Archives for May 2014

Taking Notes with Pen and Screen

A couple of months back I read this article by David Hewson about using an Asus Vivotab Note 8 to replace paper printouts while editing. I liked the idea of being able to carry a whole stack of manuscript pages in my pocket and work on them whenever the notion took me and I am a sucker for a new gadget so I bought one myself.

The Note is small and light tablet with a decent 8 inch screen and a Wacom digitiser pen. It uses the latest generation Atom processors and it gets about 8–9 hours of battery life. It comes with a free copy of Microsoft Office 2013 including the very wonderful OneNote, of which more later.

I’ve used Drawboard to mark up PDFs of a couple of book length manuscripts and it performs as flawlessly as David says. I save the edited PDF in Dropbox and, hey presto, it shows up back on my Mac ready for me to input the changes into Word or Scrivener or whatever else I happen to be using that day. I can recommend the process to other writers but that’s not really what I wanted to talk about today.

The Note has given rise to other changes to my workflow that I had not expected. I carried the tablet with me so I could do my editing but I found I was using it for other things. You see, it’s only slightly larger than the paper notebooks I normally use to capture my stray thoughts and ideas. The pen slides into the casing so I never have to worry about finding one or having it run out of ink. (These things happen to me more than you might think.)

Because it was there, I started using the pen to make notes. It just felt more natural than the on-screen keyboard. At first I wrote with the handwriting recognition software built into Windows 8 and Evernote, Word or WriteMonkey.

To do this, you open up a small window at the bottom of the screen and write in it with the pen. As you do so, your words are transformed onscreen into what Windows thinks you meant. Once you’ve filled a couple of lines you transfer the text to whatever program you are writing in with the push of a button, then you continue on.

Recognition is excellent, very accurate even in the face of my sloppy scrawl. It makes a nice break from the keyboard which is important for my RSI but I would not like to have to use it for a novel since my pen input is about a third the speed of my typing. That said, it’s more than good enough for a quick note although I found having to make the occassional correction slowed me down a little bit. Also on an 8 inch screen in landscape mode, the input window takes up a lot of space which makes your work a bit less than readable.

I started using OneNote. This program uses the notebook/binder visual metaphor and you can write directly into it with the pen, just as you would write directly onto a page. It does a very good job of understanding my handwriting and the files it creates are searchable. I can make notes right on the screen, giving each a separate page if I want. I can have as many notebooks and pages as I like colour-coded with different types of paper if I feel like it.

I can doodle, draw maps and diagrams and do a mass of other things I have not yet got to grips with. I found myself using the program exactly like I would use a normal notebook, making notes about stuff I had just read, jotting down ideas, fragments and bits of the usual inchoate nonsense that float through my brain, drawing little maps and sketches. It also let me store clippings from web-pages, screen captures and other stuff which is not something my paper notebook ever did.

OneNote uses OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive) to sync through the cloud so my notes are always backed up and available on the web or on my other computers. I can export them as PDFs if I want to which is useful when I want to look at that list of 100 short story ideas as a standalone file on my computer or transfer it to Evernote or DevonThink.

The Asus Vivotab Note 8 is an example of how some new tech can be genuinely useful to a writer. It doubles up as an ebook reader, a manuscript editor and a reporter’s notebook. I can take photographs with it in a pinch. I can do pretty much anything on it I do on a Windows computer, albeit more slowly, given the limitations of pen input. It’s not the sort of thing everybody will want or need but it does an absolutely splendid job for me. As these things go it’s not terribly expensive ($269/£280 on Amazon right now). You might want to give it a look.


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Willpower and Biscuits

Three days a week I go into a shared workspace to get some writing done. On Tuesdays at 4pm, there is a coffee break where the various members of the space get together and chat. At these little meetups coffee, tea and biscuits are provided. Nice biscuits.

I would slump on the couch nearest the coffee table with a plate of biscuits within easy reach. Normally I don’t eat many biscuits and I watch my diet but at those coffee breaks, I could not seem to stop myself having just one more. Week after week, I would sit down and despite every effort to stop on my part I would find myself digging in. I’ll just have one or two, I thought, but somehow one or two became six or seven or more. I tried to stop but I could not.

I beat myself up. I cursed my lack of willpower which is an odd thing since it (or its close relative stubborness) is the one thing most people who know me assume I possess in shedloads. I mean I quit smoking 60 cigarettes a day. How hard could giving up a few biscuits once a week be?

The answer was plenty hard enough for me.

A few weeks ago, somebody was sitting in my usual place on the couch so I took another seat, one away from the table. In order to reach the biscuits, I had to get up, stretch out over the table and a couple of pots containing hot beverages. At the end of the coffee break I realised I had not eaten a single biscuit.

The next week, I took the same chair. Same thing happened. And the next week. It took no effort on my part. What seemed like an uncontrollable addiction to chocolate biscuits had vanished.

Since then I’ve been brooding on this. Was it the small inconvenience of the new chair’s position that caused me to stop grabbing the biscuits? Was munching my way through a plate of them simply a habit associated with the my old place sprawled out on the couch?

The truth is that it does not matter. What matters is that a problem I had failed to tackle with self-restraint was easily solved by changing where I sit. It was not a matter of willpower but of location. I had been beating myself up about the wrong thing.

There’s no huge lesson to be drawn from this. I just thought I would pass it on in the hopes it might be useful to someone else.


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Ocean of Fear Released

Shiver me timbers, Ocean of Fear, the sixth book in the Kormak series, a swashbuckling tale of pirates, sea monsters and ancient curses, has weighed anchor and set sail for all your favourite ebook retailers.

Here’s the blurb:

The survivors of a burned out village set Kormak and a crew of bounty hunters on the trail of the pirate lord known only as the Kraken. The hunt leads from the haunted ruins of a cursed city to the buccaneer stronghold of Port Blood and reaches a bloody conclusion far beneath the waves of the ocean. For the Kraken is a sorcerer with a deadly secret and he plans to waken the most powerful demon of the ancient world.

The book is available at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Smashwords, Kobo, Apple and B&N.

If you’d like to take a short sail around the harbour before putting out to sea, you can find the first chapter here


If you’re interested in finding out when my next book will be released as well as in getting discounts and free short stories, please sign up for my mailing list.

Ocean Of Fear Preview

I am just putting the final touches to the sixth Kormak adventure, Ocean of Fear. It’s a rousing sword and sorcery tale of pirates, gigantic sea monsters and dark ancient secrets. It should be available real soon now. In the meantime, here’s a preview of the first chapter.

FEET THUNDERED ACROSS the trireme’s deck as the crew raced to their battle stations. Drums sounded the beat for the straining oarsmen. Marines strapped on shields and drew shortswords. Crossbowmen wound their arbalests and fitted bolts into place. Sweating and puffing, the engine crew on the sterncastle manoeuvred the ballista to cover the shoreline.

Standing at the prow of the warship above the great beak of the ram, the tall greying man watched the distant village burn. A frown made his scarred face even more sinister. He shaded his cold grey eyes against the sea glare and studied the devastated little township on the forest’s edge.

Smoke rose above the huts and fires crackled along the wooden palisade. Dead bodies, some pierced with arrows, sprawled on the sand of the beach. He could make out no sign of life.

He walked back towards the stern. Superstitious sailors avoided his glance and made the Sign of the Sun when they thought he would not notice. They knew what sort of man carried a sword on his back. They knew why he was aboard and they did not like it. Since he had joined the ship three days ago in the northern Siderean port of Grahal, he had done nothing but make them uneasy.

As the man approached the sterncastle the ship’s captain broke off his discussion with the ship’s chaplain and nodded permission to join him on the command deck. “You may come up, Sir Kormak,” he said.

Kormak stalked up the stairs and studied the captain. Elias Zamara, by Grace of King-Emperor Aemon of Siderea, Captain of the Ocean’s Blade and admiral of this small pirate-hunting fleet, was almost as tall as Kormak, with the copper-blond hair and hawk-like features of a Siderean nobleman. He wore the elaborate ruffled collar and purple cloak of the royal court. A gold Elder Sign with three interlocked five-pointed stars hung on his chest like a badge of office. His manner was supercilious; the easy way he strode the command deck said that he was not a man to be taken lightly.

“Have we found what we are looking for?” Zamara asked. His haughty tone could not hide his nervousness. Distant cousin to the king or not, Elias Zamara was still a young man with no great experience in dealing with sorcery, no matter how many sea battles he had fought in.

“Too early to say,” said Kormak. “All I can see is a burned out village. Could be anything from Thurian raiders to an attack by elves who resent their lands being colonised.”

“They were most likely only heretics anyway,” said Frater Jonas. He gestured at the village as if condemning every soul in it to eternal damnation under the Shadow. The fleet’s chaplain was a short bird-like man with very black hair, very dark eyes and a neatly clipped spade beard. His olive skin, darker than the captain’s, made it clear that he belonged not to his country’s Sunlander nobility but to its peasantry.

Jonas wore the yellow robes of the Order of the Eternal Sun, an organisation said to wield power second only to the King-Emperor in Siderea. His hand stroked the solar emblem of his Order the way a man might a favourite cat. “They come here with their foul ways to escape the Holy Sun’s sight.”

The young nobleman looked at him with distaste, nor perhaps so much for the sentiments expressed but for the peasant accent they were expressed in.

“Someone certainly wanted them dead,” Kormak said. “The question is why.”

“There’s only one way we’re going to find out,” said the captain. “We’re going to have to send in a landing party.”

“Very well,” Kormak said. “Let’s go take a look.”

Scores of armed warriors from each of the fleet’s three ships filled the rowboats. Some of the marines rowed the small craft towards the strand. Others pointed their cocked crossbows in the direction of the beach.

Elias Zamara sat with his hand on his sword’s hilt. Frater Jonas clutched his Elder Sign as if it too was a weapon. He clearly expected some emissary of the Shadow to be waiting within the village to challenge his faith.

The marines kept their eyes fixed on the shore. They had the look of the typical Siderean professional soldier—stocky, dark-haired, medium height, olive-skinned. They were the same hardy breed that freed their country from the Seleneans and who were now spreading Siderean power across the Dragon Sea and the archipelagos of the World Ocean. Some said they were the best infantrymen the world had seen since the days of the Solari Legions and so far Kormak had found no reason to doubt that assessment.

The wind carried the smell of burned flesh, mingling it with the salt tang of the sea. The waves turned to white foam as they hit the sand and withdrew.

Kormak was the first to vault into the surf. Salt water wet him up to his thighs. Sand crunched beneath his boots. He made his way ashore as quickly as he could, uncomfortable with the way the water slowed his movements even for those few moments.

Silence brooded over the village. Gulls pecked at the corpses on the beach. Larger carrion birds fluttered skywards as they noticed the soldiers.

Kormak walked over to the nearest body. The dead woman’s skirt had been raised above her waist. Blood pooled between her legs. Someone had raped her then stabbed her through the heart.

A man lay nearby, his throat cut. Maybe he had been forced to watch the woman die before they killed him. Kormak fought to keep his mind from constructing narratives. It was all too easy to picture what had happened here. He had seen the like many times, the first when he had been eight years old and it had been his own people dying.

Two children lay nearby. They stared up at the sky with blank empty eyes. Their throats had been cut too. They bore a family resemblance to the man and the woman.

“It was a mercy,” said one of the soldiers. “The tykes would have starved to death without their folks to feed them.” He did not sound as if he believed it. He sounded like he was trying to comfort himself.

The state of the corpses and the fact that the fires still burned made it obvious the attack was recent, most likely last night, possibly even some time before the dawn.

The slow burn of an anger that he knew, given time, would become incandescent fury started in Kormak’s gut. He felt, as he always did, the need to make someone pay for this.

He unclenched his fists, took a deep breath and forced the rage down into the place where he had buried it long ago. A man in his line of work could not afford to give in to every spark of righteous anger. It was not his job to avenge these people. His duty was to find the sorcerer men called the Kraken and end his unrighteous career. Anything else was just a distraction.

“Silence,” said Zamara with the chill authority of the Siderean nobleman. “No talking. There may be enemies watching us even now.”

Frater Jonas bent over the children, made the Sign of the Sun, and then closed their eyes with surprising gentleness. He noticed Kormak looking at him.

“What?” he said.

Kormak responded to the harshness in his voice. “I thought they were only heretics.”

Zeal and humanity warred on the priest’s face. Humanity gained the upper hand, and Kormak found he liked the little man more for it. “Maybe so, but they were men and women, aye, and children…”

“Look at their faces,” someone said, despite Zamara’s order. Kormak understood what he meant. Terror twisted many of the dead’s features. It was hardly surprising under the circumstances but clearly the men found it uncanny. They were ready to be spooked at the slightest thing. The soldiers knew they hunted a mage.

The gates of the village had been torn off their hinges. More bodies sprawled in the earthen streets. The small huts had been burned. The large central communal hall, possibly a temple of some kind, was now only smouldering wreckage. Vultures rose from their feasts and flapped slowly away, as if too gorged to fly any faster.

“The attack came from the beach,” said Zamara. “No sign of assault from the forest. I think it’s safe to say this was the work of pirates.”

“But was it the pirates we’re looking for?” said Kormak.

“Split up! Search this place! Don’t wander out of earshot,” said Zamara. “See what you can find, though I doubt there will be anything. This place never had much to start with and it’s been picked clean. But look anyway!”

“I’ll need a party of men to gather up the bodies and prepare them for burning,” said Frater Jonas. “I’ll speak the rites myself.”

“Of course, Frater,” said Zamara. In the face of the death surrounding them, the mask of contempt had dropped from his face. He pointed to half a dozen men and said, “Gather the corpses.”

He selected half a dozen more. “Gather wood and prepare a pyre. We can spare some oil from the ship to send these people into the Light.”

Kormak was surprised. It was not the sort of wasteful gesture he expected from the young and ambitious Siderean nobleman.

“Sir,” said one of the soldiers who had fanned out through the village. “You had better see this.”

His words were addressed to the captain but his eyes were on Kormak.

“Lead on, Terves,” said the captain.

The soldier brought them to the corpse. It lay near the wall, in the shadow of the forest’s edge.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said and then clamped his lips shut, as if sorry he had spoken.

“I have,” said Kormak. The body looked desiccated. The skin had an ashen quality to it. The eyes were like shrivelled black olives. The flesh was flaking away. His mind drifted back to a dead child in the cold northlands of Taurea. Someone else he had been too late to save. Once more he found himself pushing his anger down.

“It looks like a mummy,” said Zamara. “I saw things like this south of the Dragon Sea, in the Necropolis in Umbrea.”

Terves nodded agreement. Kormak guessed both the captain and the old soldier had served time as part of the Siderean army holding the forces of Shadow at bay in that distant land.

“It’s no mummy,” said Kormak. “It’s dressed like a villager.”

“Look at it. It’s been dead for centuries,” said Zamara. He clearly wanted to believe that.

“It’s certainly dead,” said Kormak. “Most likely since last night.”

“Then we’ve found what we’re looking for,” the captain said.

“I think so, yes,” said Kormak. He bent down to inspect the corpse.

“When did you see the like?” Terves was white-faced but needed to ask. Zamara clearly wanted to know the answer as well for he said nothing to shut the man up.

“A few years ago along the edge of the Barrow Hills in Taurea, a wight had taken a child…”

“You think this was a wight?” Zamara asked, torn between disbelief and dread. Kormak shook his head.

“Wights rarely move from the places their bodies were interred, and there is no history of Kharonian barrow builders along the Blood Coast.”

“Who knows what lies back there in the forest,” said the soldier. “Those are elfwoods. The Old Ones dwelled there once. And some of them dwell there still.”

“I suspect it was something that feeds in the same manner as a wight,” Kormak said. He looked up. Zamara’s hand clutched the triple Elder Sign at his throat. Terves made the Sign of the Sun over his heart.

“Feeds?” The captain’s voice was flat. He was holding his fear under a tight rein.

“They devour the souls of their victims, consume their life force. Something has done the same thing here.”

“I heard the Kraken was a sorcerer but this is like something you expect from the worst sort of Shadow worshipper.”

“It may not have been him,” Kormak said. “Perhaps he has bound a soul-eater to his service. Some sorcerers do.”

Terves let out a small scared groan. His face was stony. If Kormak had not heard the sound he would not have known the man was afraid.

“In the name of the Shadow what manner of man are we hunting for?” Zamara asked.

“A very bad one,” Kormak said. “One who deserves to die.”

“If man he is, sir,” said Terves.

“Man or demon, this will kill him,” Kormak said, touching the hilt of the dwarf-forged blade that protruded over his left shoulder.

A noise from the far side of the village drew their attention. Frater Jonas came striding up. “It appears we have some survivors,” he said.

“Let’s see what they can tell us,” Captain Zamara said.