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The Next Big Thing

I tried to slither out of this at first, but then I woke one morning at 5am and couldn’t get back to sleep, but couldn’t get into the writing groove either, so I thought I might as well give it a go! The Next Big Thing is a blog post chain for writers. You talk about your work-in-progress (or in my case, about-to-be-published novel) and then tag five other writers to carry the torch forward. It’s been going a while, so practically every writer on the planet has already done it – soon we’ll have to start linking back to existing posts and it’ll go all Ouroboros on us…

1) What is the working title of your next book?

The Merchant of Dreams. That’s the official title, btw :)

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

It’s a sequel to my debut The Alchemist of Souls, so it picks up where that book left off. Also, I’d always wanted to set a novel in Venice, so I just needed to work out how to get my characters there!

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Historical/alternate history fantasy.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Hmm, I’ve debated this one a lot, but eventually I came down in favour of Aidan Turner (Being Human, The Hobbit) to play Mal, especially after seeing photos of him as Kili (below). He has the right mix of charm, intensity and darkness to play my swashbuckling hero and his mentally unstable identical twin brother.

I’ve also cast a number of other actors in my head: Dominic Cooper (The History Boys, Captain America) as Ned Faulkner; Jack Davenport (Pirates of the Caribbean) as Robert, Prince of Wales; and Bradley James (Merlin) as his younger brother Prince Arthur. And whilst it would require a significant makeup job, I totally envisage Seth Green (Buffy, Austin Powers) as Ambassador Kiiren :)

Aidan Turner (as Kili in “The Hobbit”)
Aidan Turner (as Kili in “The Hobbit”)

The character I have most trouble with is Coby Hendricks, my girl-disguised-as-a-boy; someone suggested Olivia Thirby (Juno, Dredd) but it would depend if she could do the accent!

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

When Elizabethan spy Mal Catlyn’s dream about a skrayling shipwreck proves a reality, it sets him on a path to the beautiful, treacherous city of Venice – and a conflict of loyalties that will place him and his friends in greater danger than ever.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’s represented by John Berlyne of Zeno Literary Agency, and published by Angry Robot Books. It will be out in ebook, audiobook and US paperback on 18 December 2012, and UK paperback on 3 January 2013.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I did the very first draft for NaNoWriMo, back in 2007, so technically, only a month. However I had to completely rewrite it from scratch; not only was it far too short at only 50k, but the previous book had changed substantially in revisions so the plot no longer fitted. The new draft took about eleven months, although I had to take time out to edit and promote the first book so it wasn’t a non-stop process. Actual hands-on writing time was probably nearer seven months.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The closest ones I can think of are Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series and Mark Chadbourn’s Swords of Albion. Like the former, several of the main characters are gay or bisexual, and like the latter it revolves around the Elizabethan secret service.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The city of Venice – I absolutely love it! It’s hardly changed in the last four hundred years, which makes it perfect for any writer of historical fiction, realistic or fantastical.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s probably one of the few Elizabethan fantasies that doesn’t feature either fairies or William Shakespeare (though the Bard does have a couple of cameos in the third book of the trilogy). My “magical beings” are a race of non-humans called skraylings who evolved in the New World at around the same time that humans appeared in Africa. They now live alongside the Native Americans, acting as go-betweens and traders, and since Columbus showed up and the Spanish started hassling them, have allied themselves with the English in an attempt to keep the Europeans out of the Americas.


Right, that’s my bit done – time to pass the torch to my victims, ahem, writer buddies:

Adrian Faulkner

I first met Adrian at EasterCon 2011, I think – he’s a great guy, and like so many people I met that year he now has a book deal! His first fantasy novel, The Four Realms, is due out from Anarchy Press in late December.

Jennifer Williams

Jennifer is another convention buddy, this time introduced to me by fellow Angry Robot author Adam Christopher. Her fantasy novella The Copper Promise has been self-published on Amazon, and I know she has plans for more stories in that world!

Jacey Bedford

Jacey was a fellow panellist at EasterCon 2012, where she impressed me with her witty rejoinders! Like me she writes swashbuckling alternate history fantasy, but Regency instead of Elizabethan – really looking forward to that one!

You’re supposed to link to five others, but this meme’s almost played out and I didn’t have time to hunt down any more. Bite me!

Tech review: IRISnotes Executive smartpen

Note: this review is for the original (1.0) smartpen, which I bought a couple of years ago. A new (2.0) version is out with more capabilities, including iPad integration, but I haven’t made up my mind about upgrading yet.

IRISnotes pen and receiver
IRISnotes pen and receiver

The IRISnotes Executive is one of several smartpens vying for market share. Unlike most of the others, however, it does not use special (read, expensive) gridded paper, nor does it store the transcribed text in a heavy, high-tech pen. Instead it uses a normal-sized ballpoint pen with a infrared transmitter around its nib, and a receiver unit that you clip to whatever notepad or loose-leaf paper you desire.

Since a) I have small hands and b) I don’t want to have to buy a load of expensive notebooks on top of the pen, this makes the IRISnotes Executive an attractive choice. And since I have quite neat cursive handwriting, I find the recognition accuracy of the software to be pretty good. At least, it is when I’m writing non-fiction with lots of long sentences and standard vocabulary. It struggles a lot more with fiction, which is heavily punctuated and includes a lot of words the software doesn’t recognise, such as character names.

Let’s reinvent the wheel. And then make it octagonal…
Let’s reinvent the wheel. And then make it octagonal…

The biggest downside though is that the desktop software is clunky, unintuitive and poorly documented. Firstly it relies on a separate utility, MyScript Retriever, to transfer data from the receiver to your computer, which is not integrated into the IRIS software but must be run separately. Once you have transferred your files, you can then switch to the main IRISnotes Executive program, which is frankly over-designed, using a non-standard interface for no good reason. The Quick Start Guide covers the basics, but finding out anything else about the program has proved problematic. That red cross next to an uploaded file? I eventually worked out that it means the file is corrupted and can’t be imported, but there’s nothing about that in the manual, nor a tooltip to explain its function. Very frustrating!

The software runs on both Windows and Mac, although the MyScript Notes utility, which allows you to use the pen as a virtual tablet, is Windows only. I recommend you download the latest version of IRISnotes from the manufacturer’s website; however on the Mac at least, it keeps warning you that you are using an older version of MyScript and would you like to convert to the latest format. Well, yes, yes I would. But I wish it wouldn’t keep asking me!

My overall feeling is that this is a nice piece of hardware and a decent handwriting recognition algorithm that are badly let down by the desktop software. If you can stick with it long enough to get the program trained to your handwriting it may prove useful, but it’s not a toy for the impatient. And because it is weak on transcribing fiction, it’s not an ideal solution for novelists on the go. Which is a pity, because that’s exactly what I’m still looking for…

Human computer interface: digitising your handwritten prose

Like pretty much every writer nowadays, I do most of my writing via a keyboard, whether that’s on my laptop, on the bluetooth keyboard tethered to my iPad, or (occasionally) using the software keyboard on my iPhone. However anything big enough to comfortably touch-type on is also too big to slip into my everyday shoulder bag, so I’ve been looking for alternative solutions. There’s also the issue that whilst I’ve long since become accustomed to writing the stories themselves on a keyboard, I still prefer to do background note-taking (world-building, plot brainstorming, etc) in longhand; it just feels more natural and organic. Unfortunately this means I end up with a lot of paper notebooks, which are difficult to search through!

There seem to be two major strategies for solving this problem: digitising your handwriting as you do it, and digitising the image of the handwritten text using OCR. Either way, the usefulness of the end result depends a great deal on both how neat your handwriting is, and how good the software is at recognition. If humans can barely read your handwriting, a computer isn’t going to have a snowball’s chance in Hell—and a garbled file full of nonsense words mixed with random characters is unlikely to be of much use to you.

With that caveat, here are my thoughts on the various hardware and software solutions I’ve tried.

On-screen handwriting recognition

This is the type of digitisation I was most familiar with for years. As a long-time user of the Palm series of PDAs, I became fluent in Graffiti, their stylised “handwriting” that allowed direct digital input using letters handwritten on the device’s screen with a stylus. As a result, I’ve spent a long time looking for an equivalent for iOS (I have several styli, as they come in handy in cold weather when I need to wear gloves), and I have to say that I’m deeply disappointed. All the apps I’ve tested assume that you’ll want to use your normal handwriting, and so they put a lot of processing power into full handwriting recognition, which makes the app painfully slow even on an iPhone 4S. I’ve yet to find one that, like Graffiti, expects you to learn a simplified alphabet which the computer can easily recognise, which is highly frustrating for me. If you know of such an app, please, please let me know!

Optical character recognition (OCR)

OCR has been around for quite a while, and is often used for digitising printed books that were never released in an electronic version. As software has become more powerful, however, it is now possible to digitise handwritten text as well.

The traditional method is to scan a document page-by-page using either a flat-bed scanner (necessary if your pages are bound into a book) or a more compact feed-through scanner. The latter takes up less desk space, but if you’re like me and mostly write in bound notebooks, a flat-bed scanner is your only option. Or rather it was, until very recently. The advent of smartphones with relatively high resolution cameras means you effectively have a portable scanner in your pocket—a fact that has now been exploited by popular note-taking app Evernote. Using the Page Camera option (available on the Add Note screen), you can take snaps of your notebook pages and slurp them into Evernote. They are even teaming up with Moleskine to create “smart notebooks” that make scanning more accurate. Naturally these don’t come cheap, but they might make a nice addition to your Christmas list!

The desktop version of Evernote also has basic handwriting OCR built in, so you can search the images of your notebook pages, but at the moment it doesn’t offer full digital conversion of text. Hence it’s no use for content that you need to put into a word processor, so you can’t handwrite your novel and then use Evernote to transfer it into, say, Scrivener. Also, I’ve tried using Evernote and Page Camera on my project notebook, but its handwriting recognition isn’t all that great unless you write very neatly, which I tend not to do in the heat of inspiration!

Finally, large high-resolution images use up a lot of bandwidth, which means that if you have more than a few notes, you’ll be obliged to pay for Evernote’s premium service (they cunningly include 3 months’ free subscription with the smart notebook) and presumably also consume more bandwidth on your mobile devices. If Evernote introduces the ability to do reasonably accurate OCR on files and then archive the actual images, I think it might be worth scanning in more of my notes, but right now it’s not a complete solution.

Smartpens

This is the latest, most high-tech solution: you write on real paper with an electronic pen, and the image produced by your writing movements can be uploaded to your computer and then run through OCR software to produce a digital version. There are two main kinds of smartpen: one requires special paper marked with a grid of dots, the other uses normal paper but relies on a receiver unit to detect the pen’s movements. I own one of the latter type, an IRISnotes Executive, and I have to say that it’s pretty nifty. I’ll review it in detail next week, but so far I’m impressed by its handwriting recognition capabilities, at least when it comes to non-fiction. Of course smartpens are pretty expensive (prices start around $100) and require more practice to get right than using a normal pen and paper and then scanning the page. On the other hand they’re lightweight and don’t require you to buy (or find room on your desk for) a scanner.

 

In summary, there are now a number of ways to get your handwritten text into your computer, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Still, they offer a potential bridge between paper and screen for those of us who still enjoy writing the old-fashioned way!

Action? Figures!

One of my favourite bits of writing fantasy is the action scenes. I rarely bother to plan them in advance – one sword-fighting scene in The Alchemist of Souls was described as “Big fight!” in my outline – as I find they’re more fun, and more fluid, if I just make things up as I go along. However occasionally I want to write something that involves more than a single pair of combatants, and it’s at that point I have to plan the logistics a bit more carefully. Writers have various techniques for doing this, but one I’m trying out during the writing of The Merchant of Dreams is to use Playmobil figures. They’re a handy size, come with lots of different weapons – and of course they’re fun to collect!

Note: After taking photos* of the various stages of the fight scene, I realised they were potentially massive spoilers for the ending of the book, so for the purpose of this blog I mocked up a generic fight scene as an illustration, using the same figures for my protagonists and some random pirates. I might post the real photos after the book comes out…

From left to right: Kiiren, Sandy, Ned, Coby, Gabriel and Mal take on some pirates!
From left to right: Kiiren, Sandy, Ned, Coby, Gabriel and Mal take on some pirates!

The setting for this scene is a square in Venice, hence the cardboard “palazzo” in the background and the terracotta “well” in the centre. In the above photo we see a nice street-level view of all the separate combats, and having chosen the figures carefully (and swapped hair, hats, etc around as needed) it’s easy to tell who’s who. However it can be hard to get an accurate idea of distance from this angle, so you might want to take a top-down photo as well:

Birds-eye view of the same scene
Birds-eye view of the same scene

Now we can see exactly who is fighting whom, lines of fire, that kind of thing, so this kind of shot is great for logistical planning.

Finally, you can use close-up shots to get an “over-the-shoulder” perspective from a single character’s viewpoint:

Close-up on Coby, looking towards Mal's fight
Close-up on Coby, looking towards Mal's fight

Not only is this rather cute, it can give you ideas for the next move in the combat. That pirate in the red bandana is looking like a good candidate for a head shot!

That’s really all there is to it – I moved the characters through the combat, taking photos at each stage, then when I came to write the scene, I used the photos as reference material. I didn’t always stick exactly to the original plan, and I dare say it may change again in the next draft, but it gets the creative juices flowing :)

Do you have any favourite outside-the-box techniques to share for handling the trickier aspects of writing?

Technical note: I used a Panasonic Lumix FX-55 with no flash (it tends to create too much over-exposure) and manipulated the light levels in The GIMP.

Writing a novel on the iPad

When the iPad first came out, I dismissed it as a “toy” because it was clearly designed for the consumption of media, rather than creation. But more and more productivity apps were released, until I was forced to admit that it might actually be useful as well as pretty! Add in a battery life that was triple that of my laptop, and the iPad started to look like a practical device for writing.

The decisive moment, however, came with the availability of the Zaggmate bluetooth keyboard, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. Suddenly I could seriously see myself actually drafting a novel on the iPad, even if I needed the power of Scrivener for later revisions. So, I decided I would use the iPad as my main device for writing my work-in-progress, The Merchant of Dreams (sequel to The Alchemist of Souls).

Software

In addition to the iPad itself and the keyboard, I’ve been using a number of key apps:

Notebooks

A plain text editor with the big advantage that it syncs easily with Scrivener via Dropbox (there’s a nice video tutorial to walk you through the process). You can sync just your Draft folder, or all the text documents in your project, and whilst Notebooks doesn’t allow subfolders within the Draft, each folder is transferred as a text document, so you can at least see where your chapter breaks fall (if you have them).
There are a few gotchas, principally that if you add formatting in Notebooks, the file is synced to Dropbox as HTML and then won’t import into Scrivener. On the plus side, any formatting changes you make in Scrivener are retained (in the Scrivener document) even though what you are syncing is plain text – which is pretty awesome!

Index Card

This is a corkboard emulator very similar in appearance to Scrivener’s corkboard, and it syncs with the synopsis fields in a Scrivener project. You can drag cards around, and they will be reordered in Scrivener after syncing. It has a few problems that make it less useful than Notebooks – it has no hierarchy at all, and it requires using a Collection in order to sync, which means that if you add new cards in Scrivener, you have to add them to the Collection as well before you can sync them to Index Card.

Carbon Fin Outliner

When I’m brainstorming a plot, I don’t necessarily want a one-to-one relationship between items in my outline and scene documents within Scrivener – a single plot point could require several scenes, or several plot minutiae might fit into a single scene. Hence I like to use simple notetaking tools for this stage. Outliner from Carbon Fin is very basic, but it does the job with the minimum of fuss.

iCardSort

I’ve only just bought this one, but it looks like an interesting alternative to Index Card and/or Outliner. Unlike Index Card, it allows freeform arrangement of cards on the corkboard, so I think it will be better for brainstorming.

With all this kit, I’ve found it surprisingly efficient to get writing done without a proper laptop. I still go back to my desktop regularly to sync Notebooks and keep a tally of my finished wordcount, but even that is far from essential, since I also have a copy of Numbers, the iWork spreadsheet app. I reckon the iPad can be considered a serious weapon in the writer’s arsenal.

iPad 2: in lust all over again

I’m a bit late with my blog post today, as I was hoping to have some news of my own to announce. So, you’ll have to make do with some from Steve Jobs instead.

Today Apple announced the iPad 2: thinner, lighter and faster than the original model, it begins shipping later this month. Now, obviously I don’t need a new iPad – I only got mine in autumn last year, after I grew disillusioned with the limitations* of the Sony eReader – but boy am I tempted. Apart from the general improvements, it will have a hardware rotation lock, just as the original iPad did until the software was changed to make it a mute button. This is a change I protested about, so it’s good to hear that Apple listened to its customers.

When the iPad first came out I was unconvinced. I liked my eInk reader and didn’t see the need for an oversized iPod Touch. As with the iPhone, it wasn’t until some killer apps came along that I changed my mind and bought one. I now use it extensively, for reading ebooks and manuscripts, checking email and Twitter, making notes and mindmaps and book outlines. I even use it for my day-job, at least on business trips, because of its lightness and superior battery life.

I still prefer my MacBook Air for work that needs substantial amounts of typing or a more sophisticated piece of software such as Scrivener, but the iPad serves me well for lighter tasks. And I’m not alone. I saw someone mention earlier this week that the iPad is now the tool of choice in the publishing industry, presumably for reading manuscripts and staying in touch on the move. No more worrying about WiFi hotspots; these babies can be bought with 3G, and ten quid a month buys you enough O2 bandwidth to pick up emails, etc, on those odd days when you’re away from a WiFi network.

The other thing I love about the iPad is the iBook app. It’s much slicker than its Kindle equivalent, which I only installed because a couple of books I wanted were only available in that format. It’s much faster than an eInk reader; I can skim through pages much faster, almost as fast as with a paper book. I can buy books within the app or import ePubs obtained elsewhere, whether bought from a website or made myself by exporting one of my own manuscripts from Scrivener. And unlike a paper book, I don’t need a bookmark, a reading light, or a magnifier.

This latter is a huge boon to those of us whose eyesight is not what it used to be. In fact I reckon it’s not the younger generation who are going to be flocking to ebooks, but the older one. The price of paper being what it is these days, the type size in mass market paperbacks seems to be getting smaller and smaller, to the point where I have to check inside a book before I decide to buy it. I put a copy of George R R Martin’s A Clash of Swords back on the shelf in Waterstones a few months ago, simply because I couldn’t read the text comfortably, even in a well-lit shop. Once readers discover the sheer convenience of being able to resize text at will and adjust the light level with equal ease, I hope they will realise that ebooks provide a superior reading experience, at least for novels, and are worth paying a sensible price for. Not hardback prices; those are ridiculously over-inflated. But certainly around the price of a paperback seems to me to be entirely realistic.

Now, if only HM Government would see sense and exempt ebooks from VAT…

 

* Like, what’s the point in having built-in PDF annotation if you then forget to put a hyphen on the software keyboard? WTF, Sony??