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Tech review: Story Skeleton

I started using virtual index cards back in 2006 when planning for my first NaNoWriMo, and I still find them a useful way of managing a big project like a novel. I like physical index cards as well, but they’re a pain to carry around with you – which is where an app like Story Skeleton comes in.

Story Skeleton

is an iPhone app that allows you create and export outlines in a variety of formats, including as a Scrivener .scriv project. It’s this that first interested me, and I used it for an initial outline of The Prince of Lies.

Overall it’s quite a nice little app. The design is a bit fussy in some respects – on a small screen, I prefer the controls to adhere more closely to Apple conventions – but not difficult to get the hang of. You can display cards fullscreen and swipe between them, or list them as thumbnails (see screenshot, right) and scroll up and down.

There’s no hierarchical structure, however. If you want to assign scenes to chapters or acts, a workaround is to set up “card types” (a customisable list of categories), but then of course you have to recategorise cards when you move them. It’s also iPhone-only – you can use it on an iPad but the whole interface gets resized to fit the large screen and is therefore rather blurry.

Another point against it from my point of view is that whilst it has import and export capabilities, it doesn’t actually sync with Scrivener as such – you can only import outlines previously created in StorySkeleton and exported in its custom format (e.g. as backup). As a result, I found it useful for quick’n’dirty outlining at the beginning of a project, but the limitations of both synchronisation and screen real-estate mean that it doesn’t really fit well into my workflow.

StorySkeleton is available from the iTunes App Store, currently priced at $2.99.

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.]

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NaNoWriMo 2011

Way back in 2005/6, I was stuck in novel-abandonment hell: I’d write twenty thousand words or so on a new book, then realise I had no idea where the story was headed and give up. There was always a newer, cooler idea beckoning, and every time, I was convinced this would be The One. Of course the real problem wasn’t a weak idea, it was my lack of perseverance. I knew something had to be done, but I didn’t know what.

Then I heard about National Novel Writing Month (affectionately known as NaNoWriMo) – an annual challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel in one month. Specifically, in the thirty days of November. It sounds like an impossible task, but I soon discovered that the buzz I got from facing this challenge alongside a horde of writing buddies (both on- and offline) made a huge difference to my productivity.

The result of that first attempt was a very rough draft totalling just over 50k. Over the following four years, about 90% of it was discarded and the whole thing rewritten into what eventually became The Alchemist of Souls. (For the curious, the surviving 10% consists mainly of two scenes: an important flashback to Mal’s past, and the arrival of the skrayling ambassador.) In 2007, I repeated the exercise on a sequel, incorporating the changes I’d made to my setting during initial revisions. This time I didn’t complete the story, though I did pass 50k. The bones of that draft have been rendered down into the basis for The Merchant of Dreams, though with little apart from the Venice setting and a handful of characters surviving the process.

Some of my NaNoWriMo buddies take their Halloween costumes very seriously!
Some of my NaNoWriMo buddies take their Halloween costumes very seriously!

A lot of my writing buddies do NaNoWriMo every year, with a new project each time. The downside is that they rarely get around to going back and revising earlier drafts, so it becomes an activity in itself rather than a means to an end. For me, on the other hand, every year since those first two drafts has been an “unofficial” NaNoWriMo – I go along to the write-ins and participate on the forums, but I don’t claim a winner’s banner because I’ve been working on revising an old project, not starting a new one. I had hoped that this year I’d be able to do an official one again, rough-drafting Book Three in the Night’s Masque trilogy, but I’m still in the middle of rewriting The Merchant of Dreams, and that has to take priority.

There are a lot of advantages to be a contracted author, and I wouldn’t swap it for the world – but being able to work on what you like, when you like, is not one of them. Still, I’ll be sitting down to write my 1,667 words every day, along with the official participants. Go Team Cambridge!

Drafting, Phase 2

Over the past couple of weeks I have been preparing to get back into writing the second draft of The Merchant of Dreams. This involved a bunch of research (mainly into 16th-century Venice, the main location I’m using) as well as a whole heap of plot-brainstorming and outlining. I think one of the reasons I stalled last month was lack of adequate preparation – well, not this time!

I now have 36 index cards (roughly one per chapter), each its own Scrivener document, and around 24k of draft: the first four chapters that I wrote back in April, plus a bunch of scenes from draft one that I think I can recycle. The latter will need extensive editing, but having them in the appropriate place in the story means I can stitch it all together more easily.

I’m also trying out a new technique this time. Rather than slogging through in chronological order and getting bogged down on scenes that haven’t had time to percolate through my brain yet, I’m writing each one as it comes to me and slotting it into the 36-card structure in its approximate chronological position. Hopefully this more organic process will avoid blocks and stalling!

Manuscript handover

Yesterday evening I sent off my final-final version of the manuscript of The Alchemist of Souls to Lee at Angry Robot, to begin the editorial process. So, barring any last-minute fixes, it is now in the form that will make it into print, which means I can’t change my mind about any story elements. Damn!

So, no more excuses for procrastination on the writing of The Merchant of Dreams. The plan is to finish outlining it this week, then in a mad, NaNoWriMo-like frenzy, hammer out all the key scenes between now and AltFiction at the end of June.I think that writing a clean, more-or-less complete draft of the opening chapters has been helpful in setting up the rest of the book, but if I continue at the speed I’ve been going, I won’t be finished until Christmas, which leaves me too little time for a rethink if it all goes off the rails. The plan is that once I have a skeletal draft, I should be able to flesh it out into something resembling a finished novel…

My very first book deal

After many anxious weeks of biting my tongue, I am finally able to share my good news with the world – I have a three-book deal from UK SF&F publishers Angry Robot 😀

Back in September last year, this was only a distant, fervent dream. I met Angry Robot head honcho Marc Gascoigne at FantasyCon and pitched him my book and, despite the lateness of the hour and my nervousness, I was apparently coherent enough for him to request some sample chapters and a synopsis. These were duly sent, and a few weeks later I got a reply to say he and Lee (the editor) loved my writing – yay! – but thought that magic should play a larger role in the plot. We bounced some ideas back and forth until we had a solution we were all happy with, and I set about revising my novel along those lines.

At the end of January I sent off the complete manuscript, followed a couple of weeks later by a revised synopsis of that book plus one for a sequel, to form the basis of a potential book deal. My hopes were really up by this point, partly out of sheer keenness to work with Angry Robot but also because of Marc’s enthusiasm so far – but at the same time I was just a little bit terrified that I was being over-optimistic and setting myself up for disappointment. However barely a week later I received another email to say that the synopses had been received – oh, and by the way, they’d like to make me an offer!

Once I had calmed down a bit, I emailed John Berlyne at Zeno, who offered to represent me and negotiate the deal. After that it was just a matter of sending some more emails back and forth, signing paperwork and so on. The worst part was the waiting; signing a new client is a big deal for the agent and publisher as well as the author, so it all has to be coordinated and planned and done properly.

Anyway, now it’s all public! To find out more, including titles and publication dates, visit the Novels section of this site which, unlike this blog post, will be updated as I get more news. As for me, I’m going to pinch myself one last time, then get back to writing the next book in the series…

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…

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…

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!