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Being a Writer – the dull bits

Part of being a professional writer is doing the dull, uncreative tasks that help to keep your career humming along. Today was one of those days.

First task of the day was to move my husband’s paperwork from the filing cabinet in my study down to the dining room where he works from home. This is so I can start filing my own paperwork: contracts, expenses receipts, all that boring stuff. Plus I finally have somewhere to file my unfinished projects (mostly handwritten), in case I need to mine them for ideas.

The other organisational task was to update my To Do lists in Things for Mac and sync it with my iPad. I’ve been a fan of Getting Things Done for a while, but I’ve lapsed of late, having been so focused on more creative tasks. However I have an awful lot to do this spring and I can’t afford to let things slide.

It hasn’t been all office work, though. I’m trying to get some posts written for my main blog ahead of time this month, so that when I start work on this next draft in earnest, I don’t have other distractions. I doubt I can cover the whole of April and May, but even a few will help. I’m also planning on posting on here more often and continuing to log my journey towards publication. Not easy when some of it is still under wraps, but I can talk about my progress on the new book if nothing else.

When good news is no news

One of the hardest parts of being a professional writer is, well, being professional. Especially nowadays, when we all live our lives in the public glare of Google and Twitter. On the one hand you want to use your author name online to increase your profile; on the other, you have to be on your best behaviour at all times. Worst of all is when you have good news that you would love to share with the world, but can’t because it’s all still unofficial.

So, this post is necessarily short because I don’t have much I can say right now. I just wanted to record this date in my blog for posterity. And to assure my would-be readers out there that a certain roguish swordsman is getting ever closer to his print debut 😉

Kicking off Book Two

I’m just in the process of doing Lesson 2 of “How to Write a Series”, and it’s proving very fruitful. This lesson is mostly about what needs to go into the first book, and thankfully I seem to be pretty much spot-on in terms of introducing the theme and conflict right at the beginning. The big “eureka” for me, however, was the bit about making sure each book in the series starts in a similar way.

For example, in a detective series, scene one usually features the discovery of the body or, in the case of a private eye, a new client knocking on the door. Book One of my series starts with a chase scene that ends up dragging my hero into the “mission” that will form the core of the book. So, it seems logical to start Book Two with another action scene that kickstarts the story.

I did have a first scene drafted that, until this lesson, I was going to use pretty much as-is. However that’s all out of the window now. Looking at it more closely, I realised it’s rather quiet in tone and has neither a connection to the main plot nor any fantasy content – not much of a set-up! So, I’ve brainstormed something that’s not only more interesting and dramatic in itself but is tied to the main plot and forces the hero to take an active role instead of waiting to be summoned by his masters.

I’m so excited about this new Chapter 1 that it’s hard not to tell everyone about all the cool things I’m having to research for it – but I’m going to bite my tongue and get on with writing it. The rest of the world will just have to wait to find out!

How To Write A Series

When I did Holly Lisle’s How To Revise Your Novel course last year, she offered to provide a free bonus course for graduates, and it was “writing a series” that got the most votes from students. Which is ironic, since the bonus from her other course was “How Not to Write a Series”. I think the problem was that, despite Holly’s protests that series are a recipe for the dreaded Three-Book Death Spiral, publishers and readers still ask for them, so we writers need to know how to deal with that demand.

I confess that I wrote my Elizabethan novel with a series in mind. The premise is just too big to fit into one book (well, maybe if it were a honking great quarter-million-word tome like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell). So, unsurprisingly, I’ve been asked about ideas for sequels. It’s been a godsend, therefore, for this course to come up just in time for me, when I’m planning Book Two.

So far I’ve done the exercises for Week One of the four-week course, and I’m relieved to say that I appear to have got it right so far. Or rather, the way the story and characters evolved during my earliest attempts at revisions were what put me on the right track. The first draft was OK but it really didn’t have the depth of character motivation needed to power a series, even a short one. I realise now that I had to go through that process of evolution, blindly following my instincts, even though it led to a train-wreck almost beyond my ability to fix. Otherwise I would have ended up with a lesser novel, entertaining but probably not all that compelling.

Next time, I won’t be stumbling in the dark, thank goodness. But no wonder so many writers take many years and many failed attempts to get published. There’s so much to learn, and whilst there are no shortcuts as such, there’s no shame in learning from the pros. The “How to Write a Series” course might only be confirming that I’ve done the right things in Book One – but if/when I design a new series from scratch, I’ll feel more confident of knowing what I’m doing. Like all Holly’s courses, I strongly recommend it to any writer who wants to get published. And don’t we all?

Find out more about the course at Holly Lisle’s Novel Writing School.

The truth about electronic production

I hear a lot of whingeing online from publishers about how ebooks cost as much to produce as print books, because of all the different formats required by e-distributors, and therefore they are priced as high as the paper equivalent. All I can say is, they’re not trying hard enough.

Twelve years ago I started a new job with a big international publisher of science journals. Their Cambridge office was responsible for around 16 or 17 titles, each published monthly as a print journal, with the articles then being converted from QuarkXPress into PDF and SGML (the forerunner and parent of XML) for posting on their various websites.

When I started, it was taking 2-3 months for this conversion process to be completed – an eternity in internet time, even back in 1998. Part of this was because the SGML files were being checked by eye, a tedious and time-consuming task. Problem was, no-one knew any better, because that’s how print proofs have been checked for the last half a millennium.
Being an inherently lazy person, I soon decided this was a stupid waste of my time. I therefore taught myself Perl, a programming language that excels in text manipulation, and wrote some scripts that would catch the most common errors – and fix them – automatically. As a result of this and other improvements to the workflow (like creating a scheduling database with auto-calculation of dates), our turnaround time was cut from 2-3 months to 2-3 weeks.

Although I no longer work in publishing, I strongly suspect that part of the ebook problem is that there aren’t enough people with the requisite skills for streamlining electronic production. Ebook production is still at the one-page-at-a-time level of Gutenberg’s original press. What the publishing industry needs is the electronic equivalent of an offset printing press, capable of reliably converting the printers’ files into various ebook formats at the press of a button.

Anyone want to hire me…?

Inside-out character development

Since I’m at the beginning of a new project, I thought it would be a good time to record and share some of my processes. First up – character development, because you can’t have a good book without great characters!

If you read enough how-to-write books or do courses, you’ll come across a number of methods of character creation. The worst, IMHO, is what I call the “Dungeons and Dragons” approach, whereby you detail all kinds of trivia up front: height, build, eye colour, hair colour, distinguishing marks, and so on. Boring, boring and usually irrelevant at the planning stage of a novel. Usually. Sometimes a character’s physical appearance is important to the story – I knew I wanted Coby Hendricks in A Mirror for London to be blond so it’s less obvious she has no facial hair (since she’s disguised as a boy) – but often it really doesn’t matter too much. And whilst you do need to know these things during revisions, so you can ensure consistency, for the most part they can be allowed to develop as you write, or at least emerge out of the process of developing the character’s personality.

Most instructions do move on to character personality and background, of course, but again it tends to be a highly structured “fill in the blanks” exercise, because this is far easier to present. Sometimes it’s almost as specific as the D&D method, particularly in books aimed at writers of any kind of fiction: where did he/she go to school, what does the character’s bedroom look like, describe his/her first kiss. A lot of these are simply useless to writers of SF&F, where characters often don’t go to school and may have few personal possessions – and who cares about first kisses unless you’re writing romance???

The better questionnaires focus on character motivation. Holly Lisle’s “How to Think Sideways” course is like this, posing questions like “What’s the one thing this character would sacrifice anything for?” and “What one event made him/her a better person?” – but I still find these too specific and structured. My Muse freezes up and says “How the heck should I know? I only met this person a couple of days ago!”

So what’s a girl to do? I find that my characters only come alive when they start talking (preferably to one another), so I’ve hit upon a technique which exploits that. In my planning notebook I write a first person monologue from the point of view of the character I’m working on, letting it meander from topic to topic like a stream of consciousness. It’s totally unstructured, but that lets my Muse throw in ideas unfettered by someone else’s opinion of what makes a rounded character.

And it’s working! I had been toying with various names for my svartalf protagonist and unsure about which one to choose, but the monologue brought the issue to a head in no uncertain terms. My name is Ember she wrote because although I am black as coal on the outside, I burn within. (I say she wrote that – obviously it was me, but I was merely transcribing the images pouring out of my right-brain.) At that moment she came alive for me, and everything else, including her personality and motivation, fell into place.

Anyway, if you’re struggling with character development, give it a go. Make it a friendly conversation in the pub after a few beers, not an interrogation, and the characters will tell you all about themselves. Probably in more detail than you ever expected – or wanted!

A not-so-princely sum: academic royalties

About three years ago I was asked to write a chapter about the project I work on for the second edition of a book on bioinformatics software. We had contributed a similar chapter for the first edition, so it was just a matter of rewriting the introduction and updating the technical details, and of course I said yes. My colleague who had written the original chapter said that although there was no advance, I might get some small royalties eventually, albeit probably only enough to buy a round of beer.

Would that it were that much!

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Absent Friends

I don’t normally blog about personal stuff on here, but I felt I needed to explain why I’ve been uncharacteristically silent for almost a month.
On 7th November, we lost our beloved cat, Bertie, and I just couldn’t face the big scary world of the Interwebz for a while. Some folk might say that it’s stupid to get so upset over an animal, but when you see a young, handsome – and apparently healthy – creature turn critically ill, fade and die over the course of only two weeks, it’s a chilling reminder of one’s own mortality as well as an emotional loss.

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A Room of One’s Own

For a while I’ve been wishing I had a proper writing space to myself again, because I gave up the spare bedroom to my husband to use as a home office (well, he does work from home, so it seemed only fair). Anyway, this morning I mooted to him the possibility of reorganising the dining room so I could write in there, and he offered to move his office into the dining room so I could have the spare bedroom back!

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