Archives for August 2011

Green, Amber, Red

On Monday I alluded to the system I use for colour coding scenes in my writing. This works really well in Scrivener because you can set the content labels in the Inspector to use different names and colours and this will be reflected in the outline or the notecards when you use them. You can achieve the same effect by changing the colour of your headers in Word or Writer (or even just putting in a note of the colour) or by writing out a list of your scenes in different coloured inks on a bit of paper.

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When writing a scene I assign it a colour. Green scenes are quiet, peaceful or humorous. Amber scenes are ones in which tension is rising, characters are coming under stress or things are going to the dogs. Red is used for scenes of danger, conflict or argument, the moments of high drama. The purpose of this is to let me see at a glance the dramatic structure of what I am writing and chart the highs and lows.

Some people think that when writing Warhammer fiction it should be all action, action, action. This is not true. A story written constantly at one level of tension is as dull as a song that consists of one chord played very loud. You need to give readers time to absorb and reflect what you have written. You need scenes in which your characters learn the threats that face them and get worried. As this happens the reader will get worried too. They will have a stake in whatever conflict you are going to resolve in your red scenes. Once you’ve resolved the red scene, you need to give the reader and your characters time to pause for breath before moving on to the next conflict. Think of the climax of an action movie. It moves from amber to red to green just for a moment then back to amber or red. It keeps this up through multiple fake climaxes until the final resolution. There is pretty much always a quiet moment when you think the monster is dead or the villain defeated and then you find its not as you thought. It keeps escalating.

In general it’s best to open with a red or amber scene. With red you open with slam-bang action to grab the readers attention. With amber you open with something threatening or disturbing. There are some dangers with opening with a red scene. If your reader does not know anything about your characters, they have no real reason to care who is in conflict with whom. It can be done though. Robert E Howard’s astonishing opening to The Scarlet Citadel is a brilliant example of how to do this. With a series of action stories for Warhammer there is less danger of losing the reader because you can assume they know who is who and what the stakes are. Even so, it never hurts to let your reader know these things.

Once you’ve got your story up and running it’s best to mix and match scenes in such a way as you don’t see huge blocks of the same colour. Too much green risks boring the reader, too much amber means they will get fed up with the unresolved tension, too much red means they get burned out from the endless conflict. Keeping track of the colours in Scrivener lets you see when there is a danger of this happening.

In general I like to preface a red scene with one or more amber scenes to let the reader get a grip of what is going on, what the stakes are and to let the tension build.

Here’s an example from the prologue of the soon-to-be-released Blood of Aenarion. You can see at a glance the tension pattern of the story. This is most useful when you are looking at the overall sweep of a novel. It gives you an immediate visual idea of where you may have let action sequences drag out for too long, where you might want to put in some quiet reflection or where you might want to build some tension. I feel like I am danger of belabouring what is essentially a very simple but useful idea here, so I will shut up now!

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Angel of Fire Done, Back to Scrivener

I finished the rough first draft of The Angel of Fire earlier this afternoon and I transferred it to Scrivener. I wrote most of the first draft in a combination of OpenOffice Writer and Microsoft Word. I switched from Scrivener to these more generic word-processors on a whim. I’m still not entirely sure why.

I do know why I am going back to using Scrivener for the edit though. It simply gives more control. You can make changes to a scene and revert them back at the touch of a button. You can mix and match different versions of takes on a scene quite easily. You can mark up the scene titles and notecards in different colours to indicate tension levels and see at a glance the peaks and troughs of the story. (I use a simple red, amber, green system which I will go into at some future date.)

So do I regret leaving Scrivener behind to write the first draft? Nope. The first draft of Angel was pretty much a straight run through the narrative told in the first person in chronological order. I could have written it in crayon on the walls of my padded cell just as easily as in Scrivener. I wrote the manuscript in scenes and marked up each with a level two heading containing the word scene so that when I imported them back into Scrivener it was simple to do a search for the word scene and then split the document at that point using the heading as a title. It took ten minutes tops.

I am going to take the rest of the week off from Warhammer writing now and just let the manuscript sit so I can come back to it with a little distance next week. I am looking forward to it. For me, polishing manuscripts is one of the most fun parts of writing these days. And I am not actually going to stop working. I am off to write a short story and maybe format some ebooks and quite possibly install OSX Lion on my MacBook.

And hey I have just written another blog post. What do you know– two in one day!

John Locke, Market Research and E-Book Pricing

I am a pretty hardcore reader. There probably has not been a week in the past 40 years when I have not bought a book. Many weeks I have bought far more. I think the most I have ever bought in one day was 45 but those were truly exceptional circumstances. At conventions I can easily buy 10-20 in a day. When I was a kid if I did not have enough pocket money to buy a book, I would spend my dinner money on them instead. When I was a student and a heavy smoker it once came down to a choice between a packet of cigarettes and a book and I bought the book. (Only my fellow 40-60 a day nicotine addicts will realise exactly how hardcore a reader that makes me.) I bring this up for a reason.

The publishing industry is not famous for the amount of market research it does but the little of it I can remember tends to suggest that the market is divided into two categories; the vast majority who buy ten or less books per year, and the hardcore who buy a lot more. The numbers that I can recall for this category run from 5-10% of the general population. In any case, I belong to the smaller group. I am guessing most people who buy Kindles do too– I mean who else would buy a dedicated reading device. They might not buy as many books as I do, but I am willing to bet they buy a lot, lot more than 10 books a year.

Checking my stats I see that I have averaged buying just over one book a week for the Kindle since I acquired it over a year ago. I’ve actually bought more print books in the same period but the balance is changing.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the pricing of ebooks, about whether readers are price sensitive and so on. Rather than blow wads of cash I don’t have on a huge marketing survey whose results would be vague anyway, I’ve decided to survey the one reader whose buying decisions and purchasing patterns I can be absolutely certain of: me. I don’t claim that I represent anything like the total market of Kindle readers but I suspect I resemble a fair part of it and an important one, given how many books I buy.

Has pricing affected my decisions about buying e-books?

Not really. I have bought ebooks costing more than £15, mostly on technical subjects that interest me where a paper book would be considerably more expensive– I am talking about things like the Ubuntu Linux Bible here. For fiction I have a simple policy. I will not pay hardback prices for an ebook. There is a level of greed and stupidity involved on the part of a publisher there that offends me and I will not do anything to support it. Beyond that, in general, if I want a book I buy it. I have even gone so far as paying more for an ebook than I would for a paperback equivalent on Amazon because I wanted that book right now. Other than my stated rule, I have never NOT bought a book by an author I liked because of price.

In all of my ebook buying I can think of only one example where I have been truly price sensitive. Amazon held a summer sale where a bunch of fantasy novels by well known authors from traditional publishers were discounted to 99p. I bought the ones that looked interesting because hey, at that price, why not? Books for the price of a candy bar, what’s not to love?

So far I have only read Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I enjoyed it and I know I will buy the second in the series at some point in the not too distant future. Do I care how much book 2 costs? No. As long as the pricing isn’t utterly daft I will buy it. Obviously I would prefer to pay less but since I like the series I will still buy at anything up to the paperback equivalent price, maybe even a little more.

This was very definitely a situation where the price affected my initial purchase of a book by an author I did not know. The book was in a genre I like but in which I have been burned often and often before by full price books. I tried Empire in Black and Gold. I liked it enough to buy into the idea of the series. If the publisher was using this book as a loss-leader to get me interested, it worked.

The only other possible pricing scenario I can imagine that would affect my buying decision about Tchaikovsky’s work now is this: I would buy the next book in the series instantly if it was on sale for 99p because it would be a bargain. Other than that contingency arising, it is on my list of books to be bought at some point within the next few months.

John Locke, of How I Sold a Million E-Books in Five Months fame, came in for a lot of criticism for pricing all his books at 99 cents. Lots of people think that he left a lot of money on the table by not pricing the first book in his series at 99 cents and the rest much higher. Given what I have just said, those people are probably right about that aspect of the thing. If I had bought the first book at 99 cents and liked it, I would cheerfully have paid 2.99 for the next one and Locke would have earned 6 times the money.

I think this misses the point. If John Locke’s goal was to make the maximum amount of money possible, he certainly made a mistake. If his goal was to sell the maximum number of ebooks in the shortest possible time while generating the maximum publicity, thus turning himself for a while into probably the most talked-about new author in the United States, his plan was an excellent one. John Locke appears to be a very, very smart man.

What do you think his goal was?



What to Do When You Don’t Feel Like Writing

Yesterday, I felt really slow of mind. I was tired after being woken in the middle of the night by an incredible thunderstorm. The day was very hot and sticky and I really wanted to be outside. My RSI was playing up. There were men working with loud power tools in my building. I did not feel inspired in the slightest. I did not want to write. I found myself planning a blog post about it then I thought this is stupid and I went and did some writing.

What is my secret technique for doing this?

I opened up my word-processor, looked at what I had written the day before and began to edit it. Once I had finished doing that, I kept typing a new scene. I didn’t stop to wonder whether it was any good. I just wrote it. Once I had finished I went back and read it again and edited it. Those of you who remember some of my previous posts will notice that this bears a suspicious resemblance to what I would normally do on a working day.

The secret of getting writing done is that there is no secret. You don’t think about it. You don’t go on Facebook and tell everyone you don’t feel like writing today. You don’t wait for inspiration to strike. You just write. As with a lot of things you need to get into motion. You need to sit down and start. As Steven King says, it’s about application; applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

There are people who will tell you they can only write when they are inspired. Good for them! There are days when I am inspired too. You want to know the strange thing? Six months or ten years from now, if I read the piece I wrote yesterday, I will not be able to tell whether I was inspired or not.

How do I know this? Some of my books have been in print for over a decade now. I sometimes read them and I have no idea how I felt on the days when I wrote the individual pages.

I do know that I wrote them. If I had not, they would not be there for me to read.  Yep– simple stuff — but sometimes life is just simple.

An Easy Way To Increase Your Productivity

For the past few days I have been out in the country. Like many Czechs my in-laws have a chatu,  a small place in the country, usually with minimal facilities but close to nature. On the weekends and in the long warm days of summer you leave the city, and go na chatu. Our’s is in a small village about 50 kilometres from Prague. It is surrounded by many lovely forest trails. There is no television, telephone or internet, and not much in the way of heating so we don’t go there much except in the summer. In the summer, it is very quiet, peaceful. There’s not a lot to do except have barbecues, read, talk and go for long walks and cycle runs.

A few years ago, as is my wont, I had to spoil things by taking my computer along. At the time, I was on one of my periodic writing kicks. I was aiming for 3000 words for the day, and such was the invigorating effect of sun and fresh air that I would get up bright and early, make a start and usually have my day’s stint finished by noon. Some days I would work on and write a lot more than 3000 words.

The strangest thing was that it was so easy. I could remember when it had always been that way. When I was a youngish writer starting out in the world, I had always been able to write like that. At the time, in the cottage, foolishly, I thought I might have mined some new seam of energy and regained the energy and enthusiasm of my youth. I kept writing. The words kept coming.

Until that is we got back to the city.

As soon as we were back in Prague, my productivity dipped. Writing 3000 words a day once again became an epic struggle. I just could not find the time or the energy to do that amount, let alone surge past that target as I had been doing so easily the previous week. Oh well, I thought, it was just a burst of energy I had. Normal service is resumed. It’s time to set your sights lower again.

Occasionally my thoughts would return to this though, slowly, I realised what had really happened. Out at the cottage, I had been writing like I did when I was a young man. Exactly like in those dim and distant days of the 80s and early 90s, back before the Internet.

Out at the cottage there was no way to get onto the World Wide Web. There was no way to explore the wonderful time-wasting possibilities of wilfing. There was no continual stream of emails to be answered. There was no Facebook. No Twitter. No World of Warcraft. There was just me and a word-processor and a lot of time on my hands.

It’s the same every time I go to the cottage. I always get a lot of writing done. When I travel and stay in hotels where I am too cheap to pay for over-priced internet access, the words just flow. I could achieve the same goal simply by walking into my living room and switching off the router. Do I?

Like hell I do!

Still, it’s always there in reserve, for the time when I absolutely must meet a deadline, the awful, thrilling and terrifying prospect of switching off the Internet, a very easy way of increasing my productivity.


Writing the Warhammer Tie-in: Details

When I am writing a tie-in novel I try never to assume that the reader is familiar with the background. This sounds strange, I know. After all, the developers have spent years building the world, the artists have provided us with beautiful illustrations so we know what everything looks like and hey, players have spent hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours enjoying the game. They know what an ork or Chaos Warrior looks like, don’t they? They may have read dozens of Warhammer novels already. It’s a fair assumption that someone picking up a Warhammer novel is going to be a Warhammer player, isn’t it?

Well, yes and no. (You knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?) It’s certainly true that the vast majority of people who purchase Warhammer books are likely to be Warhammer players but people often pass books they like on to friends and I live in hope that they will do that with books I have written. Some of those friends may well not be Warhammer players. Sometimes, people in bookstores are simply attracted by an interesting cover and pick up the book too. They might not be players either. Even among players you cannot be certain of their level of knowledge about the game or the world in which it is set. They may be new players unfamiliar with all the details of the setting and all of the background. You cannot simply assume that everyone knows what an ork or a Chaos Warrior looks like even if you and all your friends and everyone you know does.

I think the best way to write a Warhammer tie-in is as if you were writing a fantasy or SF novel where you had to create the world from scratch. You’ll have a much more vivid and personal depiction of the world, you might surprise even the long term fan with some vivid and telling detail and you will catch the wonder and terror of the setting much more effectively if you try to look at it as if through the eyes of a total newcomer.

Ah but Bill you say, why rehash all of that background? Won’t it be deadly dull for those of us who already know it? Not if it’s done right. You should not simply reprint large chunks of the army books any more than you should write something like the orks arrived. You need to work in the background details without bludgeoning your reader with a huge info-dump. You want your reader to be interested in what is being said.

If you are going to have the orks arrive, in the Emperor’s name, have them do it vividly. Describe the vast host of half-wrecked looking buggies bouncing across the landscape, steam belching from their funnels. Show us those gnarly green-skin riders mounted on their gigantic motor-bikes, firing their bolt pistols into the air with the wild joy of speed. Show that monstrous figure kick in the metal door and loom out of the darkness, eyes glowing, roaring with maniacal laughter at the possibility of killing.

One simple way to make things vivid is to make it personal. If you want to convince us that Chaos Warriors are violent, don’t just  tell us that. Show us the village where they crucified ever man, woman, child and dog. Show us where they got bored and covered their victims with oil and set them alight as offerings to their daemon gods. Show us that they got tired of that and speared a few victims to hear them scream.

You might then slip in the fact that war-bands have been doing this along the Kislev border since time immemorial and that this is why they are feared and hated by all sane people. Mention the fact that your hero knew someone who once rode into the Wastes to swear allegiance to Khorne. Have him wonder whether one of those black-armoured giants was his old friend.

If you want to show the temptations of the damned, have your hero wonder what it would be like to live like this; to be so powerful and so outside the boundaries of civilised norms. Have him ask what must it be like to be filled with daemonic power and drunk on barbaric faith? By the time you have finished, even someone who thinks Warhammer is a weapon used by medieval knights will have a pretty good idea of what a Chaos warrior is like. Players familiar with the game might be surprised by the emotional reaction too. And if you do it right, you won’t have bored them either. You will have shown them something about what it is like to live in the Warhammer world.

When describing something in a tie-in, you should rely on that hoary, old chestnut; show, don’t tell. In general, it’s best to reveal things through action. Want to show what an ork is like? Have him pick up a chainsword, tug at the ignition chain, eventually get the weapon to work, accidentally smash a control board and laugh delightedly at the damage. Have him test the weapon’s blade on his own arm, draw blood and roar even louder with maniacal mirth. If we were back in the days of comedy orks you might even have had him take his arm off and keep laughing. If you’ve already established that a chainsword is a big, heavy weapon, perhaps by having your hero struggle to lift it, so much the better. Having the ork lift it easily will show exactly how mighty he is.

Details are best shown by action. You could always write the Chaos warrior wore spiked armour.

Or you could demonstrate it like so: The Chaos Warrior drove the wrist-spike of his armour through Pickman’s eye and into his brain. He twisted it while Pickman screamed then pulled his head forward, spike still hooked through eye-socket and finished him with a blow to the back of the neck.

Your reader will be in no doubt that this Chaos Warrior wears spiked armour and for a reason. I find it useful to pick small, specific instances of a thing and illustrate them vividly rather than go for big generic ones. When you are looking at characters in your tie-in fiction you should be looking for the things that make them different and how you can show them. They don’t always need to be as psychotically violent as my previous examples but they do need to be as memorable and striking.

One area where you don’t want to go into details is rules. I think it best to avoid specific spell and rule names. If you are going to have a character use a spell, describe its effects. If you are going to illustrate a rule in action, describe what happens to the actual people in your story. If you want to show the effects of terror, show what it feels like. Show the towering daemon slashing left and right, opponent’s weapons buckling on its glowing flesh, invulnerable to normal magic, killing a score with the slash of its mighty runic axe. Don’t just say the daemon caused terror and the warriors ran away. Warhammer players will know what you mean, for sure, but they will be bored as well.

One important reason not to rely on player familiarity is that rules change and you can’t always rely on your readership to know how they once worked. I wrote the first Gotrek and Felix story in 1988. It’s still in print. The rules of Warhammer and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay have changed significantly in that time. There are people reading those stories for the first time today who were not even born when I was playing according to those rules. What are the chances they would know how they worked?

I am in the country today, away from our normal internet connection. I am sending this in via my wife’s mobile phone. Comments on this post may be delayed until we are back on Wednesday.