Friday, June 04, 2010

Converting your novel to epub format

So, you have your soon-to-be bestseller and you want to sell it in Apple’s iBookstore, but there is just one little thing stopping you. It has to be in epub format and Word or Open Office don’t have a save as option for this. So what do you do? Well, you can pay someone to do it for you, or you can use one of the free conversion services or programs, or you can do it yourself. Manually.

The starting costs for someone to do it professionally that I’ve come across range are ~$US150 offered by Michael Campbell, on the forums in (where I have also published my novels in print and as PDF ebooks), and from lulu where prices to convert your book to epub format appear to go in increments of $US100 per 250 pages (eg $US99 for 250 pages or less, $US199 for 251 to 500 pages and so on. And with a time scale of 4-6 weeks, which I think is ridiculous for what is essentially a few hours work.) As I’ve said, these are the starting prices for a basic paperback-type novel. Books with more demanding formats and images will cost more. If money is no objection then one of these services would be the best option, particularly if you can include the option of getting it into iBookstore or one of the other online stores that use epub-based ebooks as well. For example, lulu offers this service for epub books.

But if you don’t want to pay any money, there are other options, but from what I’ve read on lulu’s forums and from my own experience, they don’t work well. I haven’t tried the online sites, but I’ve tried Calibre to convert a novel in PDF, Open Office, HTML and RTF formats to the epub format, and Anthenium eCub for Word documents.

Calibre doesn’t convert Word documents (which seems a serious omission to me) but I couldn’t get a complete or even reasonable conversion out of it. For a start I couldn’t get it to produce a Table of Contents for any of the formats. Well, to be honest, I didn’t get a conversion from an ODT file. The jobs kept taking longer than 30 minutes, and seemed to be stuck at 47% conversion, so I killed them. This was the case even after I went through and tidied up the document, paragraph and style-wise. PDF was quick, but the result was a mess. The HTML and RTF conversions of files saved as from the Open Office document also only took around 3 minutes. Neither had a Table of Contents, although I managed to get the actual text reasonably close to that in the printed novel by playing with the conversion options. This was after I did the massive cleanup of paragraph styles. My original manuscript was written in Word 2000 and I had switched to open office as it had a PDF save as option.

Little did I know Word 2000 would give so many paragraph styles to my paragraphs without bothering to ask me.

eCub fared better. It gave me a Table of Contents, only there must have been over a hundred entries, of which most were blank, before my prologue, 44 chapters and epilogue showed up at the end. By that, I mean at the end of table of content entries in the TOC file. After loading the resulting epub file into both Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions, both showed a Table of Contents, but with blank entries and I couldn’t scroll down to the actual chapter entries. Other than that, it did a reasonable job, given the limited options it offered.

Now, I’m not an expert on either of these applications and it may well be that, given that I didn’t pay any attention to paragraph styles and options when I wrote the manuscript in Word, there may well be some weird junk within the DOC file that carried through to Open Office and which may have caused the poor results in these applications. But since I’ve read of poor results from some of the online options, I’m inclined to think that I’m not a once-off case, given that these sites may well use the same conversion engines as Calibre and eCub do.

As it was, after a lot of messing around, I decided to go the manual route and convert my novels myself. Fortunately, I know a little about xhtml and CSS, having created my website by hand.

So, without further ado, here are the steps. This is for a word document. I couldn’t find a way in Open Office’s Write to search and replace an end-of-paragraph marker.

Manual Conversion of a Word Document to epub Format.

This is for a novel manuscript (like a paperback novel) with no images, which is in a word document. Ideally, if it is double spaced, convert it to single space. The manuscripts I worked from were prepared for conversion to PDF for printing on

Googling for epub creation will bring you to Jedisaber’s tutorial and he is linked to from a number of sites as well, but his tutorial isn’t really a tutorial, it’s just a list of all the files required and some information about them. On top of that, the sample zip file he provides doesn’t cut it with the epubcheck program which any epub file has to pass to get into iBookstore. My sample zips are based on his file and I follow his conventions, but they pass muster with epubcheck:

You can get the three zip files I’ve mentioned here and below from these links:

template, template_prologue, template_chapter.

So let’s look at a novel manuscript that has been prepared for self-publishing. Typically, you will have a title and author page, a copyright page (possibly including ISBN information) and perhaps some additional information on those or other pages at the start, such as other books you have written or something about yourself, your website etc. Perhaps you will have a Table of Contents and some other odds and sods. Then you have the novel itself, starting with a prologue perhaps, then the chapters, and ending possibly with epilogue. Each chapter may have its own title or just be Chapter One for example. For the purposes of this tutorial, my manuscripts have a title page (Title and Author) and a copyright page followed by the chapters titled as CHAPTER 1, CHAPTER 2 etc.

In each scene within a chapter the first paragraph is not indented, but the following are, and each scene is separated by * * * unless the scene ends at the end of the chapter (obviously). And that’s it. Most novels are fairly straight forward when you look at them and the only other things to consider are italics and possibly bolded text.

The conversion process is to:

  1. Prepare your word document to be in xhtml format.
  2. Convert to text using UTF-8 unicode.
  3. Edit the text file to complete the xhtml formatting.
  4. Separate out the title page, copyright page and chapter sections and insert them into individual xhtml files.
  5. Create a content.opf file and a table of contents file - toc.ncx.
  6. Create a directory for your epub book and populate it with the required files and directories, including your xhtml files.
  7. Zip up the contents of that directory in and rename it to YourNovel.epub.
  8. Check your new epub file with epubcheck.
Simple, eh? (And no, I’m not Canadian. Does G’day Mate and Bewdy Newk give you a clue?)

Plus! To help, I will provide a couple of template zip files (see above) that will save you a lot of time and angst. So let’s get to it.

Manuscript Preparation

1. reckons they have to strip out the headers and footers, but actually, you don’t have to do this as their contents are not saved to the plain text file you will create. I did this step, because I didn’t know I didn’t have to … if that makes sense.

2. Delete excess blank lines such as those you may have used to position text in the copyright page, but leave the blank lines that indicate scene breaks or where you want paragraphs separated. In an epub file your page formatting will no longer apply so using blank lines to position paragraphs at the bottom of a page is meaningless. This also includes blank lines at the start of chapters to position the chapter title (if you didn’t use the title’s paragraph style to specify before and after spacing). Things like dot points and tables are not in the scope of this tutorial and you will have to write your own html for those.

3. Put paragraph tags around every paragraph (including your blank lines). To do this, bring up the Search and Replace dialog box (you should know how) and type ^p in the Find what: box and </p>^p<p> in the Replace with: box. Click in Replace All. For those who don’t know any html <p> is the open paragraph html tag and </p> is the close paragraph tag. Web browsers use those to determine what text is with a paragraph. Any formatting, like blank lines, indentation and centering etc, is removed and paragraphs are separated by a blank line (more about controlling that later).

4. Tidy up the paragraph tags: type <p> at the start of the document and </p> at the end because the search and replaced won’t have created those.

5. For your chapter titles, you can turn those into headers with header tags. I use h3 but you can use h1 to h6 and they each have different default actions where h1 is the largest and h6 the smallest. All you need to do is go to the start of each chapter and change the <p> </p> pairs to <h3> and </h3> or <h1> </h1> or whatever you want.

6. If you have italics or bold text, xhtml requires tags around each piece of text: <i> and </i> for italics, and <b> </b> for bold. Again, you can do this with Search and Replace. For example, to replace italicized text, put nothing in the Find what: box, but set the font to italics:

Clicking on font brings up the font dialog box and you just have to select Italic and then click OK:

In the Replace with: box type <i>^&</i> then click on the Format button, click on Font and select Regular to change the italics back to normal type, ie it’s not bold and it’s not italic. For those who don’t know, ^& means use the found text.

Clicking on Replace All should do the trick.

Some original text is shown here with the result of the change underneath.

7. There are some things to watch for during this step. XHTML is case-sensitive so all the tags need to be in lowercase. Word may make the <i> uppercase (<I>) in certain situations such as when just the word ‘I’ is in italics, so do a Match case search on <I> and </I> and change any that are found to <i> and </i> respectively.

I’ve also found in my manuscripts that if I have a whole line in italics, the end tag </i> may be placed after the line’s end-of-paragraph marker. To fix just search for </p>^p<p></i> and replace it with </i></p>^p<p>.

If you have several lines together that are in italics the </i> tag will only occur at the end of the last of these lines, you will need the italics tags around each line, eg

I know I think in italics.
It’s strange, but true.
Still, it’s better than thinking in underline!

Which becomes:

<p><i>I know I think in italics.</p>
<p>It’s strange, but true.</p>
<p>Still, it’s better than thinking in underline!</i></p>

And needs to be

<p><i>I know I think in italics.</i></p>
<p><i>It’s strange, but true.</i></p>
<p><i>Still, it’s better than thinking in underline!</i></p>

8. If you don’t want to indent the first paragraph of each chapter and scene then those paragraphs need to be differentiated from the other paragraphs. We do that by assigning them to a class, which will have a style of no text indenting assigned to it (more on this below.) I called this class BodyText as that was the style I used in word, but you can call it anything, so long as you also change it in the stylesheet.css file (provided in the zip files).

This is simple to do and there are three cases: chapter, scenes broken by a blank line, scenes broken with special text such as * * *.

For chapters, assuming you have marked them as a heading, say with h3 tags, you just need to search for </h3>^p<p> and replace with </h3>^p<p class="BodyText">.

For a blank line search for <p></p>^p<p> since your blank lines should be <p></p> pairs (unless you have blanks in them, which you shouldn’t) and replace with <p></p>^p<p class="BodyText">.

For * * * search for *</p>^p<p> and replace with *</p>^p<p class="BodyText">.

Warning! Check that the replace puts ordinary double quotes and not smart (curly) quotes, which has caught me out at times. If they are left as smart or curly quotes, when you save the document in plain text with UTF-8 encoding you will find they are replaced with the weird UTF-8 characters, which will cause you no end of problems. To convert smart quotes to ordinary quotes straight after typing, press Ctrl-Z.

9. For those scene breaks using special text such as * * *, ideally it should be centred. You can do this by assigning these paragraphs to a special class (I called mine Star) or you could make them a header, say h6 .

Again search for <p>* * * and replace with <p class="Star">* * *.

10. Create a plain text file via Save As and selecting Plain Text in the Save as type drop down list. Clicking on Save will bring up a file conversion dialog box and you need to click on the Other encoding radio box and then search for Unicode (UTF-8) in the list at the side.

11. Now you have a text file with curly quotes, em dashes, funny characters and other bits and pieces replaced with weird little character strings, which are the UTF-8 codes that epub requires. Now if you couldn’t get ordinary double quotes around BodyText and Star, then you have to fix up class=BodyText and class=Star. You can use notepad but I advise against it as notepad renders the UTF-8 strings as the characters they represent and I prefer to see the UTF-8 strings so that I can scan for ordinary quotes, double quotes that should have been curly in my word doc but weren’t, or if I had used a single dash instead of an em dash and so on. Besides there are better editors around. I use Turbo Pad which is free and allows you to open multiple files in tabs within the program.

Thus, in your text editor, search for class=BodyText and replace with class="BodyText" and similarly for class=Star.

12. Now you can split up your chapters and this is where the xhtml files in my template zip files can make life a lot easier. Download the appropriate zip file - or and extract out the contents into a suitable directory. You should now have two directories within your directory: META-INF and OEBPS. The files to change are in the OEBPS directory.

13. Open each chapter xhtml file, go to your plain text file, select all the text for that chapter and paste into the xhtml file just before the </body> tag. If you don’t want the chapter title I’ve provided in the xhtml file then delete that beforehand. Do this for all chapters, any prologue and epilogue. Near the top of each file there is also a Title line (with <title></title> tags around the title text) and you may want to change the title in that as well.

14. Delete any unused chapterXX.xhtml files, or, conversely, if you need more chapter files, copy an unused one and rename it. All you have to do then is change the title eg on the line with <title>Chapter 1</title> change to <title>Chapter 51</title> if you need a chapter 51. Change the CHAPTER 1 heading to CHAPTER 50 as well.

15. For the files you’ve deleted or added you need to update two files in the OEBPS directory: content.opf and toc.ncx. Both are text files.
content.opf contains the manifest of all the files in the OEBPS directory and the lines you need to add/delete are in the manifest, eg:

<item id="chapter44" href="chapter44.xhtml" media-type="application/xhtml+xml" />

And also in the spine:

<itemref idref="chapter44" />

If adding, copy the last chapter entries and update the chapter numbers, making sure you keep them in order.

16. toc.ncx contains the Table of Contents entries that the readers should use. This is a little more tricky for adding. In the file you will see groups of lines like

<navPoint id="chapter46" playOrder="47">
<text>Chapter 46</text>
<content src="chapter46.xhtml"/>

Each of these represents one Table of Contents entry. If removing, you need to delete (carefully) the sets of lines for the chapters you want to remove. Similarly, to add just copy and paste a set of these lines after the last chapter’s group and change the chapter number in the first, third and fifth lines and increment the playOrder number to the next playorder number. The playOrder numbers start at “1” for the first entry (Title page, which will either display Title and Author or the cover of your book) and must increase by one up to the last entry, ie your last chapter or Epilogue and without any gaps. So if you added another chapter after Chapter 46, the entries would be:

<navPoint id="chapter47" playOrder="48">
<text>Chapter 47</text>
<content src="chapter47.xhtml"/>

If your Chapters have titles like Chapter 47 - A Moron is Born, you can put that into the text area so that <text>Chapter 47</text> becomes <text>Chapter 47 - A Moron is Born </text> or even <text>A Moron is Born </text>. You can do this for all your chapters, id need be.

17. Now you need to update the metadata in content.opf. Metadata is information that reader programs will display about your novel. Open content.opf in your text editor and you will see lines like this:

<dc:creator opf:file-as="Surname, First Names" opf:role="aut">Your Name</dc:creator>
<dc:identifier id="BookId">urn:uuid:XXXX</dc:identifier>

Your description. This will appear in Comments.

<dc:subject>Tag 1</dc:subject>
<dc:subject>Tag 2</dc:subject>
<dc:subject>Tag 3</dc:subject>

Hopefully, most of what you need to update is self-explanatory, such as TITLE, Your name as author, description and tag entries in the subject lines (you can put in as many of these as you like). There is also a unique code that must go where the XXXX is after urn:uuid. If you have an ISBN number it will need a line like this:

<dc:identifier id="BookId" opf:scheme="ISBN">123456789X</dc:identifier>

otherwise I use something from my title plus a date and time stamp, eg fracture201005181049.

18. The content.opf I’ve provided is based on Jedisaber’s example, which contains a line

<item href="cover.jpg" id="cover" media-type="image/jpeg"/>

In the manifest. If you have a cover and want it shown instead of text in the first page (title_page.xhtml), copy your novel’s front cover into the OEBPS directory as a jpeg file and rename it to cover.jpg. You can resize it to smaller with higher compression for a smaller file if you want. If you don’t have a cover or don’t want to include one, then delete this line. I resized my covers to 775 x 1186 pixels by keeping the aspect ratio the same. You can resize to 600 x 800 as most readers seem to have that as their display size, although newer devices are starting to have higher resolutions. Any reader that displays the cover should do an automatic resize anyway. My covers looked okay.

19. If you don’t want a cover image for your title page, delete title_page.xhtml, then copy one of the original chapterXX.xhtml files, rename it to title_page.xhtml and put your title page text in there. (Remember to change the title as well.)

20. Next you will update the table of contents file. Open toc.ncx in your text editor and change XXX in the line

<meta name="dtb:uid" content="XXXX"/>

to the unique identifier you put against urn:uuid (or your ISBN number) in content.opf. Also change TITLE in the title line to your novel’s title.

21. Open copyright.xhtml in your text editor and update the copyright paragraph. If you don’t want this text in this layout or want to add extra text, create a document for it and follow the steps as for converting a chapter. Then replace that plain text content over all the lines between <body> and the </body> lines.

22. Finally, you need to change stylesheet.css to what you want. If you’ve followed my conventions you don’t have to change anything. Note that my h3 has a top margin of 3em. That means 3 lines. I modified Jedisabre’s original page_template.xpgt which Adobe’sDigital Editions used for its “page” layout. That set margins for each chapter to 6 lines, but is ignored by other readers, so I set them to zero so I could have the same margin in all readers. If you want more lines, change the 3 em entry in the css file.

I won’t go into css coding as that’s a whole other area, however, if you want a serif-type font, the line with /* and */ at either end is a commented line for a serif font. If you want to use that then delete the Verdana font line above and remove the /* and */ from the Georgia line. You can also change Georgia to "Times New Roman" or whatever if you know what your font should be. Note that I haven’t embedded my fonts. Several sites I’ve looked at don’t recommend this and if you use common fonts, like Georgia or Verdana, then it shouldn’t be a problem.

23. At last, you can create the epub file. I like to start off with a partly prepared zip file ( and all you have to do is open it and drag in the OEBPS directory, using normal compression. You could replace the files in the OEBPS directory in the chapter_template.epub (if you used that) but I sometimes had problems with that. Rename to YourNovel.epub. It might be a good idea to keep a copy of so you can use that again after you have fixed any errors rather than modifying your epub file.

24. Now you are ready to check your epub file. The template zips were created with winzip in Windows XP and they pass epubcheck. Zip files created/modified with different zip programs may not work. 7Zip definitely doesn’t and I don’t know about Vista’s or Windows 7’s inbuilt zipping utilities or any of linux or apple’s zip programs. The easiest way to use epubcheck (and assuming you have installed it on your PC) is to copy your epub file to the epubcheck directory and then open up a command window (using Start>Run). Type in cmd and press enter. Change to the epub directory (mine is on the e: drive as e:\epubcheck – nice and simple) and type in the command

java –jar epubcheck-1.0.5.jar YourNovel.epub

1.0.5 is the current version of epubcheck at this time. Change this to the version you downloaded if it is later.

It appears that not all zip files are the same and epubcheck is very fussy, especially with zip file header records. If you get errors that suggest that the file name, directory name or drive label are incorrect, or that the first filename in the zip file must have length of 8 but is a different number, then your zip utility writes the header record in a different way or it doesn’t store the files in the order epubcheck expects. If you can, get winzip. It’s not free but you can get an evaluation version to try.

If you get other errors, they will be errors in your conversion of your chapter text or editing errors in the specified files. An online search of those errors should provide answers.

EPUB Readers

I’ve tested my epub files in Adobe’s Digital Editions, Callibre and Stanza Desktop. Digital Editions looks the best. The font is very clear and the page is bright and crisp.

The only thing of concern I’ve found is from when I changed the font size to 11pt, the same as in my novels. Originally I had my font setting in stylesheet.css set to 65%, which came out about the same in both Digital Editions and Callibre, but this depends on the default setting of what 1 em (character size) is in each reader and I don’t know if it’s standard across all readers, whereas using points (pt) should be (I hope). With the 65% setting, both Digital Editions and Callibre let me change the font size up and down. When I changed to pt, Digital Editions font size changing stopped working, but Callibre’s didn’t. I guess it just goes to show that you can’t assume that all readers will act the same.

Both Callibre and Stanza Desktop allow you to change fonts, but Callibre does it without losing your layout and other formatting.

Stanza Desktop, which is currently in beta release (ie it should be close to a production release) is, well to put it bluntly, terrible. At least its reader is. I can’t say anything about the rest, but the reader comes across as a quick and dirty, rushed attempt. All your layout and styling is lost, including your fonts. Stanza’s website even admits in its FAQ page that it deliberately removes any formatting, such as dot points and tables, all, it proudly proclaims, so that the reader can choose the font they want to read in. What they don’t say is that the reader also removes any italics and bolding, centering and so on as well. All paragraphs are reduced to the same as are all headers. The FAQ does claim that the reader will display images, but I am unable to get it to do that. I think the reader software just goes through and strips out any html tags it finds, replacing any paragraph tags with <p> and header tags with <hX>, X ranging from 1 to 6.

And then, just to make it look like it’s an early piece of software, it displays the xhtml file’s title on the page. Text between the title tags in the header section is usually displayed in the top banner of the browser’s window and in the title bar of tabs, if your browser has tabs. This looks to me likes it’s there to help the programmers debug their code by showing which xhtml file is being displayed. And on top of that, the reader doesn’t use the table of contents file (toc.ndx). It looks at each xhtml file, and if it finds Chapter (I suspect in the title, but it could look for a header at the top of the text), it puts that into the list of chapters that you can navigate to. My prologues and epilogues do not show up, nor do any other headings or titles. For example, I have converted my One Giant Leap collection of short stories into epub format and Stanza Desktop shows an empty list for chapters.

Not that it matters. Clicking on any of the chapters in the list will only take you back to the start of the book.

One Giant Leap has several images scattered through it and both Callibre and Digital Editions display them perfectly, but Stanza doesn’t. I had hoped that I could check what my ebooks would look like on iphones by using Stanza Desktop as the Stanza ap is the most used epub reader on iphones, but I will have to assume that the Stanza ap works properly and is nothing like Stanza desktop. From what I’ve read, Stanza ap is supposed to look great.

Currently, my four ebooks have passed lulu’s checks and been submitted to Apple for inclusion in the iBookstore at a price of $US 9.99. The wait is 4-6 weeks. If they pass, I’ll report on that.

And that’s it for me.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

It's Time. You Gotta Use Protection.

Oops, has it been that long since my last entry?

Well, news first. I’ve put out a new story and a new song.

The story You Gotta Use Protection is R-rated, so only read it if you’re old enough, but it’s about the dangers of unprotected sex (as if you hadn’t guessed).

The new song is called Time. It’s a mix of Fatboy Slim’s Praise You and Moby’s Porcelain, a sort of techno ballad. I took parts of each, pulled them apart and morphed them together into something different but with a similar feel. I’m also releasing new mixes of eight of my songs. I’ve basically fixed some minor problems to do with timing and accents in my guitar playing and vocals by editing the wave files, improved some of the sounds and balanced the overall aural spread.

And while I’m at it, I might as well have a bit of a bitch about lulu. Having done a lot of projects, it as a real pain when you want to make a minor change, like change the cover or just replace the file. You have to go through the whole publishing process again and it loses some of the information, like what type of content it is you’re publishing. Last year, when I was on dial up, I had begun to go through my songs to use a cover template for all my songs. It was a painfully slow process that I did with any spare time at the end of the month. But lulu have revamped their publishing wizard and I can no longer upload that image as it is too small. Lulu now expects an image over 2,500 pixel wide!!!!

Talk about stupid. I think this happens because it assumes you’re publishing a book and sets the default image size to be A4 and to printable. It’s only after you’ve done the cover can you tell the wizard that you are in fact not publishing a book but a digital media product. For some reason only they know, they’ve set the process up back to front. I have call into them but I haven’t heard anything back after a few days.

But enough of that.

I’ve finally finished my 5th novel, Traitor Betrayed, and I’ve decided to try and get this one published by sending it for a manuscript assessment in the hope of getting a reading that I can present to publishers. It’s expensive (especially when you’re unemployed), but it’s about the only route available in Australia.

Unfortunately, job searching has eaten up a lot of my time and it’s a pity it has been so pointless. The only approach the job search agency has is a lowest common denominator strategy, whereby I’ve been forced to undertake ‘training’ that has no value, but opens up low paying jobs where I have to compete against hundreds of others who are younger, more qualified and, crucially, have experience. Ah well. It’s better than starving I guess, although … isn’t that what artists are supposed to do.

But I’ve still managed to spend time in Blender 3d and I’m starting to get better at 3d modelling. I’ve used it to redo parts of the front cover for The h’Slaitiarr Conspiracy.

I created a backpack for Marla (the woman in the spacesuit) to replace her ill-disguised parachute pack and I’ve redone the space station. I’ve also created a hopefully more realistic black hole as well.

Doing the space station has been a great learning exercise, especially in applying UV texture mappings. That’s where you take a 3d surface and ‘unwrap’ it to a 2d form. I’ve used another view of the space station to replace the one in the cover for Rodan’s Enigma and I’ve started on a spaceship to replace my earlier effort:

I’ll also make a variation, based on the spaceships in Traitor Betrayed to use on the cover of my collection of short stories (bar the last which is R-rated) that I’m going to publish as a free ebook on lulu. In fact, I may put a tutorial up (as a series) on creating the space station. .

In my last blog, I mused over whether we would be the last technological civilization and since then I;ve had few more thoughts. Will we be the last? What about in the far distant future, hundreds of millions, if not billions of years from now?

It took life about 4 billion years to evolve to the point that complex multi-celled species appeared, and another 500 million years for humans to appear. I can’t remember the exact figure, but I think that species on average had a lifetime between 1 to 10 million years before they either go extinct or evolve into something new.

So, given say a billion years or more (more likely 2-3 billion) before the sun makes life untenable on Earth, there is plenty of time for resources to refresh and one or more intelligent species to emerge that can become as technological as we are, or even more so. I’m assuming that humans will be long extinct.

So here are some points to consider.

Time required to refresh coal reserves:

Just as in the past, it should be highly probable that the continents will form up create shallow swamps and seas over large areas with a tropical climate, much like the Carboniferous Age. This may require a period where the animal population has been drastically reduced, such as after a global extinction event. Alternatively, localized coal seams may be laid down on a smaller scale, but over a longer period so that the end result is the same.

Oil Reserves:

This is an ongoing process where foraminifera and other small sea creatures die and sink to the ocean floor where they get buried under sediment. They are compressed and heated as the continents move so that over millions of years oil and natural gas are created. Who knows, but within a couple of hundred million years, crude oil might once again seep out onto the surface to be discovered and used to kick-start an energy revolution.

Mineral bodies:

Certain ore bodies can be created through volcanism or can become available where erosion removes the top layers of rock so they can be accessed on or near the surface. Sixty-five million years, the dinosaur extinction event also coincided with huge eruptions and lava outflows that created the Deccan Traps in India. Such eruptions will occur again and differing forms of erosion will concentrate the rarer minerals so they can be discovered and mined without too much difficulty.

Some, such as aluminium (US aluminum) require biological process similar to the coal requirements. Others, such as iron ore may not be able to be recreated as there is no free iron in the seas to be oxidized, but there are probably many iron bands underground that will uncovered by erosion.

I guess, all in all, if the right conditions occur again, intelligent life can rise up again. Whether it has two arms and two legs and walks upright in a bipedal fashion...? Who knows?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Last Civilization?

News: Two short stories — Luna Vegas? On the Rocks and Reality Bytes.

Oops. I’ve been so busy with other stuff (like applying for jobs) I missed putting up an entry about Luna Vegas. Both stories have been through WOTF. Luna Vegas was a semifinalist and Reality Bytes had an honourable mention. I’ve revised Luna Vegas after considering the critique that came with it, but I haven’t changed Reality Bytes because I like it as it is. If I’m right or wrong, you can decide. This leaves one story to go and it’s an adult’s only one, but I’ll put up lots of warnings.

So ... for this entry, I thought I’d write about a possible downside for humanity’s future.

Back in January, I wrote about the threats to our civilization and about how past civilizations have risen only to fall. Ours is (as far as we know) the premier technological civilization. Others have been local phenomena, either independent of or with limited knowledge of other civilizations. For example, Rome, and even the earlier Greeks, would have known there were Indian and Chinese empires in the distant east beyond the Persians even though they didn’t trade directly with them, and yet goods and probably knowledge has flowed back and forth along the silk route for centuries.

And yet, as advanced as their knowledge was, none of these civilizations went on to develop technologies like those we have today, even though they had the basic knowledge to do so. If our civilization collapsed, could a new one arise that would not only match our technological sophistication but pass it? My bet is that this is what any futurist would expect, if not hope for. But the more I think about it the more I think that ours may be the last and only civilization to reach this peak of technological and scientific excellence.

It all comes down to resources.

From the earliest times when stone tools were developed, there came a time when the appropriate kinds of stone could no longer be found just lying around or within easy reach. Archaeologists have found sites where flint was mined in large-scale operations. And later, when the discoveries that heating certain types of minerals in hot fires produced strange new materials — copper and tin — which could be combined into yet a harder material, the Stone Age gave way to the Bronze Age. Which gave way to the Iron Age. In all these situations, the initial resources were easily found on the surface, such as in riverbeds or eroding out of cliff faces or mountainsides.

And when they could no longer be found on the surface, those ancient peoples dug into the ground.

Ancient miners dug hundreds of metres into the ground, sometimes for vast distances, using nothing but stone tools to carve through hard rock. But in those early times, the water table limited how far down they could tunnel. The Romans developed sophisticated waterwheel-based methods to pump out mines and were able to mine deeper, but only so far. And they had to mine deeper as earlier societies had already used up those mineral veins close to the surface. No doubt the same was true in other regions, such as China and India, where great civilizations went through these cycles.

The one saving grace was that new mineral resources could be found, or old mines could be reworked with improved extraction processes. All that was needed was a little extra effort to search in those out-of-the-way places no one had looked at before. But when that wasn’t possible, such as in Europe back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was the need to pump out mines that had to go deeper and deeper that led ultimately to the industrial revolution and society as we know it today.

But what about tomorrow?

Today, the Earth’s surface has been scanned from space and probed beneath to depths of tens of kilometres with a host of technologies that those ancient miners couldn’t even dream of. Even on the deep seabed, there are vast resources known. But no resource is unlimited. Oil, that precious commodity, which kickstarted our last stage of development, is close to running out and many mines have to delve deeper and deeper to depths where only highly complex technologies allow miners to operate.

So what would the future hold if something befell us?

It doesn’t have to be something on a grand scale like a huge asteroid hitting the Earth or one of those super volcano time bombs going off, like the one in Yellowstone National Park in the US, or the one around Naples in Italy erupting. Maybe an extended drought — an afterthought of global warming — that lasts for a few years might cause a massive upheaval in populations, like have happened to help bring down past civilizations. Or old diseases might at last get the upper hand over our defences and overwhelm us with plagues. Or it might just be a good old-fashioned world war that does us in.

Assuming enough of us survive to keep homo sapiens trudging along until, after a couple of centuries, the population recovers enough build a new civilization, what can it hope to achieve? Let’s give it a chance by letting it recover our knowledge. It can even have access to the remnants of our cities, now fallen down and overgrown.

Even if that knowledge began to make sense, say after a century or two of study by learned scholars, where would they begin to put it to use? You could suppose that eventually they might be able to develop a basic technology to let them use the metals left in our abandoned cities or dug up in old garbage dumps. And with that, maybe, through recycling our waste, they could reach the level of development of perhaps the nineteenth century.

Even this is doubtful as there may not be a cheap fuel available, like coal was, to drive that spurt of growth. But as for anything further, without the energy sources derived from cheap and easily obtained crude oil, they would have nothing with which to take that extra step to our level. Possibly they could produce diesel from biomass, but the requirements would be enormous.

And if they didn’t have that knowledge and had to start again from scratch? Let’s face it, they wouldn’t. Over the last two to three thousand years, the necessary resources have been mined out. Even if there was a genius, equivalent to the Stone Age one who chucked a clump of odd rock into the campfire and the next day found a lump of exotic material in the ashes, which led to the Bronze Age, that genius would be stillborn. There won’t be any clumps of odd rock to throw into the fire. There won’t be nuggets of gold lying about in streambeds to tantalize and eventually lead to a money economy. Oil takes millions of years to create from marine organisms collecting and being buried on the sea floor. Coal takes just as long, but may also need another Carboniferous Age to produce the necessary deposits.

So the best our future generations can hope for is to perhaps live in small villages or hamlets, farming and herding, with a wood and stone-base culture, like our ancestors did before the rise of the earliest civilizations. On and on they will live, like our ancestors did, the past and future joining up to form a giant circle. But that doesn’t mean they will necessarily live a mean existence. Many past cultures were rich, possibly even richer and more vibrant than our current western culture. And in time, evolution will have its way. Either we will go extinct or we will evolve into a new species. The question is ... will that species be as intelligent as we are?

As for us, I guess we are the guardians of the future. We can have a say in our future. Barring natural calamities, we can have no say over, we have the knowledge and the technical expertise to make our own path.

It just remains for us to have the will, so let’s not do anything stupid, okay?

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Death of Pretension

News: New short story — Death of Pretension

I’ve also finished my fifth novel, Traitor Betrayed and since I’ve gotten it down to 120,000 words I’ll try to get it published. On the music side, I have a title for my next song: This Dog, which has a jazz-rock feel with a slight latin flavour. The lyrics and structure are complete and all I have to do is add some rhythm guitar, tighten up the vocals and add some backing vocals, and then I can start stripping bits out in preparation for the final mix.

For this entry, I thought I’d write about this short story, partly because I’m in two minds about it. In my last blog, I wrote about I wrote about not submitting a story unless you are absolutely certain about it. Death of Pretension is a prime example. When I submitted this to WOTF, it didn’t even make it to the quarter finals, even though someone hand-wrote a request for more like this. Perhaps, if I had just submitted the first half, it might have done better.

First half, you ask? Let me explain.

But first, if you haven’t read Death of Pretension then go here and read it, because I’d like some feedback on what you think. (In the comments for this blog please.)

Death of Pretension is basically two stories tacked together, which is why I’ve always felt unsure about it. And yet it does what I want it to do and says what I want it to say. So that’s what I want to know. Should I have discarded the second half? Or does the whole work for you?

It’s not unusual for a story to go through a number of rewrites that can have it change direction. With Death of Pretension, I had originally titled it Evolution and it finished where Jarold Morgan is confronted by the robot incarnations of his greatest love and his greatest fan. It was a dark story.

But it left me unsatisfied. At the time, when I wrote the story, a lot of dark things were happening in the world, like 9/11 and the Bali bombings, and I felt a need for the main character to do more than confront his failure. I wanted him to change, to accept his guilt and change for the better. I guess I wanted the same for all these terrorists — and any others involved in human rights abuses, whether they be dictators, warlords or supposed freedom fighters, and even in our own western governments. Self-belief is a great source of strength, but it can make your outlook become so blinkered as to leave you blind to the reality of what you are actually doing.

And so I extended Evolution so that Morgan came face-to-face with his past and had the chance to achieve his goals. But in confronting his past, I wanted him to have a choice. He could redeem himself by turning his back on his past.

Doing that though, only gave two possible endings: either he does or he doesn’t, and I like to find three possibilities if I can. What the ending of a story comes down to is the theme(s) that the story is built on. Evolution’s main theme was about the unpredictability of one’s actions, or rather, the inability to see the consequences of one’s actions, but pretension was also a theme and Death of Pretension would have also been an apt title.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that pretension was the main theme. This was what I wanted to get through the thick skulls of all those that committed these terrible deeds, whether it was in the name of god or liberty (or in retaliation): you are not the chosen ones, nor do you have the moral right to trample over the many innocent victims to get to the few perpetrators. There are other paths to reach one’s goals.

But in the end, it’s easier to blow oneself up or torture someone and call it something else....

And so I gave Morgan three choices. Achieve what he set out to do, accept that what he had done was wrong and let the old society re-establish itself and continue on as before, or let the old society start up again, but give it the choice of staying the same or changing, whether it be to take the path he wanted it to follow or take a different path. In the end (at least I hope) Death of Pretension isn’t only about pretension but is also about free will, as in the freedom to take responsibility for our actions.

So which is it? Does the whole story work or only the first part?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Oh-uh-oh What’s A Good Friend Worth?

News: Three songs and a short story now out.

Songs are A Good Friend, Everyday and We Never Touch. We Never Touch is free - Yes! Free!! And the others are US79c. All are available at and you can check out low-grade samples (except for We Never Touch which can be downloaded in full — it’s 3MB) from my web site on the songs page.

The short story is Design Flaw. This was a quarterfinalist in The Writer’s of the Future contest. When I submitted it, I wasn’t sure if it was suitable since it had a lot of complex science to get across and there wasn’t much action until the end. There is a lesson to be learned here: don’t submit a story for sale or to a contest unless you’re absolutely certain it will sell or win because if you don’t think it is good enough then an editor or judge certainly won’t. (I wish it was a lesson I could learn!) I’ve just revised Design Flaw and resolved some things at the start. The story is basically about what the value of life is when death doesn’t mean the end of existence. Is death such a bad thing? Perhaps not if you’re an AI.

Read Design Flaw here and vote. Okay, I’m not an artist, but here’s my artist’s impression:

I haven’t written any blogs for my music side, because what do you say? I wrote some lyrics, I came up with some chords, I recorded everything and then mixed it and voila! One song to sell. Or try to. Mostly this is the case and for me, it’s a slow process.

But here, I redid two of the songs: A Good Friend and We Never Touch. With both, I didn’t like the vocals when I finished them prior to the current versions. Both are also old songs and We Never Touch was originally recorded seven years ago, but the mix was harsh, both with the guitar and my vocals. Some of that was due to my direct injection recording method for guitars and the effects I selected. The lead guitar especially sounded brittle which was due to clipping on the sharp spike at the start of each note, but I’ve managed to soften that and get a warmer and better sound without having to re-record (and that was out of the question as far as I was concerned). It was also a good time to look at the song and change its structure which turned out to be: remove a line and change a couple of words to fix the words being accented.

A Good Friend has had quite a ride on the rewrite wagon. Of all my songs this one has been through the grinder and only the title is all that’s left of the original song I wrote, oh, I guess twenty odd years ago.

It originally started out as a rock grunge ballad from a line:

Oh-uh-oh what’s a good friend worth,
You can’t value a friendship like that in terms of dollars and cents.

But while I thought it was great song, a certain mentor kept bashing on my skull until I finally saw the light and had to accept that not only wasn’t it that great a song, but it was pretty well woeful. That’s the trouble with egos, you can fool yourself, sometimes all of the time.

So I tried a different approach, music-wise. Made it a real ballad, but with a hard rock bridge.

But no.

Sometimes you just gotta let go. (Hey! Could be a good line for a song.)

And kicking and screaming I did. Little bits at first — a line, then a verse, two verses, all the verses, the chorus and the bridge. The music and the arrangement.

But it wasn’t a complete loss. The title was okay. It was a start ... okay it wasn’t much of a start. But then I had an idea, why not change what the song was about? Actually it might not have been my idea but a suggestion from someone, but let’s not quibble. All that matters is that out of nowhere I got a verse and then a chorus, and after a little grief two more verses and lo and behold, the whole lot had a different take, changing from how people valued friendship to being about losing a friendship.

The style changed too, going from a guitar feel to piano with a very sparse feel with a haunting cello, strings and some percussion. It’s also a short song, just over two minutes, but sometimes less is more.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


News: New novel out — Fracture.

It’s available at as a paperback ($US14.67) or as a pdf ebook ($US3). Check out my website.

This is a near future romp with a couple of lesbians, a transsexual and one old-fashioned “God’s gift to women”.

Characters are interesting creatures and you never know exactly what you’ll end up with when you start a book. In The h’Slaitiarr Conspiracy the character Wandar originally started out as a man (Walter) who I saw as being German, but when he started reacting to his partner Anil in an odd sort of flirting way, I realized I had a problem since I didn’t see Walter as being gay. At that point, I was a third of the way into the first draft and it stymied me a bit. Back then I usually went power walking 9 klicks, five days a week, and whether it was the extra blood rushing to my head as my heart pumped harder, I don’t know, but I always found it helped my creative juices and on one of those walks it hit me: Walter was a woman!

And so Walter became Wandar, a dominatrix from Poland (don’t ask me why) and everything fell into place. And in so doing, it affected the plot because a sexual tension arose between Wandar and the main character, Rodan, that hadn’t been there before.

Something similar happened in the third book, Pyran’s Dilemma. This was originally the follow up to The h’Slaitiarr Conspiracy when I had no thought of writing a trilogy.

The opening chapter began with Rodan’s friend Rob Burton, who had only appeared in one chapter in the first book and who was to be a main character in the second. It was after his rejuvenation and he had a desire to work on termination parties for some reason he couldn’t fathom. I had most of the plot fleshed out, but the story was still shorter than I wanted and I knew I needed some extra subplots. In that first chapter Rob had a manager, Samantha Jervois, who was basically to be met once and that was all and was there to show how Rob had changed after his rejuvenation, but when Samantha’s boss, Alex Bose, called to order Rob to the company’s head office, a conflict between the two women just wrote itself as I typed. They’d had a personal relationship and Alex had been Samantha’s subordinate within the company until Alex had stabbed Samantha in the back to get the promotion that Samantha was going to get.

I realized I had to either cut this out or use it in some way. And then, at the end of one of my walks, as I had struggled with it, the idea finally came to me. And then, a third of the way through this book, when Rob managed to interrogate the robot Aldar, I realized that there was another story that needed to be written when I had to come up with a history as to Aldar had gotten into this situation and that helped me complete the missing plotlines.

So what have I learned? It’s important to get your characters right, even the minor ones, but it isn’t necessarily important that they be right the first time. Writing any story is an exercise in exploration. I like to have a reasonably fleshed out roadmap of what I’m going to write so that I don’t get bogged down with writer’s block, but that doesn’t mean I can’t change direction if something arises in the story. The worst is that you might have to go back and rewrite possibly even whole chapters, but if it leads to a better story then it has to be worth it.

And after all, isn’t revising what writing is all about?

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Just what is it to be human?

Doesn’t time just fly when you’ busy. Looking for work is taking up a big chunk of time and I’ve also put in a big effort to finish revising my fourth novel Fracture. The front cover is nearly finished and once the back cover is done, I can publish it. I’m also trying to finish three songs, but doing the vocals is causing me some anguish as I’ trying to sing parts in a half-voice and I just don’t quite have the control.

I meant to put A Question Of Loyalty out about three weeks ago, but when I began reading through it I realized it’s opening needed a major revamp and hopefully I’ve gotten it right.

A Question Of Loyalty is set in the same universe as my novels for the Rodan Trilogy are, but in the h’Slaitiarr war that ended 60 years before the time period for those novels. The story explores the colony on Bright Red One where the character Marla grew up and the short story’s theme is on what it means to be human. And that seems to be as good an idea as any for this entry.

Ah ... humans. What a curious bunch we are.

We’re a curious mishmash of cultures from stone-age to sophisticated hi-tech and with all sorts of irrational beliefs to guide us through our daily lives. I’ve always wondered why we have evolved to the point where we need to hide ourselves behind clothes. At least, in a sense we do. We hide our sexual organs, in essence whether we are male or female, and yet we advertise our sexual nature in our clothes by the type of clothes we wear, the colour choices, styles and accoutrements such as jewelry, hair styles and make up.

Perhaps it’s to present ourselves as who we want to be rather than who we are.

When it comes to science fiction, especially TV shows and movies, if they are space-based, it amuses me that the alien races are quite often humanoid and that they also wear clothes, which implies that they all had a parallel evolution and cultural development as we did. I call this the Hollywood syndrome, since it was a writer or director in a documentary who said that the audience needed to see emotions on human-like faces to connect with the alien characters.

Personally, I don&squo;t agree with this. I’d rather see aliens that try to stretch the imagination. In fact, I think it would be rather interesting to see how some completely alien species reacted to us.

Think about it. If a species reproduces sexually, does it have to have different looking male/female equivalents? Do they have to have lust and or love?

I can just imagine an alien ship landing on Earth and being confused over the dominant intelligent species it met. If they were like us in that they had preconceptions coloured by their own biology and culture, would they think we were a mixture of a host subspecies, each identified by the different coulored and types of ‘skins’? And if they did see us naked, would they think we were different species that intermingled rather than two sexes of the same species? After all, how would they know that our sexual organs were involved with reproduction? Even looking at the DNA components of ova and sperm might not infer their purpose if the aliens don’t use DNA or something closely related to store their genetic information.

These are some of the ideas I began to consider in The h’Slaitiarr Conspiracy and which I will follow up in more depth in the Zhivar trilogy, my next writing project. I’ve already finished the first draft/partial revision of the first book Traitor Betrayed and I might approach publishers with this one since it’ is around the 120k word mark.

It’s even more fascinating at this point in time to ponder on just how different from us intelligent aliens could actually be, especially as an earth-sized planet has just been found twenty light years from us and within the habitable zone around its star. That makes four earth-like planets we know about if we include Venus and Mars, although Mars is a bit of a runt (but it may have had a thicker atmosphere and liquid water at one time in its history).

And if we know of four, how many more could there be close by...?