Another Day, Another Year

It had to happen sooner or later, my birthday falling on a blogging day. As an inveterately lazy man, I am tempted to just make my excuses now and go in search of cake, but there are a few bits and bobs I thought I would mention before I do.

First up, Black Library has just released a huge part of its backlist onto the Kindle in the UK and Europe. Hurrah for that, and about time, I say.

Among the many great ebooks you’ll find my seven Gotrek and Felix novels and my four Space Wolf books. It’s really nice to see these books out there. Black Library have done their usual magnificent job of production. I guess I really will have to get round to writing up the author’s notes for them now. The good folks in North America are going to have to wait until January.

Secondly,the first six of my Kormak novels are finally available in print. I laid them out a couple of years back, and then with my usual astounding efficiency sat back and did nothing. Eventually a random brain cell misfired and reminded me that I really should bring them out just in time to miss the Xmas sales rush. You can order them from Amazon or your local book store.

Thirdly, Armageddon Protocol, my Judge Dredd meets Starship Troopers style cyberpunk military SF novel first mentioned back in January, is almost ready to go. I am just putting the final touches to it now. I’ll stick up a sample chapter in a week or two.

If you’d signed up for my newsletter you would already have been able to read it. Assuming all goes according to plan, the book should be out before Xmas. Here’s Trevor Smith’s brilliant cover. I am really pleased with it.

ArmegeddonProtocolFinalSmallTitle 2

Trevor is already at work on the cover for Extinction Event which promises to be even better.

And that’s it for the moment. I am off in search of cake.


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Nanowrimo Done

Did I win Nanowrimo? Yes, yesterday at about 10:30 am. I kept at it today just so I could get the badge for writing 30 days in a row. I am a sucker for gamification. Once I set out to collect badges, the completist in me keeps niggling away until I get as many as possible.

Badges

Do I have a novel written? No. Nothing like it. I have 50960 words in a collection of scenes arranged in a structure that bears some resemblance to that of a novel. It has a beginning and a middle, but as yet it has no end. It is certainly going to turn out to be longer than fifty thousand words which is the goal of Nanowrimo.

I think many of the individual scenes are great, and the order they are placed in suggests a narrative of sorts. But I have a long way to go before the first draft is finished, let alone the novel completed and edited.

Am I happy with what I have written? Strangely, yes. It is rough, but it is the core of a good book. It did not turn out quite as I expected it. What novel ever does? In this case, things deviated even further from my rough outline than usual, but that does not trouble me. I found answers to questions I did not know I had.

Enough of the question and answer format. I learned some things this Nanowrimo, as I usually do when I sit down to write, and as I all too often forget mere weeks after that writing is done.

The main thing is that sprints work for me. No matter how sick I was, and I was plenty sick this November, with vertigo and flu and RSI, I was never so sick that I could not set a timer for 10 minutes and write till the alarm sounded.

After the first sprint, it became easier to do the next one. Many a day, it would take me ages to set that timer. Once I did, I forced myself to write anywhere between 300 and 500 words.

Once it was done, I could talk myself into going for a second one. After that, I assured myself, I could give up for the day if I really wanted to.

But, by the end of the second timer, I was usually well on my way to a thousand words. I could probably achieve it in less than ten minutes, so let’s just set the timer again and start.

And I would hit one thousand words before the timer went, so why not keep on going until the end? At that point, it was only another four hundred words or so to hit the Nanowrimo daily goal of 1666 words, so why not just set that last timer and try for it?

Some mornings, once I hit the daily average, I was in spitting distance of two thousand words, which would give me a nice cushion against future failure. And so it went. On the worst days, there might be half an hour breaks between ten-minute sprints, but I still managed them in the end.

The main thing was simply showing up and doing the work. I think the structure of Nanowrimo, the daily badges, the charts that show your progress, the rewards for hitting milestones all helped motivate me on days when I otherwise might just have stayed in bed. There was also the social pressure of not wanting to admit failure having publically announced my participation.

To get all touchy-feely for a moment, even the fact that I knew I was participating in a once-a-year global event helped. People I know here in Prague were also involved in the project. I even attended a write-in. I am sure the fact that humans are social animals had something to do with my making progress.

In all of these ways Nanowrimo was useful and I cheerfully donated my money to the cause. (It did not hurt that I got another badge too, and a tasteful halo around my author picture on their site.)

Downsides? There were days when I was writing filler. I did the words just to boost my count, and I will most likely have to cut such scenes out when the edit comes. One or two will probably be distilled down into paragraphs. Others will go completely.

That said, there were days when I sat down to write scenes and I had no idea what was going to come out of them. Some of these scenes were pure gold. Characters would reveal their motivation. Huge plot points would be resolved in sentences of revelatory dialogue. Things that changed the direction of the whole book ambushed me. I would never have found these things if I had not just sat down and written.

In general, I tend to be an exploratory writer. Often things only become clear to me once the writing is under way. I often start with detailed outlines but still things mutate and change. Sometimes, I don’t know what I am really writing about until the book is well under way and something happens that brings everything into focus.

Scrivener helps. It makes it easy to write in scenes and shuffle those scenes into a new order with a drag and a drop.

Speech recognition helps when the RSI gets bad, but I ended up using it less than I expected. I am most comfortable at a keyboard I guess. The habits of more than thirty years are hard to change. Sometimes, for a change of pace, I used the Freewrite or speech recognition or Byword on the Mac. Shaking things up helps when you’re stuck or lacking motivation.

So here’s my formula for Nanowrimo. Use a timer. Work a little every day, usually in sprints. Use whatever text editor is at hand. Have a plan of sorts. Keep everything together in Scrivener. Cut and paste it in by the end of the day. Track your word count.

Oh and don’t trust the word counter in Scrivener, Byword, Ulysses or Microsoft Word. All of them came up long. I had a count that was over 50K in all of them. When I cut and pasted my text into Nanowrimo’s verifier, the total came up fourty-nine thousand and something words. Aim to write a few hundred words over 50000 in any of those text editors. Lesson learned. And that’s it, until next year.


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Nanowrimo Week 3

So it’s Week 3 of National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) and I am still plugging away. I’ll be honest, it’s been a lot harder than I expected due to the resurgence of my vertigo. This makes writing on a computer anything but pleasant.

I’ve soldiered on and as of yesterday afternoon I had reached 40657 words. I’ll probably add at least another thousand to that total today so I am still on target to make 50000 words by the end of the month. If things go according to plan,touch wood, I’ll get even further.

I’ve made some discoveries in the last week. When you throw yourself planless and headlong into a new novel, the story can take unexpected twists. Several things about Extinction Event surprised me. One of them came totally out of the blue.

Our hero, Stormtrooper 13, is a sort of cross between Judge Dredd and a starship trooper. He had a chip in his head which records everything so that his memories can be uploaded and stored off-site. They can then downloaded into a clone body in the event of his death. He can also play these memories back in a virtual reality system, experiencing them again if he so chooses.

At one point, he comes across a bookmarked memory of how he met his now permanently dead wife. It was a strange, sad experience quite unlike anything I was expecting to be writing in a military SF novel. It showed the central character in a different light. I don’t know where such scenes come from. They just emerge onto the page.

A second development was the nature of the adversaries. Extinction Event is about the emergence of one of those world-shattering, civilisation-destroying mega-foes. I was expecting something like SkyNet. When our heroes finally encountered the menace, it proved to be something much more Lovecraftian. It turns out that my universe was stranger than I imagined. This will call for some rewriting of the earlier material, of course, but I am happy with it.

I am still finding the sprint is the way to go. I have been setting my timers for between 10 and 15 minutes and then writing as fast as I can.

I broke out the Freewrite at the weekend. There have been a couple of firmware updates that have made it more reliable, and I wanted to put the machine to work. In one way, the excellent keyboard combined with an e-ink screen is a disadvantage. I type faster than the words appear and I often don’t notice mistakes until I am long past them. I find in such cases the best thing to do is just ignore the errors and push on. I can clean up my typos later on something else.

The automatic syncing to Dropbox is a joy for this. It just works. I found with the Freewrite that I didn’t get any more written during my sprints than I would on a normal computer. I did get more words written in a shorter space of time because there were no distractions. I could not check my email or look at a website, so instead I wrote. In this respect, the Freewrite does its job.

On the worst days, when sitting at a computer was not an option, I dictated into my phone. I sat in my flat, spoke in short bursts then watched as my words were uploaded to Dropbox and automatically transcribed by Dragon Naturally Speaking. Once this was done, I cut and pasted the text into Scrivener.

Often for Nanowrimo, the key to progress is just to keep going. I did hit a point where I was stuck. I knew what my ending was, but I could not see how to get from where I was to there. So I did a reverse outline.

I wrote a brief description of the final scene, then asked myself what would be the logical step leading up to this. I wrote that scene and then repeated the process until I had gotten all the way back to where I was stuck. Once I had the outline done it was easy to start making progress again.

There were also times when I did not feel like writing the next scene in my outline. I gave myself permission to skip that scene for now and picked a different one from my reverse outline. I found myself skipping backward and forwards through it adding scenes here and there. This is not something I usually do. Normally I go for linear progress from start to finish with no shortcuts between. Still, needs must when the devil drives.

This did have the advantage of giving me clues as to what needed to happen earlier. Characters would refer to events that had already happened and clue me in on their outcomes. I don’t know why my subconscious found it easier to feed me information in this way, but it did. I could also see who survived the earlier battles by noting who was present in the later scenes.

Looking back at what I wrote last week, I can see that I coped with being stuck then in a similar way. I wrote a mini-outline that moved me forward and interpolated new scenes with old ones. It seems that even when I don’t do detailed outlines for a book and decide to wing it, I end up doing them later. I am sure there is a lesson here somewhere.

So, anyway, the end is in sight now. I have 10K more to do and a week to do it in. I should be able to manage to complete this book in time for the next blog post. That has the sound of famous last words. I guess we will find out.


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Nanowrimo: Halfway Mark

So it’s the 16th of November, and we’ve passed the halfway mark for National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo). On the 15th I hit 25079 words on Extinction Event, thus keeping me on target. I had hoped to be further along but as they say no plan survives contact with the enemy. In my case, the enemy happens to be a particularly pernicious case of vertigo. It leaves me dizzy a lot of the time and low-level nauseous for most of it. Not the best circumstances to be writing a novel under.

That said, I have soldiered on, relying on that old Nanowrimo standby, the sprint. By this I mean I set a timer for as long as I think I can stand it, sit down and just write my story. There have been times when the timer has been set for as low as two minutes, but here’s the thing– I can still write 100 words or more in two minutes.

According to Writeometer, my last two-minute sprint was for 107 words. If your goal is to hit 1666 words per day, you can do this with 16 two minute sprints. I don’t recommend this for purposes of getting into the flow, but it helps build the word counts.

Perhaps it is the illness, but I slammed into the wall with this book quite hard at the end of last week. I just felt like what I was writing was dull and not worth reading, and I had my doubts about keeping going. Today, looking at it, I can see it is no worse than my usual stuff, but back then I was cursing myself as useless.

It’s a reminder of how much of writing is a mind game. Just keeping yourself going can be a chore sometimes. To be fair to my critical faculties, I can see reasons why I had my doubts. While the individual scenes were readable, the cumulative effect was not achieving the effect I had hoped.

My original outline called for a chaotic multi-sided battle between a number of factions. It was a fight both epic and anarchic, with corporate mercenaries slugging it out with state-sponsored cyborg ninjas, an intervention from an alien hivemind, and our heroes caught in the middle. When I wrote it out scene by scene, it became schematic. I was so busy laying things out so they would be clearly understandable for the reader that I lost the sense of chaos you get in a real battle.

I eventually took myself aside, did a breakdown of what I had written and asked myself what had gone wrong. I then rewrote the sequence starting with an anarchic space drop and progressing to a much more exciting combination of the old scenes and new. I’m not saying it’s the best solution but it was a solution and it got things flowing again. Now the story is racing along again. Complications are piling up nicely, and I think I can see a way forward to the ending I had planned.

When I was younger, there was a good chance I would simply have given up when I started to feel like things were going astray. I had a nasty habit of doing that back then. These days, with a bit more experience under my belt, I know that there’s very little that can’t be fixed if the underlying story is strong. Things can seem hopelessly tangled, but they can pretty much always be untangled if you are prepared to put in the work.

Any other lessons? Yep, as the Bond title goes Never say never again. I swore after my experience stacking up five Kormak novels without releasing them that I would never do that again. Yet here I am working on the second military SF novel in a series without having released the first one.

I did this because I thought I was going to be editing the first one as I wrote the second one. It turns out that for the past week I haven’t had the energy to do both. The momentum of Nanowrimo pushed me to finish what I started in order to avoid the embarrassment of public failure. I have learned some interesting stuff from writing this book that I can feed back into the first book. I can also foreshadow some of the events of the second book in the first one. It’s all useful when you’re building a new universe, as I am with this series.

I am enjoying writing in this Judge Dredd meets Starship Troopers setting. It’s pretty grimdark, but I think it’s also very funny in places. Well, it makes me laugh anyway, and that’s half the battle.

Right, enough of this blogging, it’s time to get back to the actual writing. And that’s another secret of writing success, from the great Stephen King, it’s all about application. The application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. Books don’t write themselves, no matter what some people might have you believe.


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Track What You Write with Writeometer

What gets measured gets done is a truism in management consultancy. I find it to be the case for writing as well. Quantifying when and where as well as how much I have written is something I’ve tried to do ever since I read Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K. I datamine this information to see when and where I am most productive and if there is anything I can do to make myself more so.

Writeometer is a free app for Android phones that I’ve found useful for this. It keeps track of how many words you write per day.

K10 Screen

To use the program, you first input the name of your novel or short story or whatever it is you writing. You decide how long you want to be, and you decide on a completion date. You can set the program to remind you that you need to write and how much you need to write, or you can just log your word count once it’s done each day. When the reminder is due, the program will start a timer and prompt you to do your words.

You can have as many titles on the go as you want. Writeometer will let you track them all and then archive them when you’re done.

This is the core functionality of the app. The fact that it’s on your phone lets you keep track of what you’ve written no matter where you write. I use Scrivener, but I also use Word and WriteMonkey and Byword and a number of other word processors. Writeometer provides me with a dashboard that totals my word count no matter which program I use.

Writeometer will also do things like calculating how many words per day you need to write to finish a novel of a certain length. Scrivener can do this, at least on the Mac but I find myself using Scrivener for Windows a lot these days. It’s not just that Writeometer tracks your word counts, it also tracks how long you take to write those words. The program comes with a timer where you can record your session afterward. One of the most useful things it does is aggregate the word count from all of your sessions into total daily word count. It also keeps a running total of all the work you’ve done on any given project.

Writeometer Daily Total

You can add a note to your records telling you when and where you did your writing, your mood and anything else that you deem relevant. You can also export all of the statistics to a spreadsheet in Google Drive. Or you can email them to yourself or transfer them to OneNote or Evernote or various other places. This is very useful when you need to compile your statistics and take a broad overview.

Writeomter Daily Habit

Writeometer has plenty of other functions. It shows you graphs of your daily word counts. It also shows you other things. It lets you plan rewards for meeting your goals. It has a built-in thesaurus and various other things. It will show you inspirational quotes too. I don’t use any of these things, so I am not in any position to comment on them. I use it to keep track of my writing sessions each day and compare my word counts.

If the program has a weakness, it is that it only allows you to track new words written. I would love to see it log the amount of time and number of words I have edited as well. As someone who usually spends more time editing and polishing than he does writing first drafts, I would find this very useful information.

The program is beautiful. It looks good, and it’s very easy to use. I highly recommend it to any Android phone users.


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Freewrite Versus Neo

IMG 20160914 084530

It’s time to update my impressions of the Astrohaus Freewrite.

All the things that were good about the Freewrite, the keyboard, the simplicity, the basic idea, are still good. Using it has revealed a few shortcomings, though.

First and most importantly, for what is supposed to be a simple, reliable device that enables one to write, the Freewrite is not reliable. In fact, it has been anything but. We’ve become used to software being sent out into the world in beta version and then fixed through updates. This is the first time I have encountered this with hardware.

When my Freewrite was left overnight, it discharged all the power and would not restart. The only way to get it working again was to leave it plugged in for at least half an hour, hold down the power button for 10 seconds and wait.

This was not exactly an intuitive procedure. It certainly made it impossible to do what the Freewrite was supposed to do– just pick it up and go. The first time I picked it up and went to a cafe after leaving it overnight, I got no writing done because it would not switch on. I am far from the only one who had had this problem. I did find a solution on the Astrohaus forums, but it has been fairly hit and miss since.

The Freewrite uses a stripped down interface to get out of your way when you write. This is great, but it means that when things go wrong, you are left without a clue. There is a way of finding out how much charge the battery has, but you’ll need to head to the forums to find out what it is. Currently, there is no way of getting your text files off the machine if something goes wrong with the wireless. Or if there is I have not found it.

The real problem is, of course, that this is still a prototype. I backed a Kickstarter. I did not buy a machine from a shop. The good folks at Astrohaus are working hard to resolve these problems but none of this helps me right now use the machine for what I hoped would be its purpose.

IMG 20160914 084423

I have fallen back to using my Alphasmart Neo. This does not have quite as good a keyboard as the Freewrite, and it does not have the wireless connectivity that makes the Freewrite so easy to use when it works. You need to connect the Neo to your computer with a cable and squirt the text into it in a process that looks spookily like the Flash typing your text.

That aside, the Neo has many advantages over the Freewrite. The first is that it really is pick up and go. Mine has been using the same set of batteries for almost two years now– normal AA batteries you can buy in any shop– and it is still at 38% battery charge.

It has a much easier and more intuitive way of handling text files. You simply push a button marked with a file number to switch between your open files. You can have up to eight of them. You push send to send your text. It is that simple. It also weighs less than half of what the Freewrite does. It is also incredibly rugged and long lasting. I can carry it with me everywhere in a normal daysack or even just a canvas bag, and it never gives me any problems. I’ve given it to my toddler to use as a toy, and it has kept him amused and survived the experience.

The main difference is probably that the Freewrite costs $500, and the Alphasmart can be picked up for less than $25 on eBay. Yes, that’s second hand but like I said I have not had any problems with mine.

I’m not saying the Freewrite is bad. I think someday soon it will be great. If you’re interested, read the forums, follow what people are saying and when the word comes down that it’s working as it should, buy. Until then I would advise you to stick with the Alphasmart if you are looking for a portable, long battery life, distraction-free writing environment.


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