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Taking stock of 2016

Posted in Goals

Still Life and Street, M.C. Escher, 1937It's time to look back on 2016 and take stock — what worked, what didn't, and where I spent my time.

Accomplishments

I almost tripled 2015's word count, though my total of 343,000 fell just short of my target of 365,000.

For the first time, I managed to publish four books in eleven months — an entire series (The Chained Adept: 2/2016 thru 1/2017). The whole thing was an experiment in writing as a “pantser” (by the seat of my pants), without an outline (other than the basic inflection points of the story). I liked the freedom of the process and will continue that way.

I also packaged up and released two book bundles for the Hounds of Annwn series and expanded my international distribution.

Word Count 2016

Posted in Goals

table_abacus-gregor_reisch_margarita_philosophica_1508

Always good to know what the numbers say…

Words of fiction

2016 – 346,258
2015 – 119,603
2014 –   65,736
2013 – 210,470
2012 – 270,600

Total – 1,012,657

 

Goal for fiction for the new year

2017 – 365,000

Blog posts

2016 – 43,429
2015 – 30,619
2014 – 34,214
2013 – 28,714
2012 – 18,347

Total – 155,875

On a Crooked Track (excerpt) – Chapter 1

Posted in On a Crooked Track, and The Chained Adept

on-a-crooked-track-full-front-cover-widgetWood everywhere—the solid pier on which Penrys was trying to find her land legs, the ship moving gently beside it in the harbor at Ellech after almost two months at sea, and the entire forest of a city spread out before her, topped by the clusters of signals towers like groves of mountain spruce trees.

It smelled like home, all that wood—weathering away in the buildings, or freshly cut in the long arm of the hoist that was even now swinging cargo off the ship, or burning as firewood and flavoring the crisp spring breeze.

Home was in the woolens everyone wore, retentive of the odor of hard work and dinners long past. It was in the hair and beard dressings of the dock workers, leavened by the exotic aromas of some of the southern cargo, destined for the perfume manufactories.

Penrys inhaled deeply, feeling the rightness of the environment deep inside her. She hoped they’d have a few days to spend in the harbor cities at the base of the two rivers before moving upriver to Tavnastok so she could get started doing her research at the Collegium, but that would depend on her mentor, Vylkar, visible on the wharf at the end of the pier making arrangements for their cargo.

Najud and Munraz were having troubles of their own adjusting to an unmoving surface. “Come on,” she said, picking up her pack. “The sooner you start walking, the easier it will get.”

“Does it work that way for you?” Munraz asked, gamely lifting his own gear.

“Don’t know—I’ve only read about it.” She chuckled at his outraged expression. “I’ve never been on a ship before, not at sea. Never been in Stokemmi, either.”

Striding off down the pier, she called over her shoulder, “Let’s go explore.”

She made a game of anticipating exactly where her feet would meet the planks until her body adjusted to the change of terrain and she stopped stumbling. Her footing wasn’t improved by her hard-soled boots, donned for the first time in a while after the bare feet or soft shoes of shipboard life.

The three of them clattered to a stop behind Vylkar. Two piles were accumulating before him as they came off of the hoists. The larger one, goods destined for trade here in the city, were to be stored in the warehouse used by the Collegium for its own supplies. Cargo handlers were stowing the horse packs onto two wagons to move them there, and the draft horses waited patiently, their breath visible in the chilled air.

The laborers joked with each other as they worked, swapping insults that would bring a blush to a hardened campaigner. Many ships were in harbor, and this wharf, one of several, was busy, filled with people earning a living and working up a sweat doing it.

It was noisier, smellier, and far more vivid than the river harbor at Yenit Ping, and Penrys wondered what Najud and Munraz made of it. Except for the sea at their back and the size of the city, it could almost be Tavnastok, two hundred and fifty miles upstream from the mouth of the Lodentaf, just visible as a gap in the wharves far to the west along the shoreline. She’d seen sights like these there, running errands for the Collegium.

Their personal bags went into a hired two-wheeled pony cart. They would walk alongside it toward the center of Stokemmi to wherever they took rooms.

“We’ve fallen into the hands of talking bears,” Najud muttered. “Loud, smelly bears. Great big tall ones.”

“I warned you about the beards.” Penrys surveyed the wharves with a stranger’s eye and noted how many people were clearly natives (most of them), male (most of those), and bearded (all but the children). The few men of other nations, mostly officers from some of the ships in harbor, looked astonishingly youthful with their shaven faces.

“You’ll find plenty of foreigners here, and they shave,” she told them. “I was never sure if that was out of fastidiousness, or because they couldn’t raise a competitive beard and were afraid to try.”

Some wore their beards in braids, or loose down their chest. Others had neatly trimmed, no-nonsense specimens. And here and there, especially for the citizens who’d come down from the city on business, elaborate grooming and stiffening fashions were on display.

“Do they breed for it?” Munraz asked, in a hushed tone that said he wouldn’t be surprised by an affirmative answer.

“Hard to say. The boys compete with pride to see who can sprout first, and survey their fathers and older brothers with envy. Maybe the less hairy ones have had a harder time finding a bride, and so they’re all bearded now.”

She smiled at the open alarm on his face. “Don’t worry, you can keep a beardless face and foreign clothing—no one will think it strange. Foreigners mean money, here—trade and business and interesting foods.”

Najud looked unconvinced. She wondered if he thought he had to cultivate a beard to measure up, and then she wondered if he could. She’d seen him in stubble, but she’d never seen a bearded Zan, just the somewhat patchy results of a couple of months of neglect. That would never work here, in Ellech, and they didn’t expect to be here any longer than that. Better to choose a different display of manhood.

Ah, but how do you tell a man that? She suppressed a smile.

Grimdark vs noblebright

Posted in Heroes

stgeorgeThe words grimdark and noblebright arose as technical terms in the gaming world. There's a certain amount of dispute about the exact definitions there, with a tendency to paint them in black and white terms (such as the slur that noblebright is all about rainbows and unicorns and flawless heroes).

In fiction, by contrast, especially adventure fiction (in which I class things like Westerns and Fantasy) they have come to be used to reflect two different and opposed styles of story. Since there is some dispute about the definitions, it behooves me to offer my own.

GRIMDARK

The notion that the actions of one person can do little to improve this world in decline, that the forces of evil and inertia and temptation will ensure that all of us are doomed. The best we can hope for is a little struggle with morally ambiguous heroes to oppose danger and maybe rescue for a brief time a few others.

NOBLEBRIGHT

The notion that the actions of one person can make a difference, that even if the person is flawed and opposed by strong forces, he can (and wants to) rise to heroic actions that, even if they may cost him his life, improve the lives of others.

Let me explain why I am firmly in the noblebright camp.

Barreling down to the finish

Posted in Characters, On a Crooked Track, Plot, and The Chained Adept

elephant-race
I'm rolling down the home stretch for On a Crooked Track, just a couple of chapters from the end. Not only is the book almost finished, but it's the fourth and final book of The Chained Adept series, so it's been more of a marathon than a sprint. (Or, at least, it's a bigger dog than the others on the track).

The first book of the series was published in February, 2016, and the fourth and last will be published in early January, 2017. That's four books in one year, and a new “first” for me. (And if I'd been more focused over the summer and early fall, maybe I could have squeezed one more in.)

All four entries were written without outlines. In other words, instead of taking the “plotter” approach (outlining), like my first series The Hounds of Annwn, I went for the “pantser” approach (seat of my pants). Practically speaking, I knew what the major high-points in each book would entail when I started, more or less, but everything along the way was as much of a discovery for me as it is for my readers. I kept track of my structure to keep things moving along, so that the books would be well-formed, and was surprised how easy that was considering I didn't know where the plot was going until I got there.

pantserplotterYou see, I find what happens is that your subconscious knows what it wants. This may be only my eighth novel in the Fantasy genre, but I've read thousands of them, and my subconscious knows what makes a good one work.

The difference in day-to-day writing is subtle. Let's say you have a character to kill. If you were outlining, you might decide how to kill him, and then go back and plant the murder weapon in a room that you described in an earlier chapter so that it will be handy in the chapter where he dies. In other words, you come up with a rational plot element and make sure the story supports it.

But when you're “writing into the dark” (another term for “pantsing”), you end up writing a room description with various objects that make sense in the context of that scene, and then later on, when it's time to kill the character and you don't know how you're going to do it, the little reader in your head says… “but, but, I remember this clue… I bet it was that alien artifact with a curious design that was described a few chapters ago,” and your creative mind says, “hey, that's not a bad idea. I should make that the weapon instead of what I was vaguely thinking of.” Or you might even say, “wait, not the alien artifact — that's too obvious. But what about the seemingly innocuous case that was built to hold it? Wouldn't that be even better? That would let me add all sorts of misdirection.”

Cover Reveal – On a Crooked Track

Posted in Artwork, On a Crooked Track, and The Chained Adept

20161016-on-a-crooked-track5-frontHere's the final draft of the cover art for the fourth and final book of The Chained Adept series. There will still be some tinkering with the position of the author name for consistency with the other covers, but my cover artist Jake Bullock is done with the illustration.

I thought you might be interested in how this sort of thing evolved.

The scene I wanted to illustrate was Penrys returning to Tavnastok in Ellech. The famous Collegium lies across the river, but her passage is barred by some of her old colleagues.

See how it looks with the other three books in thumbnail, compared to other fantasy covers (click to enlarge). This is the acid test for legibility.

thumbnails-on-background-draft2

We began with three sketches to sort out the composition.

That dreaded event — a new computer

Posted in A Writer's Desk

Two connected laptops. Computer network. Computer generated image.

I'm a techie. I made my career in building and running small to medium software products and services companies. I've written code at the operating system level, analyzed performance in mainframes, and helped many large firms transition to the internet.

Back in 1976, contemplating a job offer, I can remember thinking to myself “Ya know, I bet computers are going to be interesting…”

So I'm not a computer illiterate, even if I'm no longer hands-on in current programming languages. I think of myself these days as a leading-edge computer consumer.

And every time I swap to a new computer, I have to remind myself of this.

I've had high-end business laptops ever since there were laptops, and I've continued that practice in the freelance world. I have a specialized workstation for photography (very big storage, fast processing), and another one just for writing (old, no unnecessary software to distract me), but like many people all my day-to-day ordinary work is spent with a big honking laptop. I buy them new, and run them until they drop, typically 6-7 years.

My long-past-warranty Win 7 Dell laptop has been crashing more and more lately, and I've anticipated the final failures by picking up a new Lenovo Win 10 system (Thinkpad P50). I splurged on disk (1 TB) and screen resolution (3840×2160) but otherwise kept it close to off-the-shelf.

I have a lot of software and many specialized tools. The essential tool for moving from one PC to another is a product called LapLink which allows you to copy everything from the old machine to the new, where most of it will end up running properly without further attention (a minor miracle). This process takes hours (or days), depending on whether you spend money for a special LapLink cable (recommended) or try to tough it out across a (much slower) local network. I have occasion to swap to a new machine every few years and, like time-lapse photography, I appreciate how much more convenient the process gets each time.

High-resolution screens and font-size management

So, what am I complaining about? Fonts. The inability, more than a year after Windows 10 was released, for many products to accommodate the font sizes needed for their internal menus in a high-resolution situation. As I do research into my problems, I discover this is not just a Win 10 issue, but has been around ever since the hi-res monitors have. And it still isn't fixed. The products blame Windows but I don't know who's right (yet).

It's not just an issue of hi-res. Windows 10 also allows you to amplify the native text setting to accommodate higher resolution. And that's where the problem seems to lie. The ordinary navigation menus in programs respect that text resizing. But products that have complex internal menus, often with icons rather than text, do not seem to respect the text resizing, so they shrink in a high-resolution situation, and don't resize.

I use four expensive and critical programs that are so complicated that they have internal menus: Photoshop and Lightroom, and Quicken and QuickBooks. And here's what they look like in Win 10.