Friday, December 30, 2011

Another One Goes By...

Wow, hard to believe 2012 is nearly upon us, and what a huge year it will be for me. Ghost of Ping-Ling comes out in Feb, then in March the book gets taken to Bologna Children's Book Fair in Italy, in the hope that agents and publishers from around the world will decide to buy the rights (that will be an extremely nervous few days for me, and I'm not even going to be there). In June Mapmaker's Apprentice comes out, and perhaps even book 3 before the year's end, given the amount of time between 1 and 2. Hard to believe so much will be happening, it promises to be a dizzying ride.

This year, on the other hand, has been mainly hard work and waiting. In January, around the time I lost my job, Feb 2012 seemed an eternity away. That sense of frustration increased as the months ticked by. It's a very strange feeling when you've signed a contract for your first book but it hasn't yet come out. You feel like someone pressing your face against the window of a fancy restaurant, but you're not allowed to go in and eat. At first it's pure excitement and overwhelming joy, then it becomes a grinding wait for the publication date to actually arrive. Thankfully my wait is now measured in weeks (less than 5, to be exact).

And, of course, there's the ever present nervousness about how the book will be received. Some days I feel quite confident about it, a calm sense that the book is quite good (or at least the best I could make it) and should hopefully appeal to at least a few people. Other days I worry it will be shot down in flames, and this post I wrote some time ago will come back to haunt me, as if I unknowingly wrote my own destiny.

But who knows. As the great man said, who of us by worrying can add a single hour to our lives? It sounds like a good piece of advice to me.

I hope everyone has a happy and safe new year, that you take the time to dream, and that at least some of those dreams come wildly true.

See you on the other side!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Drifting Right Along

I'm about 25K words through draft 1 of Tales of the Blue Jade (from hence abbreviated as TBJ) book 3. In some ways that's a bit of a worry, seeing as this time last year I had a complete first draft of the Mapmaker's Apprentice, and even then delivered it 2 months late of the June deadline. What makes me a bit less worried is the fact this story is much better planned out than MMA, so hopefully I won't have huge amounts of rewrite and rethink to bog me down in the coming months (touch wood).

I'm noticing a bit of a pattern in the way my drafts develop. Even if I'm happy with the story (which I *think* I am in this instance), a number of things always need substantial work on the second pass. One is geography. The characters of my first drafts usually inhabit bland, hilly lands, perhaps with a few trees or rivers thrown in for good measure. Only afterwards do I spend time thinking about how to make the landscape more exciting and diverse, as well as atmospheric.

In some ways that's not a bad thing. As events, characters and conversations tend to flow in ways I didn't initially expect, so landscapes often need to change to suit the new tone. I may have initially planned a conversation in a green field in broad daylight, for example, only to have the conversation take on more sinister overtones than I anticipated. Gone, then, is the green field, and in it's place is a mist shrouded valley in the dead of night. Landscapes, like every other part of a story, need to be flexible and free to adapt in any way that suits.

Secondary characters also need lots of work on the second draft. To me, my characters are always identical when they're first introduced, and only later do they take on their own personalities and histories. This is a deliberate strategy. I prefer not to spend time thinking too much about the personality of a secondary character when they're first introduced. I like to see how their character develops, how it begins to seep onto the page as they talk and act in the story. They usually end up much more interesting that way (at least to me, hopefully others feel the same way!)

I find now that this combination of planning the story (outlining) while allowing some aspects of the story to evolve on their own is the best combination for me.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Mapmaker's Apprentice Cover



This was sent to me today. I absolutely love it!

Anyone who remotely knows the story should have no problem guessing who's on the cover of book 3...

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

First Ever Review

A big thanks to Lynette from Asia Bookroom, who kindly emailed me to let me know Ghost of Ping-Ling had a 4 star review in the summer edition of Bookseller and Publisher Magazine (not to mention scanning it for me and sending it so I could actually read it). The fact that she told me it had 4 stars made it a much less nerve-wracking experience, but it still made my heart thump to read it. I have to say I'm really delighted to have this as a first review -- Rebecca Butterworth has understood the intent of the book well, and the bit about the descriptions appealing more to boys made me laugh (now I'm tempted to put a snot-flicking scene into book 2).

I hope I'm not committing any heinous copyright violations by reproducing it here...

Dillen is alone, orphaned while travelling with his father in a far-off land and raised there by a spiteful priest. Without a job or a home, it looks like Dillen will remain there forever, until a mysterious Easterner appears who wants him for an important duty: he must find Hallegat, the mana-lord -- a man from Dillen's own land -- and help him on his quest, for a great reward. To succeed, he will have to outsmart and outrun the puk-do, half-men half-pig creatures bent on Dillen's destruction. Even when Dillen finds others who will join him on his journey, the quest becomes increasingly dangerous -- as the puk-do become the least of the party's troubles. This is the first book from author Peter Cooper, a fast-paced pure adventure story packed with new dangers around every corner. The prose is well pitched to readers aged 10 years and up, and the characters are just the right mix of complicated, heroic and humerous. This is a story that future Tolkien readers will lap up, and the book leads well into the second of three parts. Cooper is an excellent storyteller for boys and girls, though the descriptions -- which are deliberately ugly, for example, of the smelly, spit-dripping puk-do -- may appeal more to boys.

(Rebecca Butterworth is a freelance writer and book reviewer living in Melbourne.)

Friday, October 28, 2011

What's Inside the Box?

In your fantasy novel, a character walks into a room. It's an office of some kind, perhaps that of a petty official in the service of whatever government rules the land. You describe the room – a desk, chair, cupboard, window. It’s generally spartan, no decorations, a few maps on the wall, a small wooden box set neatly on the desk. This box will be never be mentioned again. It’s not part of the story, and you only include it in your description to indicate that the office, while bare, is in use.

Here's a question. What's inside the box?

Sure, the box is never opened, never comes into the story, and will be forgotten by the lead character the moment he/she leaves the room, but does that mean it's unnecessary for you, the author, to know exactly what the box contains? Is this a vital detail – or is it just something you can skip over while you move onto the exciting parts of the story?

Imagine, for the sake of argument, that you have given consideration to the contents of the box. It contains a writing kit – two quills, two bottles of ink, and a blotter. This is an office, after all, so it's no suprise to find it contains writing implements. Now you can forget about the box and move on.

Or can you? The thing is, if it’s a writing kit in the box, that poses a number of other questions. For one, what does the official write on? You’ve made no mention of any paper lying around, no books or documents. Why would a desk hold writing equipment if there’s nothing to write on? An office desk without paper seems odd, even in a fantasy world, and needs to be explained.

But does this society even have paper? Paper was invented by the Chinese sometime around the 2nd century AD, spread to the Islamic World, and reached Europe in the Middle Ages. Before that, expensive materials like animal hide (vellum, parchment) and even silk were used. Documents produced with these materials were greatly valued, and were the exclusive property of the rich.

If the society of your novel is pre-paper, that would go a long way towards explaining why there are no documents or paperwork on the desk. Perhaps the records this official handles are stored elsewhere, and brought in only when his attention is needed. Perhaps he hardly ever sees documents, and the writing kit is more of a badge of honour than a functional tool.

But if this is the case, why would there be maps on the wall? Pre-industrial maps were hand-drawn, and usually considered works of art in their own right. They also tended to be very large. Any pre-paper map that sits on your fantasy office wall is likely to be worth a fortune. Is it really going to be left pinned up on the wall of a minor bureaucrat's office? Unlikely, to say the least.

So, in order to maintain reality, the maps have to go.

But having established that your society is pre-paper, other questions need to be answered. For one, how is news exchanged in your fantasy world? It can’t be by newspaper, or letter (except by the rich), or posters in the town square. Could it be by town criers – people who journey from township to township, standing in the village squares and proclaiming the events of the land? Could it be by minstrels – music makers who compose songs about current events and sing them in taverns and other public places? If so, how do these minstrels and criers get their news? How do they travel? How current is the information they bring? What sort of news is it?

Again, none of this information may ever reach the pages of your story. Not directly, anyway. It will reach the pages of the story in other, more subtle ways, because this kind of isolation influences the way communities of people evolve and develop.

It’s easy for us to forget that widespread and easy communication is a very recent invention. In the pre-technological world, cities and towns needed to exist with a great deal more autonomy than modern times. It was either that or face extinction. If Grud Tonguestealer and his merry band of raiders decided to come out of the mountains and attack the nearest city, it could take days for the alarm to reach other settlements and for aid to come. If the city didn't have strong leadership, heavy fortifications, an effective army, and some sort of early warning system, it would quickly have been reduced to rubble. These towns and cities needed to be able to stand on their own, at least long enough for help to arrive.

This autonomy needs to be considered in fantasy cities, too. How does this autonomy look to your fantasy hero as they roam the streets? What sort of military presence does he/she see? What sort of early warning systems are visible – lookouts on towers? Beacons? Riders clopping through the streets carrying news from the outer garrisons? On a slightly more abstract level, how does this autonomy look in the eyes of the occupants of the city? Do they revere the lord of the city more than the lord of the land? Do they identify themselves as citizens of the Kingdom/Empire or as citizens of the city? Where are their loyalties, their frustrations?

I could go on forever, but I think I’ve made the point.

It might seem insignificant for the author to know what’s in an unadorned box on a desk in a minor official’s office – a box that plays no part in the story and is only mentioned once in a brief description. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fantasy, as in real-life, details do not stand in isolation. Stating a fact – whether it be the contents of a box, what someone is eating for dinner, even the colour of their shirt – opens up a wider net of links and facts that must be explored and explained. It’s this coherence that gives a fantasy world depth and realism, and makes it the type of place that could function completely if it were ripped from the pages and transplanted into some lonely corner of the real world.

Time to look again at our writing. Any boxes left unopened?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Hold Your Breath and Dive In...

Tonight I started writing Tales of the Blue Jade Book 3, otherwise known as The Jeweller of Rassylon. I've spent the past 6 or 7 weeks nutting out an outline and filling my notebook with ideas and maps, and I've reached the point where I feel it's time to dive in (hence the very witty title of this post) and get started.

It's a funny bitter-sweet feeling when you start writing a new book. Part of me feels scared that I'll discover I've lost my ability to write, another part feels excited to be joining Dillen, Koto and Tajni on yet another adventure. However I feel, I have to push on and hopefully come up with something resembling a decent first draft by the end of the year.

As I mentioned, I've decided this time to completely scrap the "driving without headlights" approach and make a careful outline of what is going to happen in each chapter. I decided to do this when I realised that I wrote about 4 drafts of Mapmaker's Apprentice without any real idea where the story was going, and I could have reached draft 5 in a much shorter time if I had only taken the time to plot and plan and work it out as much as I could beforehand. That way I would have avoided the rather panicky last few months where the deadline started to loom and I ended up having to ask for an extra month to get it finished.

I'm happy with the outline I came up with for book 3, and to be truthful it poured off the pen much more easily than book 2 -- perhaps something to do with "book 2 syndrome", a malady that I am now firmly convinced exists. Let's hope it all works out in the end.

In other breaking news, I have a short story in the latest edition of Andromeda Spaceways.


It's called Zombie Dreams and it's about a zombie who decides all he wants in life (death?) is to become an architect. The idea first came to me when I was staring out the window of the bus on the way to work. That night I wrote a first draft, which I promptly decided was utter rubbish and confined to my hard-drive for all eternity. Then a few months later I happened to give it another read and thought it was actually quite good (amazing how time and distance can give you a new view of things) so I worked to get it up to scratch and sent it in. It's a comical story, obviously, but somehow it's quite special to me. No idea why, but I hope others are able to enjoy it too.

On a side note, my good writing buddy Liz has a story in the same edition, and she managed to have hers illustrated! (No jealousy there whatsover. Not even a hint). Congrats, Liz! It's a wonderful story indeed.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On Maps and Mapping

I thought I might do a bit of a post on the process I go through to produce maps for the books. Getting the process to a stage where I'm happy has been long and daunting, and has involved lots of experimentation with different kinds of media, so perhaps it might be in some way helpful if I share a little of what I've learned as I've gone along.

Most of my maps start off like the image below -- a pencil sketch in my moleskine notebook, with lots of crossing out and rubbing out and fairly basic detail. Usually I doodle these at the same time as working out the plot, so I have at least some kind of idea of the world in which the characters are moving.



Sketchy, pencil drawn maps are all very good, but when it came time to provide something more presentable to the publisher I went into a bit of a spin. My first thought was to try and rope someone else into doing it for me, then I realised that the maps were a very important component of the story and something I really needed to own myself. After a bit of experimenting, I bought a set of (extremely expensive) technical drawing pens and used a pad of tracing paper to turn my pencil sketches into something more presentable.





I liked this version, and I considered it good enough to send to the publisher, but somehow I knew it wasn't what I wanted to end up in the book. It looked too much like something from Lord of the Rings, with little trees and bumpy mountains and the like. Since Tales of the Blue Jade is set in a world based on Asian mythology I decided I needed to look at historical Asian maps and get a feel for how these were drawn.

After a visit to the university library and quite a lot of googling, I found the map below.



It's an old (unfortunately I don't know exactly how old) Chinese map showing the Korean Peninsula. It had exactly the kind of feel I was looking for, so I used it as the basis of the map I finally ended up drawing.

The other thing I did is put away those expensive technical pens. Instead I bought a nib and bottle of ink for about $10.00 from the local art shop. Because cartridge paper gave me too much "bleeding", I used some heavy duty paper designed for acrylic paints. Not only did it hold the ink perfectly, but it had that aged parchment look to it, which further accentuated the look I was trying to achieve. Here is the result.



And yes, I did the whole thing by hand. Drawing those waves nearly took away my eyesight and my sanity, and every second I lived in fear of that misplaced drop of ink that would ruin the whole thing. I'm sure I could have done it more easily with photoshop and a tablet, but somehow I felt the urge to use a more traditional medium, something at least vaguely close to the tools used by historical mapmakers. And I think it came out well, if I say so myself.

This version then went, in a very heavily reinforced envelope, to the publisher, who added proper typeset labels for all the features as well as a scale and a compass that fits in with the existing feel of the map. I'd like to post the final version, but I don't have a copy of it yet (other than in the ARC, and that's too small to reproduce).

I guess you'll have to buy the book and see it!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Uba Uba Uber Alles

This came in the post yesterday.



It's a thing of a thousand names -- arc, proof, galley, uba (that last one was a new one to me) but basically it's the book in a pretty well complete form minus the cover. After so many exciting and new experiences with covers, pages and so on it was yet another one to hold the book in my hand and start to read.

And look how thick it is!



Somehow I'd imagined an 80,000 word book being about as thick as a Discworld paperback, so this is a bit of a surprise. Did I really write all that??

Starting to feel more real all the time....

(By the way, I'm hoping to be able to write some more substantial blog posts in the next little while. Time has been at a bit of a premium over the last few months but hopefully things will start to settle down soon. Hopefully.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Cover...

Is this not the most beautiful, exciting and wonderful cover ever devised by human hand? Whether or not you agree, it is to me!



And now it's almost starting to feel real...

Friday, August 12, 2011

So Close Now I Can Smell It.

I can't believe it's been a month since my last post, and how much has happened in that time!

I've finished the submission draft of Mapmaker's Apprentice and sent it off to the publisher. After nearly a year and a half of pain and 10 drafts (one of them handwritten) I have to say I felt really happy with the final result (thank the stars). So now I'm in that nervous wait time while the editor and publisher read it.

I also finished the edits for Ghost of Ping-Ling and sent them back. Currently I have a beautiful white wad of what they call "pages" sitting on my desk. It's basically the book in its near to final layout form -- like the finished thing but minus a cover, so myself and the editor can pick out any final (hopefully minor) changes.

Speaking of the cover, a few days ago I saw the latest version. It's probably enough to say it's the cover I was dreaming of. I am utterly desperate to show it, but that probably doesn't make much sense until the final version, which hopefully won't be too far away. Watch this space!

Oh, and as a final update. The series now has a title: "Tales of the Blue Jade."

Friday, July 8, 2011

Editing

Yesterday I started the edits for the Ghost of Ping-Ling. Prior to getting the manuscript back I was a bit worried about how much work I'd have to do , but in the end it's turned out to be quite reasonable (lots of misused commas -- I still think commas are one of life's greatest mysteries). I even got to write "stet" yesterday -- in green pen. Talk about the giddy heights!

At the same time I'm finishing off editing Mapmaker's Apprentice. I have to say, writing this book has been really, really hard. For some reason it's been extremely difficult to get the finer points of the plot ironed out, and some of the characters have changed two or three times and I'm still not quite sure I'm happy with the result. I've ended up having to ask for an extra month on the deadline so I can (hopefully) get it right.

(I should mention that three of my crit partners have read the manuscript now, and all were overwhelmingly positive (two of them said they enjoyed it more than GPL). That was desperately needed encouragement, but I can still see improvements that I want to make. I hope I'm not being overly picky.)

By a stroke of luck I'm about to finish up at my current work and start a new job, and I have 3 weeks off before I do. A large part of that time will have to go into editing, but having that time takes the pressure off enormously.

Then I have to start thinking about book 3!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Submissions...

It's been a very dry year as far as story acceptances go. I've managed to get a few things on shortlists and so on but nothing has made it through to acceptance. Then this morning I woke up to news that my short-story "Dead on the Doorstep" has been accepted by Kaleidotrope for publication some time next year.

This will be my first non-Australian sale, so I'm extra happy about it. For those with long memories, it's the story that I originally wrote for After the Rain but ran out of time to finish before the submissions closed. I'm glad it found a good home!

I should also point out that this will be my second comic Zombie piece to be published. Perhaps I've found my niche?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Interview

I have an interview (my first ever, yay!) in the latest newsletter for the Online Writing Workshop. You can check it out by going here and clicking the "current newsletter" link on the left hand side.

It's a lot more wordy than I thought it was when I sent it off. Hopefully there's something helpful and/or encouraging amongst it all!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Recipe for a B-Grade Disaster Drama

All the following MUST be included1.

1) Divorced couple, both scientists, highly antagonistic towards each other until said disaster forces reconciliation.

2) Spunky kid who nobody understands but who plays huge role in averting disaster.

3) Old man in flanelette shirt (usually the dad of one member of the divorced couple) who is wise but misunderstood and whose warnings are ignored.

4) Extremely thick law enforcement officials who care for their positions more than the impending destruction of the world.

5) A dog. The dog is there for cuteness value, but could also do one of i) alerting good guys to hiding bad guys ii) barking an important warning iii) pissing on highly important piece of evil electronic equipment.

1Yes, if you can't tell already, I've just watched yet another of these. This one had the Moon about to crash into Earth. It even had a choice line where the President of the United States asks if anyone will survive the collision.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Another One Bites the Dust

There's only one bad thing about reading a wonderful book (or series). It's that feeling you get when you finish, and you go to your bookshelf to pick something new to read, but all the books look "blah" because they're not the one you just finished (even though at any other time you'd say they're gems).

I had that experience tonight when I finally finished Sean Williams' Books of the Change. The good news is that he's written a follow up series called Books of the Cataclysm. I happen to have one of them sitting on my shelf, courtesy of the 50% discount at the local soon-to-be-closed Borders. Unfortunately it's book 3. Not the best place to start a trilogy.

I foresee a bookshop visit happening soon, and money changing hands.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Golden Editorial Moments

Seeing as I'm in an editing state-of-mind at the moment I thought I'd share ten of the best errors I've found during recent or previous editing of my own manuscripts (GPL, MMA or other works-in-progress). They are in no particular order, although my favourite is unquestionably number 10 (mainly because I found it two nights ago).

1) Non POV character's facial expressions are described even though characters are in a pitch-dark room.

2) Characters don't eat for four days but never complain of hunger.

3) A horse gallops for eight hours.

4) Characters don't sleep for two days but never complain of tiredness.

5) The Moon is full twice in a week.

6) An 80 mile journey is carried out in two days (on foot).

7) A major injury is forgotten the next day.

8) Fires are lit effortlessly without tools/implements/matches.

9) The Sun sets in the East.

10) A character uses an axe to chop the leg off a table so the table-leg can be used to try and break through a rusted iron bar (this one might require a moment's thought).

All I can say is how glad I am I caught these!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

A Milestone Reached

I've finally finished the latest (and hopefully longest) round of editing on the Mapmaker's Apprentice. This is the phase where I hammer out bumps in the plot and also do a first cut at reworking sentences and making the whole thing read better. There wasn't a lot of rewriting, but a few chapters towards the end needed a revamp due to smaller changes earlier in the story (the snow-ball effect). All in all I was pretty happy with how it went.

So now I've printed it out and I have a big wad of A4 paper sitting on my desk. I'm already half way through reading it and there's not a page that isn't covered in green notes (all minor things, fingers crossed). I'm hoping I won't have too many further changes to make but already I'm thinking there's a couple of chapters that could probably be completely removed. Not a bad thing, considering it's about 97,000 words and it's supposed to be 80,000.

My next move is to give it to the small group of faithful beta-readers who read GPL, and get their thoughts. At the same time I'll convert it to an MP3 format and spend a day (somehow) listening to the whole thing. That's one of the best ways I've found to give a form of distance to the work -- having it read by a detached electronic voice and being forced to listen to every word at a regular pace, without being able to skim anything. It's a great way to pick up whether the pace of the story is building at the right rate and whether information is being learned by the protagonists (and thus the readers) in a measured and tension building way. It's also a great way of picking up typos which your eye would normally skim over.

It's so satisfying reaching a point where I can finally hold the manuscript in my hand. It feels like it's been a bit of a tortuous path to get to this point, but I'm glad it's arrived. It makes me just that bit less stressed about that July 1 deadline, which now seems so close! Where does the time go?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

When Editing Rules Your Life.

I'm only three chapters away from finishing the edits on the latest draft of the Mapmaker's Apprentice. Editing is always a hard slog, and this has certainly been no exception, even though it's more big-picture stuff than the nitty gritty sentence structure type things that I'm yet to face.

One of the things I find once I start editing is that, once I have those "editing glasses" on, it's really hard to take them off again. I find I can't read a paper, a document, a book or even a road-sign without subconsciously looking for mis-placed commas or bad grammar or whatever. It's a bit like when you've been driving all day and you go to bed and all you can see is the road winding away in front of you; the repetitiveness burns into your brain.

Someone who is not wearing editing glasses is unlikely to see the world the same way you do. I offer up proof below.



This is a sign I saw on my walk into work this morning. I took the pic and showed it to two people in the office, and neither of them could pick anything out of place. One of them, who happens to be Chinese, went to great pains to read the Mandarin script to see if that's what I was talking about, which I thought was very flattering because I can no more read Mandarin than I can play a piano with my elbow. Neither of them picked anything wrong until I explicitly pointed it out.

I was pretty surprised, but I guess it's proof they're not deep in the editing process at the moment.

What about you -- can you see anything interesting in the pic? Do you have your editing glasses on?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

They never had it when I was a lad...

There's a person at my work who insists on communicating with me by Google-Talk1. This wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact that the person sits approximately 10 feet from me, with nothing to separate us but a stretch of carpet and a three foot high desk.

So I'm sitting there working away at my computer and the little chat window pops up, and it's a message from -- let's call him, for the sake of anonymity -- "Barry". And Barry is asking what time I'm going to lunch. Now, perhaps a lot of people would type in an answer, and everyone would go away happy. But for some reason I can't help but find this insistence on not talking just a tad vexing, particularly when Barry is, how do I put this, one of those Engineers who probably would benefit enormously from as much vocalisation as he can get.

So I turn to Barry and I say "Twelve O'clock?". His response is to jump like someone dropped a tarantula down the back of his neck. He then peers at me through his glasses and nods in a kind of dismissive way, as if willing the voices in his head to go away. I'm left feeling like a bit of a meanie, but hopefully my point has been made.

Of course, one of the side-effects of my insistence on meeting his text questions with verbal answers is that the rest of the office now thinks I have a tendency to spout random, unconnected phrases at full volume to nobody in particular. This probably explains why conversation tends to hush when I walk into the kitchen.



1In case you don't know what that is, it's a little chat program that lets you send text from one computer to another, kind of like an instant email.

Friday, April 1, 2011

After the Rain

The After the Rain anthology is finally out and available at a special pre-order price from here. I've only read one of the other stories so far (which is a bit hopeless of me, I know) but it was absolutely fantastic.



When I look at the other authors in the table of contents, I'm still not quite sure how I managed to get into it. But I'm not complaining! (Who would?)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Thou Shalt Keep a Blog

Over the last few weeks I've read 3 different articles/postings on the importance of writers keeping regular blogs and building an on-line following prior to their books being published. Each article gave the ideal time between an author starting a blog and their book coming out as 3 years. Each article waxed lyrical about the importance of regular, informed and interesting posts. Each article talked about complementing the blogging activity by using Facebook and Twitter to further build the author's online presence.

Maybe it's just me, but I can't help but feel uncomfortable with that kind of advice. Not because it's wrong per-se, because I don't think it is. I think what I object to is the way it's put forward as the only possible way for a budding author to publish a successful novel, and that any author who ignores the advice and, heaven forbid, doesn't actually blog or use Facebook is setting themselves up for an epic fail when it comes time to publish their book (or to attempt to get it published).

Sorry, but that's utter tosh.

How long has the internet/blogging/Facebook been around for now? How long have successful authors been around? To suggest that frenetic blogging and deep wading in the social-network pool is the only path to writing success is total nonsense. It's one path, yes. But not the only path.

Writing a book is really, really hard. Anyone who's tried it will tell you that. It's hard coming up with ideas that are original and interesting. it's hard developing your own natural writer's voice. It's hard finding time to write. It's hard dealing with statistics that tell you you have very little chance of success. It's a plodding, difficult, frequently excruciating journey that takes every ounce of will-power and determination to keep you from giving up. The last thing you need is someone coming along and laying a whole bunch of extra burdens on an already close-to-toppling pile. "Oh, you're not doing a regular blog yet? Well, you better get started." or "Oh, only twenty friends on Facebook? Gotta do better than that, fella."

If you're a full-time writer, perhaps you have time to act on this advice. For most of us, it's little more than an added pressure we don't need.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Rejections...

At the moment I'm going through a bit of a spell of rejection letters. I've had one from ASIM, one from Strange Horizons, and yet another "your story did not win" from Writers of the Future to add to my collection. At the same time, I've been reading a brilliant collection of short-stories (a collection of brilliant short-stories?) called Australis Imaginarium. If you haven't taken a look at it, I strongly recommend grabbing a copy from here.

Reading the anthology has helped me keep the rejection emails in perspective, because the more of those stories I read, the more I understand why my own efforts didn't make it. That's not to say my stories were bad, because I don't think they were. They just weren't anywhere near the standard of the ones I'm reading. Far from being discouraged by that, it's encouraged me to keep writing and to keep striving for improvement.

One thing I do need to work on is endings. I find it much easier starting a short-story and getting the whole thing rolling than I do coming up with a satisfying conclusion that wraps everything up nicely. My endings tend to be abrupt, or in some other way fail to complete the journey I've embarked on. I think I'm getting better, but still a long way to go1.


1I hope that wasn't too abrupt an ending for this post.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Nomenclature, and Other Diseases of the Knee.

Coming up with names is one of those mixed joys. I prefer it to nutting out a plot, or fleshing out a description, or dreaming up a character for the first time, but that doesn't make it a trivial or easy task.

A name is pivotal to a story. A name should be interesting, unique, and it should capture a sense of the place or person to whom it is ascribed (imagine if Darth Vadar had been called Cyril. Spoils the effect completely).

Because I know it's a difficult task, and should be approached carefully, I usually do very little naming in any of my early drafts. Instead, I use place-holders, memorable words that I can easily find and easily replace at a later date. With my current work-in-progress, I went even further, and used the same name - Barney - for every new thing or person. The village of Barney, Master Barney, the River Barney etc. (I really hope none of these slip through). Most times I'm not quite so extreme, and I'll attempt to come up with different place-holder names for each character or location, usually something like "Bill" or "Ted". It takes slightly more thought, but makes it much easier when I get to the end and do a global search-replace with proper names.

That's where the fun begins. When it comes to picking non place-holder names, these are some different methods I've found useful:

1) Pure invention.

Sometimes I'll come up with a name by just rattling sounds and letters around in my head and seeing how they form. Many of my favourite names started life this way, like Ping-Ling, Tajni and General Magoda. It can also help to work through the alphabet, using each letter as a starting point for a new word.

Be aware, though, that this approach has a potential sting in the tail. On a few occasions I've come up with an absolutely wonderful name, only to find out later it's come from another book, or a film or some such place. At some point I've read or heard it and, having sunk into my subconscious, its raised its head when I've tried to dream up of a new word.

That's not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but originality is a pretty good thing to strive for. One way to reduce the chances of this happening is to Google any name you come up with, just in case.

2) Language Dictionaries.

Because my current series is set in an Asian themed world, I've made a lot of use of Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Thai language dictionaries to help me pick names. Most times I'll change the word slightly, so that its origin isn't immediately clear, but sometimes I'll use it as is, if I particularly love how it sounds. You could do the same with German, French or just about any other language dictionary you can think of. They're a huge resource for words and names you wouldn't otherwise hear in everyday usage.

3) Maps.

This is something I've recently discovered, and I think it's become one of my most useful methods for coming up with place-names. With the advent of Google Maps, it's easy to take a virtual cruise over any landscape you want, checking out landscape names and picking and choosing what you like. Again, as with language dictionaries, you can change as you wish1.

4) Online Name Generators.

I can't say I'm completely sold on these, but I have used them to generate a fairly major character name in one of my works-in-progress. The idea is you can enter a series of constraints (male, female, locale, genre etc.) and the computer will spit out a fantasy name. You can check out one of them here. They're actually strangely addictive...

5) Other Odd Places.

I picked the name of one of my lead characters, Koto, from the working-name of a microprocessor I was helping to design at the time. It's amazing how many sources of great names there are if you keep your eye out for them!

So there you go, a summary of my current methods for finding names. I'm sure I'll stumble across others as I go along. As always, feel free to share some of the methods you've used. I'd love to add to my list!


1As a (hopefully) interesting aside, I recently flipped to a map at the beginning of Sean Williams' The Sky Warden and the Sun, and was surprised to see a number of strangely familiar names. It took me a moment to realise they were all based on town-names north of Adelaide - "Boliva" instead of "Bolivar", "Three Wells" instead of "Two wells", "Long Sleep Plains" instead of "Wild Horse Plains", "Lower Light" instead of .. well, "Lower Light". Then I remembered -- Sean Williams grew up in Whyalla, a town north of Adelaide. He would have seen each of these names on road-signs as he drove into the city along Highway 1. The only reason I know this is that I grew up in Woomera, also north of Adelaide, and I used to see the same signs too.

I felt strangely privileged at this discovery, like I've been let into a great secret!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

We Write. And Then We Write Some More.

Description is one of those difficult things to get right, at least for me. I often find myself labouring over a small descriptive paragraph for hours, and still not being happy with the result - whereas a passage of dialogue or action can slip onto the page with minimal effort and remain almost unchanged throughout all the subsequent drafts.

The difficulty, I think, is not so much giving the description -- "the room had an altar and a stool, a wide arched ceiling, and three small clay leprechauns all in a row" as giving it in a way that reflects the viewpoint character's perception of the scene, the way he or she would naturally look upon it, how their eye would be drawn, and what their mind would do with the information received. "There were three clay leprechauns in the corner, like the type Uncle Herbert used to have at the foot of his bed. But there was no bed here, just a stool set before a marble altar, and a wide ceiling like the type the old Reformatory School had in its dining room."

The character here is filtering the information, noticing the most noticeable first, and only noticing the rest in terms of his/her efforts to understand the presence of the first. All the information is filtered through their own experience, their own sense of the world as they see it. This stops the description feeling arbitrary, like a list, and anchors it more firmly in the point-of-view of the protagonist.

The other thing about description is selectivity - working out what's worth mentioning and what's worth leaving out. When I was about twelve, and I used to write adventure stories, I would describe everything. "The man was about six feet tall, with blond hair and a square jaw, blue eyes and a droopy moustache. He was dressed in jeans and a polo-necked shirt, with a poka-dot hankie hanging out one pocket, and a pair of boots caked in mud from top to bottom. He had an unlit pipe in one hand, and a pistol in the other."

Way too much information for the reader to process, with the result that the scene is muddied, rather than painted. The trick, I think, is to pick two or three key details, again the sort of thing the protag would most likely notice, and let the reader fill in the gaps. If I were describing the above character, I might say something like this:

"He looked like one of those bush types, with a droopy moustache and square jaw, and boots caked in a thick crust of mud. Then I saw the pistol, hanging limply in his left hand. Thankfully, there was no hostility in his blue eyes, nothing to make me think he would raise it."

Gone is the hanky, the pipe, jeans, height, hair and shirt. I've still kept the pistol, boots, moustache, jaw and eyes. The hope is that the reader will have enough information to form a mental picture, and that they will fill in the gaps of any information missed. As the narrative continues, other details can be introduced, and the reader's picture is either confirmed or slightly adjusted (but hopefully never jarred). The overall result should hopefully be a clearer idea of scene, but even more importantly, a sense that the reader has an involvement in the story, that they are in some sense drawn in and caught up in the narrative process. In the end, that's what makes reading infinitely superior to TV or movies, where all the information is given to you on a plate. (Incidentally, I think that's why movies based on books are so frequently disappointing, because we feel as if our own private world has been reinterpreted by another, and not necessarily very well.)

These are some of the things I've picked up over the years, things that I strive to bring to bear in my own writing. I think that's probably why I find description so difficult, because I'm not simply writing a list, I'm trying to present information through the eyes of the POV character, while at the same time attempting to paint a vivid scene without spoon-feeding the reader or swamping them in detail. And, over all that, I'm trying to write words that flow well, are readable, and carry their weight.

Who'd be a writer, hey?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Who'd Have Thunk It?

It seems the Hobbit Query Letter has been nominated in the Fantasy Short Story section of the Aurealis Awards. You can find the full list here.

It's a very long list, and being nominated just means someone, somewhere has put it forward as an off-chance. But it still give me goosebumps, seeing it alongside works by some of my all time favourite authors. For me, just being nominated is a huge, huge honour.

There's also a couple of reviews about the place. Here's one from Diabolical Plots (in which, I'm glad to report, the reviewer 'gets' that it's supposed to be an encouragement to writers), and here's another, much briefer, reference in SFCrowsnest.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

There Are Simply Way Too Many of Us.

Peter Coopers, that is.

Exhibit A) There's a village in New York named after us.

Exhibit B) A Google search reveals 241,000 entries.

Exhibit C) After receiving several mysterious wrong numbers on my mobile phone, a little bit of research uncovered another Peter Cooper with the exact same mobile number as me, except the last two digits were reversed. I'm sure he thinks there are way too many of us too.

Now, this preponderance of Peter Coopers has never bothered me before. But now that I'm thinking about registering a domain name and perhaps getting something resembling a "proper" author website set up, I find that the only peter.cooper domain names still available are way too obscure for anyone to ever find. So, unless I decide on a Fiji extension, my only option is to register with something other than my name.

I'm told the resemblance is uncanny.

Alas, my parents never gave me a middle name. I've tossed around the idea of inventing one, just for writing, but it just doesn't sit well with me. I think I'd end up looking at the name on the side of a book and thinking it's not really me, because it's not the name my parents gave me. Deep, perhaps, but that's the way it is.

So I have to keep thinking about it, and checking out what other authors have done with their websites. Many of them are blessed with unique names, though I'm fairly certain most of them secretly wish they had a village in New York named after them too.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Milestones

I've been out of work now since New Year's Eve, although I'm pleased to report I start contract work this coming Monday, with a good chance it will turn into a longer term thing. It's been a strange kind of time -- sometimes depressing and downright terrifying, other times a nice break and a chance to spend time with the family and catch up on some long delayed house-jobs.

It's also been a good chance to get some writing done. Right from the start I knew it would be important to keep up a regular routine, so I set myself a goal of spending Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at the university library working on the first draft of MMA. In the end, I didn't do it each week, but I managed to get in for about 5 or 6 days of the 3 weeks I was without work. On my best day I managed to write 10,000 words, quite an achievement for a single 8 hour session. I'm not sure what they put in my coffee that day, but I wish I could get hold of more of it. Most days I achieved a more modest total of between 3,000 and 6,000 words. Nice progress, and it enabled me to finish the draft yesterday, coming in at a final total of just over 80,000 words.

I wasn't sure how I'd go spending the whole day writing - whether I'd get two hours in and find myself unable to do any more. In fact, most days I couldn't believe how quickly 8 hours flashed past. I'm still not sure it's something I could ever do full-time, but it's been an interesting experiment anyway.

So now I start the whole editing process. First off are the major changes - chapters that need a complete re-write, characters who need to be deleted or altered significantly, that kind of thing. Next will be more minor tweaks such as the addition of better description, thinking through locations a bit more (which will involve drawing maps and diagrams), looking for logical errors and trying to plug them, hopefully with simple solutions. Finally it will be the more detailed edit, where I rewrite sentences and try and make the wording read better.

I find that as I pass through each stage of this process, the work gets easier but takes longer to do. For GPL, for example, I found that I could rewrite a chapter in about 2 or 3 evenings, but it could take as many as 6 or 7 to do a fine edit on the same number of words.

I need to remember, though, that this is only the second time in my life that I've gone through this process. Perhaps this time I'll find it quicker and easier. Either way, it's nice to finally have a firm first draft. It's taken me more than six months to get to this point, during which time I estimate I wrote around 120,000 words (60,000 by hand). I learned a lot though, so I'm sure when it comes time to write book 3 it won't be quite such a grind. Let's hope!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Queensland Flood Relief

Fablecroft Publishing is releasing an early ebook edition of the After the Rain anthology, with all proceeds going to flood relief in Queensland. If you're in another part of the world and you haven't caught up on it, an area the size of France and Germany combined is now under water, and the rain hasn't yet stopped.




Details and how to purchase are at this link.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Writers of the Very, Very Distant Future...

I did something a bit silly a while ago. I submitted the same story to two different places at the same time. The first was an SF magazine, the second was the Writers of the Future competition. Exact same story, 2 different places. At once.

I won't go into my reasoning for doing this, other than to say it was a spur of the moment thing, and I knew straight away it could potentially lead to problems. But I stuck with it anyway, figuring I'd just wait and see.

And the result surprised me.

The magazine snatched the story up for publication. This particular magazine is very hard to get into, and I was astonished when I found out they'd picked my piece.

WoF rejected it. Not even an Honourable Mention. Just a flat reject.

I find something extremely encouraging in this unintentional experiment. If I'd only submitted the story to WoF, I would quite likely have assumed I'd written a dud, and even though I would have sent it off to other places, it would still have been a huge discouragement. But it wasn't only sent to WoF; it was sent somewhere else and accepted.

To me, it's a huge reminder that a rejection doesn't necessarily mean there's anything wrong with your story. More often than not it simply means you submitted it to the wrong place. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and send it out again. And again. And again.

That's why magazines urge you to read at least one of their editions before you submit, so you can gauge what sort of stuff they print, and whether your piece "fits". I don't always do this, and I know I should. Maybe if I did I'd have a few less homeless stories floating about the place.

Anyway, undeterred by my competition result, I submitted another story for the new quarter of WoF. This time, it's a brand new piece, never submitted anywhere else. Is it good? Well, I kind of like it. Will it do well? I have absolutely no idea, because I still haven't read any of the WoF anthologies or seen any of the winning stories. I'm just working on the basis that the only sure way to fail is to never enter at all.

I'll let you know how I went in about 3 month's time!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Happy New Year!

A couple of bits of publishing news..

ASIM #49 is out, with my poem, "Who the Hell is Willard Price?". You can get it here. The pdf costs around $4.5o, and the hard-copy about $8.00



Also, AntipodeanSF #151 is out with "A Random Booze-Up", aka "The Aussie Hobbit". This is free to read, and you can find it here.

Happy reading!