Mind-Computer Interfaces for Writers

August 23rd, 2009 by David No comments »

This very early morning as I was lying awake before rising, my senses were in a pleasant darkness that was full of words. I was relaxed but my mind was active. I had ideas I wanted to transcribe. Any current system I have for transcription—writing by hand, talking into my MP3 player, even using Dragon Naturally Speaking to type out what I say—would have intruded into my mental space.What I wanted was a neural transcriber so I could write even when I wasn’t near my computer or in a state when writing by hand was possible.

Given the advances in neural interfaces it seems plausible that a device for transcribing words from thoughts could be developed. Granted, current devices are crude toys, but a focused device that was the equivalent of early computer interfaces—text I/O, or even just text input since outputting words through audio is so simple and effective—is technically feasible in my opinion.

A simple device would use a typing mechanism, with different neural energy representing different key combinations. Even better would be a mechanism for directly recognizing full words, similar to speech recognition software but without requiring vocalization. A company called Ambient claims to have already invented a device, called The Audeo, that will do this, at least partially. The device is intended only for people who cannot speak, as it interprets the muscle impulses for speech and converts them to computer-generated speech audio. That’s highly commendable and if it works well, it’s a step forward.

The Audeos signal path

The Audeo's signal path

However, back in the world of my selfish desires to maximize my creativity, I want a device that doesn’t require vocalization impulses. I want to think the words only. I can think much faster than I can vocalize or type. (In fact, when I was a child they initially thought I couldn’t read because when asked to read aloud I skipped many words. They hustled me to a psychologist who gave me an IQ test, after which they figured that I was comprehending fine; my speech just couldn’t keep up. Then they had me start doing work a grade ahead of my class.) It’s not just laziness; I want to operate at maximum speed and in mental states of semi-consciousness where I get some of my best ideas.

As of today my best option is to try to remember as many half-awake ideas as I can for transcription later. But the more the real world intrudes on them, the more ephemeral they become. The harder I try to hold on to them, the more they slip away. But for today, I guess that’s the best I can hope for.

Saving Your Work

August 19th, 2009 by David 1 comment »

How much work are you willing to lose? That’s what you need to ask yourself if you don’t have a backup strategy for your working documents. If you save your files to your hard drive, you can lose them if your hard drive goes south (although there are data recovery options that can save data) or if your laptop or PC is lost or stolen (never check your laptop; keep it with you at all times when traveling!).

I don’t like re-doing any writing. I feel my first effort is usually best. That doesn’t mean I don’t do re-writes; of course I have to re-write. But I don’t like to re-write a scene from scratch if I already have something I’m happy with. Which is exactly what you may have to do if you don’t take care of your work.

Here are my simple rules for saving and protecting writing data:

  1. Save often, and increment your filenames.
  2. Use automatic (and free) online backup services to give you an automated backup you can recover even if your PC is lost or destroyed.
  3. Back up your files to external hard drive and/or CD or DVDs as well.

The good news is that all three of these steps are painless. Here are additional details on each one:

1. Save often and increment

  • I have MS Word set to autosave every 10 minutes. So even if I forget to manually save I should be able to recover most of my work in the event of a system crash.
  • Nonetheless, I hit save (Ctrl-S on a PC, Command (Apple)-S on a Mac) every time I stop typing.
  • I start every day with the previous day’s file then use Save-As to create a new file. I use the format ‘YY-MM-DD project name [draft status]’, adding a -1, -2, -3 to the day field if I make any big shifts during the day such as deleting a section or moving things around.
    • ‘YY’ is the last two digits of the year, ‘MM’ is the two-digit month number, and you can probably figure out what DD is. If I do anything other than typing new material at the end of the document I want the previous version to be saved.
  • I keep my working directory for each project fairly clean by making a sub-folder called ‘YYYY drafts’ (YYYY is the four-digit year), and moving the previous day’s work to this folder every few days. I want to make sure that I open the right file every day; if you’ve ever accidentally opened an old draft and started editing it you know why this is important.
  • I make other directories for research, inspirational images, and make new directories for each new revision (draft, first round revisions, second round revisions, final) as well.

2. Use automated and free online backup services

  • You can choose to pay for additional storage and services, but for me two free services get the job done: Microsoft Live Mesh and MozyHome Remote Backup.
  • Microsoft Live Mesh: This beta service from MS automatically syncs up to 5 GB of data from specified directories to an online (secure) folder tied to your account name and password.
    • You can set it up on as many PCs as you want. I have a desktop, a laptop, and a netbook that all run Mesh. If I haven’t turned my netbook on in a few weeks it takes some time to update, but once it does all my recent work is on there and I can take it to the library or coffee shop to work. As long as I’m online, everything gets updated to my online folder with no action required on my part.
    • You can log into your online folder from anywhere using a standard browser—useful if you forget to bring a file to your publisher. If you’re using a shared PC, make sure to erase the data from your browsing session when you’re done so no one can log in to your account!
    • Mesh uploads new or changed files when your net connection is idle. Remember that you need to close the file in Word (or whatever application you use) before Mesh will be free to grab it and start uploading it. When you’re done writing, you need a few minutes for Mesh to do its work before you turn off your PC. If you quit Word and immediately turn off the PC, Mesh will have to wait until you turn it on again to upload the new files.
    • A word of warning: if you delete a file in hard drive folder Mesh is monitoring, Mesh will delete the file from your online folder as well. If you delete a file by accident and can’t recover it, immediately turn off Mesh on the affected PC. Then log in to the online folder and recover the file manually before turning Mesh back on.
  • MozyHome Online Backup: Mozy runs less frequently than Mesh—a once a day backup is standard. Like Mesh, you specify the backup folders, but with Mozy you can also specify individual files and file types. For instance, you could have it back up all .doc files, or everything in your My Documents folder. It’s very configurable.
    • I think of Mozy as more a last resort. Mesh is my every day tool; Mozy is a backup to my backup.
    • The current free allocation is 2 GB of files.

3. Back up your files to an external hard drive

  • Even for struggling writers, a big USB hard drive is cheap. Whether you use automated backup software (many drives come with free software) or do it manually, keep recent backups on hand.
  • Aside from documents, doing full image backups of your hard drive periodically is a good idea. Finding all the original discs and serial numbers for software is a pain; with an image backup if the disc goes down I can re-install the image on a replacement disc and be ready to go.

Here are a few other tips and tricks:

  • Use email to send yourself writing when you’re away from your PC. You can log in to your Gmail (or other email) from any shared PC and pound out a few pages of text. Email it to yourself and when you get home all you have to do is cut and paste it into your document.
  • Speaking of cutting and pasting, if you want to ensure that pasted text is in the same style as the rest of your document, use Edit > Paste Special > Paste as plain text to bring any text in as plain (Normal style) text, saving you from having to re-format it later. You will lose any italic or bold text from doing this though…
  • You can also save your work as an attachment and email it to yourself. This gives you a backup file on the Google (or other network) server.
  • Lastly, writing by hand in a notebook still works great! You’ll have to type it in later but that gives you a chance to do some clean-up work as you type it in. Keep a notebook handy at all times!

I’ve probably explained too much in this post—it’s simpler than I’ve made it appear with all my extra instructions. If you just use the basic three instructions and a little common sense you’ll be able to find a backup system that works for you.

Keep writing!

Things to Do While You’re Writing

August 18th, 2009 by David No comments »

The blank page isn’t always your friend. Sometimes you feel like you’ve spent a little too much time with it. In times like these, ensure that you have some diversions nearby. This is not a comprehensive list by any means—I’m sure others have some great additions.

  • Play guitar. Or another instrument.
  • Carefully read through that new reference book—the history of medieval swordfighting, basic horsemanship, birds of north america—anything that you can rationalize as being helpful for your current project.
  • Tweet. Don’t forget to say that you’re writing a lot.
  • Talk to your dog or cat. If you find they have interesting things to say, write them down.
  • Update your Facebook page. Make sure to say that you’re writing a lot.
  • Get out a notepad and scribble some ideas for a new, unrelated project that might be interesting. Make sure to keep it in case you every actually want to follow through.
  • Play a videogame, especially if it has some possible relation to your project. For instance, if you’re writing a fantasy book, playing World of Warcraft may provide valuable inspiration.
  • Do something that makes you money. It’s nice to have money to buy more books. If they’re reference books, you may be able to expense them.
  • Put together an awesome MP3 playlist of inspirational music. It’s OK if this takes all day; the payoff will be worth it.
  • Come to think of it, you may need to organize your MP3 collection. It’s hard to write if you have unlabeled MP3s lying around. Or albums that lack the proper cover art.
  • Write. But only as a last resort.

Beowulf Stormbringer Excerpt: Chapter Four

August 17th, 2009 by David No comments »

This excerpt is from my novel-in-progress, the working title for which is Beowulf Stormbringer. In the following chapter, young Beowulf has left his home in Woden behind, stowing away on a double-hulled dragonship to seek his missing father. As he practices perfectly good stowaway skills, he is visited by an unearthly stormcrow, who warns him the ship is in danger of foundering in a coming storm unless it changes course….

It was still morning, but getting toward noon. Beowulf strapped his satchel across his shoulder and took Thunderhead in his hands. He wasn’t sure why, and when he remembered how Selig had made fun of him the last time he carried it seemed like a bad idea. But he still did it. With his free hand, he pushed the top of the cask open and stood up.

It was the first time he’d seen the open sea in daylight. It was a powerful sight. The sky stretched further than his arms could encompass, deep azure unbroken by any land. Surely, sky and sea were both free here, unbound by the strictures of mountains and earth, joining at the distant horizons that embraced the Farling as they rocked her from side to side. The waves curled and fell away, slapping at the sides of the ship like careless hands.

Beowulf took this all in an instant. Then a crewman saw him. “Stowaway!” he yelled. “It’s Norwulf’s boy.”

The men crowded round, jocular with the diversion the spectacle brought. Selig strode through them, and they parted for him. With hands on hips, he brought himself up before Beowulf and looked down upon him.

“You,” he hissed. He struck Beowulf across the face with his open hand. Beowulf was knocked to his knees, and Thunderhead clattered against the bottom of the hull.

“I have done nothing!” Beowulf cried. Maybe he knows I was the one who struck down Osselig. He tried to struggle to his feet. Selig shoved him back down.

“Kneel, boy,” he said. “Beg forgiveness that I don’t throw you into the ocean right now. How dare you put my ship in danger?”

“I’m not putting Farling in danger,” Beowulf said. “I have a warning . . . .”

But Selig was in no mood to listen as his anger heated. He smacked his fist into his palm and strode back and forth. “You endanger our mission by eating stores and getting in the way in battle. And what about Greta? You should be home taking care of her, miserable whelp!”

“I have a warning from the . . . .”

“Who’s taking the goats to pasture? Who’s mending the fences? Who’s carrying the wood? You are the most irresponsible cur I’ve ever set eyes on.”

“I bring . . . .”

“If any boy was to board our ship it would be my Osselig; at least he does what he’s told and can swing a sword so you don’t have to waste a man to protect his milk sop backside!”

“I’ve only come to warn you a storm is coming!” Beowulf yelled.

“What nonsense is this?” asked Selig.

“A terrible storm is coming. The stormcrow says you must turn back or the ship will founder.”

“Listen to me, boy, and stop making wild stories. You can’t lie your way out of trouble.”

“It’s no lie,” Beowulf insisted. “I saw the rune on the dragon prow lit up with danger.”

Volssigil shuffled forward uncomfortably. “The old tales do tell of stormcrows, Selig,” he ventured. “Perhaps we should listen to the boy.”

Selig snorted. He strode forward and pointed at the Lookfar eye on the dragonhead. No trace of light came from it, not even a reflection from the sun. It was still and dark. “Look, there’s nothing there.”

“It was glowing last night,” Beowulf said. He tried to keep his voice level, but some sulkiness crept in. “I saw it glowing red,” he repeated lamely.

“And was this before or after some stormcrow came to you and spoke in Od’s voice?” Selig said with mock seriousness.

“I’m not telling tales. I know what I saw. Greshawk said the ship was in danger if you didn’t turn back.”

“Fa, ships are always in danger. Rocks, storms, and other ships all bring danger. There’s nothing in the words of a stowaway rat. Or a sea crow.”

“You must turn your course back,” Beowulf cried. “It was a stormcrow and he came to give fair warning. Ignore his words at your peril.”

Selig’s face darkened. “Do you threaten now?” he sneered.

“‘A deadly storm lies in your path. Turn east to shelter by the shore or face death,’ that’s the message he gave. You must believe me,” Beowulf said.

The men shifted uncomfortably, and some of them made the sign to avert ill luck. “Maybe we should listen to the boy,” one of them said, a heavily bearded man named Argan who had once survived a shipwreck by riding the broken mast to shore.

“Maybe Od warns him because his father was lost,” said another.”

“Nonsense!” roared Selig. “I’ll not have his fool’s words halt our mission. What did we come for? We came for riches! For wealth and goods Woden needs. This is no pleasure voyage. And are we men or young lasses who quiver at the mention of death?” He glared at the men assembled before him. Some looked away, but others were shamed by his accusation. They turned with anger toward Beowulf.

“Selig is right,” they cried. “The boy seeks to turn our course away from Angledun for his own ends.”

Selig crossed his arms against his chest. “What shall we do with this false prophet, men?”

“Bind him to the mast,” Selig’s lieutenant Olrok said. He had close-set, cold eyes that looked upon Beowulf without mercy.

“Yes, and let him face forward so he can see that the sea roads open before us,” said another man at Olrok’s side who had an ugly scar across his throat. Beowulf couldn’t recall the scarred man’s name.

“He can watch ahead and let us know if any storms come,” said a third man. Volssigil and Argan said nothing, although their faces were troubled.

Two of Olrok’s men grabbed Beowulf by his arms and led him to the mast. They yanked his hands behind him around the rough wood of the mast and tied them securely with strong rope.

They fastened a blue cloak about his shoulders and made mock of him, asking him how it felt to be a full man of the crew. He refused to be baited and his silence eventually turned them back to their tasks.

The triangular sail billowed before him as he swayed from side to side with the waves. He tried to catch Volssigil’s eye, but Volssigil kept assiduously busy coiling rope until it was his turn to go aft to man the rudder. With aught else to do, Beowulf looked at the waters before the ship. The sail blocked his view somewhat, but by crouching down and ducking his head he could see the horizon clearly. He strained to see clouds darkening the sky to make Selig heed him, but all was calm.

Hours passed. Beowulf mused that while he was as confined as he’d been in his barrel, at least he could feel fresh air and look about him. He told himself he’d done all he could to convince Selig, but in his heart he knew he had failed. Given a message that surely came from the gods, he couldn’t even convince a village leader of its truth.

When Volssigil’s turn at the steer board was done, he brought Beowulf a horn of water. He said nothing but his hand was gentle on Beowulf’s shoulder as he lifted the container for him to drink from. After his brief visit, Beowulf felt somewhat better.

As the afternoon progressed, he felt the breeze freshen. The undulating waves grew white edges and slapped against the hull with more urgency. The horizon took on a gray tinge, and then scudding clouds began to darken the sky.

Some of the men glanced Beowulf’s way. He wondered if there was a touch of fear in their gaze. He watched them curiously, but no one would meet his gaze straight on. As the wind blew his hair back from his face, a slight shiver ran through him and goose bumps rose on his arms. Is this what it is like to be touched by the gods?

Spray began to splash over the gunwales as Farling heeled over in the wind. The daughter hull alternated digging down into the sea and lifting completely out of the water as Farling rocked back and forth. Selig shouted at the crew to shorten the sail and lash tight the extra gear. The cooking pot was taken down from its jury-rigged tripod and overturned on the deck so it wouldn’t fill with water. The same, however, couldn’t be done for the ship. Beowulf now recognized the full import of Greshawk’s words. As the waves grew in size, their tips came dangerously close to washing over the side. Not having a deck, Farling would take salt water into her hold if they grew higher, waterlogging the proud dragonship.

The sky was now black with clouds and the first drops of rain began to fall. Lightning flashed in the distance and the ocean skin grew luminescent. The ship skittered sideways into the wind. The steersman shouted to Selig and he rushed aft. The ship could not hold her course and from windblown scraps of their conversation, Beowulf gathered they tried to take a heading to reckon a course after the weather had passed.

The sail was completely furled down as Farling hove to. Her prow raised high in the air then careened sickeningly down. The rain was heavy now, streaming down Beowulf’s face until he could no longer see clearly. Selig stalked up and down, wrapped in a sealskin cloak. He set the men to bailing. Some used pots and pans and others broke open the greased chests where helmets were stored and used them to throw water back over the side.

But more water washed aboard than returned to the sea. The keening wind buffeted against the side of the ship and ripped away some of the shields on the daughter hull’s leeward side. Loose ropes whipped in the wind, threatening to tangle the workers straddling the rowing benches. The men grew fearful. They were not a hardened crew. With the disappearance of Norwulf’s ship Woden had lost many of its seasoned warriors. Most of the crew were young men, strong and hale but untested. Others were veterans like Volssigil and Argan, experienced men but past their prime and ready to settle by a fire at day’s end. Still, Selig lashed them with his strong voice, seeking to bully them into courage. Olrok prowled beside him, his fists ready to strike any man slow to do his duty.

For a time, it seemed it would work. As Beowulf watched, the crew regained its steadiness. The wind tore Selig’s commands away, but the men worked together with hand signals and eye contact. Loose lines were tied down. The majority of the men formed a brigade for bailing under Olrok’s direction. And it seemed the powerful wind was abating somewhat.

But if the storm was calming it was only to muster its full force in a new attack. Just as the water level started to recede from the bailing and Greshawk’s warning began to seem an exaggeration, the wind rose suddenly, shrieking with an unearthly howl that threatened to sweep away all before it. It sang in the rigging and drove the seas before it. If Beowulf’s hands had been free, he would have clapped them over his ears to shut it out. Some of the crew did the same, but Selig’s glare made them resume their tasks with alacrity.

The waves crashed all the way across Farling now, carrying away anything not tied down. The men were knee-deep in water. Beowulf saw a strange sight as the Farling sank in a trough. Hills grew from the sea, green and phosphorescent. They rose as high as the mast, then higher, and crashed down. The ship was like a twig in a turbulent river, bobbing up and down with no control over its destiny. We are in the hands of Aegir. And his touch is not gentle.

As the ship rose up and plunged down with a speed that made his stomach rise and fall in sympathy, Beowulf watched the waves moving all around them. It reminded him of days when he would walk his goats across the lofty stone bridge to the hilly grasslands. When it was warm, he would lie in the high grass that grew around the bones of the ancient structures. The wind would blow in from the sea and ripple the grass in long waves as the stalks bent gracefully before it. From his horizontal perspective, he would look up at the grassy waves in the hills and feel a swaying motion inside as if the ground were rolling beneath him.

These memories of home comforted him. They helped solidify his place on the ship. If his hands were tied, they were tied to a mast of stout Skarlish oak. The mighty waves were no more terrifying than those that broke against the shores of Woden. The island withstood those waves without trembling, and so would he.

But no sooner did he reach within himself for strength than his reverie was interrupted by shouting. “Sorcery!” the men cried.

“The witch boy has done this to us,” bellowed Olrok.

“Cast him overboard to appease Aegir,” seconded the man with the scar. Grinig was his name, Beowulf suddenly remembered. He was a bondsman of Selig’s and wore a bronze band on his neck to signify this. It seemed ridiculous to recall such things at a time when his life was being threatened, but it seemed all about him slowed. He noted droplets of spray emerging from the tips of the waves, the mucus mixed with water dripping from Grinig’s nose, the fear in the men’s eyes, the way Selig stood aside as if waiting to see how the scene would play out before interceding. No help would come from Selig’s quarter. He would let the men do what they wanted, and when time came to explain to Greta and the other villagers, he would calmly explain he had been unable to stop the men. And besides, if the boy didn’t directly command the storm he was surely bad luck to Farling, and by extension, the entire village. Selig would explain that while he regretted the actions of the crew (though one could not blame them for their fear) he was not at fault. He would discipline Olrok and make him pay his share of the spoils to Greta as restitution.

Olrok and his henchmen moved toward Beowulf, but Volssigil was there first. He stood behind Beowulf and to his side. “Let us not act in haste,” he said. Though he spoke quietly, his words slowed the men’s advance. Beowulf felt a tugging at his hands under the blue cloak, pulling them back further behind him. What is Volssigil doing? Then the rope suddenly slackened and he understood. Volssigil had cut his bonds and his hands were now free if he needed to move or defend himself. He kept his hands where they were so as not to reveal his newfound freedom, rubbing them against each other behind the mast to restore circulation.

“This boy is kin-close to me,” Volssigil continued. “He is Norwulf’s son, who has felt the sea-loss as much or more as any man aboard. He is no sorcerer, just a boy trying to seek his way to manhood.”

“Explain why he rises in our midst like a spirit and predicts a storm that will kill us, and then a fearsome storm comes as if at his command?” Olrok demanded.

“Coincidence, surely,” said Volssigil. “If the boy was warned somehow by the gods, all he did was try to pass on the warning to us. Which we chose to ignore,” he added pointedly.

“Your master is dead, yet you protect his son at the cost of all the men on board. Have you no loyalty to Selig?”

“I am loyal to Woden,” Volssigil said. “If I thought killing the boy would save us all then I would do so.”

But the men were not swayed by his words. Beowulf could see the fear and hate in their eyes. Hard times make for hard choices was a Skarlish proverb, for in the northern lands harsh decisions sometimes had to be made. He could not truly fault their logic. Their voyage had been calm until he had predicted ruin, and when danger followed his prediction, it was natural to associate him with its origin. And Greta said storm clouds followed him, so who was to say his presence had not caused the storm?

On the wildly pitching ship, calm came over him. “Peace, Volssigil,” he said. His voice seemed to come from far away. He let the rope fall from his hands as he stretched them out to his sides, in appeal to the men or to the gods, he knew not which. The cloak fell at his feet to heighten the effect. “There is only one way to find if I have brought this storm upon us. Put me into the sea and see if it abates.”

As the rope slipped from his hands, Olrok and his cohorts fell back. “Sorcery,” came the cry again, only this time whispered rather than shouted. “See how he shakes the ropes from him with his magic.”

“Put him over the side!” said one man.

“Save us!” said another.

Beowulf stepped forward, ready to enter the ocean. The men shrank back, for no one wanted to touch him now. He was unsure why he was volunteering to sacrifice himself, or if it would help save the ship.

Volssigil grasped at him to stop his progress, and Selig opened his mouth to say something. But Beowulf never knew what it was, for at that moment the steersman cried, “‘Ware the wave!”

All turned their eyes steerboard to where the steersman pointed. A mighty wave rose above all else in the ocean. Other waves had been tall, fearsome things as high as the mast. This wave was the mother to them all. It was as if a great mountain gathered itself from the sea to strike at the ship. Its peak towered three times as tall as the mast, capped with white swirls of foam. The shriek of the wind was lost in the great rumbling, sucking sound of the wave’s passage.

Flotsam churned along its slopes, appearing and disappearing as the wave rolled toward them. A sail slid down one side, and skeleton spars of old ships poked out. That is surely to be our fate. The wave would eat their ship and leave a skeleton behind.

Selig shouted at the helmsman, but the man was already pushing the steering oar as far over as it would go. The men who had been bailing dropped their buckets and helmets and sought to run out their oars to pull away from the wave.

But it was far too late for that. Beowulf watched in horrified fascination as the liquid mountain rolled toward them. He was heedless of Volssigil at his side, but Volssigil grasped the mast in one strong arm and with the other drew Beowulf close. Farling listed to her port side as she was caught up in the base of the wave. Perhaps it would have been better to keep their heading straight for the wave to take it head-on, but it was natural to flee from its path.

Then the wave hit. A mighty shudder ran through Farling from stem to stern and there was an awful cracking sound. Beowulf noticed Thunderhead had been laid aside on the cargo deck in front of him. He couldn’t let it get swept overboard. He strained against Volssigil to try to reach it. Stretched as far as he could go, it was just beyond his grasp. He pushed his foot against the mast and suddenly he was free. He closed his hand around Thunderhead’s haft just as the wall of green water hit him and swept him from the deck.

As he fell backward and tumbled overboard, the last thing he saw was Volssigil’s face, pale with horror as his hands reached futilely toward him. “It’s not your fault,” he tried to say, but the water overwhelmed him and he choked as the sea engulfed him. That a good man would blame himself for a death that was Beowulf’s own responsibility was one more thing to regret.

Copyright © 2009 by David C. Lee. All rights reserved.

Today’s Beowulf Snippet

August 13th, 2009 by David No comments »

Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote yesterday for Beowulf Stormcrow, the book I’m trying to finish. I like throwing in the little ‘extra’ stories in the narrative, and this is one of ’em:


They talked of small matters after that: the court fashions of Encaras, how horses in Nallen were being purchased and taken south, that the spring silt from the Sennel had been rich and the growing season was plentiful this summer. Eventually the talk slowed as the sky grew dark and the stars glistened high above the table’s flickering candle lanterns. Beowulf, who had only drunk watered wine, grew restless. He had tried to take an interest in the conversation about the Five Cities and had succeeded for a while. But that time had passed and he hungered for more exciting discussion. Where is the singing or saga-telling? Should I play my pipe to liven up the evening?

“Pardon, Born,” he said. “But is this how feasts end in your lands—with no music or stories shared?”

Born roused himself from the contemplation of the night sky. Charlyss leaned her head against his shoulder and he sought not to disturb her comfort. “Do you have skald talents you wish to share with your southern neighbors?”

“I am no skald, but I have some skill with the pipe. Perhaps I could relate a short saga if no one minds.”

“By all means,” said Jaspir. “Enliven our reverie with a bloodthirsty tale from the cold north.”

“They are not all bloody tales,” Beowulf said as he stood up to fetch his goat horn pipe.

When he returned he started the tale he had selected while he walked back and forth. It was the saga of the warrior woman Astrid who had left her husband Wardfris at home while she sailed her battle ship to sea in search of adventure. It was a simple tale, one that might be chanted and sung to introduce a greater saga such as the one of Od’s creation of the world or the ancient hero Olin (namesake to the current Skarlish ruler) who slew three giants in succession on a single day to win a prize of glittering gold from the dragon Ermsiggil whose lashing tail set the waves of the world in motion.

Astrid sailed far and wide, fighting all and overcoming every opponent she faced. Her ship grew heavy with treasure and she sang and danced with her crew, faces flushed with the glow of mead as they savored their triumphs. But when at last she returned home she found that her love had been killed in a raid on her village. Heartbroken, she took her ship into dark waters to seek Wardfris and sails there still, searching for her lost love. You can hear her cry in the sound of the waves crashing against the shore: WARD frissssss, WARD frissssss.

That was the simple story Beowulf had learned as a child and he knew the words of the four stanzas nearly by heart. The rest he could improvise. He was not reckoned a great singer among the Skarlish by any stretch, but his modest skills were amplified by the quiet night air and the absence of other diversions. He liked the lines about fighting best but he could feel the sorrow of Astrid as she searched the dark seas for her sweetheart.

He played the melody on his pipe then chanted the first stanza before singing the refrain:

I would search the dark seas

For my love, Wardfris

I would die a thousand deaths

In return for one lost kiss

The sea calls Wardfris

The sea calls Wardfris

By the second refrain, Charlyss joined in, and then Born and Jaspir too. Beowulf’s own rough voice was complemented by Charlyss’s sweet alto. Together they drew out Wardfrisss, deep and crashing on the first syllable and long and hissing on the second until it sounded like the sea itself sang beyond the trees that lined the clearing in front of Born’s house.

When Beowulf finished, the others applauded, and Born with them—but Beowulf noted that his eyes measured him carefully. There was more to Born than he realized at first. The man could be calm, yes, but he could also speak with power. And there was something in his gaze that suggested he saw further than other men and women.

He mentioned this to Thirl as they prepared to sleep. “How else could a man direct the activities of an insurgent force from a remote location such as this?” Thirl said. “And with no natural authority to boot—no generalship, government office, nothing. If Born could not lead we would not be gathered at his farm.”

“I reckon you’re right.”


Pantser or Plotter?

August 10th, 2009 by David No comments »

Some writers don’t like to prepare any outline; they write by the seat of their pants. Others like to plot meticulously, honing their story and character progressions before they write a word of fiction. Within those two extremes lie a host of working methods–but ultimately all writers lean toward the pantser camp or the plotter camp.

I used to be a pantser–which was fine because I worked in shorter fiction. Now that I’m trying to write actual books I found I had to transform my planning style. Perhaps the most famous example of a pantser gone wrong right now is George RR Martin, whose Song of Ice and Fire epic got bogged down in book four (which was of course eventually split into two books, the second of which is currently delayed with no publishing date). I’m a huge GRRM fan who loved the first three books of the series, but I was taken aback when I asked him at a booksigning for book three what his writing method was: was the plotting worked out on paper or did he carry the whole world in his head.

“It’s all in my head,” he confirmed, which blew my mind. I felt like a mere mortal in comparison (how could anyone keep such a complex world straight?) but when the publication of the fourth book began to drag I started to have doubts about his methodology. And when I got bogged down on my own Beowulf book I realized I needed to make a change.

I already had some background information written about my world; I codified this to make it easier for me to refer to it while writing. Most importantly, I started a simple 10-step outline starting from the beginning of the tale and ending with the final events. I knew where I wanted to go; it was the middle part that was a muddle in my mind. Working from both ends I eventually got a storyline I was happy with.

Another writer I know was horrified at this shift to a more craftsman-like approach. “You’ll take the magic out of your story,” he warned. But I haven’t found that to be the case. I write more confidently (and coherently) when I know what the following events will be. There are large gaps in my outline–and it’s still the ‘in-between’ bits that I struggle with. How do my characters travel the 120 miles between locations? What do they eat for dinner? What are they wearing? How much food do they need to carry? That sort of thing.

Sometimes I have success by doing micro-outlines of the action immediately ahead of me. Rather than writing fiction I write brief descriptions that I enclose in brackets so I can easily differentiate it from normal text. Without worrying about language I describe how a conversation will go, or how the give and take in a battle might proceed. With that in front of me I can concentrate on the language of pacing of the actual writing when I get to it.

I often start projects with nothing more than a vague idea. But after I get that bit of inspiration down on paper I turn to plotting techniques before I get too far in–because I’ve found this works for me.

For now at least. You never know when things will change and I’ll do whatever I feel the story requires.

The obligatory first post

July 31st, 2009 by David No comments »

Hello there. If you found this site you must know me pretty well since I haven’t made the URL public yet. Or you’re a stalker. The purpose of this post is purely to get rid of the default WordPress gibberish. So, mission accomplished, right?