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26 Mar 2015

Gee Rodriguez and the rottweiler witch - a blog about Clean Reader

How Clean Reader might show you a painting
If you haven't heard of Clean Reader yet then allow me to enlighten you: it's an app that automatically changes swears and other types of "profane" words in ebooks into more acceptable language.

I know! What kind of terrified baby would want or need something like that? 

Well, apparently some people do. Though what they make of the internet I have no idea.

Here are my thoughts on why it's kind of OK in one way but mainly not OK in pretty much all other ways...

The reader is always right

If you've bought a book then you have the right to read it however you like. You can read the last page first if you want. You can skip sentences, paragraphs, pages or even whole chapters (I never read a prologue, for example, and I skipped the "Huey Lewis & The News" chapter in American Psycho after I got a couple of pages into it and realised that it was just going to carry on like that).

No-one's even going to know. In all likelihood, no-one's going to care either.

If you've bought it then it's your book. You can do what you like with it, and whether a writer likes it or not, you'll read it however you want to. You may not get the experience that the writer intended, but it's only you that'll suffer if you miss out on the better experience that you could have had. But it's up to you.

In this respect, I have no problem with Clean Reader.

The writer is always right

Writing a book takes a lot of thought, time and effort. Few writers simply dash something off, and the plot, characterisation, narrative and dialogue that they work so hard on are all crafted in order to convey very particular meanings and emotions. The words that they use are chosen with care, and many - particularly the more controversial - are used very deliberately.

Changing words without the consent of the author changes the meanings and emotions that the author wants to convey.

The most stringent setting of Clean Reader apparently removes racial epithets and slurs. That's fine, but if you've written a character who is a racist and he is suddenly not saying racist things then the characterisation is wrecked.

In this respect, I think that Clean Reader is at best ignorant of the purpose of fiction, and at worst insulting to writers.

A bitch by any other name

The most obvious issue that I can see with Clean Reader is that it will change words without any understanding of context.

For example, as far as I can tell, in Clean Reader the word "bitch" is altered to "witch", and the word "Jesus" is altered to "Gee". The problem with that, however, is that a bitch is a female dog, and Jesus is a pretty popular Hispanic name.

I look forward to the book in which Gee Rodriguez goes to the rescue centre to adopt a two-year-old rottweiler witch. 

According to an article by Jennifer Porter there are plenty of other words that could be used in a non-profane context but which would be changed regardless: damn (criticise), bastard (illegitimate child), ass (donkey), cock (rooster), prick (puncture), pussy (cat). It even goes so far as to censor "penis" and "vagina"- these are correct anatomical terms that appear in every dictionary.

Clean Reader could turn perfectly serviceable non-profane prose into gibberish.

The book nanny

Going back to my point above that the reader is always right, when using an automated profanity censor the reader doesn't make the decision on what is and what isn't acceptable. While Clean Reader provides different levels of babyfication of the text, it decides what words it will change - not you. It takes away some of the reader's freedom. 

Equally, I think it implies an abdicated level responsibility: "It's not up to me to accept and process things I don't like, it's up to someone else to prevent me from experiencing them". I don't think that's a very healthy attitude, and while I hope that Clean Reader doesn't teach people to expect others to modify their behaviour just to suit them, that's exactly the approach it is promoting (whether it realises it or not).

There are worse things than swears

If the point of Clean Reader is to protect people from reading offensive words, then I think it is kind of missing a far bigger point.

There are far more distressing and disturbing things in books than a character saying "fuck". You can read about rape, torture, murder and all kinds of other nasty things, and Clean Reader won't change any of it...although it will potentially turn it into some kind of far more harrowing child-friendly version in which the car battery is attached to someone's peepee instead of their penis.

It's an extension of the abdication of responsibility point - I wonder how many parents will think that Clean Reader makes a book "safe" for a child and then won't worry so much about checking the actual content. Maybe none - and I certainly hope that's the case. But it does make me wonder.

In conclusion

While I support the right of a reader to read in whatever whey they choose a book that he or she has given up their hard-earned cash on, I think that an app that does this automatically insults the writer, potentially breaks the prose and promotes an abdication of personal responsibility for things in life that don't meet your standards of approval.

I won't get angry or upset if people use it, but if you do then I'll probably think you're a dick.

NB I haven't linked to Clean Reader in this article because on balance I think I'd rather it weren't widely adopted, so I don't want to promote it or boost its search ranking. If you want to read about it then by all means go ahead - you know how the internet works by now.

25 Mar 2015

100WC - The Replacement Conductor

Image © David Stewart
He’d arrived that morning in a blue Hyundai and skipped up the steps to the bandstand with breezy nonchalance.

"Jerry's not well," he'd said, "I'll be conducting today."

They played three songs straight through, and when they stopped he told them to keep going. When Earl raised a hand and said that they usually broke for coffee, the replacement conductor pulled open his shirt to reveal a vest of explosives.

“Keep playing,” he said.

And so they played. Bonnie Blue Flag, Marching Through Georgia, lungs wheezing, knuckles throbbing. Morning into afternoon into evening.

"When can we go home?" asked Martha as the sun bled across the horizon.

"Keep playing," he said.

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This is a 100-word flash fiction story, prompted by the picture you can see up there, as part of Friday Fictioneers.

Click here if you'd like to take part, and click here to read other pieces.

20 Mar 2015

Fool's Gambit

"In the lawless regions of the galaxy, Confederation rule has dwindled. Now the gangsters and smugglers are doing their best to make a quick buck, and maybe just survive.

Knox, a disgraced Confederation officer, is hired by a mysterious woman to escort cargo across dangerous territory. It's a payday better than anything he's ever seen...but there's a catch. He'll be in the company of two others, and they might be more deadly than anything that waits for them out in space.

A Reconstruction Era tale that combines cyberpunk and space opera, this latest installment in the Confederation Reborn saga is a killer."

The science fiction short story that I wrote with Bernard Schaffer (and which prompted my blog about collaborating) is now available as an ebook - get it on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk now.

Literary collaboration: three reasons why you should consider it

Two less successful collaborators
Collaborators usually get a bad rap. The term has generally negative connotations in everyday use, and no-one ever talks about Vichy France with misty-eyed nostalgia. Recently, however, I decided to put all that to one side to try working with Bernard Schaffer (check out his new website www.bernardschaffer.com) on Fool's Gambit, a short story set within the Confederation Reborn universe.

It was an experiment for me, and I was concerned as I'd never collaborated with anyone before. Sure, I've had editors, but they're only really tidying up the frayed bits; they're not writing chunks of new text as Bernard was.

Luckily, though, he has a blend of talent and pragmatism that I think is essential for working with another writer - and he took my story in a different direction than I ever would have, and it's all the better for it.

So here are three reasons why I think you should try working with another author on a fiction project at least once in your writing life:

Get a fresh perspective on your writing

The most obvious benefit to collaborating with another writer is having a second pair of eyes on what you're writing, and a second brain to test your plot.

When I showed Bernard my original draft of the story he came back to me and said that he saw the piece as a "space Western", that he interpreted my characters in a different way than I had, and that he thought it needed a few new scenes and a rewrite of a couple of others.

My original reaction was uh, space Western, uh, no, I like don't think so but when he sent back his version and I read it through I had to admit that it worked. I liked it more than I like the original, and I never would have made those changes myself.

Share the workload

Another clear benefit is that when collaborating you have two pairs of hands at your disposal. And while it didn't reduce the overall time it took to complete the piece - we wrote linearly, rather than in parallel - it did mean that, when I'd finished the first draft, instead of sitting down and reworking it myself I simply handed it over to Bernard and he took it to the next level...leaving me to get on with writing other things (like this).

We both edited the book, and we both sanity-checked each other's plot and characterisation elements; Bernard is taking care of a cover, as well as the formatting and upload to the various online stores.

For those of you who aren't writers, the writing part is only a very small part of the picture, so having a partner to take on elements of things such as rewrites, edits, cover design etc has been extremely refreshing.

Multiply the marketing

If the publishing process begins with the first draft and ends with someone reading your words, the writing itself is arguably the easiest part of the entire process. In an age in which the barriers to entry to publishing are essentially non-existent, there is a lot of fiction out there, and helping your readers to find your work is no easy feat.

Now Fool's Gambit is released I know straight away that not only will it go out to everyone in my network, but it will also go out to everyone in Bernard's network. He'll blog about it and so will I. It'll be linked to on my Amazon Author page and on his.

That multiplication of marketing effort is not impossible to achieve as a lone author...but it certainly takes more time.

In summary: the fear vs the reality

My biggest fear beforehand was that working with someone else would dilute my voice or force me to change my writing in a way that wouldn't represent me; in reality, it opened up greater plot and characterisation, and took the story further than it would have gone had I kept it to myself.

As a result I'd say that if the opportunity arises - and you know and respect the person you'll be working with - then you should give it a try at least once.

18 Mar 2015

The Last Wolf

Image © Rachel Bjerke
The beast that roamed in from the moors that night was mad with hunger and painted black by myth. It took the children by the ruined forge, and when they found the bodies at the stone trough they wished they hadn’t.

By then they’d pushed the wolves out into the wild and empty places, but now and then their paths would cross with ours and the fireside tales the old folk told would not seem quite so distant.

MacDhuibh hefted his rifle and hitched up his breeches. There was blood on the air, and the hunt, he knew, had already begun.

This week's piece is also partly (all right, mostly) inspired by something I read yesterday about MacQueen of Pall a'Crochain, who supposedly killed the last wolf in Scotland (and therefore Britain) in 1743...

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This is a 100-word flash fiction story, prompted by the ridiculously evocative picture you can see up there, as part of Friday Fictioneers.

Click here if you'd like to take part, and click here to read other pieces.

7 Mar 2015

A melange of pixels and what makes a good electronic book cover

I wrote recently about book covers (and Slavic pimps), and ended the blog post with the tantalising threat that I would write more about what I thought makes a good book cover in this confusing modern era of ebooks and online retail.

So this is me doing that.

As I see it, a modern book cover has to achieve two main objectives:

1. Catch the eye of someone scanning an array of small, thumbnail images - potentially on a small-screened tablet or smartphone
2. Convey either the book's title or the author at a glance when reproduced as a small thumbnail image

Everything else is secondary. Sure, some people will look at the cover - and you're probably going to want to stick to the conventions of pastel for chick-lit, black or blue for sci-fi etc - but all your cover needs to do is get someone to click that link.*

That's it.

Once they've spotted the image and hopefully clicked the link, the star ratings and reviews and look insides will take over.

So, how do you achieve those two objectives?

Bold, mid-tone or dark colours


http://amzn.to/tentanzGiving a book a striking base colour isn't exactly rocket science, but bear in mind that most book retail websites will have a white or light background - so lighter images run the risk of losing their impact, or even being lost against the back of the website.

It's the equivalent of designing a print book cover that looks like a bookshelf.

I'd also recommend no more than one or two colours, because once the image is reduced down those colours will bleed together. What looks good full-size may not work when shrunk.

Simple, uncluttered design



When designing an image that is going to be routinely reduced in size, simplicity has to be the motto.

A painstakingly detailed false-colour woodcut of an 18th century Bavarian peasant boy caressing a piglet may be breathtakingly beautiful when viewed on a laptop screen, but when you thumbnail it all those baroque curlicues and filigrees squish and clump and scab together to become a barely distinguishable melange of pixels and you're left with what looks like one of those magic eye pictures from the past, only when you squint at it the image that is eventually revealed is of a badly designed book.

Keep the images simple, reduce the clutter and you'll end up with something that's striking whatever size at which you view it.

Large, high-contrast text


The text has to be visible when the image is shrunk down to thumbnail size, so either the title or the author's name should be large enough to be legible when reduced.

If you're famous make it your name. If you're not, go with the title of the book.

NB If you're reading this then you're not famous.

In terms of which fonts work best I think that sans serif is probably better, but I think there is a lot of room to manoeuvre here - some fonts will translate better than others, and it's simply a case of trial and error (mostly error, if my experience is anything to go by).

In addition, colour the text so that there is high contrast between it and the background image. I would go with very dark text on a light background, or white text on anything else.


That's it. I don't think it has to be particularly complicated. You've seen good covers, and you've seen bad covers, so you know what I'm talking about.

Keep in mind that you're all you're trying to do is persuade someone to look a little closer at your book. So keep it simple, be bold and be clear.

* For "click that link" you could equally say "pick it up, read the blurb and flick through it"; while the approaches that I outline here are primarily aimed at getting the cover noticed on an online retailer, the principles would equally create a pretty striking print book...so I don't see any downside to approaching the design with online as the primary channel and ebook as the primary format.

4 Mar 2015

100WC - Mushrooms

The mushrooms first appeared at the bottom of the garden by the bleached wood fence. They prodded up through the carpet of dead needles and spread their bone-white caps for a week before sinking back into the earth.

That was the first year. The second year they reached the tree, the third year the washing line.

It was a slow process, the invasion, but we found out later that time flowed differently for them. As we flashed above their heads they moved patiently through the soil, and by the time we realised what was coming up from beneath us it was too late.

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This is a 100-word flash fiction story, prompted by the picture you can see up there, as part of Friday Fictioneers.

Click here if you'd like to take part, and click here to read other pieces.