Should an author read or even respond to reviews?

As a nuclear power plant worker I am used to following rules. Some are absolute--never to be violated even under the most extreme situations. Others can be broken, but only if the rules for breaking them are followed. And then, there are 'rules' that should really be classified as suggestions. Some writers believe in the absolute rule of "Never, ever, read the comments". Some, believe it's okay to read them but apply the second rule: "Never reply to a comment". My personal rules regarding comments are not quite so absolute.

What most writers fear are the internet trolls who, for one reason or another, seem to enjoy online bullying. Why people do this is beyond me, but have no doubt, these people are real. Check out this article by author Dougie Brimson - it will open your eyes. The best tactic against the trolls is to simply ignore them.

I have gotten negative reviews on my books. Before I uploaded my first book to Amazon back in 2009, I knew there would be people out there who would not like my writing. That's fine. I also realize there are people who love to cut other people down. If I pick up a book and after 4 chapters I quit reading it because I'm not into the author's style, I don't immediately drop a negative comment. I'm smart enough to realize that not everyone has the same tastes. I don't like lobster but that doesn't mean that if I see you eating it I'm going to think less of you. Our differences are what makes us human--it's what differentiates us from robots.

I also realize that my fans can be a goldmine of information to help make my books better. That's why I read every comment, every review, and every email. I'm looking for constructive feedback--stuff I can use and act upon to provide my fans with material they will continue to enjoy. Nobody is perfect and even the best can become better.

I follow a similar rule regarding replying to comments and reviews. If someone writes a particularly good review, I thank them. If they provide a helpful comment or ask a pertinent question, I will also reply. I never try to start an argument with anyone when I reply. Bear in mind that anyone on the planet can read what you've written. Be professional.

Two stories I would like to share. There was an individual from Australia who wrote a rather bad review of one of my books. I could sense his frustration and I felt I could gain some useful feedback but the post did not provide any details as to what the reader was upset about. I replied. I kept the reply professional and I asked for particulars. He replied and that started a private email conversation that ended up with him retracting his original post and writing a better review. We corresponded for a few months after that. It was a good experience all around. There was one individual, however, who seemed offended by what had happened. This brings me to the other story.

There was an individual who wrote a very negative review of Translight specifically because I mentioned global warming and the government was not presented as a champion of advancement. The review said nothing about the quality of the book itself. I wrote a reply which caused her to fire off an argumentative response. I nipped it in the bud by not taking the bait and simply ignored it. But, realizing that there are some out there who take offense at some things, I revised Translight slightly to tone down the discussion on climate change. I prefer to remain neutral on some matters.

My suggestion to new writers: read the reviews because without them you have no way of knowing what your fans think of your work. Read them with the intent of learning how to become a better writer. Never reply to a negative review! Doing so is what the troll that wrote it wants--you will regret it. If you to find a comment worthy of a reply, do so in a professional manner. Expect to be baited and never fall into that trap.

Writers are public figures. Be professional at all times and listen to your readers.


BSinSF: Space Weapons

In my past Bad Science in Science Fiction posts I’ve covered the obvious problems faced by scifi writers. Unless someone comes up with a suggestion, this will be the last in this tiny series.

What is the best possible weapon for an advanced culture to use? It depends. Believe it or not, if you’re interested in colonizing a planet that happens to already have an indigenous species living on it, your best tactic is to throw a few rocks at them—big ones. Change the course of a few asteroids and have them impact the target world and you have yourself a nonradioactive equivalent of an ecosphere destroying nuclear attack. Wait a decade or so and then just mop up the few survivors and move in. This is an example of a kinetic energy weapon.

What about fighting in space? Kinetic energy weapons would be useless for long-ranges because the target can maneuver out of the way. High acceleration missiles can also be used for close-in combat. But for long-range battles with the combatants at a distance of hundreds of thousands of kilometers then the only choice is a directed energy weapon—beam weapons.

Near light-speed particle beam weapons can deliver a lot of energy but require an enormous amount of power to operate. Is it worth the power needed to generate the particle beam? Perhaps. You must have a way of accelerating the particles and that usually requires a very long, difficult to aim, exceptionally power-hungry machine. Lasers are a much better choice.

In space, the choice of laser frequency would depend on what type of target you’re aiming for and how easily you can focus the beam. If your target is a very reflective surface you probably want to stay away from visible-spectrum lasers. If you’re trying to destroy something on the surface of a planet from space you need to consider how fast your beam will be absorbed in the atmosphere. The type of atmosphere will make a difference as well. If you want to keep the science real, look up the absorption spectrum of the major gas of the atmosphere. This means your beam weapon must be tunable.

I am a very big fan of science fiction movies. I love the high-tech weaponry and awesome special effects. Even though I am well-aware that every scifi film I’ve ever seen violates the known laws of physics when it comes to weapons I still agree with Hollywood when it comes to showing visible beams in space. Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica would be less interesting if the weapons in use were invisible. Making them visible definitely adds to the visual effects.

Why are lasers invisible in space? Think about it for a minute. How do your eyes work? In order to see something a few photons of light from the source must enter your eye. A laser is a coherent beam of energy with all the photons moving in synchronization from the source to the target. If you can see the beam, then some of those photons are not moving in the right direction which represents a loss of power. The only way for those photons to leave the beam and enter your eye is if they are forced to change direction by hitting something. There’s not much of anything in space to hit.

The other factor involved is the frequency of the laser. If there was something causing the beam to leak photons then those photons would have to be in the visible spectrum to be seen. That’s a pretty narrow band of frequencies. If the beam is not composed of energy but is, instead, a beam of particles, then there is no way anyone could see the beam. The bottom line here is if you want your novel to follow pure science, then all beam weapons should be invisible.

I work at a nuclear power plant and I’m quite familiar with the units of measurement for power and energy—the two are NOT the same but they are closely related. It took me a long time to completely understand the difference. Even today, I sometimes get confused. I don’t know how many times I’ve read that a beam was delivering xx megawatts of power to the target. A megawatt is a measurement of the amount of energy consumed over a period of time. It is not what the experts use to denote the amount of energy delivered to a target. For this, they use Joules. Depositing energy is what causes damage. The more energy you can deliver to the target the more damage you can do. For a very good discussion of this topic take a look here.

While I’m on the subject of energy, the science-minded writer must consider how much energy it takes to actually damage a target. Unless your weapon is backed by a titanic energy source you won’t see the type of damage depicted in the movies. (Huge power sources have their own issues as I pointed out in a past post: Thermodynamics, the bane of science fiction.) A hit from a laser will not cause a ship to instantly explode unless it happens to cause a secondary explosion. I recommend reading up on how lasers work and how they affect their targets. You should also be familiar with how much energy it takes to melt a given thickness of material.

A final note—in order for a beam weapon to penetrate the skin of a ship, it must maintain its focus on a very narrow spot for a period of time long enough to deposit enough energy to burn its way through. Doing that at a distance of a few hundred or thousand kilometers when both target and weapon platform are moving is quite a task. If you want to damage your target, then you had better give your weapons mind-boggling power levels (or is it energy levels?).

By the way—I just finished season one of Falling Skies. I love it!


Writing tools I use

Over the years, I've built up an essential toolbox full of the things a writer needs. Like a good mechanic, I have a few select tools I use more than others and a few that sit idle for long periods of time but are indispensable when I need to reach for them. Your list of tools may be different, but here are the ones I find to be most useful.

The first tool any writer will pick up is something to write with. When I fist began writing I used a typewriter, now I use a keyboard. My primary writing instrument is an Acer netbook running Windows 7 Pro. This small PC is the ideal writing instrument because it's portable and relatively lightweight. I can easily carry it on a plane and it is comfortable to use almost anywhere. The battery life is decent and it runs all the other tools I use. The netbook however, would be incomplete without the programs I use to write - Scrivener and Microsoft Word.

I used Scrivener for the first time when I began working on Peacekeeper. I found it to be an indispensable platform on which to write. If you're a writer and you like to keep side notes, you must check out this wonderful program. The Mac version has more features than the Windows version I use. The program takes some getting used to but stick with it and you will not be disappointed. I also suggest getting yourself a copy of Scrivener for Dummies. I use Scrivener for the first draft and the second pass. After that, all editing is done in Microsoft Word.

Scrivener is not designed to produce final output although it can. For the final editing phases I use Microsoft Word. I compile the Scrivener manuscript into a Word document and then use Word's built in grammer-checker and spell-checker to do another quick pass. I print it out and give it to my wife for her to proof. This will take some time which gives me a break from the project. After my wife is done, I input her changes and then make a final pass. She approves any changes I make (using Word's track-changes feature) and then the project is done.

Another tool that is an absolute must for any writer is some sort of simple, set and forget, cloud storage. I use Dropbox for this. This wonderful, free, program keeps my manuscript synchronized between all my devices as well as keeping it safely backed up in the cloud without my ever having to think about it. It also hangs onto several past versions just in case I screw things up so bad I've got to start over. If my hard drive were to fail, my manuscript is safe and sound. If you don't have a cloud backup system in place STOP READING AND DO IT NOW!

If I'm ever at a loss for a word I fire up The Sage. This is a free (I use the paid for version) super thesaurus. I don't use it very often but when I need it, I need it badly. Give the free version a trial and if you're satisfied then please give the developers a little financial help and make a contribution. In return, you get the most up to date version of this wonderful product.

Don't forget the internet. It is perhaps the most powerful tool ever developed for writers. From the comfort of your home you can do complex research in a matter of hours that in the not too distant past would have taken a long trip, a healthy wad of cash, and more time than most of us have these days.

The final tool is education. This comes in the form of books, formal instruction, and feedback from your readers. Never stop learning! Broaden your horizons and experience the world by reading something you might never have considered reading. Be observant of the world around you -- you never know when a story idea will present itself.


In between writing projects

With Peacekeeper out in the wild (and selling quite well I should say), I'm taking a break from writing for awhile. I've recently received a book I ordered from Amazon titled "The 2014 Guide to Self Publishing" which I've started reading. Although I've been publishing my own books since 2009 it can't hurt to read up on the subject because you never know when you might run across something of interest that you didn't know about. I will be posting my review on Amazon and GoodReads when I'm done with it.

I am also reading "Conflict and Suspense". This is the book I leave at work and read before the morning meeting while I'm having breakfast (yes I eat breakfast at work) and having my morning coffee. This book might take awhile to read because of the limited time I have at work. It will be coming home over the holidays while I'm on vacation.

In the meantime, I've been working on where to go with the next book in the Galactic Alliance - Peacekeeper spin off. I've pretty much decided to write at least one and perhaps two more Peacekeeper books. That's why I wrote Peacekeeper in the first place. I have several interesting ideas but I need to let my brain work on the details for awhile before starting on the next book. I also have a very interesting idea for a follow-up to Off-Course. I will work on whichever story line is best developed when I decide to start writing again.

I did manage to finish watching all Firefly episodes and now I can begin watching "Falling Skies". I caught a few episodes a couple months ago and it looked very interesting. I had no idea it was into the third season. So, I signed up for Amazon Prime so I could watch the show from season one. I'll have to wait until season 4 starts so I can catch season 3 for free on Prime.

So that's what I've been doing. Not writing but doing a lot of thinking and reading up on how to write better. If there were some online courses I could take and if I had the time while working, I would be taking them as well. I would love to try to go to one of the Clarion's but I do work for a living so that will have to wait until I retire - if that ever happens. With healthcare so screwed up in this country I'm beginning to think I will have to work until I can no longer do the kind of work I do. Personally, I think this country's healthcare system is going to be our ruin. A man can work and save all his life only to have a single health emergency wipe out decades of savings putting him in the poor house. Insurance these days is a joke and the cost is so high as to be out of reach of most people. So, until that gets fixed, I think I will just continue to work and hope for the best.

I will let you know how things are going next week.

PS: I would like to write a few more blogs along the BSinSF series. I'm open to suggestions right now.