A Different Tapestry: The Kobo Arc

A little over a year ago, I bought myself a Kobo Touch e-reader. I’ve been using it, on average, close to two hours a day since then–it’s easily one of the most useful electronic devices I’ve ever invested in. Which is why it was so disappointing when it crashed last week.

I was sending emails back and forth to Kobo Customer Care for the better part of the week, trying all sorts of tricks to get it working again–but sadly, it had run its course. With the amount of use it’s gotten, I can’t say I’m surprised! Kobo was very helpful, although in the end, nothing could be done–and unfortunately, I had just gone over warranty.

So on Saturday, I decided to bite the bullet and replace my Kobo. While I was at it, I took the opportunity to upgrade to the Kobo Arc. And I couldn’t be more pleased with the choice.

The Kobo Arc, while still primarily an e-reader, is really a tablet with a reading focus. It’s stock Android, but Kobo had given it a custom UI called Tapestries (the irony is not lost on me!). Essentially, these amount to folders in which you can organize your apps and media–in practise, it’s an excellent tool for the Indie Writer.

It works something like Pinterest. You can ‘pin’ almost anything to a Tapestry–apps, webpages, pictures, books, you name it. You can pin something to multiple Tapestries, and even nest them within one another. They appear on your home screen with an image of the last item you used–so for example, if I was just in the Kobo store and go back to the main screen, I’ll see the icon for the store at the front of my Reading Tapestry. The Kobo learns which apps you use most, and pushes them to the top, where they’re easy to find.

But it goes deeper than that. As with all Kobos, you can highlight passages in a book and make annotations. This is a feature I used often on my Touch, as it’s a great help to research. I often found myself comparing annotations; I’d make a note in one book, then open another and compare passages to get a more rounded view of whatever topic I was studying. But it was cumbersome. You needed to close the book you were working on, then open another and sift through the annotations until you found the one you wanted. A lot more convenient than paging through actual books, but still not exactly simple.
So the really awesome bit about the Kobo Arc is that you can pin these highlighted passages. I’ve created a Tapestry called Research which sits in my Reading folder; when I open it, I have all of my annotations in one spot. Each shows as a small snippet of text, and tapping on it opens the book to that page of the book. It couldn’t be easier.

Even better, you can still pin images and other items into that Tapestry–which means I can also pin images from my Pinterest boards. This makes Tapestries a robust feature for writers–I’m only beginning to scratch the surface of how useful this can be.

Because the Arc runs on Android, there are thousands of useful apps you can download, many of which are free. The Arc comes pre-loaded with Pinterest, which I’ve already found useful. It also has Twitter, which will make it easy to follow fellow Indie Writers–and much easier to follow the links they post than using my phone (and, incidentally, I can pin their blog posts or tweets to Tapestries as well). There’s a Goodreads app, and I’ve found a neat RSS reader called Pulse with which I can follow Indie blogs. There’s a score of Memo apps, some of which can be dictated to; Evernote is a popular choice for writers, though I’ve personally never found it useful. I found a few word processors too, though I can’t imagine they’d be useful for the Arc unless I were to get a separate keyboard–at which point I might as well use my computer.
There are also  WordPress and Wikipedia apps, though apparently they’re not compatible with the Arc.

The Arc is also great for browsing the internet. It comes with the stock Android browser and with Chrome–but Firefox is available too. And of course, any pages or images you bring up can be pinned to Tapestries as well. I’m very happy with this feature, as my phone–a Blackberry Torch–shows dismal performance when opening webpages, and I’m not always at a computer when I want to look something up. The Kobo Touch had a browser as well, but it was eternally stuck in Beta, and it was pretty slow. My focus for the Arc isn’t surfing the ‘net, but as a writer’s tool, bringing up webpages for research or shopping for books is going to be dead simple.

And that brings us to the reason I bought this device in the first place–the Reading Experience. We’ll get into details on Wednesday, so stay tuned for that!

And, as promised, I’ll be writing a weekly Indie Review starting next Monday with Lorne Oliver’s Red Island. He’s posted the first chapter on his website, so go give it a look!

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Pinning Him Down–Pinterest and Character Development

Frankenstein’s Monster, by DerrickT c/o Flikr

Today I thought I’d continue my exploration of Pinterest with a post about Character Development. I’ve wanted to talk about characters in writing for a while, and eventually plan to do a series–so this seemed like a good place to start.

My first impression of Pinterest after a couple day’s use is that it’s best for…well, impressions. As writers, we’re in the business of creation, and that means we’re always keeping an eye out for inspiration which can come from anywhere. It’s tempting to use too much of something that inspires you–but that’s a topic for another post.

The way to get around this–in my opinion, anyway–is to cast a wider net, as it were. Use Pinterest to gather images from a large range; don’t collect a bunch of pictures and videos that are too alike, and don’t be afraid to spread out beyond the subject of the board. What you want is something like a Scatter Plot. You’ll have a certain number of images that relate to one another, but you’ll have enough on either side of the range that it can develop into your own unique idea.

Anyway, back to impressions. I think this sort of strategy is going to be most useful in two areas: developing a setting, and developing a character. Neither should have real-world counterparts (unless your story is set in a detailed real setting), so you want to have a wide-ranging impression. I think this can be most effective with characters, because the best characters are the ones that are multifaceted. You want to have a character that would look like a scatter plot if they were graphed out.

To that end, I’ve started two boards which I’ll use to develop two of my main characters: Alkut and Ahbinzur. Take a look.

Alkut

Alkut is the main villain in my Tapestry Project. He’s is a Page to the court of the Emperor Tauri, recently deceased. The Yziman Empire wishes to establish a trade agreement with their rivals, the Toral–an initiative planned by Tauri. The Emperor’s heir is no statesman, and so much of the negotiations fall to Alkut.

He’s a remarkably handsome man and very charismatic. His equivalent in the Tarot is the King of Wands; he knows how to take action, has a fierce temper and will, and tends to consume what he touches. I’ve included several different versions of the King of Wands, each with subtly different iconography that help me round out his character.
His defining characteristic is his yellow eyes. Most of the Ozym are pale and have little natural colour. There are a few Ozym who have yellow eyes, but they’re washed out or indicate sickness. Alkut’s eyes, on the other hand, shine with an otherworldly vibrancy. A lot of my board so far consists of different yellow eyes, and I’ve even deleted several pictures I thought didn’t work. I like one in particular: a picture of a young boy with bright yellow eyes. There’s an innocence and peace to the face that offsets his eyes nicely–he looks older and wiser than he is, and his gaze is hypnotic.
Because he’s a villain, I wanted some pictures that reflect his personality. He’s evil, through and through (though I’m brainstorming some redeeming qualities so he’s not flat). I chose a few pictures of frightening or spooky figures; these won’t be used to describe him, but they give me something to look at as I’m thinking of his mannerisms. In this sense, they truly are pictures of impression.
Finally, I included a picture of a spotted salamander. That creature is the Elemental of Fire, and in my story a mage working with a particular element will often have such a creature as a familiar. Alkut’s familiar, however, is a dragon, and I want it to have a slamander-esque form. So I’ve also found some neat pictures of Hypsognathus and Eryops, early dinosaurs with that kind of structure. The Hypsognathus Skull is particularly evocative.

Ahbinzur

In Tapestry, the Toral are ruled by a Queen, who is in turn advised by the Hierophantic Caste. The Caste is ruled by the Stewards, four mages who each look after their element. Ahbinzur has been newly elected to be the Steward of the Aether, but immediately notices the decadence and hypocrisy latent in the Caste. She wants to strike a blow for True Faith, and though her actions may be devastating, they’re for the greater good. As such, she correlates nicely to the Queen of Swords, who looks out for Justice and Truth at all costs.
I’ve included several images of the Queen of Swords in her board, each with different iconography. I particularly like the Crowley version–this is a deck I work with often. That image is the Biblical Judith, who seduced Holofernes, then killed him in order to free her people. She went to great lengths and suffered much for the Greater Good–and so does Ahbinzur.
Her element being Air, I wanted to find images that have a flowing, sort of ethereal quality to them. The meditating maiden is particularly nice. I also included an image that evokes her namesake, Binah–the third Sephirot on the Tree of Life–which represents knowledge and understanding. She has a clarity of vision that most of her Order lack, which is exactly why she’s taken it upon herself to reform her Order. Yet there’s a certain innocence about her. She’s young and inexperienced, and there’s a hint of doubt in her. The image of a fairy by the pond evokes this; there’s mischief there, but more so, there is uncertainty.
The Elemental of Air is a Sylph. This is a creature normally appearing something like a fairy, which doesn’t really fit into my world–so I’ve been trying to find something analagous. In searching Pinterest for Sylphs, I came across several beautiful birds. The Long Tailed Sylph, fittingly, is a real hummingbird native to South America. While my world is a fantasy one, I’m not going crazy with imaginary creatures, so it was an epiphany to find an actual creature I could use here. Ahbinzur’s familiar is a retinue of Sylphs, which she can communicate with and who follow her instructions.
There’s a dragon for each element, and the Aether is no exception. When thinking of what form this creature should take, I looked at pictures of Chinese Dragons, and learned of the Azure Dragon, a Chinese contellation. This fits perfectly, as the dragon lives in the sky, flows with the currents of air, and has a sinuous appearance. I imagine the Aetherdrake being born of smoke, striking fast, and floating away on the breeze before it can be struck in kind.

So there we have it. These “character sketches” can help flesh out my characters in a grand way–and I’m learning new things about them as I browse. So far I think it’s a great way to build characters–you should give it a try!

Pinterest: A Worthy Writer’s Tool?

Pinterest_FaviconRecently I mentioned that adding too much too soon to your story can cause it to collapse–as mine is in danger of doing. If you see this happening, it’s a good opportunity to step back, take stock, and find out what you really need to write. Roz Morris excellent blog post on how to correct this problem was an eye-opener for me, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the last week. One of the ideas she suggests is to use Pinterest…so I thought we’d look at that briefly today.

If you’re not aware of Pinterest–and admittedly, though I’ve heard of it I never really looked into it until now–here it is in a nutshell: you find pictures you like on the internet, and “pin” them to a virtual corkboard. Once pinned, others can find you and re-pin what you’ve pinned, and you can pin their pins. The result is a board filled with images that are shared and shared again. When I first heard of it, I thought it sounded like most social media–useless to anyone who didn’t know how to use it properly. Further, what good would it be to an artist who works in words, not pictures? I never really bothered to explore it further than that.

But Pinterest does have one very important thing to offer writers: inspiration.

This is why Roz recommended it. You can start a Pinterest board and fill it with images related to the story of book you’re writing. Then, when you get stuck or go off track, you can go back to your board to see what inspired you about the story in the first place. It’s like a visual notebook where you can jot down ideas, feelings, and themes. For those of us who are visual learners–that’s me–this can be a great boon. Imagining a book in your head is one thing, but I’ve already found that compiling images that reflect that imagery can be inspiring.

Another way I can imagine Pinterest being helpful is in World Building, especially for speculative fiction. In fantasy, you need to create a comprehensive setting that is exciting and makes sense, and it can be challenging to keep things straight. This is one issue I keep having: I lay down a “rule” for my world (such as that the Elements produce magic), but keep tweaking it until it loses the effect I meant it to have. Or I describe an area as being a desert wasteland without considering how the relatively close major river seems incongruous. Finding pictures of the setting you want to convey can give you real-world analogues to keep your setting believable.
One thing I want to develop in a more concrete way is the varying species of dragons in my world. As the Elements create magic, so too do they infer magical beings, so I want each species of dragon to not only correspond with, but represent their Element. This has already been beneficial for me; in searching for pictures of salamanders, I found one (pinned to my board) of a spotted salamander that, if it were the size of a man, would make a formidable dragon. A salamander is a creature of fire–thus, a fire dragon.

One thing to be aware of, I think, is the difference between Inspiration and plain Stealing an Idea. This can be a dangerous line to walk on Pinterest, where it’s easy to just click “pin” on anything that catches your fancy across the internet, without caring where it came from. If a certain picture serves too well as the basis of some creative idea in your story, it’s not really yours. If I take the picture of the spotted salamander and use it as my cover image, I’m stealing it. If someone draws a picture of a water dragon and I describe it too closely in my book, I’m stealing someone’s idea. I think you’d have to be careful about where you draw the line.

Using Pinterest is easy. You set up an account through Facebook or Twitter, then start new boards for whatever topics you like. My first board is four The Courts–the four stories that make up Phase One of my Tapestry Project. I may divide them into four separate boards, one for each story, but this serves for now.
Then just go searching. You can search Pinterest for whatever you like, and each picture that comes up has a Pin button on it. Pin it and it’s in your board, where others can see it as well. You can also pin images from anywhere on the Internet–there’s an option to add a “Pin It” button to your browser. I put it on the toolbar right below the address bar on Firefox, so it’s right there.Any time you pin an image, you can choose which board it goes to, and add a caption.

Like any social media service, people can also follow you, so they can see all your boards as they’re updated. For some baffling reason, I got 50 followers within an hour of setting up my account. I can’t say I know how this works, or how I can turn it back on my writing–but the point is that you can create a community. And that community can help build your author platform.

There are a lot of writers out there who swear by Pinterest. Here’s a few articles about it for further reading–and it’s just the tip of the iceberg!

So, is Pinterest worth it for writers? Truth be told, I’m not sure yet. I’m still experimenting with it, but so far it’s been…interesting. I think the biggest challenge for a writer is, as Roz points out in her article, using it. It can be tempting to just browse for pictures–I got lost in this yesterday–and forget why you started this in the first place. But if you’re diligent and this kind of “imaging” is something you enjoy/get use out of, then by all means, check it out. You might be pleasantly surprised.

At the very least, you’ll gleefully waste an afternoon looking at pictures of food and crafts.

What do you think about Pinterest for Writers? Is it useful, or just a distraction? Do you have a Pinterest board? I want to hear your comments and see your links!

Roll a D20 for Inspiration

d20 by Janetgalore, c/o Flikr

Last week, I talked about how I like to draw on roleplaying games for inspiration in creating characters, so I thought it would be fun to follow up this week with the other end of things–the Game Master.

For those of you who haven’t played an RPG, the Game Master (or Dungeon Master in D&D parlance) is the one who runs the adventure for the players. Their job is to build encounters with enemies to fight, scatter treasure for the players to find, and develop a plot for them to follow. You can see where this is going: the GM is, essentially, a storyteller weaving a compelling story for the players to play through. You can see why this is appealing for a writer.

This past weekend, I had the chance to sit down with a group I used to play D&D with. I haven’t had a lot of time to play with them lately, but had a free evening on Saturday, so I dropped in. The GM whipped up a One Shot so I could play without disrupting the overall arc of their story, came up with a nice plot hook for my character to be thrown into the action, and we were off.

The story was quite clever: my character Arranis was frantically wandering through the forest trying to collect herbs for a potion that would help heal a young boy. I ran into the other adventurers, who came back with me to the village, where we discovered that the boy–Timothy–was ill because their family couldn’t afford proper medical care. The town they were living in was controlled by a tyranical man who was taxing them to death, and cared for nothing but himself. When we tried to confront him, we were intercepted by a ghost in heavy chains who told us our villain–Abanezer–would be visited by three spirits hoping to convince him to change his ways; our job was to make sure the good spirits could do their job without interference, and we spent the evening fighting off foes who wanted Abanezer to stay as evil as he was.

Sound familiar?

This is what I enjoy so much about role playing. Even a well known story can provide a fun backdrop for adventure. Some of you may have seen the recent episode of The Big Bang Theory or read the Penny Arcade comics of the past weeks, and it’s the same idea. Take a story, spin it into an adventure, and hack/slash away. Our GM was able to lead us through a compelling plot, and we, as players, were able to affect the story through our actions.

Game Mastering is a particular skill, but it’s closely related to writing. You want to have Plot Hooks for your characters, motivations for them to want to move the plot forward, tension and action to keep them interested, and–most importantly–a backup plan in case your characters go widely off the path you’ve set out. Most of you know all too well what happens when a character or plot gets out of control and you need to write yourself out of a corner. Usually, it leads the plot into wonderful territory you never considered, and (for me anyway) that’s part of the magic of writing.

I once ran a solo game for someone who wanted to learn the World of Darkness system. It’s a game that focuses on horror and supernatural elements in a “real world” setting, so it has a much more tangible feel to it. We had a great time playing what amounted to a short piece of fiction–effectively, we were living out the story, I as the narrator, and he as the protagonist. This specific game is actually part of what got me back into writing after a (too) long hiatus, and (with the player’s permission) I’ve started work on it as a novella called The Road to Hell. Look for it to be released sometime in 2013.

I can’t say that I’m an experienced Game Master–I’ve really only dipped my toe–but the games I ran did make me a better writer. And, I like to think, vice versa. It’s all about weaving a story, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that a lot of writers would be good at running an RPG–or that GMs or players would find they’re good at writing. The people I played with last weekend are a great example–one of the players (who was actually the first DM I played with) had a successful turn at NaNoWriMo this year, in fact.

RPGs certainly aren’t for everyone. For some people they seem downright silly. But if you’re a writer, I’d urge you to at least give it a shot–you might be surprised with what you find. And if you’re a DM who stumbled upon this post and have never written a word–try it. You never know.

I could talk at length about RPGs…and might do more posts on the topic as related to writing. In the meantime, I’ll let others speak for me. Here’s a few links for you:

  • Critical Hit: A terrific podcast by the folks at Major Spoilers. It’s an ongoing game that started as a great tutorial for one player, and got even more awesome from there. Really, go listen–you can find them on iTunes.
  • Dragon’s Temple: Julio Nicolini is a writer and fellow player from Myth Weavers who has his own blog. He talks about RPGs and writing, and often posts excerpts of his work.
  • Penny Arcade: These guys talk about video games, comics, RPGs and all things GeekTheir comic often deals with Dungeons and Dragons, and the crew gets together with Wizards of the Coast once a year to play a game with the indomitable Wil Wheton–which you can also find on iTunes.
  • Myth Weavers: This is a “Play by Post” site where you can play a variety of RPGs online. It’s a great community, and very friendly to newcomers.
  • Wizards of the Coast:Makers of Dungeons and Dragons and other games.
  • White Wolf Publishing: Makers of the World of Darkness game, and others–including Vampire, Werewolf and Mage.

Thanks everyone for reading along these past few months. With the holiday season fast upon us, I won’t be posting here again until January–next week will be a bit busy. So Happy Holidays and New Year!

How to Make the Time

Time goes by so fast by JanetR3, c/o Flikr

A while back, I posted about how we give ourselves permission to procrastinate, and that the excuse of “I don’t have enough time” is a thin one. The moral: you won’t have the time until you make the time. So I thought it would be nice to follow up today with how you can do just that.

I used to be a House Manager at a live theatre company–essentially, my job was to make sure our patrons were safe and comfortable before the show and during intermission. A large part of it was customer service–but really, the job was all about time management. It was important to learn how to manage my time so that less important things–like making sure the doors are unlocked–don’t take away from time spent on issues like getting change to the bar, resolving seating issues, and heaven forbid, medical emergencies.

Time Management isn’t just about hitting your deadlines or making sure you have time to complete projects. It’s about making the most use out of the time you have, identifying what you don’t have time for, and knowing what’s most important to get done right now.

And all of this relates to writing just as well as it does House Management, or any other job. Let’s address it in a few simple points:

Prioritization

This is the big one. If you’re focusing on the little things, you’ll never get good at time management. It’s as simple as not knowing where your energies need to go–if you spend all your time on something that doesn’t matter in the larger picture, you’ll find yourself running out of time to complete the big projects. It sounds pretty straight forward, but I’ve found that it takes practice. Most of the time, it’s easy to tell what should get your attention first–but sometimes, it’ll surprise you.

For example, you might think that designing a cover for that book you just started is a long ways off. You still have edits, revisions, formatting. The book cover is the last detail you want to think about when you’re in the middle of your first draft. But really, it’s a crucial thing to think about early on, maybe even before you start writing. The cover is how people are going to find your book, especially when they’re shopping online. You also need to think about branding; your books should all have a similar ‘feel’ to them, so it’s easy for readers to make the connection between your works. If not, it’s easy for them to pass your other books by.

Allocation

Prioritization is how you order your task list; Allocation is how divide that time between tasks. Another common mistake in time management is allocating too much time to a relatively unimportant project, and too much time to something else. I’m really bad at this when it comes to a specific example: research. I love researching things, to the point where I’ll research a topic just for the fun of it with no end result in mind. But when I have a particular story to write, I can get tied up in research enough that I use up time I could have otherwise spent writing–and that’s when I start missing deadlines.

Case in point: I thought it would be interesting for the system of magic in my Tapestry Project to make use of foci. A Mage uses magic by manipulating one of the four elements, but if he has a focus attuned to that element, the magic is more potent. I want to use particular gemstones as foci, and started doing some research into it–and wasted all the time I’d set aside for a couple days. All for a nice bit of “flavour” that ultimately doesn’t have a large impact on the plot. I could have stopped my research short and gone back to it later, and it wouldn’t have made a difference.

The fallacy of allocation is that every part of your project is important–it’s just that some things are more important than others. Research is crucial for a good book, but you need to make time for other things too. Finding that balance can take practice as well, but ultimately, the most important thing is that you write. That should always be your priority, and the majority of your time and effort  should be spent on it.

Organization

This one seems like a no-brainer, but it’s really very important. If you’re not organized, you’ll have trouble getting out of the gate. Fortunately, it’s simple to get on the right track–just utilize your resources and play to your strengths.

I’m a “project” guy. I work best when I have a clear goal in mind, and I’m able to set out specific tasks that lead toward that goal. Checklists work wonders for me; as I complete tasks and mark them off my list, I have a real sense of accomplishment which propels me forward. Others may prefer to have a vague outline of what their end game looks like, and work toward it in an organic way. There’s no right answer here, as long as you’re organized. There’s a lot of software out there for this, everything from email clients and electronic calendars to synchronization software and memo pads. Much of it is free. Investigate what you think will work best, try it out, and use it.

Goals and Intent

Again, it might go without saying, but if you don’t have an idea of where you’re going to end up, you won’t have much luck getting there in any timely fashion.  You have to start somewhere, but you have to have a destination in mind as well.

The trick here, I find, is to have several very specific goals instead of one vague one. “I want to publish a novel” isn’t going to help you, because there’s so much work that goes into it. “I want to write X number of words each day” is a much better goal because it’s attainable, and it’s measurable. Also–and this is important–it’s something you can change day to day. Having a goal is great, but having a flexible goal is better. Sometimes life happens, and you can’t reach your destination when you thought you could–but that doesn’t mean it can’t change tomorrow.

Intent is also very important. You want to be clear about what you want to achieve; not just what your goal are, but why your goals are as they are. You want to write 5000 words by the end of the week? Fine. Why 5000 words? Why a week? What will you do when you get there, whether you can meet that goal or not? Being clear on the intent behind your goals will help you work towards them because it’s no longer arbitrary, it’s tangible.

 

Time Management is a big subject, and I won’t pretend to have covered it all here. I’d like to elaborate on this post eventually, with some tips about managing your time–but in all honestly, I’m out of it for this week! We’ll see you Wednesday!

Characters and Gaming

copyright Wizards of the CoastOne of the most important things about writing a decent story, of course, is finding compelling characters. There’s tons of information on the internet about how to write good characters, create interesting arcs, how to use characters to drive conflict, and so on. We’ll get into those some day–I’d like to do a series on characters eventually–but today, we’re going to step back and do something fun.

I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons a couple years ago, when I was invited to play in a weekly game. I had no idea how it worked, and I’d never played a pen and paper RPG before, but I loved it instantly. The thing that struck me most about the game is the way it encouraged creativity. In my first session, our group was being chased by a bunch of enemies we didn’t want to fight; our Dungeon Master (the person leading the game for the players) clearly wanted to set us up for a battle, but we weren’t hearing of it. We tried to hide in a cave while they passed us by–the DM countered by telling us it contained a monster of a higher level than us, hinting that the foes behind would be the easier fight. Instead, we lured our pursuers into the cave, blocked the entrance, and let the monsters take care of themselves. Problem solved.

This is what I enjoy so much about roleplaying games: they’re designed to be open ended, and the only limits are your imagination. Being a rather imaginative person, it’s a natural fit for me. As a storyteller, the draw is even more evident; even while you’re in an encounter and rolling dice to see if you hit and how much damage you dole out, you have the opportunity to flesh out the narrative. A miss turns into an unexpected parry by your enemy, who then dodges out of your way and thumbs his nose at you. An attack that just barely hits turns into a harrowing tension filled moment where both of you lock swords and stare each other down–while you slowly draw a dagger to thrust into their side.

You can see why this is fun for a writer. What does it have to do with characters?

In Dungeons and Dragons (I’m talking about 4th edition if anyone’s interested), you first choose the kind of character you want to play by selecting a class. This is what you do. Then you choose a race, which gives you some characteristics and determines how well you do your thing. Finally, you flesh out the character with specific attacks, weapons and items, feats (special abilities), and so on. It’s simple, and the publishers of the game (Wizards of the Coast) have lots of flavourful options for you to choose from.

But the most fun way to build a character is to start with a concept, and try to make it work mechanically. This is where you get some great ideas for characterization, which you can then bring into your writing. For example, DnD has a race called Warforged, which is basically a magic robot. Couple that with a class called Swordmage, which likes to use magic through their blade, and multiclass into Psion, which has various telekinetic powers. You end up with a character that’s part mechanical, uses a sword, and can move things around with their mind.

Like Darth Vader.

DnD gives you a great place to start by providing flavour and information on the classes, races and so on. And that’s just it: a start. This information can serve as a springboard to help create colourful and fun characters. Of course, all of it is copyrighted by WotC–and aggressively protected. So I wouldn’t go about creating a character with their sources and publishing it in your novel–but it helps get the creative juices flowing. I’ll often build character after character with no intention of using them in a game–I do it just because it’s fun, and it’s interesting to try odd combinations, then trying to explain them with a story. Like a dwarf who desecrates nature and is punished by the spirits of the forest by being locked into the form of a bear (Shaman class with a power called Beast Form). Or a monk who practices lucid dreaming, accidentally bringing into existence a manifestation of his “dream self,” which then breaks free in an effort to explore its own identity (a race called Kalashtar with the Psion class). Or an escaped gladiatorial slave who has developed a unique fighting style, using her long braided hair to ensnare her foes (arena fighter with the whip training feat).

You get the idea.

At any rate, if you’ve never tried roleplaying, I’d suggest you give it a go. DnD 4th edition uses a character builder which is completely online, and you have to subscribe to them in order to use it; they used to have a downloadable program (which is what I use) but I don’t know that it’s widely available.
There’s a website online called Myth Weavers, where you can play by posting in a forum. You can find me there occasionally, and they cater to all sorts of different games. Or visit the Dungeons and Dragons website to get more information about their games. Also check out another of my favourite games, World of Darkness–a sort of supernatural noir “storytelling system” that relies heavily on story and not so much on dice.

And have fun with it!

Tom’s Diner, Evocative Writing, and an Update

Have you even heard the term “earworm?” If not, you’ve experienced it: a song that wriggles its way into your head and makes a home there, unwilling to leave. Like Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega:

It’s one of those songs that just won’t let go. It’s catchy, pithy, and expressive. But what does it have to do with writing?

I was listening to this song the other day, and it struck me that it’s the perfect example of evocative description. I won’t reprint the lyrics here, but you can find them online. I can’t even think of a worthy sample to give here, because anything taken out of the context of the whole is meaningless. Take a look, I’ll wait.

The song seems nonsensical: just a person narrating their (rather dull) day. Until you get to the end of the song, and you realize that she’s sitting in a diner alone because she’s no longer with her significant other. There’s no indication why they broke up, who left who, if infidelity or death  was involved–just that she’s lonely, and misses him. Then the rest of the song makes sense: she hasn’t been narrating her boring day as much as setting the scene for how she’s feeling. Despite not being very long or eventful, the song is enormously effective.

This works because Vega gives you no indication of the plot until the last verses–and even then, there are so many open questions. The whole song is made up of little details that seem so inconsequential it’s easy to gloss over them. But in looking back on them, they set the tone beautifully, and in a better way than simply telling the listener what’s happening.

When writing fiction, evocative description is the way to go. It’s so much more effective than telling the reader point blank that your character is feeling sad or happy or hungry. It’s economical too: Vega’s character has a complex emotional state that’s expressed in just over 200 words. Even better, she does this without having the character speak, or even really do anything beyond putting cream into her coffee. As a writer, you want to make sure you pull the reader into your story, to make them sympathize with your characters. You can do this by handing it to the reader on a silver platter–but that’s boring, and it’s not respectful to a reader who’s able to figure things out for themselves.

Instead, by placing little details in seemingly innocuous places, you create an emotional tapestry that pulls the reader in without them even realizing it. The continuous rain, the woman who doesn’t know she’s being watched as she hikes her skirt, the man behind the counter who doesn’t pay attention to his customer–these are all external indications of how Vega’s character is feeling. They’re metaphors, and very effective ones. And all without the character so much as lifting a finger.

The added benefit here is that you get to create your world in relation to the characters. Vega’s world seems damp, murky, and unfriendly–a perfect compliment to her character’s emotional state. But the same world, as described, can be used to reflect other characters. Maybe the woman hitching her skirt is meeting a lover for a romantic kiss in the rain. Maybe the man behind the counter is inattentive because he’s secretly in love with the woman with the umbrella. When other characters react differently to the world you’re creating, you’re telling the reader even more about them. Again, without those characters doing much of anything.

Here’s an example from the opening of my upcoming release, Court of Sand:

Lamplight flickered, and shadows danced on the wall. Verdant silence filled the halls, and the only movement was the opening of the door to the Empress’s chambers. A dark form slipped out and closed the door behind him with a soft click; Alkut stopped for a moment, listening. Content that he was alone, he sneaked quietly away. He did not notice her son, Ohmel, General  of the Court, watching him.

I think the passage needs some tightening up, but you see what I’ve done here. I could have written bluntly that Alkut was sneaking out of the Empress’ chambers while Ohmel looked on, perhaps even having Ohmel whispering his intent to punish Alkut for the transgression. I could have gone into great detail about how Alkut is having an affair with the newly widowed Empress, that there’s already an underlying tension between him and Ohmel, and that the Empress is an unwitting pawn in a larger plan. But all of that boils down to exposition, and it’s dull. The few lines above tell much the same story, with (I think) a bit more flare. Evocative writing gives a whole new dimension to your work and your characters.

And, frankly, it’s more fun for the writer too.

How to be (in)Visible

Social, by JD Hancock c/o Flikr.

One of the greatest challenges facing an indie author is visibility. Simply put, if nobody out there knows you’re writing, nobody our there will be reading. So how do you become visible?

This is something I’ve been struggling with since I started this journey. I’m by nature a shy person, and I’m not comfortable asking people to buy or try my stuff. I tell myself that I don’t like “imposing myself on others.” This is something I’m slowly getting over, but it’s been a challenge to say the least.

When I started self-publishing, I figured that a few good words and some solid stories would sell themselves; I didn’t care if it took a bit longer, I just thought that it would eventually steamroll under its own power. This, I’ve since learned, is one of the cardinal sins of self-publishing: never assume that your work will sell itself. The biggest reason for this, again, is that nobody knows you’re out there. Even with a lot of concentrated networking and shilling, it can be a challenge to get a large audience; why would they appear out of thin air? This is the best way to become invisible to your market: hope it takes care of itself.

But there are some relatively simple actions you can take to increase your visibility. Here’s three, and they don’t take that much more effort than doing nothing:

Twitter

Social Media is the big one. You should at least have a twitter account: here’s mine. When I started publishing, I had about 40 followers, because nobody except friends and family knew I was on twitter. I still have less than 100, but it’s growing; I’ve hovered around 85 for about a month. I want to grow my twitter audience, because they’re an easy way to distribute information–but the trick is being relevant. Use hashtags, talk about things other writers talk about, and be active. And by active, i don’t just mean tweeting a lot; I mean starting and participating in conversations on twitter. If people know you’re putting some effort into it, they’ll listen.

A few weeks ago, I found myself without a lot of time to catch up on twitter. I’d go a full day before checking twitter or tweeting myself. And I noticed a steady drop off on followers. People were checking their own twitter streams, realizing I wasn’t saying much, and taking me off their lists to make room for others. But as soon as i tweeted a couple useful links or started a conversation, my followers grew. And the more you have, the larger your audience and the more potential for further growth. Ryan Casey has a great post on how to properly use twitter.

Networking

Which leads into the next point: networking. I used to be very bad at this–like I said, shy guy. But in my new job, networking is essential, and I’m learning how to make effective and useful connections. Networking in the indie community is no different–and actually a bit easier.

The thing about networking is that people want to share their experience. They want to help you out, and they want you to help them in return. In the indie writing community especially, people out there are chomping at the bit to make you the best writer you can be–and it’s only fair to give back.

The first thing any indie writer should do is start creating a network of friends–fellow writers–who can help. You shouldn’t actively ask them to promote your work or teach you how to edit; that will come naturally if you cultivate the relationship. But even just a few people will help you immensely. They’ll give you writing advice. They’ll re-tweet your tweets. They’ll link to your blog. And in all likelihood, they’ve got a larger platform than you right now: everything they share of yours is going directly to their audience. And that audience, properly cultivated, can also become yours.

That’s the great thing about the indie community: there’s no finite market. Writers aren’t competing with each other as much as they seem to in the “professional” world. My readers can be yours as well, and that overlap is far from harmful (as thought in some capitalistic ventures); it’s actually helpful. Because it all helps spread the word of what the indie writer’s community is doing: revolutionizing the publishing industry.

How do you get a network? I started by following people on twitter whose work I enjoyed reading. Get in touch with the author, tell them you like their book. Ask them questions. Talk to them about things other than writing. My own network is small so far–I’m only just cluing into all these tips–but it’s growing. And the larger the network, the more people who are out there to help you when you need support, encouragement, or advice.

Outside Promotion

This one was scary for me. Not to beat a dead horse, but I don’t like asking people for things. It makes me uncomfortable to thing I’m requesting a favor, or asking them to do something they may not want to do. But you know what? It’s not that hard. And most people in this community are not only willing to help promote your work, they’re eager to do it.

That’s not to say you should spam indie writers with requests until someone complies. That’ll get you blacklisted. But there are a few simple places to start.

One I’d recommend is The Book Designer, by Joel Friedlander. He’s a designer, but has tons of useful information about self publishing. He also runs two monthly features that help writers promote: the eBook Cover Awards and the Carnival of the Indies. There’s no cash prizes or anything like that–this is much more valuable. Joel has over 17,000 followers on twitter, and I can imagine there’s many more who frequently read his blog; and when you’re in one of these features, your name (and blog) are sent out to all of them. I’ve been featured in both this month, and have experienced a significant amount of traffic because of it. Definitely check it out.

There’s also a Round of Words in 80 Days. I talk about them often, so I won’t go into length here: just follow the link if you’re interested. Suffice it to say, it’s your own community within the writer’s community, which helps people set and achieve writing goals. If you sign up, you’ll be invited to post a link to your check in blogs twice a week, and these links are promoted to others in the collective. It’s win-win.

The last thing I’ll mention about outside promotion is that if you give, people will give back. I’ve noticed that when I re-tweet someone’s book link or blog post, they’ll often re-tweet that to their followers–which means that all their followers can now see me. Share and share alike; that’s how this community works. It feeds upon itself, but isn’t diminished by that–it’s made stronger.

Now, of course, the next step for me is to translate this growth into sales. I haven’t had the chance to update my site to include links to my books–which is really a glaring oversight. I’ll get on that soon. In the meantime, my platform is growing, and now that I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve, it’ll keep growing at a decent pace. And really, it wasn’t that difficult to start.

Do you have any tips and tricks about increasing your visibility? I’d love to hear them in the comments!

 

Scrivener Templates

Scrivener Templates: making creating easier.

I don’t have a whole lot of time today to post, but in the interest of keeping my schedule, I promised myself I’d write something. So I’ve got a quick idea I’ve wanted to talk about for a while, but never found the right space for it: Scrivener Templates.

If you’re not using Scrivener for your writing, check it out. It’s amazing. It’s basically a more powerful version of your word processor–not only can you write in it, it will help you organize your thoughts, plot out your story, and convert everything into a manuscript or eBook at the end. It’s an extremely versatile program.

One of the things I like most about Scrivener is the way it helps you organize your work. Whether you’re writing a short story or a trilogy of novels, Scrivener can help you keep everything in one place. Along the left side of the program is the Binder, a collection of collapsible folders which is the backbone of your project. You have your manuscript (divided into scenes), notes for characters and places, and all your research.

 

Binder Closeup

What I want to touch on today is the Templates. At the bottom of your binder is a folder that has some templates. You can right click to duplicate one, and save it as a character or place. Then, just fill in the details and you have a succinct sketch of your characters and places. Easy.

I used to write as I went–by which I mean I let my characters develop as I wrote, without having decided ahead of time too much about them. This still works for me to a point–I love being surprised when my characters do something I didn’t plan for–but for the most part, you want to have all of that laid out in front of you when you’re starting a new project. It’s fine to have a general idea, but the deeper your characters are when you start writing, the easier you’ll find it to create three dimensional characters. And, to use an old writer’s cliche, places should be characters in your stories too–so treat them the same way.

Here I’ve filled out the template with the basics for Ahbinzur, one of my main characters. She’s a complex one, so I definitely wanted to have something down before I wrote too much of her. As you can see, the template is pretty straight forward: give the name, a physical description, personality traits, and so on. Something I found really helpful was an entry on Internal and External conflicts, one of the most important ways to make a fully fleshed out character. The things the template asks you to think about seem redundant–why should I have to write down what she looks like? I already know that–but they’re also easy to miss.

Doing a Place template is much the same. Far beyond what the setting looks like, you’ll think about what the sights, sounds and smells are, any special features you want to include, an so on. Getting it all out on paper makes inventing a living, breathing setting so much simpler.

Well, there you are. It’s a simple tool–really, it’s nothing more than a form you’re filling out–but oh so important. Something like this should go without saying, but missing these details will squash your book flatter than pancake–so hy not take advantage of it? As usual, Scrivener is taking the guesswork out of your project for you–all you have to do is hammer out the details, then sit back and write.

 

Scrivener on the Go

Scrivener

Scrivener: A great program just got better!

Last week, I mentioned that I was learning to use OneNote, and trying to find a convenient way to sync between computers. I’ll tell what I found below, but first, I want to talk about a happy accident I had along the way.

I discovered you can run Scrivener off a USB drive.

Now, I work a regular 9-5 job, and between that and family life,my typical writing time is usually Saturday and Sunday mornings. But I also get to work about an hour before my workday starts, so I’ve taken to writing or researching in the morning. This is great, except that I don’t have access to Scrivener at my work computer and doubt I could convince IT it’s a necessary program for my job.

So I’ve been using a combination of Sugarsync and/or Google Drive, both of which I’ve used in the past with great effect. But it’s an extra step: when I get home, I have to copy and paste my work into Scrivener. And when things get really busy at work, I sometimes forget to do this and end up with contrasting versions on both machines. Not efficient.

So in researching how to update OneNote conveniently, I found out that you can run Scrivener from a flash drive. You can actually install the program onto the drive, though the Literature and Latte folks (creators of the program) don’t recommend it because flash drives are generally slower than PCs. Instead, they suggest installing to your computer as normal, then copying your files over to the USB through explorer. Though I don’t use a Mac, I’m sure there’s a similar procedure.

Once you do this, you can open your Scrivener files on another machine through the USB stick. Voila: I can now use Scrivener on my off time at work!

A caveat: when you plug your USB into another computer and start the program, you’ll be asked to enter a registration number or use the trial version, even if you’ve already purchased it. This is only because Scrivener verifies your license through the ‘net, and the new computer won’t be registered.

Fortunately, the Scrivener license allows you to use the program on up to 10 machines (as stated on their Technical Support page), so all you need to do is input your registration number again and you’re good to go. If you don’t have your number (it’s not accessible through the program), you can go here to have it retrieved for you.

I’ve raved about Scrivener before–if you’re a serious writer, it’s one program you shouldn’t do without–but I really have to say that it keeps impressing me. This is an excellent tool for writers, and with this revelation, it just got a whole lot better.

OneNote

Now to OneNote. This is less of an issue for me now–the reason I was using it for gathering research was because I couldn’t use Scrivener on my computer at work. Now that’s moot–but it’s still a useful program.

OneNote 2010–which I have on my home computer–has a nifty feature where you can synchronize your workbook to Microsoft Skydrive, which will then synchronize it to your other computers. As long as they also have OneNote 2010.

At work, I have 2007, so this isn’t an option. I’ve had trouble syncing the notebook between the two computers, and it’s getting a bit cumbersome. It’s a tad disappointing that the 2010 file can’t open in 2007, and can’t convert without additional software–after all, Word 2010 can be opened in an earlier version. The best I can seem to do is save my pages individually in 2007 format (I can’t seem to save the whole notebook in 2007), then open them on my work PC from there. It’s not nearly as streamlined as it really should be for a program whose whole purpose is to make and share notes, but maybe I’m missing something. If anyone has any tips to share, please leave them in the comments!

Ultimately, as I’ve said, this is now moot. If I can use Scrivener to compile my research from both machines, it’s simpler than using two different programs. OneNote still has its benefits, but I’m not sure I’ll continue using it for my projects. Sorry Microsoft–another case of a Mac product winning out!