Book News

Two quick items: first, I’ve completed the revisions of Very Truly Run After, the sequel to Vikings at Dino’s; it’s time to begin thinking about publication. This is very cool, and also means I can start thinking about the next book.

And second, we’re moving forward on the publication process for Through Darkest Zymurgia!. The cover and internals are complete, and I’ll be sending them to the printer for proofing some time next week. The above is the front cover, courtesy of Jason Bach and Julie Davis (on whom be praise!).

O Frabjous Day, Calloo, Callay!

As of this morning I have completed the first draft (106K words) of Very Truly Run After, the further adventures of Michael Henderson, much to the joy and delight of my first listeners.

Most authors have first readers; I have first listeners, which is to say a couple of folks I read the book too as I go along. I find that reading prose aloud is the best way to make sure it flows smoothly, and it means that I catch fragments and repeated words and the like sooner rather than later.

My first drafts are fairly complete as they stand, since I'm writing by the seat of my pants and since I usually begin a writing session by revising the work of the previous session. But there's still a lot to do. I need to re-read it for consistency, so that I don't change eye-color or given names in mid-stream; I need to clean up typos and peculiar spellings; and I usually end up adding a little color and description to scenes as I go along.

Nevertheless, this is a major milestone—the major milestone, really—and I'm quite pleased.

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photo credit: John Tenniel, public domain.

SJ Rozan: The Lydia Chin/Bill Smith Mysteries

Lydia Chin is an American-Born Chinese who lives in New York City's China Town with her widowed mother; Bill Smith is an Army brat and one time bad-boy. Together, they are the most interesting pair of PIs I've had the pleasure to run across in maybe ever.

Every successful mystery series has a gimmick; in Rozan's case, the gimmick is that she has two quite different main characters, and her books alternate viewpoints between them. In Lydia Chin's outings the plots center around the Chinese community in New York, and Bill Smith helps her out. Bill Smith's tales are more traditional private eye novels, with Lydia Chin providing legwork and color. I tend to prefer the Bill Smith books, but both are outstanding—and my favorites in the series are the Lydia Chin books Shanghai Moon and Ghost Hero.

In Shanghai Moon Lydia is tracing the history of a legendary piece of jewelry that dates back to WWII-era Shanghai, and the history of the people who owned it: a Jewish refugee from Austria (did you know that some Jews fled from the Nazis to Shanghai?), a Nationalist general, a German officer in disgrace, a secret supporter of then General Mao. Ghost Hero takes place in the world of contemporary Chinese art, and harks back to the days of Tianamen Square. Both of them kept me up late.

But the eleven Lydia Chin/Bill Smith books are a lot more than pair of loosely related mystery series, and that's entirely due to the chemistry between the two characters. They aren't lovers; they aren't dating; but everyone assumes that they must be. In fact, Lydia Chin and Bill Smith are a couple in every way but the actual.

It's not for lack of trying on Bill Smith's part; it's clear from the first book that there's no one in Bill's life other than Lydia, and there isn't going to be. But it's to no avail. You see, Lydia's mother was born in China and wants her to marry a worthy and prosperous Chinese gentleman and give over her disreputable profession. She hasn't a single kind word to say about Bill Smith, who is not only not Chinese, he's not prosperous, and his profession is equally and identically disreputable.

But then, slowly, you learn that dear old Mom's just the excuse. Old Bill has some serious baggage that we learn about very slowly over the course of the series. He's committed to Lydia but he can't open himself fully even to her, and she's not going to settle for less than that.

Mind you, that's never said in so many words; neither Lydia nor Bill are inclined to obsess verbally about their relationship. But it's there, and it's a pleasure to watch it evolve over the course of the series.

Highly recommended. The first book is called China Trade; you should check it out. (H/T Julie at Happy Catholic.)

Christmas Break

This year the chief joy of my Christmas break from work, apart from Christmas itself, is that I can get up first thing in the morning, before anyone else is up, and work on Very Truly Run After. That's the best time of day for writing, for me, especially if I know the night before that that's what I'm going to do. My subconscious gets to chew on the story all night, and in the morning I make coffee, say Morning Prayer, and get to work. And because I'm not going into the office, I have both the time and energy to make something of it. I'm now at about 87.5K words and heading into the last act.

So, here's to hoping that your Christmas break is as pleasant and creative as mine!

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photo credit: DaPuglet Santa’s Little Pug Reindeer via photopin (license)

Turning the Corner

The joy of writing a novel by the seat of my pants is that I get to find out what the story is as I go along. There's a wonderful freedom to it. I need a character, so I make one up; and the character comes to life and has his own needs and wants and needs his own backstory, and this suggests new events and conflicts and complications.

In my current work in progress, for example, Michael Henderson (of Vikings at Dino's) begins the novel in the middle of a firefight…in the middle of a department/grocery store:

I shrank down behind the display of crab lozenges ("As good as Mother used to make!") as another round whizzed past my ear. I was longing to mash the button nestled under my left thumb but knew that I mustn't. The wrought iron of the display rack might have given me more comfort if its frills and scroll work hadn't had so many gaps in them.

Mr. Monocle, which is to say the fellow with whom I was sharing the scant cover of the display, glanced sideways at the contraption in my right hand.

"Bit overpowered for the situation, don't you think?" he said, returning fire with yet another carefully aimed shot from his long pistol. There was a wisp of steam and a report that was much quieter than I would have expected. "This is small arms work, what? But perhaps you know your business best."

"It's all I've got," I said.

He was looking down the iron sights of his long pistol when I said it, and so help me he lowered the gun and studied me through his monocle. His handlebar mustache twitched.

"All you've got?" he said in a tone of faint consternation. He continued to study me until the next bullet from the fellow down the aisle knocked the natty bowler off his head.

"Oh, blast," he said. "Brand new, that was." Turning back to the matter at hand he fired a quick shot—"Hah, that will teach him to show his head!"—and then applied himself once more to looking down the sights.

He was a sight himself. He was wearing a form-fitting coat of blue broadcloth, equally form-fitting cream trousers, and high black boots. Around his neck was a cravat sort-of-thing that had the kind of artless folds that only come with untold hours of practice. There was a long knife tucked in a sheath on the outside of one of his boots, and a holster of plain black leather at his waist. The holster was empty, of course.

At this point I had no idea who "Mr. Monocle" was; even the name was just a nickname Michael gave him, because Michael often gives nicknames to people whose names he doesn't know. The whole point was to put Michael in a situation, so that I could figure out what he was doing there. The story would grow from that.

And so, almost 80,000 words later, it has; and "Mr. Monocle," whom I thought a throw-away character at the time, proved too much fun to throw away. It's fair to say that the whole story—plot, setting, and world—grew out of this vision of a well-armed gentleman in vaguely Regency attire in a Target or Walmart-like store.

And as it begins, so it continues: I just follow along and see where it goes.

But eventually there comes a time where the continuous invention has to stop—a time where instead of introducing new elements, I have to look to resolving all of the conflicts. I call this "turning the corner", and it's a difficult moment.

Usually by this time in the story I have a number of notions in my head about how the book will end, usually in the form of one or more brief scene-lets. And it's at the point that even while writing by the seat of my pants I need to figure out at least the broad sequence of events that leads to those outcomes.

This is generally a difficult moment: first, because it involves planning things out in advance, a dangerous activity for a pantser; and second, because of the way a pantser's mind works. Or, at least, the way my mind works.

See, it isn't really true that I don't plan things out in advance. It's just that I leave that sort of thing to my subconscious, or, as I call it, my back-brain. When I've got a creative problem that's giving me trouble, I chew on it a bit, and then move on to other things. That loads it into my back-brain. Then I come back to it a day or two days or a week later, and there's the answer, all ready for me to capture in pixels. (This works in software development, too.)

And sometimes I come back to it, and sit down and try to write, and it's like pulling teeth. That usually means that my back-brain isn't done yet. So I go away and come back the next day, or two…and sometimes it still isn't done.

When November started, I was about 70,000 words into Very Truly Run After; as of today, as the month draws to a close, I'm at not quite 80,000. Not very good progress by NaNoWriMo standards, but I'm more than satisfied. I spent a couple of weeks wrestling with a couple of scenes; but really, I was wrestling with turning the corner. Now, I think, I've pretty well got it.

There's still plenty of room for invention, mind you: the end isn't that close. But now I can see the trail that will get me to the climax, and that's a very good feeling indeed for Thanksgiving weekend.

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photo credit: niiicedave _IGP9494.PEF CA-70 NB Feather River Scenic Byway Bute County California via photopin (license)

NaNoWriMo!

National Novel Writing Month is an event I usually honor in the breach; I begin a new novel when I have time, energy, and an idea I’m sufficiently intrigued by to want to chase for six months or a year. On top of that, the idea of completing a novel in one month is looney tunes; I seem to do most of the interesting work in my back brain, and that requires time for stuff to simmer. I usually manage one to three writing sessions a week, which three being the least usual; but I don’t necessarily get more down in three sessions than in two.

All that said, I’m glad to say that I’m now over 70,000 words into my current work in progress, Very Truly Run After; and that I plan to be working on it regularly throughout NaNoWriMo.

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photo credit: Marcin Wichary via photopin (license)

A Night in the Lonesome October

Halloween is approaching, and Roger Zelazny's A Night in the Lonesome October is a delightful way to spend some of the evenings leading up to it.

The book takes place during a certain October in the late 1800's—a year when the full moon coincided with Halloween—and has one chapter for each day of the month. It's told by a somewhat shaggy dog named Snuff, who is preparing for a certain event that will take place under that full moon. Snuff's not in this all by himself, of course. He's working for, or more accurately with, a strangely familiar fellow named Jack. Jack has a large magic knife, and seems to be of the wizardly persuasion. One gathers that he and Snuff have played this game many times before, and while they do some of the preparations together there are many things that Snuff does on his own.

For example, Snuff's a watch dog, and it's his job to keep an eye on things: specifically, the Thing in the Wardrobe, the Thing in the Steamer Trunk, the Thing in the Circle, and the Things in the Mirror. It's essential he does so, because otherwise the Things might get out of hand.

But he also has to keep an eye on the other players, of whom there are many, including Rastov the Russian monk and his snake Quicklime; the body snatchers Morris and McCab, and their owl; the Count, and his bat; Crazy Jill the witch and her cat, Graymalk. The Great Detective makes an appearance, as does an odd fellow named Larry Talbot. All the players have gathered for this event on the last day of October, when Something will Happen…or, perhaps, won't Happen, depending on how the game goes. Snuff’s not only a watch dog, though he likes being a watch dog much more than what he used to be before Jack gave him this job….

I won't give it away; Zelazny has too much fun letting you in on things little by little.

This is Zelazny's last novel, and one of his most fun, and I don't think it's ever gotten quite the recognition it deserves. It's a little bit horror, a little bit funny, a little bit goofy, and all-in-all a real gem. Oh, and it has illustrations by Gahan Wilson, another name that's less well known now than it used to be. Highly recommended.

Ulysses: Now Better for Blogging

Ulysses now exports to WordPress. The evening after publishing my post about using Ulysses as a blogging tool, I checked for software updates and found a new version of Ulysses that will publish directly to WordPress blogs. I tried it and it worked a treat. Instead of four clicks, a paste, and a title copy, it's now basically one click. Very, very nice.

DropBox Sync. In addition, I took Ulysses' DropBox sync for a spin. (You are using DropBox, aren't you?) The DropBox sync appears to work just fine across both OSX and iOS; however, there are some limitations. Normal Ulysses "sheets" can contain images, annotations, footnotes, comments, file attachments, and the like, none of which exist in vanilla MarkDown, or really, fit into Markdown's pure text paradigm; and so sheets saved in external DropBox folders can't use them. You're protected against data loss, though: if you try to copy a sheet that uses these advanced features from a folder that supports them to one that doesn't you're warned and given a chance to change your mind.

A Note. I should add: I'm writing about these tools because I use them and like them. I have no relationship with any of the tool vendors I'll be talking about in this series, and I'm not getting any kind of consideration from them for talking about their products. 'nuff said.

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photo credit: Rob Hurson Molly Bloom via photopin (license)

Draft Cover Art for Through Darkest Zymurgia

The publishing process for Through Darkest Zymurgia is proceeding apace! The layout of the inside of the book is complete, and now we just need to get the cover squared away. This is the current draft of the cover image, featuring professors Thintwhistle and Carbuncle and their dog Bruno investigating a new find, courtesy of Jason Bach.

The book is the story of a scientific expedition from Glastonbury University in Angland to the fabled land of Zymurgia. The world of Angland and Zymurgia is rather different than our own, being flat, unbounded (so far as anyone knows). Prof. Thintwhistle has this to say:

It is thought by the simple that if one were to ascend to the top of a sufficiently high tower, equipped with a sufficiently powerful telescope, that one would be able to see the entire world. This is, of course, absurd, and any child with an ounce of sense can see why. If the world really does stretch infinitely far in all directions, and there is no reason to believe that it does not, any tower of finite height is but a minuscule bump. At a sufficient distance from the tower, even a low range of hills would hide many details beyond. Foreshortening would have muddled all detail long before that.

Somewhat more lofty objections are made, late at night, by the sophomores at Glastonbury. “Well, now”, one would ask, “if you did, just for the sake of argument, ascend a high enough tower to see beyond the edge of the Known World, what would you see there? Nothing! It’s unknown, innit!” “But would it be blank? Or would it become Known as you watched?” Someone else would point out that the Lands of Fable lie beyond the Known World; it wouldn’t be blank, just uncertain. Eventually someone would drag out that horrid old chestnut, “If a country is inhabited, but nobody observes it, does it have a culture?” Yes, I am afraid I remember those days very well.

The Problem of Blogging, Solved!

In my last post I laid out my requirements for a blogging tool. I said:

Bottom-line. I wanted a solution that would let me compose blog posts off-line, using whatever hardware I had to hand; would let me move from device to device as convenience dictated; would keep the posts resident in one place on my local machine; and would streamline the posting process.

My current favored solution is a tool called Ulysses, which you can see in the screen shot at the top of the page. Ulysses is a tool for getting your words down, and then getting them where they need to go.

Let's start by taking a quick look at the default window layout (pictured above), which shows three columns. The first column displays a tree of folders that you use to organize your work. You can define any set of folders you like. As you can see, I've got a Blog Posts folder that contains a Zymurgia House folder, which in turn contains folders for the different categories of blog post I write. The middle column contains a list of the documents (Ulysses calls them sheets) in the current folder and its subfolders; and the third column contains the text of the current document.

To begin a new post, I select the Zymurgia House folder and press the new document icon on the toolbar; and then I just start typing. Once I've finished the post, I drag it from the Zymurgia House folder to the appropriate category folder for safe-keeping; and I can easily copy and paste the content into WordPress.

Ulysses and My Requirements

So, how does Ulysses stack up against my requirements? Let's take them one at a time.

Access. Ulysses has versions for OSX and iOS (sorry, Windows users), and it syncs your data between your devices over iCloud. I've written posts on my desktop, my laptop, and my iPad, and they all sync up perfectly well. iCloud is not DropBox, which I much prefer, but it gets the job done. Consequently, I can work anywhere, and move seamlessly from one machine to another. (You can also sync to an external folder, which might be in your DropBox, but there are limitations so I haven't tried that yet. And if you don't like iCloud syncing, you can turn that off and just keep your files locally.)

Offline Composition. Yeah, got that. I can write whether I've got a network connection or not, and let Ulysses sync things up later.

On-Site Backup. Ulysses stores your documents to your local disk, as well as to iCloud; and it stores them as plain text files. You have to know where to find them, mind you; the information is in the Ulysses FAQ. So even if iCloud went away, I'd still have my files; and because they are plain text files I'll always be able to read them. And since your documents are synced via iCloud, you also get off-site backup as well.

No Formatting Fix-ups When Posting. And here's where Ulysses really shines. Ulysses saves your documents in a text format called Markdown. It's a simple format, easily learned, which lets you add formatted headings, boldface, italics, hyperlinks, and so forth to a plain text document. If you've ever used a Wiki, it's basically a kind of wiki markup. It's intended to be both easy and pleasant to read, and easy and pleasant to type. (Actually, Ulysses supports several markup styles; the default is something called Markdown XL.)

For example, to make something bold you enclose it in double-asterisks. To put something in italics, you enclose it in underscores.

This is **bold** and this is _underlined_.

But Ulysses is more than just a fancy text editor. You can enter bold and italics using these special characters, or you can use the usual command keys you'd use in Word or most other programs. Ulysses displays both the special characters, and the style you asked for, as you can see in the screen shot.

Because it's using Markdown, Ulysses can easily convert your prose to a wide variety of formats, including plain text, HTML, Word, and ePub format (used by e-readers). You click the "export" button on the toolbar, and it will export the desired format. More than that, it can export it in a number of ways: to a disk file, in another application, or (my preferred approach) directly to the clipboard.

Uploading a Blog Post

When I finish this post, I will upload it to the blog as follows:

  1. Press the Export button in the toolbar. Select HTML from the pulldown, and press the "Copy to Clipboard" button.
  2. Open the WordPress dashboard in my browser, and create a New Post.
  3. Select the "Text" tab rather than the "Visual" tab in the WordPress editor.
  4. Paste the post.
  5. Cut and paste the post's title into the Title field.

As far as formatting fix-up goes, #5 is the only step. And in my normal usage, HTML is always already selected in step #1, and the "Text" tab is always already selected in step #3. I get my text into WordPress without about four clicks of the mouse.

After that, of course, I need to set categories and tags and attach a featured image…but all of those are easier to do in the WordPress GUI, and they don't involve editing the body of the post.

Caveats

Ulysses isn't for everybody. First, it's an OSX/iOS app, which leaves out a lot of people. It's not free, either (though there's a free OSX demo you can try), though I find the cost to be worth it (and as a working programmer, I don't mind paying for a good tool; the workman is worth his wages). And, of course, you need to be willing to deal with Markdown. But given that, it's just about perfect for my current needs.

Other Features

The real point of Ulysses is to make it easier for you to get started writing. You've got an idea, you start Ulysses, you hit the "New Sheet" button, and start writing. Later, you can drag the sheet to whatever folder you like. But it's there, and you can find it again. You don't need to worry about where to save it or what to call the file, and because the formatting is so simple you don't get caught up in trivialities like playing with the header font. You just start writing.

You can work on your documents anywhere, with or without a 'Net; you've got both an on-site and off-site backup; and you can export your writing in most formats you're likely to need. What's not to like?

Update: Ulysses now exports directly to WordPress!