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Chapter 1 of The Merchant of Dreams

Last week, the first chapter of my forthcoming novel The Merchant of Dreams premiered on Staffer’s Musings. In case you missed it, or more to the point would like to read it offline, I’m posting it here as various downloadable formats. No doubt there will be a longer excerpt available in a few months, just before the book comes out!

ePub [wpdm_file id=18] Kindle [wpdm_file id=19] PDF [wpdm_file id=17]

HTML (on Justin’s blog)

(Please note that the text has undergone minor edits since I sent it to Justin. Nothing significant, just a few words here and there.)

Lyle’s Three Laws of Magic

Yesterday I came across an article about creating a magic system for your novel, and on impulse tweeted to say that I disliked the phrase “magic system” when applied to written fiction. This sparked a lively debate, and afterwards I thought it would be fun to codify my conclusions in a set of rules.

OK, they’re not so much rules, more what you’d call…guidelines 🙂

1. Magic cannot be all-powerful

"The Wizard", by Sean McGrath
"The Wizard", by Sean McGrath

I think most writers (and readers) understand this one. If magic can do anything, there’s no narrative tension, because there’s no problem it cannot solve. There must be at least some hard limits on what it can do. Popular limits include: only some people can perform magic; they have specific talents and can only do certain types of magic; powerful magic comes with a high cost. Many fantasy worlds combine all three, but it doesn’t really matter what you choose as long as it stops magic from being a “get out of gaol free” card.

You don’t have to define down to the last detail what magic can do, but you really, really need to know what it can’t do.

2. Magic that’s too logical becomes science

This is a more controversial one, and the point that provoked the Twitter discussion. As someone pointed out, this is the inverse of Clarke’s Law, i.e. “any sufficiently advanced magic system is indistinguishable from technology”.

I know there are some readers who love the Brandon Sanderson approach, i.e. highly detailed rules of magic, but to me all that does is make magic an extension of the science of your universe. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I’m often tempted to create a fantasy setting that, like Discworld, is literally how pre-modern people believed their universe to be – but I think you as a writer need to be aware that that’s what you’re doing.

More to the point, as I said on Twitter, the reader shouldn’t be able to hear the rattle of a ghostly D20 or envisage a “magic points gauge” falling. Don’t make your magic so mundane and mechanistic that it reads like a poorly written RPG novelisation!

3. Magic should tend towards entropy

What I mean by this is that, whilst your character may think of magic as a tool that can get him out of trouble, you as the writer should be thinking of ways to use it to get him into trouble 🙂

A lot of fantasy worlds do this in a very simplistic way, by making magic illegal, which is fine if that fits your setting. It can also be used for comic effect, e.g. the archetypal inept apprentice who tries to light a candle but instead makes it explode! However it can also be done more subtly, by setting up unintended consequences. That thunderstorm spell over the battlefield might break the ranks of the enemy, but the resultant rain could easily cause the nearby river to flood and wash away the bridge the characters were relying on to get to the castle in time to stop the usurping prince from slaughtering the rest of the royal family.

You can also have magic be just plain unreliable. The reason that so many humans throughout history have believed in the reality of magic is the same reason that gambling is addictive: it works just often enough, and with sufficiently gratifying results, that our optimistic brains overlook all the failures. You don’t want to go too far with this, though. If your magic randomly fails at a crucial moment, it can feel as clunky as a story in which the hero’s mobile phone batteries go flat just when he needs to make that vital call. At the risk of contradicting rule 2, failure needs to be logical or at least plausible, rather than completely random.


So, there you have it – my three laws of magic for fantasy writers. Go ahead and break them if you want to, though – after all, it’s your universe!

PoL – getting the balance right

It suddenly occurred to me this morning that one of the problems I’m having with The Prince of Lies is that it’s more serious in tone than the previous two books. This is somewhat inevitable, since all the conflicts are coming to a climax, but I’ve realised I don’t want to lose sight of the fun element that made me want to write about these characters in the first place. I’m therefore making a mental note to bear these conflicting needs in mind as I make one last effort to finish the outline before the end of the month!

Ask Me (and 9 other debut authors) Anything!

Justin Landon of Staffer’s Musings is holding a special blog event this July, Debut Authorpalooza, which will showcase the work of ten debut fantasy authors from 2011/12, including yours truly. Visit Staffer’s Musings on the dates below to read about the trials of writing the second novel in a series, read exclusive extracts from forthcoming novels, and enter giveaways. Yep, that’s the first public release of Chapter One of The Merchant of Dreams, plus a chance to win copies of my books!

There will also be an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit on the evening of July 19th (7pm CST, i.e. 1am the following morning UK time), where you can ask us all questions. Since it’s at a crazy time on this side of the Pond, I’m not sure if I’ll be around during the actual session, but will definitely drop by as soon as I get up the next morning to answer any questions. So, fire away!

The ten authors will be contributing guest posts as follows:

Week 1:

7/16: Mark Lawrence
7/17: Kameron Hurley
7/18: Elspeth Cooper
7/19: Courtney Schafer
7/20: Stina Leicht

Week 2:

7/23: Teresa Frohock
7/24: Mazarkis Williams
7/25: Bradley Beaulieu
7/26: Anne Lyle
7/27: Doug Hulick

So, don’t forget to drop by Justin’s blog and Reddit to find out more, and good luck!

Friday Reads: Casket of Souls, by Lynn Flewelling

Casket of Souls is the sixth installment in Lynn Flewelling’s long-running Nightrunner series of fantasy novels set in a roughly 17th/18th-century-esque milieu. Whilst recent books have seen protagonists Seregil and Alec travelling widely, Casket of Souls finds them back on familiar territory in the city of Rhiminee, and back to their old ways. Seregil, a very minor nobleman distantly related to the royal family, is an accomplished spy and cat-burglar and, with his young companion and lover Alec, has served the crown loyally for years. However with a war dragging on and food shortages in the city, tensions are running high, and it’s not long before the two young men find themselves in the midst of a conspiracy to usurp the throne. And as old friends of one of the rival claimants, if they don’t find solid evidence of the traitors’ plans they could be arrested themselves.

Added to their problems is a sudden, mysterious plague afflicting the poorer parts of the city; a plague with no known cause or cure. Most of the victims are children, a fact which especially touches the gentle heart of Alec. As the deaths mount up, Seregil and Alec find their loyalties torn between unmasking the conspirators and protecting the city’s children from the plague; even the best nightrunners can’t be in two places at once.

Casket of Souls marks a return to the intrigue and derring-do of the earliest Nightrunner books, as well as the unpleasant magics that are a trademark of Flewelling’s world. The first half unfolds quite slowly, as is somewhat inevitable in this kind of plot where all the pieces have to be put in place before they can make their moves, but the pace picks up as the net tightens around Seregil, Alec and their friends.

It’s not all deadly serious, thank goodness. There’s a particularly fun scene in a gambling house (let’s just say it will please the fangirls no end!), and though a number of characters die, the story lacks the angst and bleakness of recent outings.

The conspiracy plot is perhaps wrapped up a little too hastily, but that may just be because I read the last third of the book so fast! Even though you know it’s all going to work out OK in the end (Flewelling has more sense than to kill off characters with such an ardent following), there are enough deaths that the threat to our heroes is palpable and you have to keep reading to be absolutely sure.

Overall I think this may be my favourite book of the series so far. Such a pity then that there will only be one more!


When I found out the title of this latest book, I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. Lynn had already blurbed my own novel The Alchemist of Souls, which seemed coincidence enough. However it seems there’s some kind of psychic bond going on between us, because although the particulars are very different, there are an awful lot of parallel elements between the two books, from the conspiracy plotline to the acting troupe with their new theatre, and of course the magic hinted at by the title. What’s more, I know Lynn had just about finished revising her own book when I sent her mine,  so any similarities are entirely coincidental, honest!

Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more!

I’m in a Henry V mood at the moment, what with the excellent Hollow Crown (Richard II, Henry IV 1 & 2 and Henry V) running on BBC2, and of course I’m about to launch into my own trilogy finale.

As I blogged back in February, this is the first time in five years I’ve written a completely new book, so I’m trying to condense everything I’ve learned so far into a coherent process. In an effort to improve my outlining and productivity, I’m taking a few leaves out of Rachel Aaron’s book, specifically her blog article How I Plot a Novel in 5 Steps, but adapted to suit my own foibles. For the past nine months I’ve been gestating the story, noodling around Rachel’s Steps 0-2 in an effort to develop my ideas of how the story might play out. During this stage I’ve tried on a few different scenarios for size, and because this is a long drawn-out process, it’s best done in small chunks in-between more urgent stuff like writing and promoting previous books.

However with The Merchant of Dreams handed in, there’s nothing for it now but to knuckle down in earnest to writing The Prince of Lies.

In the absence of a version of Scrivener for the iPad (still in development), I’m using a combination of Scrivener, Notebooks, and StorySkeleton for my final planning. Character profiles and general plot notes go into Scrivener and get synced to Notebooks, then as I get ideas for specific scenes I’m putting them into StorySkeleton, which will eventually get imported into the Draft folder of my Scrivener project (fingers crossed!). I’m doing it this way because to me, the plot and the narrative are two very different beasts. Some plot events will never appear on the page, so I don’t want to create index cards for them, but others will require several scenes depending on how I structure the narrative.

So far it seems to be going well – I aim to push through Step 3 (Filling in the Holes) over the next week or so, then start writing the first draft by the end of the month. If I’m still a bit stuck on plot by then, I may well start writing at the beginning and plot as I go along. It’s still one big experiment…

Tech review: Aeon Timeline

One of the trickiest things to keep track of when writing a novel can be the passage of time, especially if you have two or more concurrent plotlines. Tolkien was apparently very good at this; I read somewhere that if you compare his published timeline to the text, you’ll find that not only does it all match up but that things like the phases of the moon are correct. Now, most of us writers are never going to have fans rabid enough to go into this level of detail, but I work on the principle that if I get it wrong, someone might just notice and lose their faith in my control over the story.

Of course you can plan your novel’s timeline on paper, and with Night’s Masque I’ve done some of that, particularly in the early stages, but software can make the task a bit easier and the results a lot neater. The best program I’ve found for Mac OSX, and the only one (as far as I know) written with fantasy and SF writers in mind, is Aeon Timeline from Scribblecode. I’ve been using this program since an early beta was posted on the Scrivener forums, but version 1 is now complete and available to buy (there’s a 30-day free trial as well).

On first startup the program looks rather intimidating, and I have to say that the video tutorial on the website isn’t much help – there’s no sound, and it runs too fast to really take in. However the user manual is fairly comprehensive and the program isn’t that complex once you get your head around it.

The core concepts are Events, Entities and Arcs. Events are pretty self-explanatory; they can be anything with a time duration, from the birth of a character to a war lasting many years. Entities are things that span multiple events; the default entity type is a person, but entities can also be places, objects, organisations, and so on.

Events and entities thus potentially intersect, and the program calculates the entity’s age at the intersection point. Note that you have to manually assign these intersection points; after all, not all events will affect all entities, and vice versa.

For example, my hero Mal Catlyn fought in the siege of Bergen-op-Zoom in 1588, so I added an intersection point for that (click on the screenshot to enlarge it, and look for the blue line across the middle of the screen). The program then worked out that he would have been 20 at the time. Ages are automatically recalculated if you move the starting point of an entity or the date of an event. You can also hide the ages if they’re not relevant to your usage or are cluttering up the display.

Spoiler-free screenshot of part of the Night's Masque alternate history timeline
Spoiler-free screenshot of part of the Night's Masque alternate history timeline

Sets of events can be further divided up into arcs for clarity. I use three arcs in this overall timeline: one to track the history of the Tudor dynasty (my main alternate history element), one for other historical events that impinge upon the characters’ lives, and one for the characters themselves and events within the books.

One of the most useful features from an SFF writer’s perspective is the ability to define custom calendars. For Night’s Masque I use a tweaked version of the standard calendar, because England was still using the old Julian calendar in the sixteenth century; if I were to use the modern Gregorian one, the days of the week wouldn’t be right for the dates. However you’re not limited to minor changes like this. You can create an entirely fictional calendar for a fantasy world or an alien planet, with as many hours in the day and days in the year as you please, and of course with custom names.

When you’ve completed your timeline, you can export it in a number of formats, including an HTML table (great for putting on your website!) and also synchronise the file with Scrivener. I haven’t tried out this latter feature yet, as I’m mainly using Aeon for a higher level view of my story world, but I can see how it might be useful.

Aeon Timeline has lots of other cool features that I’m just finding my way around, like the ability to label events (similar to the Label field in Scrivener) and then filter by that label; hide selected entities and arcs (which I did when creating my screenshot, to avoid spoilers); and lock events so that they can’t be accidentally altered. As this is the first full version, I expect new features to be added with time, but even in its current state it’s perfectly useable.

In conclusion, this is a hugely useful program for any writer planning a complex novel, and I strongly recommend you give it a try!

Revising your novel in 10 easy steps

Writing a novel is hard work, but for many aspiring authors the much harder part is revising that first draft into something fit to send out into the wide world. Since I’ve just finished revising The Merchant of Dreams, I thought it might be useful to document how I went about it.

[Note: the process I describe below is distilled from what I’ve learnt through the online workshops and courses given by fantasy author Holly Lisle, particularly How to Revise Your Novel. However this is my own personal take on the process, based on what works for me. YMMV.]

Read more

MoD final draft finished!

This morning I tweaked a last few scenes to tie up some plot threads, ran a spellcheck, and exported the completed draft from Scrivener. Yes, The Merchant of Dreams is done*!

It’s always tempting to take a last look and fiddle with the prose, but honestly, there comes a time when you have to say “it’s good enough” and shove it out the door so you can get on with the next project. There’s a fine balance between making a manuscript as good as you can, and obsessing over every sentence to the point of madness. So, fly my pretty, off to the Robot Overlords! Meanwhile I shall celebrate a little before knuckling down to work on The Prince of Lies.

There’s no rest for the wicked…


* Pending editorial approval, of course