by, the fan, etc. And then it’s punctuated by bumps, wiper noise, etc. All of these ruin the accuracy of transcription tools.

So I rely on manual transcription, but not my manual transcription. It takes me about three hours to transcribe one hour of text; and remember, I’m trying to save time.

So instead, I have found http://iDictate.com, a paid transcription service. There are others out there, but so far I’m pleased with iDictate. If you’re planning to sell your work, the price is pretty good: 1.25 cents per word. My plan is to sell at 6-10 cents per word, so that’s not a bad investment if it turns into a lot more words sold. Their web site is easy to use; and they have Android and iPhone apps to directly dictate and upload from your phone

The other half of the equation is my recording tool – which sadly is not an iDictate app. I use a Windows Phone, and they don’t support that. Of course, free or low-cost recorders are pretty easy to find – and almost universally useless for my purposes. Why? Because almost every one I’ve found requires you to type in a file name, either before or after recording, and I’m driving down the road when I record! I need hands-free recording, and most of these app don’t understand that. Typing a file name is a deal-breaker.

The one exception I’ve found is Rapid Recorder: it names the file with the date and time. It has other nice features, such as integration with OneDrive and DropBox; but it’s the automatic file naming that makes it indispensable. And it’s only 99 cents! Best 99 cents I’ve ever spent. In fact, if you divide that cost by the number of hours of use I’ve gotten, it’s fair less than a penny per hour.

So a typical dictation day goes like this…

  • In the morning before I leave for work, I get into my Jeep (the Aldrin Express). I open the audio file with yesterday’s dictation session, and I jump to the last five minutes so I can remember where I left off.
  • I start the Aldrin, and I start driving.
  • When yesterday’s audio finishes and I know where I’m going, I tap my earpiece and say “Open Rapid Recorder”.
  • When I feel my phone vibrate in my pocket, I know that Rapid Recorder is listening, and I start talking.
  • As I drive, I dictate. Sometimes it’s in linear order, but sometimes I bounce around. Sometimes I record the same bit multiple times to see which way I like better.
  • When I get to work, I park the Aldrin. Then I take my phone out and tap the Stop button. Rapid Recorder automatically names and saves the file.
  • On the way home, I repeat the process.
  • When I get home, I upload the files from Rapid Recorder to DropBox.
  • When the DropBox files arrive on my laptop, I upload them to iDictate.
  • Whenever iDictate sends me transcription files, I save them to my working folder. Then I copy the contents into my main document, and I edit the results, making notes for the transcriptionists so they’ll do even better next time.

Pretty simple. Oh, except I forgot one thing…

  • iDictate periodically bills my credit card. TANSTAAFL. But the results are worth it!

I can’t keep this pace up every day, of course. For example, right now I’m planning some scenes set in Belize, and I don’t know enough about Belize yet. So I’m reading and watching videos at night. I want to get comfortable with this new research so that it fits in naturally as I dictate.

So often I get asked: “But how do you dictate, Martin? How does it work?” And there you have it, my answer for how it works.

For me. At this time. But you might find other ways that work better for you. There are nine and sixty ways… and in later installments, we’ll look at some of them.

Market Monday: Galaxy’s Edge



Galaxy’s Edge is a bimonthly science fiction magazine, the third market that printed my work.

But that’s not why I like GE so much.

Galaxy’s Edge is great for both readers and writers – especially new writers. Every issue is roughly an even split between reprints from established writers and new stories from newer writers.

But that’s not why I like GE so much.

And Galaxy’s Edge has great columns: editorials by Mike Resnick, science columns by Greg Benford, reviews by Bill Fawcett and Jody Lynn Nye, interviews by Joy Ward, and essays with a historical bent from Barry N. Malzberg.

But that’s not why I like GE so much.

No, what I like so much about Galaxy’s Edge is the people:

  • The aforementioned editor, Mike Resnick. Mike is a great example of science fiction’s Pay It Forward ethic. That split between established pros and new writers? That’s by design. Mike’s design. He wanted a market where new writers could get noticed. Mike’s generous, funny, and a fantastic writer.
  • Publisher Shahid Mahmud. Mike may have designed the split, but it’s Shahid who backed him in it. Shahid makes authors feel like family. He’s also the publisher of Arc Manor, including a number of lines besides Galaxy’s Edge:
  • And the rest of the editorial team. It has been a joy to work with Laura Somerville and Jean Rabe and Lezli Robyn. I haven’t worked with copy editor Taylor Morris yet, but I hope to soon!

It’s a great organization. Of all the markets I’ve worked with, I know these people best. And I’m better for having known them.

The down side to Galaxy’s Edge is they do not have open submissions. In order to avoid a mountain of slush, they’re invitation only. How can you get an invitation? Only one way: get to know Mike Resnick. I recommend meeting him at a con, or on Facebook. DO NOT BADGER HIM! Just get to know him. He’s a great guy. If you show that you’re a decent person (not just a self-promotion machine) and that you care passionately about writing science fiction, he’ll notice. I’m sure of it.

Science Sunday: Killer Mice Are No Joke

Read this NPR story.

Sure enough, the scientists found one set of neurons in the amygdala, a structure involved in emotion and motivation, that became active when a mouse was pursuing prey. They found a second set of neurons in the amygdala that became active when the animal was biting and killing.

Then the team used a technique called optogenetics to create mice in which both sets of neurons could be controlled using light from a laser. That gave the researchers “an on-off switch for either or both of the circuits,” De Araujo says.

“When we stimulate [both sets of] neurons it is as if there is a prey in front of the animal,” De Araujo says. “They assume the body posture and actions usually associated with real hunting.”

Horrified yet? I know, this is research, simply to learn. But how far are we away from this?

I don’t want to be alarmist here, but –

No, scratch that. I do want to be alarmist. Mind control is a long-standing trope of science fiction, but this… They don’t control the mouse, they simply make it want to do what they want it to do.

They reprogram it.

They take away its little mousy free will.

This is an early, crude step on a long road; but sooner or later that road ends with somebody deciding what other people want, how they respond to the world.

But who decides? And for whom? If you think it’s a good idea, just remember: it’s virtually certain that you’ll be one of those reprogrammed, not one of the elite. Who should be your slave master? Will you willingly be a slave? A happy slave who wants to be enslaved?

On Science Sunday, I’m supposed to look for the story potential in some recent scientific work. Well, the potential I see here is horrific, dystopian, and totalitarian.

And I worry how long it will remain fiction.

Story Saturday: Grave Beginnings

This week I’m reading Grave Beginnings by R.R. Virdi, the first in his Grave Report series. I’d heard good things about Virdi’s writing, and I thought it was time to find out for myself.

I’m enjoying this book, but before I say more, I should to give fair warning: if copy edit issues bother you, this book may not be for you. The book needs a pass or two from a good copy editor. That’s not enough to spoil a book for me, but it is for some people. I don’t want to mislead them. This was Virdi’s first novel, and it shows.

Now for those who can handle some typos, this is a pretty interesting story so far. It’s sort of Quantum Leap meets Deadman, and I mean that in a very good way. Vincent Graves is a deceased spirit (don’t call him a ghost – there are many kinds of undead in this world, but only one Vincent) with the power/curse to inhabit bodies of those who have recently died from supernatural causes. His mission: to find the supernatural evil-doer who caused the death, bring them to justice, and bring peace to the deceased. Vincent’s guide in this mission is the enigmatic Church, a servant of some unnamed supernatural power himself. Church carries Vincent’s notes from one body to the next, and also provides Vincent with all that is known about the mission, as well as a time limit.

In this, Vincent’s first appearance (but not his first mission by a long shot), Vincent awakens in the body of a museum curator who has been buried in someone else’s coffin (still occupied). It’s not Vincent’s first time being buried “alive”, so he knows how to reach air; but it all goes downhill from there. Church has little information to offer, and imposes a scant thirteen-hour deadline. Worse, Church seems frightened by the situation. Whatever supernatural force is loose, it’s the biggest Vincent has ever faced. Before his death, the curator encountered some mystical power which rejuvenated him by thirty years or more, and also a force that killed him. Was it the same force? I’ll have to read more to find out.

This is a pretty good start. The world-building has a lot of new twists on old tropes, nicely surprising. Vincent is an interesting protagonist. He can be heavy on the sarcasm as a way to face the unknown. It gets a bit heavy at times, but I think it makes sense for the character. There are many things he can’t control, so instead of despairing, he jokes about them.

I’m a slow reader, and I have some other reading and critiquing obligations, so this will probably be Story Saturday for a couple more weeks, at least. I’ll keep you posted!

Friend Friday: Kevin Ikenberry

When Kevin Ikenberry learned he would be my Friend Friday subject this week, his response was, “Who, me?”

I understand why. Kevin is a great guy, and I always enjoy his company, but we probably only interact (online or in person) a few times a year.

But while I might not be talking to him that often, I’m always watching him. And learning.

First, Kevin is the real deal. I write science fiction stories with orbits and trajectories, and I try to make them plausible. Kevin calculated orbits and trajectories for the U.S. Army Space and Missile Command. (He has since retired.) If Kevin tells me I got it wrong, I’m gonna believe him.

Second, I don’t know if it’s his Army training or if it’s the secret of his Army success, but Kevin is driven. He has always impressed me with how he pursues his writing career. Constantly learning, constantly working, constantly finding new challenges. He works not just at the writing itself, but also at the business, and at strategies for growth and marketing. He has good humor, but he’s 100% serious about the work.

And that determination has paid off. He’s building his career, one achievement at a time. Besides his Protocol War series and his military science fiction novel Runs in the Family, he has a number of other works. And his determination led to two opportunities to work in established worlds that he loves: Vessel in Hugh Howey’s Silo Saga, and Friends in High Places in the G.I. Joe series. These aren’t the sort of projects that will make a writer famous, but some projects you do for the love.

My personal favorite of Kevin’s works is one of his short stories, Shipminds and Ice Cream. It uses a couple of familiar SF tropes to explore issues of family, aging, and loss. It’s very moving.

Kevin is in this business for the long haul. He’s thinking about more than just the moment, with a focus on his long-term career. He takes his time to evaluate a deal, rather than just grab the first thing that comes along.

And lastly, Kevin is supportive of the community. He teaches. He encourages. He helps. He’s part of multiple workshops, including now being a guest instructor at the incredible Superstars Writing Seminars.

So yes, Kevin, you. You inspired me last week without even knowing it, so I’m proud to share your story.

Thinking Thursday: With a Little Help from My Friends

There are many reasons I’m fortunate to be writing today, instead of 30 years ago:

  • I hate mailing things. Really, really hate it. Don’t ask me why, I just do. Mailing a manuscript – at the special fourth class manuscript rate – with a SASE (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope) pretty much demanded not just mailing, but a trip to the Post Office. That was a form of torture for me. Yes, I tried a few times over the years, but it was awful. I hated it. Today, all the markets I submit to take electronic submissions. For a while it was a mix, some electronic and some postal; and the postal markets were always dead last on my list. Sometimes after last.
  • Finding markets is so much easier.
  • Research… Once upon a time, research for writers meant getting in a car and driving to the library. Nothing against libraries, but that wasn’t practical at 3 a.m. Today, there’s a world of research material as close as my computer.
  • It’s a cliché that writing is a lonely business. It still is, usually: when you’re writing, you’re in your own head, putting thoughts into words. But if you need a break and some company, you have a world of friends right next door on social media.

But one of the most important reasons is the combination of research and social media: asking friends for help. I post a request for information on social media; and in minutes – every single time, it’s in minutes – my friends appear with feedback. Some of it’s right on point, some of it’s far afield, but all of it is freely offered and sincerely intended. It makes me truly grateful to know such smart, helpful people.

I’m the author. In the final analysis, either I do the work and do it well, or the story goes nowhere. All the responsibility, all the blame finally rests with me. But along the way, I get by with a little help from my friends.

Thank you for that. It means so much to me.

Work-in-Progress Wednesday: Today I Am Tested

“Of course!” she says, looking at me. “It’s family!”

Wayne laughs. “Family?”

“It is!” Millie sits ups and pulls away from Wayne. “Carey’s family. I thought you understood that by now.”

Wayne turns to me. “Carey, are you part of Millie’s family?”

I nod. “They have accepted me into their family.”

“Oh, come on, Carey.” Wayne sits up straighter. “Androids can’t lie.”

I shake my head. “I do not want to argue with you, Wayne. I know that cybernetics is your specialty, but you are wrong. Nothing stops an android from lying. It is simply a matter of programming. An android can be programmed to lie. Plus my emulation is a form of fiction. Well intentioned, but still fiction, and fiction is in a way a lie.”

“Yes, but if I ask you a direct question, I know your programming. If the answer won’t hurt anybody, you have to answer honestly.”

“True, yes.”

“So legally, are you part of the Owens family?”

“Legally, I am property of the Owens family.”

“Ah-ha!” Wayne says.

I continue, “But Dr. Jansons tells me that that itself is a fiction – a lie. That as a practical matter, she considers me part of the family.”

“Ah!” Wayne says. “Dr. Jansons is very bright, very astute. But my boss is a sentimental old lady.”

Millie slaps his arm. “She is not old.”

“Not by today’s standards, no,” Paul agrees. “But by the way she behaves? Sometimes. Carey, you can’t argue with the facts. You are not a person.”

“Dr. Jansons says that as a practical matter, I am,” I explain. “She says I pass the Turing Test.”

“That old canard? That’s about belief, not what the facts are. You know that.”

“Yes,” I say, “That is my opinion of it as well, but Dr. Jansons believes it is important.”

“What is a Turing Test?” Millie asks.

Wayne sits up straighter. “It is an old, largely discredited thought experiment in artificial intelligence. The argument is that if you cannot tell that the entity you are conversing with is a machine, then you should treat it as a person.”

“See?” Millie says. “Carey can hold a conversation as well as anybody. You are a person.”

“Wayne is right, though,” I explain. “There is disagreement within the artificial intelligence community. Some say that the Turing Test is a practical definition, while
others say it is merely a delusion.”

“Right,” Wayne says. “It’s a way of declaring victory and calling the game over. It’s too easy to convince yourself that Carey is intelligent if you never look inside and see what’s really going on with the interacting neural nets.”

“But what if we looked inside of you?” Millie askes. “What is going on inside of that neural net in your skull? If we broke that down into its component pieces, neurons triggering other neurons, would that look like intelligence?”

“Well, no,” Wayne says. “That reductionist approach doesn’t take into account the holistic function of all the parts of the brain. And besides, we have an existence proof. Descartes: ‘I think, therefore, I am.'”

Millie says, “Aha! Sounds to me like rationalization and delusion. How do we know you’re intelligent? Could you pass a Turing Test?”

“Millie, do I tell you how to dissect frogs?”

Millie shakes her head, and her face is growing red. “You just don’t want to admit that there might be something going on here that you can’t understand. Besides, I bet Carey can pass your Turing Test any day.”

“Carey fool me?” Wayne laughs. “Please! I’m a specialist. I know what to look for.”

“Oh, really? Do you have these tests? Is there one online?”

“Yeah, we have one we used in several different tests of different androids we were building.”

“Have any of them come even close to passing it?”

“No.”   

“I’ll bet Carey can pass it. I’ll bet if he and I answer your questions without you in the room, you won’t be
able to tell which one is Carey, and which one is me.”

Wayne stifles a laugh, “I think I know you well enough to tell the difference.”

“All right big guy, let’s set it up. We can do this online, right?”

“Yes, here.” He pushes the address of the test to Millie’s comp.

“All right, Carey, let’s go upstairs,” Millie says. “We’ll both get on tablets, so we’ll both be typing. Wayne, you can ask us any question you want and I’ll bet you Carey will convince you.”

“How do I know you won’t cheat?” Wayne asks. “That’s often a problem with the Turing Test: humans who think they’re clever, trying to conceal who they are.”

“You don’t trust me, Wayne?” Millie’s temper rises. “I’ve always trusted you. Wayne Stockwell, if my word isn’t good enough then maybe you should just go home.” She rises from the couch, “C’mon, get out of here. Leave!”

“Millie, I trust you!” Wayne protests, rising as well. “Really! All right, let’s run the test. I trust you. Let’s do this.”

— From Today I Am Paul (The Novel)

Market Monday: Analog Science Fiction and Fact

I had an eleven-hour day at work, followed by a ninety-minute drive home. It has been a long day.

So I’m going to cut down on my usual waxing poetic. It’s Analog Science Fiction and Fact, formerly Astounding. It’s the longest-running magazine in the field. If you need me to tell you about Analog, you need to brush up on your market research.

Oh, wait, there’s one thing I need to tell you…

DON’T SELF-REJECT!!!!!

I hear so many authors say, “Oh, my stories aren’t for Analog. They’re too character-oriented, not hard science fiction.”

Bull****!

First, hard science fiction can be plenty character-oriented. That’s the way Analog likes it. They have bought four of my Carver and Aames stories so far, and what’s the number one thing I hear about those stories from readers? They love the characters. As damaged and screwed up as he is, they love Nick Aames. They even gave Racing to Mars an AnLab (Analytical Laboratory) Award.

And second, hard science fiction is by no means all that Analog publishes! As editor Trevor Quachri likes to point out (closely paraphrased): “We published Dune; and we’d do it again. We published Pern, and we’d do it again.” Analog may welcome hard science fiction more than other markets do, but they also welcome other science fiction as well. As their guidelines say:

We publish science fiction stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse. Try to picture Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein without the science and you’ll see what I mean. No story!

The science can be physical, sociological, psychological. The technology can be anything from electronic engineering to biogenetic engineering. But the stories must be strong and realistic, with believable people (who needn’t be human) doing believable things–no matter how fantastic the background might be.

Trevor doesn’t do your job (writing your stories), so don’t you do his job (rejecting stories). Let him decide if it’s an Analog story or not.

He may surprise you…

 

Science Sunday: The Boom Star in My Back Yard

Prof Larry Molnar Credit: Calvin College

“What’s a Boom Star, Martin?”

It’s two stars that are going to collide in 2022, creating a Red Nova dubbed the Boom Star.

“Why do you say it’s in your back yard, Martin? Isn’t that kinda close?”

Well, of course, the stars won’t be in my back yard. But that’s where the research was done to discover this impending collision: at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. Not precisely my back yard, but close enough to give me a sense of regional pride. This is world-class astronomy work, headed up right here in West Michigan. Dr. Molnar presented his paper at the American Astronomical Society last week. You can read a preprint version here.

So what’s going to happen? From the Telegraph article linked above:

Before their meeting the two stars were too dim to be seen by the naked eye, but in 2022, the newly formed Red Nova will burn so brightly in the constellation Cygnus that everyone will be able to to see it.

“For the first time in history, parents will be able to point to a dark spot in the sky and say, ‘Watch, kids, there’s a star hiding in there, but soon it’s going to light up,” said Dr Matt Walhout, dean for research and scholarship at Calvin College, Michigan, where the prediction was made.

For around six months the Boom Star will be one of the brightest in the sky before gradually dimming, returning to its normal brightness after around two to three years.

That. Is. So. Cool!

Now for Science Sunday, I like to explore the story implications of a scientific discovery. One obvious implication: suppose one of these stars had an inhabited planet? What would happen to the occupants? Nothing good, I fear. Would they live long enough to see the Red Nova engulf their planet? Or would the approach of the other star tear them out of orbit from their primary, either pulling them in to a fiery death or tossing them out into the cold darkness of space? Neither would be a good fate.

Though in the latter case… If they had time to move their civilization underground… Hmmm…

Of course, we don’t know if a binary system could have a planet in a stable orbit long enough to evolve intelligent life. The odds seem kinda long for that. But it’s not impossible. Might be a good story there.

I hope to interview Dr. Molnar for a future Science Sunday. Stay tuned!