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Summer Reading 2014

18 August, 2014

I’ve been talking a lot about writing recently, and I haven’t come to the end of my music-related posts either. However, it’s time for a break in all that, for one of my regularly scheduled reading updates – and as my reading time has been boosted immensely lately (one of the hazards of owning a new business that hasn’t yet got off the ground), I’ve been charging through books as quickly as I can choose them. Here are a few of my favourites.

Umbral – Antony Johnston & Christopher Mitten     Let’s break with tradition and start with a graphic novel. It’s fair to say I don’t read much in the way of comics – I’ve always found myself daunted by the back catalogues of the big publishers, Marvel and DC, and also fairly uninterested in their endless revamps of the same characters. However, I’ve recently dipped into indie comics for the first time and found a much more appealing selection awaiting me. Umbral is, actually, the perfect starting point for a reader like me: the sort of well-developed fantasy world I’d expect from a novel, a headstrong female protagonist, and smart, snappy dialogue. The story is intriguing and sinister in equal measure, the artwork appropriately moody, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Prince of Thorns – Mark Lawrence     Prince of Thorns is one of those books that has received a huge amount of hype ever since its release. It also falls fairly firmly into the ‘grimdark’ category, which is a section of the fantasy genre I find myself frequently drawn to, without ever actually liking the books I find there. I’m still not entirely sure I liked Prince of Thorns either, which might make its inclusion in this list a little odd – except I raced through it in less than a week and will probably pick up the rest of the series. In truth, I suspect Jorg, the central character, isn’t exactly supposed to be likeable, but Lawrence’s writing is so strong and compelling that I couldn’t help but enjoy this one.

Pantomime – Laura Lam     I picked up Pantomime following the implosion of its publishing imprint, Strange Chemistry. Now, I feel I should get one confession out of the way: Pantomime is a book set almost entirely in a circus, and I really hate circuses. I find them deeply creepy, and clowns even more so. It’s amazing, then, that I enjoyed Pantomime so much, a fact I attribute solely to the characters. Micah, in particular, is such a wonderful character, determined and vulnerable in equal measure. There are all sorts of mysteries scattered throughout the book, too, which feel appropriately placed rather than there simply to tease the reader – we discover aspects of the world as Micah does – yet Pantomime always puts the characters first, and rightly so.

A Natural History of Dragons – Marie Brennan     Finally, we come to one of my most recent reads. By the fact that I finished A Natural History of Dragons in less than three days, it would be fair to surmise I adored it. Female character fighting against the conventions of her day (Victorian era, at a guess, or Brennan’s equivalent of it), not to marry an inappropriate suitor, but to pursue her scientific fascination with dragons? What’s not to love?! Brennan also writes Victorian-style prose effortlessly, evoking a time and place without ever being stuffy, and making the whole book a joy to read. I almost ran out and bought the sequel as soon as I’d finished A Natural History, but managed to contain myself. Just (and probably not for much longer)!

This Writing Life: Music and Writing, Part 2

14 August, 2014

In my last post, I talked about music as a means of helping you to write, using it as a distraction, to improve concentration, or as a timer. Today, I’m looking at the other side of the equation: using specific music to help in the writing of specific projects.

It’s not uncommon to come across authors, particularly those writing series, who use music as inspiration or mood-setting. Certain songs will be associated with certain scenes, characters or locations – playing those songs immediately sets the tone and mood for writing about those things.

Now, I can’t tell you how to go out and pick a specific song for your protagonist, say. I’m not even sure you should. This is one of those situations where a song is much more likely to come to you at random, either because it gets stuck in your head while you’re writing said character, or reminds you of them when you hear it. Once you’ve found that song, though, listening to it can help you return to that character’s personality and thoughts, particularly when you’re struggling to capture them.

In the same way, music is a great tool for setting a mood more generally. I talked about Spotify playlists in my last post, and whilst I was referring to improving concentration for writing in general, there are several that set a much more specific mood. Perhaps your characters are going to a party and you want to hear what they’d be hearing and feel the same surge of adrenaline; perhaps you simply need to write a scene that’s joyful, or melancholic, or dark and angry. Finding music that evokes these emotions can be one of the quickest ways to translate that same emotion onto the page.

And then there are songs that are an inspiration in themselves. Songs often tell a story of their own (more on than in a future post!), and sometimes that story can spark ideas for your writing. As an example, the music and song titles from MONO’s ‘Hymn to the Immortal Wind’ album inspired me to write a short story filled with angry ghosts and snow-bound peaks; for some reason, those images simply popped into my head whilst listening to it (and it’s an entirely instrumental album, so that really was images conveyed through music). Other songs tell stories through their lyrics: certain lines from Vienna Teng’s ‘Blue Caravan’ send a shiver through me at every listen, and frequently make me imagine the world in which the featured character lives.

Music is just as personal a form of creativity as writing, and the same goes for listening to it. The emotions created in one listener will be entirely absent in another, or will call to mind something completely different. Learning which songs or artists trigger particular moods for you, or evoke certain characters, or simply tell stories that move you, can be invaluable for writers – they can be windows into worlds we wouldn’t otherwise have visited, and ways to revisit them when they otherwise seem lost.

This Writing Life: Writing and Music, Part 1

12 August, 2014

It’s fair to say that I’m a big fan of music. I’ve never played an instrument, but since my early teenage years I must have spent thousands of pounds on CDs, attending concerts, and various other music paraphernalia. (I did once do a rough estimate on what my CD collection had cost me up to that point; I think it came out at over £1000, and that was years ago, before I’d even left school.) I’ve been a semi-stalker/groupie of my favourite metal bands, I’ve travelled all over the country to see them play I’ve been to a festival in Germany twice, and there was a time when I was never out of a band t-shirt.

These days, I still attend gigs, still buy CDs and – most importantly for the purposes of this post – still glue myself to Spotify whenever I sit down to write. (Incidentally, if you want to know what I’ve been listening to recently, follow the link in the sidebar to my Last.fm page.) I’ve discovered, over time, that I can use music in a number of ways to actually make myself write, to improve my concentration, and to make myself write for longer.

Now, I know there are plenty of writers out there who need (or at least think they need) perfect silence in which to write. I might once have been one of them. However, by the time I was at university, I’d discovered that the rest of the world (a.k.a. everywhere that wasn’t the very rural landscape I grew up in) wasn’t very good at providing perfect silence. Music, then, became a way to block out other distractions and allow me to focus on my writing.

There’s one method, then: music as distraction. If the world around you is busy and frantic, putting on a pair of headphones with something soothing in them can be the perfect way to improve your mood and concentration. I’ve found Spotify particularly invaluable here, as they provide a number of ever-changing playlists designed specifically for these purposes (I’m listening to one called ‘Deep Focus’ right now – it’s almost entirely instrumental). Nothing lets me shut out the world quite like music, and with these playlists I can simply sit down at the computer, put one on, and think about nothing save the words on my page.

However, there are times when choosing a specific song or album can be equally invaluable. Sometimes that can be a means of providing a specific mood for a piece of writing, about which I’ll say more in my next post. When any music will do, though, I find putting on a full album particularly helpful when I’m struggling to focus on writing. This album is just 50 minutes long, I tell myself. All you have to do is sit here for 50 minutes and try to write something. No walking away from the computer until the album has finished.

Nearly always, by the time the music has finished, I’ll have written, and frequently find myself putting on more music to push myself for, say, another 50 minutes. You could use a timer in the same way, but I’m a bit of a stickler for listening to a whole album once I’ve started, so music works far better to keep me in my seat than a simple timer ever could.

So, I’ve talked about music as distraction, to improve your frame of mind, and to keep you in your seat. In my next post, I’ll be looking at specific music for specific projects: as a means of creating mood, getting into the heads of your characters, and even inspiring whole stories.

This Writing Life: Writing From Dreams

9 August, 2014

It’s fair to say that a lot of my writing attention has gone into a single world recently, namely the city of Ardom Wave which features so heavily in my first Ark & Fable novella (and in the sequel). Whilst considering writing a post about the creation of that setting, I started thinking about where the seeds for that particular idea grew from. When I remembered, I had to laugh: Ardom Wave came to me, quite literally, in a dream.

Now, I don’t usually pay much attention to dreams. Sometimes it’s fairly obvious what your brain is trying to tell you, and at other times it’s not worth trying to decipher the gibberish. Add to that the fact I rarely remember my dreams anyway, and you’ll realise I’m not about to suggest you start keeping a dream diary and mining it for every story you commit to the page. However, just occasionally, my sleeping mind provides me with something quite different, something I can quite clearly identify as a story, and something I might have come up with whilst awake.

These very rare dreams are, I find, like watching a film, start to finish. If I could write them down, I think they’d have a fairly coherent plot and be put together in the same way I’d usually plot a novel (I’m very visual when it comes to imagining scenes anyway, and I can usually describe the setting as though it were a film set). Of course, remembering that plot once awake is the tricky part, but I still tend to recall enough to build a story around what remains.

A couple of specific instances come to mind, here. One very much falls into that dreaming-an-entire-story category, and though I could only remember the last ‘scene’ once I woke, it left an incredibly striking image that I’ve been trying to work into a novel ever since. (In this particular instance, just that final scene provides both the entire setting and much of the plot leading up to it, and although I’ve written a nearly full draft of the story, it somehow didn’t work out as satisfactorily as I would have liked.)

And then we come to Ardom Wave. This time, there was no story, just a very clear image of a valley filled with pillars, attached to that name. I spent a good week convinced it was a setting I’d lifted from elsewhere, name and all, but Google revealed nothing and I came to the conclusion that the setting was one I’d imagined myself. Whilst the Ardom in the dream was an entirely natural landscape, turning it into a city for the Ark & Fable series seemed to come naturally, and has provided the perfect location to build those stories around.

As I said before, developing stories from dreams can be a haphazard business, and I certainly wouldn’t trust them to provide more than an occasional flash of inspiration. However, even that can be just what you need to spark an entire plot, character or world, so when your unconscious mind provides you with a helping hand, sometimes it’s wise to listen!

Amber: Getting Into Trouble Since 2012

3 August, 2014

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about my ongoing fan-fic for Chronicles of Tyria, but I thought it might be worth a mention today. My story over there is still going strong, and Amber – my asura thief – is still getting herself into an ever-increasing amount of trouble every fortnight. And when I think about what I’ve got planned for her over the next couple of months… Well, she’s in for quite a ride!

You can find links to Amber’s entire story HERE.

It’s also occurred to me that I’ve been writing this story since December 2012. 2012! I’m amazed it’s been so long, as the time has really flown by. However, there are now 30 episodes of Amber’s tale, which amounts to – at a rough guess – somewhere around 50,000 words of fiction. And it’s all free!

So, if you’re at all interested in Guild Wars 2, or indeed just free fiction (I don’t think the story is unintelligible for anyone who hasn’t played the game), have a look at Chronicles at Tyria. We’ve a whole wealth of excellent stories, which now include a web-comic and, as usual, a boat-load of videos and podcasts. And it’s all free, so what are you waiting for?

‘Star of the Everlasting’ Now Available

29 July, 2014

Late last week, I blogged about my forthcoming fantasy novella, ‘Star of the Everlasting’, the first in the Ark & Fable series. I’m pleased to say the novella is now available for purchase! Hurrah! For anyone who missed it, here’s the blurb:

In the cliff-top city of Ardom Wave, there are the nobles, the criminals – and those in between.

As middlemen ‒ or middlewomen, in their case ‒ Ark and her partner Fable tread the fine line between those in power and those most definitely not, all while keeping their heads down, staying ahead of the law, and always turning a profit.

Their ‘fine line’ is under threat, though, and Ark’s about to break her three cardinal rules. The first: never let a job turn personal, even when a face from your past comes calling. Lady Vesper might tug at Ark’s heart-strings, but as a noblewoman with a string of dead husbands, she’s a dangerous woman to get close to.

Except Vesper claims to have changed her ways and wants to escape the city ‒ an escape Ark would be willing to provide, if it wasn’t for rule number two: stay well away from magic.

Because Vesper is up to her elbows in the artifact trade, and if Ark is going to dig her out, she’ll have to break the most important rule of all, the one separating the middlemen from everyone else. She’s going to have to get her hands dirty.

To see the cover, and a few more details of the story, have a look at my previous post on the subject here. And, more importantly, to find the book on Amazon, go HERE.

It’s exciting to have another story out there in the world, particularly one that I hope will be the first in a series. I’m also experimenting with Amazon’s KDP Select program, in an attempt to give the novella an initial boost. There is of course a caveat there: the novella will only be available for the Kindle, at least for now, but if you’re not a Kindle owner, don’t despair! As with ‘Sanguine’, I’m happy to send out review copies in your choice of format – just leave a comment on this post, or send me an email (details on my About page).

It’s fair to say I love this series: I love the city (although I wouldn’t want to live there!), I love how much fun I had writing it, and I especially love the two central characters. If you fancy reading about ancient magic, crime capers and gun-fights, all with a twisty, twisty plot, I hope you’ll love them too.

This Writing Life: Forgetting Stats and Sales

28 July, 2014

I’ve been talking a lot about self-publishing recently, and particularly about my own self-published works. Not surprisingly, a lot of my writing time has been dedicated to thinking about them, from the technical aspects of where to upload them and how best to go about promotion, to the more creative side of ‘what’s going to happen in the sequel?’. Something writers don’t talk about very often is that, no matter how calm and collected they might appear, there’s always worry associated with putting a new story out into the world. No-one wants to produce a flop. Everyone wants, no matter how modest they are about their own work, to be successful.

The thing is, in publishing at least, ‘success’ is both impossible to predict and difficult to achieve. Not only that, but one writer’s success is another’s abject failure. There’s no single recipe to great sales, a wide audience and lots of fans – and even if there were, that definition of ‘great’, ‘wide’ and ‘lots’ will depend entirely on the author in question.

This, then, is why I want to propose a new manner of working, one I’ve been thinking about more and more lately. Put simply: stop worrying about success. Or at least, success as defined by and relying on other people. Having writing goals is all very well, but as writers we’re constantly looking for the approbation of others. We want a certain number of sales, of blog views, of comments or reviews. These days, that even extends to numbers of Twitter followers and fans on Goodreads. These can be indicators of success, certainly (with sales being the biggest and most important in commercial publishing), but they’re largely things out of the control of the individual writer.

Despite that, of course, most of us spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about them. They take up time, and energy, and headspace as we try to deal with and then remedy them – time, energy and headspace that could be better spent. Better spent doing what, exactly? Well, you’re a writer. What do you think?

I’m not saying every writer should cease paying attention to the money they’re making and completely retreat from social media; if we want to publish in any sense of the world, we can’t exist in a vacuum. However, perhaps we shouldn’t be letting things we can’t control take over our lives, and instead focus on the things we can control. Not getting the sales you want? Write something else. No-one read your last blog post? Write another. No re-tweets of that really funny joke you just made? Start a conversation instead. Instead of worrying, and worrying, and worrying, turn your anxieties into writing, writing, writing. Not only will you feel better, but you’ll have produced something at the end of it – and that something might just be what brings you success after all.

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