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Merchant of Dreams – revision planning

The planning stage of this revision pass is now done – hurrah!

This means that I’ve:

  • sorted my index cards by plotline
  • written notes on the back of each one that needs significant (or easy to forget) fixes
  • marked the ones I needed to drop/move
  • put them back in the revised order
  • made a copy of my Scrivener project and reorganised the scenes to match the index cards
  • added a few new scenes where plot arcs need beefing up

The final word count has gone up a bit at this stage (from around 123k to nearer 133k), which is entirely normal for the way I write. It may go back down to a more intermediate figure, depending on how things go when I get to the section that needs some heavy wrangling, but I’m happy with it as a ballpark total. (For the record, The Alchemist of Souls is 140k.)

The final step was to mark up my revision schedule on my wall calendar. I told my editor Marc that I’d have it done by the end of June, so I’ve given myself 1.5 days per chapter. That leaves me a full week at the end to do a final pass over the whole lot and polish the prose a bit more. Overall I reckon that’s very doable, especially with three bank holiday days in there!

Revising The Merchant of Dreams, and looking ahead

So, at the weekend I began the process of revising Book 2 of my Night’s Masque trilogy, The Merchant of Dreams, in preparation for my editorial meeting with Marco on Friday. I knew that the first task was just to read it straight through and make notes, but I was a bit nervous about it because I’d pretty much sent it straight off as soon as I’d finished it, with only a cursory spellcheck.

I like to do my initial pass in one sitting, if possible; it’s much easier to spot continuity errors if the previous few chapters are still fresh in your mind. Hence I powered through the entire manuscript on Sunday, which took about ten hours of actual working time (with breaks for meals and urgent chores like grocery shopping).

The good news is that the writing doesn’t suck; the bad news is that it doesn’t always shine either, and there’s a good bit of plot clunkiness in the middle. Still, it’s fixable. Now I’m in the process of creating index cards for all the scenes, so that I can analyse the structure and make sure all the storylines and conflicts flow smoothly. I’ve done 24 chapters so far, so I reckon I’ll be done by Friday.

Unfortunately this is not a process I can easily do in my lunchbreaks at work, so I’ve been channelling my creative frustrations by starting a new moleskine notebook where I’m brainstorming concepts for a new fantasy series. It’s very much in the early stages at the moment, just throwing ideas around and seeing which ones I like and which I hate, which ones seem to lead in interesting directions and which don’t. I’m not committing to anything, just recording my thoughts to get them out there where I can see them. When you’re gestating your next elephant, you have to start small!

Book Review: The Steel Remains, by Richard Morgan

Ringil Eskiath, hero of Gallows Gap, is called from retirement when a distant cousin is sold into slavery to cover her husband’s debts. All perfectly legal, but the Eskiath family honour demands that she be rescued, and although Gil’s homosexuality has made him an outcast in polite society, he is the only family member with the skills and connections for the job.

Egar Dragonbane fought alongside Gil, but after the war he returned to his steppe homeland to lead his tribe. Travel has broadened his mind, however, and he is a misfit amongst the nomads, despised by his conservative younger brothers for his soft southern ways.

Archeth Indamaninarmal is the last of the Kiriath, her kinfolk having departed into the bowels of the earth in steampunk-esque iron ships. Another veteran of the wars, she now acts as advisor to the Yelteth emperor, trying to control his worst excesses whilst avoiding his wrath.

These three heroes’ paths will cross again in a time of crisis, when creatures out of ancient legend return to disturb the decade-long peace…

This is a book I acquired as a convention freebie a few years ago, mislaid, bought in ebook format, changed ebook readers and couldn’t transfer the ebook without cracking the DRM, and finally relocated my paperback copy…so my reading of it was somewhat delayed. This is may be a good thing, since it gave me a chance to cut my teeth on a few other so-called gritty fantasies first. “Bold, brutal and making no compromises”, says the Joe Abercrombie blurb on the cover of my copy, and I have to agree with the verdict. This is not a book for the squeamish – but it rewards perseverance.

For starters, I love Ringil as a protagonist. He’s foul-mouthed and revels in violence, yet at the same time is intelligent and has a wry sense of humour. His high social status enables him to be defiantly gay in a culture that punishes such behaviour with sickening brutality, but he bears deep emotional scars as a result. He’s about as unromantic a hero as you could imagine, and very, very real.

Morgan makes a bold choice with his language and dialogue, not only throwing the f-word around with abandon but using modern idiom such as “okay” and even an occasional “whatever”. I have to admit that on occasion it did jar with me a little, but I was willing to cut Morgan some slack since after all this is not a historical setting, merely a low-tech one. Except that it isn’t.

Although marketed as fantasy, there are strong hints that what the human characters see as magic is merely technology advanced beyond mortal comprehension. We are given glimpses of vast stretches of time, and it seemed to me there was even the possibility that this could be a far-future Earth; the night sky is lit by a band of light – a planetary ring – that used to be a moon much like our own.

I really don’t have much more to say than that if you like your fantasy somewhat epic and dark-edged but with a good dollop of sword-and-sorcery panache, you should read this book. Now.


AltFiction 2012

One of my favourite UK conventions is AltFiction, a relatively small event based in the East Midlands and focusing more than most on writing and writers. I first attended last year, when it took place in Derby, but this year it moved to what I understand will be its regular venue in future, the Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester. The convention is a day and a half long (all day Saturday, plus Sunday morning), with a packed programme of events.

My first day at the convention was pretty quiet – I had no panels or other appearances booked for Saturday – so I was free to mooch around, attend a couple of talks, and most importantly, catch up with a bunch of friends I had missed at Eastercon. In fact it was surprising how many Eastercon attendees managed to make it to another convention only a week later, especially given that many of them had been adamant a few weeks before that they couldn’t possibly do two conventions in a row! I think it’s a testament to the affection in which AltFiction is held that people turn up when they could be have a well-earned weekend at home.

The first panel I attended was “Not another f*cking elf!”, in which Paul Cornell, Emma Newman, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Jenni Hill debated the well-worn fantasy races and how attitudes to them had changed over the years. It was entertaining and occasionally quite erudite, and the only downside was that many people had to be turned away as it was held in a tiny room with only about two dozen chairs. This turned out to be a significant problem of the venue – the huge size difference in rooms meant that the large one might be sparsely populated whilst the small one was overflowing. I’m sure the organisers tried to predict which panels would be most popular, but people can be contrary!

The afternoon panels were less successful. I went to one on genre TV which mostly discussed one-off mini-series that I’d never seen, pretty much ignoring all the big-name shows. Whilst I appreciate that shows like Doctor Who may have been discussed to death in other conventions, a panel that focused on British SFF shows and their mainstream appeal, and then totally ignored the success of Life on Mars and Being Human in favour of obscure titles, failed in my opinion to entertain – and I have to say that I blame the moderator, Steve Volk, for the narrow focus of the discussion. The other panel, writing as a day-job, was equally off-topic, in that none of the panelists earned a living as a writer, they simply didn’t have a day-job (for various reasons, such as unemployment). Anyone hoping to quit their day-job would have been better off going to Mark Chadbourn’s “workshop” (really a talk) on the business of writing, but numbers were limited and you had to sign up for it.

The evening passed in usual convention style, i.e. a bit of milling around whilst you and your friends sort out which restaurant you’re going to for dinner, followed by dinner itself (in our case, a good but unremarkable curry) and then back to the hotel bar. Most of us were staying at the Ramada Encore, only a few minutes’ walk from the venue – it was modern, clean and not too expensive, although the tea (at breakfast and in the bedrooms) was as terrible as one usually expects from a three-star hotel. Much better tea – and very reasonably-priced, good quality food – was available at the venue itself.

Although there were few book stalls, and none selling The Alchemist of Souls, I was asked to sign a few copies that had been brought along by friends. It was great to finally get to meet people I’d previously only known online, including book blogger Erik Lundqvist and my newest beta reader, Fatihah Iman.

The convention resumed late on Sunday morning, and I had a panel at noon on diversity in fantasy, with Mark Charan Newton, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Sarah Cawkwell. Mark was our moderator and came well-prepared with a long list of notes and questions on his iPad, and under his guidance our discussion covered a whole gamut of topics – gender, sexuality and race – with regard to the books themselves, the authors and the fans. The panel was well-attended and seemed to go down well with the audience, and for me made a satisfying end to a short but sweet convention.

Next year, thankfully, AltFiction will be in late May, thus avoiding butting up against Eastercon, which will make it even more of a must-do convention. See you there?

As an aside, the Discover Festival that was due to take place in Coalville in May has been cancelled by the organiser, so I won’t be in the Midlands again until Edge-Lit in Derby, in July.

Prince of Lies outline, Take 2

Between my book publication dates and subsequent convention appearances, the past four weeks have gone by in a blur, hence the lack of progress reports on my outlining. Perhaps more significantly, however, I got my first feedback from beta-readers on The Merchant of Dreams at the beginning of April, which gave me much food for thought. As a result I’ve done a lot more character development across the two books and have had to rethink some of the events of The Prince of Lies.

In a nutshell, my betas pinpointed some issues with the female characters that backed up some concerns I had had, so it was back to the drawing board for their character arcs. As a result, Coby has a much stronger role in Book 3, and a certain other character’s motivations and plans have become more subtle.

On the downside, it means my outline has needed a lot of work and is thus a bit behind schedule, but both books will benefit from the changes so I’m not too worried. One more convention to enjoy this weekend, then it’s nose to the grindstone once more!

Eastercon 2012

This weekend I was at Olympus 2012, the 63rd annual convention of the British Science Fiction Association, affectionately known as Eastercon. Mostly I was there to promote my newly published novel The Alchemist of Souls, but thanks to guest of honour George R R Martin it turned into somewhat of a Game of Thrones fan-fest!

I arrived around midday on Good Friday to find the convention already well underway and my book selling like hot cakes on the Angry Robot stall. I was determined to take it easy, as I had a busy schedule on Saturday, so I spent the afternoon catching up with friends and drinking as little alcohol as I could get away with (well, I could hardly refuse the champagne that Lee from AR bought to toast my book publication, could I?). I took myself off to bed early and was up equally early next morning, ready to face the world. Literally.

Hmm, where shall I conquer next?
Hmm, where shall I conquer next?

First up was the biggest event of the weekend, for me at least: a panel called How Pseudo Do You Like Your Medieval? with none other than George R R Martin himself. I met him in the green room, and he proved to be very friendly and easy-going – the farthest from a primadonna author that you can imagine. The other panelists were Juliet E McKenna, whom I’ve known for several years, and Jacey Bedford, who carried herself with aplomb despite this being her first ever convention panel. We were ably moderated by Anne C Perry, better known as co-founder of Pornokitsch and the SFF literary award The Kitschies, and I soon forgot that we were being filmed and live-streamed over the internet.

After all that excitement it was time for a quick lunch before my reading. I’d managed to forget to sync a copy of my book to my iPad, so I had to borrow a paperback from the Angry Robot stall. Fortunately I did this before my panel, as they were rapidly selling out. In fact, by the time I went back down to the dealers’ room to do my signing, the only copy left was the one I had read from! A great result, although Lee is probably kicking himself for not taking twice as many copies…

The afternoon was enlivened by an extra session, not featured in the original programme – an hour with cast and crew members from A Game of Thrones. First up was a fight demonstration by Jo Playford, aided by Miltos Yerolemou (Syrio Forel) and volunteers from the audience. Of course it was all about how to make a fight look good whilst remaining safe – rather the opposite of what I try to achieve in my fiction! – but nonetheless interesting to watch (and Miltos was very funny, ad-libbing to the audience). After that was an interview with John Bradley-West, who plays Samwell Tarly. John hung around afterwards and I got to chat to him in the bar that evening. Well, I did say it was a bit of a fan-fest 🙂

The Radisson Edwardian - a typical convention hotel
The Radisson Edwardian - a typical convention hotel

My final duty of the day was a panel on world-building with Chris Wooding, Simon Spanton, Suzanne McLeod and Robert VS Redick. Thankfully that was in one of the smaller rooms, though still well-attended, and we had a good discussion comparing real-world and secondary world fantasy. The evening was a social whirl, meeting lots of new people as well as hanging out with big-name authors like Joe Abercrombie and the aforementioned Mr Martin, and by Sunday I was exhausted! On Sunday morning I just managed to get to my final panel, on fantasy in Shakespeare, then retired to my hotel room to nap and follow the convention on Twitter.

Monday morning was spent catching up with friends once more, and of course the obligatory photo perched on the Iron Throne (above), which had been set up in the hotel reception. My husband collected me around noon, and we headed home to Cambridge, via lunch at Carluccio’s in Chiswick. All in all, a fantastic if exhausting convention – I’m just glad that AltFiction, this coming weekend, is a much smaller event!

A final thanks to all my friends, of whom there are far too many to mention, though I will give special shout-outs to Mike Shevdon, Tom Pollock, Laura Lam and Kim Curran, all of whom have books out in the next twelve months. Here’s hoping you guys sell out too!

How to tell you’re Elizabethan

Way back in the early days of the internet, one of my favourite sites was Mark Rosenfelder’s Metaverse. Drawn there by the Language Construction Kit, I stayed for the geeky fun, which included a series of “culture tests“. It started with “How to tell you’re American”, but soon expanded to many other nationalities. In the spirit of internet continuity, but mostly because it’s a lot of fun, here’s my Elizabethan version…

If you’re Elizabethan…

  • You believe in the Divine Right of Kings and the authority of Queen Elizabeth, albeit advised by the lords of the realm and a parliament of commoners (after all, she’s only a woman!).
  • You’re familiar with Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake, Edward Alleyne, Will Kemp, Robin Hood and King Arthur.
  • You know how kicking camp and skittles are played. If you’re a member of the upper classes, you may also be able to  argue the finer points of cricket or tennis.
  • You count yourself fortunate if you get Saturday afternoons off work. No-one works on the Lord’s Day.

If you died tonight…

  • You believe in  both God and the Devil, but only those pesky Papists believe in saints.
  • You think of oysters and beer as cheap food.
  • Your place might not be heated in the winter and probably has an outdoor privy. You send your laundry to the laundress. You don’t kill your own food, unless you’re a member of the upper classes with a large estate. You might have a dirt floor; even if there are floorboards or tiles, you still put rushes down. You eat at a table, sitting on benches or stools (though the children might have to stand). You don’t consider insects, dogs, cats, monkeys, or guinea pigs to be food.
  • Between “black” and “white” there are no other races. Someone with one black and one white parent looks black to you (not that you’ve ever seen a black person, unless you live in London).
  • You respect someone who speaks Latin because they’re better educated than you, but anyone who speaks French–or worse still, Spanish–is probably a spy for the Papists.
  • You don’t take a strong court system for granted. You know that if you commit treason (or are merely suspected of it) you can legally be tortured, and the sentence if found guilty is to be hanged, drawn and quartered.
  • School isn’t free, but your nearest town’s grammar school may offer scholarships to bright boys. You can go to university (Oxford or Cambridge) as young as 12, but 15 or 16 is more usual. If you’re a Catholic, you can attend university but not graduate; if you’re a girl and your father is progressive, you might have a private tutor since you’re not allowed to be educated alongside boys.

Everybody knows that

  • Mustard comes as seeds or powder; milk comes in buckets from the milkmaid
  • The date cometh first, and may be measured in terms of the current monarch’s reign: xxviij day of July, in the thirtieth year of her glorious Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s reign (and you know what happened on that date).
  • If a man has sex with another man, he is a sodomite and liable to prosecution (but nobody really worries about that sort of thing unless minors are involved).
  • If you’re a woman, you don’t go out in public with your hair uncovered unless you’re young and unmarried.
  • Marriages are made for practical reasons like having a helpmeet and siring an heir; love matches are all very well in plays but they don’t put bread on the table. Only very rich people marry before their twenties, and then only for dynastic reasons.
  • Marriages are normally conducted in church, although in theory you can just exchange vows before witnesses and then live together
  • Giving gifts to important people is an accepted way of oiling the wheels of state, not bribery and corruption

Contributions to world civilisation

  • You’ve given the world Shakespeare – what more does it want? (although you prefer the city comedies of Middleton, Dekker and Jonson).
  • Your navy is the envy of Europe, although mostly the other countries accuse your captains of being nothing more than pirates.
  • The Queen’s father invented the Church of England and her brother turned it into a thoroughly Protestant sect, though not as extreme as those strange fellows in Switzerland and Germany.
  • You’re the only country in Europe ruled by a woman, which also puzzles the foreigners. The Pope has declared her a heretic, which only makes you hate Catholics all the more.
  • Your capital, London, is the largest city in northern Europe and one of the fastest growing.
  • Your country hasn’t been conquered by a foreign nation for over five hundred years.
  • There are no police, only poorly paid, elderly watchmen who patrol the streets after curfew. If you’re a man, you carry a weapon for self-defence, most likely a cudgel (a stout stick about three feet long) or a dagger, or both. If rich, you might wear a rapier, but if the blade is more than forty inches long the city guards will break off the excess before allowing you into London. Of course you can always bribe them not to…
  • The biggest meal of the day is dinner, eaten around noon (or a bit later if you’re upper class).
  • If a woman is plumper than average, it doesn’t harm her looks. But gentlemen definitely prefer blondes – or redheads like the Queen. Only peasants have suntans.

Outside London

  • You’re probably a farmer; if not, you’re a shopkeeper or artisan.
  • You care very much which family someone comes from, although it’s possible for a clever man of humble birth to rise to the highest (non-royal) offices in the land.
  • You’re used to limited choices in what you can buy, and you probably make a lot of items at home, particularly shirts and underlinens.
  • If you fall ill, you’re probably safer if you’re poor; the local cunning man or woman knows a lot about herbal cures. Doctors are expensive and as likely to kill as cure you.
  • The normal thing when a couple dies is for the entire property to go to the eldest son.
  • You’ve probably never ventured more than a few miles from your home town. Anyone wandering the Queen’s highway without an official warrant can be arrested for vagrancy. If you wanted to travel overseas, you’d need to apply to the Privy Council for a passport.
  • Travel is horrible anyway; the roads are dreadful, and carriages with proper suspension are a new-fangled foreign idea that hasn’t really caught on yet. If you have to travel and you don’t own a horse, you might resort to hiring one from a livery stable.
  • Christmas is in the winter; if you’re a Puritan, you don’t celebrate it. There are no Jews, as they were expelled from England in the Middle Ages.
  • There certainly are a lot of lawyers.