Archives for October 2011

Tools For Writers: Notebook and Pen

I’ve never met a gadget I didn’t like. I own more computers than I care to think about, an Android phone, an Android tablet, multiple ebook readers and an Alphasmart Dana. I’ve always been this way– I’ve owned an Amstrad NC-200 (wonderful machine in its day), various Psion organisers, assorted Palm PDA’s. Basically any little device that promises to increase my productivity even in the slightest only has to sidle up to me sideways and wink and I will hand over my money, no thought required and no questions asked. I’m the same with software– God alone only knows how much cash I have ponied up over the years for word processors, writer’s software, clipping software, archiving software, To Do software. I shudder to think about it.

And yet in the midst of all this rampant tech addiction one tool stands out for its utility; a pen and a small notebook. I carry at least one, and sometimes more, with me wherever I go these days. They are handy for making notes, plotting, and shopping lists. The battery never goes flat and it’s very easy to see when they need to be replaced. If I write down a To Do list, I get to put a line through an item when it’s done in the most satisfying way.

These days I can even transfer the contents of my notebook to my computer quickly and easily using speech recognition software if I need to. Or I can scan the pages in and transfer them to Evernote.

Pens and pencils don’t exacerbate my RSI the way keyboards do either. I can tear out pages if I need to write down something for someone else. I can doodle and draw maps in notebooks as well. This is more useful to a fantasy writer than you might think. They are cheap and I don’t have to worry too much about one being lost and stolen. They are not exactly tempting targets for snatch thieves.

As a storage medium paper never goes out of date. Notebooks never lose data unless you destroy them or leave them in your trouser pocket when they go into the wash. I still have a small notebook I took on a trip to South East Asia with me 15 years ago. I can open it up and read the details of the Full Moon party on Koh Phangan. I can note that in those days the beach resembled the set of a Mad Max movie. I can see the names of the people who I sat in beachfront cafe and watched the sunset with. (Hi Stuart, Claire, Helen and Mike if you, by some strange chance, should happen to be reading this!)I don’t need to switch anything on or transfer files from some out-moded storage device or file format.

The most important thing is that a notebook can fit into a pocket and it is a very natural thing to take it out and write down an idea when it hits. If I don’t do this at the time, I will usually forget it. I have lost count of the number of brilliant ideas I have had (so brilliant that I could not possibly forget them) that have faded from my mind over the course of a couple of hours never to return, no matter how much skullwork I put in trying to recall them. There’s a school of thought that says they could not have been that outstanding because I did manage to forget them, but I have no truck with such cynicism.

I have even, very occasionally, written fiction in my notebook, scraps of scenes, bits of dialogue, once even the whole chapter of a story. I don’t actually like to do this since it’s much slower than typing for me, and I am going to have to transfer the whole thing to a computer in the end anyway. It can be done though.

Of course there is a downside. My handwriting can be dreadful, which means I spend more time than I need to puzzling out what I have written sometimes. In general though, carrying a notebook and pen is something I would recommend any writer get into the habit of.

 

N’Kari

Although not an elf, the Greater Daemon N’Kari plays an integral part in the saga of Tyrion and Teclis and indeed in the history of the Elves. During the first great incursion of Chaos he led the Rape of the Ulthuan, slaughtering tens of thousands of Elves, overseeing the destruction of cities and forests, ravaging the land for the greater glory of Slaanesh and himself. His first reign of terror ended in defeat by the god-king Aenarion. He returned later to take part in the final battle with the Elves at the Island of the Dead. This encounter left him so weakened that he needed to flee into the Vortex to escape the wrath of the Phoenix King and the fatal power of his deadly blade. Within the Vortex, the essence of N’Kari spent millennia regaining form and power and formulating his plan for vengeance on the line of Aenarion. Blood of Aenarion concerns the outcome of his schemes and their effects on Tyrion and Teclis and all those around them.

I’ve always had a fondness for Greater Daemons of Chaos. I’ve had a few of them in my books– from the Bloodthirster which lurked in Karag Dum to the Great Unclean Botchulaz in Ragnar’s Claw. I have never attempted to write anything from their point of view though– I mean how do you get inside the head of an eternity-old, cosmically evil being? I knew this was going to be essential in Blood of Aenarion though. It was inherent in the structure of the story.

When I first wrote the tale of the Great War of the Elves back in the early 90s in the first High Elf army book, I had envisioned Tyrion and Teclis as very young elves. Things move on though. In the Daemons of Chaos army book it was revealed that they had fought N’Kari in the Temple of the Flame over one hundred years before the Great War. I have always said that writing a Warhammer novel is like a writing historical novel. You need to go with what is there as much as it possible. Since Blood was going to be the origin story of the twins and since an encounter with one of the greatest foes of the Elves in their holiest temple was not something I could gloss over. It was going to have to be the climax of the book.

This created structural problems. The Twins only meet N’Kari during the final conflict. This was going to have to be a book in which the protagonists and antagonists meet only once, and that at the end. As a dramatic structure this is less than perfect. It also meant that I was going to have to show what N’Kari was up to from his point of view or the point of view of those around him and I was going to have to build up tension through the book by doing so.

So we come back to the problem of showing things from the point of view of a greater daemon. There were two things that would help, I decided. The first is that N’Kari is not very powerful (as Greater Daemons go!) when he first escapes the Vortex. He is a mere shadow of his former self and needs time to regain his strength by feasting on the souls of the descendants of Aenarion. The second thing is that he timebound. He is in mortal form, viewing the world through mortal senses, his immortal essence housed in a physical body. This means he has perceptions similar to ours in some ways, products of his interaction with a physical world. It was enough to go on.

So the story has two strands. The first is the tale of the twins and their immersion into the world of intrigue and assassination amid Elvish high society, of how Tyrion becomes a warrior and Teclis sets his feet on the path of High Magic. The second tale is that of N’kari’s return to the world and his rampage across Ulthuan leaving a trail of carnage and dead Elvish princes behind him. It is in some senses a horror story. It has to be. The work of Greater Daemon wreaking vengeance of the descendants of the one who defeated him is anything but pleasant. It did however provide me with an opportunity to do some high-energy battle scenes and some nasty jokes. It also allowed me to ratchet up the tension as N’Kari leaves his trail of terror behind him. We know sooner or later he’s going to catch up with Tyrion and Teclis and the consequences are going to be very far from pleasant.

There gives another aspect to the story. In some ways it shares plotting elements with a serial killer mystery. We know what N’Kari is up to because we are the readers. The Elves do not. They need to work out what is happening and why and then they need to work out how to stop it. This element of the narrative is always there, behind the other two, a race against time that ends in conflict with one of the deadliest beings ever to walk the surface of the Warhammer world, a being only previously defeated by the mightiest mortal who ever lived.

My apologies if this entry is even less coherent than usual. I am five days in to my attempt to give up caffeine and my brain feels like mush. I shall return, hopefully more coherent, with more Elvish tales next week.

 

 

 

Magic Bullets

When it comes to technology, some writers like to believe in the magic bullet — the operating system, the computer, the piece of software that will make all the difference. If only they can find this wondrous thing, it will transform their productivity. I’ve spent as much time as anybody else in pursuit of this particular Grail. I’ve probably tried most pieces of software aimed at writers and most of the common operating systems. It’s never really made a lot of difference. I have found one piece of software I really like (Scrivener) and one that does make a difference but not perhaps for the reasons I would like (Dragon NaturallySpeaking.)

Scrivener makes a lot of stuff easier but it does not make me hugely more productive. I write pretty much the same amount as I normally would, it’s just that what I write is better organized. The software itself is a pleasure to work with. It gives me a lot of control over the structure of a story. I am perfectly happy to write a scene or an extended piece of prose in almost any word processor. If it’s for a novel, I usually end up cutting and pasting it into Scrivener because Scrivener gives me a very clear view of the structure of a large story and let’s me rearrange things with the greatest of ease. It lets me view all the scenes from the point of view of one character say, or set in one location, should I ever need to check such things. It makes tracking daily word count targets and making backups a breeze as well. Does it really make me more productive though? Yes, but probably not by as much as I would like to think.

I have found in some ways Scrivener multiplies the work. It’s not the fault of the software. It’s the fault of me. I will often spend time tagging and viewing stuff because I can and because it’s a way of skiving off from actually writing. And the mosaic way of writing that Scrivener encourages is not without it’s own problems, at least for me. I find that books written in discontinuous sections and scenes require more editing and carefully linking up of those scenes in the final draft. It’s very easy to let things become disjointed when using Scrivener.

Dragon does actually make me more productive for one simple reason. It lets me write on days when my RSI would otherwise make it impossible for me to do so. It is a speech recognition program which transforms talk into words right on the screen. You can dictate 160 words a minute according to the adverts. It’s true too, but you would be wise to take that particular claim with a pinch of salt.

The truth is that if you write fiction you probably already write at a fixed speed. You are in the habit of thinking things up and putting them down at a certain rate. Composition does not happen a great deal quicker because you are talking rather than typing. It takes me roughly about the same time to come up with the words. There is maybe a slight speed gain in terms of not having to do the typing but I certainly can’t dictate fiction at anything like 160 words a minute.

You have to make corrections in order to teach the program to understand your speech. This takes a surprising amount of time. You need to do it less as the program learns but at the beginning you may well find dictating is actually slower than typing. There’s another hidden speed bump that most people don’t notice but you will if you are writing fiction. Speech recognition programs work by relating word orders within sentences and phrases together. Mathematical values are assigned to the most likely words to appear next in a given phrase. This means that the closer your speech is to cliché, the more accurate the program is. As a writer, you tend to be looking for the striking phrase and these, by their nature, are the ones that will be most difficult for the program to understand. You will spend a lot of time correcting your most striking sentences, which increases the temptation to use boilerplate.

I would imagine that speech recognition works well for fiction set in the real world that sticks close to everyday language. It is not without its problems when you are writing SF or fantasy. Because the words I dictate tend to be sloppier than the words I type – I tend to ramble– they take more editing. In the end, I probably end up with just about the same amount of work done if I use Dragon. I prefer to use a keyboard because I feel like my prose is a bit more precise and let’s face it– it’s habit. I’ve been doing it for a quarter of a century. Still, for those days when the RSI is bad, using Dragon beats not getting any work done at all.

Recently I have taken to using any word processor that happens to be available on the machine I am working on (usually OpenOffice Writer or Word in various forms) and dropping the results in Dropbox. I am sure you will not be surprised to learn that I managed about the same amount as I normally would. Like I said I put the words into Scrivener for editing at the end of the day but I will use anything at hand to get a scene written. Making the commitment to write and using whatever is available will increase your productivity far more than any operating system or piece of software ever will. In terms of getting writing done, there is no magic bullet. The most effective way is simply to sit down and write in whatever method suits you with whatever you can afford and is available.


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MacBook Solutions

As some of you may recall I have been having problems with my MacBook Pro, to the point where I was just about ready to give up on it. It has been crashing more and more often recently and this is not something you want in a work machine. I had installed a new SSD but the machine refused to boot after awhile so I stuck the old hard drive back in. There were still random crashes but at least it worked, most of the time. Sometimes programs would not work as they were supposed to. Sometimes the whole machine would simply freeze and all I could do was lean on the power button until it reset. I was, to say the least, unhappy. One reason I have always liked Apple machines is, to quote the slogan, they just work. Apparently not this MacBook, not any more.

A friend of mine had been having similar problems  after migrating his stuff from his old Mac to a new MacBook Air. The machine worked fine when he bought it but when he imported his old programs and data to the new machine it kept crashing. A clean install would see the machine working again and a Time Machine update would cause crashes. On my own machine I had started to suspect motherboard failure but this gave me pause for thought. Over the years I have migrated my programs and data a lot of times, from a 2004 vintage iBook through various system upgrades to an Intel iMac and on to an Intel MacBook and finally the current MacBook Pro. Some of the stuff on my computer dated back to era of PowerPC chips and ran on the Intel machines using Rosetta, the PowerPC emulator that used to come with all the Intel Macs. This got me thinking that perhaps I was not experiencing hardware failure but maybe kernel panics caused by some sort of creeping incompatibility or instability. There was only one way to find out.

This weekend I formatted my Kingston SSD again, fitted it back into the MacBook Pro and did a clean install of all the software I wanted to use from downloads or the original disks. This was going to be a completely clean installation. Most of my work is stored in the cloud in Dropbox. My notes are all stored in Evernote. My passwords are in a 1Password encrypted file in Dropbox too. This made the process pretty simple if a little laborious. In a few hours, my machine was running again and running pretty much perfectly. To be honest, it is like having a whole new computer. The MBP always booted fast from the SSD but now it is twice as fast. I have only been using the machine for a couple of days now but so far there has not been the slightest hint of instability. No crashing, no kernel panics, all the installed software works perfectly as it is supposed to.

This might just be a coincidence and the machine may start crashing again tomorrow. I hope not. I’ll report back if there are any problems. If you’ve experienced similar crashes you may want to give this a try. It’s a pretty radical solution but right now I am really, really happy with the machine. On the other hand I am going to be a lot more suspicious of the whole process of upgrading operating systems and migrating data in OSX in the future.

Morathi

Last week I talked about the Dark Lord. This week I am going to talk about his mother. (If ever there was a way of getting yourself into trouble, that would seem to be it. I may have to put off future visits to Naggaroth.) Morathi does not play a huge role in the Great Elvish War but she does play a part, recruiting the human horde that invades Ulthuan. In the Tyrion and Teclis trilogy, I had given my take on Aenarion, Caledor and Malekith and I wanted to show this fourth Elvish titan. As with Malekith, I wanted to show Morathi’s side of things. I did not want her to be simply a sinister witch-queen or a decadent, orgiastic hedonist. She is both of those things but she is more.

Morathi has been there from the beginning of Elvish history. She has always had the gift of visions. She foresaw the coming of Chaos. At first she tried to warn her people but when she discovered she could not make them care, she decided to join it. There was something about it that touched the very dark side of her nature. To begin with she thought she was fighting against it, but in the end she succumbed to its depraved allure. There is another side to her, one that is kept very well hidden, and which is denied by the High Elves. She quite genuinely loved Aenarion even while trying to twist him to her side. She quite genuinely loves her son even though this emotion has been corrupted by the dark millennia of her strange existence. Morathi is quite possibly the oldest living being in the world. She knows it and she sometimes feels it. She looks young and lovely but her life has been unnaturally extended by foul, vampiric sorcery. She has made many terrible compromises to preserve her own existence and that of Malekith.

Morathi has one simple, driving over-riding ambition– to live forever. This is not founded simply on the desire for more and more life. There are times when she is weary unto death of her existence. Her ambition is fuelled by a very stark fear; that when she dies Slaanesh or one of his Greater Daemons will devour her soul and consign her to an eternity of torment. She is one of the damned and she knows it. Perhaps this stems from when she was a girl and foresaw forbidden things, maybe it is submerged guilt from betraying her people, maybe it came later as part of the knowledge she gained from Aenarion and the very dark vision of the universe that passing through the Flame of Asuryan and wielding the Godslayer gave him, perhaps it is simply a product of thousands of years of sinning and working very dark magic. Most likely it is all of this and more. She has seen the end of one of world– the golden paradise of the Ancients ruled over by the first Everqueen. She foresees the coming end of this world and she plans to use this to her advantage. She knows that a moment is coming when Chaos will return and a properly prepared sorcereress can achieve something very close to godhood by tapping the power released by the final destruction of the Vortex and the opening of the Gates. She is even trying to accelerate this process so she can achieve it before anyone else works out what she is doing.

In this  desire for deification, my view of Morathi was obviously influenced by Robert Graves’s portrayal of Livia in I, Claudius. Morathi is a sexier, magic-fuelled version of Livia, very clever and very frightening. She is also a twisted mirror of the Everqueen. She is in her own way the immortal matriarch of the Elves, symbolic of the darker side of their nature, in the same way as the Everqueen reflects their bright side.

Inside Naggaroth Morathi presides over a power structure just as great as that of Malekith, a web of influence woven in a far more subtle manner than her son’s brutal feudal system. She presides over a network of priests and spies and assassins, of sorcerers and courtesans who owe allegiance only to her and not to her son or the realm. She enjoys great prestige as Malekith’s mother and he honours her because she is one of the props on which his own power rests. They need each other to keep the druchii in line and these two touchy immortals, bound by ties of blood, rivals in many ways, have found ways to co-exist because of this and also because they are the only two constants in each other’s world. They are the only ones who truly remember the ancient days of glory and terror; they remember mighty Aenarion as he was when he walked the earth and Caledor before he was imprisoned in his Vortex, consigned to a form of damnation as strange as their own. To them everyone else save the daemons they have bound are mere shadows. No one else is truly real. They both possess a very frightening solipsism.

Prepping Ptolus

It’s been just over 34 years since I first encountered D&D. I can think of few things that have changed my life more. It got me interested in reading fantasy again at a time when I was slowly drifting out of it and it led indirectly to my involvement with Games Workshop and my present career.

In a world where World of Warcraft exists, it’s hard to convey exactly the impact that getting involved in D&D had back then. A generation and a half has grown up with access to movies with astonishing special effects, video games and the Internet. To me though playing a role playing game was like discovering that magic wardrobe with a gateway to Narnia. It was a portal into worlds like those in the fantasy novels I grew up reading. It, to use a phrase not quite current at the time, blew my mind.

Soon I was getting involved in playing and then creating and running dungeons. I spent a lot of time drawing huge mazes on vast sheets of graph paper and modifying systems to better suit my view of what a fantasy world should be like. This was before Advanced Dungeons and Dragons codified the whole system legalistically. There were still huge gaps in the rules that had to be filled with improvisations. There was some training here in the basic math of game design. I learned harsh lessons in audience feedback and storytelling which served me well even to this day. I like to think I learned to describe a character or evoke a place swiftly, with a few telling details.

Eventually, as many people do, I became dissatisfied by the lack of realism and flexibility inherent in the original D&D design. I tried lots of other systems. There was Runequest where I discovered that I preferred the world of Glorantha to the percentile-based, limb lopping combat system. There was Chivalry and Sorcery, a truly baroque set of rules with a cluster of interlocking magic systems so dense you might as well have been reading a real grimoire. It would have made more sense.And there were many, many more. Eventually I settled down with Champions, the forerunner of the Hero system for a decade or so.

Over the years, I watched the rise of White Wolf and the fall of TSR. I designed a role playing system (Waste World) and worked in the industry myself.

I enjoyed the return of Third Edition OGL D&D and played a fair bit of it. I could never quite get into Fourth Edition. I thought the designers did a great job on it. It just was not D&D as far as I was concerned. Hey, conservatism from a long-term gamer, who would have expected that?

Also I dislike role-playing systems intended to sell me add-ons. If I want to play a miniatures game, I will play a miniatures game. If I want to play a board-game I will buy a board-game. When I play a role-playing game I am still looking for that magic portal to another world. I don’t want things that distract me from the story I am in by focussing my attention on the table top. I felt that with Fourth Edition miniatures went from being optional to essential. Since I have worked in the industry I understand the economic benefits of selling add-ons to your core audience. It just does not provide the basic experience I am looking for in a role playing game.

My own preference at the moment is for Pathfinder. It provides what I think of as the D&D experience. It’s basically a refined version of the Third Edition OGL rules. I am familiar enough with the way the system works that I am comfortable modding it. Since I won’t be using minis, I am heavily modifying the rules for attacks of opportunity.

Using a Third Edition variant has the great advantage of letting me use Ptolus. I have wanted to play in Monte Cook’s mega-setting since I bought it five years ago but somehow I have never found the time. I have finally decided to do it anyway. So as of tonight I am starting to run the basic campaign within the book. I am looking forward to it. Last week we did party creation. We got the usual motley assemblage of half-elfs, half-orcs and halflings, not a human in sight. It’s going to be interesting seeing how this party gets on in a city that is majority human.