The Joys Of Edge Cases

I use the word processor LyX to write my books in, and have done for several years. I’ve recommended it to everyone I can — I believe it’s the best word processor, by far, I’ve ever come across.
However, I’ve just hit on an annoying bug while formatting the California Dreaming book.
In previous books, and even in the original drafts of this, I’ve been italicising song titles, but in this one I’m trying to use Oxford style, just because I use that at work and it’s easier for me to do proofreading if I don’t have to context-switch so much. So song titles are going in quotes, so where before I’d have “One song they came up with was a variant on the formula Brian and Mike had hit upon with Surfin’“, now I have “One song they came up with was a variant on the formula Brian and Mike had hit upon with “Surfin’”.”

Or at least, that’s what I type.
You see, LyX uses LaTeX as a backend, and LaTeX was designed for seven-bit character systems. So LyX converts the apostrophe and double quotes into three single quotes, sends that to LaTeX, and then LaTeX converts that back into double quotes and an apostrophe. In that order.

So every time I have an apostrophe followed by a double quote in my text, I now have, in the output, a double quote followed by an apostrophe.

In a book full of writing about songs like “Surfin'”, “California Dreamin'”, “Everybody’s Talkin'”, and “Willin'” (which has been annoying me anyway. What IS it with 60s songwriters and dropped gs in titles?!). Oh sorry, make that “Surfin”‘, “California Dreamin”‘, “Everybody’s Talkin”‘, and “Willin”‘

This isn’t something that would come up normally, because in normal situations you don’t end something in quote marks with an apostrophe — there’d be a full stop or a comma before it — so it’s a bug I’ve never hit before. But it means I’m having to go through and do a workaround, pasting in a little bit of LaTeX code every time there’s an apostrophe followed by a quote mark (and I can’t even do it programmatically, because for some reason LyX’s search is borked when it comes to quotes).

(The code to use, BTW, is \textcompwordmark if anyone else is having this problem).

I finally discovered the cause of the problem and the workaround when I found the one other person on the Internet who’d ever had this problem, which took a *LOT* of googling (because you can’t use quote marks to search for an exact phrase when the exact phrase you’re using has quote marks). The problem was reported to the LyX-users list, and the response eventually came back:

I do not know whether the problem is worth fixing now, but I’ll add it on the bug list.

That was in June 1999, so I don’t expect a fix any time soon…

NB, I still think LyX is the best word processor I’ve ever come across, bar none. This is the first actual bug I’ve ever experienced in it, and that’s after intensive use for five years. And the number of obstacles it removes when compared with Word or LibreOffice or their ilk make it an utter joy to use overall. Please don’t let this put you off using it.

But I had to vent. Most Word processors are fine for 90% of documents but fail horribly for the other 10% — including most of the documents I want to write. LyX is fine for 99.9% of documents, but failed horribly here because of people who think dropping gs in their song titles makes them look cool.

First 25 Pages of New Novel, for Patreons

For those who are donating $1 a month or more, you can now read the first 25 pages of my new novel at Patreon. I decided the reason I was going so slowly with this compared with my other writing was that I wasn’t writing to an audience, so I’ve uploaded chapters one through eight plus prologue (this is a thriller of sorts, chapters are short) as a PDF, and I’ll be doing at least one extra chapter a week on Patreon until the book’s done in first draft. I’ll then do a rewrite and publish it, and only then will I start to serialise it here.
In this week’s bumper edition:
A perilous journey!
A suicide!
A new job hinges on a crossword!
An unhappy couple!
A puzzle that needs a Professor!
Satanism in the corridors of power!
A history lesson!
And an unresolved puzzle!
Featuring Dennis Wheatley, Rudolf Hess, Alan Turing, Aleister Crowley, and Ian Fleming’s brother, As Yet Untitled Second Novel is worth anyone’s $1 a month, probably!

Progress Report On The Novel

I know nobody likes to read process posts by writers, but I feel a sense of obligation to the people who have backed my Patreon campaign to let them know about my non-blog writing, so you’ll get this every so often.

My plan has been, and still is, to email every one of my backers the work in progress in 5000-word chunks, before shopping it around to publishers, but it’ll be a little while before I get that first 5000-word chunk done. I actually have something like 10,000 words written so far, but much of that is character notes and plot outlining.

I’ve written chunks of what were intended to be the first three chapters, but the plans have changed slightly since I wrote the first half of chapter three. Thanks to feedback from Plok and Gavin R I now have some ideas as to how to solve the problems with lack of inclusion of women (and, happily, all the women with whom I’ve discussed the actual plot idea have said something along the lines of, to quote one, “that sounds like a cool enough idea that I would read it anyway despite it being a sausage-fest, so I say let it come out how it wants” — that from one of my most outspokenly feminist friends, who I’m not naming just because it was a private email and I haven’t asked for her permission to quote it), but those ideas mean, essentially, vastly expanding the setting of the book and slowing the pacing, so what I was planning as a tight 80,000-word book (the lower limit of what’s acceptable to send to genre editors these days) is now probably going to be somewhere around the 110,000-word mark, which has meant that what I thought was chapter three (the one that starts with the bald man reading a letter, for those who will read it) will now probably be chapter seven or eight, if not later.

Given the massive structural changes I’ve had to make before even getting much down, I’m going to hold off letting backers read the story until I have at least 15,000 words or so of it written, and then send them 5000 word chunks 10,000 words in arrears.

And that 15000 words will take some time to write. I’m currently researching the works and biographies of three different novelists, reading some background about a political movement, reading a huge amount about a military institution, and doing all the other kinds of research one needs to do when mixing fiction and reality (for example I had to hunt around to find an appropriate newspaper crossword, from within a fairly specific window of time, which would have a clue I could use to make two different character points when introducing one of my protagonists. Happily I found one, but it took some time). So the novel is not going to be written overnight — this isn’t going to be a NaNo thing. But it’s being worked on.

AndI think people will like it. It’s far, far more straightforward than my first novel — a fairly linear plot, with good guys, evil villains, the fate of the world as we know it hanging in the balance, daring escapes, and all that stuff, but it will also have some real ideas in it, I hope. I think it’s going to be fun.

Review: Several Books on Writing

A few days ago, I linked to a pay-what-you-want bundle of ebooks of writing advice, on the principle that all the writers were, if nothing else, people who managed to earn (in many cases very good) livings from writing, and so for the price there would probably be something useful in there for writers.
Now that I’ve read all (but one) of the books (not as impressive as it sounds — many of them would be better described as e-pamphlets rather than ebooks), I thought I’d post a quick… not so much a review, but a look at which ones I find helpful and which I don’t, and what they cover, so if you’ve decided to spend ten quid or whatever on the books, you’ll know which ones, if any, to bother with.
Now, these books are aimed at a particular audience, and written by a particular type of writer, and that colours everything about them. Put bluntly, many of the people involved (though not all) are what most people would term hacks. Many of them have made millions of dollars from writing, but much of that writing has been things like Star Wars tie-in novels (which apparently routinely make the New York Times bestseller list, astonishingly…) or writing additional volumes to dead writers’ unfinished series, that sort of thing.
That might put off anyone who wants to be the next Joyce or Hemingway — and it’s not the sort of thing I read either — but there are skills there that are definitely worth having. I certainly can’t throw any stones — my upcoming novel is, after all, part of a Doctor Who spinoff series, and the short story I recently had published is a crossover between that Who spinoff and Sherlock Holmes…
But this colours the writing advice in all of these. These are guides to pulp writing, to “telling a rattling good yarn” and writing a “page-turner” (and looking at this sentence, aren’t those scare quotes telling? I still have a touch of literary snobbery when talking about books that people actually want to read…).
And to do that is itself a skill, and one that I, at least, could do better at. I’ve been trying to write more fiction recently, and in my own estimation I’m pretty good (better than that actually, extremely good) at voice, and pretty decent at theme, but absolutely lousy at plot (I still cringe at the submission I put together for an anthology last year, which I shouldn’t even have sent it was so poor), description of environments, and at the sort of nuts-and-bolts storytelling one needs to write an actual novel, rather than a Menippean satire. These books won’t teach anyone to be a great artist, but they might teach some good craft tips.
That said, which of the books are worth reading?

Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing by David Farland told me very little except that Farland really likes Tolkien, and thinks that his work resonates well. Farland was apparently Stephenie Meyer’s writing teacher, and is a best-selling author himself, so presumably knows plenty about writing saleable fiction, but I got nothing out of this that I didn’t already know.

Million Dollar Productivity by Kevin J Anderson has some advice that may well be useful to some people — things like dictating a first draft rather than typing it, so you don’t worry about cosmetic problems like punctuation. Most of the things he suggests are either not for me (I can’t talk nearly as fast as I think, so dictation is right out) or are things I was doing already (working on multiple things at once so you don’t get bogged down in the boring bits of a project and never finish anything), but other people might find it useful.

Killing The Top Ten Sacred Cows Of Publishing by Dean Wesley Smith is a collection of ten of his blog posts, lightly revised. Basically, it amounts to a long-form argument for Heinlein’s rules (write every day, finish what you start, never rewrite unless at editorial request, keep stories in the mail until they sell somewhere). While I disagree with a lot of what Smith has to say about the value of publishers (while I self-publish my nonfiction I intend to at least try to get all my fiction traditionally published) he makes a very good case when aimed at the type of writer who fiddles with stuff and never finishes it. To be taken with a pinch of salt, but some worthwhile stuff in there.

The Pursuit of Perfection and How it Harms Writers by Kristine Kathryn Rusch says basically the same thing as the Sacred Cows book — don’t overpolish your story, it’s for editors, not you, to say whether it’s good enough.

Million Dollar Professionalism by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta collects a lot of advice that one would expect to be obvious — keep your deadlines, don’t send abuse to editors or agents who reject you, don’t send your serial killer novel to a publisher of Christian non-fiction, don’t act like an arsehole at conventions around fans and editors. You would expect it to be obvious, at least, if you don’t read blogs like Query Quagmire which collect some of the horror stories of publishing. Sadly, it would appear that this book is necessary, though whether those who would profit by it will ever read it is a different matter.

Shadows Beneath by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler, is an interesting one. It’s a collection of four short stories, all more or less in the fantasy genre, along with transcripts of the authors’ podcast Writing Excuses, in which they first brainstorm the stories together and then analyse draft versions. Drafts of the stories are also included — multiple drafts in some cases — allowing one to examine how the writing changed between drafts. I suspect that how useful this is will depend on one’s opinion of the various stories included. Personally, I really enjoyed one, found another interesting, and couldn’t bring myself to finish the other two, and I found my interest in the analysis of the stories similarly skewed.

Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland is… weird. Parts of it are what you’d expect from a very clean-cut writer like Farland (who teaches at Brigham Young University, which should give you some idea of his writing style) — there’s a section when he cautions against giving a teenage protagonist a “masturbation problem” because “You should recognize that each time you associate some vileness with your protagonist, you create a barrier between that protagonist and your reader… Some kids never even think of masturbating, and they’d be horrified to learn that others do.”
But then on several occasions he’ll talk about using experiences from your own life in your fiction, and gives examples from his own life and… well, if he’s telling the truth, he has a very, very interesting family, and the book should come with trigger warnings for, among other things, animal torture, domestic abuse, suicide, and multiple murders (none of these committed by Farland, incidentally, who seems a very nice man indeed. But this is one of those “…and I thought my family was bad…” books).

21 Days to a Novel by Michael Stackpole is the book from this list that I found most useful personally. It doesn’t tell you how to write a novel in twenty-one days, but how to spend that time preparing so that after twenty-one days you’ll be able to just sit down and write, with all the background work done. His notes on character creation and outlining have helped me fix some problems with the novel I’ve been working on, and I suspect some of the tricks in here will be useful to anyone trying to write fiction.

Charisma +1: The Guide to Convention Etiquette for Writers, Geeks, and the Socially Awkward by Jessica Brawner is another guide to stuff that shouldn’t need a guide — have a shower every day if you’re going to be in a cramped space with lots of other people, no the “booth babes” don’t want you to stalk them even if they did flirt with you when you were at their stand — but which, again, all too many people apparently *do* need to be told. I don’t, and I hope you don’t either, but it might be the clue that someone else needs.

The Freelancers’ Survival Guide by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a book I already had (though in the first edition — this is the third. I’ve not reread it to see what the difference is), and is definitely worth reading. It’s basically a guide to running a small business, aimed at writers (and specifically at writers in the US), but applicable to anyone.

500 Ways to Write Harder by Chuck Wendig is pseudo-Gonzo from someone who thinks Gonzo just means swearing a lot. It reads like Mr Agreeable from the old Melody Maker, who I thought was pathetically unfunny even when I was sixteen. Your mileage may vary.

And I didn’t read The Non-User-Friendly Guide for Aspiring TV Writers by Steven L. Sears because I have no interest in writing for TV. Sears seems to have a lot of experience in (US) TV though, so it may be of use to those who want to do that.

Overall, about 10% of the stuff in these books was of use, while 90% was padding, irrelevant to me, flat out wrong, or all three. But then, Sturgeon’s law says 90% of everything is crap, and there’s no reason to expect anything else from a selection like this. But that 10% is actually useful, and 10% of 12 books is still 1.2 books’ worth of useful information. Bear that in mind when paying for these, and they might be of use. For me, it was worth it for Stackpole’s book, with everything else a nice bonus.

A request for writing help…

We all know that writer’s block can be a very real problem. I’ve not got it quite that bad — in fact I’m having a fairly productive few weeks — but I do have a problem.

I’ve mentioned recently that I’m writing a second novel. I won’t go into too much detail (and those of you who know about it, please don’t do so in the comments) but the basic idea comes from knowing that two authors, long dead, knew each other and also knew a few other interesting historical characters, and that if you look at some of their personalities, some of them line up pretty well with the principal characters in those authors’ novels. I’ve got rather a nice fun plot that basically rubs the stock plots from the two authors together until sparks fly, and all is good.

The only problem is, all six of the real historical figures around whom the story revolves are men. They’re not all straight men — one is gay and one is bi — but they’re all men. I decided to solve this problem by having two fictional characters, both women, be the protagonists, but I simply can’t fit them into the stock plots — one of those stock plots features two women, one who basically gets tied to the railtracks and one who’s a femme fatale, while the other features no women whatsoever. I have the characters, I have them involved in the situations, I can even get them to be part of the story, but I simply can’t give them any agency whatsoever. They’re Doctor Who companions, not the Doctor himself.

So do I:
Go ahead and write the book as is, dominated by male characters, put as many female characters in minor roles as possible, and reassure myself that it’s still infinitely less sexist than the source material?
Crowbar the women characters in anywhere I can, and hope that I find a place for them in the plot as the book gets written, but that that place doesn’t diminish the basic appeal of the book (which is that it’s *these* people in *this* kind of plot)?
Scrap the whole thing and start on the other, less good, novel idea I’ve got?
Do as a friend “helpfully” suggested, and gender-swap all the characters, make it steampunk, have it be a slash crossover with Hannibal and hope it gets the Tumblr audience?
Put it aside a few months and hope I get an idea?
Or do I do the really clever thing someone is about to suggest to me?

A Writing Process Post

Today I started proper work on my second novel, and the first truly original one, not based in anyone else’s universe. This time I’m carefully filing off the numbers from so many other people’s pieces of work before throwing them all together that with luck it’ll look like my own ideas, which is all one can hope for in a piece of (hopefully) commercial fiction.

I don’t know if it’ll get completed, but I think that doing the work in semi-public might help, so what I’m going to do is every so often do a progress report here, talking about the process of writing. I’m also going to send the first draft, in 5000-word increments, to people backing my Patreon funding thing, partly as a backer reward (though whether it’ll be very rewarding is open) but also because the people backing it so far are friends whose opinions I value, and so their feedback would be useful (I’m not drafting them in as unpaid beta-readers — they don’t have to say anything — but if they want to that’d be great. And yes, I am aware that I have 23,000 words of fiction by one of them to provide feedback on myself — I’ve not forgotten).

So I thought that I’d make the first of these irregular writing-in-public posts about the actual process of structuring the novel. I know a lot of people find writing process blog posts tedious — this is for the 1% like me who find them fascinating.

For my first novel, I had been wanting to write a Faction Paradox novel for a while, and was in fact kicking around a space opera plotline which I still may use one day, but it was getting me nowhere, when suddenly, walking through Piccadilly Station in Manchester, I got two images in my head, more or less simultaneously — Scheharazade telling her last story after being beheaded, and a Presidential assassination attempt in modern-day America. I knew the two images were connected, and I could see ways to connect both to the Faction Paradox mythos, but not to each other. Working out the way to connect them was the major part of the effort — once that was done there was only one possible structure for the book, and the plot fell out of the connections.

This one’s rather different. Four hours ago, I didn’t have a plot at all, just an idea — I wanted to do a novel based on a conspiracy theory that some people take seriously, but have it be a supernatural comedy thriller. I knew precisely the mood I wanted to evoke, and could think of many pieces of fiction that played in the same area, but basically all I had was the idea that the connection between four real people could easily create a good basis for a novel.

You can’t base a novel on a single idea, though. You can’t even really base a short story on a single idea — The Adventure of the Piltdown Prelate, my most successful short story by far, needed at least five — and so I have used a two-stage process to go from a single idea to something which can become a novel.

The first stage was to get a lot more ideas. A commercial genre novel is usually between 80,000 and 100,000 words, and I want this novel to be publishable by a trad publisher, so I have to aim for about that. I’m going for the low end, because I tend to underwrite, and find writing at longer lengths uncomfortable. I find the natural length at which I can write on any one subject is usually about 1000 words, so that means I had to find eighty things to write about.

So I sat down in front of a word processor, created a numbered list, and free-associated eighty things that are either subjects I want to write about or are connected in some way to the real people who will be characters in the novel. After an hour or two thinking, I had a list of eighty characters, places, and topics to write about, some of them two or three sentence descriptions, others single words. Not all of these will make it into the novel of course — I suspect “eating boiled eggs and constipated”, “Sapir-Worf hypothesis” and “Apples” will make the cut, while “Independent Labour Party” and “Time travel” probably won’t — but by doing this I forced myself to come up with not only a lot of subjects that can be diversions or add thematic resonance, but a lot of images and scenes that seem to go together.

I still needed a structure, however, so I cheated a bit and took a list of plot beats that all pulp fiction follows, and got a series of headers from that. Normally I wouldn’t do that — my last novel is among other things about subverting that kind of narrative totally — but in this case, two of my characters are writers whose own books fit that template perfectly, and part of the idea is having them trapped in their own story.

I then cut and pasted elements from the list under whichever of those headers they seemed best to fit, and just by doing that, they suddenly became a plot. There’s a narrative through-line, a B-plot, a major villain, a minor villain, and all the other stuff you need for rip-roaring pulp adventure.

That won’t, of course, be the plot that I finally use, but it’s something to work from. Tomorrow, I intend to use that edited list to write up a 1500-word-ish synopsis, telling the story to myself, and I’ll then use that as the basis from which I actually write the novel. Unlike the last one, though, I won’t have to get approval from anyone else before starting to write, so I can deviate as much as I want. And I will — the process of writing is the process of discarding ideas as you get better ones, and of discovering a structure as you go. The most exciting thing for me is when I’m writing with no real idea how I’m going to pull together the five things I threw in earlier because they seemed like a good idea, but just don’t fit with each other. That’s when I always do my best work.

But I always need a structure, even if I later throw it out, and that’s what I’ve got now. Tomorrow, the writing proper can begin.

On the Rowling/Galbraith Thing, And Why Publishers Are Still Necessary

People seem to be reacting with astonishment to the fact that the book that J. K. Rowling published pseudonymously, through a major publisher, which got decent reviews in some newspapers, had only sold 449 copies in hardback in the last three months.

Those people have obviously never written books.

I’ve stopped looking at my Amazon stats, because to see them requires seeing the reviews, and my blood pressure won’t cope with that, but I looked at them regularly for the first eighteen months or so I published books. My books, as those who read them know, appeal only to a very niche market. They range in sales (or did when I last checked, a few months back) from one or two copies a day on average to one or two copies a month on average (I’m talking here about my proper books, not the little ebooks of short stories).

And (again, last I checked) my books were regularly in the top 10% of books sold on Amazon.

Not the top 10% self-published, or the top 10% ebooks, or the top 10% books analysing the music of the Monkees, or whatever — the top 10% books.

That means that on average, most books don’t sell. At all. On any given day, 90% of the books available on Amazon sell zero copies. It’s entirely possible, though I can’t look at anyone else’s stats, that a majority of them have never sold a copy to anyone who isn’t a close friend or relative of the author.

And this is why self-publishing is, ultimately, not a sustainable business model for writers, any more than sticking your albums up on bandcamp or CDBaby is for musicians. And it’s because record companies and publishers aren’t really in the business of selling music or books. The business they’re actually in is using money earned by huge sellers to subsidise those who don’t sell. Almost no writers (or musicians) earn out their advances — but some of those who do make *staggering* amounts of money. And that’s enough to offset the advances paid to the loss-making authors (most of them). And those advances are — for people who sell not all that many more books than I do — enough to live on.

And this is why, for all that I self-publish, I think the current trend of vilifying publishers and record companies as “unnecessary middle-men” is counter-productive (though the record companies don’t exactly make it easy on themselves by insisting on ever-greater monopolistic copyright “rights”). I self-publish because my stuff is *incredibly* niche, and there’s no point in even asking if a major publisher wants to put out something like my Seven Soldiers book.

This is, incidentally, why I’ve set the bar so incredibly low on my current Kickstarter — because the audience for *any* book these days, except huge bestsellers, is tiny, to the extent that if all my Twitter followers were to buy my next book (the Beach Boys one, which should be out in a couple of weeks) in the same week, it’d make the Sunday Times top ten for non-fiction.

The inefficiencies in the publishing system are the only reason that anyone under a very small handful of writers makes a living writing. As those inefficiencies disappear, we’re going to need to find a new way to fund writing, unless we want a world where J K Rowling is the only writer making a living at all.

Anyone have any ideas?