Climbing the Mountain

April 24th, 2015

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I recently was talking with Debra Dixon, my editor for the Dakota Frost series, and we realized that if we wanted SPECTRAL IRON, Dakota Frost #4, to come out next year, we needed to get a final book (from me) in her hands by January to have time to edit it before year was out.

Given that when we had this conversation we had not yet finished LIQUID FIRE (book 3) and I have yet to edit THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE, this caused some understandable panic.

So, rather than keeping to my schedule to work on part 2 of PHANTOM SILVER (book 5) during this April, I decided to bump up my schedule and work on part 3 of SPECTRAL IRON so I’d have a draft done early this year.

I think it’s working – the story is coalescing – but as you can see from above, the copyediting and page proofing of LIQUID FIRE ate up a lot of my time to write SPECTRAL IRON.

So I’m scrambling. Probably few blog posts until this month’s 50,000 added words are done.




March 20th, 2015

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I’m super stoked to announce that Jeremiah Willstone, my favorite steampunk heroine and protagonist of my forthcoming novel THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE, will be appearing in two stories in the TWELVE HOURS LATER anthology!

Created by the wonderful folks at the Clockwork Alchemy writer’s track, this anthology features twenty four short stories each focusing on a single hour of the day. My two stories are 3AM – “The Hour of the Wolf” – and 3PM – “The Time of Ghosts”.

Here’s a taste of what happened on Halloween of 1897 … at 3AM, the hour of the wolf:

Jeremiah Willstone ran full tilt down the alley, the clockwork wolf nipping at her heels.

Her weekend had started pleasantly enough: an evening’s liberty from the cloisters of Liberation Academy, a rattling ride into the city on a battered old mechanical caterpillar—and eluding the proctors for a walking tour of Edinburgh with a dish of an underclassman.

Late that night—or, more properly early Halloween morning—the couple had thrown themselves down on the lawn of the park, and his sweet-talk had promised far more than this ersatz picnic of woven candies and braided sweets; but before they’d found a better use for their Victoria blanket … Jeremiah’s eyes got them in trouble.

“Whatever is that?” she asked, sighting a glint running along the edge of the park.

“Just a rat,” Erskine said, proferring her another twisted cinnamon scone.

“Of brass?” Jeremiah asked, sitting up. “With glowing eyes, I note—”

Uh-oh! What have our heroes found? And what will happen later … at 3PM, the time of ghosts?

Half a mile under Edinburgh Castle, lost in a damp warren of ancient masonry lit only by his guttering candle, Navid Singhal-Croft, Dean of Applied Philosophy at Liberation Academy, wished he’d paid more attention to the ghost stories his cadets whispered about the tunnels.

Of course, that was his own fault: he led the college of sciences at the premiere military academy in the Liberated Territories of Victoriana, and he’d always thought it his duty to drum ghost stories out of the young men and women who were his charges, not to memorize them.

Now was the time, but where was the place? A scream echoed in the dark, very close—and eerily familiar. Shielding his candle with one hand, Navid ran through crumbling brick and flickering light, desperate to find his father before the “ghost” claimed another victim.

If he couldn’t rescue his father … Navid might never be born.

DUN DUN DUNNN! What’s going to happen? You’ll have to buy the anthology to find out!

Stay tuned to find out where to purchase it! I’m assuming that will be “everywhere”.

Prevail, Victoriana!


Dakota Frost and the Copyedit of Doom

March 20th, 2015


At long last, LIQUID FIRE is on its way to production at Bell Bridge Books!

This was a particularly difficult copyedit – not because the copyeditor was demanding anything particularly weird, but because a misunderstanding on the style guide led to an edit with five thousand annotations.

At one point working with the PDF, I was zooming in the text 200% to try to see what the copyeditors did, and even when what they were suggesting was clear, the number of edits caused everything to jump around crazily.

Finally I had to ask Bell Bridge to send me a .DOC file, so I could use Microsoft Word’s superior tools. I was quickly able to identify 2,500 of the edits as being completely correctable – ellipses and spellings and such – and started a style guide.

Many of the rest were simple things like the Oxford comma, which we had a style change on. Counting these took us down to about a thousand edits.

Most of those thousand were minor changes which I readily accepted. The copyeditors had different suggestions than me on things like the use of the colon, which I often accepted, and paragraph breaks, which I generally did not.

But there was one particular thing – a replacement of the colon with the dash in sentences that already had the dash, which irked me intuitively, and which also turned out to violate the very Chicago Manual of Style rule the CE was citing.

Because we’d gone back and forth on this so much, what I finally sent back to Bell Bridge was a document with 200 tracked changes – mostly, the copyeditor’s comments with extensive responses from me on what CMOS rules I was citing.

(We also had changes to Cinnamon Frost’s broken English, contributed by the linguist Keiko O’Leary who helped me develop Cinnamon’s dialect; but these were largely nonproblematic).

Debra and the copyeditors accepted these with few changes – but still sent a document back with over forty comments. At this point, even if I didn’t agree with them, I took the changes very seriously.

A lot of their remaining suggestions violated some of the “rules” that I write by. But those are not hard and fast rules – and the fact that Debra critiqued them told me that, regardless of my “rules”, the particular text at hand simply wasn’t doing the job.

I accepted most of these comments. I rejected a small handful of others. And in a few cases, I took Debra’s suggestions and solved them a different way, with a larger rewrite which just made the whole problem she saw just go away.

The manuscript I sent back to them had 30 comments or changes. By my count, it was close to the 130th distinct numbered version of the LIQUID FIRE manuscript that I’ve worked on.

Debra accepted it and sent it on to production on Thursday.

That was a good day.

Now on to the edit of THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE!

-the Centaur

Copyediting in Process

March 9th, 2015


Copyediting of LIQUID FIRE is in process. Please hang in there. That is all.

-the Centaur

P.S. Remember to breathe.


March 3rd, 2015


One of the roles conferences fulfill in my life is a chance to recharge. I’m driven to pursue writing, art, comics, software, entrepreneurship, publishing, movies – but I was raised to be responsible, so I have an equally demanding day job that pays the bills for all these activities until such time that they can pay for themselves.

Sometimes I describe this as having four jobs – my employment (search engines and robots), writing (primarily the Dakota Frost and Jeremiah Willstone series), comics (mostly related to 24 Hour Comic Day through Blitz Comics), and publishing (Thinking Ink Press, a new niche publisher trying to get awesome things into your hands).

Having four jobs means that you sometimes want to take a break.

That’s really difficult if you don’t have an excuse. There are literally hundreds of items on my to-do list that I could work on right now, all day and all night. If I finish one, a dozen more are clamoring for my attention – and that’s not counting the time I want to spend with my wife, friends, and cats, or the time I need to spend on exercise, bills and laundry.

But a few oases exist.

Layovers in airports are one of those: I deliberately arrange for long layovers, because between plane flights you have nothing else to do other than grab a bite and a drink in an airport restaurant, chill out, and read something. True, I often work on writing during layovers, but it’s big-picture stuff, researchy, looking at the picture on a scale larger than I normally do.

Conferences are even better. Whether it’s GDC, AAAI, Dragon Con, Comic Con or Clockwork Alchemy, conferences are filled with new information, interesting books, even more interesting people, which spark my imagination – right at the time that I’m in an enforced multi-day or even week-long break from my schedule.

For a long time, conferences have been a great time to pull out the laptop and/or notebook to write or sketch. The idea for the Jeremiah Willstone series started after I saw some great steampunk costumes at Dragon Con; I sold the Dakota Frost series after Nancy Knight saw me writing at Dragon Con and pointed me to my editor Debra Dixon at Bell Bridge Books.

More recently, I’ve been adding to this the power of ruts. This is something that I need to expand at greater length, but suffice it to say I used to think I simply had to do something different every day, every week, every month. I used to keep lists of restaurants and tried to make sure that I never went to the same one two days in a row, trying new ones periodically.

But then I noticed that I really enjoyed certain things, but didn’t always fully take advantage of them because of this strategy – great places to eat, cool coffee houses, and nice bookstores that I simply didn’t visit often enough. Often, on top of this strategy, my schedule would change, making it hard to visit them – or worse, they’d go out of business, and those opportunities were lost.

So I’ve started cultivating habits – ruts – to do the things that I like. Not too frequently – you don’t want to burn out on them – but if you do the same thing all the time, then you can be free to miss it any time. Even better, if you find a great thing that’s efficient – like a place to eat near work, with a late night coffee house conducive to writing – take advantage of it regularly.

Because one day it may be gone.

At conferences, I employ this strategy with a series of life hacks – go to breakfast before the conference to up your energy level and organize your thoughts, pick the best breakfast place for writing and reading, break for lunch at 11:30 to 11:45 to miss the lunch rush, and also find the best place where there are no lines and concentration can be had.

At GDC, I’ve found a good set of hotels near the conference, a few good breakfast joints on the walk to the Moscone Center and a few places to eat slightly off the beaten path that are pretty empty just before noon – and I hit these places again and again, pulling out my notebook and tackling problems which are really big picture for me, mostly related to future game projects.

At Dragon Con I do similar things – hitting the Flying Biscuit breakfast joint that appears in Dakota Frost, getting coffee at the Starbucks in the Georgia Tech Bookstore, hitting the Willy’s lunch counter that inspired the Jeremiah Willstone story “Steampunk Fairy Chick,” et cetera, et cetera; and at each one I pull out the notebook and work on big picture story ideas.

These places are real oases for me: a break within a break, a special place set aside for thinking within a special time already set aside for recharging. Because of how human memory works, sometimes I can even pull out a notebook (or an older notebook), find my place from last year, and pick up where I left off, plotting my future in an oasis of creative contentment.

This, of course, is my strategy, that works for me – but it works so well, I encourage you to find a strategy that works for you too.

-the Centaur

Meanwhile, Back at GDC

March 2nd, 2015


View from my hotel in San Francisco. It may seem strange to get a hotel for a conference in San Francisco when I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, but the truth is that I “live in the Bay Area” only by a generous border-case interpretation of “Bay Area” (we’re literally on the last page of the 500-page Bay Area map book that I bought when i came out here). The trip from my house to the Moscone Center in the morning is two to two and a half hours – you could drive from Greenville, SC to Atlanta, Georgia in that time, so by that logic I should have commuted from home to Georgia Tech. So. Not. Going. To. Happen.  

So why am I heading to the Moscone Center this week? The Game Developer’s Conference, of course. At the request of my wife, I may not directly blog from wherever it is that I am, so I’ll be posting with a delay about this conference. So far, I’ve attended the AI Game Programmer’s Guild dinner Sunday night, which was a blast seeing old friends, meeting new ones, renewing friendships, and talking about the robot apocalypse and the future of artificial intelligence research. GDC is a blast even if you don’t directly program games, because game developers are constantly pushing the boundaries of the possible – so I try not to miss it. I’ve been coming for roughly 15 years now – and already have close to 15 pages of notes. Good stuff.

One thing does occur to me, though, about games and “Gamer Gate.” If you’re into games, you may or may not have heard of the Gamer Gate controversy; some people claim it’s about corruption in games journalism, while others openly state it’s motivated by the invasion of gaming by so-called “social justice warriors” who are trying to destroy traditional male-oriented games in favor of thinly disguised social commentary. Still others suspect that the entire controversy is a manufactured excuse for misogynists to abuse women in games – and there’s evidence that shows that at least some miscreants are doing just that.

But let’s go back to the first reason, ethics in games journalism. I can’t really speak to this from the inside, but in the circles in which I’ve been playing games for the past thirty-five years, no one cares about game reviews. Occasionally we use game magazines to find neat screenshots of new games, but, seriously – everything is word of mouth.

What about the second, the “invasion of social justice warriors?” I can speak about this: in the circles that I’ve traveled in the game industry in the past fifteen years, no one cares about this controversy. At GDC, women who speak about games are much more likely to be speaking about technical issues like constraint systems and procedural content generation than they are about social issues – and men are as likely as women to speak about women’s issues or the treatment of other minorities.

These issues are important issues – but they’re not big issues. Out of a hundred books in the conference bookstore, perhaps a dozen were on social issues, and only two of those dealt with women’s culture or alternative culture. But traditional games are going strong – and are getting bigger and better and brighter and more vibrant as time goes along.

People like the games they like, and developers build them. No-one is threatened by the appearance of a game that breaks traditional stereotypes. No-one imagines that popular games that appeal to men are going to go away. All we really care about is make it fun, make it believable, finish it in a reasonable time and something approximating a reasonable budget.

Look, I get it: change is scary. And not just emotionally; these issues run deep. At a crowd simulation talk today, a researcher showed that you can mathematically measure a person’s discomfort navigating in crowds – and showed a very realistic-looking behavior where a single character facing a phalanx of oncoming agents turned tail and ran away.

But this wasn’t an act of fear; it was an act of avoidance. The appearance of an onrushing wall of people made that straightforward algorithm, designed to prove to the agent that it wouldn’t run into trouble, choose a path that went the other way. An agent with more options to act might have chosen to lash out – to try to force a path.

But none of that was necessary. A slightly more sophisticated algorithm, based on study of actual human crowd behavior, showed that if an agent choose to boldly go forward into a space which slightly risked collisions, avoiding a bit harder if people got too close, worked just as well. It was easily able to wade through the phalanx – and the phalanx smoothly moved around it.

The point is that many humans don’t want to run into things that are different. If the oncoming change is big enough, the simplest path may involve turning tail and running away – and if you don’t want to run away, you might want to lash out. But it isn’t necessary. Step forward with confidence moving towards the things that you want, and people will make space for you.

Yes, change is coming.

But change won’t stop game developers from making games aimed at every demographic of fun. Chill out.

-the Centaur

P.S. Yes, it is a bit ridiculous to refer to a crowd avoidance algorithm that can mathematically prove that it avoids collision as “simple”, and it’s debatable whether that system, ORCA, which is based on linear programming over a simplification of velocity obstacles, is really “simpler” than the TTC force method based on combining goal acceleration with avoidance forces derived from a discomfort energy gradient defined within a velocity obstacle. For the sake of this anecdote, ORCA shows slightly “simpler” behavior than TTC, because ORCA’s play-it-safe strategy causes it to avoid areas of velocity space that TTC will try, leading to slightly more “sophisticated” crowd behaviors emerging naturally in TTC based systems. Look up if you want more information – this is an anecdote tortured into an extended metaphor, not a tutorial.

Working Hard, Working Smart

March 1st, 2015


I had planned to post a bit about my work on the editing of LIQUID FIRE, but this image in my Google+ photo stream caught my eye first, so you get a bit of opinionating about work instead.

Previously, I’ve blogged about working just a little bit harder than you want to (here, and here), the gist being that you don’t need to work yourself to death, but success often comes just after the point where you want to give up.

But how do you keep yourself working when you want to quit?

One trick I’ve used since my days interning with Yamaha at Japan is an afternoon walk. Working on a difficult problem often makes you want to quit, but a short stint out in the fresh air can clear the decks.

Other people use exercise for the same purpose, but that takes such a large chunk out of my day that I can’t afford to do it – I work four jobs (at my employer, on writing, at a small press and on comics) and need to be working at work, damnit.

But work sometimes needs to bleed out of its confines. I’ve found that giving work a little bit extra – checking your calendar before you go to bed, making yourself available for videoconferences at odd hours for those overseas – really helps.

One way that helps is to read about work outside of work. What I do frequently pushes the boundaries of my knowledge, and naturally, you need to read up on things at work in order to make progress.

But you also know the general areas of your work, and can proactively read ahead in areas that you think you’ll be working on. So I’ve been reading on programming languages and source control systems and artificial intelligence outside work.

Now, not everyone reads at lunch, dinner, coffee and just before bedtime – maybe that’s just me – but after I committed to starting my lunch reading with a section of a book that helped at work, all of my work started going faster and faster.

Other tricks you can use are playing music, especially with noise canceling headphones so you can concentrate – I find lyric-free music helps, but your mileage may vary. (I often listen to horror movie music at work, so I know mileage varies).

Another thing you can do, schedule permitting, is taking a week out to sharpen the saw and eliminate blockers in your common tools so everything goes faster. I recently started documenting this when I did it and that helped too.

One more thing you can try is inverse procrastination – cheat on one project you really need to do by working on another project you really need to do. You use different resources on different projects, and switching gears can feel like taking a break.

Quitting time is another technique; I often make a reservation at a nice restaurant at the end of my workday, and use the promise of going out to dinner to both motivate me to work efficiently and as a reward for a job well done (I tell myself).

Some people use caffeine to power through this – and sometimes I even describe myself as a caffeine powered developer – but I’ve seen a developer stop in shock at their trembling hands, so beware stimulants. But at quitting time? That hits the spot.


Oh, and the last thing? Use a different channel. My wife is a painter … and listens to audiobooks ten to twelve hours a day. I’m a writer and programmer … so I doodle. Find a way to keep yourself engaged and going … just a little bit longer.

-the Centaur

I’m Not Dead

February 28th, 2015


Seems like I need to post these once in a while … I am, indeed, not dead.

Since finishing National Novel Writing Month last year, I’ve all but disappeared from this blog. Those who follow Dakota Frost on social media know at least part of the story: I’ve been working on LIQUID FIRE, Skindancer #3, and have just sent it off to copyedits after several rounds with my editor, Debra Dixon (who helped me make it a much better book).

That’s not the only thing going on – I was also working on two stories for an unannounced project in the Jeremiah Willstone universe, desperately trying to finish a novella in the same universe, and working my ass off at the Search Engine That Starts with A G on a new project which I can’t talk about at all other than that it’s awesome.

Add to that working with Thinking Ink Press on the upcoming release of The Parent’s Guide to Perthes, with the Write to the End group on various other projects, with my friend Nathan Vargas on his M-Theory system, and my wife on her art projects, and it’s been a hell of a busy time.

But, yes, there were a few rounds of illness: more than one cold from air travel and food poisoning and some general bouts of the blehs – a week-long vacation is a GREAT time to catch up on that illness you’ve been putting off. A hell of a lot of that has been going around this year – I can think of a probably ten people who were out over the last few months.

I do worry about winter illnesses: my father used to get sick around the end of each year, and we thought it would eventually kill him. But it never did. And he stopped exercising from back pain, heart disease and long before the end. In contrast, I’m fine, healthy, exercising, recently taking in four hours of hiking with my wife in Monterey:


So, to recap: not dead, just busy.

-the Centaur

Viiiictory, Ten Times

November 26th, 2014


Yaay! Once again, I have completed National Novel Writing Month … this will be my 10th successful Nano. I’ve only been doing it 9 years, but this year, I started tackling Nano more often – in April and August. April was a success, but August I found I wanted to do more editing than writing, so I’ve officially succeed at Nano just 10 times out of the 11.

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I’ll let the August one slide, as it was really ambitious (and I also really try to reserve the time leading up to October for preparation for 24 Hour Comics Day) but when November rolls around, I get serious. This is the time all of my novels are born, and when I see a month start off with the kind of deficit you see above, I get cracking.

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I’m so serious about this, I take the whole week of Thanksgiving off every year just to work on this (something that is easier because my family is a rough plane ride back over Thanksgiving, and I see them every Christmas). But you know what? I want to enjoy my Thanksgiving … so I really poured on the juice near the end.

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The National Novel Writing Month site has some awesome word tracking tools, but I often turn off the Internet during Nano, and so I have developed my own Excel spreadsheet specifically for this purpose, which shows me, graphically, how much I need to write to get on track. Cells turn from red to white as I successfully get ahead of the game, and so by the end I was pushing 3-4000 words a day, trying to finish early. And I did, yesterday afternoon, at Panera Bread near my house.


PHANTOM SILVER is one of the oddest books I’ve worked on yet. The plot has taken many strange twists and turns, including some that popped out of a deep harvest of some of the older material in my massive cuttings file. It’s also turning into a deeply personal story, as my exploration of ghosts has led to an exploration of my characters’ ghosts, and, by extension, since my characters are often based on me and my family … I am exploring the ghosts of my own friends and family as well.


This picture was taken standing quite close to my father’s grave (not visible in the picture) and while my father won’t picture in the story … I’m having fun exploring Dakota Frost’s background, since she came from a (fictional) place in the South that is literally right up the street from where I grew up in real life.

But, as fun as it is … I’m glad to be done with this chunk. Already (since yesterday) I’ve finished a first draft of a short story in the Jeremiah Willstone universe (due at the end of December, for a Clockwork Alchemy special anthology) and I look forward to diving back into the editing of LIQUID FIRE, which is going *very* well. Hopefully you’ll see it soon.

No excerpts on PHANTOM SILVER, though; there are too many horrible spoilers for other books. You’ll have to wait on this one, and I know it will be a while, because SPECTRAL IRON and LIQUID FIRE and HEX CODE must come first; till next time.

-the Centaur

Within Striking Distance

November 22nd, 2014

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8 and a half days to go, 11K words remaining. Looks like we are going to do this… oh, an excerpt. Hard to summarize this one, there’s so many spoilers for parts of books that aren’t out yet:

“Most of the universe is made up of stuff that’s completely invisible,” Doug said. “Matter that we can’t see, holding the galaxies together; energy we can’t feel, pushing them apart. What if there’s a dark magic underpinning the world—undetectable, but influencing everything?”

Till next time.


P.S. DOORWAYS is still on sale. Go buy it lots.