Month: May 2015

Putting It Back

I’m in the closing stages of work on the outline for the second draft of Shapes at the moment, which means populating the plot structure in the last section.

This last section was where I ran out of time in November 2013 and ended up cutting more than half the scenes in order to finish the writing before the end of NaNoWriMo. It would have been better to keep those in and keep writing, but one of the things about November’s literary frenzy is that it is followed by December and I knew I would not be able to keep writing with the same intensity going into the Christmas season.

When I cut those scenes I moved them into a Morgue folder in my Scrivener project and I spent some time yesterday reviewing them for relevance to the new outline.

There was not a great of deal of relevance to be found…

The scenes in the Morgue fall into three groups:

  1. things that are covered elsewhere. There are a couple of explicatory scenes which I managed to shoehorn the content of into other places, so those are redundant.
  2. scenes which no longer fit the plot. Some scenes were devised in the context of a plot structure which no longer applies, so those just don’t need to happen any more.
  3. scenes with something useful to say. Either there’s a bit of character development that got left out or a bridge that should have been crossed but was missed, but there are a few scenes with meaningful content in them.

Even these few useful scenes need to be changed quite significantly to fit the second draft plot and characters, though, so I would class this as a useful thing to review for inspiration rather than a valuable dig into an untapped mine.

Do you keep a morgue for unwanted or otherwise unused material? Do you ever go back to it?

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Unexpected Rain

Unexpected Rain is a science fiction mystery, a thing less common than you would think. According to the author, Jason W. LaPier*, this relative scarcity is one of the reasons Harper Voyager took the book on. That, and it being an exciting and entertaining book with solid worldbuilding and engaging characters.

The story concerns a mass murder and the investigation of that crime. It follows a cop, Stanford Runstom, and the ostensible perpetrator, Jack “Jax” Jackson, who join forces to find out who really killed all of those people. There are spaceships, and space pirates, and all the trappings of a classic ripping yarn but with the thoughtful writing of a more modern tale. The characters have agency, and they make mistakes.

I ended up staying up too late after an exhausting weekend to finish it, and that’s always a good sign for me. I also really liked that the characters were human: they were talkative when they shouldn’t have been, and did the wrong things because of trivial personal reasons.

This is Jason W. LaPier’s first published novel and is available in ebook right now. The paperback is coming out in November.

[*] full disclosure: I know Jason. He works at the same day job that I do, and since we both write and we both have to fit that in around the exigencies of demanding paid employment we quite often talk about writing and other such things. He’s a good bloke.

Also, I should point at my review policy.

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Fictional Festivals

Monday is a day off for many people. It’s Memorial Day in the US and Spring Bank Holiday in Britain, so I thought it might be fun to talk about high days and holy days in your fiction.

The frequency of holidays in the places I’ve lived is such that, on average, you get a non-weekend day off every six weeks or so (although there is significant clumping around certain times of year). If your story spans any significant amount of time it therefore seems likely that your characters will encounter holidays like that, although the precise nature of the days will necessarily vary by the culture.

In your fictional world, days off could be based on:

  • religious observance. Many days off in Britain are based on Christian holidays – Christmas, Easter, Whitsun (since replaced with the Spring Bank Holiday) – whereas in the US almost no holidays are religiously derived, the only example being Christmas.
  • national or cultural celebration days. The US has Independence Day, Canada has Canada Day, whereas Britain has… actually, nothing. Britain has no national day, and is in fact rare (if not unique) in that lack*. St Patrick’s Day is celebrated far more aggressively enthusiastically in the US than the any saint’s day is in Britain.
  • military remembrance – Veterans Day and Memorial Day in the US**, Remembrance Day in the UK.
  • familial respect. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Care-Giver’s Day, Divorced Step Parent’s Dog Day.
  • national figure anniversaries. Presidents Day in the US started off as Washington and Lincoln birthdays, and the Queen’s birthday*** is a day off for many civil servants in Britain.
  • calendar change – new years of every calendar seem to be celebrated.
  • weird local stuff. I still don’t understand the point of Groundhog Day, for example.

What are these imagined festivals useful for?

  • torturing your characters – make them work when no one else is; have them unable to purchase supplies because all the shops are closed; or just have them organise a party nobody comes to.
  • make the character opposed to the basis of the holiday, such as their religion differs from that of the mandated festival, or their religious calendar has a different new year than the culture they live in, or they are solar power advocates on Oil Burner’s Day.
  • sync calendars in different narratives. If you have multiple points of view, especially if they are widely separated by geography or time, having the characters all observe the same holiday helps connect together the stories.

If you have a holiday to look forward to, enjoy your time.

[*] well, apart from perhaps Bonfire Night aka Guy Fawkes Night, an evening of fireworks celebrating the aving of Parliament from a pernicious Catholic plot. There is occasional political posturing to celebrate Trafalgar Day, because the only thing likely to succeed in Britain more than a holiday about persecuting Catholics is one about beating the French.

[**] despite there already being two military remembrance days in the US, there are always calls to remember veterans on Independence Day as well. Come on, you’ve got two days already.

[**] her official birthday in June, anyway. Her actual birthday is in April.

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Changing Calendars

I’ve been using a Filofax* as my diary for a long time. Having a physicaly calendar in front of me has always been one of the ways I tried to internalise my day’s rhythms and appointments.

Indeed, when I was first working on corraling my ADD in a useful direction, I devised a process which was built around the Filofax:

  1. monthly – review long range todos; review appointments for the month; enter target dates into the monthly planner
  2. weekly – review short range todos; copy monthly appointments into the weekly planner
  3. daily – review tasks and appointments for the day
  4. ad hoc – put appointments in the diary

The premise was that copying things from place to place would help me to remember what I was doing**, and it worked up to a point. The problem was that the process was too involved to maintain long term, and the system collapsed under the weight of all the incomplete tasks and whimisical goals.

But I’ve persisted with the Filofax diary even so, because I like having the whole month in front of me.

Until now.

The system has broken down again, this time for two reasons:

  • I don’t always have my Filofax with me
  • keeping the Filofax up to date has been getting harder and harder

What I do have with me all the time, and what I always have on it is Google Calendar.

This choice to use Google Calendar to replace the Filofax diary is made easier because my day job uses it for business appointment keeping, and so my phone now has both my day job calendar and my personal calendar in one place. Transferring the dates from one to the other wasn’t even that hard because of the parlous state of my paper calendar’s content.

Now I just have to remember to keep the dates current.

[*] other day planners are available. Mine is actually a WH Smith knock off.

[**] I’d also had bad experiences with electronic devices, because I loved putting things into their memory but then never actually looked at the lists.

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Magical Strategy

I passed a milestone this last week – I built a Magic deck based around a strategy inspired by particular cards rather than just filling slots in the mana curve.

When I’ve talked about deck building* before I’ve mentioned only how to maximise your chances of viable cards to play at each point: setting good proportions for cards of each cost, and then ensuring that your land base is well composed. When you’re working in a limited environment (whether sealed or booster draft) these are the most presing concerns – do you have a deck which is playable?

The next stage with building decks is to design the interactions between the cards so that they damage your opponent as effectively as possible. This is the wide open space of constructed play, and it’s what we’ve started doing in the Magic group I play with at the day job**.

There are several things to think about:

  • win conditions – how to beat your opponent, whether that’s how you grind down their life total, or how you force them to empty their library
  • keeping the win condition cards in play – removing threats on the board, or countering spells which are going to do damage.
  • staying alive long enough to win – stopping your opponent from doing for you before you do for them.

I will probably write about each of these categories in more depth in the future, but the deck I made last week has the following elements:

  1. creatures that attack early – a couple of cheap creatures with haste, and some bigger creatures with dash that can appear, do huge damage, and then disappear. I also have a couple of cards that enhance those attacks.
  2. a couple of big critters that will cause trouble – as well as the big dashers, there is a strong phoenix and a large zombie that will hurt a lot when they attack.
  3. token generators – cards that make lots of tokens to add to the battlefield.
  4. kill spells that use the size of the board – there are a couple of cards that use the number of creatures under your control as the count of how much damage is applied.

Those board-state driven kill spells are the ones that I built the deck around: make lots of tokens, then swarm in to deal huge damage to the opponent – a form of Zerg rush***. It’s actually at the point now where I want to go and buy a couple more of the the kill spells to make their appearance more reliable.

Have you built a deck around specific cards yet? Would anyone be interested in seeing a deck list for this one I’ve built?

[*] and YouTube’s adverts when you watch videos about Magic decks is overloaded with messages promoting deck boards.

[**] basically we’re doing Modern, but there are some much older decks floating around and it’s all kitchen table Magic really.

[***] apparently that’s what it’s called, although the term comes from Starcraft and I’ve never played that.

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Creatitivity and Frames of Reference

I sometimes wonder where ideas come from.

One of the angles I’ve not explored in those wonderings is shifting frames of reference to look at things from a new perspective or to combine things in an unusual way. I don’t really think about this as a source of ideas because it is just how I think all the time.

It’s why I make so many puns in conversation: I’m always thinking of double meanings or alternate sound groupings or any other angle to take words I or others have spoken and turn them into another small joke*. It’s also why I don’t remember most of my puns – they’re fleeting shafts of light where holes in the shifting mesh of conversation line up, rather than carefully constructed insights that are worth memorialising.

The importance of using shifted frames of reference to understanding the nature of intelligence is something which Hofstadter writes about in Gödel, Escher, Bach – how if you look at a string of letters with one starting point you might get a completely different meaning if you shift the spacing or punctuation – is manslaughter or man’s laughter? Experts Exchange or Expert Sex Change? Powergen Italia or… well, you get the idea.

For idea generation I find it helpful to look for the corners not covered where things come together at strange angles, or to look at the story from the point of view of someone unusual – sometimes these combinations can seem arbitrary and even forced, but selecting the ones that work or which enhance the story is one of the lovely things about writing. Even better better is when your brain notices a connection between otherwise disparate ideas, or when two things which were weak in isolation combine to form something stronger when combined.

Find a routine and change it; find a convention and break it. This is the heart of my contention that creative people are intrinsically transgressive.

Generating ideas is only ever the beginning, of course – the development of ideas into something someone might want to read is really what writing is about, but having a constant flood of concepts to choose from certainly helps.

Do you have favourite frame shifting tricks which help you maintain your creativity?

[*] often very small.

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Creators Being Paid

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about author wages. My plans for making a living from my writing have not significantly changed since then, but something exciting happened yesterday which gives me more hope than I had before.

Tolarian Community College was fully funded.

You may not know the Professor and his college of Magic the Gathering studies, but since I started playing Magic last year his videos have been a staple of of my viewing and my interest in that game. There are lots of YouTubers who talk about deck techs and spoilers for the next set, who stream gameplay or talk about altered art on cards, but the Professor’s channel is unique in that he makes videos that analyse Magic critically: he started with product reviews, but he’s done a lot to explain how deck construction actually works and how the different formats function.

The Professor has quickly established himself as a pillar of the Magic community online, being supportive of other content creators and Magic players in general. When he posted his video yesterday morning asking for help to support his continuing production of videos about Magic, I chipped in and was delighted to learn that all of the goals the Professor had set for his funding drive were achieved in about twelve hours.

He’s replaced his day job income.

This is what gives me hope – not that I think I can follow the Professor’s path because my road as a writer is necessarily different from his as an educator, but the fact that he has been able to mobilise the community he has built up by doing excellent work to support him in continuing to produce that excellent work is profoundly inspiring to me.

Congratulations to the Professor on achieving tenure at his college.

Now to make sure my work is as excellent as I can manage.

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I find myself considering purchasing a computer game – Elite: Dangerous.

Most of the games I play these days are either table top or phone games, but once upon a time I played computer games a great deal and Elite was one I poured an awful lot of time into.

In 1984 the British home computing boom was in full swing: dozens of computer magazines printed listings for all the many different systems and weekly publications could publish reviews of new machines every issue, but the popular machines for games were the Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore computers (VIC-20 and C64)

The computer I had at the time was an Acorn Atom, but the schools had BBC Micros – also manufactured by Acorn, these were targetted as the educational machine: much more hackable than the Spectrum, but more expensive too. There were some games to be had, but most of them were simpler – arcade games for the most part, since those can be written with a small core and procedurally generated details for each level.

Into that landscape came Elite – a massive space trading and combat game, with special missions and what seemed to be an infinite variety of planets to travel to and peoples to trade with. The thing that really sank its hooks into you was the combat, though: intricate dogfighting with pirates, opportunistic criminals, invading alien swarms and (if you were bad) the police. And this amazing game was only available on the BBC Micro.

One of the delightful little details that came with the game was a novella that followed a neophyte trader as he made his place in the galaxy. In later iterations this novella was used as a more flavourful form of copy protection, but in that first publication it was just a great way to get you immersed in the setting, to set your expectations for what to see.

I loved that game. Truly, I still do.

The way the ship moved and the scanner on the console worked together so well: their simplicity would be hard to beat even now. There was also a significant technical achievement in the way the game was displayed on the BBC Micro – it switched graphics modes between the upper three quarters and the lower portion, so that the ships were rendered in higher resolution but black and white, while the console was lower resolution but used four colours. The game was playable on a computer with 16KB of RAM, literally a millionth of the amount of RAM in the machine I am writing this post on! More than a third of that 16KB was taken up with the display (~6KB) and about 1KB was used for system registers, so there might have 8 or 9KB of space for the actual game code. Bell and Braben, the guys who wrote Elite, they were wizards.

I was never especially good. My friend had a BBC Micro and we played Elite on it quite a lot (several of us met at his house for regular Sunday computer gatherings) but it took more practice to get good than I could manage then. When I got a newer computer (an Amstrad CPC-464) and Elite was finally ported to that system I bought it and played the stuffing out of it, but never quite managed to make it past the Deadly rating – nor on the version I bought years later when a rewrite of the original game was released for the Acorn Archimedes.

And so I find myself looking at Elite: Dangerous and thinking: is it time to buy the game again? Will the flight controls and the console be as exquisitely well crafted? Could I ever spend enough time on it to finish the game or even make significant progress?

Whatever the answers to those questions, I find myself waiting again because just like when I had my Amstrad, the game isn’t out for my operating system yet.

Soon, I hope. Soon.

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Apologies That Matter

Q: How do you make an Englishman apologise?
A: Stand on his foot.

Being British, I say “sorry” a lot as a reflexive action whenever I need to get by, or if I feel like I have impeded someone else in their urgent mission to get to the spoon drawer, but those “sorries” are just basic social lubrication – those are not apologies.

A real apology can be hard and it can be painful, but if it’s worth doing then it should be done properly:

  • acknowledge the pain you’ve caused.
  • accept that it’s your fault. Whatever your intent, your actions caused harm. Explaining that intent may be useful, but it does not excuse or justify the harm.
  • say how you will change your behaviour. An important step often omitted, but significant: if the victim knows that you are trying to change they may be more willing to continue talking to you.

There are also a few things that your apology should not contain:

  • blaming the victim.
  • any further expectation on the victim. Understand that you can only offer the apology: the recipient is not required to accept it, nor do you have the right to require or even request forgiveness.

Coming to a place where you can make a real apology may take time. I don’t know anyone who enjoys having their errors pointed out to them. My reflex reaction to such information can be anger, so if I can I will take time to organise my thoughts and sort through my feelings.

Hank Green covers many of these points in this video, but something he doesn’t mention is walking back an apology – just don’t. Qualifying an apology after the fact undermines it.

Finally, sometimes an apology isn’t enough. If the damage is too great, the person you hurt may not be able to accept your apology. Alternatively, if the apology costs you more than you can give or if you cannot make a good faith effort to change your behaviour towards that person, then the right thing to do might be to withdraw.

Anyway, I hope you do not have to make too many apologies, but when you do make them count for something.

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