“I’ve identified our exit. I’m coming back. Time is tight, so get Jaci suited up and have him ready to go as soon as I get the door open. It’s a bit of a narrow squeeze, and we need to be sure he can fit.”
Anna slipped through the broken window out of the sunlight and back into the darkened station. She kicked over to the door through which she had entered, closed it behind herself, and then across the empty gate lounge to the agent’s console. Silent alarms continued to strobe red throughout the otherwise dim room. On the console she tapped at the alien icons, cursing silently when she found herself in incorrect menus, but after a couple false starts was able to retrace the steps to the room’s environmental controls. A few minutes later the sound of the klaxons accompanying the alarms reached her, quiet but steadily gaining volume, as air began to fill the space.
Anna has found a way for them out of the orbital ring station, but it involves using an entire room as a makeshift airlock — which takes time to evacuate and then refill with air each time — and climbing carefully out of a meteorite-shattered window, past possibly sharp edges just waiting to tear a hole in a spacesuit, into the void of space. Then what? The lander is on its way, but it cannot dock with the station. How close can Anna remotely navigate it to their location, using a handheld tablet computer with a rapidly failing battery? Will they be able to step across the gap, or will they need to take a leap of faith, trusting their aim as they launch themselves toward salvation without any safeties? Off by just a degree, and they will continue into the void without hope of any rescue, an endless jump into oblivion.
And, because they only have two flimsy spacesuits for the four of them, Anna will need to make this leap five times, bringing the extra spacesuit back for the next member of her crew each time.
Meanwhile, the tether cable of the space elevator, severed at its base, continues its relentless curl up toward their location in orbit, threatening at a minimum severe damage to the station around them, if not smashing it to bits. It’s unclear how much longer they have before the first shockwave reaches them.
Will they make it?
On another note, this scene marks more than 100,000 words written so far for The Silence of Ancient Light. To think, when I started this adventure, I thought it would be a short story, or perhaps a novella at best!
“Won’t it take hours to effect an orbital change and advance to our position?”
“Normally, yes, that would be the case. With the shuttle, that’s what we would have to do, firing thrusters retrograde to push down to a faster orbit and get ahead of us, then firing again prograde to lift the orbit and let us catch up to the shuttle. That would easily be a two-day maneuver, although in an extreme case we could push all the way down to the Karmann line and back up, and maybe it could be done in a few hours, at a huge cost in fuel the shuttle just didn’t have.”
“We don’t have a few hours.”
“No. But the lander, of course, has an engine designed for descending to the surface of a high-G world and then lifting back up to orbit again, with a fuel tank to match. The lithium saltwater fusion engine has more than enough thrust and specific impulse for a brachistochrone trajectory straight to our position, and we’ll still have fuel to spare afterwards.”
An engine designed for descending to the surface of a high-G world and then lifting back up to orbit again. A lithium saltwater rocket with enough thrust to accelerate quickly and enough specific impulse to keep on burning for some serious delta-V. Brachistochrone trajectories capable of ignoring orbital dynamics and just powering on through to where you want to go.
In other words, a torchship to make even Robert A Heinlein proud!
This really is the only way to get quickly from one part of a high orbit to another location on that high orbit that is 22,000 kilometers away without taking multiple days (multiple orbits) to get there. And to do it, you need either a ton (or, many tons) of fuel, or a very efficient engine. You need that unicorn of space drives, an engine that shift gears between high thrust and high specific impulse, two attributes that normally are exclusive of each other.
And there is a design out there to do this. The only problem today is that we haven’t quite mastered the trick of running a nuclear fusion reactor, which is the key component we need for this.
I’m going to talk a great deal more about this in a future blog post, very soon, but right now I’m very excited to present to you the next installment in the saga of our hapless heroes, The Silence of Ancient Light. You’ll recall that when last we saw our friends, Anna, Laxmi, Jaci, and Ca-Tren, they were stuck in an abandoned alien space station with no obvious way to get out, and with less than two hours before imminent destruction in the form of a severed space elevator cable would smash their part of the station into tiny bits.
But you’ll recall that Anna, after all this time, finally found a way to connect Jaci’s handheld tablet computer to the alien station’s radio broadcast network, and from there create a digital connection to their faraway spaceship. What can she do with such a connection?
You’ll need to read on, of course, to find out, but my earlier comments are surely a big hint.
I’ll warn you now, there’s an emotional component to this scene that you may not expect. Jaci is going to reveal something…
“It’s not a Fourier transform! Or, not a straight-up one, anyway. I think we’re looking at a Hartley modulator circuit, and if I apply the Hilbert variant on the Fourier… Damn, no one has used that for years, does this app even have that function?”
“A Hartley modulator what?”
“I should have known when I saw the phase-shifted single-sideband signal with its own inverse! It’s a technique for radio broadcasting that was popular a couple-hundred years ago, and for a while it was popular with early digital signal processors, but those processors became obsolete a long time ago, somewhere around the turn of the millennium. We learned about this in…”
Anna trailed off as she madly tapped and swiped at options on the tablet. Laxmi looked at Jaci.
“Do you have any idea what she just said?”
“Nope, but I like her enthusiasm. I say we let her run with it and see what happens. I mean, we’re all probably gonna die anyway, right?”
Would you know how to quickly hack into a WiFi network if your life depended upon it? What about if the WiFi signal not only didn’t use any encryption algorithm you’d ever heard of, but it was broadcast on a wholly different frequency band, using an unknown method of encoding digital data into a radio signal, and even if you can decode the signal, it’s based upon a language never spoken or written on Earth?
In other words, you’ve detected an alien radio network, but you cannot understand the nature of the information it is broadcasting, and yet you have about half an hour to figure out how to connect your handheld tablet computer to it and use it to send a signal. If you don’t manage this impossible task, you and your friends are all going to die.
No pressure, in other words.
The good news is that radio technology is ultimately based upon mathematics, and while the terminology and symbols may be different, the fundamental rules still apply. The aliens might not call it single sideband (SSB), but doubtless they too figured out this more efficient method of transmitting information over great distances with less power and bandwidth consumption. And while Fourier, Hilbert, and Hartley were all pioneers of mathematics and radio signal processing on Earth, the mathematical discoveries they made are likely to have been independently made by alien mathematicians and engineers as well.
It’s still probably a stretch to decode and tap into the signal in just half an hour, I admit. However, when the alternative is being blasted into the vacuum of space, there is quite the motivation!
Yes, I know, I greatly oversimplified things in this scene, and I threw a lot of technical terms around and probably badly mangled how all this works, but I hope you will forgive me and enjoy it regardless. Please give it a read and let me know what you think!
Anna did not talk to Jaci in the morning. When she awoke, she was alone, and she half wondered if it had all been in her imagination. She swung her feet out of the bunk and sat up, then stood up and stretched her arms over her head. The chamber was sized for Kwakitl, so she had to bend her elbows to keep from smacking the ceiling, but after sleeping curled in the short bunk she needed to get the kinks out of her joints. She ran her hands through her hair, remembering how it had looked in the mirror the previous night, and wondered why the cab’s designers didn’t see fit to put a doorway direct between the dormitory and lavatory. With that thought, she realized that for the first time in a long time she was self-conscious about going out into the main room in a state of just-awakened disarray.
Get over it, Anna. This was ridiculous. She palmed the door open and stepped out to face the others.
Morning sunlight flooded the primary chamber, golden through tinted windows. Laxmi, Jaci, and Ca-Tren sat on couches facing each other, finishing off the remains of a breakfast they had shared. Jaci looked up at Anna’s entrance and smiled.
“Good morning, sunshine!”
Anna grunted a response, not meeting his eye, and shuffled over to look out the windows. “Is there coffee?”
It’s no secret Anna likes to be in control of the situation. She’s a pilot, after all; control is central to what she does. She has felt out of control for a while now, however, and her own emotional state is just one more area where this is true. She feels a need to reign things in and get back on track.
But first, she needs coffee. They’ve been relying on emergency ration freeze-dried coffee that is at least three years old, so right about now she would do anything for a decent cup of coffee.
I’m just going to say it, this scene was not easy to write. Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I’ve been grumbling about it a small bit. But only a small bit. I’ve wanted to write this, I just haven’t known how. That said, however, I’m happy with where it ended up. Have a read, then let me know what you think. Did I handle it well? Do you like where it’s going? Or is it all wrong? Where do you want this to go?
Normally, after six scenes, this would mark a chapter end, but I’m not quite there yet. There’s one scene left in this chapter. What do you think will happen? Pour yourself a cup of coffee, enjoy the scene, and let’s talk.
Most writers want to have their work read. After all, that’s why we write, no? Ok, some folks write purely for their own catharsis and don’t care if another soul ever sees it, or perhaps don’t even want anyone else to read it, and some write with the (elusive and probably misguided) goal of making money, but most of us write simply because we enjoy seeing others enjoy our work.
And for that to happen, we have to be noticed. People have to be aware that the work exists and know how to find it, or it won’t matter how amazing the writing is, how engaging the story. It will languish in the darkness of obscurity.
There are many ways to be noticed, some more effective than others. We’re all trying to find those magic keywords that will maximize our search engine optimization, or SEO, and somehow draw readers in out of the ether, and yes, we find some readers that way. We promote our work on social media, engage with others in hopes they’ll engage with us, and yes, we find a few more that way.
But unless we’re already famous, that rarely turns into more than a trickle of readers. In fact, being too aggressive with self-promotion on social media is likely to have a negative effect, turning off potential readers who just want to engage in friendly chat and not see what amounts to endless advertising all day.
So it may seem almost counter-intuitive, at first glance, that advertising may be a way to get over the hurdle of not overly aggressively bombarding our friends and followers with, well, advertising.
What do I mean by that? Well, at the time I write this, I have just barely over a thousand followers on Twitter, and just barely under a hundred on Facebook. It took me four years to get to that point, though some people seem to manage it overnight, but I refused to play the various “follow-for-follow” games, mainly because they turned me off when I saw them, so I presumed they would turn off other “real” engagements as well. If all I do on Twitter is constantly push my writing to my existing followers, I’ll probably start losing more than I gain. And in any case, most of them will never click that link through to my website, even if they like the post in which I share my latest scene.
Still, at first glance Twitter seems to have a ten to one advantage over Facebook in terms of my reach toward potential audiences. That is probably offset, however, by the nature of those who follow an independent, unpublished, non-famous author on one platform vs the other. The majority of those who follow me on Twitter are other writers, some published, some not yet, some represented, and others not. They are there for the same reasons I am, yes, to promote their work, but also to engage with likeminded people going through the same struggles they are. In other words… not the general reading audience, but more like a professional association.
Facebook has far fewer people following me, and while many of those are also other writers, there is (I think, it’s hard to be sure) a higher percentage of them who are “ordinary readers” who are interested in science fiction. Still, the organic engagement I get with a tweet vs a Facebook post reflects that ten-to-one split, and so I’ve tended to focus more of my time where the greater number of people reside.
A recent experiment might imply that I’ve been focusing on the wrong platform.
I ran an ad on each of the platforms to see what would happen. No, I don’t have anything to sell yet, so there’s no financial incentive for me in this. It was just to see what kind of engagement I could drive with my story as it develops here on these pages. I ran them separately, with about a week in between. I posted precisely the same link on each (this one, here: The Silence of Ancient Light), using the same language and same tags (#ScienceFiction and #WIP). I targeted the same countries (United States, United Kingdom, and Canada), and targeted audiences interested in Science Fiction and in Reading, but otherwise left the demographics wide open. I gave each an identical budget of $50. The Twitter ad ran for 5 days, and the Facebook one for 7 days (the defaults on each), but the majority of the results from the Facebook ad still happened within those first 5 days, so this was roughly equivalent.
On Twitter, the ad received a total of 3,288 impressions, of which 2,670 were “promoted” and the remainder were “organic” (happened naturally, and would likely have occurred without paying for the ad). An impression is just the ad appeared before someone’s eyes, in their feed, whether or not they interact with it at all. Those impressions resulted in 90 total engagements, of which 83 were promoted and again, the rest were organic. That’s a 3.1% engagement rate, which by all accounts is about as much as you can expect. An engagement is someone taking any action on the ad: 32 people expanded the detail to see the full text, 24 people clicked the like button, 15 people clicked on my profile to learn more about me, and 10 people clicked on the link to follow through to this website. 7 people retweeted the ad, and I gained 2 new followers because of the ad.
Since “link clicks” was the real purpose of the ad, that means 0.4% of people who saw the ad clicked through to the website. Less impressive, perhaps.
Meanwhile, over here on the website, during the time period the ad was running, I saw those 10 views on the page that was the ad’s link, though only 9 of them were registered as being referred from Twitter. Overall, the entire site had 35 views from 18 unique visitors, and I received 1 post like. This implies I had almost as many organic site visits as I did promoted visits, which may partly be explained by me having posted a new scene to the site a few days before the ad began running.
The ad reached 2,670 people, and 0.4% of those clicked through to read the “title” page of the story. A small handful of those 10 people then clicked on to read one or more actual scenes of the story. So, that cost me $10 per reader, and they weren’t very engaged by the story. Perhaps the story is just bad?
A week after the Twitter ad expired, I ran the same ad on Facebook, as I described above. With few exceptions, everything about the ad was identical.
The Facebook ad reached 12,812 people, of whom 12,807 were paid and just 22 organic. Right away, we see that Facebook seemed to have much greater reach, nearly 5 times as much. But what about engagement?
991 people engaged with the ad. I don’t have the split for paid vs organic on this number, but as I have very few followers here, and only a single-digit number who ever seem to engage with my regular posts, I feel safe in saying that the vast majority of this number was due to the paid ad. That’s a 7.7% engagement rate! More than double the engagement of the identical Twitter ad. Of those 991, 48 “reacted” (clicked like, mostly, though one hit the laughing out loud button, and I’m not sure what to make of that), 6 shared the post (1 of those was a share of a share, so while not exactly viral, that is how those things get started), 1 commented on the post (and it was a strange comment, so not necessarily a positive), and 934 clicked on it. Of those clicks, 367 were clicks on the link to this website, and 567 were “other” clicks (on my profile, perhaps? it’s not clear).
Back here on the website, I tracked 384 Facebook referrals during the time the ad ran, and 901 views from 333 unique visitors. There were 391 views on the promoted page, and 1 page like.
The ad reached nearly 5 times as many people as the Twitter ad, and 2.9% of them clicked through to look at the website, compared to 0.4% of those who saw the Twitter ad. Instead of $10 per reader, this campaign cost me 15¢ per reader. That’s much more effective!
There’s an even more compelling stat here, however. From the Twitter campaign, only a handful of people read anything other than the initially linked page. From the Facebook campaign, about two dozen people went on to read at least the first few scenes, almost a dozen read quite a bit more than that, at least through the first few chapters, and at least 3 people read the entire story so far published, all the way to the end.
That tells me that it’s not just the advertising, but my writing is engaging at least some people. Not all, perhaps not even a majority of those who look at it, but at least some are finding it worthwhile to spend several hours reading 80,000+ words.
It is curious, however, that no one from the Facebook campaign chose to become a new follower of either my Facebook page nor this website. They read through all the work, which is as yet unfinished, but did not click the link to sign up to be notified when the next scene is available. I’m going to presume they bookmarked the site in their browser and will just periodically check back — maybe? — but perhaps I need to investigate why people are reluctant to hit that “follow” button. I have some thoughts on this, but no real data.
Needless to say, this is encouraging. I’ll continue writing as long as anyone continues reading. For the sake of being thorough, I should also do an identically configured Google AdWords campaign to see how that stacks up. I haven’t yet decided if I’m ready to spend another $50 to find out, but maybe.
Otherwise, is there much point to advertising when I don’t yet have a finished book to sell? Obviously I have no way to turn that investment into any kind of revenue, not yet. However, it never hurts to generate some buzz around the unfinished work, so that people are eager for the final publication. I can’t say if I really achieved that, but I did get my work in front of quite a few more people than I ever had before. And, I have some thoughts about where to focus my investment when I do have a book to sell. Indeed, this experiment turned my expectations upside down, as I had been led to believe that Twitter would be the more effective platform, yet the reverse was true, and by an entire order of magnitude.
Other than more advertising, this experiment has encouraged me to post more often on Facebook and become more engaging there, whereas previously I mostly only posted there when new scenes were available. Twitter had been my “engagement” platform of choice. I will definitely still engage there, but I will broaden my horizon a bit.
What do you think? Did you see the ad? If so, on which platform? Did it cause you to click through, and is that why you’re here now reading this post about how I manipulated you into doing so? How many scenes of the story did you read, and did the story engage you? Will you come back to read more?
Or, if you’re another writer, have you advertised, and if so, what has been your experience?