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The Joy of Stationery

My name is Anne Lyle and I’m a stationery addict. There, I’ve said it. I have more notebooks, pens and other impedimenta of writing than is strictly necessary. A lot more. I discovered just how much more when I was between drafts recently…

I’d handed in the first draft of The Prince of Lies to my editor and was taking a few days off to decompress. I didn’t want to get too engrossed in a new project, as I knew I’d have to dive back into revisions pretty soon, so I decided to tidy the drawers of my desk and bureau, which had descended into chaos over the previous few months. So, I emptied them out, put all my “work-in-progress” notebooks, index cards and so on into my desk drawer, and all my unused notebooks into the top drawer of my bureau. The latter filled the entire drawer.

My notebook drawer. Problem, what problem?
My notebook drawer. Problem, what problem?

Now admittedly it isn’t a big drawer, and I also store spare loose-leaf pads and unopened packs of index cards in there, but still…! I have numerous Moleskines in different colours, sizes and paper types, including two specifically for use with EverNote and two special editions (Lego and Star Wars); a bunch of LiveScribe notebooks, also in several sizes, for use with my Echo smartpen; and a few other miscellaneous notebooks from Paperchase, WHS, Rymans etc. I even have a gorgeous leather-bound journal that I bought in Florence, which I will probably never use because it’s far too beautiful to sully with my scribblings…

Europa Major notepads – fat enough to plan a Big Fat Fantasy!
Europa Major notepads – fat enough to plan a Big Fat Fantasy!

And then there’s my “archive” drawer of used notebooks. I have had obsessions with different brands before Moleskine; for a while it was Bur-O-Class Aurora exercise books, in which I wrote my earliest longhand drafts, then more recently it was the Europa Major spiral-bound reporter’s notebook, with 300 pages between richly-coloured cardboard covers, in which I brainstormed the plots and characters for my Night’s Masque trilogy.

Rationally, I know I do not need all these notebooks, because I do a lot of my work electronically. And yet I’m addicted to the damned things! When I was in California in February, I bought two Moleskines in a bookstore solely because they were in colours (green and purple) seldom seen in UK shops.

It’s a common foible of writers, judging by my friends’ reactions, and I think it comes down to a combination of traits:

1. A love of books and paper. There’s something very sensuous and satisfying about a high-quality notebook: the handsome cover, the way your pen glides across the thick creamy surface of the paper, the snap of the elastic fastener, the slither of the silky placeholder ribbon… You just can’t get these pleasures from an app, no matter how cool it might be in other ways.

2. Romanticism. We imagine the great authors of the 19th and 20th centuries scribbling golden prose into their pocket notebooks, and we think that if only we could do the same, our books would be just as wonderful.

3. The OCD impulses of the typical writer. Allied to the above, we believe that if we have just the right notebook, fresh and crisp and virginal, we too can be brilliant. We start a notebook with dewy-eyed optimism, which often devolves into despair at our terrible handwriting, multiple crossings-out and rambling prose. So, we abandon it for a fresh notebook. Once the habit becomes entrenched, we make sure we always have a good supply of shiny new ones to hand, because the next one is going to be perfect…

I think, though, that the seeds were sown in school. All those separate exercise books for each subject, often with a different colour per subject as well. And—this being a provincial girls’ grammar school with pretensions of grandeur—we had to write our homework in fountain pen (biros were for “rough” only). That kind of thing is liable to make a girl just a little obsessive!

How about you? Do you have a weakness for a particular brand or style of notebook? Or do you eschew paper for a purely digital writing experience?

Transitioning between projects

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post about the pressures of writing a book a year, and how you have to start thinking about what to write next even whilst you’re working on your current novel. I still believe what I wrote in that post, and in fact I’ve been putting it into practice over the past few months.

At the time of the original post (summer 2011) I was four months into a contract that would see my trilogy being published at 8-10 month intervals during 2012 and 2013, so I was totally focused on those books. As of February this year, however, I handed in the final book in the trilogy and found myself with no deadlines for the first time since late 2010! This was an intoxicating feeling, but I knew it wouldn’t last for long because I still had to do one final revision pass on The Prince of Lies. Still, it marked the beginning of a transition period, when I was able—even obliged—to begin dividing my attention between the outgoing project and my plans for the next book.

A writer can never have too many notebooks! (Photo: Mhairi Simpson)
A writer can never have too many notebooks! (Photo: Mhairi Simpson)

Fortunately, as per my blog post, I had already started a notebook in which I jotted down my initial ideas. It was all very vague: based on my experience of writing the Night’s Masque trilogy, I knew I wanted to continue writing urban-based fantasy with a historical flavour (though not necessarily in a real-world setting), but I didn’t want to commit to anything beyond that. So, I simply jotted down ideas for characters, setting and plot as they came to me, without making any decisions as to which one was best.

I did this throughout February and accumulated a bunch of new ideas, as well as digging through trunk novels and their associated worldbuilding to see what I could reuse. At first I was worried that I wouldn’t come up with anything, because I’d been so focused on the Elizabethan stuff for the past five years, but that concern was misplaced. Once I let my Muse out of her cage, she really went for it, spewing out character backstories and plot ideas as if a dam had been burst (apologies for the mixed metaphors). Most importantly, the “gestation” period imposes a kind of “survival of the fittest” selection pressure on my ideas. If my Muse keeps gnawing on an idea even though my conscious mind has tried to discard it, that’s probably a clue that I ought to pursue it!

This month I’m back into editing mode on The Prince of Lies, which means that I have to put this new project on the backburner for a few weeks. After that, though, it’s all over for Night’s Masque bar the usual round of publicity when it comes out. That’s when I find out if my lengthy brewing of ideas has produced a firm basis for a new fantasy series. I’m pretty sure it has – and I’m looking forward to applying all the experience I gained in the past five years to the creation of new novels. I’m also looking forward to sharing it with you guys, but that’s going to take a lot longer, since I have to write—and sell—the damned thing first!

Another year over, and a new one begun

So, the obligatory New Year blog post…

Snuggled up between Helen Lowe and Scott Lynch in Forbidden Planet, Shaftesbury Avenue!
Snuggled up between Helen Lowe and Scott Lynch in Forbidden Planet, Shaftesbury Avenue!

It’s been an utterly amazing year Chez Lyle, with not one but two novels published – and people actually buying them all over the world, from Canada to the United Arab Emirates and probably beyond. The response has been tremendous, with The Alchemist of Souls appearing on at least a couple of Best of 2012 lists (that I know of), and of course being a debut it’s up for the usual award nominations. Not that I have any pretensions of being an award-winning author; I’d rather sell heaps of books to satisfied readers :)

I’ve also made lots of new friends in the SFF community, been to a big US convention for the first time, met some megastar authors who were previously just names on my bookshelves, and generally had a fantastic time. I can’t recommend the convention circuit strongly enough to any SFF writer who wants to break into commercial publishing. Even if you don’t get a chance to pitch to an agent or editor, the friendships you make with other writers will be hugely important in seeing you through the highs and lows of the publication process. Our books aren’t the “competing products” that Amazon likes to claim – we’re all in this together.

2013 is set to be a somewhat quieter year for me, as I have only one book out (The Prince of Lies, the final volume in the Night’s Masque trilogy). I have another project underway, but it’s still at the very early stages of development, so even if I were to sell it this year, there’s very little chance of it appearing before late 2014 at best – sorry! This is the downside of selling your first completed novel – you are constantly running to keep up with your publisher’s release schedule, because you don’t have anything else under your hat. In that respect I envy writers like Michael J Sullivan who had a complete trilogy to offer when he got his book deal. Indeed, the only reason I’ve been able to commit to a book every 8-10 months is that it’s a trilogy with the same setting, lead characters and overarching conflict, so I’ve had plenty of time to at least think about where I was taking it, even if I didn’t write all three books in advance. The new project is going to be totally different in setting and characters, so it’ll take me a while to get all my ducks in a row – I’d rather make you guys wait, and have a much better book as a result.

On the plus side, once The Prince of Lies is handed in I’ll have more time for reading, which has had to take a back seat this year. There have been so many good books out and I want to read at least some of them! Last year I discovered several new favourite authors, so I have their latest offerings to keep up with, as well as the books I didn’t get to for lack of time. In fact I’m somewhat surprised that, according to Goodreads, I managed to read 16 books last year! I think this year I’ll try for 24, since that’s the exact length of my current TBR list…

Here’s wishing you all have as good a 2013 as my 2012! :)

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!

NaNoWriMo 2012

Way back in 2006 I was struggling to finish a novel—any novel—so I decided to do NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to push me past the opening chapters, which is where I always used to stall. It worked so well that I did it again in 2007, and those two drafts formed the basis for my first two novels, The Alchemist of Souls and The Merchant of Dreams. They had to be practically rewritten from scratch, but writing them had proved to me that I could indeed finish a novel-length manuscript in a short period of time.

Fast forward to 2012, and I’m trying to finish the first draft of The Prince of Lies, the final book in my Elizabethan trilogy. This is the first all-new book I’ve written since 2007, and I’m still finding the drafting process difficult. My first draft prose is better than it was six years ago (thankfully), but wrangling a novel-length plot doesn’t get any easier! And since the book is pencilled in to be published in November next year, I need to get my skates on!

I’m therefore doing what you might call an “unofficial” NaNoWriMo, in that I’m not starting a project from scratch (one of the “rules” insisted on by NaNo-purists), but I do hope to finish it by the November 30th deadline and it will take me approximately 50,000 words to do that. We have a large NaNoWriMo group here in Cambridge, and joining in with them always gives me a buzz (I’ve used NaNoWriMo in the intervening years to get me through revisions and editing).

Anyway, I probably won’t be online much for the next month (apart from weekly blog posts and occasional @MalCatlyn tweets, which I can schedule ahead of time), so I’ll see you all on the flip side!

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!

PoL first draft, Days 1-2

August is upon us, and so I have no choice but to set my nose to the grindstone and start writing the first draft of The Prince of Lies. (OK so I actually started a couple of days ago – don’t tell anyone, all right?)

The thing is, I really hate writing first drafts. Really, really hate it. That vast expanse of empty wordage stretching before me, waiting to be filled? Turns my innards to water. Worse still, I didn’t complete my outline; I have a few scenes planned in detail at the beginning and some chapter ideas for the first half of the book, but then the second half is summed up in a couple of sentences. Well, maybe three. As per usual, I have no idea how I’m going to get from the midpoint of the book to the ending I have in mind.

That’s OK, though, because I’ve been here before, and now I know it’s just a case of sitting down and pushing through the fog until I find the story. I’m therefore adopting a “car headlights” approach to this draft, in that I’m only going to plan each scene in detail just before I write it, because that’s the only point at which I have a good chance of knowing what needs to happen next. I have a pocket-sized Moleskine and I’m starting a new scene outline on each righthand page – I just hope I have enough pages!

The reason I want to plan each scene before I write it is because I’m also trying out all three of Rachel Aaron’s productivity boosters at once. One leg of that tripod is to know what you’re going to write before you sit down to write it. The others are to have fun (as mentioned in my last post) and to keep a spreadsheet of writing sessions to find out when and where you’re most productive.

That brings me onto the fact that this month is also Camp NaNoWriMo, the summer version of the famous writing extravaganza, so I’m using that to try and jumpstart my mojo. After all, the first two books were originally written for NaNoWriMo, and they turned out OK in the end! Also, if I’m tracking my daily word count anyway, it’s not much more work to do a full productivity spreadsheet.

So far it seems to be working – I exceeded my 1667-word target both days! Let’s see if I can keep that up for a whole month…

Total word count: 3,538 (2 days)

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!

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!