Archives for October 2012

Writing A Bible

I started working on a bible this week. Don’t worry — I have no plans either to found my own religion or to re-translate the Good Book. I am creating a story bible for my Kormak novels. I am talking about a grand compendium of information, not unlike the sort of thing you might find in a Warhammer army book or a roleplaying game, detailing everything a writer might need to know about the setting, basically the thing that the people who make TV series have for their writers to refer to.

This is the sort of information that when I was younger and running roleplaying games, I really could keep in my head. It’s the sort of thing that when I am writing tie-in novels I refer to the source material for. For my Terrarch books, I wrote a bible before ever I started writing the fiction. I wanted to have something to refer to as I was writing. Since my work has predominantly been in writing tie-in novels I felt more comfortable having something to refer to.

With Kormak, as I have said before, I wanted to try something different. I wanted to create the world as I was going along, explore it as I wrote the stories, to see the world fresh through his eyes. That was my original plan, and mostly I stuck with it. I wrote Guardian of the Dawn and the four novellas that make up Stealer of Flesh with just the barest set of notes—I had ideas in my head, and some notions about the history of the world but mostly I just followed Kormak along on his adventures and took note of what was happening. It worked pretty well too (or so I like to think) so why am I changing it now.

In part it’s because the world is starting to get too large for me to be comfortable with winging it anymore. I know there are some writers who can do this but I am not one of them.

Bits of background were woven into the story in small snippets, in the conversations that people had, in the architecture that Kormak noticed, in the cities he passed through. I prefer to present the reader with background information this way rather than in huge info dumps. I think most competent fantasy writers do.

So, just in passing, Stealer of Flesh gave glimpses of huge areas of history and geography that I needed to write down just so I will remember them. People talked about the Solari Empire and its wizard rulers. They mentioned the rebellion of the Servitors against the Old Ones. They referred to the creation of the Undermen. Kormak travelled through nations where followers of the Moon were being oppressed by the Sun worshippers, places where the peoples had been engaged in religious war for centuries.

I learned from what the locals said as Kormak passed through, from glimpses into the mind of a several millennia old demon princeling, from ruins sighted in the desert, from strange standing towers from which demon voices emerged. There was talk of shadowblights, places where evil made itself manifest in the world, and a kingdom where the roads were so straight that if you looked down from the sky you would see an Elder Sign the size of a small kingdom. I learned of the hordes of cannibal orcs who roam the eastern plains.

When I was writing the first draft of Master of Death, more and more information kept finding its way into the tale. It appeared there had once been a kingdom of human necromancers who had warred with the Solari for control of the northern lands, a war so bitter that both empires collapsed at the end of it, leaving the Sunlanders of Kormak’s diminished age living in the ruins of the elder world that had preceded them.

It became clear to me that somehow I was going to have start keeping all of this straight and my aging brain was not the place to do this. It was time to start drawing maps, and making timelines and keeping track of exactly who did what to who and when. It was time to start noting the names of all the scholars and philosophers and ancient wizards who people kept referring to again. Clearly they were important and nothing helps build a world more than consistency.

One of the problems I find as a writer is that I change things as I write multiple drafts. In Stealer of Flesh I originally referred to time that Kormak had spent in the Necromancer-ruled southern kingdoms but I took this out in the final version. Part of my mind remains convinced that someplace in his world there is a place where foreigners are recruited into the Undead legions by the simple expedient of executing them. That may well be the case, but nowhere in the existing books will you find any reference to that or at least I haven’t.

(Incidentally both Hemingway and Roger Zelazny had a theory that this kind of thing strengthened a story – that a story was a kind of iceberg that the reader only saw the top part of, that the implied knowledge gave the writer confidence in the reality of his writing. That subtracting information from a story made it stronger. I don’t know if any of this applies in my case. I sometimes think it only adds to my confusion. Even that is OK though—in the real world history is messy and confused so there may be a kind of reality lent by that!)

Anyway, I invested in a new copy of Campaign Cartographer, and bought a copy of Aeon Timeline and I set myself to work. Scrivener rose to the challenge as always. The first thing I did was read through all the stories again, writing down dates and place names. As I came across pertinent points of information, I clipped them into Scrivener. (On the Mac this is available as a service after you install Scrivener. You need to tick the appropriate boxes in the Services panel of the keyboard pane in System Preferences to make it available. Once its done you can clip the text by selecting the text, right clicking on it and choosing the appropriate service. You should be able to do this via keyboard shortcuts too but I have never been able to get it to work.)

I now hopefully have an idea of what a reader of the first five stories can be expected to know, and will expect to come back to if they read a new book. From these snippets I have started to distil the basic facts for my bible, put together maps and timelines. This has provided some surprising insights. Looking at the map, it became obvious that the Solari had invaded the lands of the Old Ones from the South. It was the most logical invasion point given the location of their now sunken homeland. When I write future stories, I will know where the most ancient Solari citadels were. I know that in terms of the timeline the Southern Sunlander kingdoms were founded before the Northern ones. Since the Solari were primarily a maritime people they founded colonies far and wide around the Middle Sea, Kormak’s worlds equivalent of the Mediterranean. Already the process is starting to pay dividends in terms of my knowledge of the world. I could go on but its late and I need to get back to creating my bible.

I may come back to this again as the process develops.

 

Folding Text

Recently I paid £28 on the Apple app store for a copy of Mellel 3, a word processor I don’t intend to use. This is more than just an example of my relentless addiction to acquiring software (honest!). I recently came across a cache of files from way back in 2006  when I used to use Mellel as my word processor of choice– for the record, it is excellent for handling long documents. At the time, Word on the Mac was more or less unusable for me– it kept slowing down and crashing and Scrivener was not even a blip on my radar. I found Mellel through David Hewson’s excellent blog and I settled down to use it for around a year, until I found Scrivener which I have been using ever since. My old copy of Mellel was for the PowerPC and simply would not run on my new Mac. I had 32000 words of a Kormak novel in the Mellel format and I wanted to get at it, so I spent the money. You could see this as an example of vendor lock-in via a proprietary format, but I prefer to see it as an example of author stupidity in not saving his work in a universal format. 

All of which is a very long-winded introduction to my review of Folding Text. Folding Text is yet another word processor albeit of a very specialised sort. It works with plain text which is pretty much the universal format and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. It works everywhere and on everything– computers of every OS, iPhones, Android Phones, you name it. Stick a plain text file in Dropbox and you can use it most anywhere, anytime. You’re not likely to find yourself having to buy a new version of your old word processor to have to access your old files either. 

A friend of mine quite rightly said, well, Bill, if you want to use plain text, why not just use TextEdit or WordPad or some other plain text editor? Which is a very good question. The answer is that none of them have the features I want in a word processor. They are a bit too barebones. You can work with the text but have no control over structure at all.

Folding Text, on the other hand, by means of some clever tricks lets me do most of the things I would in Microsoft Word in plain text. If I want to have level one header I simply put a hash mark in front of it. While I am using Folding Text, it will be treated like a header. I can open up all the sub-text in an outline or hide it. I can move the sections around in an outline. Folding Text lets me set up checkboxes and timers and other things in a similar manner. It’s a clever idea that would let me work purely in plain text if I wanted to. 

Does this mean I will be abandoning Scrivener any time soon? Of course not. I was seduced by the reviews of Folding Text– universally excellent and I wanted to try the program out. I have even been using it for writing notes and essays. It’s a pleasant work environment and hey its given me something to blog about. (It has also reminded me to start saving all my files in plain text for backup purposes.) If you are interested in a fast, light and formidable Mac plain text editor/outliner, it looks like a good bet. It costs £10.49 at the App store.


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MacHeist 4

While I am talking about software I may as well recommend the MacHeist Bundle. At $29 this is a real bargain, a bundle of 17 apps that includes Scrivener and a 15 month sub to Evernote Premium– two of the most useful programs ever for writers. (As ever, I shall just take a moment to plug Scrivener— the best app ever for the working writer.) Either one of these things alone cost more than 29 bucks. The rest of the bundle has some nice software– I particularly like Radium, a really cute internet Radio App, and Mariner Software’s MacGourmet– a recipe collection program which scans the internet for recipes you want and imports them into its own rather attractive database.

As a bonus, 25% of the money you pay goes to charity. What’s not to love?

If you own a Mac and don’t yet own Scrivener, check MacHeist out here. The deal has two days left to run.

DragonDictate 3

I suffer from RSI. When it gets really bad I switch to a speech recognition software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking or DragonDictate. Over the years I have tested a lot of speech recognition systems on OS X. To tell the truth I have never been that impressed by any of them. It is the one area in which the Macintosh has lagged behind Windows in terms of software for writers. I started with MacSpeech’s iListen back in the days of the PowerPC iBook. A number of people reported getting good results with it but I’m afraid for me it was a pretty terrible program. It could never do anything I wanted it to do.

This was certainly not true of its Windows counterpart Dragon NaturallySpeaking 8 at that time. Since then MacSpeech has been bought out by Nuance, the makers of Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which has given them access to the same basic speech recognition technology. The first couple of versions of this new program, these days known as DragonDictate, were not terribly impressive either. The basic speech recognition engine was superb – every bit as good as its Windows counterpart but the programs were hampered by a very clunky correction interface (a very important part of a speech recognition program) and a number of really annoying bugs which made the program virtually unusable, at least for me.

So now we have come to the latest iteration of DragonDictate, Version 3. The question is does it improve on its predecessors and can it meet the challenge of its Windows counterpart?

I bought the program is an electronic download and it took several hours to download to my computer. The installation went very smoothly.

I must admit to being initially very impressed by DragonDictate 3. I also own Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 and performance seems to be equivalent between the two programs. It also has to be said that the correction interface has been much improved and is now very similar to the Windows version – which is no bad thing, believe you me.

Recognition accuracy is superb right out of the box. After 5 minutes of basic training I was getting roughly 99.5% accuracy when dictating in normal business English. For writers there is my one usual caveat – recognition accuracy is based upon the program’s ability to predict what is being said based on word order. This means that the program is more accurate the more commonplace the English that you use. For a writer, looking to find that striking phrase, this is a bad thing because it means the program struggles to recognise what you are saying under those circumstances. Eventually, it will get used to the way you write though, which is why the correction interface is so important—a decent interface really speeds up this vital function. Over time the program will eventually adapt itself to your writing style.

In the past, the Apple version of the software has really struggled to learn the sort of specialised vocabulary such as I use when writing a fantasy novel and I regret to have to say that this is still the case. The Windows version easily learned such new words as Tyrion and Teclis – in case you’re wondering how I managed to get the program to understand those last two names, I used the correction interface. There are some easy workarounds for this, such as using modern names and place names like Terry for Tyrion, London for Ulthuan and so on and then doing a find and replace but it is frustrating that the OSX version remains behind the Windows version on this.

So far, only one of the annoying bugs of the previous version has surfaced. Sometimes when you make a correction, the program will capitalise the first word of the corrected text regardless of whether there should be a capital there or not. I’m actually very pleased with this given the number of truly strange bugs that there were in the previous versions and the alarming regularity with which they arose.

So far, the program seems to be very stable and very accurate and I would not hesitate to recommend using it for dictating an email or a straight business letter. In case you’re wondering, I did dictate this review using the software and so far I have had to make roughly 10 corrections over about 700 words which is recognition accuracy of roughly 98.5% according to my back of an envelope math.

Also in this version is the ability to transcribe speech files, a thing that was only available as a separate program previously although it was incorporated in the PC version.

It also has to be said that there is one area in which the Mac version of the speech recognition software has a distinct advantage over the Windows version. It is possible to program new commands directly into DragonDictate 3 so that you can automate complex tasks and trigger them by voice command. This is something that is only available in Dragon NaturallySpeaking Professional which cost several hundred pounds more than the basic version of the program. I have tried this and it does work.

So, credit where credit is due, this is the first version of DragonDictate I have been happy with. It has taken several iterations of the software and several hundred pounds of my money but, at last, it seems like this and speech recognition has arrived on the Mac. Of course, I am holding off final judgement for a few weeks yet because I have been disappointed by Nuance’s offerings on the Mac before. I may well be again.

Stop Press: After completing this post, I sat down to play with DragonDictate 3 and all of the previous bugs reasserted themselves. I don’t know why this should be. I have tried DragonDictate on three separate versions of OSX and many different Macs. I have done time machine backups, new profiles and even clean installs on new machines and somehow these problems always recur. It may be something to do with my setup, a conflict with some other piece of software I use, but I get lots of strange problems. Sometimes letters are dropped from words, sometimes when I make a correction both the correction and the previous version are left in the text. It is irritating and it undermines my faith in the software. As of this moment, I am, once again, going to have to reluctantly conclude that I would be better off using Dragon Naturally Speaking either on Boot Camp or on a virtual machine. Bummer!

Stop Press 2 (November 23 2012): I believe I have found the source of my problems. I have disabled TextExpander and none of the show-stopper bugs I was experiencing have returned. I have tested this over the past few weeks and dictated more than 10000 words without problems. I have also trained Dragon Dictate 3 using the text files for this blog and it has now learned my specialised Warhammer fantasy vocabulary just as well as Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Under these circumstances I can unreservedly recommend this program.

Gamesday Italia:The Report

So I’m back from Italy. It was just a flying visit really but it was a lot of fun. I hopped on a plane to Vienna on Saturday night and made my connection to Bologna without problems. I was undoubtedly the scruffiest looking man of my age on the flight. It got me a nice double take from a fellow passenger when he saw the limo that picked me up. Needless to say the driver was a lot smarter dressed than I was. 

I ran into a few people from Black Library, Forge World and GW Italy in the hotel on the Saturday night and spent a fair bit of time catching up. Next day it was up early and into the convention hall. I took a quick look around and saw some of the Armies on Parade being set up. There was some stunning stuff there. Particularly impressive was a wood-elf army complete with a tree-house. If that sounds a bit twee, I can only assure you the model was not. It was really cleverly done. 

Compared to Gamesday UK, Gamesday Italy is a lot smaller and a lot less frenetic. It was very relaxed and very pleasant. I signed a few books and chatted to staff and gamers who came along. I saw the Sword of Caledor hardback for the very first time and swiped an (ahem) author copy for myself. It’s a beautiful-looking book. I am really pleased with it. 

Next up I did my reading, which I confess I was dreading. I have never really enjoyed doing these and I find them doubly difficult when they need to be translated into a foreign language. The auditorium was huge and intimidating and I felt like a contestant on Mastermind with the spotlights on me. That said, GW Italy had a very nice system of back-projecting the translation on a screen behind me, and the reading seemed to go down pretty well. Afterwards there was a question and answer session which mostly seemed to concern Gotrek and Felix and, Grey Seer Thanquol, of all people. I suspect there was a large Skaven contingent (of players, I mean :)) lurking in the audience. 

The questions were fun and they made me think, particularly about the Grey Seer and my life-long admiration for him and the Skaven in particular. I may put my thoughts on the subject up here on the blog in the not too distant future, when I find some time. I would like to thank Manuela for doing the translation. 

After this it was back for more signings and a video interview. All in all, it was a very pleasant day. That night Rik and Mike from Black Library and Lee from GW headed off into Modena to see the sights and I joined them. The town centre is lovely, kind of exactly what you expect the centre of an Italian town to look like. We also wandered out to the reconstructed Roman road, excavated by archeologists when it was uncovered during the construction of an underground car-park.  This was an astounding piece of work, with all the original cobblestones, right down to the tracks worn by the carts in it. Alongside were gravestones from the Roman period, including one of a centurion of the 15th Legion and a freedwoman and her family. I got to try out my very basic Latin skills (last used roughly 35 years ago) and then found out I needn’t have bothered since translations were provided on the noticeboard at the end of the road. 

After that it was back to the town square for one of the most best and most pleasant meals I’ve had in a long time. I tried the local speciality (tortellini as recommended to me by Davide Cortese in the comments of my last post) and it was great. Thanks for the tip, Davide. I also broke my diet and had a desert on the grounds that I won’t be getting a chance to try actual Italian tiramisu for a long time. It was superb. After that it was back to the hotel for a nightcap and off to bed. Up not too early next day for the taxi to the airport. Here the only real blight on the trip occurred. My flight was delayed which led to a stressful run through Munich airport in order to make my connection to Prague. I made it just in time. The guy who was sitting in the seat next to me on the plane in did not. His flight left from the gate next to mine and the gate was closed when he got there. 

After that bit of excitement it was plane sailing (sorry) all the way back to Prague. I would just like to take this opportunity to thank all involved for making this a very pleasant trip for me. Hopefully I will see you all again some time. 

Gamesday Italia and Other Stuff

Just a quick note to say I am getting ready for Gamesday Italia in Modena. I am really looking forward to this.

Also for all you writers out there, a book recommendation; 2K to 10K: Writing Faster, Writing Better. This is one of the shortest and best books about writing I have read, and certainly the best book about writing I have read this year. It’s by Rachel Aaron, of How To Write 10,000 words in a Day fame and it covers not only how to increase your word count, but how to edit efficiently and well, and probably the most important bit of writing advice you are ever likely to get in terms of motivation, and, no, I am not going to tell you what it is :). Go get the book! It’s only 30000 words and you can read it in an evening. (I did.) It’s available as an e-book for the Kindle and it costs only 99 cents/ 77p on Amazon.com and Amazon UK. Can’t say fairer than that. 

I was hoping to do a review of DragonDictate 3 for the Mac, which I recently acquired but I have not had enough time to play with it yet so that will have to wait for next week. And on that note, I am off! See some of you in Modena, I hope.