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One last deep breath before the plunge

Back in February when things started to get…interesting, I decided March would be a consolidation month, a time to get all those fiddly little tasks out of the way so that in April and May, I could focus on writing The Merchant of Dreams. My progress has been erratic at times, but the power of the deadline is not to be denied. In this last week I’ve finally got my house in order. Not my real house, mind you – that’s still a total wreck! – but on the writing front, boxes have been ticked. My conlangs have been tweaked and documented, the first third of the new novel has been re-outlined, Scrivener is synchronised with Index Card and Notebooks on my iPad and I have a shiny new keyboard for my iPad too.

All I have to do now is get up bright and early tomorrow morning and start writing. My target is 1500 words a day, for as long as it takes to reach the end of the story, which could be anything between 50k and 100k, depending how absorbed I get in the writing. I really don’t know if that’s realistic; it’s a long, long time since I did NaNoWriMo for real, but on the other hand I managed an average of a thousand words of quality prose every day when I was revising The Alchemist of Souls, so I think fifteen hundred of first-draft-ish writing is doable.

Famous last words…

Going back to my roots: conlanging for novels

I have a confession to make: I’ve been playing at making up languages since before I discovered Tolkien.

It started in school, inspired (I think) by Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy; a friend and I created a whole world, albeit more SF than fantasy, and made up our own “language” out of obscure words we found in the dictionary and made up new meanings for. A few years later I read Lord of the Rings and discovered that Tolkien had done a much better job, and I was too much in awe of his magnum opus to try and compete.

Fast forward a couple of decades to the advent of the internet, which was when I discovered The Language Construction Kit by Mark Rosenfelder. It showed me that my early attempts at a conlang (constructed language) was a mere cipher of English, so I immediately rose to the challenge and started studying linguistics to try and make my invented languages more realistic.

During the course of writing my fantasy series, I realised I would need two languages for my non-humans, the skraylings: the everyday language they use among themselves, and a much older language, analogous to Latin. At first I went crazy with the linguistics, coming up with intricate verb morphology inspired by Native American languages, but I seemed to spend most of my time on the structure and history of the languages, and didn’t produce much actual vocabulary for use in the book. The other constraint was that I wanted the languages to be aesthetically pleasing; admittedly a purely subjective thing, but one that’s important to me. Trying to make all these things work was a disaster – like my early attempts at writing a novel, I made false start after false start, throwing each one out as I became dissatisfied with the results.

Finally I came across Holly Lisle’s Create-a-Language Clinic, which was a timely reminder that I was creating these languages explicitly for use in a novel, not as an intellectual exercise in itself. As with the novel, the reader comes first. A reader who speaks English and probably little or nothing else.

I’ve therefore had to make compromises. On the one hand, I’ve stated in the book that the Elizabethans find the skraylings’ names unpronounceable and therefore warp them into Anglicised versions; on the other, I can’t make the language too weird, because I use snatches of it here and there. So I abandoned my over-intellectualising and just played with sound patterns until I had something that looked a bit alien but was still easy to render in normal letters. Then I reverse-engineered the structure of the language, creating just enough complexity for it to be realistic – and no more. It’s taken longer than I hoped, because it requires an intuitive approach to what had previously been a very left-brained process. On the other hand I now have snatches of language that I’m pleased with, and enough documentation on those examples that I can expand them in future.

William Morris said: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. I would argue that the same applies to novels. I hope that my conlangs are both beautiful and useful, and I like to think Tolkien would approve.

DVD review: Red Cliff

Although the focus of my historical interest is medieval and renaissance Europe, I’ve always had a fondness for the Far East, ever since my early teens when I used to watch The Water Margin with my Dad. I love all kinds of Asian cinema, from visually gorgeous epics like Hero to non-stop-action martial arts movies. Red Cliff delivers, for me at least, a near-perfect mix of the two.

Note that the version reviewed here is the earlier, heavily cut Western release, just over two hours long, not the epic four-hour original.

Red Cliff (2008)

Set in 3rd-century Han China in the aftermath of a civil war, Red Cliff is a retelling of the historical Battle of Chi Bi. Ambitious prime minister Cao Cao persuades the young Emperor that to secure permanent peace, it is necessary to crush the two remaining warlords: Liu Bei and Sun Quan. Taking his vast but exhausted army south, Cao Cao drives Liu Bei and his ragtag band of rebels before him. Liu Bei sends his brilliant young strategist Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to convince Sun Quan’s viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) to form an alliance, and together they make a stand, on the Yangtse River at the fortress of Red Cliff.

This being a John Woo movie, there is plenty of action, from vast panoramic battle scenes to one-on-one combat, the latter in typically flamboyant – and bloody! – Woo style, though without the exagerrated wirework that has become almost a big a cliché of Asian cinema as “bullet time” is in its Western equivalents. It’s not all yang, however; there are quiet moments, from tea ceremonies to musical duets, as beautifully filmed as in any of the more “artsy” Chinese movies. And speaking of yin, although this is inevitably a film dominated by its male characters, the women are not neglected. Sun Quan’s sister Shangxiang plays a very active role in helping to defeat Cao Cao, and even Zhou Yu’s wife, the gentle Xiao Qiao, who wishes they could all sit down and talk over tea instead of fighting, refuses to sit at home whilst brave men die all around her.

If I have one complaint, it’s that the cuts create a few jumps in the narrative that can leave the viewer a little puzzled, so I can’t wait to get hold of the “extended” (i.e. uncut) version and see it in all its glory. If you have any interest in military history – or just dig the awesome battle scenes in Return of the King – I would strongly recommend seeing this film.

The calm before the storm

It’s been a quiet few days, waiting for the paperwork to get sorted out. It seems the signed copies of the contract I sent to my agent’s office haven’t arrived yet. Since my publisher is going to be away on business for the rest of this week, that means there won’t be any announcement until he gets back. In fact we’ve agreed to delay until the beginning of April, so that I can get up-to-date photos to them.

On the plus side, it means I have more time to prepare for whatever glare of publicity (albeit probably miniscule!) comes my way. On the minus side, it means you guys out there have to wait another couple of weeks for news, for which I apologise wholeheartedly. Remember, it could be worse. I could be dealing with one of the monolithic megacorp publishers who take two years to get a book into print…

Signing on the dotted line

Another flurry of emails today, to sort out the final details of my book deal. First up, I was able to announce my agent’s identity at last, which was nice since I have lots of friends hanging on every detail of my progress!

Secondly, the book deal itself. Turns out there was a misunderstanding over the third synopsis, so I don’t have to turn that in for a good while yet – phew! On the plus side, thinking about Book Three has given me a target to work towards with Book Two, so it was by no means a waste of time to make a start on it, even at this early stage.

Also, I now have the contract in my sticky paws, and after clarifying a couple of the more confusing clauses, I have signed it and will be posting it back this morning. It also means I now have delivery dates – eek! – and approximate publication dates – woohoo! – for all three books.

I expect to be able to make a formal announcement in a few days’ time, but for now, it’s back to the writing…

My not-so-secret agent

For the past four weeks I’ve been biting my tongue and waiting not-very-patiently to make this announcement: I have signed with John Berlyne of the Zeno Literary Agency.

Back in September 2010 when I started my agent hunt, I was disappointed to discover that Zeno were closed to submissions. Not only did they have an exciting client list, from homegrown talent like Maggie Furey and Freda Warrington to huge US names such as Charlaine Harris and Brandon Sanderson, but John B and I share a favourite author in Tim Powers (another of Zeno’s clients).

I put them on my shortlist anyway, and signed up for their RSS feed. A few weeks later they announced they were opening for a short while, and so on 1st December I fired off a query. Maybe it was my carefully-honed pitch, or maybe it was the fact that I already had a publisher interested, but I got a request for sample chapters practically by return of email, and a request for the full manuscript ten days later.

Of course the world of publishing never moves as quickly as we anxious authors would like, so it wasn’t until last month that I finally spoke to John about representation. Since I’m evidently not the only one to be signed up as a result of their two-month opening, I had to wait until they were ready to make an announcement before I could tell the rest of the world. However the embargo is now lifted, and I am free to shout it from the highest hills, even tell the golden da–ffodils…

Because my secret agent’s no secret, any more.

(With apologies to Sammy Fain and Paul-Francis Webster)

Be careful what you wish for

For the past few days I’ve been hoping for more news on my pending contract, and today my prayers were answered. Sort of.

My agent softened the blow by first listing the amounts I will get paid upon signing of the contract. Not a huge sum, but better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, as they say. The downside is that

a) I have to come up with a synopsis for Book Three in the series asap. Yeah, the sequel to the book I haven’t even written yet.

b) I now have deadlines for all three books.

I’ve asked for the latter to be extended a little, as I’m new to this whole “write a book a year” game and definitely not up for “write a book in nine months” just yet, but even so, it’s a tad scary. I’m sure the performance anxiety will wear off once I get into the writing, but with nothing on paper except a few wild ideas, I still feel like I’m about to cross a tightrope without a safety net…

Belated copyediting – the timeline

Today I finally got around to creating a new timeline for The Alchemist of Souls in Aeon Timeline. Unfortunately in the process I discovered a few minor errors in the manuscript – doh! Nothing too serious, fortunately – just a case of fixing a sentence here and there to make sure characters don’t miraculously row from Bankside to Richmond in half an hour!

Of course my beta-readers, being caught up in the story, never noticed the discrepancies. This is the sort of thing that copyeditors are supposed to catch, but these days one can never be sure how thorough an editing process one’s book will go through. Thankfully I caught all this well before the book went to press, but I’ve learnt my lesson: always do a proper timeline during the draft and certainly before submitting the manuscript!

Files, files everywhere!

I spent a big chunk of yesterday copying files from my MacBook Air onto my “deskbook” (an old MacBook that I use, lid closed and connected to a keyboard and monitor, as a desktop machine). Part of that was because I’ve been suffering from high-pitched tinnitus lately and the MBA is a prime suspect, and partly it was because my Writing folder was a total mess! I had multiple copies of various files scattered across folders, and my backups were huge because I just kept backing up the entire folder!

Now I have separate folders for finished drafts, backburner projects and works in progress, so only the latter needs frequent backups. This weekend I want to burn them all to disk – not quite a permanent archive, but as close as one can get. I already have a printout of my most recent draft of The Alchemist of Souls. It’s good to back up the old-fashioned way as well, and who knows, posterity might be interested to see a pre-publication version of my magnificent octopus :)

Planning ahead

I now have a series title for my novels, so I’ve decided to make a subsite dedicated to the books and setting. It’ll be hosted as a subdomain on this account, but I’ve already registered a domain name that I’ll point to it in due course. This way I can put a whole load of content online, about the alternate history and stuff, without cluttering up my blog, and conversely without my blog becoming too commercial and “buy the fecking books already!” :)

Everything’s under wraps right now whilst I tweak the design and put some preliminary content in place – it won’t really be needed until close to the book launch – but I wanted to get it online well ahead of time, to give Google a chance to index it and push it up the rankings. All will be unveiled in due course…