I think this is a great move for Amazon, expanding their visibility and accessibility. As a Kobo user, I’m not able to buy anything off Amazon for my Kobo; which means that I’m not reading some indie author’s books. It’s good to see this kind of change!

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A World of Your Own: Worldbuilding part 3.

So we’ve touched on the importance of world building for any story–now it’s time to talk about creating your own fantasy worlds.
This is something I’m genuinely interested in, but have never really looked into until recently. The first novel I’d planned–started more than ten years ago and never completed–took place on a created world I called Gi. It had its own mythology, races, geography, and system for magic. I created it from the ground up, but I never had a process for doing so–I just did it. And because of that, there are numerous inconsistencies.
Now, I’m trying to rebuild that world in anticipation of the “Universe” I want to create as a setting for novels and short stories. The Astrologers–featured on earlier posts on this blog–is the first in this revamped world.
But how does one go about creating a whole new world? As you can imagine, it’s not too different from world building a non-speculative universe, as described in my last post. The difference here is that you have a lot more leeway in what you create, and how everything fits together.
That, however, creates an issue: the more freedom you have in creating your world, the easier it is to develop inconsistencies, as I did. It’s easier to forget a small detail you mentioned several stories ago, or give a character a name that doesn’t really fit into their culture. An especially important danger is changing something major part way through your project (i.e. ‘retconning,’), and forgetting to also change all the little things it affects.

Again, consistency is the most important thing!

So, of course, the main thing is being consistent. However creative your universe is, it should be self consistent. Your people behave a certain way; the geography makes scientific sense; characters of the same race share cultural values, language, and attitudes. World building is a large project, but as long as you’re being consistent, it’s not really that difficult.

What’s different?

The easiest step to take from there is to decide how your world is different from the real world. Does it involve magic, and if so, how does it work? Is this a completely different planet, or are you using Earth as a “template” and changing details? Dos the history of your world follow a similar pattern as our own? Are there comparable social groups? What sort of natural resources are important, and are they different from what we find on Earth? They say you have to know the rules before you can break them, and it’s the same idea here: start with what you know, and go from there.

How different?

This is where you can start getting really creative. Once you know the similarities between our world and your created world, you can start to take liberties. Really, you can go crazy here; the idea is to create something entirely unique, so the more creative you are, the better. You don’t have to think up the details right now, just the major points. In fact, getting mired in details is where I got into trouble with Gi as explained above: I wanted to add all these neat little examples of my creativity that it eventually collapsed upon itself because there was no unifying structure beneath them. So this step should be more conceptual than practical: decide what you want to accomplish with your world, what it will mean to the story, and how you can go about accomplishing that.

Details, details, details…

This is where the job gets challenging–though not difficult, as this should still be fun! There are a lot of websites around that can help you figure out what details to include, and to what extent. Maybe your story centres around a sociopolitical climate–so the variety of food people grow isn’t all that important. Perhaps you want to develop a deeply intricate religious culture, so mythology and theology should be key points of research for you. Or maybe you want to just write a hack and slash adventure, so thinking about politics or religion or history is needless.
But there are certain things you should generally be thinking about, without which you’re not really building a world in the first place. I’d say the most important–and the place to start–is your map. ProFantasy.com has a great suite of software that can help with this; it’s not cheap, but there is a free trial that can get you a quick ‘n dirty map. Or, draw your own.

The next most important piece of the puzzle is who populates the world. Are they humans? Elves, dwarves or orcs? Something entirely different? These are the characters in your story, so get all the details set down early. This is where you’ll thing about languages, culture, mores, history, recreational activities, societal taboos…and so on. You could go really deep here, to the point of creating detailed anthropological histories if your people or creating a language from scratch–and the deeper you go, the more involving the world will be. Just remember to be consistent!

After that, there are a lot of smaller details to think of. What’s the climate? Flora and fauna? Popular entertainment? Important cultural concepts? This is where the world really comes alive. One recent example I can think of is from the special features of the Game of Thrones DVDs, where they talk about creating the Dothraki language. They started by accepting that horses were crucial to their cultural identity, and developed the language around that concept. They ended up with a rich language that made cultural sense.

These details are also where you can get absolutely lost. Keep your notes tidy, and organized. When you come up with a new idea, edit it until you’re sure it fits in the world–and if it doesn’t, rework it until it does. If you need to change a pre-existing concept to allow for a new idea that would otherwise contradict it, make sure you erase it completely, or allow for an explanation if inconsistencies arise.

There are tons of resources for world building online, so for more information, I’d reccomend a Google search. But to start you off, here are a few great ones:

  • 30 Days of World Building: This is a step by stepguide that promises, as the title says, to help create a new world in 30 days. It’s a comprehensive list of things to think about–comprehensive enough that there are some steps you may not need, depending on how detailed you want to be. But definitely worth checking out. You can also download the guide for free in ePub, MOBI or PDF format.
  • Fantasy World Building Questions: This website breaks the creation process down into a series of categories, such as Geography, People and Customs, and Commerce. It’s a solid list, and by going through it all you will end up with a nice comprehensive world.
  • Paeter’s Brain: Free Worldbuilding Tools: A quick post about world building from a Role Playing Game perspective. It includes links to a couple wikis about various RPG settings, which could be good inspiration for your own world. There’s also a link for a town generator, and a city map generator.
  • Speaking of RPGs, I’m a big fan, and a member of a website called Myth Weavers. They have some great tools to help DMs build their own worlds; here’s an example of the wiki. Now, you may be asking yourself why this matters if you’re writing a novel–but really, most of the process is the same. A DM has to create a cohesive world for his players to play in. In fact, building a solid world is in their absolute best interests: because each of their players has a mind of their own, they’ll test the limits of the world in every way possible. A writer would do well to follow the DMs example.

That’s it for today, and for this mini-series on world building. But don’t worry: this is a topic we’ll come back to again, I’m sure. My created world is in something of a crisis, and will need some heavy work–and what better place to troubleshoot the process than a blog about writing and publishing?

In the meantime, if you have any other resources or ideas on world building, please share in the comments below!

Creating the Real World: World Building part 2.

So let’s say there are two types of world building: that for speculative fiction, and for non-speculative fiction. Fantasy and science fiction worlds are the easy choice when it comes to world building, because you can make up as much or as little as you want–as long as you’re consistent, it’s all open. But let’s leave that for our next entry. Today, we’ll talk about building a world in a non-speculative universe.

What do I mean by non-speculative? Anything that’s rooted in the “real world,” and bound by the rules of this world. Most of our fiction seems to live here, and though world building in different genres (historical fiction vs romance vs thriller) will have different processes, there are a few things that remain the same.
There’s a ton of information online about how to build your world–much of it differing from other how to’s. Everyone will have their own process, and in the end how you get there doesn’t really matter, so long as you’re consistent.
Holly Lisle puts it well on her website, Holly Lisle: Writer:

“You’re worldbuilding…when you create some guidelines about the place in which your story takes place or about the people who inhabit the place in order to maintain consistency within the story and add a feeling of verisimilitude to your work.”

The examples she gives at the top of the page are great: world building can be as simple as deciding a bedroom is on the first floor of the house, and making sure a character doesn’t refer to it as being on the second.

Now, in speculative fiction, all the cards are on the table and you can do what you want. You don’t have to obey the laws of physics or even logic, though consistency is still key. In non-speculative fiction, there are more restrictions. With all that in mind, here are a few basic guidelines for world building in a non-speculative story:

1. Consistency is the Most Important Thing.

Not to beat a dead horse, but if your character states she’s never been to Europe at the beginning of the story, she shouldn’t mention later on that the turning point in her life was seeing the Mona Lisa in person. It seems like a glaring mistake, easy to avoid, but it’s really all too common–and it simply looks messy. It appears as though you don’t care about the story, or forgot to impart some crucial piece of information that explains something–or worse, that you didn’t edit very carefully, if at all. This actually happens a lot in modern popular fiction/movies/etc. They’re called Plot Holes, and if your story is riddled with them, you’ll appear lazy.

2. Your Setting is a Character Too.

You can’t have a story without a setting. And this may seem redundant in an article which is about defining your setting, but it can’t be stressed enough: you need to know everything important about where your story takes place. This is especially important with non-speculative fiction, where even the smallest incorrect details can pull a reader out of the story. Setting your story in Texas during Christmas will have a much different feel than putting the same plot in mid-summer Orlando. Medieval and Modern-Day Paris will have different effects on your characters and their decisions. The easy way to get this right is by thinking of your setting as another character in the story. Ask yourself the same questions you would about your characters: how does the plot affect them? Will their temperament of mood effect the plot? Do they have secrets that will be revealed by the plot? How does the setting evoke conflict from the other characters? If you’re a writer, your characters are your bread and butter, and you’ll do a lot of work on them–do the same with your setting, and your world building is half done.

3. What’s the Same?

Decide what in your world is the same as the real world. In non-speculative fiction, this is going to mean things like the Laws of Physics, the location of cities and countries, the colour of the sky, and the animals that inhabit the region. Go out of your way to decide what’s similar between your world and reality; this will give readers something to relate to in your story. More importantly for this discussion, it “roots” your story. Deciding on these details is also going to bring your reader more deeply into the world. And this is a place where the little details matter a lot. Hemmingway was a master at this; I remember reading a short story of his that described his breakfast in so much wonderful detail that I can barely imagine having my eggs without pepper anymore. I can’t even remember the story title, but I remember the world he built for it. With non-speculative fiction, a lot of the world building is done for you. There are certain things that won’t be different–or, if they are, you have built in conflict and plot points. Which brings us to…

4. What is Different?

This is where you’ll find the “juice” of your setting. Even in a non-speculative world, your setting should stand out a bit from reality. This doesn’t need to break suspension of disbelief or bring your story into the realm of speculative fiction, but there should be something that’s more interesting about your setting than the real world. Dan Brown’s Angles and Demons and The Lost Symbol are great examples of this. He’s using real world cities and exploring them in great detail–but he’s also adding details that are fictionalized to make the story more interesting and add an air of conspiracy. Deciding on what is different between your setting and its real world equivalent will give the reader a reason to care about your setting. Which leads into the last point:

5. Why Bother?

One of the most important things I’ve learned about writing was from a teacher who told me to ask myself: “why today?” What is it about this particular day for your story? If the answer is “nothing,” why are you writing about it? Make it something, that’s a lot more interesting. World Building should work the same way; why does your story take place here? Can your entire story be lifted up and transplanted into a different setting with no alterations to the plot? That’s not very engaging. Your plot doesn’t have to be dependant on the setting, but your setting should matter to the plot. If it doesn’t, it’s the same as reading about a character who does absolutely nothing of note: boring.

So building a world in a non-speculative genre has some limitations, yes–but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored. Even if it’s as simple as sitting down and doing a “character sketch” for your setting, you’ll be creating something more engaging for the reader–and saving yourself the trouble of lots of constructive editing when you realize that the setting doesn’t make sense.

Do you have any tips to add about world building in the real world? Tell me about them! Next time: World Building for Speculative Fiction.

World Building, part 1: Why Bother?

Today, I’d like to talk a bit about World Building.
When I first heard this term, I figured that it wasn’t relevant to writing unless you were literally building your own setting–as you would in a fantasy or certain science fiction. New races of characters, unique religions, fanciful creatures, maybe a new language, that sort of thing. But the more I thought of it the more I realized that world building isn’t about creating a totally new world at all–it’s really about creating a cohesive and consistent setting for your characters and story to live in. Although the term normally applies to speculative fiction, I think it’s a necessary part of writing in any genre.

I started thinking about world building when I began fleshing out an idea I had for a novel, many years ago. It began with reading about the theories of Richard Hoagland, who believes that the supposed face on Mars was built by an ancient civilization on that planet. (If you haven’t seen the pictures, go here; NASA has photographed the same area more recently, conclusively showing that it’s not a face–but that’s outside the scope of this article.)
It made me think: if a civilization did exist on Mars, what would drive them to build a giant face? As I was also reading a lot of mythology at the time, I immediately thought it would have to be for religious reasons. I created a mythology for this fictional civilization, and eventually had the workings of a novel.
In creating that world, I started with the mythology and cosmology. That gave me a cultural foundation. Then I drew a map, which turned out to feature three distinct geographical areas–which led me to create three races. The geography of each continent informed their individual cultures–the resource starved Ozym, for example, had to fight for their survival, and thus developed a violent martial culture. And so on. I ended up with what seemed to be a nice, cohesive world.
Then the novel got set aside. I picked it up again years later–and set it aside again after several months. I had four or five false starts before I realized the problem: I could never finish the book because every time I started anew, I brought in all these new ideas. I thought I was developing the “world” of the book, but really I was muddling it. It had collapsed under its own weight, because it wasn’t consistent. By then, making it consistent seemed such a large job that I set it aside once more, convincing myself that I didn’t have time during my University years.

Now I’m ready to start planning for it again. I still have that foundation, but have decided to pare it down to the beginning, and start with a more or less clean slate. What’s more, I want to let the world develop more organically, which I plan to do by first writing a series of short stories in this setting, and seeing where it goes. The Astrologers–which you can find posted in a rough draft in previous posts here–is the first.
But how do I keep from having the same problem as before? I think the main issue was that I was always adding what I thought were cool ideas. This time, I need to concentrate on what the story of the world is going to be about. There’s no sense having flashy plot points or cultural idiosyncrasies if they don’t make sense–or have a definite purpose–in the World.  I’m reminded of Anton Chekov’s shotgun effect: he said that if you introduce a shotgun in the first scene of your play, someone had better use it by the end. Otherwise, why bother including it?
So my first rule of world building is that every piece of the puzzle has to fit–and not only that, it has to make internal sense. It’ll be like editing; if you find a character that doesn’t add to to overall story or theme, you cut it. The same goes for world building.

And that’s why I said above that world building is important for all genres, not just speculative fiction. Are you writing a story set in 1912 New York? Fine, make sure you don’t mention Babe Ruth playing for the Yankees–he was traded in 1918. Is your novel about the Napoleonic Wars? Having a knowledge of the French language will add a great amount of depth. A sociopolitical thriller in Ancient Rome? Keep in mind that slavery was not only condoned, but expected of certain classes. Knowing your World–whether you create it yourself or not–is crucial to writing a good story. If you don’t have an accurate setting for your characters to play in, it won’t seem real. Or, worse, people will pick up on inconsistencies and inaccuracies, and will be pulled out of the story while they try to imagine why you didn’t do your research.

I’ll be writing more on world building as I learn more about the process, so stay tuned!

Editing your Scrivener Project Through Sugarsync

Today I want to give a quick tip about Scrivener. I’ve started following them on twitter (here), where they send tips and shortcuts. One that I’ve seen a couple times from them is how you can back up your work in the cloud by using Dropbox–which is a great idea.

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But I’m not a Dropbox user–I’m on the other side of camp with Sugarsync. It works the same way: in Scrivener, go to File>Backup>Backup To, and it will prompt you for a folder, as seen here:

You can save it as a .zip file, and you’re good to go. Do this regularly.

But I mostly don’t use Sugarsync for backup; I use it to synchronize my work between computers, so I can work anywhere. One of my first questions about Scrivener was if I could open a project on a different computer, work on it, and see that work updated when I got to my home machine. Of course, normally you can’t do this unless you have Scrivener on each machine–but I’ve found a way to make it work.

Scrivener saves each project in a series of .rtf files. If you go to Windows Explorer and open up the folder containing your project, you’ll see another folder called Docs. This folder contains all the information for your project, including the little blurbs on your index cards, how they’re linked together, and the actual text files for each chapter or scene.

Click for a larger view.

And here’s the trick: if you open one of those .rtf files on another computer through Sugarsync and make edits, those changes appear in Scrivener as soon as it updates in the cloud–and because Scrivener saves your project automatically, the reverse is true. So working on your Scrivener project on the go is as simple as finding the document you want to edit and going from there.
There are two caveats: the first is the way the files are named. Scrivener names those files automatically–or, rather, numbers them. If you try to change the name of a file to something you’ll more easily recognize–for example, Scene 1–it will show up in your Scrivener project as blank, because the program is looking for particular file names. So there is some trial and error in finding the file you want to edit–but really, it’s as simple as opening up .rtf files until you find the one you want. After that, it’s smooth sailing, though it might be inconvenient for really large projects with dozens of files.
Secondly, you won’t of course have access to all the wonderful options and tools of the program–you’re just editing a word file. If you have Scrivener on another computer, synchronizing should work even better, and you’d have full access to the project on both computers. But this suits my purposes; when I write I like to just bang it out, and go over it later when I edit. I can do the really rough draft on the go, and edit and play around with it in Scrivener when I’m on my main PC.

So there you have it. It may not be for everyone, but I’ve found it tremendously useful! And although I’m not a Dropbox user, I imagine the whole process works in just the same way with that program.

P.S. You can follow Sugarsync on Twitter as well, right here.

Steampunk, (part 3) and short stories.

I mentioned a while ago that one of the introductions I had to the world of e-publishing was Lindsay Buroker. I read a couple of her short stories (Ice Cracker II and The Assassin’s Curse), and got hooked on her writing. But it also got me thinking that  I could get into indie publishing in the same way.

This is something I’ve been thinking about since I started this blog, and set out on this e-publishing journey to begin with. So it was with great pleasure that I came across Ryan Casey’s blog and his recent post, “Short Stories: Four Reasons Why You Should Write Them.” Check it out, it’s a good read.

It also validated part of why I’m going about this the way I am. My short term plan is to write a collection of short stories and use them as a sort of “test drive” through the process of uploading and publishing a book on the Kobo store. The thought was that this would be a simpler project than jumping in head-first with a novel, it would take less time and resources to get my work out there and start building a platform, and it would introduce readers to my work for a minimal fee (I’ll probably charge $0.99 for the collection, and possibly offer one of the stories as a stand alone free download). Ryan hit on those points, and more–which makes me think I’m on the right track.

But his post also got me thinking about what else short stories are doing for me. I’m getting a lot out of it:

  • It’s getting me “in the habit.” Writing the first draft of a short story is taking me, on average, three days, and because it’s a shorter self contained plot, it’s easy to keep engaged. I look forward to finishing them, so I can go onto the next one. The end result is that I’ve written three stories in the last week and a half, have started a fourth, and have a plethora of new ideas.
  • It keeps me accountable. Having a long term project like a novel is great, but it can seem a long ways off. It’s also a large project, which–for me–is an intimidating way to start off. Especially if the novel ends up not selling, in which case I’d probably feel like I’ve wasted a good deal of time and effort. By writing short fiction, I can give myself shorter term goals, which are easier to achieve–which in turn keeps me engaged in setting new, larger goals.
  • Short stories are helping with my “world building.” I want to get into fantasy writing because it means that I get to make the rules; yes, there are tropes and ideas that most fantasy will make use of, but I can still use those as a framework, and dressing it as I see fit. But building a world is a lot of work; you have to be careful about consistency and tone, and doing that over a longer project is challenging. Writing short stories is allowing me to experiment with the world as it’s being built, adding onto things piece by piece until I have a cohesive whole. I’d like to talk about world building in a future post, so stay tuned for that.
  • Finally, it’s Immediate. Not literally–I’ve given myself to the end of September for my first collection, editors willing–but it’s a lot quicker than a novel, which can take months to write, let alone editing and revisions. I’m the kind of person who is generally productive, but likes to see results, and short stories are fitting the bill. I get small nuggets of success at regular intervals, they’re quicker and simpler for my readers to digest, and I can build up anticipation for new stories by issuing them relatively quickly.

So, for me, short stories are the way to go, at least to get started. In my short time in the online writer’s world, I’ve sensed that this is the consensus view; if you have comments to the contrary, let’s open a discussion!

And now, for those of you who have been following my experiment in Steampunk, (you can find part one here and part two here) here is the conclusion of The Astrologers:

Almost everyone in the audience jumped to their feet and started pushing one another aside in an effort to get closer to Vesir. He stepped back reflexively, grinning as he did so–he obviously enjoyed the attention—and tapped the handle on his other palm.

“Not so excited now, please be calm! The Astrologers know all, but they can only answer one question. And, my dear friends,” at this point, he adopted a hang-dog expression, “my magnificent Automata are not inexpensive to operate. Perhaps if someone would be so kind as to make a donation…”

Dolle’s mouth fell open. This man was a…what was the word her father liked to use? A huckster?

Nobody seemed to notice the barker at his game, however. The people started digging in their pockets for coins, waving them and hooting like pigeons begging for a crumb of bread. Vesir placed the rod under one armpit and made a show of applauding his customers.

“Excellent, excellent, my friends! I knew there were philanthropists in this crowd,” he cooed. He leaned into one particularly excited young woman and added: “the last lot were certainly not so kind–nor beautiful–as this.”

With a twirl, his coat flapping behind him, Vesir stepped back toward his Astrologers and tapped the closest one on the shoulder. An arm raised with a mechanical, jerky motion, producing a velvet bag. Vesir saluted the automaton and took the bag. Beckoning to the young woman, he deftly pocketed her proffered coin, and both it and the bag disappeared into his pocket.

“Now, my beauty, what is it you would like to know? Remember, the Astrologers can tell all the secrets of the heavens!”

The woman looked suddenly sheepish and stumbled over her words now that she was on display. Eventually, she leaned in and whispered to Vesir, who smiled, showing pearly white teeth. As she went back to her spot in the crowd, Dolle could see her blushing.

Well, well, well!” Vesir exclaimed, clapping his hands. A secret question! Well, my young friend, it is safe with me–and with the Astrologers! They are modest machines, I tell you. No one will hear of it from I, the Magnificent Vesir!”

With another flourish–his theatrics were wearing on Dolle by now–he retrieved the leather handled rod and whirled it in the air again. He walked up and down the row of mechanical men, choosing one seemingly at random, and fit the rod into a hole in its side. Smiling widely at his audience, he whispered at the automata, his eyes never leaving the crowd.

“This is Aspect, one of my wisest and most articulate Astrologers. He will answer your question, dear lady. Behold!”

He began to turn the rod. As he cranked, the Astrolger made a series of clicks and whirs, its head turning this way and that, arms moving up and down as he marched in place. Thoroughly disillusioned now, Dolle had to stifle a laugh. It was hard to believe that these people were believing such a ridiculous display. It was interesting, however, to see the wheels and dials on its chest move. The pointers cycled around, moving at different speeds.

But they ate it up. People were clapping in time to the automata’s clanking rhythm. Some shouted their own questions, though Vesir paid them no mind. The woman was gnawing at her fingertips in anticipation.

Then there was a faint humming sound which rose in pitch until it was almost a whistle. The wheels stopped turning, as did Vesir; the pointers rested at various angles. The showman examined the Astrologer’s chest with great concentration, giving the occasional nod and “I see”, stroking the small pointed beard on his chin. Then, removing the rod and folding it into his pocket once more, and faced the audience. Without looking at his creations, he addressed them in a loud, triumphant voice:

“And what, my Astounding Astrologers, is the verdict?”

Aspect stepped forward and made a clunky sort of bow, then raised an arm in front of itself, as if preparing to declaim on a stage.

“All signs point to…yes.”

Its voice was tinny, and buzzed on the sibilant sounds; there was no variation in tone, no emotion at all. It could have been a series of pops and clicks and buzzes that conveniently happened to sound like speech–but the audience erupted with applause. The woman who had asked the question rushed forward to Vesier and hugged him, tears in her eyes, then ran out of the tent–dragging her astonished male companion with her. The others seemed to want to stay and ask more questions, but Vesir feigned fatigue–holding out his velvet bag, of course–and told them he must rest before the next show, as must his Astrologers. On the way out Dolle heard at least one man say he’d be back for the next presentation.

The entire show had lasted less than ten minutes. Dolle wasn’t convinced, and felt more than a little guilty for sneaking in–her father seemed to have been right. It was nothing more than a put-on.

Vesir took off his gloves and chuckled to himself, hefting the bag of coins before stuffing it back into his pocket. He approached the Astrologer who had answered the question, and kicked it in the shins.

“Another good one, old boy. This lot pays much better than the cheapskates back in Heira’kol!”

The automata didn’t respond.

Vesir laughed, and punched it on the shoulder. “All right, you lot, back to the wagon! A few of you could use a polish before the next set, I should think…” He trundled back around the corner, and the Astrologers turned to follow.

All at once there was a tremendous racket coming from outside the tent. Vesir came running back, head cocked to the side, listening. Spitting some words that Dolle wished not to have heard, he ducked into the wagon and reappeared promptly with a coiled whip. He ran out of the tent, muttering “Not again…”

Dolle was alone with the Astrologers, who had stopped moving in Vesir’s absence. She inched forward; then, realizing she was entirely alone, walked boldly up to the Astrologers.

“Sirs,” she said, bowing, “That was a very…interesting demonstration.”

There was no response. She tapped Aspect on the side, looking up at him.

“Aspect, sir, what was the question the woman asked?”

The Astrologer whirred softly, as if considering a response, then bent his head down to look at Dolle. His multi-faceted eyes were flashing with hundreds of colours, but they seemed somehow empty. In the same, lifeless tinny voice, it answered:

“All signs point to…yes.”

There it was, then. It was all a trick, a toy, nothing more than a cleverly programmed anima after all. She had to admit that these constructs were more complex than she’d ever seen, but they were no longer magical, or even impressive. They were just big, clunky heaps of metal and wisps of elemental magic. She almost wanted to cry.

A loud crash shook her out of her reverie. There was something just outside the tent. She could hear panicked voices yelling in terror as booths fell and tents teared. Something was thrashing about outside, and even as she heard the ear splitting roar, her father’s voice carried over everything, calling her brother’s name.

The crashing noises were coming closer to the tent. Now she could hear her brother’s voice, sobbing with fear. Other voices, men mostly, clamoured and called, chasing after her family and, apparently, whatever beast had gotten loose.

There was another crash as the animal bowled its way into the tent. It fell on its side, growling, and righted itself quickly. It was a large lion, painted green and with a red mane. Clumps of paper mache clung to its fur along its back and tail. If it noticed Dolle, it didn’t show it; instead, its gaze was trained on the circle of men surrounding it–Vesir included, brandishing his whip–while her brother cowered behind her father’s legs. He was bleeding from scratches on his arms and face.

Several of the Astrologers had toppled over, knocked aside by the animal, but Aspect stood firm. Dolle, hiding behind the automaton, ventured to step around it to get a better look at the lion. It still hadn’t taken note of her, but as she stepped into view, her father did.

“Dolle!” he screamed, more out of relief than anger. “Where have you been, we’ve been looking…”

He was interrupted by the lion’s roar; the beast crouched, ready to pounce, its tail flicking pensively back and forth. Its gaze turned between Vesir and the other men, and its quarry–her brother. Jim whimpered as the men approached slowly, trying to circle around and corner it. Dolle, behind directly behind the lion, was in their way. Vesir called out:

“Girl! Little one…back slowly away so we adults can take care of this.” He sounded more annoyed than concerned for her; his eyes were trained more on his automata than Dolle. Her father noticed.

“Why don’t you order that contraption of yours to attack it?” her shot back angrily, pointing at the Astrologer. “If they can do half what you say they can, surely they could do something other than stand around. Hey!” he called to Aspect, “Get the lion, save her, you great bucket of–”

“You’re not helping the situation, sir,” Vesir said. His voice was calm, but dripping with condescension. He expertly avoided answering the question. The Astrologer stood there, mute and seemingly unaware of the situation.

As they argued, the other men started inching carefully forward in a wide arc. Vesir threw a cold look at her father and followed, snapping his whip to get the lion’s attention. It worked: the creature turned to Vesir and growled; the man swallowed, mumbling something about the missing trainer, and readied his whip again. The lion picked up the cue, and backed away.

Directly into one of the fallen Astrologers.

It almost tripped, and snapped around suddenly, jaws clacking at the perceived threat. Instead, he found only lifeless metal–and Dolle. Its tail flicked again, and its eyes shone. It raised its head to sniff the air, and the lion advanced a few tentative steps. It didn’t seem interested in Dolle herself so much as the fact she was the only one blocking its escape. It made to crouch again, and then everything happened at once.

Her father screamed her name. Vesir cried out. Her brother wailed. The lion leaped forward. Dolle let out a surprised yelp, and clasped the Astrologer tightly, her knuckles going white. The other men charged forward, desperate to get to the lion before it got to her.

And for Dolle, time seemed to contract, moving in slow motion. Her surroundings faded, and her vision went silver-white. Her hands grew warm and began to tingle. They felt almost fuzzy–like when your arm falls asleep if you lay on it wrong–but painless. The sensation swept in a tangible wave through her body, concentrated in her hands once more, then left, flowing into the automata. Her vision cleared and she swooned, falling to the ground. As she closed her eyes, she could vaguely see Aspect erupting forward, tackling the lion and bringing it to the ground, all the while repeating the same phrase over and over in that tinny, humming voice, the last direction he had been given: “Save her, save her, save her…”

When she came to, she found a circle of faces peering down at her. Her father and brother, Vesir, other men–and Aspect. She stared curiously at the featureless automata, and she swore that it regarded her just as closely. The eyes, glittering with colours as before, were dancing. It held out a metal hand to her; tentatively, she took it, and it helped her to her feet.

“She appears to be adequately recovered,” it said. The voice was still mechanical and toneless. Even as she stood, her head still dizzy, her father swept her into his arms, crying. Behind him, she could see the lion being manacled and led back toward the cage it escaped. He brother watched it wistfully; in his hand he held a paper mache tail with a serpent’s head at one end.

The others drifted away, their interests lying elsewhere now, clapping Vesir on the back and congratulating him on saving the girl. He smiled smile and nodded modestly–“no problem at all, just my duty”–but his eyes were awash with confusion. When they were alone, he darted toward Aspect, running his hands all over its chassis, examining every bit of the Astrologer. No longer the unresponsive and obedient machine, it politely brushed Vesir’s hands away.

“Thank you for your concern, sir, but I am quite undamaged. Your ministrations would be more beneficial if directed toward the girl.”

Vesir stood back in shock and surprise, and shot a suspicious look at Dolle.

“What did you do to it?” he asked. There was no anger in his voice; on the contrary, there was a touch of awe, of wonder.

Her father let Dolle gently to the ground, and took her hand.

“Don’t you touch her,” he warned Vesir, who promptly backed away. “Come, Dolle. Jim, we’re going. I think we’ve had enough of the carnival this year.” He held out both hands, which his children dutifully took in their own.

As they started walking away from the tattered tent, Dolle turned, breaking her father’s grip, and ran toward Aspect, hugging its legs.

“Thank you,” she said. The automata touched her gently on the head.

“I am pleased to have been helpful,” it said. “And thank you, for this.” It placed a hand over its chest.

Dolle smiled. “You’re welcome, Aspect,” she replied.

Running back to her father, she waved at the Astrologer. It waved back, arm clinking softly with the motion, as Vesir looked on, agape.

Steampunk, part two.

Last time I talked a bit about genre and offered a taste of a story in progress, so I thought I’d continue that discussion and add another segment.

The other genre I’m interested in writing in is Weird Fiction. It’s kind of hard to explain if you’re new to it, so hit the link and

H. P. Lovecraft, master of weird fiction.

have a look if you want to know more. Suffice it to say that it’s a type of speculative fiction that deals with the unexplained, the horrible, and the too horrible to explain. H. P. Lovecraft is at the forefront of this kind of writing, and if you haven’t checked out his work you really should. I’m sure you’ve at least heard of Cthulhu–that’s Lovecraft’s baby. Stephen King (It, The Tommyknockers and some of Dean Koontz (the Frankenstein series) could be said to fall into the category too, if you’re looking for a contemporary example.

Weird fiction is fun because it encourages you to be wildly imaginative. The sky is literally the limit–and the weirder it gets, the better the story. One of my favourite tropes of the genre is of the “too curious for his own good” adventurer who stumbles upon something so horrible, he drives himself mad. Another is of the curious researcher investigating something that ends up drawing just a little too close to home. He usually ends up going mad as well.

One of the best examples of Lovecraft, and weird fiction in general, is The Shadow Over Innsmouth. That’s the whole text, but it doesn’t read too comfortably–though you can easily find most of Lovecraft’s work in eBook format for$1 or less, and this one is included in most anthologies. Check it out.

And on to another entry in my attempt at steampunk, The Astrologers! (The first entry can be found here if you haven’t read it yet.)

 

Her father loved the side show. He must know, she thought, that the displays were more for show than education, but he didn’t seem to care. He’d once told her that it didn’t even matter: a person needed mystery and wonder in his life, and even if he knew what lay behind the curtain, it was nice sometimes to stand in front of it and just…wonder. He’d said that with a wistful look in his eyes, and sighed; Dolle was never sure what he meant, but it looked like he’d lost something. Then his smile returned, and he whisked her off to see the Lizard Man and the petting zoo, which that year featured supposedly blind basilisks. She had been disappointed to see roosters with paper mache tails painted with scales, each of them wearing ribbon blindfolds and wandering around aimlessly while young children giggled and chased them about. He father hadn’t been too impressed, either, and added to his original statement: “wonder is nice and all, as long as you don’t get suckered into paying an arm and a leg for it.” He hadn’t told mother how much the petting zoo had cost, and neither did she.

This was the main contention this afternoon; the Astrologers were a big draw for the carnival, and getting a chance to see them was not cheap. She had hoped that on some wild chance there would be a free show, at least a few minutes–sometimes the hawkers at the carnival found it worthwhile to give a tease for free to encourage people to pay for the whole show. But when they finally approached the side show tent that afternoon, she was saddened to see a long, winding line in font of the Alchemage’s tent-within-a-tent. He would have no trouble making his money, and there was no chance of his giving a peep for free. Her father saw this and noted her disappointment, giving her a polite push on the back. “Maybe next year the novelty will have worn off and they won’t be so much in demand. That Vesir will have to charge less, then, and maybe we can take a look. Why don’t we go back to see the anima again? They’re pretty well the same thing. And we didn’t get a close look at the pyroanima,” he added, hoping to stoke her interest.

She wanted to yell out that it wasn’t the same, it just wasn’t…the Astrologers were supposed to be fully fledged automata with free will and even souls; they were to anima what she was to the cattle in their fields. But she knew better than to start that argument again. It would only ruin the rest of the afternoon.

Instead they went to the Bestiary, where they had exotic and sometimes even mystical beasts on display in cages. They even had a petting zoo, her father reminded her; and Dolle had to admit that she always did enjoy getting right up close to the animals, fake basilisks notwithstanding. Jim went wild when he heard they were finally getting to the Bestiary. He was crazy about animals, especially the weird ones you’d never see around the farm or in town–and this year they had a Chimera. They headed toward the Bestiary Tent, Dolle holding back just a step.

Her father looked back over her shoulder to make sure she was following, and she flashed him a weak smile to show her disappointment. There was something in his eyes that said he was sorry, but that she’d get over it. One of those “you’ll know why when you’re older” looks. He blew her a kiss ,and turned back to Jim and his ramblings about chimerae.

That was her chance. The carnival was a busy place, and her brother would preoccupy her father more than long enough for her to get a good look at the Astrologers. She didn’t know how much it would cost, but she had some money–her parents always gave them each a few silver coins to spend however they liked at the carnival. All she had to do was get past the line.

It was even longer now that when she’d seen it at the mouth of the tent. People craned their necks and stood on tip-toe to try and see the front of the line, where people were being let in in small groups. A few of them looked impatient, and one or two even left the line. But most of them looked excited to see the Astrologers–and why not? They were an enormous breakthrough in Alchemical Magic. Who wouldn’t want to see them first hand?

At first, Dolle stood in line, furtively looking over her shoulder to make sure her father hadn’t missed her already. But after a minute or two she felt anxious. The line wasn’t moving. It might take a half hour for her to get to the front, and she didn’t even know if she had enough silver to pay the entrance fee. She thought about asking the people in front of her, but didn’t want to attract attention. A ten year old girl wandering the carnival all by herself would be assumed to be lost. She’d be taken to a booth somewhere while someone in charge tried to find her father, and she wouldn’t see the Astrologers at all.

Then she saw it. A small flap at the place where two sides of the tent-within-a-tent met. It opened and closed lazily as people hurried past it, as if it were breathing. As it did, she saw a pale gold light emanating from inside. She could just barely hear what she could only assume was Vesir’s voice over the din of the side show. It was a low mumble, and it was responded to by a high pitched sort of tinny sound. She couldn’t make out the words.

But the Astrologers were in there, she was sure of it. It was a small flap, but she was a small girl; with luck she’d be able to find something just inside to hide behind. She casually left the line, feigning boredom, then made a quick dash to the flap, lifted the fabric, and let herself in. Safely inside, she was pleased to find a series of crates lines up along the edge of the tent. She kneeled in the dirt on the ground behind them, and her eyes popped wide open.

It was an incredible sight. Before her stood a tall, ornately carved wagon with bright green panels and gold trim, large heavy wheels with silver spokes, and a scroll-work crenellation running along all four sides of the top. Big loopy letters proclaimed that it belonged to the Magnificent Vesir and his Astonishing Astrologers. Painted on the panels were detailed landscapes peopled with wonderful machines in all forms. Birds, beasts, trees–but especially mechanical men. There were automata carrying wood, wearing hats, strolling hand in hand with female automata, even playing games like she did with her friends at school. All of them looked the same: they had thin, lithe limbs, a stocky chest covered in dials and winches and gears, and a smooth head like an egg with the taper pointing backwards. At the front were two bulbous eyes that seemed to be laughing. They had no mouths or noses.

She nearly clapped her hands with glee until she remembered that she was sneaking into Vesir’s tent. Instead, she sat on her hands and bit her lip in anticipation for the demonstration. Vesir was pacing in front of the wagon, hands behind him, robe whipping like a flying flag in his wake. In front of him was a line of seven people, all eagerly waiting. Vesir stopped his pacing and stamped his foot on the ground, raising his hands into the air, wearing an ear to ear smile. He addressed the crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen! For centuries the Toral has eeked out the mysteries of elemental magic, teased the very fabric of the universe, and turned it to our needs. Mages study for decades to become masters of their craft, and even then, the Elements themselves are fickle; often the most accomplished magic users can only perform what amount to parlour tricks.

“And then the Alchemists began to learn magic, and they twisted their theories and experiments to incorporate the Elements—the Alchemages were born! They say the Grand Sage Osir was the first to meld Elements and Constructs into Anima, two hundred and more years ago. But even then, the awesome power of the Elements could not be harnessed, and only now are Alchemages learning how to use that power to fuel the anima that till our fields, sweep our floors, and carry messages from one town to another. Once more, I say: parlour tricks!

“And what is the pinnacle of invention, you might ask? To what end can this wondrous Elemental power be wrought? Well, my dear ladies and gentlemen, I have answered that age-old question! I, the Magnificent Vesir, have not only built the ultimate anima; I have not only bent the powers of the Aether to my will in their creation. I have brought to bear the ultimate anima, the automata: and I have given them life!”

And with that he stamped his foot upon the ground again, and a soft whirring sound began. It quickly grew louder and louder, encompassing the tent, and as the humming swelled a parade of five curious mechanical men marched out from inside the wagon. They walked stiffly, but in perfect unison, their metal legs clanking together softly as they stomped on the ground. Their arms were held perfectly still as they walked, and their bulbous heads never moved, but looked straight ahead, as if looking miles into the distance. The faint glow of the lanterns in the tent glimmered off their stocky, square bodies, and Dolle could see intricate designs carved into their chests. They were all made of gold—though Dolle guessed that they were actually plated, and perhaps even just painted. Still, they were a remarkable sight in all their clockwork precision and opulent splendour.

They lined up in front of the wagon, all facing the same direction—directly at Dolle, in fact—then took one final step in place. As one, they turned sharply at the waist, facing the crowd, their legs stepping lightly to catch up. Dolle quietly moved along the crates blocking her view so she could see them head-on.

The front facet of the chest was completely flat and rectangular, almost boxy. It looked inelegant at first, until Dole took note of the inscriptions. There was an intricately carved set of circles, one above the other. The circle on the bottom was a ribbon of a spiral, she noticed; there were notches at regular intervals, dividing it into a series of small rectangles all the same size. A thin pointer was set at the twelve o’clock position.

The circle above it was more complex. It was inset, and when Dolle looked closely she could see that there were actually eight concentric circles, all set close enough to each other that she could barely tell them apart. There were eight pointers, aiming in different directions, each with a small coloured ball just below the tapered tip. A sort of hub was set above the mechanism, covering the centre and, she assumed, holding it all together. Around the edge of the circle were two sets of inscribed rings; the outer one was divided into more segments than she could count, but the inner one was made of only twelve—and each of them had a familiar symbol, a star sign.

Vesir continued talking, explaining the tiresome and complicated construction of the automata, an explanation that was as colourful and as embellished as the wagon. Her attention drifted as he went into great detail about eclipses and ecliptics and so on, but she perked up again when he said—yet another flourish and stamp on the ground—that all of this would enable to Astrologers to tell the future.

And finally, Vesir was nearing his demonstration. From his pocket he produced a short, slender rod. One end was bent into a right angle; this end bent another ninety degrees and sported a leather handle. Holding onto the leather part, he twirled the rest in the air, pacing once again in front of the assembled viewers.

“And now, ladies and gentleman, the part you have all been waiting for. Who has a question for the Astrologers? Who would dare inquire about the misty haze of the future?!”

 

That’s it for now folks–another entry soon!

My Attempt at Steampunk

When I started to get back to my writing, my first question to myself was “what genre will I concentrate on?” The things I’d written spanned a few–sci-fi, fantasy, general fiction, even non-fiction–but I thought it best to stick with one or two genres and build a base there. The larger projects I’m working on are basically fantasy, though I’ve thrown in some weird fiction as well; but science fiction has always been dear to me.

I wanted to share the story that first got me into science fiction. It’s by Issac Asimov, the king of sci-fi. I found this story extant on the internet–though I’m not sure if it’s in the public domain, so if anyone has a problem with my posting it let me know and I’ll be happy to remove the link. It’s called The Last Question, and you can click the title for the text.

This story is a perfect example of what science fiction should be. It’s got some solid (for the time) science to it, has real human concerns, and has a wonderful ending. It blew me away the first time, and still gives me chills whenever I read it. Check it out, even if you’re not a sci-fi fan. It might convert you!

Anyway, I digress. When I was considering concentrating on sci-fi, I started looking at some good examples. I read a lot of Bradbury, Asimov, and so on. I also came across Kevin J. Andseron, who, in a whirl of serendipity, I learned was giving a reading at my public library. I got to meet him, and he passed out pamphlets containing the first three chapters of his new book Clockwork Angels, which is based on the latest album of one of my favourite bands, Rush. Talk about synchronicity!

The book is great, and I can’t wait to read the whole thing when it arrives this fall. It also introduced me to Steampunk–along with the oft mentioned Lindsay Buroker–and it got me thinking. Steampunk, as I understand it, is kind of a blend of science fiction and fantasy; a fantasy world where technology and magic intertwine to create a unique setting. Exciting…and why shouldn’t I experiment with it?

So, for the first time on this blog about writing, I’m going to post a sample of my work. This is my first attempt at the Steampunk genre. I’ve taken ideas and the setting from my planned fantasy novel and am trying it out in a steampunk cast; if this turn out, I’ll refit the novel as a whole. I think it has potential, but I’d appreciate constructive feedback.

Please keep in mind that this is a first draft, hammered out over margaritas. Its not going to be perfect! Here’s the first part:

The Astrologers

The carnival was coming. The most exciting weekend of the year–spun sugar candy, games and prizes, a carousel, the Hall or Horrors (Jim’s favourite); and it was finally here!

Dolle got out of bed early that morning, earlier than she had any right being up, and knocked on her parent’s bedroom door. Their room was separated from the rest of the small cabin because, as daddy said, “adults need their own space;” Dolle had never understood why, but being the adults, she assumed they knew best. And one day, she would be old enough to have her own room too, so it didn’t matter too much. For the time being, she was content–most of the time–to share a corner with her younger brother.

Dolle was ten. She was old enough to know the Important Things in Life (or so she thought,) but still young enough to be enraptured by the magic of it all–and the carnival was the shining example of that magic, the one time each year when there were no chores and they could eat all the candy they wanted, when there were incredible things to be seen and wondrous fun to be had.

As soon as she heard her father grumble something under his breath and his mother sigh a muffled consolation that he’d “promised this months ago,” Dolle went to her brother’s cot and shook him awake. It didn’t take much convincing; he was just as excited as her. He sprang out of bed and immediately started rambling about seeing his first Chimera. The schoolhouse had been talking about it for weeks now, after one of the schoolchildren moved with his family to Dakadain from far off Heira’Kol, one of the earlier stops on the caravan’s tour. It had all Jim had been able to talk about. A real live Chimera!

Dolle didn’t care so much about that–though she had to admit she was curious. Mostly, she didn’t care for the side shows in the carnival. It was the games and food and craft fair she was interested in, something her mother agreed on. This year would be different, though. This year, the Astrologers were coming.

For centuries, the Alchemages had been working with Elemental Magic, working it for the betterment of the Toral, teasing the intricate secrets of nature out into the open for all to see and command. But only in recent years had there been significant progress in one of the obscure schools of elemental magic: artificial anima.

Most of these alchemical constructs were little more than basic tools, insect and rodent shaped objects built from cobalt, silver or steel and imbued with elemental magic. They had been around for some time, their novelty long worn off. Dolle had even seen one at work, at one of the richer farms outside Dakadain: a large brass bison that ran on condensed Earth magic, and helped till the fields. It was an interesting thing to see, but in the end it was little more than a magical tool. Most artificial anima were less useful, really just toys and trinkets.

But rumors had been circulating for years that a certain Alchemage-a powerful Aeromancer by the name of Vesir–had achieved an incredible feat: the creation of sentient, thinking automata. He called them the Astrologers, and they were supposed to be able to tell the future.

Dolle was learning about artificial anima at school, but her teacher had scoffed at the idea of automata when she’d asked. Machines couldn’t have souls, she said, and dismissed the idea out of hand. So Dolle intended to visit Vesir and learn all about them herself.

Her father was finally getting out of bed, and her mother had put a kettle over the fire and was starting to tend the flames when she asked if they could see the Astrologers. Her father dropped a slipper he’d been trying to fit over his foot, and her mother just stifled a laugh behind a hand.

“Dolle, you know better than that, I hope,” her father said. “Those things are just toys, I’m sure. Some sort of machine that only has a certain number of things it says, so that fraud Vesir always knows how to answer them.”

“But daddy,” Dolle whined, “what if they’re really real?” She stamped her foot on the floor to accentuate her point. “If people can make anima, why can’t they make other things?”

Her mother, having got the fire going, put some sausages on the flat-iron balanced over the coals, and started mixing some eggs.

“Because, dear, magic doesn’t work that way. Can you tell me what the Elements do?”

Dolle slumped in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest, depressed at the sudden appearance of a school lesson. At first she refused to answer, but with a stern glance from her mother, she reluctantly obliged.

“The four elements each have their special rule over nature,” she recited. It was a textbook answer. “Earth, Air, Fire and Water each have different properties, but none of them stronger than the others. When a mage learns to use Elemental Magic, he learns to bend those properties to his will–but they can never be more than what they were to begin.”

“That’s right,” her mother cooed, placing a plate of eggs and sizzling sausage before her father. He hungrily dug in, grunting his thanks when she added a cup of hot tea to the setting.

The Elements are powerful, but they can only do so much. When they are used for anima, that construct behaves like an extension of its Nature. But a Geoanima wouldn’t be able to fly, no more than a Hydroanima would be able to start a fire. And none of the Elements has the power to animate something so that it can think and feel for itself.”

Dolle had heard this explanation before, from her teachers at school, friends at the playground, and other adults from which she’d tried to learn the secret of automata. Not for the first time, she wondered–not aloud, for she’d learned long ago that such questions would only earn her scoffs and “isn’t she cute-s”–about the Elements. If none of them could animate a thinking, feeling creature on their own, how had GiSek, the Creator, done it for the Toral?

Knowing better than to press the issue, she started eating her eggs, silently chewing and scheming a way to see Vesir, without her parents knowing.

There we are, folks! I’ll put up other samples as they come.

Scrivener: the Ultimate Writer’s Tool.

Scrivener

So you’ve got a way to gather your research, a place to hammer out your 750 words a day, and a bunch of handy web resources at your fingertips. The next step, of course, is to write your project. And by many accounts, the best tool for that is a program called Scrivener.

Scrivener is a project based writer’s tool that aims to help you get past your first draft. It’s an organizer, a compiler, can build your manuscript into publisher accepted formats, and can export the final project into a number of file types, including an eBook. It’s a one stop shop for the self-publishing writer!

Now, I’ve only started using Scrivener, so I don’t as yet have a comprehensive view of all the tips and tricks. It’s a remarkably robust program; you could work in it for months and not use half the features that are available to you. The the thing is that, unlike a certain Microsoft based word processor, not knowing all these little features doesn’t get in the way of using the program–but when you find them, the program gets more and more convenient to use.

Scrivener is based on an framework set to help you organize your project. When you open a new project, you’ll see a series of folders on the left hand side, each of which represents a different chapter in your book. On the right is a corkboard, where you can “pin” index cards to outline the chapter or–if you click on the chapter in question–indicate separate scenes. These cards can be shuffled around in any order, labelled as concepts, ideas, first/revised/final drafts, or moved from folder to folder. You can outline your entire novel in one place, and shuffle things around as you please. This makes organization simple, but also means that one of the messier parts of editing–rearranging things so your plot flows smoothly–is solved with a click of your mouse. You can even run a search for specific keywords to filter a certain group of cards; if, for example, you have a subplot that weaves through your main story without interfering with it, you can pull all of those cards in sequence to see that it makes narrative sense.

The main corkboard

If that was where the program ended, it would be worth trying out. But Scrivener does so much more.

There’s a place for you to keep notes and plot lines for specific characters or places, and even general concepts so they are at your fingertips, but don’t interfere with the manuscript. There’s a pane for research where you can add images, text, full webpages, and even video to reference as you write. You can re-size this pane to show as much or as little of either side as you like. Likewise, you can bring up a pane to show your index cards, so you can write scene by scene and rearrange the entire structure as you go. I think that Debrief, shown earlier this week, is better at handling all your research in one place, though Scrivener seems to have more options in terms of including media. I’m still playing with both.

Scrivener research

You can do research in Scrivener too!

Scrivener can show you at a glance how many pages, words and characters are in the entire document, or just parts of it; how many pages it would be if it were printed as a paperback or 8.5X11 paper; it can calculate word frequency in the document; and you can add word count targets for each chapter, or the project as a whole.

Scrivener also gives you access to a few simple–but useful–tools, such as looking up a highlighted term in Google, Wikipedia or Dictionary.com; translating the word into other languages; and even a name generator. (Though the name generator has a lot of options as to race, nationality, number of names, etc., I still found it to be a bit generic. Though I prefer character names that reflect character, so I won’t be using this feature anyway).

Of course, once your project is finished, you’ll want to do something with it. You can compile your project and export it in a variety of formats, including .pdf, .rtf, .doc, ePub and .mobi. Each format gives you a number of options as to what to include in the final output, and when you compile as an eBook you can edit the metadata. Conceivably, you could write a book, export as an ePub, and have it ready to upload it to sell in your favourite eBook store all with the same program.

Scrivener Compile

Compile your eBook with ease!

Because Scrivener is such a large program, it can seem daunting to use. As I mentioned, you could skim the surface of the program and be perfectly happy with it, but the deeper you go the more useful it is. Fortunately there are helpful tutorials at your disposal. These tutorials are set up as projects, so you can open one (for a novel, for example), and work through it as a hands on example of how to use all the program’s features. It will take a couple of hours to go through it, but it’s worth it to get the full scope of the program. For those who want a quicker look, there’s also a series of video tutorials on their website that will give you a good idea of how to use Scrivener.

Did I mention you can also take “snapshots” of different edits of your work and compare them side by side? Or type in full screen mode with no distractions–though you can add a background image for inspiration? Or (on the Mac) edit multiple pieces of text simultaneously, dragging and dropping bits into each, in Scrivenings mode? I’ve also figured out how to synchronize my files with Sugarsync so I can work on them away from home, even though I only have Scrivener on this computer.

Scrivener is available for the Mac (for which it was originally written) and Windows. There’s a lot more documentation about the Mac version, but the Windows version is catching up. It comes with a 30 day free trial, though to be honest, the $43 price tag ($48 for the Mac version) is a steal for as much as this program can do. If you’re serious about writing, this is a great program to help you achieve your goal.