Sunday, September 30, 2012

Progress and motivation

Here is another little tool I use to help move my writing along.

This is not for everyone, I know, but I'm a bit of a measurement freak at times. When I'm tackling a big project, I need to see my progress somehow.

Writing a novel is a big project. Here's what I use to give a visual guide of how I'm doing. This is done in Excel. There's a table of data, and a graph.

First off, I need to explain how I write. I don't find it easy to find my way around a 400 page document, so I break it up into easy chunks. Ghosts wound up split over 13 separate documents. I give each document a meaningful name related to the story at that point, then prefix it with a number to ensure the documents appear in the correct sequence.

This makes it more difficult to keep track of overall word count, which is where the spreadsheet came in originally. There is a column for each document, where I keep note of the separate word counts. This is then easy to total up.

To turn it into a graph over time, I create separate rows showing the word count on particular dates. So as not to have too many rows, I usually create a row per week rather than per day. This shows how the word count rises over time - the red line in the graph.

But progress is more meaningful with a target to aim for. So, I have a "Target" row showing where I want the word count to be at some point in the future. It is then a simple formula to work out what the target should be on any given day, which automatically populates the target column, and produces the blue line on the graph.

You can see, I started off badly and have been slightly below target ever since. But I don't feel too bad about it, because I'm still on course for a reasonable word count by the end of the year. I'm pitching short of full novel length for a first run through, because I find it easier to add words in where scenes or characters need development, than to trim out later on.

I find measurements like this can be a double-edged sword.

If I'm doing reasonably well, and I've got some momentum going, then seeing the chart climb helps keep me on the straight and narrow. I feel good when I'm on course, and I can kick myself into making the extra effort to keep it that way. This worked for me while I was drafting Ghosts, and it seems to be working now. That little chart helps draw me back each evening, even if I only have the energy to add a couple of hundred words. I stay in the habit of writing each day.

However, if I'm not feeling the love, then no amount of graphing will motivate me, and I'm more likely to get depressed at the targets I'm missing. This happened when I first started Tiamat's Nest. I drafted some scenes, started tracking with the aim of completing a draft in a few months, then ran out of steam.

I don't believe in becoming a slave to targets, so the best thing to do in that case is acknowledge that this is not the right time, and set it aside. That's what I did with this WIP three years ago, and now I'm back with a vengeance!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Next Big Thing blog hop

I thought I'd been laying low in the blogging world recently, but clearly not low enough. This month, I got tagged twice for the Next Big Thing blog hop, first by the lovely Steph at Steph Across the Border, then by Pam Godwin and Pam is not the kind of woman you say "No" to. Not when she has you in her sights. So here goes...

The idea of this blog hop is to answer ten questions about my WIP, then tag some more victims.

I think you've heard enough by now about Ghosts of Innocence, so I'm going to introduce my next WIP instead.

1. What is the working title of your book?
Tiamat's Nest.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?
I honestly can't remember. I wrote the first chapters three years ago as an experiment. I had been querying Ghosts (first time around) while working on a sequel, but I was having second thoughts about investing time in a sequel if I couldn't launch the first book. I was looking for a project that would take me in a fresh direction. Somehow the story emerged from a mixture of Oxford University, computers, and climate change.

3. What genre does your book fall under?
Science fiction.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Tricky. I only ever envision my characters as themselves. I have never tried to cast suitable actors - to my mind, they are all way too "pretty" to be credible as ordinary people.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
In a world battling lethal climate change, a reclusive professor discovers that the environmental disaster was deliberately engineered, and fights to save himself, his family - and the rest of humanity.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Undecided at this time. I will likely try the traditional route, because I love books on shelves and want to see mine amongst them.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I am still writing it. That's what "Work In Progress" means! OK, ignoring the three-year lapse since writing the opening scenes, I'm aiming to complete a rough first draft in six months.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Another tricky question. The one that comes to mind is "The Pelican Brief", because of the parallels (researcher uncovers environmental conspiracy and flees for life pursued by all sorts of deadly nasties) but (a) That's not sci-fi, and (b) I would not presume to compare my writing with John Grisham's.

9. Who or What inspired you to write this book?
I get so steamed up by the deceitful strategies used by climate change skeptics to demonize scientists, I wanted a way to vent. They are so full of a "climate change conspiracy" when in reality the people with the most to gain from any conspiracy are the energy tycoons. The heart of this story is the awful consequence of a successful "business as usual" conspiracy.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Gory deaths, virtual worlds, and a vengeful artificial intelligence.

Now I am passing the tag on to the following wonderful writers (hoping you haven't already been tagged):

Jean Davis
Carrie Butler
Crystal Collier
Jennifer Burke
Stella Telleria

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Stalking agents

Seeing as I am actively querying, I thought I'd share something about my process.

The tool I use is nothing exciting. It's just a spreadsheet containing what I consider to be relevant details of each agency.

Probably too small to make out details here, so I'll zoom in a bit on each section...

Name/Website/address: All pretty self-explanatory. The thing to note here is the traffic light coloring. This is the end result of other information further on. Any clear red flags turn this overall indication red. Bright greens are reserved for those that definitely deal in my genre and have a good record. Pale green and yellow show some concerns in the details.

One thing that throws up a red flag in this technological age, is an agency without a web presence. If I can't find a web site, and most especially if the site is unused or invalid, then I won't bother any further.

Sci-fi: This is a crucial question for me, and is trickier than it looks. Some agents are very explicit in ruling out sci-fi. Of all the genres agents might explicitly list as something they don't represent, sci-fi/fantasy seems top of the heap. It makes me feel very unwanted as a writer. A few (a very small few) explicitly say they do. This leaves a large grey and ambiguous territory in the middle.

There's also a lot of conflicting information out there. Searches for sci-fi on sites like Publishers Marketplace can yield apparent hits that are contradicted on agency websites. I usually look for several pieces of consistent information before labeling a definite "Yes".

That still leaves the many agents who accept "genre fiction" or "commercial fiction" with little additional information. Nobody seems all that clear on what that means. Sometimes all you can do is query and hope.

Source: When I started building my agent list, I felt it important to keep a note of where I first saw the name. It was a strange and confusing world, and I worried that I might not be able to trace back to the source of information. Now the names are like old friends, I don't pay much attention to this column.

Alerts/track record: Important information, especially alerts. I am careful to check sites like P&E and Writers Beware.

Contact: Most agencies have several agents, each with their own specialties. Before I query, I need to identify which (maybe several) individuals are candidates to contact. Of course, I will only query one agent at a given agency at any one time.

Submissions: A very important piece of information before going further. I use a cryptic code to list submission requirements, but it is fairly self explanatory. Do they want a query - not as dumb a question as it sounds, some agencies require you to submit via their web site! Do they want a synopsis or not? A bio? Do they want pages included (5 pages, 1st chapter, 50 pages) - the requirements differ. Any additional constraints, such as a short synopsis, or query word count limit.

Most importantly - do they accept email? I have sent some queries snail mail, but it is such an onerous process in comparison, that not accepting email submissions is a significant handicap in my opinion.

Of course, all these details are important to re-check immediately before querying. Agents move around. Is the contact I made a note of still at that agency? Submission requirements change. Alerts change over time too.

So, I'm curious. For those of you who are currently querying, or have done so in the past, does any of this sound familiar? Any other tips you'd like to share?

Saturday, September 8, 2012


Making good progress with the first draft of Tiamat's Nest. More of that another time, but this post is about research.

I haven't yet had to do much research for my writing. Nothing like, say, a novel in a historical setting where authors like Gary Corby or Christian Jacq are clearly steeped in the cultures they have set their works in.

The people in Ghosts of Innocence have never even heard of Earth, so nothing of our history or culture can have any factual bearing on the story. I had a blank slate on which to craft worlds of my own. The most I had to do was check some calculations on orbital periods, and review the span of space my story was set in against the overall layout of the galaxy, to make sure I wasn't making any blatant astronomical blunders.

Tiamat's Nest is different. It is set on Earth, later this century. A markedly changed Earth, to be sure, but there needs to be some recognizable bedrock to the imaginary places I am building.

Part of the story is set in an ice-free Greenland, where new communities have become established on the newly-habitable land.

So, I needed a map of Greenland.

I set off with naive optimism, thinking it would be easy to find a decent map charting the features buried under the ice.

Search after search soon showed that, to most people, Greenland is a thin ribbon of fjords surrounding a big blank white space. Printed atlases are no better. Most of them cover it at such a small scale they don't even mark the human settlements there today.

Today, I visited the local library, hoping they would have more useful references.

They had some impressive atlases. All of them added precisely nothing to the meager store of knowledge I already had. The librarian tried to help, but told me that they had not long ago disposed of their collection of maps because nobody ever referred to them. The largest nearby bookstore still had a map room, though.

So, off to the bookstore.

I found a section with maps. Nothing of Greenland. I asked at the counter, explaining what I was looking for.

The lady thought for a moment, and remembered that there was indeed a map of Greenland sitting in a back room waiting to be returned because they'd had it so long they decided they were never going to sell it.

Talk about "meant to be"!

So, now I have something to work on. It's still mostly blank in the center, but it is a map with a scale, with existing settlements and other features named. I am now overlaying this with a topographic view I found online showing the true ground level under the ice. I figure that I am safe adding made-up names to features (like the large inland sea which would appear if the ice melted) because the first settlers in this new land would likely have a free hand naming things anyway. Who's going to argue?
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