The Nameless Horror

Lengthy: Software, Editing, Gadgets

I am, while I try to finish the rest of it, rereading and editing a partially-finished book. On my phone. Not because I’m an outrageous techie geek or an idiot, but because it’s the best available option, though it shouldn’t be, if Android were everything it’s supposed to bloody be.

There are four options available to me:

  • I can print it out, Old Skool, and go at it with a red pen. Good for reading in the front room or at the table, lousy for doing it in the shitter, and impossible for doing it in those 5 minute bursts waiting for Aidan to come out of school.

  • I can edit by working with text or scrawling red on a PDF on my computer. It’s a laptop, so it’s fine for the front room and the shitter, but no good in the playground (which isn’t, I insist, a bad time to to do it).

  • I can edit by scrawling red on a PDF on my tablet. I have an EeePad Transformer (minus the keyboard dock, so it doesn’t really transform). Android 3.0. This is doable in all environments. A bit ooh-fancypants for the playground, but certainly easy to cart around.

  • I can edit on my phone by scrawling red on a PDF on that. It has a small screen, but it’s the most portable option.

The tablet should be the ideal of these - it’s partly why I got it - but the reality is that it’s a fucking slog, and the fault isn’t one of hardware (not directly), but software.

Let’s digress for a long time to explain myself. I’m not an Apple fanboy. Or a fanboy of anything else come to that. This here computer is a MacBook Pro a couple of years old, but that was bought for practical reasons - there’s no desk space in Future Wife’s house so that meant ditching the desktop for something that was (a) grunty enough to run L4D2, the latest Football Manager, and edit a 400-page document, and (b) could give me ~6+ hours of battery life (theoretical, expecting 4-5 practical) if I needed it to so I could work out and about, because if you’re going to have something portable you might as well make use of it as such. The only devices to meet both criteria were Apple’s, who are pretty much the kings of battery life-for-power.

(The desktop I was ditching was, because I’m OMGterriblyfuckinggeeky, running 4 OSes - Win7, OS X Hackintosh-style (barely any different to original flavour as I happened to strike lucky with the hardware that was in the machine), and two flavours of Linux - on different partitions. If I had to pick an OS I have a soft spot for, it’s actually Linux.)

Around the same time, I got an Android phone. A lousy, free-with-shitty-contract one (an HTC Tattoo, in fact), but an Android one nonetheless. I had to root it and flash a CyanogenMod ROM to get it to v2.3 (Gingerbread) because HTC had dropped support for it basically the moment it was released, and while in theory Android is open source and free to all, you’re as much at the mercy of your manufacturer (or your modder) as you are with a closed system (more so if you don’t like your manufacturer’s shitty UI overlay or shovelware). I ditched that in November, taking advantage of a one-off bit of spare cash, to get an iPhone, which I’m now editing on.

"You’re too techy; you’ll get annoyed with it," I was informed by a friend at the time. But while iOS has its quirks, like not getting to see the file system, I’ve not missed its predecessor (even allowing for that being a budget device) in the slightest.

(It came down to a choice between that and the equivalent Androids, but aside from the dropping risk, the Apple won out easily on a practical level. I’m on a Mac, and you can’t sync iTunes to Android, while 3rd party apps are either bugged (DoubleTwist) or quirky and annoying; given this was also going to replace my MP3 needs as well, this was important. I need to be able to type one-handed while pushing a pram, and the bigger the screen, the harder that gets. I thought I’d miss Swype, but I’ve been genuinely impressed by the iPhone’s keyboard and autocorrect systems. And it has inbuilt text replacement so I don’t need to type out my email address constantly in web forms, just “eml”. Win. And iOS 4 and 5 fixed most of the glaring omissions - air sync etc. - of before.)

Android has some theoretical advantages on the larger form factor. Its on-screen keyboard is a huge pile better than iOS if you’re a writer - it has speech marks and apostrophes and things of that ilk right there, and a load of alternative keyboards if you don’t like it. Its more desktop-like home screen experience makes better use of the real estate than the silly spread of icons. And, while Honeycomb was a horrible rush-job pushed out the door to make sure the Motorola Xoom launched on time, I love the Tron looks of the thing.

But it also has its annoyances. While the Market’s website remains a thing of great beauty, the updated version of the onboard app for it, released when Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0, fact-fans) came out in late October last year (IIRC) on the Galaxy Nexus S, turned the mobile version from a perfect mirror of this loveliness into a total atrocity. The worst version of the Market there has, to my knowledge, ever been, and it’s up against some stinkers. It’s a mess. I can’t describe just in how many ways it is, but it’s awful. It’s easier to browse the website and send stuff to the tablet from the Android device itself than it is to use the application. And then there’s the issue updates.

Asus, who are a good manufacturer, have been promising its Transformers will get the update to the new (and in theory much less slapdash) OS version since December, and dates continue to slip with nary a whiff of the thing. (Their end-of-year-release Transformer Prime shipped with it installed, so it’s not like they don’t have it knocking around to work on.) Bearing in mind that Android is still buggy - the default browser crashes whenever you so much as sneeze some days - and security upgrades are going to be increasingly important in the mobile sphere, updates are important.

There’s a tendency, though, with the greater churn-out of Android products, for manufacturers to drop support for older products very fast (I mentioned that the Tattoo was pre-dropped on release officially because its tiddly processor couldn’t support 2.0’s demands, a lie writ large given its better performance under 2.3 than under stock 1.6; Samsung recently announced that the 18-month old Galaxy S won’t be getting 4.0, etc. and so forth) to concentrate on their endless array of new ones.

Compare to Apple, and whatever you think of their software/hardware/working conditions, they’re much better at support. Whenever a new version of iOS is released, everyone gets it, even on the 3GS which I seem to recall is over 3 years old now. (They have dropped support for the older original iPhone and the 3G, true.) No waiting around.

But the reason I’m now editing on my phone and playing Angry Birds on the tablet (Angry Birds, it has to be said, is a lot better on a bigger screen) is, however, the software.

There are a dozen PDF annotation apps for iOS, and the couple that I’ve tried (I’m using Neu.Annotate) work as you’d want: tap the “draw” icon and any scribble you make on the screen will apply to the PDF. Drag the scrollbar or tap the hand icon to go back to moving the page. You can’t handwrite clearly because no one can unless they have a magically pointy finger, but underlining, crossing out etc. is pretty easy.

There are two decent ones on Android: EZPDFReader and RepliGo Reader. Both are on the Eee. And in both cases, they’re a fucking pain. Tap on ‘draw’ icon. Choose ‘freehand’. Draw. Now tap on ‘save’ to apply your drawing. Or ‘undo’ to delete what you’ve done because you cocked it. And you have to repeat this edit-by-edit because those drawings become an upper layer covering the page in a rectangle big enough to contain them all. So if you try to do a whole page’s edits at once, not only will undoing delete the lot, if you miss something you won’t be able to add to it. You’ll just select your edits layer and have the option of moving or erasing it.

They are, and have been for a long time, the best available applications for editing PDFs on Android. Editing the 100-ish pages of ALL YOU LEAVE BEHIND was a teeth-gritting nightmare. (And not just while in the shitter, fnar fnar.)

There are two, the Market tells me, ones which behave more like their iOS counterparts, but they are hardware-locked to the Galaxy Note (to be fair, that’s what the Note’s supposed to specialise in). If you don’t have a device equipped with that stylus, you can’t use them.

Balls to that.

Android’s been around long enough that there should be more in its arsenal. It has, on tablet at least, the better keyboard and a slick UI. It has a good web market countered by the shittiness of its own application. But so much of what’s on it is either in dire need of competition, abandonware, or, thanks to the lack of overall gatekeeping, plain unremitting shit or weirdly horrible (count how many “sex games” are in the top 100 on its charts). iOS has some of the same issues, but nowhere near as badly, and the development scene looks pretty sound.

Linux, its root ancestor, can be fiddly and beardy but thrives on great little tools and a strong developer community (though, let’s be fair, so does the Mac) and can do some wonderful things given the right love and attention. I don’t know that its mobile children, ham-fistedly shoved out the door by manufacturers like honking prats out of a fucking clown car, ever will on current evidence.

They Shoot Novels, Don't They?

Last night I decided to down tools on the current WIP nearly halfway into the story and about a quarter into the actual word count. (Because I tend to skip bits if they’re awkward/simple and then back-fill later.) This 1:1 ratio of done to skipped is a little higher than usual, and the fact I’ve been working on this for (allowing for Christmas, family death plague, et al.) a month or two and I’m only this far in, count-wise, shows how slow the going’s been for a while.

But why scrub it? For the edification of those who’ve wondered such to me on Twitter, here’s an insight into how it works/I work.

Partly I’m dropping it because it stopped being fun to write weeks ago. That’s good enough reason by itself. Partly, though, because the problems with it, the ones that have made it distinctly unfun, are pretty fundamental and I’m not sure how to resolve them without writing another story anyway. I’m quite used to getting partway into a book and then realising that my plan/direction is badly wrong. It happened with Project 1 (YA one, finished in November), it’s happened in the past. You realise, you adjust, you overcome and then you breeze on knowing that you’ve saved yourself one redraft at the end. Basically.

Last night I made a list of the good and bad from what I’ve got so far.

The Good:

The intro to Jack [MC 1] is good. [Initial elder supporting character] is good too.

Arrival into [the town where Part 1 of the story happens].

[Minor supporting character met in town].

Initial meet with Anya [MC 2] and their banter both here and in final escape.

Some of the conceptual ideas.

Storyline-wise, I’m now ~50% of the way through the much longer Part 2 section, and aside from one (minor setting location) conceptual thing there is nothing good in it. Part 1 is obviously quite a bit stronger, though it’s worth noting that nothing especially germane to the running story in that section features in the list.

Not a great sign.

The Bad:

There’s no interesting moral question for the two main characters (more, in fact, for the Nazi sideline [which I started writing on impulse while stuck; the main story involves tracking A Thing that unbeknownst to anyone was recovered by an Ahnenerbe expedition in the 30s, so I decided to run with some f/b chapters to that expedition and the two men guiding it]).

We sort of have two stories here - one in which an ass-kicking master of languages goes and kicks ass around the world, and one which is a secret world peer-behind-the-curtain thing which should leave a character feeling a little out of their depth and a little awed by it all, not to mention under constant threat, which that ass-kicker character doesn’t by dint of being ass-kicky.

There’s no emotional investment by the characters in what they’re doing, so none for the reader, or writer. They do stuff largely because the bad guys are bad guys.

There’s no conflict in what the character is doing. No sense of having to juggle (at least) two things at once, like if you’re trying to find the MacGuffin while also figuring out a way to free your brother from the Mob. That sort of thing.

There’s no specific motive for the bad guys, no reason for them to (a) get anything quickly or (b) to get it at all beyond “having all the cool toys”. There’s also no reason for them to be after either main character beyond stopping them from interfering.

Basically, the whole story has as much depth and interest as a puddle of watery shit.

I can see ways to fix some of these, but only by completely changing the story and characters. I can do Mr Ass-Kick Kicks Ass by having a very early reveal of all the mysterious crap and then having him punch Nazi zombies for 300 pages. That’s all fine and fun, sure.

I can do There Is A World Hidden Behind The One You Know and a creeping run of mystery and conspiracy, but not with a Mr Ass-Kick main character and not with 90% of the going-places-to-do-stuff as currently exists. That’s also all fine and fun.

The first has more action, and if I forget mystery I can throw in some broader drag-by-the-gut motivational core to it and rock on. The second has a lot less and more horror, and more conflicted and vulnerable characters slot nicely into it. Great. I still have no fix for the motivations of anyone else, nor the complications needed to give depth, but I could come up with such appropriate to each.

Both of them, though, are different books. Wholly new, start-from-zero books. And wholly different to the original pitch to my agents that the go-ahead was given on. This last might seem a bit strange - you write what you want, no? - but having the career record I do I’d like to give them something they can shop around with reasonable confidence. (Explanation for the actual process behind this, and the reasons for it, would be a post in itself.)

So. Either way we’d be looking at a new book. I’m going to let it linger for a while, see if I can come up with some miraculous way of fixing things without changing wholesale, and do some other stuff - reopen the 3/4-finished MURDER PARK, brush off the plans file, start throwing a couple of things together - that I actually want to do in the meantime.

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The Smashwords license boilerplate is - to my mind - unnecessarily dickish. (Not that I’m using them, but read at the start of James’s NATURAL CAUSES.)

A Kids Story: Billy McPugh & The Monsters' Ball

It’s book season in reception and I wrote a story to read to Aidan’s class last week. Some of the rhythm is iffy and the rhyme pattern shifts all over the place, but thirty 4-5 year olds loved it. They played the part of the Squeaks (there’s a line naming three of them and their teacher; amend to suit) and got to roar all together at every RARGH! in the text. And no small child doesn’t find a poo monster hilarious (or, it seems, a clockwork old woman piloted by a goblin), and I got to do a bunch of silly voices.

How I’d love to be/to know an illustrator and try for publication, but I’m not/I don’t, and so here it is for your own reading pleasure.


BILLY MCPUGH & THE MONSTERS’ BALL

There once was a boy called Billy McPugh.
He wasn’t an ogre, wasn’t big, wasn’t blue.

He didn’t have fur, or spikes down his back,
or a beak like an eagle, or teeth coloured black.

But Billy’s best friend was a beast just like that.
She had feathers, and horns, and claws like a cat.

Her voice was an earsplitting, terrible yell,
but she was loving and kind and her name it was Nell.

Now every year the monsters
hold a great big monsters’ ball.
There’s lots of food and lots of drink
and dancing in the hall.

But when his best friend Nell went off
to join the monster crowd,
she said to Billy, “I’m so sorry!
Normal people aren’t allowed.”

When Billy tried to follow her,
a massive giant blocked the door.
“What’s this?” he said. “Not scary,
not a monster, I am sure.

You can’t come in,
Get out, we’re through.
No people at the monsters’ ball,
no party time for you.”

But Billy wouldn’t listen
and he made a clever plan
to make himself appear to be
a monster, not a man.

He made himself a wooden club,
His skin he painted green.
He gave himself a warty nose
Like a witch from Halloween.

Billy walked back to the giant,
and said, “Get out of my way,
for I am a troll, ferocious and fierce,
and I’ve had a very bad day!”

"A troll?" said the giant. "Now don’t make me laugh.
I’ve been more scared of the soap when taking a bath.

That’s not your nose,
and your eyes are too blue.
No people at the monsters’ ball
and no party time for you!”

Next Billy tried a pair of wings,
and covered his body in scales.
He made a big snout to cover his mouth,
and claws to go over his nails.

"I am a dragon, you must let me through, else I’ll burn you all up,” said Billy.
“A dragon? Not so, you’re more like a boy. Don’t think that I’m stupid or silly.”

"Those wings are just made from paper,
Your snout it’s been stuck on with glue.
No people at the monsters’ ball
and no party time for you!”

So Billy took a bedroom sheet,
and cut two holes for eyes.
Some spooky moans and eerie groans
would make a ghostly surprise.

"Wooooooh! I’m a ghost, let me pass, I insist!
I’ll give you a fright if you shan’t.”
“Oh no I won’t,” said the giant. “Stop kidding, desist.
And give me a fright? You just can’t.

Get out, go home, I’ve said before,
You’re never getting through.
No people at the monsters’ ball
and no party time for you!”

Poor Billy trudged away so sad,
he’d miss Nell’s party, all the fun.
But what he didn’t know was that
some things had seen him feeling glum.

In trees and bushes lurked the Squeaks,
tiny creatures all cheeky and dirty.
Squeak-Aidan, Squeak-Eden, Squeak-Oliver too,
Squeak-Pickersgill the worst of all thirty.

The first of the Squeaks jumped out of the bush,
said, “Wait, we can help you tonight.
That giant is nothing to get past, we know,
so long as you tackle him right.

No need to be monstrous to frighten that bully,
all you need is to trust in your friends.
With us on your side you’ll go to the ball,
and believe us the fun never ends.”

"But I’m not scary," said Billy.
“The trick is your roar.”
“My roar’s just too weak
to get through the door.”

"What we do," said the Squeak,
“is we all roar in song.
Our voices are meek,
but together we’re strong.

One Squeak joins another Squeak,
then those Squeaks join one more.
Before you know it, thirty Squeaks
are walking through that door.

So give us once more your warbling roar,
but this time we’ll all join in.
And I think what you’ll find,
when we all roar as one,
is the most incredible din.”

1… 2… 3… RARGH!

"That’s brilliant!" said Billy. "That’s a roar and a half!
It’s totally horribly frightening!
We’ll make that giant jump up so high
you’d think he was just struck by lightning!”

Once more to the door of the monsters he went,
ran with the speed of a rocket.
Squeaks in his hair and Squeaks in his shoes,
and most of them hid in his pocket.

The giant shook his head. “What’s this?
I’ve told you once before,
no people at the monster’s ball…”
Then Billy roared his roar!

RARGH!

The giant jumped. “Aaaargh no! Help! Run!
Won’t someone please save me?
I’m so scared I think I might, just might,
have done a little wee.

Go through, go through, go on, go through,”
the giant showed them after.
The Squeaks and Billy passed the door
into monster songs and laughter.

The other monsters gathered there
saw Billy searching round for Nell
but how this boy had gotten in
they really couldn’t tell.

"Excuse me," he asked a shambling mound,
“I’m trying to find my best friend.
She’s here at the party, I’ve looked all around,
but the crowd seems to be without end.”

"A friend? Have I seen?" said the mound, turning round.
“If I have then what’s it to you?”
The glistening blob loomed above, smelling bad,
for this monster was made out of poo!

Before it could cover young Bill and the Squeaks,
(They wouldn’t have liked it; the stink lasts for weeks!)
Once more,
like before
Billy roared!

RARGH!

The poo monster fled,
squealing loudly in fear,
for the roar, like before,
was most scary to hear.

After him was a witch,
then a zombie, a spider,
a clockwork old woman
with a goblin inside her.

They all ran from young Billy
and his pockets of Squeaks
till at last they saw Nell
who delightedly shrieked:

"Oh Billy, you made it,
I thought that you couldn’t!”
“Miss a party, like this one
with monsters? I wouldn’t!”

And so they went dancing,
played games, and ate cake.
They raced, and they chased,
until it was late.

And when Billy told her
how he’d come to be there,
of the giant, the Squeaks,
how they’d helped him to scare

Nell laughed and ruffled a claw through his hair.
“Oh Billy, you’re silly, oh Billy McPugh.
Seems we’re all little monsters…
especially YOU!”


Encore, applause, exit, pursued by a bear. Or have two children try to eat your jacket to prove what good monsters they’d be. Whichever, y’know.

If you’re expecting that we’ll replace fossil fuels and do it on the cheap, you might as well learn to bawl on the floor kicking and pounding your fists, tears streaming. This is our predicament. We have to buck up and deal with it, somehow.
The excellent Do the Math reaches the first stage summary. The blog should be required reading for anyone wanting to sound informed on energy issues.