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Diagramming your book’s conflicts

This weekend I knuckled down to sorting out the overall plot of my work-in-progress, Serpent’s Tooth. I have a setting, several main characters and some ideas for conflicts, but nothing was pinned down, hence my struggles to get on with writing the book. This is pretty par for the course with me; I tend to get bogged down in plot possibilities because there are so many directions the story could go in and I can’t decide which one is best!

I started with my usual process of “thinking aloud” on paper, and suddenly the pieces began to fall into place: I knew who my main opposing factions would be, and that there would be factions within those factions, divided loyalties, betrayals, etc. It was starting to get quite complicated, so at the suggestion of my writer friend Adrian Faulkner I broke out my trial copy of Scapple, a simple diagramming program for Mac and Windows, produced by those lovely people who brought us Scrivener. Read more

Generating words for your conlang

One of the most labour-intensive stages of creating a conlang (constructed language) is generating the masses of words required, and also of ensuring you have enough distinct words that use the full range of options that you designed into the language. Thankfully it’s a trivial task to do this with a computer program, and being a developer myself I’ve written a simple script that can be used to generate an “instant dictionary”.

Now obviously you’re not constrained by the output; if you see a word that doesn’t feel right for the assigned meaning, then of course you’re free to swap it for something else. Use your auto-generated dictionary as a jumping-off point to get you going, rather than a shackle for your creativity! Read more

Conlanging 101

Last week I gave a very brief history of language construction and mentioned some well-known examples from fantasy, such as Sindarin and Dothraki. If you’ve been inspired by any of these books or TV shows to create a language of your own, read on! Note that I shall be focusing on creating languages for use in fiction; whilst conlanging for its own sake is a great hobby, it can be easy to get carried away and create something too arcane for your readers to cope with.

Bear in mind also that language creation is a vast topic that can’t be covered in a single blog post; however I shall link to resources that will help you to take your first steps in this fascinating hobby. Read more

Constructed languages in fantasy & SF

A couple of years ago I blogged about how I’d gone about creating the languages for my alternate history fantasy series Night’s Masque. At the time, The Alchemist of Souls was undergoing final edits, so I felt it was a bit early to post any details of the languages. However, this month being the fortieth anniversary of the death of J R R Tolkien, I felt it was high time I did a new series of blog posts on the topic of conlangs (constructed languages).

In this first post, I’m going to cover the history of conlanging in SFF. In following weeks I’ll talk about how you might go about creating your own language, and finish up with some software tools that can help you with the task. Read more

Back to school: fountain pens

I know a bunch of my writing friends share my passion for lovely pens and notebooks, so I thought I’d share one of my collections with you…

When I was 11 I was admitted to the local girls’ grammar school, a somewhat old-fashioned establishment with pretensions of grandeur. It was the first school I’d been to that had a uniform, and to go with the blazer and tie (yes, we wore ties, like blokes!) my parents bought me a leather satchel and a fountain pen. On our first day we were sternly instructed that all homework must be written in fountain pen; the lowly biro was for rough work only. Sadly I don’t have that original fountain pen any more (though I do still have the satchel), but my love of this very traditional writing implement has only grown with the years. Read more

Guest post: Django Wexler on point-of-view

This week I’m very pleased to welcome Django Wexler, whose epic gunpowder fantasy featuring a military commander hero and a cross-dressing heroine sounds right up my readers’ street!

Reconnaissance: Point of View as a Precious Resource

First, the Universal Caveat—this is, of course, only the opinion of one reader/writer, so please take it for what it’s worth.

I read a lot of books, as you might expect.  In fact, ever since getting involved with the writer/publisher/book reviewer blog-tweet-sphere-o-net, I have been deluged with more books than I can reasonably read.  There’s a pile of about fifty on the end of my desk right now, shaming me and threatening to collapse and knock over my lamp.

As a result, I’ve had to get a bit more ruthless about abandoning books in the middle if I’m not actually enjoying them.  I used to make a bit of a fetish about finishing books, out of a masochistic sense of duty, but the growth of the pile has made this impractical.  My new rule is that each book gets a hundred pages to hook me.  Recently, I found myself tossing several novels in a row, all for roughly the same reason—too many points of view.  So I thought I would talk a bit about what that means. Read more

New fantasy series: follow-along

I recently went back to the forums of Holly Lisle’s online Novel Writing School, where I was somewhat abashed to discover I’m somewhat of a poster girl for the courses (well, I did get a three-book deal out of the manuscript I put through How to Revise Your Novel!). When I mentioned I was using the How to Think Sideways writing course materials to help me with the new series I was planning, one of the moderators thought that students would find it interesting to hear what I was doing. However I don’t just use Holly’s materials, and I thought it might be confusing to students on the course if I talked about my own methods on the official forum. So, if you’re here via a link from the HtTS forums (and even if you’re not), welcome! Read more

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!

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.]

N.B. Since this is rather a long post, I’m hiding most of it behind a “more” tag…

Read more

Tracking word count with Scrivener

It’s been a while since I did a techie post, but this is a topic that came up on Twitter the other day in conversation with my fellow Angry Robot author Matt Forbeck. We’re both using the word-count tracking features of Scrivener but in slightly different ways, so here for Matt’s edification (and anyone else’s!) is a quick tour of how I use it.

I like tracking word count. Writing is such a slog sometimes, and it’s good to see yourself making actual progress. I guess it all dates back to my first NaNoWriMo in 2006 – the whole point is to hit a word count target (in this case, 50k) and not worry too much about quality because, heck, you can edit it later. However I now find word count tracking to be even more useful in the revision phase of a project, helping me keep an eye on scene length and pacing.

Scrivener has a number of word count tools:

  • A live word count at the bottom of the main document screen, that increments as you type
  • A per-document word count target, set using the target icon in the bottom left of the same screen
  • A Project Statistics window, showing total word counts, pages, etc for the whole draft and for the selected document(s)

and probably some other features I haven’t found yet!

I used to use spreadsheets, which had to be manually updated by copying the word counts from each document’s total. They were fun, but time-consuming to maintain, especially if I was juggling scenes around. A few months ago I realised I needed something that was less hassle and most importantly, didn’t take valuable time away from the actual writing. I poked around in Scrivener and almost by accident discovered that not only could you show word counts and targets in Scrivener’s outline view, but it would create cumulative totals for each folder. It did almost everything my spreadsheet could do, with zero extra work on my part. I was hooked!

In the picture below you can see my outliner setup for The Merchant of Dreams, the second book in the Nights Masque trilogy (note that I’ve blurred out the scene titles to avoid spoilers!).

Clickety-click to enlarge!
Clickety-click to enlarge!

I got this view as follows:

  1. In the menu bar, go to Group Mode and select the lefthand option to show the Outliner
  2. On the far right of the column headers you’ll see a double arrow symbol (>>) – click on that and select ‘Word Count’, ‘Total Word Count’, ‘Target’, ‘Total Target’ and ‘Total Progress’.

Voila! You now have a “spreadsheet” view of your manuscript, totalled by folder. Note however that if you want to see the total for the whole draft, you’ll need to insert a dummy top-level folder and drag all your existing folders into it – if you look at the Binder in the screenshot, you’ll see there’s a ‘Draft’ folder inside the ‘Manuscript’ one. This is because the outliner can only show documents inside another folder, not the folder itself.

The outliner preserves its state independent of other views and hierarchies, so you can flip back and forth between editing individual scenes in the normal document view, opening up your folders in the Binder, etc, and still come back to exactly the same view when you click on the Outliner button.

So there you have it, Scrivener fans – how to obsessively manage your word counts without resorting to spreadsheets. Enjoy!