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By Sound Alone — Questions That Might Be Asked

What's it like, in one line?

I like to say: "like 1970s trucker culture crossed with a 1960s submarine movie." But that probably only appeals to a small slice of a certain kind of Gen-X dude.

More than one reader has said: "Like Serenity on a submarine." (Note: I've never seen Serenity, and only a couple of episodes of Firefly. Make of that what you will.)

Not really a question, more of an order: convince me to read this book without wasting my time.

How about a bulleted list?

What genre is it exactly?

Speculative fiction, for sure.
Not a traditional submarine novel.
Not alternate history exactly (Hitler doesn't win the war).
Hard to pin down precisely.

When your book doesn't fit nicely into a genre, it's time to invent your own. Maybe "grimepunk"? It's grimy. It's pretty punk-rock. And it shares many themes with steampunk (just not the steam). Read it and tell me what genre you think it should be!

Can I get a sample to see if I like it?

Meh. Just download the whole book. What, are you trying to save like half a meg of space?

What's with the slow start?

The opening scene is a quiet set piece. This is to contrast with all the life-and-death action that is most of the rest of the book. If you're in it for submarine suspense (subspence?) and action, I encourage you to stick with it!

Personally, I could be perfectly content to read a novel that consists of nothing but well-written descriptions of submarines moving silently through the water. But I know that's not everyone's jam, and this book is not that by any means. (Though the sequel might be…)

If the submarines in the book were real, what year would they be from? Or, when would the technology in the book have been used in real life?

Technology-wise, the book is set in the mid-20th Century. Submarine technology hit a kinda sweet spot around then (at least in terms of story-telling potential). They were efficient underwater and achieved impressive technological feats, but still had diesel engines and required time on the surface to recharge. Compare this to WWII subs, which were basically surface ships that had the ability to submerge, limited to only a few hundred feet of depth. Nuclear subs, on the other end of the spectrum, rarely have to surface and, in terms of technology, are essentially invincible magic. If what you want is submarine suspense, the mid-century tech delivers the most potential. Especially if you want to tell a story that isn't about a war submarine. Not that a good war submarine story isn't awesome. I just feel like the creative potential of submarines shouldn't be limited to war.

Can you tell me more about the "world" this story takes place in?

No. If I wanted to tell stories about the endless give and take of global powers, I would have been a journalist. The characters in the story don't care too much about politics on the surface and neither should you. In recent decades, the study of history has turned away from looking at the machinations of nation-states and instead focuses on peoples and processes. I like to think this story has a similar relationship to the world it exists in.

I love this submarine world you created and I want to spend more time there! Will there be a sequel?

I have extensive notes for a second book, but I need time to write it. If you really want more right now, I've been working on an in-world short story (about 13k words) set on the Prospect with the same characters. There's also a "Director's Cut" of the novel in the git commits that is 20k words longer — but I don't recommend it.

"Cinematic," you say?

What can I say? I'm a visual person writing a novel. The images in my head were cinematic, and apparently that made it into the book (says my readers).

The plot of By Sound Alone is simple: one submarine chases another across the oceans of the planet for some mysterious reason. Hopefully, the bit of mystery keeps you turning pages. But the goal of the book — the way it is meant to entertain you — is to make it feel like you are in the submarine, trapped in this can underwater, spending your time with these characters. That's what it felt like to write it, and hopefully that's what it is like to read it too. If in some places it maybe drags a smidge because, say, you are eating a meal with the characters, then I ask you to weigh the experience of being there against a modern-style fiction novel where it's just one plot reveal after another. Not that my way is necessarily better, just different enough that I guess I'm giving up marketability — and publishability. But still, spending-time-in-a-different-world is the kind of book I enjoy reading. I hope you do too.

What's with all the F-bombs?

Heyyyy, fuck you for asking.

No, that's fine, it's a fair question.

There's a number of reasons I wanted to include a lot of swearing, but the main reason is that I just wanted the dialog to sound the way people actually talk. Particularly working class folks isolated together for weeks on end. I think most fiction writers prefer to save the swearing for when it can have some impact (subtle spoiler: you might note that I chose to drop the swearing for the most impactful parts of By Sound Alone). Saving swears for drama allows writers to feel like they are doing "proper" writing, as they may have learned in school. It also conveniently saves them from alienating the portion of their potential audience that might skip their book if it includes a bunch of swearing characters.

Well, since I'm not trying to sell books, I don't particularly care if prudes skip my book. But more importantly, I think the tendency towards "proper" writing is also a tendency to turn away from the way people actually talk. (I also think the "proper" use of commas in dialog often undermines the sound of actual language. If you see a comma missing in dialog while reading By Sound Alone, it was probably a deliberate choice. Try re-reading the line the way it is on the page and see if it sounds better to your ear!)

And then my dirty secret is that I hoped a lot of swearing would be a cheap way to make the book feel grittier. I'm not sure I succeeded with this tactic, as a result there's about 20% less swearing in the final version than in early drafts.

Look, if you really want to read the book and the swearing bothers you, feel free to modify the text to make your own clean version and publish it! (Though note: it would have to be under the same Creative Commons non-commercial license — don't think you can make money doing this.) That's the beauty of the open-source model.

I found a mistake, want to know about it?

To see known potential issues, check out Errata, Potential Mistakes, & Retcons

Please submit any grammatical or technical mistakes on my contact page. I welcome your corrections.

For technical corrections: please explain your reasoning behind why you think I got some technical aspect wrong, and cite sources where appropriate. Technical aspects of the book should conform to the limits of mid-20th Century technology (so I do not care what the capabilities of modern subs are, and while I would love to hear a story about your grandfather's experience on a WWII sub, the technical limitations he may have experienced are too old to be relevant).

A good technical correction would be pointing out a spot where the story violates the laws of physics (no citation required). Another example would be identifying a place where a submarine performs a maneuver that would be unlikely or impossible for a sub of the time (exceeding depth limit, say), and you include a citation of the specs of a specific submarine that existed in real life. (US Submarines Since 1945 is a good reference, if you can find a copy. It was a primary source for much of the information in the book. The hull shape of the Prospect was based on the second USS Tang (SS-563), albeit heavily modified.)

Try to remember it is fiction, and just a tiny bit it technical leeway should be allowed, particularly if it contributes to dramatic tension. On the other hand, I really want the book to carry a lot of technical/mechanical precision, because I think that contributes to the dramatic tension in a way that made-up stuff (usually) does not.

If you know how to use Github, feel free to fork the project, fix it yourself, and send me a pull request.

Can I support your work with money?

A nice thought, I'm flattered! Thanks! But I am committed to keeping this book free.

For other things you can do with your money, see: Three things to do if you enjoy this book.

Is this book published by a legit publisher?

No. And it probably never will be. Apparently my decision to release an early version for public review severely hobbled the chances of a real publisher picking it up, and my later decision to release it under a open-content license has likely killed off any small remaining chance, since no publisher wants to sell a paper book where the author insists that the text should remain available free online.

You know what? I don't care. Modern fiction is just terrible. And I suspect the main reason is because publishers grind up any promising good book with a commercial-potential machine until what comes out is flat garbage. (Not all books, of course, but I'd say the vast majority of "successful" books could be described this way.)

Swearing off traditional book publishing has both good an bad results.

In the bad column: There's mistakes — despite having it professionally copy-edited, there's always going to be another typo. And maybe I've given up some of the accessibility that might have come with a professional content editor shaving stuff to make it move along more quickly or shape it to make the plot the exclusive priority. I regret this somewhat. I want the book to be accessible and fun to read. I'd love to have a talented editor help me shape it that way without compromising the feeling of the book that I was going for. But I'm not sure most book publishers even have editors with that kind of talent these days. Most of all I regret the stigma of "self-published" has associated with it. But I think that stigma is unfair and needs to change, and I hope this book can be a small part of that. I also did my own cover design, and I think it could be better.

In the good column: The book is a vision of mine, not mediated by someone else's need to sell copies or build buzz. It isn't written to meet the demands of any particular audience. It doesn't have to be part of a well-established genre. In other words it's not a product. It has a DIY quality that gives it some authenticity and pathos that gets drained from most modern books. Most of all, it frees me from feeling like this book is just a tiny cog in the late-capitalist entertainment system. I just love the idea that it can be out there in the world freely passed around.

Point is, I think it's a better book because it's not "published."

Now tell me how you really feel about "legit" book publishing

It is long past time we stopped letting publishers be the gatekeepers of what's a good book. This needs to change. We don't let record labels tell us what music is good anymore, so why do we insist a book is not good if it's "self-published"? That's not to say there's not tons of crappy books out there (both published and self-published). I'm just saying we need to develop our non-capitalist ways of sorting them, because we just cannot trust for-profit marketing.

Allow me to explore another idea here.

By Sound Alone is not really self-published anyway. With the advent of print-on-demand books, there's no longer any reason to print with a vanity press. By Sound Alone isn't published because the very idea of publishing is so last-century. The final product is of By Sound Alone is not an e-book file or a print-on-demand paper book. The final product is the git repository. The book is "published" only on Github. That repo contains not just all you need to make your own copy of the book in any format you like, but also a record of the entire process of making the book: every plot-plan, every note, every edit, every in-line comment, every cover mockup. It is the canonical final edition. (And I reserve the right that just because it's the "final" edition doesn't mean I won't continue to fix or change things.) Everything else is essentially a reprint.

What I mean by that is that if you want to delete your e-book file when you are done, or use your paper copy as kindling, I don't mind. (OK, ideally I'd prefer you gave your copy to someone else to read. But hey, if you're cold, go ahead and start a fire.) The point is that the copies are essentially worthless. What's important is that the Git repo remains available.

In the near future all books will be made with a process like this. (If not with Git, then with some type of version control at least.) But, unless the cultural values of authors and readers shift radically, you probably will only have access to the worthless copies, not to the original archive of the work being created. Even though technology makes it so it would basically cost nothing for authors to embrace transparency and let readers see their process, authors are still more likely to want to keep the process closed and pipe their final product through an increasingly-irrelevant publishing industry. Capitalism doesn't slip away easily.

Anyway, this book will remain available in both its final form and with the entire process in place. Maybe nobody cares. Maybe someday someone will want to pick all those git commits apart to see how the book came together. Doesn't really matter. The process is included because it's just so easy for it to be there.

Why did you want to write a submarine story?

Right at the beginning of the process, I wrote down a whole bunch of notes about this. Then somewhere along the line those notes apparently turned themselves into a 1500-word essay.

See: Why write a submarine story?

Is this book free? What license is it released under?

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International.

Upshot is: you can freely copy and distribute the book in any form you like, as long as you aren't making money doing it. And if you modify the book, you have to distribute it under the same license.

See the LICENCE.

What software did you use to create this book?

Exclusively open-source stuff: vim, markdown, pandoc, git, make, Inkscape, Gimp, tmux, mupdf, pdftk, and of course all of the various Linux distros that are my daily driver desktop computers. The Github repo contains pretty good documentation.