Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Where's my Android? (or Why can't they make a normal sized phone?)

I've been looking at Android smartphones recently. I still have a year left on my contract for my iPhone 4S, but once that's done, I'd like to get an Android.  However, I'm having trouble finding one that meets my stringent specifications. So, I'm putting you on notice, Android phone manufacturers. If you want my business, you're going to need to make the phone I want, with at least the following specifications:
  • A 4"+ AMOLED display
  • A top of the line processor
  • Plenty of memory, and an SDcard slot
  • 4G LTE
  • Decent front and back facing cameras
  • Preferably, an HDMI port
  • Small enough to fit comfortably in my hand
The last point is the trickiest. Android manufacturers have concluded that bigger is better, and all of the top-of-the-line phones have a 4.7" screen, if not bigger. And they're talking 5" screens for next year.

I've had a chance to play with the HTC Trophy and Titan (Windows phones, I know). While the Trophy fits in my hand well enough, the Titan is too big. Now let's compare sizes:
  • HTC Trophy (3.8" screen)-  118.5 x 61.5 x 12 mm (4.67 x 2.42 x 0.47 in)
  • HTC Titan (4.7" screen) - 131.5 x 70.9 x 9.9 mm (5.17 x 2.79 x 0.39 in) 
And here are all the top-of-the-line Android phones:
  • RAZR MAXX HD (4.7" screen) - 131.9 x 67.9 x 9.3 mm (5.19 x 2.67 x 0.37 in)
  • LG Optimus G (4.7" screen) - 131.9 x 68.9 x 8.5 mm (5.19 x 2.71 x 0.33 in
  • HTC One X+ (4.7" screen) - 134.4 x 69.9 x 8.9 mm (5.29 x 2.75 x 0.35 in
  • Samsung Galaxy S III (4.7" screen) - 136.6 x 70.6 x 8.6 mm (5.38 x 2.78 x 0.34 in)
Notice a trend? They're all about the same size as the Titan--a little bit taller, and, at best, an eight of an inch narrower. The width is what matters the most for comfortably holding the phone upright in one hand.  Apple, meanwhile, offers the iPhone 5:
  •  iPhone 5 (4" screen) - 123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6 mm (4.87 x 2.31 x 0.30 in)
It's the exact same width as the iPhone 4 and even narrower than the HTC Trophy. In order to get an Android phone I can comfortably hold, I'd have to get a midlist phone, such as the DROID RAZR M:

  •  RAZR M (4.3" screen) - 122.5 x 60.9 x 8.3 mm (4.82 x 2.40 x 0.33 in)

To be honest, it looks like a pretty nice phone, though I hear the camera leaves something to be desired, and I'd really like an HDMI port. But it's the best I can find right now.

The problem is, I want a top-of-the-line Android phone. I'm willing to pay a premium for one. But if Android manufacturers can't figure out how to make a top flight phone that I can comfortably hold, my next phone may be an iPhone 5S, or whatever Apple calls next year's model.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Really old books

It seems like mostly I've been talking about the things I've been doing with Black Gate recently, and haven't talked about much else.  I figure it's time to change that.

Kristin has been reading Don Quixote recently, and has a nice, long post up about the book:
I mentioned that I had been reading Don Quixote, and at one point there are these women who’ve supposedly been cursed to grow beards (actually, they’re men pretending to be women as a joke on Don Quixote, but that’s beside the point).  Don Quixote’s squire Sancho Panza says, “I’ll wager they don’t have enough money to pay for somebody to shave them.”  And I realized, which I never had before, that if your fantasy world doesn’t have safety razors and good mirrors, you can’t have all the men walking around clean-shaven unless there are a lot of inexpensive barbers.
Learning things from old fiction is an especially good way to research writing historical fiction.  You can read all the books on the history and daily life of a certain time period that you can get your hands on, but none of these will give you as good a feel for what was considered the normal daily routine, and what was considered unusual and noteworthy, as reading fiction written by those living in that age.  I've recently been reading Ovid's love poems (the Amores, the Art of Love, Love's Cure, and The Art of Beauty).  Some of the advice is surprisingly modern.  For example, women are advised not to let their armpits smell or their legs bristle.  And some of it is barbaric by our standards.  The Romans, it seemed, had no concept of date rape. (Ovid's advice to men amounts to "Go for it.")  I still haven't quite gotten what I wanted from these books, though, which is a sense of the Roman attitude toward love, rather than their attitudes towards sex. Ovid's book amounts to advice for pick-up artists, though there is a sense that there were a lot of loveless marriages in Ovid's time.  I'll have to give a more full report once I finish the last couple of books.

The bottom line is that if you really want to understand a culture, you can learn a lot from its writings.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Reviewing Self-published Books Continued

Over at the Black Gate blog, I've taken on the task of reviewing self-published fantasy novels. I've received about 20 submissions so far, and I'm still expecting a batch of review copies of books which John O'Neill's received. So I thought I'd talk a bit about how I intend to choose the book I'll ultimately review.

I have two criteria:

First, it has to be a self-published fantasy novel. That means I can answer "yes" to three questions: Is it self-published?  Is it fantasy?  Is it a novel?  The novel question, at least, is easy to answer, as that's a question of hard numbers.  Is it 40,000 words or more?  If so, it's a novel.  The other two can be more complicated.  Is steampunk fantasy?  I suppose it depends on how exactly the technology, and the world, works.  Would a mix of sci-fi and fantasy count as fantasy?  What about alternate history?  In general, I'm trying to apply a broad definition of fantasy, but there are still some that are borderline.  The self-published question is giving me even more headaches.  By definition, a small press is not self-publishing.  Unless the small press is your own imprint.  What if you published with a small press, but it didn't do such a good job with your book, so now you're self-publishing?  What if it's a vanity press?  I'm still considering these questions.

Fortunately, I have a pretty free hand and some options.  While I probably want to stick with something purely self-published for my first review, that doesn't stop me from reviewing other things, either in later months or as a separate review from my self-published books series.  This also allows me to consider books that are borderline non-fantasy.  But before I do any of that, the book has to meet my second criteria.

My second requirement is that the book has to be something I want to read.  This is harder for an author to select for. While strong prose, characters, and world-building will make any book more enjoyable, if I don't like epic fantasies, then it's unlikely I'll want to read your epic fantasy (for the record, I love epic fantasy--I'm just using that as an example).  In order to decide whether I want to read the book, I first read the blurb and see if it sounds interesting.  Then, if it does (and so far, more than half my submissions do--I'm going to have to become more selective), I start to read the sample chapter.  This is where the prose can make or break the book.  If I find the prose style difficult to read--which isn't always bad prose, just difficult--then I'll stop and move on to the next one.  I may also lose interest if I notice numerous grammatical or stylistic errors, or clumsy infodumping, or lifeless description, or clich├ęd characters, or a plodding plot.  If, however, both the story and the characters are engaging enough to keep me reading, and I reach the end of the sample chapter wanting to know what happens next, then I know I have a book I want to review.

I still have to decide on which book I actually will be reviewing, and that means selecting the one I think looks the best. That's as much guesswork as good judgment.  On the bright side, just because I decide not to review a book this time around doesn't mean I can't come back and review it later.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

News

I have a post up at Black Gate asking for submissions of self-published books for me to review.  I discussed this idea here earlier this week, and actually implemented it at Black Gate yesterday.  So far I have a few submissions, and John O'Neill's promising to send me some of the review copies he's received at Black Gate.  The idea is to gather a lot of possible books, sort through them, and select the most promising to review.  Next week, I'll assess whether I'm receiving enough submissions to get a reasonable selection, and if not, announce it in a few different places.

Meanwhile, Kristin has a post up about World Fantasy.  This is much more detailed than my post a few weeks back, with details about each of the panels she went to.  She also has pictures of Niagara Falls and, and reviews of Richmond Hill restaurants, and probably more about crocheting than I was really interested in, but you may have better taste.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Reviewing Self-published Books

A while ago, I talked a little about reviewing people's self-published Kindle novels.  The reason for doing this is pretty obvious.  Self-published novels lack gatekeepers.  There's no editor or agent to say whether it's good or bad.  So when the author puts it out, potential readers have no clue how good it is.  It would be helpful if someone would read some of those novels, and write reviews, to let potential readers know where the good stuff is.

But I only did one review. Part of the problem was that I didn't really know where to begin.  I could just browse through Amazon, but the most usual ways rank either by most popular or best reviewed by Amazon customers.  Frankly, that defeats the purpose.  If I'm looking for undiscovered books, I hardly want to be looking at the books everyone has already discovered.  Granted, the Amazon reviews can be gamed, and there may be some value in seeing whether those well-reviewed books are actually good, or if the author is writing his own reviews (or paying someone else to do it).  But finding false reviews is not my objective.  I'm interested in undiscovered books.

One option is to ask people who have books they want reviewed to contact me.  I'd probably need a bigger stage than this little blog, both to make it possible for people to find me, and to make it worth their while to do so.  I may be able to do that.  But assuming that I could get such attention, how would I decide what to review?  Obviously, I won't be reading and reviewing a new book every day.  More like once  a month.  And if there's even mild interest in my offer, there are going to have to be some filters.  I figure I could ask potential reviewees to send a submission, with a blurb and a link to a free chapter, and then I'll select my favorite one to review.  This is not quite the same thing as going through all the self-published novels and telling people whether they're good or bad, but that's not my objective: my objective is to find good, undiscovered novels.  Of course, I'm not promising a good review.  Just because I like a submission doesn't mean I'll like the whole novel, just that it's showing enough promise to take the time to read it.

Overall, it sounds like a decent idea.  Maybe I'll look into implementing it.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Blog post at Black Gate

I've been promoted to the status of blogger at the Black Gate blog.  My first post, a review of Vox Day's A Magic Broken, is now up at Black Gate.  I'm not sure how much I'll be posting there, but I suspect that John O'Neill will be inviting me to contribute again.  I won't be cross-posting items, but I'll be sure to point you to the Black Gate posts when they happen.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

A Phoenix in Darkness, Part III

The third and final part of my short novel "A Phoenix in Darkness," has now been published at Black Gate.  This is where the Domini have their climactic battle with the Necromancers, and the question of who truly wins is resolved.

Originally, this part of the story was a lot more anti-climactic.  That's because it ended at chapter 5, and didn't include the final showdown in Chapter 6, though it did include something similar to the current epilogue, though much more ambiguous.  Why did I end it that way?  Because that's how I originally saw it ending--the story wasn't about the climactic final battle, so much as the tensions between the Domini. That was what originally inspired this story: a throwaway line in my novel, now called Heirs of Fire, revealing one of the sources of the conflict between Aulus and Kulsin.   It was John O'Neill, the editor at Black Gate, who pointed out that a Black Gate story needed a more action-oriented climax.  I thought about it some, went back over the story, and realized that there was a significant plot hole.  It was not the sort of hole a reader of "A Phoenix in Darkness" would really appreciate, not unless he knew as much about the Necromancers as I did.  In which case it became glaring.  Thinking about that, I told John that I could write a new ending, which would fill in that particular plot hole, and end the story with something exciting.  So that's what I did.

Which is also how my 35,000 word novella grew to a 50,000 word short novel.  But I don't regret it in the least.  So, go ahead and read it, and enjoy the new, more exciting ending of "A Phoenix in Darkness."

World Fantasy Convention 2012

The World Fantasy Convention 2012 has wrapped up.  It took place in Toronto, ON, which is within driving distance from Bostn, but it's a pretty long drive.  The convention was a great chance to meet people, old friends and new, and to catch up on what they're doing these days.  The publishing industry in fantasy and science fiction is smaller than most people realize.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  It's quite possible to go to conventions, and meet most of the important people in the industry.  But it also tends to be pretty insular, and sometimes tends to look inward rather than outward.  I like to think that we're less insular than some folks, but there's a definite danger of groupthink, especially when it comes to things like politics and religion.  Most of the folks in the industry tend to live on the east or west coast, and tend to absorb the attitudes there, which are usually secular and politically liberal.  The irony is that they then write fantasy, often set in pre-industrial societies, without fully appreciating the sort of cultural and spiritual attitudes that such societies tend to have.  That was one of the topics we discussed in our "The Real World in Fantastic Fiction" panel, which Kristin and I were panelists for.  The moderator was Ian Drury, and we also had Geoff Hart, Kenneth Schneyer, and Christopher Kovacs on the panel.  In addition to the role of religion in most societies, ancient and modern, we also discussed the importance of reading the literature of a society in order to get an idea of how it viewed itself, and of doing research in technical topics such as medicine and engineering, in order to get things straight.  For example, conking someone on the back of the head with a brick does not, usually, knock them unconscious so they revive a short time later.

Of course, I firmly believe in the importance of research.  But I'll also be quick to point out that you can get away with certain tropes (such as knocking someone out via a blow to the head), because they're well accepted.  I've used that one myself, though advisedly.  (It's tried multiple times in my story, and only works once.)  And frankly, research can be exhausting, and you can end up as far away from a usable answer as when you started.  That's why it's important to have beta readers--folks with expert knowledge whom you can show your stories to, and who will get back to you and point out those sorts of problems.  A writing critique group also helps, though it's often the case that they too lack the expertise you need.

Anyway, that's getting rather far afield, since I wanted to talk about the convention as a whole, rather than just a panel.  The bottom line is that it was fun, and I really enjoyed it.