The Amber Rooms Free

It’s that time again when I go crazy and make a book free. For the next few days, it’s The Amber Rooms (UK Amazon link, US), the third adven­ture in the increas­ingly mys­ter­i­ous life of time trav­el­ler Saskia Brandt. In this book, she learns more about the nature of her time para­dox, and a great deal about Tsarist Russia and how to get along with revolutionaries.

Readers are saying:

Truly a mas­ter­ful read.

Beautiful sequel.

The plot is one of the most ima­gin­at­ive I have come across in quite a while. Time travel at its best!

The amber rooms cover

Marginalia from the Making of Star Wars: All You Have To Do Is Just Do It

Funny what you pick up from a car boot sale. Last week, I found myself pay­ing pea­nuts for a photo-biography of Ernest Hemingway and a copy of The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film. The man selling the Star Wars book was head­ing for a new life in South-East Asia. While I fumbled for a pound–all he was asking–we chat­ted about the book. He didn’t remem­ber much more than George Lucas hav­ing a hard time. In the end, I didn’t have the pound, only a twenty-pound note, and the man gave me the book for free.

Making of Star Wars cover

I’m a sucker for Star Wars. I was born one year before the film was released, and I was never into the toys over­much, but I did have the com­ics, and loved watch­ing it on tele­vi­sion. I always thought the first film was pretty good, the second bril­liant, and the third com­pet­ent. The pro­gres­sion of visual effects is par­tic­u­larly marked. Where Star Wars cut corners, edited around prob­lems, and suffered from shots that were obvi­ously model-based, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi show the greater focus of a film­maker relieved from the bur­den of sim­ul­tan­eously estab­lish­ing his world and cre­at­ing a story.

George Lucas didn’t dir­ect a film for twenty years after Star Wars. Reading this book, it’s easy to see why.

The author, J. W. Rinzler, is an excep­tional writer with an eye for detail 1. He works in unapo­lo­get­ic­ally chro­no­lo­gical order through Lucas’s early exper­i­ences with THX 1138, American Grafitti, and the years of devel­op­ment (par­tic­u­larly of script, but also tech­no­logy) that pre­ceded Star Wars. He is aided by the dis­cov­ery of extens­ive inter­views con­duc­ted with major crew mem­bers and cast sev­eral months before the release of the pic­ture, and thus long before any­one had an idea that it would become a cul­tural phe­nomenon. In sum, it’s a thor­ough treat­ment and an intel­li­gent, meas­ured story. Rinzler is an admirer of Lucas but he is not afraid to criticise.

My focus, though, is on insight into the cre­at­ive pro­cess. What obser­va­tions can be made from this dif­fi­cult but suc­cess­ful film-making experience?

Observation One: All You Have To Do Is Just Do It

Here is a quote from Lucas (p. 340), which comes from an inter­view con­duc­ted for the book by Rinzler:

I made seven movies in film school while every­body else was com­plain­ing that they couldn’t make movies because they didn’t have cam­eras, that they didn’t have film. Well, those people are still stuck. They didn’t real­ise that all you have to do is just do it.

I like this quote a great deal. Partly, I sup­pose, because it jives with my own exper­i­ence of writ­ing, and because it is related to the pos­it­ive, forward-marching aspect of devel­op­ing any skill. It’s related to the notion real artists ship.

You could view this as simple advice to avoid pro­cras­tin­a­tion, but there is more to it than that. Some beha­viours exhib­ited by cre­at­ive indi­vidu­als have the appear­ance of pro­cras­tin­a­tion but actu­ally dis­guise the effort of solv­ing a com­plic­ated one. A story is, after all, a mul­ti­fa­ceted and ill-defined prob­lem, and requires much more time invest­ment to solve than a well-defined prob­lem. The point is that you get bet­ter at writ­ing a novel–or com­pos­ing a sym­phony, or build­ing a house–by doing it. Time spent writ­ing point­less sen­tences, buy­ing manu­script paper, or learn­ing to lay bricks is not time well spent unless you are par­tic­u­larly poor at those sub-skills. The greater, more inter­est­ing and dis­crim­in­at­ive prob­lems exist at a higher level. You might write bet­ter sen­tences than Stephen King, but he is bet­ter where it counts: at solv­ing high-level writ­ing problems.

Observation Two: Everything Comes Into It

Right after the above quote, Lucas is quoted (p. 341) as saying:

Making a movie is very much like con­struct­ing a house. …No mat­ter how you plan it, there are adjust­ments that have to made along the way, because nobody can envi­sion the fin­ished struc­ture. But that’s essen­tially what film­mak­ing tries to do, and of course life gets involved in it when you are shoot­ing. Personalities, weather, nature–everything comes into it and adjusts it. As you bring it to life, and the film becomes a real thing, you see it in a dif­fer­ent way.

Again, this advice seems bet­ter suited to film­mak­ing. But it applies equally well to writ­ing. For instance: (i) you can­not write a novel without work on it for months or years, dur­ing which the work, your skills, and you will change; (ii) you are lim­ited by your exper­i­ence, research and intel­lec­tual grasp; (iii) inter­rup­tions and other life events will shape or scup­per the work, and you need to anti­cip­ate this.

Observation Three: Nobody Works Alone

I’ve put in this last point to remind myself that any cre­at­ive endeav­our is col­lab­or­at­ive. That’s point one. The second point is that col­lab­or­a­tion changes a work for the bet­ter and for the worse. As the per­son in charge of the work, it’s up to you to pick the right people for your team. You need to man­age them and help them help you. That goes for your beta read­ers, your editor, your pub­lisher, pub­lic relations—whoever.

That’s about it for my mar­ginalia. They are mainly for me, but you might find them use­ful. You could do worse than read The Making of Star Wars. It’s intense, high-stakes read, even though we know that it was end hap­pily ever after for the stressed-out George Lucas 2.


  1. You could argue that some of these details, like those presen­ted in the budgets and filim­ing sched­ule drafts, verge on the geeky. ↩

  2. Ignoring Howard the Duck, of course. ↩

What is Success?

I’ve been away look­ing at the Eiger, so my post on J K Rowling’s recent exper­i­ence with a pseud­onym comes a little late. However, given that the suc­cess or fail­ure of writ­ing careers turn on such mat­ters, I’m going to add my tup­pence worth here.

To recap: J K Rowling, whose has global sales of 450 mil­lions books (accord­ing to one source), pub­lished a novel called “The Cuckoo’s Calling” under the pseud­onym Richard Galbraith. The novel received warm reviews but did not sell many cop­ies. The BBC reports the fig­ure as 1500.

Whatever the sales were, they shot up once the true iden­tity of the author was revealed.

One of the most inter­est­ing responses to the story–or, more pre­cisely, to the effect of the story–was from the writer James Smythe.

In his post An Open Letter to New and Would-be Writers, James makes the point that we should not define suc­cess quant­it­at­ively (para­dox­ical though that might sound). The book is already a suc­cess if a pub­lisher picks it up and runs with it. James cites the example of his own book, The Machine, which has not taken off as well as it might.

Publishing is just like any other media busi­ness: you pro­mote some­thing, throw money at it, you tell people that they want it, and it will be a suc­cess. But not every writer gets that money; for some of us, we’re resigned to pray­ing for mir­acles, or rely­ing on blind luck.

I thought James’s post was inter­est­ing in sev­eral ways. First, it’s hon­est. Second, he sounds like he means it. Third, he may be right.

What is suc­cess? Like porn, it’s dif­fi­cult to define, but easy to spot. Stephen King is suc­cess­ful. James Smythe is suc­cess­ful. Me…

I think all writers struggle with this. I’d say my writ­ing is suc­cess­ful in a nar­row sense. I sell books, get reviewed (only by cus­tom­ers on Amazon and Goodreads, but they’re hon­est and straight­for­ward). I’m with a lit­er­ary agency who count Pulitzer win­ners among their cli­ents. I receive emails from happy read­ers (the dis­gruntled never say hello).

Smythe ends with this:

This isn’t about sales; it’s about intent. You intend to write a great book; do that. The rest is all, frankly, bullshit.

I used to think that. Now, I fear, I’m older and more cyn­ical. If you can sur­vive on intent, more power to you. However, I do agree that, in the case of a work of fic­tion, it either suc­ceeds by its own lights or it does not; never mind the Booker Prize, is the work true to itself? Did you fix its prob­lems? Did you care about it?

I care. Still.

Writing a Novel Using Markdown: Part Two

In my pre­vi­ous post, I spoke a little about my Markdown work­flow. I ended it pre­ma­turely because I didn’t have a pre­pared ver­sion of my book, Red Star Falling, that I could share with you.

Now I do.

You can down­load Multimarkdown / Markdown1 source of the com­plete book here. This ZIP archive con­tains the text of the book (cheekily, I’ve redac­ted most of the story), the Writer as a Stranger Cascading Style Sheet, the cover image, and a little Möbius vec­tor graphic I’m using as a sec­tion break.

As I men­tioned in my pre­vi­ous post, once you have your book in Markdown (i.e. a plain text file), you can use whatever tools you wish to pro­duce your ebook–in whatever format(s) that might be.

I use a Mac OS X fea­ture called a ser­vice. This does noth­ing more than run a bash script, which is a series of com­mands telling the com­puter what to do with the Markdown files. You can down­load the ser­vice here. It works on OS X Mountain Lion, but it will prob­ably work on earlier ver­sions of the Mac. The raw source for the bash script (i.e. just the series of com­mands) is avail­able here, but I’ve also appen­ded it to this post. All com­puters, includ­ing those run­ning Windows, can execute bash scripts–but they might need some tweaking.

Here are the files that make up the text of the book (i.e. those in the ZIP):

Screen Shot 2013 06 23 at 20 33 23

Note that the files are numbered to pre­serve their order. Each Markdown file ends with a few blank lines to pad them out when they’re com­bined into a single file 2.

All the import­ant inform­a­tion about the book–who the author is, the title, revi­sion num­ber, where the cover file is located–all of that is declared in the file ‘1_meta_data.mmd’. This means that, if you wish to use this method to pro­duce your own book, the script will work as long as you’ve updated the metadata in this file.

What extra stuff you need

It would be nice if OS X came with ebook-publication tools built-in. Alas, it doesn’t. My script uses two power­ful pro­grams: ebook-convert and mul­ti­mark­down. You need to install these loc­ally first. Note that my script tells the com­puter exactly where the mul­ti­mark­down com­mand lives (it’s in /usr/local/bin/multimarkdown). I don’t know why I had to give this path to make the script work, but I did.

Using the OS X Service

This is really straight­for­ward. On your Mac, put the ser­vice into Home > Library > Services. If your Library folder is hid­den, you’ll need to Option-click the ‘Go’ menu in Finder and select it. Logout, login, and then you should see ser­vice (called • [Toy] Create MOBI-EPUB-PDF from mul­tiple MMD, using Metadata copy) in the con­tex­tual menu when any Finder items are highlighted.

Download my example archive, high­light all the Markdown files, then right-click and select the ser­vice. It will then cre­ate .mobi, .epub and .pdf ver­sions of Red Star Falling.

These files will be placed in the sub-folder called Publication_ready. A log file in that folder, called Log.txt, will be updated with each new con­ver­sion; look there if you want to find out why things have gone wrong. Intermediate .html files will be deleted.

Because I pub­lish (for now) only to the Kindle, I’ve made sure that the .mobi file works per­fectly on the Kindle for long-form prose3. The .epub is ser­vice­able but not pretty. The .pdf like­wise. One advant­age of script­ing the pro­cess is that you can tweak the set­tings for .epub out­put until you’re happy and then apply those to all your books using the same script.

Cool things you can now do

  • Because this is a script, you can tweak it to:

    • Pass the .epub file to a val­id­a­tion tool. I’d recom­mend epubcheck. Once this is in the script, it’ll hap­pen every time.

    • Push the final­ised files to a cent­ral folder where you keep all your ‘pub­lic­a­tion ready’ books.

  • You can use a single style sheet for all your books. The format–.epub, .mobi, or whatever–should not change the look and feel of your final books. Once set, you don’t need to worry about this again.

  • Creating a new book is as simple as duplic­at­ing the dir­ect­ory and chan­ging the metadata. The main text of your story is simply a Markdown file: human-readable, port­able, and small.

  • Use ali­ases. In this book, I have a section–i.e. a Markdown file–that tells the reader about my other books. I don’t want to rep­lic­ate this for every new book, and I want any future books to com­pile with an update list of my works. So I use an alias to point to a cent­ral Markdown file that con­tains this inform­a­tion. When I update that file, any book will com­pile with an updated list of my works.

  • Set a watch on the folder. Perhaps trig­ger the script to run (suit­ably mod­i­fied) when the main story file is updated. That way, all the publication-ready files will self-update.

What are the implic­a­tions of this work­flow for the writ­ing process?

None. The act of writ­ing itself should be com­pletely inde­pend­ent of all the com­plex­it­ies that hap­pen to the Markdown file later, when it’s pro­cessed. It’s more con­veni­ent in sev­eral ways. You’ll not have to worry about smart quotes, or font sizes, or any­thing like that. All you have to con­cen­trate on is writ­ing the story in this format:

## Red Star Falling

In the moment before Saskia Brandt awoke, she had a vision of red chrysanthemums falling. The flowers looked unreal. Their stems were too straight and their falls too slow. Their *Gestalt* was artful sadness.

Then the sky beyond them wintered and the dream faded.

For that, I’d recom­mend any num­ber of cool pro­grams, includ­ing ByWord and iAWriter.

Coda: The script itself

In case you’re here just for this script and want to have a look at it, here it is.

## MULTIMARKDOWN FILES > MOBI, PDF AND EPUB

## IH, 23 JUNE 2013

## This script takes a group of files in Multimarkdown,
## combines them into a single file, and then produces
## MOBI, EPUB and PDF. Also runs an epub check program.

## Expects metadata in a file called 1_meta_data.md

## Expects to have a directory called Publication_Ready.
## Will pipe command output to Publication_Ready/Log.txt

## Unusual commands used (i.e. you'll need to install these):
## ebook-convert [<http://manual.calibre-ebook.com/cli/ebook-convert.html>]
## multimarkdown [<http://fletcherpenney.net/multimarkdown/use/>]

###########################################

# Find out the directory that this script is working within
DIR=`dirname "$1"`

# Go there
cd "$DIR"

# Extract meta data from the file called '1_meta_data.mmd'
title=`/usr/local/bin/multimarkdown 1_meta_data.mmd --extract="Title"`
revision=`/usr/local/bin/multimarkdown 1_meta_data.mmd --extract="Revision"`
short_title=`/usr/local/bin/multimarkdown 1_meta_data.mmd --extract="ShortTitle"`
author=`/usr/local/bin/multimarkdown 1_meta_data.mmd --extract="Author"`
series=`/usr/local/bin/multimarkdown 1_meta_data.mmd --extract="Series"`
series_index=`/usr/local/bin/multimarkdown 1_meta_data.mmd --extract="SeriesIndex"`
tags=`/usr/local/bin/multimarkdown 1_meta_data.mmd --extract="Tags"`
cover=`/usr/local/bin/multimarkdown 1_meta_data.mmd --extract="Cover"`

# LOG Date
echo "" >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt
echo "" >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt
echo "" >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt
echo `date` $revision >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt
echo "" >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt

# Concatenate all the files passed to this script
cat "$@" > $short_title.mmd 

# LOG
echo "" >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt
echo "" >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt
echo ******* Compiling HTML from Multimarkdown... >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt

# Run 'multimarkdown' to produce HTML, smart mode, appending result to log
/usr/local/bin/multimarkdown $short_title.mmd --output=$short_title.html --smart >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt

# LOG
echo "" >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt
echo "" >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt
echo ******* Compiling MOBI… >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt

# Make MOBI
ebook-convert $short_title.html Publication_Ready/$short_title[$revision].mobi --authors="$author" --series="$series" --series-index=$series_index --title="$title" --tags="$tags" --output-profile=kindle >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt

# LOG
echo "" >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt
echo "" >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt
echo ******* Compiling PDF… >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt

# Make PDF
ebook-convert $short_title.html Publication_Ready/$short_title[$revision].pdf --authors="$author" --series="$series" --series-index=$series_index --title="$title" --tags="$tags" >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt

# LOG
echo "" >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt
echo "" >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt
echo ******* Compiling EPUB… >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt

# Make EPUB
ebook-convert $short_title.html Publication_Ready/$short_title[$revision].epub --remove-first-image --authors="$author" --series="$series" --series-index=$series_index --title="$title" --tags="$tags" --output-profile=ipad >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt 

# LOG
echo "" >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt
echo "" >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt
echo Cleaning up temporary files... >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt

# Clean up the temporary HTML and mmd files
rm $short_title.html $short_title.mmd >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt

# LOG
echo "" >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt
echo "" >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt
echo Job done bish bash `date` >> Publication_Ready/Log.txt


  1. Feel free to use this CSS with your own books. Think of it as the Writer as a Stranger ‘house style’. It will do things like indent all para­graphs unless they fol­low a chapter head­ing or sec­tion break and deal with block­quotes appro­pri­ately. I’ve iter­ated it a few times over the past few weeks to get it look­ing how I like it. ↩

  2. I’m aware that I can do this pro­gram­mat­ic­ally. (And, inter­est­ingly, the Multimarkdown com­mand line tool has an option to con­cat­en­ate mul­tiple input files; how­ever, it didn’t work for me and I couldn’t fig­ure out why. Hence the old-school solu­tion.) ↩

  3. You should always check your .mobi file using the Kindle Previewer applic­a­tion. ↩

Writing a Novel Using Markdown: Part One

This story begins with a per­son like me. When I pub­lish ebooks, I want them to turn out exactly as I intend. That means tak­ing the text of the story, sand­wich­ing it with front mat­ter (like copy­right) and more text at the end (like acknowledgments).

Until recently, I wrote my books using the word pro­cessor Apple Pages. I would export this to a Microsoft Word doc­u­ment for my edit­ors and proofread­ers. Then, when the book was ready to be con­ver­ted into an ebook, I would do a lot of the work by hand.

And therein lies the prob­lem. There’s a lot of manual effort involved when you take a Word doc­u­ment and pro­duce some­thing that Amazon or iBooks will accept as an ebook.

In this post I’m going to talk about using plain text files to con­sist­ently and pain­lessly pro­duce ebooks. I won’t assume much knowledge.

Styling Text

There should be a sep­ar­a­tion between style and con­tent. Style is font size, para­graph spa­cing, and all that jazz. The con­tent is the text itself. Word pro­cessors like Pages or Microsoft Word com­bine style and con­tent into a single file. These files are com­plex, con­tain ambi­gu­ities, and are dif­fi­cult to read without a work­ing copy of the pro­gram that pro­duced them.

When you sep­ar­ate style and con­tent, many advant­ages res­ult. The con­tent file doesn’t need to be in a pro­pri­et­ary format. It can be plain text. The con­tent file will be eas­ily read by a com­puter, which means the com­puter can auto­mate cer­tain things for you: cre­ate an ebook, a nice-looking PDF, a PowerPoint present­a­tion, a web page…all from the same con­tent file.

But how do you make the con­tent file?

Use Markdown

Markdown was cre­ated by John Gruber as a way of writ­ing for the web without includ­ing the dis­trac­tion of mark-up tags (more below). It has been exten­ded by sub­sequent programmers.

The best way to describe Markdown is to show you an example. Here is the open­ing of my novella, Red Star Falling:

## Red Star Falling

In the moment before Saskia Brandt awoke, she had a vis­ion of red chrys­an­them­ums fall­ing. The flowers looked unreal. Their stems were too straight and their falls too slow. Their *Gestalt* was art­ful sadness.

What you’re look­ing at above is a plain text snip­pet. The # char­ac­ter means that the text Red Star Falling should be treated as a head­ing (just like a head­ing in Word). Two ## char­ac­ters means that this is a head­ing level two. Immediately, you can see that this is a fool­proof way of telling a com­puter that the text is head­ing level two; at the same time, it’s easy for a human to read.

After

## Red Star Falling

there is a blank line. This tells the com­puter to treat the next text it encoun­ters as the begin­ning of a new para­graph. Notice that, in this new para­graph, I’ve used a

*

char­ac­ter to enclose the German word Gestalt. This tells the com­puter to emphas­ise the word. In this case, it makes it italic.

OK. So I’ve writ­ten the first para­graph of my glor­i­ous story. What do I do with it?

Well, the Amazon Kindle format is based on HTML, which is the simple tag­ging format that most webpages use. So I want to pro­duce HTML from the Markdown. There are many tools that will help you do this. I’ll talk about some of them later. When I con­vert the above text to HTML I get the following:

<h2>Red Star Falling</h2>

<p>In the moment before Saskia Brandt awoke, she had a vision of red chrysanthemums falling. The flowers looked unreal. Their stems were too straight and their falls too slow. Their <em>Gestalt</em> was artful sadness.</p>

If you’re not famil­iar with HTML, this will look a bit weird. The import­ant thing to note is that the ori­ginal Markdown format text will reli­ably pro­duce the HTML.

Why this is exciting

How much do I love Markdown? Let me count the ways.

  1. The thing that I, as a writer, look at, is a plain text file writ­ten in Markdown. It doesn’t get much sim­pler. I don’t need to worry about smart quotes and dash sizes–all this is done when cre­at­ing the HTML.

  2. Because it’s a plain text file, I can work on it from a com­puter of vir­tu­ally any type (desktop, laptop, mobile), any age (even ancient PCs can read text files) and any plat­form (plain text files are very portable).

  3. Helper pro­grams can take this Markdown put it into any form I like: PDF, .mobi, epub, and so on. It can take some time to set up these helper pro­grams, but you only have to do it once.

  4. In ten years’ time, the file will be super easy to open. It’s plain text, not a pro­pri­et­ary word-processing format.

My Workflow

Most of my writ­ing takes place on two devices: A MacBook Air and an iPad. My work­flow is there­fore Mac-centric. However, the approach should work on any system.

Here is the point where I real­ise that my own work­flow files are hope­lessly hard-coded to my own sys­tem, and provid­ing you with a work­ing example of Red Star Falling that you can down­load and play with is impossible without edit­ing my files. So, instead of giv­ing you these files, I’ll explain the pro­cess in plain English.

  • My book is a series of plain text files, all of which are in Markdown format. Each file rep­res­ents a sec­tion of the book that I’ve isol­ated for con­veni­ence. (Note that file num­ber six is actu­ally an alias to a file held in a more cent­ral cent­ral loc­a­tion, which is the same across all my books.)

image

  • I then pass the files to an Automator Service. The Automator script does the following:

    • Adds them together to make a single, large Markdown file.
    • Uses the Multimarkdown command-line tool by Fletcher Penney to cre­ate an HTML ver­sion of the book. A sep­ar­ate style sheet (see Useful resources) is used to cre­ate the final ebook style that I like. This tool also smartens quotes, cre­ates proper dash char­ac­ters, etc.
    • Passes the HTML to the ebook-converter command-line tool by the indefatig­able Kovid Goyal, which cre­ates an Amazon-compatible .Mobi, iBooks-friendly .epub, and a PDF for good measure.

I’ve now writ­ten a follow-up to this post that includes a detailed example.

Useful resources

A Markdown cheat­sheet.

My Writer as a Stranger CSS (Cascading Style Sheet). Use this in com­bin­a­tion with a Markdown doc­u­ment to pro­duce a book with the same final format­ting as Red Star Falling.

Markdown tools from Brett Terpstra.

Red Star Falling is out now

Well, m’readers, Red Star Falling–book one in my Agents Temporal series–is now avail­able from that large Luxembourg-based com­pany we all love to hate. Thanks to every­one who helped me get this out the door.

The mys­ter­i­ous organ­isa­tion known only by its ini­tials: Meta.

The miss­ing 100,000 roubles of the 1907 Yerevan Square Expropriation and its smug­gler, the Georgian out­law known as Soso.

Meta Agent Singular, Saskia Brandt, on a mis­sion from the future.

The north face of the Eiger—treacherous, unclimbed, enshadowed—waiting for the money, the out­law, and the Agent Singular.

Agent Singular: Particular. Special. One-shot.

Saskia Brandt returns in this action-packed story from the writer of best­seller Déjà Vu.

Red star falling cover

Creating an Animated Banner Advert

There are sev­eral joys pecu­liar to the inde­pend­ent writer. One of them is the respons­ib­il­ity of advert­ising. A few weeks back, I made the decision to plough more of the earn­ings from my books into these adverts. One of the places I wanted to advert­ise is a site call kboards.com, a busy hub full of Kindle writers and readers.

What Goes into the Ad?

It needs to cap­ture interest with min­imal inform­a­tion. I kicked around some ideas using the ‘rule of three’: this, that and the other, or ‘not this, not that, but the other’. Since I don’t really have graphic illus­tra­tion skills bey­ond cre­at­ing book cov­ers, I’d need to use text. I came up with:

One heroine

Three books

Lost in time

Overall, I’m happy with them. They’re short. They tell you that the main char­ac­ter is a woman, that there are three books (so far) worth of story, and that the genre is sci­ence fic­tion (time travel).

My girl­friend looked at a draft of the fin­ished GIF and said that read­ers wouldn’t know any­thing about the qual­ity of the books. I agreed, and added a quote from an SFX of Déjà Vu as a ‘zero slide’ at the beginning.

How Does it Look?

The stand­ard dimen­sions for a ban­ner ad is 728 x 90 pixels. Once I’d stuffed that full of my text, there was no room for the book jack­ets, and it gen­er­ally looked shite. #advertfail

Fine, I thought. I’ll just cre­ate an anim­ated GIF.

For the unini­ti­ated, an anim­ated GIF (pro­nounced ‘fish’) is a little video.

Creation: Keynote

I don’t have any fancy anim­a­tion soft­ware. I do, how­ever, use Apple Keynote to give psy­cho­logy lec­tures. Keynote is a par­tic­u­larly advanced present­a­tion plat­form that has text effects, slide trans­itions, and tim­ings. Crucially, it can also export a present­a­tion as a Quicktime movie file. That file can then be dropped into a Mac app called GIFBrewery to make an anim­ated GIF.

  • Open Keynote and select one of the stand­ard templates

  • Next, you’ll want to have Keynote change its slide size to 728 x 90. Guess what? It won’t, because 90 is too small. You will need to cre­ate a slide with the ban­ner ad pro­por­tions but more pixels. I’d sug­gest 2184 x 270.

Keynote slide size

  • Create as many slides as you like. Each one of these will be a ‘moment’ in your anim­a­tion. For my own ban­ner, there were seven moments.

Slides

  • Set the tim­ings and trans­itions between the slides. You’ll see that, for the example below, I’ve set the trans­ition between the first slide and the second to be the ‘sparkle’ effect; the sparkle moves left to right; and the trans­ition activ­ates auto­mat­ic­ally after three seconds.

Transitions

  • Once you’ve set up auto­matic trans­itions between slides, Keynote should be able to play through the ‘present­a­tion’ without manual inter­ven­tion. About five-ten seconds long is prob­ably enough—but if your ban­ner ad is awe­some, maybe people will watch it for longer. Who knows.

  • Now export the present­a­tion as a Quicktime video. Go to the File Menu > Export > Quicktime. Keynote will offer the fol­low­ing options, which are set accord­ing to those I used for my own banner:

QT Options

Creation: GIFBrewery

The Quicktime file is some­thing that GIFBrewery can hap­pily use to pro­duce your banner.

GIFBrewery has many options, which you can explore. The two main things to point out are:

  • Resize’ will allow you to reduce the pixel dimen­sions of you video. If you’ve impor­ted from Keynote, these dimen­sions will be too large, so here is where you can reduce it to 728 x 90 pixels.

  • The ‘GIF prop­er­ties’ pop-up allows you to tweak the frame-rate (and there­fore over­all speed) of the GIF. You will also find options for redu­cing the num­bers of col­ours. Remember that the webpage host­ing your advert needs the GIF to have a very small file size. In the case of kboards.com, this is less than 60K.

GFBrewery

Wrapping Up

Here is the fin­ished GIF:

2013 05 20 22 24 09 SB

I hope that’s help­ful. It took me a couple of nights of pokery, not to men­tion jig­gery, to real­ise that I could use Keynote to pro­duce a movie file, and then a good piece of soft­ware to gen­er­ate the GIF.

If you want to use my files as a head start, here they are:

The GFBrewery set­tings file

The Keynote present­a­tion file

The Keynote Quicktime export

Writing ‘Red Star Falling’: Part Three

I heard back from my editor yes­ter­day. He’ll be tak­ing a look at my final­ised manu­script on the bank hol­i­day week­end (next week). Ahead of those edits, won­der­ing what they might be, I thought it would be use­ful to post another instal­ment of my writ­ing journal.

In the last excerpt, I had fin­ished the first draft of the story, which came in at 15,000 words. I next turned to the prob­lem of deal­ing with an editor.

Thursday, 4th April

For my next trick, I’ve been in con­tact with an editor. A few things are rolling around my head on this sub­ject. First of all, the cost. It’s expensive.

As I’m going to pub­lish this short story (call­ing it a novella, now!) to the Amazon Kindle—i.e., in elec­tronic format—it needs to be in good shape. That means edit­ing. What does an editor do? Well, there are dif­fer­ent types of edit­ing. There’s noth­ing about these types that a writer can’t do alone (indeed, many writers edit the work of oth­ers, too), but they usu­ally find it dif­fi­cult because they lack per­spect­ive. The editor gives a kind of ‘san­ity check’. They work as a pro­fes­sional, exper­i­enced sound­ing board. I liken them to record pro­du­cers. They don’t fun­da­ment­ally change the text itself, but they lend it a cer­tain per­spect­ive that can be help­ful. They sug­gest dele­tions, addi­tions, and so on.

Is it worth it? Undoubtedly. As a writer, I feel it’s my duty to get my work into the best shape pos­sible. If my story were a boxer, this would be about hir­ing the best trainer.

Friday, 5th April

It’s a struggle to make the story as alive as it can be; what is the best way of present­ing it?

I’ll need to increase the ten­sion in cer­tain parts. I’ll prob­ably do this by set­ting the char­ac­ters against one another rather more. The final scene, in par­tic­u­lar, is a bit too friendly.

I go on to write:

There’s a char­ac­ter I’ll prob­ably delete, and another I need to be very care­ful about. His iden­tity is

(Redacted.)

For that [redac­ted] to work, his motiv­a­tions need to seem con­sist­ent dur­ing the ini­tial read (when the reader thinks [redac­ted]) and also when the reader goes back over their memory of his actions and thinks, ‘Aha!’ My model for this ‘Aha!’ moment is the reveal at the end of The Usual Suspects. That is to say that I aspire to cre­ate the same effect.

Good luck with that.

During this stage, the story tends to dog my thoughts and give rise to that faraway look that friends often com­ment on. The story is a multi-piece jig­saw puzzle where I’m allowed to change the size of the pieces as well as their arrange­ments. There’s no way this can hap­pen con­sciously. You have to let your uncon­scious percolate.

One more thing is hap­pen­ing. As I become more famil­iar with the story—dream about it, pon­der about it dur­ing idle moments—I think of cer­tain meta­phor­ical con­nec­tions that could be made. For instance, I’ve decided that Saskia should be ‘awoken’ at the begin­ning of the story by a vase of flowers fall­ing over. Not entirely sure, at this stage, whether the flowers should be red or white. Anyway, it com­ple­ments the end­ing of the story, where [redacted].

Sunday, 28th April

I often recall some­thing that Steve Jobs said about design­ing a product. Good design, he claimed, is about leav­ing things out. By elim­in­at­ing what is not great, you leave the great bits. I’m often reminded of this when I read stu­dent work, like an essay. I’ll look at a para­graph and think, ‘You should have left that out,’ because the other para­graphs were writ­ten at the top of your game; they work well. Only leave in the stuff that works well. If some­thing doesn’t work—a char­ac­ter, scene, metaphor—then you can try to fix it, but must always remem­ber that dele­tion is also a fix.

Structurally, I’ve decided not to include some flash­backs (of the future, where the main char­ac­ter comes from). This should give the story a tighter, more focused feel. You can’t have too much focus.

I’m aim­ing for this story to work in the same way that a third act works.

The final draft was 20,000 words. That’s the ver­sion I sent to the editor.

Waterboarded by an Angel

M’colleague and gen­er­ally excel­lent writer Aliya Whiteley is cel­eb­rat­ing the launch of her new short story col­lec­tion, Witchcraft in the Harem. How to describe it? Well, World Fantasy Award win­ner Lavie Tidhar says:

The exper­i­ence of read­ing this col­lec­tion is like being water­boarded by an angel. Shocking, heart­break­ing and laugh-out-loud funny, this is some of the best writ­ing I’ve ever seen. If you like Aimee Bender or Etgar Keret, you will love Witchcraft in the Harem.

I had a high old time on Monday night at the launch. Given that I’m talk­ing occa­sion­ally on this blog about the cre­at­ive pro­cess, I thought it would be nice to ask Aliya about how you get the full world feel in some­thing as small as a short story. Take it away, Aliya.


How do you make a short story feel full?

Thomas Hardy was an amaz­ing nov­el­ist. You only have to read the first pages of The Mayor of Casterbridge to real­ise you’re enjoy­ing the powers of a mas­ter of descrip­tion. And there’s a lot of descrip­tion to get through. I mean enjoy. There are long para­graphs about the Wessex coun­tryside and the mean­ing­ful weather. However much you love Hardy, you have to admit that the mod­ern taste in prose has moved away from such lov­ing build-up. A book that starts with three thou­sand words describ­ing the land­scape is unlikely to meet with the approval of a big pub­lisher nowadays.

Description gives depth, but if you’re work­ing on a short story, then you need to provide that roun­ded feel­ing in other ways. And if you write flash fic­tion, then you need to cre­ate the entire world in under 1000 words and lose none of the real­ity. So how do you do it? Here’s some help­ful advice. Bearing in mind that I don’t give good advice and can­not be trusted.

Set your story at the bot­tom of the ocean.

Deep, see? No, okay, that’s not entirely ser­i­ous. But do set your short story in some place that will be evoc­at­ive with very little work from you. The Orient Express, for instance. Or choose one really good detail and describe that rather than going large-scale. Describing the swivel of the golfer’s hips as he hits his first shot is as mean­ing­ful as writ­ing about all eight­een holes.

Don’t bother to set it anywhere.

If you’ve got bril­liant char­ac­ters, amaz­ing dia­logue, and an excit­ing plot, then let them do all the work for you and for­get describ­ing the col­our of the car­pet. The set­ting doesn’t always mat­ter. Sometimes it’s more power­ful if we’re not provided with a framework.

Piggyback.

The first story in my new col­lec­tion is called Galatea. It’s a piece of flash fic­tion about a lonely orphan boy who grows up to be obsessed with naked flesh. There’s no men­tion of the Pygmalion myth in the story but the title brings with it a whole myth­ical set of expect­a­tions that say more than an extra thou­sand words could manage.

Avoid the nat­ural world.

If you find your­self describ­ing the types of trees in the field behind the house the char­ac­ters live in (and they aren’t even look­ing out of the win­dow) then you’re not keep­ing the word count down. Unless you’re writ­ing a story about killer plants or the passing sea­sons or some­thing, obviously.

Use default settings.

When it comes to describ­ing what people look like, there’s very little point unless it’s remark­able. We all assume people look a cer­tain way. Alas, Hollywood-style pleas­ant beauty has won over our ima­gin­a­tions in this regard, so instead of wast­ing time with hair and eye col­ours con­cen­trate on the way the char­ac­ters respond to each other. If they’re attract­ive, don’t bother describ­ing your idea of attract­ive. A reader might hate muscled men or women with long legs. But what hap­pens when they enter the con­ver­sa­tion? That’s more inter­est­ing, and it tells us all we need to know. Then the reader becomes the detect­ive of the story, solv­ing the clues you leave behind. Artfully arrange your bread­crumbs rather than sup­ply­ing a whole loaf of bread. It keeps them hungry and takes up less word­count too.

So that’s what I know about turn­ing a short story into a sat­is­fy­ing and roun­ded exper­i­ence. I’ve set stor­ies in the Canadian Rockies and in Viennese Concert Halls; I’ve used myth­ical fig­ures and fairy tales; I’ve pared back the weather reports and the nat­ural world. Except in the one story that’s set in a cab­bage patch, obvi­ously. And I’ve kept them all short and sweet. Even the one set in the Mariana Trench.

No, okay, I made that bit up. I told you I couldn’t be trusted.