Translation Questions

I received an email from a reader, Olga from Poland, today. Olga and I were emailing a lot a few months ago when she first read my books.

She actually won a signed copy for spotting a typo and sent me this photo to let me know that Probability Angels had found a good home.

Probability Angels goes to Poland

During the course of those emails she asked if it would be okay if she were to translate Probability Angels into Polish for practice; translating books is what Olga wants to do for a living.

My response was to jump up and down with excitement like a cartoon because that’s freaking COOL and then reply to her email with a kind, “Yes. And please send me any questions you come across.”

So today she sent me a couple of questions. I found them interesting and I thought I would share.

First question:

“You know, it’s been twenty-two years”, Matthew said, “you think it might be time for you to give me a little credit?” – it sounds silly, but did you mean credit literally – as if he wanted Epp to give him some currency, or credit as trust? I would go for the trust one, but I’m a little confused by Epp’s answer (“The smile disappeared from Epp’s face. “Not a chance”). Sounds kinda harsh if it’s about trust…

I can’t imagine how much trouble synonyms and homonyms and puns and all of that must cause for translators. I guess the larger phrase would be idioms? Words and phrases that have taken on whole new meanings from their original intent are extremely common and they are often used with zero thought given to the phrase’s original meaning. So when someone who is unfamiliar with the phrase hears it…it must just sound bonkers.

This is not an extreme example, Olga understands the nuances of the word credit, but it still got me thinking about idiomatic language.

I constantly try to purge my writing of idioms. They are lazy and they are easily misunderstood and whenever I find one I erase it and say what it means in original and plain language. But it’s difficult. Like I said, many idioms are so fixed in our heads that they don’t even register as idioms anymore.

The one exception here is dialogue. There are no rules for what comes out of a character’s mouth. None. That has always been my philosophy because in the real world there are no rules for what comes out of peoples’ mouths. Spoken communication is a baffling, mysterious, fluid, and amazing thing. I try to respect that.

Anyway, in this case Matthew is not using the word “credit” literally. He just wants some recognition for his 22 years of work. Epp, who knows that Matthew has not even begun working yet (he is still a newbie and not a tester) and who has been working for over 2,000 years, does not opt to give Matthew a whole lot of respect.

Second question:

2. “Epp shrugged, cool eyes never leaving Matthew. “They keep me in Zegna.” Epp extended a hand with the clipboard in it”. I have no idea what’s this Zegna. Couldn’t find it on the net either. Some help, please? 🙂

I’m actually amazed how many people don’t ask about this. I think maybe that Epp is so mysterious at this point that readers gloss right over this, expecting him to talk about things they don’t quite get. Maybe?

That’s all good, too, because I didn’t really mean for most readers to understand this.

These sorts of things, slipping in little bits of dialogue that aren’t meant to be grasped instantly, are one of the ways I entertain myself while writing. I’ve usually read and written and reread and rewritten a book so many times while working on it that I will literally start adding inside jokes with myself.

And with Probability Angels? Well, the incredibly quick pace at which that book was written resulted in some passages that appear astoundingly stark to me when I look them over today. At times I would barely scatter enough clues into a line of dialogue to let the reader know what was being discussed, let alone understand it, and then move on with zero explanation or rehashing of the topic.

I can remember when Matthew first asks Epp about being a slave and Epp responds, “My slave name, which I kept, is Epictetus, not Chicken George.”

And that was all I said!

Chicken George (to the best of my memory) is the name given to Kubla Kinte from the book, Roots, when he is first kidnapped from Africa and enslaved by Americans.

My point in this line of dialogue from Epp was to explain to Matthew that he was not an American slave, but a slave from ancient Rome.

This is gone into more later on in the book, but it is not really touched on much again during that initial conversation.

Even the notion that slaves were often renamed by their owners was never explained.


So, Zegna. Zegna is Epp referrering to Ermenegildo Zegna, an upscale men’s designer. When I was first creating Epp I wanted him dressed in an absolutely stunning suit. I asked around about who made the best suits in the world and was told about Zegna, and then once I looked at some of his stuff online I knew I had found Epp’s wardrobe.

If you want a sense of the man’s work, go here. Unfortunately it is hard to find photos of his stuff in the real world instead of on the runway. I can assure you, though, that Epp had zero trouble wearing Zegna’s clothes into Central Park and making them look good.

In that sentence Epp is telling Matthew that the work he puts in is enough to earn him very nice clothes. The connection between a tester’s work, their energy, how they can manipulate that energy, and their wardrobe, is gone into in much more detail later on in the books. Frankly, with Epp’s mastery of this world and the work he has put in as a tester, producing a nice suit is probably a trifling for him. But in this scene Epp is treating Matthew as the newbie he is and opts to gloss over the finer points of Matthew’s question and put it into material terms that Matthew will understand.

That was fun. And to think, I hated translating things in high-school…

Progress Without Milestones

ASDA Suede Notebooks - Stacked with Moleskine by pigpogm from FlickrWords continue to pile up for the first draft of book three. A title? That’s nowhere in sight. A notion of how all these stories come together? That’s…well that’s also murky. A clear idea of what happens next? Not so much.

And yet I continue to sit down every day, shut down all distractions, and write. The scene I’m working on unfolds, the next scene is hinted at, and the next day I continue this exercise. And the next. And the next. And, when all of these mysterious bouts of writing are strung together, definite progress is being made.

But it’s really freaking weird.

Every book I’ve written I’ve taken a different approach to. And every time, the approach I chose was a direct result of where I wanted to be with my writing.

I felt I was becoming far too constrained by outlines and planning, and so I started the 26 Stories in 52 Weeks project, which spawned Probability Angels.

I became nervous about my reliance on first-draft readers, so with Persistent Illusions I did not let anyone read anything until well after a first draft was finished.

For this book, though, my notions of how to write are much more informed by my notions of what I want writing to be.

Writing used to be stressful, painful, slave-labor with myself chained to my keyboard. I used to yell at myself for not hitting my word counts and have anxiety attacks that my story wasn’t good enough. I would sit down to write and a voice in my head would yell at me constantly. And if I wasn’t all keyed up then I would worry that I wasn’t “feeling things” enough and I would try to hype myself up with music or caffeine so that I could write dammit.

This book I’m not doing any of that. I do worry about the story, but I also constantly remind myself that my past five books all came together somehow, and that I actually had a proof copy of Persistent Illusions ordered before I knew what the ending was going to be. So I think about the story a lot, but I don’t let myself panic about it.

And I try for a word count every day, but I don’t beat myself up over it. I know that some days will be less and some days will be more. It’s far more important to chip away at it for many days over time than it is to stress one day in particular.

And I don’t need a loud voice in my head yelling at me; I actually aim for the opposite of being keyed up. I flip my phone over and and shut down all distractions on my computer and say to myself, “Okay. You can either write, or you can sit here, but you are not allowed to open any internet pages or look at your phone. There’s the Word document, and that’s it.” And when I say that, I’m calm. And when I hear that, I listen. And I sit and I relax and I do nothing for the first five minutes, and then sure enough I start typing.

Words appear and pages pile up but the hallmarks of progress, all the little goodies I used to savor, like reaching a big exciting scene I was looking forward to or finishing up a section, none of those exist.

It’s just me and my Word document.

And as I said, it’s pretty strange.

So progress? Progress is being made.

I just have no way of measuring it.

This Week’s Distraction

plump-lady community employment service by GraemeNicol from FlickrI wandered through the internet the other day until I found myself at Translation Party.

I know. Nothing screams “Party!” like translating things.

But this site makes use of the joy of internet driven translators. It asks you to enter in an English phrase to start, then it translates it back and forth from Chinese to English, over and over, until an equilibrium is found. I’m a little hazy on what “equilibrium” means to them, sometimes it will say no equilibrium can be reached even though there’s no more changes when it swaps from one language to the other.

No idea on that front.

But you always wind up with and interesting new spin on your boring old phrase. I enjoyed hopping on a few times during the week and feeding it famous movie quotes to see what it would spit out.

Below are some of my favorites.

Three movies:

“But something very specific skill sets. Retrieving a very long career skills. Nightmare is people skills.”

“Ah, I said friends in the dark. However, just dark; it will come.”

“However, it is a crazy little world these people Royal 3 bean Hill.”

And a tv show:

“It’s a hell of Slurpees.”

I love the internet.


The Tester on My Train

Vintage Subway Train by rikomatic via FlickrI don’t know much about the subways of other cities, but in New York the station announcements are made both by the train’s conductor, and with pre-recorded messages. It depends on how new your train is whether or not your ride will favor the pre-recorded announcements or a human being.

So I was riding the A-line home yesterday from West 4th street and the speaker was making the normal announcements at each stop, where we were and what connections could be made. I was reading so I wasn’t paying too much attention.

But then I heard something weird and I looked up. I wasn’t entirely sure what I had heard, but it was off. That was all I knew.

As I looked around I saw, standing in the subway door, a little kid maybe ten years old. He had sandy blond hair and looked, to my eyes, about three feet tall and he was wearing a backpack that was bigger than his torso. He was standing with his feet in the subway, but was leaning out the door and looking down the platform.

This was odd. I mean, I see adults do this all the time, but for a little kid to be doing it was just strange. Then the kid shouted out, “We’re being held momentarily by the train dispatcher. We’ll be moving shortly. Please forgive the delay.”

Now this was getting really weird. And, I should point out, that when I say that this kid shouted these words out, I mean he shouted them out. He still had the voice of a ten year old but he put everything he had into it and knew how to belt out a phrase with some authority.



I was feeling a little disoriented but…so this boy likes to play conductor. I mean that’s not the strangest thing ever. I guess.

Then suddenly he shouted, “Please stand clear of the closing doors.” At which point he stepped back into the subway, the doors shut, and we started moving.

We were well past weird at this point. This kid was predicting when New York subway trains would leave the station. That’s just pure wizardry. Plus, I was looking around, and I didn’t see any parents keeping an eye on this boy. He seemed to be all alone.

Then, as we’re riding, he threw in a, “Ladies and gentlemen, please remember that large backpacks and other items are subject to search by the transit authority.”

This is the exact phrasing of the on-board announcements. Everything he had shouted up to that point had been a perfect imitation of train-speak.

My first thought was, “Well I’ve lost my mind. What fun.”

Except that, as we moved from stop to stop, other people in the car started looking up and catching each other’s eyes and laughing. At one point the lady sitting next to me leaned my way and whispered, “Did I miss something?”

“I have no idea what’s going on,” I replied.

“Oh good, I’m not the only one,” she answered.

For his grand finale, while we were pulling in to my stop, the kid shouted out the location and the connections and then called out, “There is a B local train arriving across the tracks. B local across the tracks.”

Sure enough a B train arrived across the tracks shortly after we had stopped.

I walked to my connecting train actually laughing out loud.

Having thought about this now for awhile, it makes more sense. Obviously the people driving the train have to get the information for their announcements somehow. I had always assumed they used a radio or something, but it’s just as likely that there’s a system of signals located along the routes that gives them a heads up about what’s going on and then they make the corresponding announcements. Someone probably taught this boy, or he figured it out himself, and he knows where to look when pulling into a station to tell if there’s a delay ahead or what other trains are arriving.

Plus, his mom was sitting right next to him, but she also had a little girl with her. She was reading to the girl and focusing more on that, so the first few times I tried to find the boy’s parents I missed her. As I searched more and more I noticed that there were plenty of times when she was glancing over at her son to make sure he was okay…although clearly he did this trick a lot.

And, while I’m glad to have made sense out of yesterday’s train ride, and always knew there was a sane explanation, I have to admit that it was so much more fun during those first few minutes when I was happy to believe that a very small, supernatural being was somehow interacting with my reality.

That’s always been part of the joy of writing the Matthew and Epp stories, trying to figure out ways to have these characters come into contact with human reality so that, well, maybe they explain some weird event in my readers’ past.

It was nice to have reminder of that in the form of a ten-year-old tester on my subway ride yesterday.

Things in My Brain This Week

Here’s what has been going on in my head this week.

Books: I just started reading Anna Kerenina. So many Ns. I’m loving it so far though I’m only 4% through according to my Kindle. I’ve been on a non-fiction kick for my last few books so I’m enjoying being back in the world of fiction. I also am coming around to Russian literature a lot more recently. I was not a fan, to put it mildly, a few years back. Plus, as with most older books, there’s a nice relaxed pace about the writing. I don’t feel like the author is freaking out about whether or not he’ll go viral or make a book club or anything. He just talks about oysters and cabbage. I have no idea what the plot is, but there are some love triangles forming. Also, someone has been crushed by a train…which I think has to happen in every Russian novel.

Movies: God I’ve watched crap. I sat through Congo the other night. This used to be a favorite “so bad it’s good movie” in an old apartment of mine. It was nice to reminisce. It has not improved with age. It’s still fucking awful. And I loved it. While working out I tried to watch Last Man Standing with Bruce Willis but turned it off after my thirty minutes of cardio and never went back. Slapstick action with lazy characters and a plot that was a remake of Clint’s old spaghetti westerns but awful.

TV: Pretty much nothing. I’ve watched some DVR’d episodes of Restaurant Impossible and Wipeout. So that’s some real high-brow stuff there.

And here are the random things that have lodged in my brain from the Internet this week.

There’s this amazing ad for pet adoption:

This Hungry Hungry Jetway:




And this, from a long time ago above Teddy Roosevelt’s fireplace far far away:


Advertising on Reddit

New York Times Square at Night by Werner Kunz from FlickrReddit calls itself “The Front Page of the Internet.” After months of screwing around with it I can safely say that this is an accurate statement.

Months. Literally. I’m old. It took me awhile.

When I first hopped onto the page I had no idea what it was or why I would want to go there. It was just a bunch of stuff being thrown at me.

Again. I’m old.

But since I was checking it out for possible marketing purposes I stuck around and eventually created an account and began to filter what, exactly, the stuff was that it was throwing at me. Now I love it.

Here’s a quick walk-through. Then we’ll get to the advertising.

Basically it looks like this:

Front Page of Reddit

It’s just a list of headlines that you can click through to see more. Hence, the front page of the internet. If you look under the headline you can see who submitted it, when, and to which subreddit (i.e. category).

This link, of some iphone drawings, was submitted by icheban to the subreddit: “pics.”

Submitted to pics

It’s a popular link as its positive votes outweigh its negative votes by 2591.


When you create your account on reddit, you can choose which subreddit’s (category’s) links will appear on your personalized front page. My front page gets headlines from the Bacon subreddit, the Funny subreddit, and a bunch of other stuff that entertains me while I finish my morning coffee.

To the right is the button you can use to submit your own links.

Submit a link

You can write a headline and link to a picture or article or whatever and submit it to the proper subreddit and then hope for lots of upvotes, making your link appear to more and more people. The whole thing is generated by users.

At the very top of the page is a “sponsered link.”

Sponsered link

This link is for a new show on Cinemax. Clicking that link will, I have to imagine, take you to the show’s main website.

These sponsored links are how advertising works on reddit.

You probably already guessed that.

If you scroll down to the bottom of the screen, and click the tiny little “Advertise” button under the “About” column, you can begin your advertising experience.

advertise button

First, very simply, they ask you to write your headline and pick what page you are linking to. Obviously you are directing traffic to…well to wherever you want people’s eyeballs to go. For me I chose Probability Angel’s page.

The link is simple enough. The headline requires more thought. This is what appears in larger font in dark blue. This is your advertising copy. This is what will compel people to click through or not.

This post isn’t about writing great advertising copy. Frankly I’m still experimenting plenty with that. Just keep in mind that this is the first contact you’ll be making with people and you need to hook them and give them some idea of where your link will be taking them.

That is the shortest description of advertising you will ever read.

Right. So then you click “Save” at the bottom and things get a little weird as we move on to this screen.

Campaign Dashboard

Some of this is easy. You can see, in the middle, my headline (called a “title” here) which is “I love cheese.” Then comes the url that people will be sent to when they click on my link, “” Then comes the “look and feel” section, which lets you upload a 70 x 70 picture to appear to the left of your headline. Why they don’t label that section “upload a picture” is beyond me.

Then comes an option to allow or disable comments on your ad.

We’ll come back to the comments in a second, but that lower chunk feels self-explanatory to me.

The upper part with the bidding is a little tricky, at least compared to other Internet advertising. Over at the reddit site they have a comic by The Oatmeal that explains everything. Only, after reading the comic I didn’t understand anything. I had chuckled a lot, and I knew that the example-person in the comic was selling pork chop milkshakes, but nothing else sunk in.

It seems simple.

You pick the number of days that your campaign will run and you pick the total amount of money you are going to pay. Then you pick if you want your ad to appear before all of reddit, or just one subreddit.

Thus far we have some simple math and a single choice between advertising to the entire page or advertising to one sub-category.

So where does it get tricky?

With most other advertising I’ve tried, you have a total bid per day and your campaign can never exceed that. Same here, your budget will never exceed your bid per day, which is the total bid you are entering in divided by the number of days your campaign will run (there’s that simple math).

However, with most other advertising you bid per click and then, every time your ad can appear, the advertising program runs an auction between you and other interested advertisers to see if your ad will be displayed. You win some of these auctions and you lose some but they happen thousands of times a second so you have plenty of chances to let your bid rise to the top. So if you bid $0.15 for a click, and your daily budget is $10, and you manage to spend that entire $10, then you will received $10 / $0.15 = 66.6r clicks. You may be outbid a lot and your ad will not appear as often and you will not spend all of your money and as a result you will get less clicks. Or you may be able to pay less per click, if your ad performs well or other higher bidders run through their budget before the day is out, and receive more clicks for your money.

That’s how I thought this advertising would work, and there’s all that data on the right of the above screen-shot showing CPM (cost per thousand views) and CPC (cost per click) and the count…I didn’t know what the count meant when I started. So I thought that these familiar numbers were implying a familiar advertising system and I plowed right ahead.

The thing is, reddit doesn’t perform an auction for every click. Instead they take your total bid per day, compare it to all other bids for that day, and then grant you a percentage of traffic based on what percentage of the total your bid is. Is your bid for the day 17% of the total amount of money they were bid? Then you receive 17% of the traffic for that day.  How many clicks you get is not a part of that equation. You’re only guaranteed a percentage of views, a slice of the traffic, not of the clicks.

That data on the right of the above screen-shot is the recent, site-wide, history of advertising over the past week. And then there’s the count, which is how many other ads were running that day.

promo history

You have to combine all of these numbers together to figure out what you’re willing to pay per click, how many other ads you think might run, and what you want to bid for the day.

Plus, keep in mind, that the data they give is always for the entire site. If you’re submitting your ad just to one subreddit (category) there might only be two other ads running there so your bid can be much less to garner much more of the total pie.

Basically, when I first decided to give this a try I posted an ad to the fiction subreddit, paid my $20, and received like three clicks. The fiction subreddit is not highly targeted or trafficked, so my twenty dollars was a huge bid for a slice of a tiny pie. How tiny? I have no idea. There is no data on individual subreddits at this point.

Three clicks was not a great return.

Lesson learned. After that I took a closer look at the whole process, started using the history, worked out estimates for how many clicks I was hoping to buy, and tweaked from there.

One major tweak is that I now no longer target individual subreddits since I have zero idea what sort of traffic or competition I’m dealing with there.

Okay, so, results?

Results have been good.

Ads have most certainly led to clicks, and clicks have most certainly led to sales.

A lot of the success of your ads will depend on the headline and the photo you use, as well as your landing page. Again, I’m using my Probability Angels page, and that page has been worked on quite a bit to catch the eyes of new readers who click through from somewhere on a whim.

Whether it’s “worth it,” as a lot of people ask me, I can’t tell at this point.

All of my marketing is focused on the idea that one can hit a critical mass with readers, ideally readers who purchase via Amazon, and that once this happens your readership can produce its own growth. I’ll write a post soon discussing this notion more.

But for now?


The traffic generated has been well worth the costs of advertising compared to other methods, and this traffic is resulting in people purchasing my books. The cost per sale is still high, however, and my proceeds from sales do not cover those costs. But I don’t think advertising is supposed to actually pay for itself at first. It’s supposed to seed readers. And the readers I’m gaining may or may not produce more readers. And the sales I’m getting on Amazon may or may not garner their algorithm’s attention. All of that remains to be seen and I am still futzing and tweaking my reddit ads.

But I do think it has been worth it.

I’ve said this a lot, but advertising is extremely cheap compared to the days before Ye Olde Internette. I highly recommend setting aside a few bucks to try it out. You will learn a lot about how to market yourself in general just by writing your ad copy and figuring out your landing page. You will learn a lot about how to best target an audience for your work. And you will learn a little bit about something called love.

Okay maybe not that last part, but you’ll learn plenty and you’ll get at least a few new eyeballs on you and that’s not a bad thing. Especially for a few bucks. Look at it as a cheap class on marketing.

I want to close out here by discussing reddit’s ability to allow comments on your ads.

This is a very weird concept.

But, take a look at the ad on my front page again:

Sponsered link

See? This ad has 7 comments on it.

Comments are an integral part of the internet that no sane person should ever look at ever.

Well, some comment sections are interesting, but some are horrible places where trolls dwell and ass-hats spew hate.

That being said, I think allowing comments on your ad is the right choice. It shows that you’re not aloof from the community, and I think people are more likely to treat your ad as a real part of Reddit if it has some comments on it.

Just don’t think you can respond to the comments on your ad.

Seriously. Don’t do it.

My ads have received a few comments, and most of them are people making puns about my book’s title (Probability Angles anyone?) or people ripping into my books as well as some people ripping on me simply for choosing to advertise. One commenter said that he would probably buy my book, but warned people not to click through to my website because the positive quotes I’ve included there turned him off.

I don’t even know what to make of that. For that person, effective advertising would be, what, to put up a bunch of bad quotes about my book on my own page? I mean, I often tell people to read the favorited reviews on Amazon to get an impartial opinion, but why would I put those on my page? It’s my page. That’s the one place that’s supposed to…ohfuckit just don’t read the comments.

And let me know if you learn anything about love.

New Year, Old Thoughts

Intersecting the Rotating Sphere of Stars by Brandon Townley from FlickrFeels very odd that less than forty-eight hours ago I was drunk on champagne screaming at a flashing ball dropping on my friend’s TV. Now I’m very blearily sitting at my computer trying to put together some sort of game plan for the new year.

I’m not very big on temporal markings. I hate birthdays and a lot of holidays just serve to remind me that time is passing and I can’t stop it. It’s fun.

New Year’s I generally like and I can get behind the notion of it being a brand new year and all of that. It seems like a reminder every once and awhile that we can start anew is a good thing. I guess I just think there are too many of them. Usually a repeated date only produces the urge to look back and recount what I’ve done over the year. Whether it’s the Fourth of July or Easter or Daylight Savings Time or anything, my brain automatically begins recounting what I was doing the last time Arbor Day rolled around and wondering if I’ve accomplished enough during the intervening year.

But New Year’s causes less of that and more of the whole “looking forward to a new beginning” sort of thing. My only complaint is that we can really do this at any point we choose. Every day is a new day. Every hour is a new hour. Every minute is a new minute. I mean, if the earth didn’t revolve on a tilted axis then there would be no seasonal changes and the whole concept of celebrating the survival of winter would be meaningless.

A new year can start at any moment.

Though I guess if the Earth didn’t rotate (revolve?) on a tilted axis then the equator would be a scorched and uninhabitable band around the center of the globe…but it would also be warmer up north. I think.

I’m straying off topic.

Happy New Year.

I’ve resolved to get through the first draft of Book Three in a timely fashion in spite of my fears.

And to go bowling more often.