Let me Crush Your Dreams For You (7/3/2013)

Posted in Critical Failures

“If you can’t find any time to write, you don’t want to be a writer.”

Someone said that on Twitter this morning and it kicked off a little bit of a shit-storm among the dragons here. In fact, it kicked up enough of a shit-storm that I couldn’t find any time to write today, even when I should, because I was too busy debating the rights and wrongs of a statement like this. So now I’m late on a deadline and pissed off.

So anyway, on a superficial level it’s obviously bullshit. I can’t find any time to learn to play the guitar but I still want to be a rock-star. I can’t find any time to get onto the ice rink but I still want to be an Olympic ice-hockey player. I can’t find the time to get out into the garden and have at it with a spade and shears but I still want a garden that’s slightly more penetrable than a mangrove swamp. It’s perfectly possible to want something and not invest a single second of your life in achieving it. I’ll hazard a guess that almost everyone wants something that they don’t even try to get (author of the above statement included). It’s not necessarily a bad thing and it’s not even delusional provided there’s no expectation of actually getting it. [And can we pass quickly by any pedantry over the use of any in the above – if you can't find any time in your entire life to spend a second of it typing a word on a page then you're not a writer? Well duh. Can we just agree that that interpretation is so patently both obvious and useless as a statement that it's not worth the silicon atoms it takes to record for posterity? Please can we? Because arguing over that would make me want to scratch out my own tongue].

I suppose it’s clear enough that a superficial interpretation isn’t what was intended. It’s an old sentiment expressed in many subtly different ways (“writers write” being most succinct). I guess (note guessing) the intended meaning is something along the lines of “Hey, if you can’t find the time to sit down and write reasonably often – even if not for very long – and reasonably regularly, you don’t really want to be a writer enough to. . .” Enough to what I’m not sure. Deserve it? Make it? Finish a novel that no one will ever see? What? What does “a writer” actually mean? Different things to different people.

There’s a truth in the statement nevertheless, for all I’m about to rip it apart. I consider myself to be a writer by pretty much any reasonable definition. It’s my full-time job. I depend on it to pay all the bills for my family. We have no other income source. I have several novels being published each year. I take on ghost-writing work when that doesn’t pay the bills. At the moment I work 40+ hours a week as a writer. I don’t have writer’s block because it’s a luxury I can’t afford. I have to be able to sit down and write whenever and whenever. I write on trains, tubes, in coffee-shops, sitting next to my kids while they watch TV. There are a lot of things I don’t do because it’s more important to write and often there are times when I’d rather do those other things, but I can’t afford to allow myself the hours they ask for [1]. I have deadlines, lots of them. People expect me to meet them. There are consequences if I don’t, largely to do with not getting paid. Stories have to be written in a certain time whether they want to be written or not. Sometimes they come easy, sometimes they come kicking and screaming but they have to come, whatever mood I’m in, whether I or anyone around me is sick or well. Through births, deaths, divorces, marriages, house-moves, you name it, they have to come. So if your dream is to be a full-time professional writer, and you struggle to find a way to sit in front of a keyboard and write, maybe that’s not the career for you. I guess that’s a part of the underlying meaning of that statement (note still “I guess”).


It wasn’t always like that. I’ve been writing on and off for twenty-five years. In that time there were fallow times, years long, were I didn’t work on my stories at all. Was I a writer then? Not sure. Did I want to be? Yes. Should I have given up? Apparently not. And anyway, is that the only way it has to be? Of course not; and who’s to say what happens after you get your first story published. If confidence is an issue, maybe being published blows that issue away and you suddenly can’t stop. Maybe the opposite happens. Maybe you clam up. Who knows? More to the point, who am I or anyone else who doesn’t know you to tell you how its going to be?

“If you can’t find any time to write, you don’t want to be a writer.”

Writers write. As a statement that’s hard to argue against. Anyone who does want to be a writer, yes, obviously you do have to actually write to actually become one. Trying to find the time might be hard but doesn’t happen by itself. It’s good advice, I think, to try and make time almost every day, even if it’s only half an hour, to write if you want that dream to come true, but if you don’t, I’d still say you should slap me for telling you what you should or shouldn’t want. You have a right to want to be anything. I might not take you very seriously, but they’re your dreams, not mine and who am I or anyone else to come along and tell you they’re not valid. For some people maybe time really is a crushing issue. For a lot of aspiring writers, I’d suggest perhaps confidence is more the problem than time. Well maybe now it is. Maybe things will be different in six months or maybe not. Maybe never. A dream is still a dream and we’re all poorer without them. I can think of several people who wanted to be rock stars long ago. Now they live ordinary lives and play in little bands that do pubs and weddings for pocket change and that’s still for them a wonderful thing. I will never be an Olympic Ice-hockey player. I might, in a couple of years, play in a small team of incompetent amateurs and have a huge amount of fun. Many aspiring authors will never publish best-sellers but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. It doesn’t mean that a not-yet-expressed idea should be killed dead here and now. Maybe that novel never happens, but maybe out of the dream of it something unexpected grows instead.

If you want to be a writer, try and find a little time most days to write. Or make some notes or something to inch forward. At least do something about it. Good advice? Yes.

“If you can’t find any time to write, you don’t want to be a writer.” An insidious dream-killing cage of a statement. An authoritarian devourer of possibilities. Probably not meant as it comes across. Definitely ill-conceived. Don’t piss on my dreams, people and I won’t piss on yours.

[1] If that makes it sound like, gee, any other salary-slave job then yes, there are a lot of similarities. Do I wish I was doing something else? Hell no.

Look, No Hands (16/6/2012)

Posted in Critical Failures

The Gemmell awards were held last night at the Magic Circle in London, and while I’m sure there are plenty of people who’ll be talking all about them, the venue has reminded me of a magic trick. Or sort of a magic trick anyway.

The story goes like this: once upon a time there was a writer who was writing a trilogy of stories, and in this trilogy of stories there was going to be a hero and a villain and a something-in-between. And in the first story the hero and the villain would fight, and in the second it would be the hero and the something-in-between and in the third story, it would be the hero and the villain again. And the writer was quite pleased with his three characters that stood at the heart of these stories and had started to think of them as people he knew.

There was a back-story to these characters too, one fairly relevant to the the events that would later happen. They’d all been young and foolish once. They’d done something they shouldn’t and they’d been caught. One of them fled. One of them got away. One of them was caught, and to the one that was caught, bad things happened. The other two ran away to war, the hero and the villain, but the villain lost his hand in the fighting fairly early on and came home again. That was all in the past, mind, none of it relevant to the story.

In the first book, the hero and the villain found one another again and danced around each other until at last they came to blows, and in the fight between them, the hero cut off the villain’s other hand and was then torn away before their fight could finish, but there was something of a poetic symmetry to the way things turned out and all was good.

In the second book, the hero got on with other things and the villain was only present as a distant figure in the background, and all was good.

It was in the third story that matters began to go awry. The writer quickly saw that the grand climax finale between the villain and the hero was going to lack some sparkle with the villain having no hands. It wasn’t really going to be much of a fight. The writer knew that his villain had to have at least one hand and so he started to look at how the story might be changed. He looked at the end of the first story and whether maybe the hero could chop something else off the villain instead, but that brought other problems. So he looked at the world he’d imagined into being and sought out a place and a means for the villain to have new hands. Star Wars did it after all . . . And he found a place too, a loophole in his own world that he could exploit to give his villain new hands, and so he did, and got on with writing his third story. He didn’t much like where this new loophole was taking him, but he soldiered on anyway because that’s what you do with first drafts, until he got almost to the end, and knew that these hands had changed the world into one that was different from his first imaginings and made a lesser thing as a result.

New hands didn’t work. No hands didn’t work. Saving the hand lost in the first story didn’t work. And it took this writer an inordinate length of time to finally spot the obvious that was staring him in the face right from the start. Change the back-story. Problem solved. Easy as that. Hardly a word needed to change anywhere until it matters. The writer stared at this, bewildered by how easy it was, but bewildered more by how he hadn’t seen it for such a ridiculously long time.

Characters will do that to you sometimes. They become so alive that they have to do things even when you don’t want them to, or do things you really wish they wouldn’t, because that’s who they are. And sometimes (often) a character becomes so real that to change them into someone else is unthinkable. It’s very hard, when that happens, to remember that you just made them up, that there’s not a thing about them you can’t change however you like, from their favourite colour to how many hands they have. You just have to think of a way for fate or luck or destiny to do it to them.

Next book giveaway coming up shortly.

The Vomit Draft (1/11/11)

Posted in News

This is a brief post about how books get written. My books, at least.

Most of the advice I’ve seen about writing a book, at least about the initial writing of a book, goes along the lines of keep writing. When I was writing my first stories (long before The Adamantine Palace), I think I used to agonise over every sentence before moving on to the next one. Now I’m working in collaboration someone else and I’m watching them do the same, it’s bringing all that back. Every. Single. Word.
Think about it.
Maybe change it.
And then rewrite the sentence five minutes later.
And the whole paragraph the next day.
And again the next.

It’s very hard, I think, when you haven’t gone through the whole process a half a dozen times, to just keep going even when you know what you’re writing isn’t your best. I’ve seen it written in probably half a dozen different places (and that’s without actually looking for such advice) that this is what a writer should do, but I’ve never seen anyone say why. So here are some whys:

Blockage: “Frank clenched his fists.” Used clenched two sentences ago? Just plain don’t like it? Feel the need for a different word but can’t think of it? Well you can either just stick with “clenched” and change it in the rewrites later or you can sit around banging your head against a Thesaurus until the right word comes along. I think I spent two days entirely stuck over one word once. Two wasted days. And with hindsight, nine times out of ten, what changes in the rewrite isn’t just the word, it’s the whole sentence. Best to keep going.

Acceptance of the rewrite: I used to think that the first draft was basically it, and so it had to be almost perfect. Rewrites are for sorting out the odd clunky sentence that somehow got away, grammatical errors, typos and the like, right? No. The first draft of Dragon Queen (in work at the moment) came in at 145k words. The second draft is going to be around 200k. One point of view has been removed completely, three have been added and two have been greatly expanded. The whole tone of the story has changed. Elements of plot have been removed, elements of character added and the setting has gone from pencil sketches to a full-colour draft. That’s what a rewrite is – or what it can be. True enough, not all of them are like that. Some first drafts come out better than others, but that’s what they can be like. Personally, I expect to do three or four rewrites before I submit to my editor. The odd clunky sentence, the typos? That’s the last of them. Now it might be that you can get a first draft almost exactly right if your painstaking about every sentence, but for me, putting that effort in to the first draft would make it almost impossible to bring myself to make massive revisions such as those I’m making at the moment. I recommend against giving yourself such an impediment. Accept the rewrite as inevitable, and then be pleased if it turns out to be easy.

And last but definitely not least…

The Plot-With-A-Will-Of-Its-Own: So here’s a situation, one I’m in right now with Volume one of Codename Sodium Hydride: you get to the last act, and you realise that there is a much, much better  denouement than the one you originally had in mind when you gave your editor your synopsis. Trouble is that to do it, you need to go back and make some changes. Maybe not big things, but lots of little things. Changing the focus a little. Bringing a couple of background characters out of the shadows a little, pushing someone you thought was going to be a major character out of focus. In essence, the realisation that there is a much better book than the one you set out to write, and it’s really not the different either. Now you can get there by painstakingly writing five hundred perfect words every day or you can get there by slamming down five thousand and using “clenched” in every other sentence, it really doesn’t matter. Both drafts give you the basic shape of your story, and both will let you know at about the same time that there’s a better one just a rewrite away. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to work out which way round is the more frustrating.

The vomit draft: Get it out as fast as you can, and it usually stinks. Embrace the joy of rewrites.

Thinking of Things at the Start of Something New (28/6/11)

Posted in News

I should mention Alt.Fiction in passing. Plenty of other blogs are already singing its praises, so I’ll not go on at length. As a first-timer, I was impressed by the venue, the programme, the organisation and the number of authors in attendance. Thanks to those who put in their time and effort to make this happen, and yet another huge sorry for those who showed up to the reading that got cancelled at short notice. I blame, well, me, mostly. Roll on Fantasycon.

To business then. Kingdom X has conquered kingdom N. Protagonist is an X but settles among people N. Kingdom X develops a bad attitude towards its conquered minions. Protagonist stands up for the N people around him and becomes a reluctant leader within an uprising. It’s not exactly a story you haven’t heard before, although I already changed to X and N from A and B to avoid upsetting anyone who might think that the use of A and B was intended to imply that B is somehow inferior <sigh>.

So here’s a little thought-experiment going: If this was a traditional medieval Europe fantasy setting, then Kingdom A would look like (say) Denmark and Kingdom B would look like (say) some bit of Germany, and everyone would be racially and culturally much the same and pretty familiar. Which would be safe and probably the most commercial thing to do, but perpetuates the whiteness of fantasy and isn’t remotely progressive.

I’m interested in alternatives. Is there a version of this story that’s both progressive and commercially viable? Or has there been?

Submissions Guidelines (31/1/2011)

Posted in Critical Failures

Follow the submissions guidelines. This is always good advice. Research the people to whom you intend to submit your manuscript. Also good advice, and anyone who can’t be bothered to take the effort to follow basic instruction and take information readily available off a website so they can address the right person BY NAME probably deserves everything they get. Or don’t. There’s plenty of advice on what to do and what not to do, for example here and here and another example of why you really should pay attention here. I bring these agencies to your attention as they’re the only genre agencies I know of. (Edit: And ONLY for that reason – I have no beef with either agency and only reason I’m linking to them is that if you, dear reader, are an aspiring SF/F writer then you ought to know they they exist and read what they say about submissions.)

However, dear agents and editors and people who write submissions guidance and then point fingers and laugh at those unable to follow it (Twitter, I’m looking at you), please have a little consideration for your poor aspiring writers. Let us suppose I am that person. There are a lot of publishers and agents out there to whom one might send a query letter. About forty to fifty the last time I paid attention. Many of them aren’t in the least bit interested in my latest manuscript, but I don’t know that because I already ruled out the ones whose interest obviously lies elsewhere. I know that almost none of you will be interested and I’m damned if I’m going to write to you one by one and wait, individually, for a reply (the last time I was doing this seriously, the average response time to a query letter was about two and a half months. There was a lot of variation in this and maybe it’s changed but I doubt it. And I’m quite convinced that someone out there still has The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice sitting in their slush pile, gently gathering dust) because then I’ll be waiting for about TEN YEARS before I’ve collected my full set of rejection letters. So no, I’m not going to single-submit as a general rule, although I’m not going to tell you that. And if I’m researching 40-50 agents and publishers while at the same time as indulging my remorseless muse at the same time as holding down a day-job that pays the bills at the same time as having any kind of life whatsoever, you’ll understand that a lot of my research is going to be carried out over the odd hastily-snatched twenty minute slot over lunchtime. And even then I’ll probably be trying to fit in two of you in each slot because otherwise it’s going to to take about three months just to get your names and addresses (EDIT: Neither the JJLA or Zeno demand this – the internet and those books on ‘how to get published’ that I’ve read often say that you should, though).

So, agents and publishers, let me offer YOU some guidance. You should aim to have all your information available to me in that one ten-minute slot. Otherwise I’m going to default to standard ‘best practice’ that I’ve picked up from sites better organised than yours. And that probably means I’ll do something wrong. And then you’ll reject me, and we’ll neither of us know what we’ve missed out on. Ask yourself, if you don’t like it, how many authors you know that are good at writing books. About all of them, right? And how many of those are good at following basic instructions? What about meeting deadlines? Being organised? It’s not that we’re different to the rest of the world, it’s just that we’re, well, we’re not project managers[1], we’re writers.

Ten minutes. Let that be the test of how clear your submissions guidance is. Then you can criticize us for not doing it exactly the way you want it.

While we’re at it, aspiring writers, this is probably worth a couple of your ten-minute lunchtime slots.

[1] Except for some of us. But we all have our personality disorders, right?

The Bridge

Posted in Critical Failures

A few years ago, I had an idea for a story. The hero of this particular story was (will be?) a boy of about ten or eleven.

Stuff happened. A Memory of Flames, for example, and the story never got written. Around the middle of last year, though, it started to make its way back into my mind. I didn’t have enough time to write the story as I’d originally seen it, but maybe I could write something much shorter. Maybe I could write a version for children. It would have been much shorter and without the main theme, but it would have been something I could have written for number one sithling and that would be cool, right? A story written for you by your dad.

I wrote about a quarter of this in November. It still seemed like a good idea. December was the dread month of dealines. This month I’d planned to finish, but now that we’re here, I’m not going to. It’s not that anything about the story has changed, but over the course of one month, number one sithling’s reading skills have changed so much that the story I started writing in November has become too simple. And when it comes down to it, the simplified story has had its heart taken out in order to be that simple and it just doesn’t interest me that much. Maybe later this year I’ll write the full version.

There’s a lesson here. Write what you want to write. Don’t go writing for a specific and fickle audience. They might not be who you thought they were by the time you finish.

Foreshadowing (7/6/2010)

Posted in News

First off, a couple of early reviews for The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice: - “a gripping read, with engaging characters, that bodes well for future books in the series (and it has me that little more eager for ‘The King of the Crags’)” Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review. Not going to argue with that, although I’m sure there will be plenty more. And

“This apprentice has potential. Please, Mr Deas, can I have some more?” Yes, International Writers Magazine, you may. Books two and three, The Warlock’s Shadow and The King’s Assassin will follow in 2011 and 2012. I’m writing them both right now (strictly rewriting, if there’s truly a difference). Faster than I was a few days ago, having been poked about King of the Crags…

“I also sincerely dislike the fact that I now have to wait for the next instalment to find out what happens next. *Pokes Stephen with a pointy metal stick* Write faster!! Ow! The next installment is with my editor! Poke him!

Even a new review of The Adamantine Palace “Deas gives classic fantasy a unique twist, and I am really curious to see where he will take us from here.”

After posting last week about how role-playing games were a fantastic sandbox for story design, I thought maybe I should justify that statement (of the obvious, to my mind) in a little more depth. So here and there I’ll be putting up what hints and tips I can that I think help in the design of a good story. With a bit of luck, they’ll work for writing novels just as well as for writing adventure campaigns, and I thought I’d start with foreshadowing.

So what is this foreshadowing thing and where do I get some? It’s actually pretty straightforward. Look it up on the internet if you want, but basically, it’s dropping hints early on about stuff that’s going to happen later. So in the first scene of your story, you describe the room where your main character lives and you put a gun on the wall and make of point of mentioning that it’s loaded. In the last scene, someone takes the gun off the wall and shoots him. Mentioning the gun much earlier than it was actually relevant to the story, that’s foreshadowing. Easy. If the apparently goody two-shoes king’s mage is actually going to launch a coup half way through your story and seize the kingdom in the name of Zarkz the Lord of Demons, then foreshadowing is, well, mentioning the existence of Zarkz the Lord of Demons at some point before it happens. Foreshadowing is having the players/protagonists get wind that the king’s mage isn’t quite as nice as people think, whether they see something themselves or hear it through others (if the entire focus of the plot is stopping Zarkz, then it’s arguable that this isn’t foreshadowing so much as, well, plot. So imagine the focus of the story being elsewhere…)

Anyway, the lesson I’ve learned from running too many RPGs is that, whatever you think your story is going to be about, there’s a fair chance that your players will have other ideas and go find some other piece of story. So you might have meant them to investigate the king’s mage and stop Zarkz from being summoned, but in fact, chances are they’ll start running a scam involving bear-baiting, a druid and a lycanthrope, and the first they’ll know about Zarkz is when the Abyssal Palace rises from the earth, half the city falls apart around their feet and there are demonic servitors roaming the streets. So look, for my playing group, I don’t just put a loaded gun on the wall and hope they players notice; scatter them about like confetti. The champion bear is called Zarkz and everyone goes on about how he fights like a demon. That sort of thing. I ran a game once set in the near future where every single item of news ended up being related to the plot, somehow. Just litter the storyline with stuff that takes your fancy, even if you have no idea what you’re going to do with it. Half the time your players won’t notice, the other half you’ll come up with something ten sessions later. Trust your imagination. You can throw in a bit of foreshadowing without having a clue what you’re going to do with it. Have no fear – you’ll find something. Leave ‘em lying around, and whenever you need a bit of inspiration as to how the hell you’re going to cope with whatever bizarre plan of action your players come up with, they’ll be waiting for you with open arms…

Books, I think, are much the same. Maybe a bit easier and a bit harder at the same time, in that readers are a little more attentive than players. You don’t need to litter the place with bits of foreshadowing quite so much and you need can’t let them go unused quite so much.

I’ve heard it said, on the subject, that if you’re going to put a loaded gun on the wall in scene one, someone had better use it before the end of the story. Well if you make a big deal of it, yes, but otherwise my advice is to throw the kitchen sink at the foreshadowing, don’t worry if you don’t even know where half your ideas will lead or how they tie into the plot, and don’t worry about the devices you end up not using. In a game, your players will pick up on the ones that interest them and all the rest, well, they probably never noticed in the first place. In a book you can take out the ones that didn’t go anywhere later. That’s what rewrites and editors are for.

Writering and Gaming (30/6/2010)

Posted in News

A few weeks ago I was at the UK Games Expo, last stop on an unplanned and impromptu little tour of panelling events that was accidentally co-incident with the release of King of the Crags. Or at least, it appeared accidental to me. This involved, never mind getting in free to something I’d have paid to visit, but being actually paid my expenses to show up. This is immensely cool, so thank you, UK Games Expo for that fleeting moment of feeling important.

In most panels I do[1], the subject of role-playing games gets raised at some point. Questions like ‘how did you get started as a writer’ or ‘what was the first story you wrote’ can’t get an honest answer without straying into the land of Dungeons and Dragons. Anyone who’s spent much time on my website won’t be surprised (what, you haven’t been reading Diamond Cascade, The Chronicles of the Anti-Kvothe)? When I mention D&D, I’ll get a reaction that, broadly, is one of three:

  1. Wow! Cool! He’s one of us!
  2. Whut?
  3. Eeeiieee, he’s one of them! Someone please teleport me to another panel.

I’m not proud to be a D&D player any more than I’m proud to be a five-a-side football player or to be someone who drinks coffee. It’s not something I feel any need to stand up for or justify, it’s a just a thing that I’ve done for the last pushing twenty-five years and would be quite happy to do for twenty-five more. Still, that last reaction does surprise me. I know that, to people who’ve never gone near a role-playing game, the whole concept can seem a bit strange. Making up stories and pretending to be someone else? Isn’t that a bit creepy? But guys, gals, I’m a writer now. Making up stories and pretending to be someone else is almost what I do for a living[3]. Is Salman Rushdie creepy because he makes up stories? Writers get let off because, well, apparently simply because we’re writers. Somehow we’re allowed. So if you can make a living from it, that’s fine, but if you simply do it for fun, that’s creepy[2]? I don’t get that.

The strangest thing, though, is that I never get reaction 4)

4) Well, duh, obviously spending years and years designing and then road-testing story-lines that need to be robust the the incalculable whimsy of a party of player characters who are under no obligation to follow your nominated plot-line and indeed will frequently go to great lengths to avoid doing so, obviously that’s going to teach you a thing or two about story design, and don’t even get me started on how self-evident it is that having to build a consistent and believable game-world might, y’know, help just a tad. And as for characterisation? It’s like in the name, dude! Role. Playing. I mean seriously, bro, it’s so patently obvious that RPGs are the perfect sandbox for anyone with a passion for stories that it’s like totally an insult to my intelligence that you even mention it.

Roleplaying games won’t necessarily make you a great story-teller, but if that’s what you want to be, they’re a great sandbox to play in while you’re learing.

The last person to give me one of those ‘you just fumbled your charisma check’ looks for mentioning RPGs had previously been extolling the virtues of giving a page in your notebook to each of your main characters for a description and a few notes on their habits and personality. Or, as we call them, character sheets. I didn’t say anything.

[1] One might argue this has something to do with the panels I sit on and the events I attend, but hush.

[2] I am old enough to remember a time when, apparently, we were all satanists. Fortunately, the rest of the world largely grew up.

[3] About half a living.

Research and E-books (23/2/10)

Posted in News

It’s a Tuesday so it must be time to witter about something. There’s not much book-news to get excited about at the moment. Am rewriting the last quarter of the Order of the Scales after finally figuring out what was bothering me about it (yes, something is getting cut). Am waiting impatiently for Thief-Taker to come back from my editor (impatiently because I have free evenings coming out of my ears at the moment and there’s only so much Bioshock a man can play. Well, actually there isn’t, but there probably ought to be).

Still: Last night was the annual Orion bash, and a couple of comments still ring in my ears. Amid the Amazon vs. Macmillan malarkey, iPads and other shenanigans and the poorly advertised possibly-not-actually-a-fact that the e-book version of The Adamantine Palace will have something pushing 60,000 words of extra material in it, I’d somehow gained the impression that e-books were, somehow, well, y’know, important? Apparently not. According to Peter Roche, chief executive of the Orion Publishing Group, there is the possibility that e-books will expand greatly in 2010, possibly up to a whopping great 2% of total sales. Woo-hoo. Yes, the trend will doubtless continue and yes, it will vary from genre to genre (cookery e-book? Better be sauce-proof). But still. Woo-hoo. I’ll do the bonus material but I’ll not be rushing out to acquire a system developers tool-kit for iPad apps just yet.

This was a statement made during the annual Orion state-of-the-union address. The second most thought-provoking comment came from Adam Roberts, which went something along the lines of ‘What? You’re just going as a tourist? You’re not even doing research?’ This in response to me being off on a little trip in a couple of months. I didn’t have an answer to that, and it’s taken me a full day to realise why. So in lieu of being on the panel about fantasy research at Eastercon, here’s my ha’penny on researching for epic fantasy. It’s simple, really. Everything is research. I’m never a tourist. I was doing research last night in the Royal Opera House, listening to the acoustics and looking at the shape of the ceiling. I will be doing research in the Andes, on the look and feel of mountains. Not all that long ago I did some research on what it’s like to stand on the open top of a tall tower (very windy). Right now I’m researching how to share your lap between a laptop and a cat (tricky and prone to typos). Research for fantasy is endless. Go visit every terrain the world will offer you. Master geography. Understand how every culture works and why. Learn how science and technology developed. Get your head around the sum of human history. Slide into the heads of other people and figure out what make them tick. Do all of that and you’ll have everything you need to build worlds that are effortlessly real. “You’re not even doing research?” Doesn’t have an answer because the question doesn’t compute.

Story-Writing 101 (20/1/2010)

Posted in Critical Failures

A while back I was invited into the local infant school to teach children a little bit about writing stories. I think what I actually managed to teach them was how to draw a cartoon dragon and a cartoon goblin, but hey, they liked the visuals, so here they are, in case anyone wants to try and do a better job.


The ideas I was trying to present are pretty simple, and are also pretty much how I set about writing a novel:

Start at the beginning of the story

Know who your story is about

Know what problem they need to solve

(or what challenge they need to overcome – remember I’m talking to six-year-olds here)


Know the end of the story

What is their last chance to succeed?

What is the final outcome?

(Between you and me, sometimes I do this the other way around and get the end before I even know to whom it is happening, but remember: 6 years old).

(The “story” we ran through here is pretty obvious: Dragon and Goblin want to make a book. Contrary to popular (6-year-old) opinion, Simon Skeleton in the last scene isn’t Simon Cowell…)

Now you’re ready to start. Think of the rest as setting off on a journey: You know where you’re starting, you know where you want to go, but you don’t know how to get there. You need a map (or a compass and some orienteering skills or some combination of both in practice but we’re keeping it simple, remember?).


This is the bit where you just think of a couple of things that sound fun and exciting and happen between The Beginning and The End. I have to admit I’m not very good at describing what happens here: make some stuff up. Don’t lose track of where you’re trying to go.

Anyway, anyone who fancies using the pictures, help yourself. They’re probably a damn sight better than the words that went with them.

The rewrite-athon continues (4/1/10)

Posted in News

I was having a minor grump over the holidays about how much time the rewriting of Order of the Scales was going to take (Simon, don’t expect to see it early). Well, the rewrite is going OK, but it’s still taking up a lot of time that could otherwise have been spent doing more worthwhile things like playing Dragon Age: Origins or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II or Assassin’s Creed II. But over the weekend, someone dropped me this comment:

“I’ve bought and half finished 5 books in the last month and had thought I’d lost my passion for sci-fantasy. Now I realise I’ve just been picking shitty books to read. Until now that is. I bought and finished The Adamantine Palace today and absolutely loved it. Thanks for giving me what I thought was lost Stephen!”

One happy reader doesn’t make a book good, but it makes an author happy too and not mind that he’s spending his evenings in front of his laptop. Also, he is apparently not alone. Been a while since a new review for The Adamantine Palace came out…

As noted my last post, my the first draft of Order of the Scales is needing rather more work than I’d hoped (largely because it was written about a year ago before King of the Crags went through its edit and the Gazetteer changed a few things). So instead of the usual two re-writes, this one’s going to need three before submission. Usually, there’s a first rewrite to iron out any inconsistencies in the story, character or background and put on the last icing and sprinkles. Then there’s a pause of a month or two while I go and do something else and then a second rewrite that all buff and shine and polish.

I like re-writes when I’ve finished them. I don’t like doing them. They’re treading familiar paths and rarely taking me anywhere new. Bleh.

Right. And that really is about it for any ’system’ I use.

Travelling Hopefully (30/12/09)

Posted in Critical Failures | News

Someone asked me a couple of days ago whether I plan in detail or use the ‘travel-hopefully’ method. Now being asked questions like that makes me feel all unnaturally important, as if my words and methods might carry some weight and I was all set to write a lengthy post on how to set about writing a story. Fortunately some sense prevailed; the fact is that everyone seems to write in different ways and I think everyone probably has to find what fits the way their head works.
That said, ‘travel hopefully’ does describe the way I write quite well once I get going, but having said that, there does have to be some sort of framework in place before I start; everyone has to have something, right? Otherwise how do you know where to begin? I don’t think I know anyone who sits down in front of a keyboard knowing nothing more than that they are about to write a story…

So what do I need? I need:

  • A world. It doesn’t have to be fleshed out an detailed, but it needs to be there in skeleton form. In particular, I think what matters are the general rules by which the world operates. The big things that will shape it need to be thought through. The Adamantine Palace may not have that much world-building actually in it, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t thought about. For a fantasy world, is there an analogous period in history? I will always start from something real and then add bits (magic, dragons, the fact that the moon is made of cheese, whatever). These bits need a little basic thinking through, too, about what the consequences are for the base society when you add the extras. I’ll do most of this as a go along, but I need to know how the rules that govern the way the world works have changed because of whatever I’ve added (or taken away). Same principle goes for Science Fiction and technology. If you’re going to set a story in the real world, then which part of the real world and which time in history?
  • Some driver characters. A few main protagonists with what they are trying to do and why and very roughly what they’re like. These might be characters who will be in the foreground of the story (example: Prince Jehal: Intelligent, cynical, callous, wants to be top dog (because being the top dog is the only place that’s safe), deep down also wants to be… <spoiler deleted>) or they might be in the background (Saffran Kuy in The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice). They are the characters who are shaping events. What they are trying to do and why they are trying to do it will define the way the world changes during the course of the story.
  • Some front-line characters. These might be the same as the above or they might be different, but these are the characters who are in the foreground of the story. I find they tend to acquire their own personalities and colour themselves in as the story goes on, so all I have here at the start are a few seed characteristics that make them stand out from those around them (Angry, guilty, can swing a sword. That sort of thing).
  • An end. In some ways most important of all, I need to know how the end is going to feel. Someone has to either achieve something or fail to achieve something. It’s not so much the specifics of what that I have up front, it’s how it’s going to feel for the reader (bitter-sweet is always a favourite with crushing despair a close second, but there’s always the possibility of a happy success). There may well be several ends for several different story-lines.

And that’s it. After that it’s travel hopefully time. Which has worked extremely well on some occasions and less well on others. This year’s submissions will be The Order of the Scales and The Warlock’s Shadow, both already written in draft straight off the back of their prequels (on the grounds that all the preparation work had already been done) and both examples of FAILURE of the method, dammit! The Order of the Scales in particular has rolled a fumble (er, I mean has a lot wrong with it). I can see at least three re-writes being necessary before it’s good enough to be submitted. The first one started this week, along with the stress headaches.

This would also be the time when some sort of review of the year would appear, but I haven’t got time for that right now. Here’s one someone else made earlier.

How to Get Published: Myths and Legends (23/09/09)

Posted in Critical Failures

Hints and tips brought back from Fantasycon 2009 and a few reminiscences.

So you’ve written a novel. You’ve got the craft of putting words together into coherent sentences, choreographing those sentences into scintillating paragraphs, corralling your paragraphs into scenes and assembling a story. How do you get from there to seeing your name up on the shelves in the local Waterstones? The internet will fall over itself to tell you what you can do. All sorts of books will do that too. Trouble is, do any of them really work? Continue reading “How to Get Published: Myths and Legends (23/09/09)”