Saturday, March 18, 2017

CHAOS MONKEYS

"Real life experience is instructive, but the tuition is high."

So says Antonio Garcia Martinez (AGM) at some point in this fascinating book about an engineering grad student who became a "pricing quant" at Goldman, Sachs. He was then lured to work for Adchemy, a startup able to raise funds but not land any customers. When this realization sank in, AGM and two colleagues cooked up AdGrok through a happy combination of their skills, experience, and the fermentation process detailed in this book as the Y Combinator "startup boot camp" (there is a helpful index).

The author pauses to reflect on what personal qualities it took to embark upon a startup. The ability to persevere with single-minded focus, especially to endure what we might euphemistically call the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. AGM has a saltier vernacular, acquired perhaps from years in a difficult family situation, in the all-boys Catholic school, amidst the penury of grad school in engineering, and on Wall Street's "most competitive trading floor during its biggest market catastrophe."

He heaps scorn therefore on those who have "ideas without implementation," the American immigration visa system, slimy lawyers, his bosses - singling one out for being the only decent person in the company and naming the vicious, the vacuous, and those with "more crossed allegiances and conflicts of interest than ..." The voice is distinctive if corrosive. He does go somewhat easy on his former partners (though the British Trader and the Israeli Psychologist will easily recognize themselves). Perhaps some good comes from "Catholic guilt and Hispanic [Cuban] chivalry."

The story aims to communicate some understanding of credit default swaps, basic marketing, and "how to bolt on a real-time ad exchange onto a social media platform." There is, alas, a lightweight feel to the explanation of financial derivatives, deadly when serious alternatives already exist. For an introduction to marketing, there are many textbookish and more or less entertaining accounts. One would take the pages devoted to the value of an ad exchange more seriously for after all Twitter did and paid AGM to advise on its venture. But it is very likely someone with inside knowledge of Amazon's A9 unit might have a more definite treatment of the process.

Nevertheless, AGM has written a very entertaining story. He has used many of the dark arts of novel writing, engaging hooks, building suspense, investing his characters with emotions - I would quote extracts except that my own sensibilities get in the way of such freedom of speech. Withall, this book is a testimony to the dictum that "truth is stranger than fiction."

Among all real life experiences, there are many that cannot be purchased, as they say, for love or money. Few of us will ever experience the "present at the creation" thrill or life-changing awe of deciphering a hitherto unknown language or the making or unmaking of decisions by star-crossed lovers or war-mongers. That is why we read--to extend the experience of our small lives beyond our time and space. Fiction and nonfiction both serve this purpose. One might prefer Gore Vidal's Burr to Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton, or not. Reading either will enrich your life, I assure you. For the same reason, read Chaos Monkeys.

Chaos Monkeys, website

Sunday, October 30, 2016

CRITIQUES

You have heard about these and were, perhaps, afraid to ask.

The thing is, whatever you write for publication will be read. So, why not have it read while you can still make changes, revisions, even "kill your darlings." If you are not writing for publication, then this blog post has nothing to say.

Of course, it depends on the genre into which your writing falls. But I like to think that all fiction from Miss Marple mysteries to young adult, romantic, post-apocalyptic, zombie fantasies follow certain rules. Do you worry about a plot hole, a point of view violation, or discontinuities of character across your chapters? You should.

If writing nonfiction, are your sentences long, do you lean heavily on the passive voice, have you done enough fact-checking? This last point is important also in writing fiction, screenwriting, drama, etc.

It might surprise you what a fresh pair of eyes might find jarring about some (perhaps unnecessary?) reference to a vintage wine or car - is it likely that the 2000 Chateau Lafite is drinkable in a scene set in 2005? If you are writing a play, do you have a friendly "dramaturge" watching your back?

Where then does one find helpful critiques? Fellow writers, friends, even family might tire on your fourth, third or even second request. You should seek out critique groups or workshops where writers exchange comments on each other's essays. These might be set up along broad genre lines - fiction, nonfiction or poetry.

The essence of these groups is an exchange of effort, so take care to keep it civil and helpful. One gives advice and tries not to advocate a change of someone else's writing preference. Offer fact-checking with suitable modesty - did you mean to use a Swahili/Parsi word in this Ibo/Arabic scene?

If you are shy and would rather not get into a direct conversation with someone over critiques, consider Scribophile.com. This enables online critiques. It is built on the premise that one's critiques might inspire others to do the same for one's writing.

Scribophile, the online writing group for serious writers

This website offers the opportunity for anonymity (you can set up your profile with a pen name) and limited exposure (your writing can be posted for "public" view or not).

It is worth your time to explore the various groups (look for your genre - broadly defined), read some of the writing posted, and decide on whether to pay for the "premium" (under six dollars a month if you sign up for one year) or free membership. There are helpful articles in the "academy" on comma usage, use of active versus passive voice, development of characters, questions regarding point of view, and of course an essay on how to write a great critique.

Finally, on the subject of civility and decent behavior, I find it irresistable to cite George Washington's teenage reminder to himself when he copied into a notebook the 110 "rules" that were commonplace in those days. These are worth reading and thinking about and are available (PDF) for free at this link.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

EDITING

This subject hovers over a writer with predestination in its wings.

The first book I published, The Battle of Chibi in 2010 occupied me through six proof versions. Eventually, I learned the value of editors and proofreaders. But "indie writers" all deal with questions about cost and struggle with cost-effectiveness. This is sobering when one considers that the recommended practice is a minimum of four edits and two proofreadings.

Here is a strategy to reduce that cost.

First of all, one should learn as much as one can about the capabilities of one's word processing software. I am not a Scrivener user, and so have tried to learn what MS Word can do. There is much to absorb and a search for "word tips" will lead to several helpful sites. Word itself has a Review
menu that should be your first resort - especially the Spelling and Grammar Check. After one goes through all the items this function points out, there is a summary of word count, passive verbs, long sentences, and grade level readability.

The second self-help program is Grammarly. This strikes me as a bit of a "scold" but I am aware that

the hectoring is well deserved. If you opt for the free version, it will work with your browser and comment on all emails and anything you post online. To have it assist your word processing, you'll need to purchase the version that works with MS Office. Perhaps there is one that will work with other word processing options. At any rate, here is a link to some reviews of Grammarly.

The third thing to do is run your writing through Pro Writing Aid. Do visit this link or at least check out the following screenshot.

I have sent four chapters of a current project through this amazing site. Each experience leaves me feeling that I have been spanked. Perhaps you will also. Just suck it up and consider this character-building, as well as hugely beneficial to your writing.




Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Interview with Ugochukwu Kingsley Ani

My guest is a Nigerian author who put pen to paper at eleven when he chose to start working on “the words that were speaking to him in his head. So far, he’s written and published several articles and he has several books in the offing. He’s resident in Lagos, the financial capital of Nigeria as New York is to America.

“When not writing, he focuses on his legal career, and he’s hoping to garner more knowledge and
technical expertise in the Law before delving into the Legal Thriller genre. He loves to keep fit and exercise, and also works on a multi-purpose blog.”


Please tell us something about your writing and how you came to be a writer.

I have always been the kind of person that likes to read books. I always had books lying around at home, and I always made it a point to pick them up and read them, thereby falling in love with the characters and the rich lives envisaged of them in the pages of the works. Then one day, I just picked up a pen and decided to write something down. I was fourteen then, and I have never looked back again.

I write about a myriad of topics, particularly about people and the way they treat each other.

I can see two people on the street discussing something on the street and it will serve as the beginning fodder for a new work.

Who are the writers you admire most? Do you "follow" anyone in particular in your reading or writing?

I have been reading a lot of books across diverse genres. There are so many authors I can say that have really moved me in terms of the impact that their works have made in my life. Many of them have helped me to understand human nature better than I used to in the past.

The authors who have a made a serious impact include: Sir. Henry Rider Haggard, with the saga She, Erica Spindler with the work Forbidden Fruit, Elizabeth Gage with A Glimpse of Stocking. Stephen King with Carrie, Jeffrey Archer with the saga Kane and Abel. These are books and authors I read years ago but their books and the message in them still resonate with me deeply till this very day.

There are several other authors, but I cannot list all of them out or there will never be an end to it.

I do not follow anyone in particular, but what I do is to ensure that there is always a stock of several works by a particular author on my e-reader. I love reading works by authors I have enjoyed their previous works.

What genres do you write in? Do you feel strongly about this choice/these choices?

I have written an erotic saga, The Wedded Whore, which I felt so strongly about because of the fact that it touches on human sexuality and the issue of love-hate relationships. I have also written in the GLBT genre because of the fact that it has spoken to me due to the fact that Nigeria, my home country, is a country that is extremely homophobic. I have seen many gay people living the lives that the society mapped out for them because they have no choice really in the matter.

Note that I can write in any genre, provided that something about a particular story or set of characters speaks to the inner muse in me to pick up the laptop and start to type.

What motivates you to write what you do?

I am motivated by the people I come into contact with on a daily basis. There is a lot to glean from the lives of the people around you. All you have to be is willing to listen to the inner voice that speaks from them; that is what drives my fingers on the keyboard when I work.

There are a lot of stories to be told, all in different voices and using different circumstances and set of persons to lend life to it. So, the motivation comes from everywhere I can look.

What voices/points of view have you written in or would consider writing in? Is your choice related to your motivation as a writer?

I have written from the voice of an oppressed gay man who had been forced to get married and then keep a lover on the side because there was no way he could let his nature die out. I have written using a revenge-seeking damsel, and a stunningly beautiful go-getter with a lot of wiles; I look at things from very different angles at the same time.

I believe that a glass can be half-full and half-empty at the same time; that a man can love a woman and still hate her at the same time; that a woman can protect her own child and still want to kill that child in spite of the fact that she loves that child and would want to protect it at all costs. Because of the fact that I look at things from so many different views, I can turn all those views into the voices of the characters that will tell the story for me that I want to tell to the world.

I would consider writing a work from the point of view of a known villain. The reason is simply because of the fact that there is always an element of good in all persons. I find it extremely hard to believe that someone can be totally bad; even if they are, then there must be someone or something that touches that soft spot in their heart. I would love to write about that; about the redemption of someone seen by the entire world as bad or evil. That would be a challenge.

My choice of point of view is related to my motivation as a writer, because, like I said, I look at the world through a lens that takes in everything and gives away nothing. I soak it all in, and I then transform it into something on paper.

Thank you.

Links:

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Battle of Chibi - Giveaway

Ten copies of The Battle of Chibi will be given away through Goodreads. Register for one of these between September 24 and October 17. Goodreads has an algorithm that will select the winners and I will mail them out myself. Following is the  Goodreads "widget."


Goodreads Book Giveaway


The Battle of Chibi (Red Cliffs) by Hock G. Tjoa

The Battle of Chibi (Red Cliffs)

by Hock G. Tjoa


Giveaway ends October 20, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.


Enter Giveaway


I should say that I have personally found Goodreads a wonderful resource, organized in "groups," - fellow writers, readers, lists of editors, proofreaders, etc. One example is Goodreads Authors/Readers.It also has several groups that focus on getting reviews for independent (INDIE) authors. One that I visit often is simply called Review Group. Finally, one group that holds special memories for me is The James Mason Community Book Club.

Do visit Goodreads for your reading pleasure or writing needs.

Monday, August 22, 2016

A second edition for The Battle of Chibi

First published in 2010 with the ebook version appearing in 2012, this selection and translation from "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" now appears in a second edition.

The format is "tidied up" as I have learned something about "how to make [MS] Word behave" mostly from the Smashwords style guide that coined the phrase and from Wordtips, a website with invaluable contributions.

I have also tweaked the writing to make the story flow better although I trembled while doing this as writing style is a highly personal matter and there is no guarantee that my "improvements" will appeal to more readers. I did take the opportunity to eliminate the errors I found on further reading and even sent my revised text for proofreading by a professional.

Perhaps the most significant changes are, firstly, the new cover as I have long felt that the 2010 and 2012 versions were too amateurish since I did them myself with the help of the templates available from Createspace. This time I used the expert design of Dawn Dominque whose website is linked. I recommend her services without reservation.

Secondly, I decided that I should purchase my own ISBN for this edition and create a different imprint for it and all my publications - SleepingDragonBooks. The reasons are technical and of interest only to writers - I shall spare the casual reader. All existing publications will migrate to this umbrella over the next months and years. Anything new will be published directly under it. The name will be recognized by those who read The Battle of Chibi or know "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms."

I have also decided to add a distributor to help get this title beyond the Amazon world, outside the United States in print and everywhere in the epub format. Ingram Spark was my choice, again for reasons that are of little interest to the casual reader. Other writers may be interested to know that there is more to be learned than one might care about the quirks of Print on Demand houses, e-book publishing, and distribution of books. Due to these difficulties, I am not able to provide a link to Ingram Spark (yet). But here is the one to the "everything store," Amazon.



Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Review of The Ninja and the Diplomat

The following is a recent review in Goodreads and Amazon of The Ninja and the Diplomat, vol. 2 of my series, The Chinese Spymaster. Volumes 1 and 2 have already been published - see the tab "Books" above; volume three is planned for end 2017, early 2018. This review by Michael Brandt is reproduced with the author's kind permission. As the writer, I am glad of any attention to my books and especially appreciative of positive reviews.

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I knew I would enjoy this book as soon as I read "The tyranny of Aristotelian unities." This a politically rich thriller involving the intersection of weapons dealing, intelligence services, and geopolitical unrest set in multiple East Asian countries. Despite how those first two sentences must sound, this is a fast-paced story with plenty of physical action.

The writing is solid throughout, and downright masterful in parts. It is mostly purely functional, which keeps the pacing progressing rapidly. I personally would have preferred if it had slowed down and the author eased away from the functional to show some more of his flair and extend individual scenes. In this way, some smaller dramas and conflicts could be added to bring individual chapters more to life and augment the overarching one, and certain emotional scenes could be intensified. But that's a purely personal preference that not all readers would agree with.

The POV bounces between quite a few characters, some more identifiable than others. In some places I got the sense that the characters were less important than the content, which is educational and insightful. It effectively shows real and complex political issues from differing perspectives. If you prefer your politics in black-and-white and your fiction in good-versus-evil, you might not like this, but if you recognize reality then the style should appeal to you.

I was prepared to be annoyed by the inclusion of a ninja, which most media presents in a farcical caricature of reality. But to my relief, the author handles it well, providing a reasonable explanation of his presence and presentation of his abilities.

Might be a little hard for readers unfamiliar with the history and geopolitics of the region. As a former student of international relations, I found it quite interesting. The author provides a helpful map, but I still found myself wondering whether readers unfamiliar with things such as the circumstances and consequences of the American occupation of The Philippines could be thrown off.

Overall, I'd recommend this to readers who enjoy spy thrillers and anyone with even the slightest interest in Asian geopolitics.

Here is a link to the review on Goodreads
and another to the same review on Amazon