Aztec Elements, Codex Two

Dear readers,

I can at last share the blurb for ‘Dark Water’ with you.

The young priest Clawfoot discovers that his success has invited only enmity. He does have a powerful ally though. The high priest, Feathered Darkness entrusts his precocious acolyte with a crucial mission to safeguard the priesthood from treacherous political games.

Little Maize begins to despair when she realises that she has lost Clawfoot to his new calling. She dreams of escape from the oppressive workhouse that has been her prison for five years.

The twenty year reign of Moctezuma Ilhuicamina has delivered stability, commerce and a time of plenty, fuelled by an aggressive expansion of the empire. Here too though, success has given rise to jealousy for there is no shortage of family members with a claim to the throne.

Caught again at the centre of unfolding plots, the loyal warrior, Heart of the Jaguar, will find that things are not all they seem and when duty calls, his resourcefulness will be tested to the limit.

Comments and feedback will be greatly appreciated.

In the next post, I will share the current cover design for ‘Dark Water’ that comes hot from my gifted graphic designer friend Owen Benwell of Human Design. It’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous and perfectly captures the mood of ‘Codex Two’.

How to create an evil character

“Easy!” I hear you cry and perhaps you’re right. Place your hero in front of them, restrained on a chair with his hands pinned to a battered wooden desk and then hand a machete to the villain of the piece, or a rusty hammer. The hero’s fingers wiggle in horrible anticipation. “Oooh!” I hear you cry. “Argh! Nasty, nasty nasty!” Yep…easy. All I have to do is make you identify with the lantern-jawed, clean shaven hero with a twinkle in his eye and a penchant for rescuing [preferred fluffy animal] from [place of peril], then whomsoever wishes to inflict gruesome suffering on him is pure badness.

But…what if we want to make our baddie a bit more 3-dimensional? Let’s call him Gerald. What if we want the reader to see inside his head and understand why he’s about to perform a digitectomy on our dashing hero? We still want the reader to squirm in horror at what happens and be appalled at Gerald’s moral dereliction but we also want them to see his side of the story. Gerald didn’t start out bad. When he was a little lad, he used to play with Lego and cuddle a stuffed raccoon when he went to bed.

This is the conundrum I am wrestling with in ‘Dark Water’. One of the characters is capable of torture and murder but I want the reader to understand that my ‘Gerald’ has arrived somewhere where this is the only (if not entirely rational) course of action. Put simply, he has to have motive. If Gerald’s story unfolds in such a way that you can see that HE believes he’s doing the right thing, then the reader will be carried along too. [Top tip: It’s REALLY lame if Gerald explains it all in the final scene.]

For the best example – bar none – of a properly motivated villain, look to ‘Inquisitor Glokta’ in Joe Abercrombie’s ‘Books of the First Law’. Glokta is the man you’ll love to hate. So, I have my work cut out. The good news though is that this is the toughest character to get right. Sentimental readers will swallow any soapy old nonsense that the good guys spout. ;-)

Writing Workshop

14th of July was a special day for me. I got to be a teacher for one day. Following on from my presentation to the Year 10s at Steyning Grammar School in March (see previous post), I was asked back to take part in a writing workshop.

Teaching isn’t something I’m trained for so it’s fair to say that I was significantly outside my comfort zone when I turned up at the school on Monday morning. In truth, it wasn’t hard. I had prepared a framework of what to say that also allowed time for the students to do some writing and for some critique. With that in place, I simply let my enthusiasm for reading and writing shine through.

“He was a big man.” – Well although there’s nothing technically wrong with this, it isn’t great is it? “He was a slab of a man.” – How is that different to the sentence above? Does it help you form a picture of the man?

“Steve picked me up in his old Vauxhall.” – Another weak adjective, ‘old’.
“Steve picked me up in his antiquated Vauxhall.” – Why use ‘antiquated’ instead of ‘old’?
“Steve picked me up in his dilapidated Vauxhall.” – Different again, isn’t it? This one’s falling apart. The antiquated one might be a classic car, the pride and joy of Steve’s collection.

English is an immensely rich and powerful language with so many extraordinary words to nuance what you want to say. The power of language has practical applications outside of the literary world, in business for example. It’s well known that you can influence the way people feel and make them behave differently using the right combinations of words.

The only real difficulty I faced was trying to get volunteers to discuss what they had written. The key to being a great writer is to review and rewrite your work. There’s always room for improvement and there are two key ways to ratchet up the quality of your own work.

Method 1) Allow other people to read and review it and really listen to what they have to say. Even if you’re sceptical, try and rewrite a piece of your work in response to some feedback. The result might surprise you and if it doesn’t, you can always revert to your initial draft.

Method 2) Review other people’s work and provide constructive criticism to others. It needs to be constructive; you simply must not trash someone’s work if you’ve offered to help. This will teach you how to look for improvements in your own writing. This is the best tip I can offer you.

Making pictures in their heads

This morning, I was privileged to be allowed to speak to Year 10 at Steyning Grammar School. It being ‘World Book Day’, SGS, who are staunch advocates of reading, invited four authors to come and speak. My lot was to use a ten minute slot in the morning assembly to convey my enthusiasm for reading, writing and the subject matter of my first novel, ‘New Fire’.

Ten minutes is a very short time, a very, very short time to explain the joy that reading brings and so the key theme of my presentation was ‘telepathy’, or as I summed it up, ‘putting pictures in your heads’.

Sure, special effects are astonishing in film nowadays. Dinosaurs walk the earth and wizards battle under showers of coruscating sparks, believably. The thing is, that all happens on the screen in front of you. When you read a book, it all happens in your head. Blah, blah, blah, I can sense you skimming over this. Erp…stop…rewind. It happens in your head. Let’s review that. You pull the words off the page and your brain builds a world with a smoking volcano with incandescent lava flows and pyroclastic flows. Ash rains from a darkling sky. From out of the roiling clouds a gargantuan horned dragon swoops towards the tattered villagers…

You get the picture? Well you should do because you built it. The author made the blueprint but you built it. That is telepathy…or damn close to it.

Children are great. Until they reach late teens, they exude potential and infinite possibilities. I only hope that my talk didn’t close off some of those horizons. It seemed to go down well and I’ve been invited back to help with a writing workshop in the summer term.

Dark Water – writing to a plan

Progress on draft #1 of ‘Dark Water has been slow and steady but most importanntly, according to plan. Yesterday, it officially reached the halfway stage. 50,000 words at 7.5 chapters. Here is a little extract to whet your appetites.

Visibility inside the workshop was worse than outside because of the smoke and heat of the charcoal fire that was needed to fabricate the new jewellery. Soot and the dry air made Precious Flower cough. Arrow One was stooped under a low section at the back of the building, deep in conversation with a pot-bellied man with unruly hair and a filthy leather apron that was the only thing he was wearing other than his loincloth. Arrow One was bare-chested having dispensed with his cloak and the short skirt he was wearing was more appropriate for the suffocating heat in the workshop than Precious Flower’s long dress. He caught sight of Precious Flower and introduced her to the craftsman who bobbed and nodded enthusiastically in response to Arrow One’s request for him to demonstrate the process.

‘Yes, yes! You do good timing,’ he spluttered through gums inadequately populated with teeth. ‘New piece ready to try.’ His Nahuatl was poor, the accent sounding Huastec. ‘You two!’ He shouted suddenly at a stocky lad of no more than twelve and a severe-looking youth. ‘What are you gawking at? Pumping bellows or copper will never melt!’

Precious Flower watched in amazement as the craftsman took the carved wax figure and held it upside down in an earthenware pot of damp sand which he proceeded to pack very gently around it until it was entirely hidden, all save a tiny section at the base. All the while, his indentured labourer and the sullen apprentice worked a pair of leather bags in the scorching confines of the new room. Precious Flower didn’t believe she’d ever seen anyone sweat as much as these two lads. When he was finished poking at the sand, the craftsman then took to examining the pot nestling at the centre of the fire that was now sending so many sparks whirling up into the rafters of the workshop that Precious Flower was convinced the whole place would soon be alight. The heat was so intense it seared her throat and made her fear for her newborn child. She stroked the child’s cheek briefly through the folds of fabric, relived to see it make attempts to suckle.

After a good deal of squinting and muttering at his assistants, the toothless man reached into a bucket of water and pulled out what appeared to be two long fire-blackened sticks, joined at one end with hemp. He gingerly clamped them around the tiny pot and then slowly upended the contents into the urn full of sand where he had made a conical indentation over the wax figure. Precious Flower was entranced by the fiery orange liquid that smoked and burped as it sank into the sand. If the gods bled, she thought, this is what their blood would look like.

Get your writing in shape with Editorial Stand

Today I have the pleasure of introducing you to Laura and Editorial Stand.

AztecElements: Hi Laura, you run Editorial Stand (www.editorialstand.co.uk), an editing and proofreading company based in London. As an independently published author, I’m keen to know whether your business is changing as a result of changes in the publishing industry as a whole. How long has Editorial Stand been in business now?

Laura: Editorial Stand has been in business for almost a year now. I completed a proofreading qualification in February 2012 before launching Editorial Stand at the end of March that year. Since then I have been marketing the brand, building up a client basis and I pleased to say that things seem to going well.

AztecElements: What’s your view on the changes taking place in the publishing world right now and what kind of future is there for the traditional model?

Laura: The traditional path of finding an agent, getting signed on by a publishing house and receiving your author’s advance is still a very feasible route; however, it would be naive of me to say that it is an easy option for writers publishing their first novel. Even established authors are finding it increasingly difficult to get publishing houses to commit nowadays. The ebook market has taken off in a way that I don’t believe anyone anticipated. Due to this it has become much simpler for authors to get their writing to their readers; anyone can publish using the Amazon Kindle software. However, there is always the problem of authors trying to continuously undercut other authors’ prices.

AztecElements: So does the rise of the independent author present you with more opportunity than before or is it more complex than that?

Laura: There are definitely more independent authors out there looking for editing services; however, because of the way the ebook and self-publishing markets operate, most seem surprised to find out how much editing services cost. Several independent authors I have spoken to do not seem to comprehend the sheer volume of time and effort it takes to fully proofread or copy edit a novel. So while independent authors are on the rise, the need for editing companies to work harder to prove their worth is also on the rise.

AztecElements: How much of your business comes from publishing companies and businesses and how much comes from indie authors?

Laura: I have a mix of publishing house clients, independent authors and clients outside of the publishing industry. To date, I have worked with more independent authors than any other type of client, but as such they tend to be one-off projects. I really enjoy being able to fully get to grips with the author’s style and writing habit. That’s why I am looking to build up Editorial Stand’s speciality to edit for the fantasy and science fiction market; authors writing in these genres tend to write trilogies much more so than any other genre and it is very rewarding to fully get to know an author and their style.

AztecElements: What efforts are you making to reach out to the global network of authors quietly beavering away on their future Man-Booker prize winner?

Laura: I am on Twitter (@EditorialStand) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/EditorialStand) where I connect with authors and readers alike. I keep my followers up-to-date with my services and I chat to them about their writing. I am on Goodreads where I can discuss the books I’m reading and the books I’m looking forward to reading, as well as staying on the lookout for recommendations from other readers; although that’s more of a hobby for me. My blog also attracts a bit of attention from authors as I discuss topics ranging from language analysis and publishing trends to promoting books and authors. It’s all about getting the brand out into the world and I’m always on the lookout for new ways to connect.

AztecElements: I know from my own writing that I need help with sentence structure and punctuation, but do many authors really need this kind of help?

Laura: I would go so far as to say that all authors need an editor of some sort or another. At the very least, every author should hire a proofreader for errors that creep in unnoticed by Word spell checker. But for the majority of writers, a good copy-editor is essential for ensuring the sentences flow well and effectively get the author’s intended meaning across to their readers. The comment I get back most frequently from my clients is that it is remarkable how much you miss when you are so close and so familiar to your text.

AztecElements: Tell me a little bit about the editorial service you offer (in contrast to the proof-reading). What kind of guidance do you provide after reviewing a manuscript?

Laura: Well, the proofreading service, as you know, checks all spelling, syntax, grammar and punctuation. I also offer a copy editing service where I check consistency of the content and any characters (for fiction), as well as analysing the effectiveness of specific terminology and the relevance of the language for the intended readership. Copy editing involves a much more thorough analysis of the language. To clarify, what I do not offer as a service is a developmental edit, which is where an editor will actually comment on the story line and how it developments.

AztecElements: Thanks Laura. If anyone would like to get in touch with Laura or get advice from Editorial Stand, click on this link to get the contact details. You can also follow the weekly updates on the Editorial Stand blog here .

Disruptive innovation and the publishing industry

This Wikipedia article about author Sam Moffie tells how, frustrated at the lack of attention that his manuscript got from mainstream literary agents and publishing houses, he disguised the first chapter of one of his favourite novels, ‘Breakfast of Champions’ by Kurt Vonnegut, and sent it to the top 100 literary agents in America. Ninety-nine of them rejected it out-of-hand.

The problem of trying to get published has been around a long time. One of the reasons why it was so difficult for an author to get published was that the production of books and the sales and marketing to draw people’s attention demanded a huge financial outlay and the traditional publishing industry guarded itself against loss by picking books carefully. Agents were most useful to the publishing industry as gatekeepers, weeding out all but the most promising manuscripts. To the vast majority of writers though, agents just seemed like an obstacle. For a good rant on the traditional publishing establishment, look no further than this post.

In the last ten years there’s been a seismic shift in the industry, thanks to technology. Digital typesetting and print-on-demand means that it’s no longer necessary to print 100,000 books to make your book affordable. The internet and eBooks means that you can make your published work available to half the population of the world at the push of a button. These are classic examples of ‘disruptive innovation’.

So has the worm turned? Is the author now free to make a fortune, unfettered by casually dismissive agents? Can we all now churn out a novel by bedtime and wake up in the morning to watch the cash pouring in through online sales of instantly printed books and eBooks that can be downloaded at the speed of light? Is the reading population now in a state of bliss, able to choose from a hitherto unimaginable range of novels that would have been choked off by the prissy agents and editors of old?

For the writer, it certainly seems like there is more freedom. Kristen Lamb says “..as authors gain more power…”. It might be more accurate to say that writers have more control of their own destiny. The interesting thing about having more control is that it usually means having to do more of one’s own work too!

For authors, getting published may be easier, but the sheer graft of writing is as hard as it ever was – George R. R. Martin (Game of Thrones) is quoted as saying that writing a novel is like cleaning St. Paul’s cathedral with a toothbrush – but now the job of publicising the book falls entirely to the author too. With no agent and no publishing company behind you, guess who’s going to have to do all the selling. Once you’ve exhausted your 250 Facebook friends and Tweeted until you’re blue in the face, who is going to find your novel? There are millions of books out there. The analogy I like to use is this: imagine placing one beautiful pebble on a beach of millions of pebbles and expecting the passing holiday-makers to happen across it and comment on its loveliness. Many authors out there will struggle to get an audience.

Are readers any better off? Did agents really have us in mind when they were turning down trash? Not if the phenomenal success of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is anything to go by. What if we’re not interested in the pulpy smut that’s easy to find because of the sensationalist headlines it raises? What if we want to read offbeat, quirky novels in obscure genres? How on earth will we go about trying to find them? In ten years time, the body of published works available online will be vast.
Increasingly, publishers like Penguin are taking this seriously. No doubt they will be using the commercial success of books published in their self-publish subsidiaries to decide whether to take their authors seriously.

Take a look at this blog for more thoughts on this deal…and tune into this blog for lots more on self-publishing.

An article in the Metro (24th Sept 2012), a free London daily paper, states that Richard Russo (‘Empire Falls’) vehemently opposes eBooks and banned his publisher from releasing to this format. Russo claims that eBooks will be bad for bookshops, which is probably true, and bad for authors, which is very far from proven.

The biggest threat to writers would arise if one eBook format became a monopoly and then chose to use its power to dictate what goes out to market. This is already a distinct possibility. Suppose you wish to publish something that contains views that are unpalatable to a large population of irrational, violence-prone people. It’s entirely likely that a ‘globally responsible’ organisation would refuse to publish. Where would Salman Rushdie have gone to get the ‘Satanic Verses’ published if independent publishers were put out of business? Would authors like Richard Dawkins find a route to market with the weight of the Christian Right threatening to boycott whichever eBook company holds the monopoly?
It’s fair to say that publishing is at a turning point and there will be a myriad of consequences too, some of which we haven’t thought of yet.

It’s going to be an interesting decade but there’s one thing you can be sure of: writers will continue to write and readers will carry on reading.

Test your writing skills on WEbook

Here’s a really fun way to check out if you’ve got the writing magic! www.webook.com. You write and other people rate your work and if your mojo is good, your work rises up the ranks and you get to submit more and more of the work. It does cost £3.95 to submit each work but it looks really addictive. Obviously you’re part of the community so you need to rate other peoples’ work too but that’s quite painless because to begin with, you only have to rate the first 250 words.

I’ve submitted a portion of page one of ‘New Fire’. Let’s see if it goes anywhere!