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Only abandoned

Art is never finished, only abandoned. (Leonardo da Vinci)

About 8pm yesterday I finally finished the proofread of The Alchemist of Souls and sent it back to Lee at Angry Robot (who is of course in San Diego at the moment, as Marc has been nominated for a World Fantasy award). Frankly I just wanted it done and out of the way so I can get on with the other books – there comes a point where you have to say Enough!

Onward then, to the synopsis of Book Three and the draft of The Merchant of Dreams

Mental breaks and GTD

I’m still on the Alchemist of Souls proofs re-read: typos are being slain, poor word choices whipped into shape, and formatting double-checked. Not that there’s many in each category, but I’d hate this book to go out in anything less than pristine condition.

Even so, it’s hard work. I think I managed to get just over halfway through before my brain exploded and I needed to do something else for a while! And, since it’s autumn, my instincts say I need to sort out my “nest” before winter comes, so I have a snug place to hibernate. At least that’s my explanation for why I prefer to do “spring cleaning” at this time of year…

First step has been to get organised. If I’m going to juggle a full-time day job and a writing career, I need to be able to keep all those plates spinning! I was converted to Getting Things Done a couple of years ago, but I’ve let things slide lately: I keep skipping my weekly reviews, and I know my lists aren’t as up-to-date as they could be. As GTDers will know, this is A Bad Thing; you have to be able to trust your lists, or you might as well not be doing it at all.

I use two different programs to organise my lists, so that I can keep my day-job and personal life separated. Omnifocus is ideal for the former, as I have lots of time-sensitive projects on the go at once; for the latter I use Things, which is less complex but still has enough features to use it for GTD. Neither program is cheap (especially if you want them on Mac, iPad and iPhone, as I do), but I’ve found that not being organised actually costs me money, so I don’t resent paying for good tools. Both are quite complex, too, so I’ve been using the excellent video tutorials at ScreenCastsOnline to help me get back up to speed.

All this organising has obviously eaten into my proofreading time, but I reckon I’m more productive when I’m less stressed, so I don’t think it’s going to impact adversely on my deadlines. If anything it should give me just the confidence boost I need, going into NaNoWriMo!

Final proofs

The final proof copy of The Alchemist of Souls arrived in my inbox on Monday, so I’ve had to put aside my outlining for a few days to work on that. There were only about a dozen copyeditor’s comments to check: some I approved and made the suggested changes, some I marked as “stet” (i.e. do not change) – yes, wine really was that expensive in 16th century England!

The bulk of the task, though, consists of reading the whole book and catching any remaining errors, and also making a couple of small changes near the end, prompted by developments in The Merchant of Dreams. Nothing drastic, just some threads I left open that need to lead in a slightly different direction.

The manuscript came as a Word document, so I’ve had to do the markup on my work laptop – I only have Pages on my home Macs, and although it can see Word’s Track Changes markup and add its own, a quick test showed that opening the resultant file in Word produced an error (the phrase I’d added a comment to was repeated).

I don’t like reading long documents in a word-processor, though, so I’ve converted the Word file to PDF and am now working through it in iAnnotate. I’ll then have to go back to my laptop and type my changes into Word. It sounds laborious, but I think it’s going to be less tiresome than a) lugging my work laptop home every evening and b) trying to read a 140,000 word novel in Word!

BristolCon 2011

This weekend I was lucky enough to attend BristolCon 2011, a small SFF convention in the lovely city of Bristol (where I went to university). There were a few reasons for going: to see my alma mater again; to catch up with convention buddies; and of course to honour the memory of the late Colin Harvey, one of the founders of the convention, who died this August.

Sad memories aside, though, it was a fantastic little convention. The programme was packed with panels, interviews, talks and readings, and there were plenty of stalls in and around the dealers’ hall, selling everything from new and secondhand books to steampunk weaponry! The venue was also very good, and conveniently placed for both Temple Meads station and Bristol’s fine array of restaurants around the old docks.

Juliet E McKenna talks about the evolution of magic in her fantasy series
Juliet E McKenna talks about the evolution of magic in her fantasy series

I attended two very interesting talks. The first was by Juliet E McKenna (above), about how she worldbuilds as she goes along and how this has affected the evolution of magic in her fantasy series. We learnt about the reasoning behind her island city of wizards, how a chance comment in an introduction to her novella led to an entire trilogy about the Lescari revolution – and how the runes for aetheric magic were brainstormed with her husband one evening over a bottle of wine! We also got a preview of the cover art for her new trilogy, conceived as a triptych of characters. If you ever have the chance to catch one of Juliet’s talks, do so – she’s a great speaker and has a wealth of experience in writing fantasy.

Mike Shevdon demonstrates a composite bow
Mike Shevdon demonstrates a composite bow

The second talk was by Mike Shevdon, who is writing an urban fantasy series, The Courts of the Feyre, for Angry Robot and is also a keen archer. Mike brought along his collection of bows, from a fibreglass replica of the composite bows used by steppe nomads (see photo, right) to a decidedly steampunk-esque compound bow. He also showed us some film clips, the most interesting of which was the slow-motion movement of an arrow, showing how it flexes as it leaves the string, enabling it to fly straight despite the bow being in the way. Again, highly recommended for anyone wanting to improve their fantasy writing or just learn about this ancient technology.

Of course I wasn’t just a spectator this time round. In addition to a short reading, I sat on two panels: “Tricks and Tools for Writers” and “The Life-cycle of the Author”. I was a bit nervous beforehand, but the moderators made everyone feel very relaxed and ensured that all the participants got a chance to speak, so it was a very pleasant experience in the end. Both panels were recorded, so (sound quality permitting) they will hopefully be podcast at some point.

Overall I had a great time, made some more friends (and finally got to meet some online ones), so I’m looking forward to going back next year, writing schedule permitting!

Web presence 101.2 – Your Website

In the first installment of this series, I talked about the importance of claiming your name online (before someone else does!). Once you have a domain name, you are probably going to want a website for it to point to – even before you have a book out, people such as agents may want to look for you online, and you want what they find to be interesting and professional!

Creating a website can seem daunting if you’re not technically proficient, but it needn’t be – and it needn’t cost a fortune, either. Sure, if you make money from your writing, you might want to invest some of that in a more original design (all tax-deductible!), but these days it’s not hard to put together an attractive site using standard tools and templates.

For a beginner, I would recommend using blogging software as the basis for your site. I will talk about blogging itself in the next post in this series, but modern blogging software can be used to run an entire website (like this one), not just a blog. Blogging software also comes with a user-friendly “control panel” that allows you to update your content without being reliant on a web developer.

You have two main choices, each of which has their pros and cons:

Free blog site

At the time of writing, the two main sites offering free blogging facilities are WordPress and Blogger (soon to be renamed Google Blogs). Both services come with a choice of free templates which you can further personalise with a header image, allowing you to set up a professional-looking website in a matter of minutes.

The disadvantage of such sites is that, being free, they are limited in the features they allow, and you are at the mercy of the blog site remaining in business and continuing to provide the features you want.

Blogger is the simpler of the two, allowing you to add up to ten normal web pages to your blog (e.g. About Me), and is therefore ideal if you are a total beginner. You can also customise your blog’s template, including using custom stylesheets – if you don’t know what that means, don’t try to use it or you may break your site!

WordPress is more flexible but also a bit more complex; some people find the WP dashboard a bit daunting at first! Unlike Blogger, however, you don’t have to include a blog on your site. Just ignore the “Posts” section on the dashboard, and instead create some normal webpages. Then under Settings -> Reading, set one of the pages as the home page for your site. This is the option I use for my Night’s Masque site, which is actually a separate WP “blog” (albeit hosted independently, as described below). You can do this and add a blog later, if you’re undecided about blogging – just switch the radio button back to “Your latest posts”.

The downside is that some customisations (e.g. tweaking the stylesheet) are only available as paid add-ons. In my opinion, if you are looking to customise your site more heavily than the free service allows, you are better off with an independent WordPress installation (see below).

More information (Wikipedia):

Paid web host

WordPress isn’t just a blogging site; it’s a free software package that you can download and install on any web server. So, for a few pounds/dollars/euros a month, you can have a WordPress site of your very own, with as many plugins and bells and whistles as you want, hosted on an independent web company’s servers. Some web hosts will install WordPress as part of your package; if not, find an internet-savvy friend who will install it for you (a bribe of pizza and beer never hurts!). N.B. if your chosen web host doesn’t offer WordPress, ask your techie friend to check what’s included before paying up, to make sure you get the features (e.g. at least one free database) needed by the WordPress software.

My WordPress dashboard
My WordPress dashboard

Once up and running, it’s as easy to use as the free version, except that you have a lot more control. I run this website on WordPress, hosted by United Hosting, with lots of extra plugins that allow me to write and send out newsletters, create an event calendar, embed my Twitter feed on a page, and much more. Being a pro, I’ve been able to heavily customise the standard template and integrate multiple blogs into one site, so don’t expect to produce something quite as complex as my website on your first attempt!

Note that there’s no downloadable equivalent for Blogger; there are other blogging programs you can install, such as Movable Type, but these are beyond the scope of this simple tutorial series. Google “cms blog software” for more information.

Website Content

Apart from the blog itself, what else should you have on your website?

About me

An author biography is the obvious first item; agents and readers will be coming to your site and want to know more about you. Note that this page isn’t meant to be a dry resumé, nor do you have to reveal personal information (home town, family details, etc) if you don’t want to. Instead, focus on the things about you that make you a unique writer: interesting and relevant hobbies, quirky trivia about yourself, that kind of thing. Give it your voice and personality! A good photo of yourself is a bonus – people want to know what you look like, and it comes in handy when you need to meet someone at a convention. I had mine done by a professional portrait photographer, as I needed a publicity photo for the press release about my contract, but any good quality picture (i.e. not a drunken party snapshot!) will be fine to begin with.

Your work

Obviously if you have books to sell, you will want to feature those – but on the other hand, many readers don’t like the hard sell. Make it easy for them to find and buy your work, but don’t shove it in their faces either. I put my book details on a separate page, with a (hopefully clear) link in the navigation bar.

Contact me

A feedback/contact page is another essential, allowing visitors to get in touch – don’t openly post your email address, as it will just get harvested by spammers! With the rise of social media (and of course comment facilities on blogs), most people will use those channels to contact a writer rather than email, but I think it’s good to make some kind of direct contact available as well.

Other content

Readers of fantasy and science fiction love the genre because of the worlds described, so a bit of background information on your books can provide interesting content and avoid your site looking too spartan. You don’t have to go overboard and provide a “world encyclopaedia” (save that for a spinoff non-fiction book when you’re a huge success!) – a few tidbits are often enough.

Beyond that, it’s up to you what you put on there, but I think it’s best not to dilute your “brand” too much. For more about establishing your brand – and why you want to – see We Are Not Alone: A Writer’s Guide to Social Media by Kristen Lamb. It’s a bit dated (the author still seems to think that MySpace is an important social network!) but the basic principles are sound.

What features do you like to see on an author’s website?

Other articles in this series:

  1. Claim your name
  2. Your website
  3. Blogging
  4. Introduction to social media
  5. Twitter
  6. Facebook
  7. Goodreads
  8. Pinterest
  9. Google alerts


In the psychiatrist's chair

I’ve decided to put the outline for The Merchant of Dreams on the backburner whilst I have a go at the third Night’s Masque book (it has a working title, but I’ll wait until it’s approved before sharing with the world). Partly it’s because I think Merchant needs a bit of time percolating in the back of my mind, and partly because I may need to foreshadow events from Book Three – and so I need to know roughly what happens!

So, I got out a new notebook and started going through Holly Lisle’s “How to Think Sideways” writing course exercises (I did the course back in 2009 originally). A lot of the early exercises weren’t necessary for the project in hand, but there’s no way you can get away without pre-planning a book, especially when you’re writing it to a contract that demands a synopsis up front. All well and good, until I attempted the Character Pre-Planning Module.

Like most character worksheets, it consists of a number of questions about your character; not trivia like hair colour or pet’s name, but important story-driving stuff: wants, needs, fears. Unfortunately my Muse (aka subconscious) doesn’t take direction well. In fact when asked a direct question like “What does this character fear most in the world?”, she’s inclined to respond with “What a stupid question! How the fuck should I know?” and stomp off. I could tell we were in for a real confrontation over this book when I couldn’t even face the thought of printing out said worksheets…

So, I’ve given up. Not on the book, I hasten to add! Nor on the concept of character development. But I’ve realised I have to do it my way. And that means freeform writing. I sit down with my notebook, write the character’s name as a heading and then ask “Tell me about (character)…”, like a psychiatrist with my Muse on the couch. As with all such therapy, it takes a while to get to the bottom of things, with some lies and deviations on the way, but it seems to be the way my mind works. I bear in mind that I’m trying to guide my Muse towards important stuff like needs and wants, but I don’t limit my output to that or make specific demands – and it seems to be working.

So, right now I’m finding out what Mal and his friends have been up to since The Merchant of Dreams. Next up – the bad guys!

Power outlining!

I spent Sunday working on the outline of The Merchant of Dreams but also playing with some of Scrivener’s more advanced features, particularly regarding outlining.

For one thing, I wanted to sync the synopses with Index Card for iPad, but only for the scenes I still need to write. For that I needed a Collection, and fortunately I think I can use a saved search rather than a manually compiled collection (which is a pain in the backside if you are continually adding new scenes). The easiest way was to set the Status field for new scenes to “To Do” and search for that, which meant checking all scenes’ status manually to ensure they had sensible values. Quickest way to do that is in Outliner mode, and it was then that I discovered the Total Words and Total Target columns – and that the totals are also calculated per folder, so I can see chapter and act totals as well! (Why, yes, I am a little OCD, now you come to mention it…)

Below is a screenshot of what the Outliner looks with my current setup. I’ve blurred the titles of the scenes to avoid spoilers, but you can see how Scrivener helps you keep track of wordcount very easily.

Scrivener Outliner (click to enlarge)
Scrivener Outliner (click to enlarge)

The upside of this is that I don’t need to maintain a separate spreadsheet any more. The one thing the Outliner currently lacks is a display of total word count for the entire draft, so I eventually created a top-level folder and moved all my act folders into it – a bit of a fudge but it has the desired effect.

I like the visual representation of progress, as it gives a quick indication of where I’m going to need to do most work on the next pass – as you can see, some of the scenes are currently well below word count, as is the nature of my early drafts. Since the progress bar goes green once you’ve reached your target and doesn’t change when you go over it, I imagine this feature is less useful to writers who are inclined to write long and then cut!

With Scrivener now under control, I’ve been able to outline a good bit more of Acts Two and Three. Now all I need to work out is how I get from “OK, now we know who and what we’re up against” to “OMG, the plan went pear-shaped!” 🙂

Notecards and timelines

The HTWAS reboot has been going very well, and I spent most of yesterday creating a rough timeline for The Merchant of Dreams, re-reading Holly’s “Create a Plot” Clinic and playing around with index cards.

The timeline is necessarily vague at the moment, as I don’t want to box myself in too much. I’m finding that these books follow a natural pattern whereby the first half takes place over the course of several weeks as the storylines get going and characters move around, then the tempo accelerates as we near the climax, and the second half of the book  takes place over the course of a few days. I can block out the week-level timeline (which occupies about five months) but the day-level one is still in flux at the moment.

Of course by the time I’m done, I’ll have it nailed down to the level of hours, if not minutes. Hopefully I won’t have any screw-ups this time – unlike the pre-submission draft of The Alchemist of Souls, which had characters rowing from Westminster to Richmond in barely an hour!

More bloggage and series planning

Several more blog posts either written and scheduled, or drafted (can’t post my book giveaways until I’ve picked the previous month’s winners!), so apart from time-sensitive items like BristolCon, I should soon be set through to early December – woohoo!

I’ve also started redoing the exercises for How to Write a Series, since I now have a better overview of where I’m taking this trilogy. Of course my Muse is tapping on my shoulder, saying “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we wrote a completely different kind of series?” but I’m steadfastly ignoring her. I’m hoping to take a (very short) break from Night’s Masque after I hand in The Merchant of Dreams, and only then will I allow myself to think about new projects. Deadlines first, then fun.

Research trip: Venice

The Grand Canal at sunset
The Grand Canal at sunset

This year my focus has been on the second book in the Night’s Masque trilogy, The Merchant of Dreams. As the title hints at, this installment is set (partially) in Venice, a favourite city of mine. However I haven’t been there since 2003, so I was very keen on making another visit to do some research – and of course enjoy some fabulous Italian food whilst there!

We flew out the evening after FantasyCon, which was perhaps a mistake – I soon discovered that I had a dose of “con crud”, and the flight over the Alps was rather painful with bunged-up sinuses. However I kept my cold under control with regular doses of echinacea and paracetamol, and overall the trip was wonderful. The city was as beautiful and atmospheric as I remembered, the perfect setting for a historical fantasy novel.

Ca' Malcanton, a medieval Venetian house
Ca' Malcanton, a medieval Venetian house

First up: our accommodation. I found this place online, and the idea of staying in a real Venetian house rather than a hotel was irresistible. I haven’t decided yet whether this exact house will appear in the book or whether I will just use some of the details, but either way, it was a useful part of my research as well as a brilliant place to stay.

My main research consisted of visiting a few locations I intend to use in the book, as well as just soaking up the atmosphere for inspiration. First up was a visit to the Doge’s Palace, where we took the Secret Itineraries tour: a look behind the scenes at the offices, torture chamber and “the Leads” (i Piombi), the attic cells where Giacomo Casanova was imprisoned in the eighteenth century. The torture chamber was surprisingly civilised in appearance, just a high, narrow wood-paneled room, with a heavy rope hanging from the ceiling above a set of wooden steps. The Venetians’ approach to torture was very simple: suspects were placed in adjacent cells where they could see and hear everything that went on, then one victim was subjected to the strapado, i.e. hauled up on the rope by his hands, which had been tied behind his back. Very, very painful, and thus very effective at loosening the tongues of both victim and observers. (Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any photos inside the palace or even make written notes, so I will have to rely on my memory for any details I might use in the book.)

Fondaco dei Turchi
Fondaco dei Turchi

We also visited the Fondaco dei Turchi (now the Natural History Museum), for reasons that will become clearer when the book is published! I was more interested in the building than the museum exhibits, which range from the fascinating (dinosaur footprints) to the macabre (a collection of stuffed animals formerly belonging to a big game hunter), It wasn’t all dead things, however; in the garden area outside we spotted a hummingbird hawkmoth, though sadly he moved far too fast to be photographed.

Whilst not exactly research, I did make the most of our trips to various restaurants, including trying out local specialities like sarde in saor (sardines in a “sweet-and-sour” marinade). I can particularly recommend Ai Assassini, tucked away in a side street near La Fenice, where I enjoyed some amazing prosciutto crudo, as rich and soft as butter; and Poste Vecie, said to be the oldest restaurant in Venice. At the latter I had another delicious Venetian speciality, seppie in nero (cuttlefish cooked in its own ink) – the restaurant is right next door to the Rialto fishmarket – followed by a glass of grappa di prosecco in lieu of dessert. Poste Vecie was founded around 1500, so don’t be surprised if it makes a guest appearance in The Merchant of Dreams 🙂

Lace parasol and fan, brocade slippers, leather mask and Murano glass jewellery
Lace parasol and fan, brocade slippers, leather mask and Murano glass jewellery

Of course the reason Venice became so rich was that it was the nexus of a vast trading network transporting luxuries from the East into Europe. No trip to Venice would be complete without buying a few luxuries of my own, including some that you may see me wearing at a future convention! (see photo)

I also bought a gorgeous leather-bound journal – almost too nice to use! – and some comestibles: a small packet of chocolate-covered ginger, a jar of enormous olives, and a bottle of Prosecco to toast the handover of the manuscript of The Merchant of Dreams. I guess it’ll be a while before I get to that one…