Archive Monthly Archives: August 2016

How to Manage your Time – and Stay Sane

I suck at Scheduling

I don't mean I can't define tasks, then assign them a date and time when I'll do them. I can do that. Anyone can.

If you're a self-published author, you'll know this particular pain well. There's something authors do well, right? Write, right?

We authors write, and we write good. And anything that has to do with the creative parts of our job, like working with editors and cover artists, or writing guest blogs, or being interviewed - anything that relates directly to our work, we do that pretty well.

But if you want to be self-published, that isn't all you have to do.

You also have to manage your social media to build your list.​ You have to manage your promos, your giveaways; you have to do regular content for your list and for your own blog. You have to keep producing original, interesting, engaging stuff that you can use to drive traffic to those all important landing pages.

And that is on top of organizing and managing the writing itself, and all the palaver of preparing a book for publication.

And for most self-published authors, all that is also on top of your day job, your kids, your husband, your dog, your cat...

I feel your pain. I suck at scheduling.

Not because I can't get stuff done. Not because I can't find the time for it, or work out in advance when I can do it.

Because I just can't keep to a schedule. And neither can you.

Why it's impossible (and why that's okay)

​It's impossible to keep to the schedule, no matter how carefully worked out it is. And because you can't keep to it you get behind. Because what you didn't have time for yesterday, you try to do today, because otherwise it will get out of order as well as late and then... and then where will you be?

It's impossible to keep to the schedule because, yes, all those conflicting demands on your time are all subject to being thrown off track by new demands. Your priorities can change from one day to the next even when your not relying on, or being relied on, by other people. You have new ideas. You have days where you hate everything you wrote.

It's impossible to keep to the schedule because some days, you just don't feel like doing the task you've scheduled for that day.

It's okay. A lot of what we do requires an effort of concentration. It requires us to be in the right frame of mind.

There are days when it would be crazy of me to go on twitter because I'd come across as a total flake (rather than a bumbling amateur - which seems to be acceptable)​; and when I better keep of Facebook or I'd rant endlessly and aimlessly in the comments of someone else's great post.

There are days when I start, and delete, the same blog post five or six times.

There are days when I have an awesome idea for a newsletter for my mailing list.

There are days when I see a new way of explaining something.

There are days when I just want to spend hours going through my old notes to see if there's new content to be found.​

In Short, You Know ...

​...when the time is right to write, and when the time is dead wrong.

I certainly do. If I have a list of tasks to do, and I assign a day or a time to them, when that time comes I've no guarantee that I'll be able to do the task.​

This means that the calendar actually works against me.​ The more I have scheduled, the less I can do. So even though when I'm really overloaded with all sorts of different tasks, planning out everything over the next couple of weeks so everything has it's dedicated day makes it all look doable, and leaves me feeling reassured that it will get done, usually about a quarter of the tasks still don't get done.

Which means I need another solution.

Deadpan Kanban

Kanban, my research told me, is the technique of the moment. I didn't know it at the time, but Trello - which many people swear by, but which I find worse than useless - is inspired by a procedural organization system for teamwork called "Kanban."

Systems like Trello claim to be inspired by Kanban, but basically use a set of virtual boards to which virtual stickies can be affixed, each of which represents a task. Kanban works very well in agile production where there are many small teams. For one person alone... let's just say it didn't work for me, and leave it at that.

Kickstart your Control Tower?

I was taking some down time, and one of my particular pleasures is to scoff at the absurd ideas in the "Design" category on Kickstarter - some of which are, frankly, brilliant, and others less so. There, I came across this delightful madness:

This is the desktop ATC Board - 45 days to go (at time of writing) and it's already funded. What is it? It's the system historically used by air traffic control to stack em, pack em and rack em.

The air traffic control strip rack has three huge advantages over every other organization system:

  • you can see how many tasks there are to do at a glance
  • you can see the details by just looking a little closer
  • it takes moments to take one task and move it elsewhere - to a different place in order, or onto a different rack

One Task Leads to Another

Any freelancer has all sorts of different tasks to do; admin, production, promotion, communication... and most of these tasks are only weakly interdependent. Some are repeating, but in most, there is some elasticity in the delivery date. There's little harm being late, and a small advantage to being early.

So an ideal allows you to list your tasks, categorize them, assign hard deadlines, a few dependencies, but most of all

allows you to choose which task to do according to what sort of task you feel like doing

​The ATC board does this... but it's not very portable, and has certain notable limitations.

My Ideal Solution

Before I started looking for the ideal system I scribbled a drawing.

This here is me, sitting in front of my Tasks Cabinet.

In the green drawers are tasks that either have no deadline, or have no urgency. Some of them are just ideas.

In the yellow drawers are tasks that either repeat, or will take a longer time to carry out.

In the red drawers are tasks whose deadline is fast approaching or (let's face it) is already past.

Each day, I can consult the list of tasks to be done today, tomorrow, this week or just soon and I can decide which ones to do, based on my state of mind.

This has three major advantages:

  • Nothing ever gets forgotten
  • I'm only stressed if a task is actually late - rather than every time it's not done on schedule
  • I do everything better because I do tasks when I'm in the best state of mind for them

Once I'd worked all that out, I spent two days trying out various systems and software for task management.

My Weapon of Choice

Nothing was absolutely ideal. But one thing comes very, very close.

ASANA is an online task management system, that can be used by teams or by individuals.

It's simple task management, with some sorting and planning and organization. With alerts, notifications, integration with Google Calendar, and apps for your mobile device of choice.

I find that especially useful as I often have ideas for content or courses, or just advice to give to my authors or my mailing list, and all I have to do is create a new task on the Asana app on my phone.

Workflow Analysis & Good Sense

A long, long time ago, I worked in business process analysis. I mapped processes to turn them into online workflows during the dotcom bubble, when online for most people still meant dial-up. It was fun... people say it was kinda like the Wild West which is, y'know, a romantic exaggeration i.e. a lie.

But it did teach me the secret to organizing any individuals work.

You have to select, or create, a workflow that matches how you work, not try to fit yourself into a workflow you're convinced ought to work.

People beat themselves up over "being disorganized" when in reality, they're trying to squeeze themselves into a workflow that doesn't suit them.

TL;DR: you don't suck at scheduling. Scheduling isn't the system for you. ​

Continue reading

What you want to hear

As an editor, I don't always play nice. Among the things I've been known to say to authors are:

    • You don't have the experience to write what you're attempting.​
    • Trying to run before you can walk is part of learning. But don't expect anyone to read what you write until you've mastered the basics.
    • No one cares if your ideas are unique. They care if you know how to tell a good story, and tell it well.
    • No one cares what inspired you to write this. They care that you know how to tell a good story.
    • No one cares about your personal journey. They care that you know how to tell a good story.
    • This is very interesting, and some of it is very well-written. But where is the story?
    • etc.

As I'm sure you well imagine, in my occasional forays into attempting to publicise my work and find new clients, I quite often encounter the offers, products, services and promises of my colleagues. Most of what they all offer is honest and valuable, and if you're serious about becoming an author, or you're already and author and you're serious about becoming a better author, you should read all the craft books and do all the writing courses you can possibly afford, until you reach the point where you can see just how limited their benefits are.

Because when you reach that point, it means you no longer need them. You've learned as much as you're going to about methodology, and you can set aside the games and start looking for mastery.​

When you're a student, you're not alone. There are plenty of others trying to soak up all that past knowledge and experience, and trying to understand all that terminology, analysis, and method.

Mastery is a solitary pursuit.​

You have to study the work of masters, of whom those who aren't dead are likely inaccessible to you. But more than that, your study of them has to be personal.

You have to examine and observe what moves you about their work, and try to understand what it is, why it moves you, and how that was achieved, in order to reproduce it.​

What impresses, moves, or inspires you in the work of the masters you study will not be the same as for others. And this is the secret - if there is one - to mastery: it's when you reach a point where you are deciding what to learn, what to study, what to practice, what to hone. When you are choosing your techniques, and choosing who to learn them from.

This isn't because you are unique or special. It's just how you motivate yourself to become a master. But it is how you become unique and special.

What you want to hear

​The marketing folks are always telling me - and my colleagues seem to be hearing the same advice - that no matter what your product really is, you have to package it so it looks like it's exactly what your target market wants. So we're supposed to look at the way authors, creative writing students, right the way through to anyone who daydreams about one day being an author, and determine what preoccupies them about writing - their concerns, their anxieties, as well as their wants, needs and dreams.

In my experience, you're a pretty level-headed bunch.

If there's one thing I'll say about authors, they know the difference between fantasy and reality.

Click to Tweet

​In fact, that's why it's so easy to spot the scammers. The scammers all think that authors dream of a big publishing deal, and will therefore part with their money if the possibility of fame and fortune is dangled before them. But authors know that just because it happens to a few, doesn't mean it isn't a fantasy.

Far more insidious, then, are the small concerns, the minor anxieties of new authors. I'm going to take two examples.

Protecting your story idea

​On Quora, this is a regular question. All the new and hopeful authors who think they have a great idea for a story (and in fairness, most of them do), are afraid to talk about it because they think someone will steal their idea. They're all preoccupied with the originality or uniqueness of their story concept, and they believe that is what will make it sell, and make readers want to read it.

A unique concept is not a hook. Only a skilfully wrought first chapter can be a hook.

Click to Tweet

​Because new writers think that their story idea is their most valuable asset, those providing services to them (editors) have to make a big show of our discretion. Actually, I am pretty discreet. Even when I talk about your terrible writing in private, I don't tell my close friends or family members your name.

But your story idea isn't an asset. Your brilliantly written compelling page-turner, duly and rigorously edited, is an asset. But even then, a small one. Once you've spent a few hundred dollars promoting it, and have sold a few hundred copies, it's an asset worth protecting, because it's become an asset worth stealing.

No one who wants to make a living from theft steals a story idea, because they'd still have to write the book.

But they will steal it once it's been written, and try to re-sell it elsewhere, or use it as bait for a scam, by offering it for free. This is known as piracy. It's common, but doesn't happen to everyone and you can do something about it.

Here are just three articles on what to do. There is plenty more advice to be had on this topic, so use your search engine.

Preserving/developing your unique voice

​Remember I said at the top that I don't always play nice? On Quora, there's a rule, known as BNBR - be nice, be reasonable. It's a very good rule on Quora, it's like good manners, it enables people with very different backgrounds, cultures, beliefs and values to interact and learn from each other. Quora is awesome.

Here on my personal blog, I am under no such obligation. So listen:

You don't have a unique voice, unless you invent one. Which takes both experience and skill.

Click to Tweet

​I've heard the complaint many times from authors that an editor 'completely removed their personality from the manuscript' or 'damaged their distinctive style' or 'replaced their unique voice.' In many cases, the author in question has shown me. In only one case did I really "agree" - but even "agree" gets scare quotes because what the editor did was overstep the normal bounds of his job, and rewrote much of the book in his own style when there was nothing wrong with the original.

In all the other cases, what happened was that the author was shocked by the sheer amount of blue pen, and saw this as his own hard work being denigrated or even insulted.

You know I mentioned that stage when you realize the craft books and the courses aren't doing anything for you any more? When you reach that stage, you will be able to tell when an editor makes changes that aren't needed. Until you reach that stage, you have to look at every change and every suggestion as if from a position of complete ignorance.

You have to be an uncarved block.

Because even if the editor is no more experienced than you, their doubt is an opportunity for you to evaluate your creative and linguistic choices, to be come more aware of your own writing, to learn.

And also: by the time you begin to pursue mastery of your art, you already know how to use several voices, some of which may be unique to you, and some won't.

The great masters of writing are those who know how to speak to their readers. Uniqueness does not help this.

Click to Tweet

Continue reading

My Fiction – The Prince Who Was Really a Princess

Fairytale - The Prince who was really a Princess

From the Dense Words Blog archive

In the winter of 2014/2015 I read several of Andrew Lang's fairy books, including one I had never read before.
Overdosing like that has an effect, of course, and I wrote the short story that I'm reproducing below. I suspect there's also a little influence from the surprisingly challenging and satisfying casual game "Long Live the Queen."

Given the themes, the 'gender neutral' stick figure from one of my infographics seemed like a good illustration!

There was an old King, who had a young queen who bore him only daughters. Such was the custom of the time, that should a King wish his daughters to marry, he must part with some of his land, giving it as a gift to whatever Prince might win his daughter's heart. For it was also the unlucky custom of the time that a Princess could only marry a Prince, and Princes, who were raised to rule, would only seek the hand of a Princess whose father could offer them some sizeable territory.

Luckily, the old King had lived a long life, he had been married more than twice, and made a number of conquests, but after the marriage of his twelfth daughter, he began to imagine the borders of his kingdom closing in, and to fear that if he ever did have a son, it would be a sorry small kingdom indeed that he would inherit. So he resolved to have no further children.

A few more years passed, and the King began to feel his great age, and to fear that he had not done his duty to his Kingdom in not providing it with a son to rule it. His wife was still young and beautiful, but if he died, she would be at the mercy of the surrounding Kingdoms which abounded with dukes and princelings, many of whom would pursue her to marry her for her Kingdom, and many others who would simply take it with an army.

He resolved to try one final time to have a son. He told himself that if it was a daughter, he would choose the Prince to marry her, announcing it to all the world, so that he would at least be able to name his heir. And if a son, so much the better. However, he failed to tell this to his wife.

When the child was born, it was, as all the others had been, a girl. Beautiful, strong and bonny, but a source only of grief to her mother who so loved the old King that she swore the midwife to secrecy, and had it announced that she had at last borne a son.

There was much feasting and rejoicing.

The young prince, who was really a princess, grew up healthy and strong on a diet of good meat and fresh air. Every weekday he, who was really a she, learned his letters, studied statecraft and warcraft in the mornings, and horsemanship and swordsmanship in the afternoon, manners, charm and cheer in the evenings; on Saturdays he, who was really a she, rode with the hunt or did falconing, and on Sundays gave alms to the poor, and studied piety.

The King provided the finest teachers, trainers and tutors in the land. And if any of them discovered the Prince's secret, none of them revealed it.

Now it so happened that the King's eldest daughter had married a bad Prince named Hasba. He had recently become King of his own Kingdom, and had begun to turn his greedy eyes to the Kingdoms around him. Greedy King Hasba had already enlarged his kindom several times over, through clever politics, through extortion, and through war, until it almost completely surrounded the Old King's lands.

The Old King died when the Prince, who was really a princess, was fourteen years old. Handsome and strong, but not yet in his majority. Before there was a chance to crown him, however, Greedy King Hasba invaded with a great army.

The only person who was ready was the Queen, for she had been warned in a letter from her eldest daughter, who although almost as greedy as her husband, had felt a few mild pangs of guilt when she learned of his plans.

Very early one morning, the Queen came to the Prince's chamber, bade him rouse and clothe himself; the Queen took a small purse of gold, and the Prince, who was really a princess, took a small gold ring. With the sound and clamour of war approaching, they stole away on swift horses, into the great forest that bordered the Kingdom.

They didn't have time to bring much more than their clothes with them, and soon they were lost, cold and hungry.It began to grow dark, but just as they were beginning to lose hope, they came upon a large house in a clearing.

"This will surely be the den of some Bandits," said the Queen, but the Prince, who was really a princess, insisted that they must find warmth and shelter, and risk what they must within.

To their surprise, the house seemed to be recently deserted, for though there was a fire in the hearth and food and drink on the table, with torches and candles lit about the place, they could find no sign of any people.

They resolved to eat their fill, and should someone come, they would give them a little from their small purse of gold.

Finding a small bedroom, they slept well, although the Prince had to rise twice in the night to feed the fire. In the morning there was still no sign of the house's owners, but the day had dawned bright and clear, so the Prince went outside to prepare the horses.

The horses were nowhere to be seen. Outside the house was a small clearing, completely and tightly enclosed by the forest, with no sign of road or path or trackway.

There was some magic or mischief afoot, but the Prince did not want to alarm the Queen. Returning to the cottage he told her that she should take some breakfast, while he scouted the path, to find a proper route through the forest.

The Prince, who was really a Princess, hadn't ventured far into the forest when he heard an unruly commotion behind him, and at once hurried back to the house. On the lawn was a group of a hundred fat black ponies, and from within there came the noise of revelry and carousing.

The Prince crept to a window and saw to his horror that the house was indeed occupied by bandits, who on discovering the Queen had apparently pressed her to all sorts of indignities, and the Prince watched as she hurried from place to place, serving the Bandits their dinner, and suffering their harsh words and rough hands.

Though strong, and well taught and well practised, the Prince knew well that he had not the strength or skill to confront a hundred bandits, so resolved to seek help where he might find it.

The Prince hurried off through the forest, careless of wild beasts or pursuit, since haste could be the only deliverance of his unfortunate mother.

At length, he came to another clearing. All around the clearing were stalls and stands, as if for a village market, and gay flags and bunting hung from the trees. But all was not gay and cheerful, for among the flags and pennants were also the corpses of crows and butchered rats. The strangest of the spectacle was that although the stalls seemed to have been set up only that morning, there was no sign of any sellers.

As the Prince, who was really a Princess, crept into the centre of the clearing, a strange music started up, and he spied a movement from one of the stalls. The stall itself was bedecked with many wonders. Boxes of jewels and gems overflowed; fine silks were draped across beautiful tapestries and lace as fine as frost. Gowns and dresses from far corners of the world, boots and shoes of surpassing workmanship and a bridle of dragonskin. In the centre sparkled a remarkable breastplate that shone with the light of a thousand suns, and across it lay a sword so sharp that the very air seemed to be cut into blue light around it.

From behind the stall came a strange dancing figure, draped in a hooded robe of midnight black. The figure danced and turned in the strange music, until finally stopping before the Prince, and revealing her face.

She seemed to be a woman of great age, but her age did not seem to have affected the agility and strength of her body, nor the beauty of her voice when she spoke, with an elegant calm.

"Young Prince, what gift do you bring me, that I may aid you in your quest?"

The Prince, who was really a Princess, understood at once that this was an ensorcelled clearing, and the woman a hag or witch, and that he might find some aid, but as likely there would be some trap or terrible bargain to be struck.

"I have nothing of value but my little gold ring and my secret," said the Prince, "And neither are of much value since I no longer have a kingdom to be Prince of. But I must find a means to rescue my mother from the clutches of cruel bandits, and I will repay any aid by whatever means is demanded."

"A pretty speech young Prince," said the hag, "And I have much that may help you." She led him to her stall, and showed him the many objects of great magic.

"Here is the gown of Loltha. Any man who wears it is transformed into beautiful woman, and it is beyond the means of any divination to see through the disguise. Here is the bridle of the Dragon King, which when the magic words 'Awake my steed' are spoken will summon the Dragon Horse, that can be ridden to the ends of the World and back untiring. Here are the shoes of Queen Abtath, that will make any woman the greatest dancer in all the world, and here are the boots of Ironsmith Wild that give the strength to carry any load. This is the sword and breastplate of the Angel of Silver. It is said that the sword will cut anything and the breastplate protects from all harm…" and so she went on, until the Prince was dizzy with all the great magics and how any one of the least of them would be enough to help him to defeat the bandits."

Now my young Prince," the hag continued, "my price is very small. I will not ask your small ring or your small secret, since you have nothing else. Give me but what I ask, and in return I will give you the magical gift that will most aid you in your quest."

"Ask what you will," the Prince, who was really a Princess, replied with all the manner and charm that he had been taught, "and if it is in my power to give, I will give it."

Of course, the hag was up to no good. She herself possessed a powerful charm. She made the same promises to anyone who passed her way, and as soon as she used the charm, they were in her power, and she would take all that they had, and send them naked into the forest to be devoured by the wild beasts.

"All you need do is give me one kiss upon my lips, to show that in spite of my great age, you, a young man, will show that my beauty is still great."

This did not seem too high a price to the Prince, even though it seemed a little vain. He assented and kissed her.

The hag's charm was that any man who kissed her fell at once under her spell, and she did not hesitate to boast and crow.

"And now," the hag shouted, "as all men, you are in my power, and will give me all that you have, and go naked into the forest, there to be killed and devoured by wild beasts."

But the Prince was not a man, but a Princess, and the hag's charm had no power over him. All at once he snatched up the glittering sword, and struck off the hag's head with a single blow.

The hag's body transformed into a pile of a thousand frogs, that hopped off in all directions, leaving nothing but her midnight black robes and her strange charm. The Prince felt that the charm was probably wicked, and struck it with the sword, shattering it to dust.

The Prince at once fell to looking over the various objects of great magic on the hag's stall. He put on the breastplate of the Angel of Silver and buckled on the sword. He pulled on the boots of Ironsmith Wild, and took up the Dragon King's bridle, saying at once the magic words.

Fortunately, the Dragon Horse, fiery eyed and ill-tempered though it was, had magical saddle bags. Most of the hag's magical hoard was unidentified and unlabelled, so the Prince, who was really a princess, took only what the hag had already described, and added to this a few small items that did have labels, such as a Bottle of Everpure water and a Key of All Locks, and other sundries of improbable usefulness, that the Prince supposed he would probably be able to sell for a King's ransom and hence buy himself a King's Kingdom.

The Prince sprang easily into the saddle, and bade the horse gallop with all speed to the bandit's house.

His arrival in the clearing on a tall black dragonskinned horse with fiery eyes did not go unnoticed. The Bandits, who were well fed and a little the worse for drink, climbed onto their fat black ponies and charged at the Prince, all at once.

The Dragon Horse was deft and agile, and dodged here and there, so that the Bandit's arrows flew wide and hallebards fell through empty air. As the Dragon Horse dodged about beneath him, the Prince, who was really a Princess, swung stabbed and chopped with the Sword of the Angel of Silver that was so sharp that it cut the air into blue and green fire around it. Soon, ninety-nine bandits lay dead.

The Prince jumped out of the saddle, and ran into the house.

The Chief Bandit sat, careless of all danger, in a large chair by the fire, a mug of ale in one hand, and the Queen, looking a little flushed and tired but largely unharmed, sitting on his knee.

"Let go my royal mother and prepare to defend yourself!" the Prince shouted a clear challenge, as he had been taught to do.

The Chief Bandit rose lazily to his feet.

"My dear boy," he said, " You clearly know how to fight well, and I doubt I could catch you if you ran. But fight me and you will surely die, since one must die and it cannot be me. On the day I was born I was dipped in the River of War and wet from head to foot, so not even an ankle was not touched by the strange water. It was prophesied that no man could ever harm me."

But the Prince was not a man, but a Princess, and the Chief Bandit's geas could not affect him. He drew his sword and struck off the Chief Bandit's head with a single blow.

The Queen was overjoyed to see the Prince safe and sound, and even more so when the Prince related his adventures.

"With all these magics," said the Queen, "you will be able to take back the Kingdom that is rightfully yours. But although a Prince you seem, you are a Princess, and a Princess cannot have a Kingdom without a Prince. Luckily, I heard the Bandits speak of a young and foolish Prince held captive by a Troll just beyond the mountain to the south. If you free him, he will surely help you win back your Kingdom."

The Prince, who was really a Princess, had been hoping one day to become a King who was really a Queen, but did not doubt the wisdom of his mother's words.

They gathered provisions and loaded up the magic saddle-bags of the Dragon Horse. The Dragon Horse was so large that it could easily carry both of them, and the Prince bade the horse take them to the cave of the Troll that lived beyond the mountain to the south.

It so happened that a kindly Duke lived in a tower not far from the cave, and he agreed to lodge the Queen while the Prince, who was really a Princess, continued his quest.

The path up to the Troll's cave was strewn with rocks and boulders and also strewn with skeletons of men, none of which had feet.

The Prince was nearly at the top of the path when a mighty voice rang out in mighty challenge.

"Who approaches the cave of the Mighty Ghroll?"

Tall as five men, with three heads and seven arms, the Mighty Ghroll stood before the cave, menace on all three of his countenances.

Remembering the importance of truth and politeness, the Prince, who was really a Princess, replied, a little awkwardly.

"I am a poor Prince who has lost his Kingdom, and have come to rescue . . . another Prince, who I hope will aid me in my quest. Will you release him or shall I have to fight or make ransom?"

The Troll was a little taken aback by the Prince's honesty and politeness, but it was his custom to make adventurers fulfil strange and impossible tasks in order to win his favour.

"Very well," said the Troll with a wry smile, "You need only complete one challenge and I will allow you to free the other Prince. Follow."

The Troll walked into the cave, and the Prince, who was really a Princess, had to run to keep up, having only normal sized legs. Deep in the mountain, the tunnel expanded, into a vast empty room with a floor of polished red granite, and lit like a ballroom by ten thousand candles. In the middle of the floor stood a man made entirely of brass, dressed in a brass tailcoat with a brass rose in his buttonhole and brass dancing shoes.

"Your challenge," said the Troll, "is to dance with the Dancing Man until he tires.

"The Prince at once turned and ran from the cave, and the Troll stared after him, the wry smile turned to surprise on two of his three faces, but the third face also turned to surprise as they heard the sound of feet hurrying back into the cave.

The Prince, of course, had run to the Dragon Horse to fetch the shoes of Queen Abtath, which fit him especially well, since he was really a Princess.

Without another word, the Prince took the hand of the Dancing Man, and placed another hand carefully upon his waist, and an unseen orchestra struck up.

For many hours they danced. The Dancing Man was an excellent partner, and since the Prince had been taught to dance as a man, graciously allowed him to lead. The Dancing Man's brass shoes struck occasional sparks as the shoes of Queen Abtath glid and flew across the granite floor, and never before had the Troll's six eyes beheld such a spectacle. Hours turned into days and days to weeks until, one morning, the Dancing Man's hips gave the smallest creak, and he suddenly stopped still, to dance no more.

By now, the Troll was not surprised. Two of his heads had begun to suspect some sort of sorcery after the third day, and the third head had begun to expect that they Prince would succeed after the first week. So all the rest of the while they had been trying to think of ways to keep their bargain and get revenge for having lost the pleasure of cutting off the Prince's feet (as they would have done).

"Now," said the Prince, still full of vigour, "you promised to allow me to free the other Prince."

"I did," said the Troll, adding gleefully, "so go and free him. If you can."

The Prince, who was really a Princess, ran off into the Troll's dungeon to seek the imprisoned Prince. Eventually, he heard the prisoner's mournful cries, and sought him out, in a deep, dark pit.

He was bound and weighed down with heavy chains, was thin, unshaven, filthy, his eyes sad and piteous as his mournful cries.

"Now, " said the Prince who was really a Princess, "cease your complaining, for I have come to rescue you."

"It is hopeless," the imprisoned Prince replied, "for the chains of the Troll are cursed. All who seek to free me and cannot are themselves enchained, by the ankles, and the Troll cuts off their feet to remove and eat them."

"But the others who have tried did not have a Key of All Locks," the Prince who was really a Princess replied, producing it with a flourish. However, he soon discovered that even the Key of All Locks was of no use, since the imprisoned Prince's chains had no keyhole.

The imprisoned Prince nodded resignedly, but the Prince who was really a Princess remembered his lessons, and did not give up so easily. He drew out the Sword of the Angel of Silver, and cut through the chains as easily as through a loaf of bread.

But as they fell away from the wrists and ankles of the imprisoned Prince, he saw to his dismay a strange transformation take place, for the curse of the chains was such that they made woman appear to be man, so before his eyes the imprisoned Prince became a beautiful Princess. The rescued Princess was so grateful that she showered the Prince who was really a Princess with embraces and kisses, and was surprised at his apparent lack of joy at this development.

"Come," said at length the Prince who was really a Princess, "let us escape this dungeon and take council with my Mother and her new friend the kindly Duke." So saying, He took up the broken manacles of the cursed chain and placed them in his sack, explaining to the rescued Princess that he collected all he could that was magical.

On arrival in the great ballroom under the mountain, they saw that the Troll waxed with anger, and at once threw itself upon the Prince who was really a Princess, intent on rending him limb from limb. But the claws of his seven hands skidded across the breastplate of the Angel of Silver and the fangs of his three mouths found no purchase anywhere on the Prince's body as long as he wore the armour.


The Prince who was really a Princess drew his glittering sword and struck off two of the Troll's heads, which tumbled away across the polished red granite, cursing and spitting as they went. The Troll hesitated.

The Prince remembered his lessons in piety, and declared, "I can yet be merciful if you will promise to mend your ways and let us go in peace."

In fear for his immortal life, the Troll promised that henceforth he would waylay and imprison only the wicked, and so the Prince who was really a Princess and the rescued Princess went back up the tunnel to the entrance of the cave, where the Dragon Horse waited to bring them safely back to the tower of the Kindly Duke.

The Kindly Duke was overjoyed to see that the Prince had rescued a Princess, and was confused as to why the Queen seemed less happy about it.

The rescued Princess was, for her part, deeply enamoured of her rescuer, though she realized, of course, that they could not be married until the Prince had reclaimed his Kingdom.

"My father," said the rescued Princess, "is King of Araby, and will surely provide you with a mighty army with which to reconquer your Kingdom."

Upon hearing this, the Queen resolved that it was best that the Prince, who was really a Princess, should continue to appear to be a Prince, if this was a safe means of obtaining an army.

The next day, the Prince who was really a Princess, and the rescued Princess, took their leave of the Kindly Duke, and set off upon the Dragon Horse for Araby.

Many would have been their adventures upon that long road, had it not been for the swiftness of the steed of the Dragon King. But as it was, before long and without incident, they were received a the tented palace of the King of Araby, who wept for joy at the sight of his lost daughter, and the handsome and noble young Prince who had delivered her.

The Prince who was really a Princess told the King of Araby the sad tale of the loss of his father's Kingdom, and the King of Araby at once declared that he would bestow upon him one of his nine armies of Djinn, that he could reclaim his Kingdom.

This was good fortune indeed, since it was a long road back to the North, and no ordinary army could keep pace with the Dragon Horse. But any one of the Nine Armies of Djinn was fast enough to arrive in advance.

And so it was that a mere few days later, the young Queen and the Kindly Duke, the Prince who was really a Princess, and the rescued Princess, and the Dragon Horse, and the great host of one of the King of Araby's Nine Armies of Djinn, stood at the edge of the great forest that encircled the Kingdom.Emissaries were sent to the Queen's eldest daughter, begging that she prepare for sudden invasion and reconquest, but the eldest daughter sent back a message that filled all with dismay.

The Greedy King, the message said, possessed a magic throne, and once he had sat upon the throne in any Kingdom, no man could take it from him, neither through force of arms, nor subterfuge, nor by theft nor by process of law.

"Well," said the Prince who was really a Princess, who read the wording of the magic with great care, "that's convenient."

Click to Tweet

"I for one," replied the Queen with a conspiratorial nod, "am beginning to see a pattern."

The Prince who was really a Princess rode out at the head of his great army, the rescued Princess at his side, and was met upon the official field of battle by the Greedy King and his Wife, with their great army.

The Greedy King was not concerned by the Prince's Dragon Steed, not his glittering breastplate and shining sword, nor by his magic boots, nor even by the thousands of Djinn who stood, screaming, behind him. He sat, complacent upon his magic throne, that was borne on a bier by ten huge slaves.

Now the Greedy King's wife was, after all, the Prince who was really a Princess's sister, so he didn't feel altogether right about just striking the Greedy King's head off with a single blow. So, as was the custom, they met alone between their two armies, and the Prince who was really a Princess bent close to the Greedy King, and whispered his secret in the Greedy King's ear.

Upon hearing the secret, the Greedy King looked again at the Dragon Horse, he looked again at the glittering breastplate and the magic boots, and the shining sword that cut the very air into blue fire, at the vast army of screaming Djinn, one of the King of Araby's Nine armies, and grew suddenly rather pale.

"Now," said the Prince, "I suggest you take your Magic Throne and your army, and you leave my Kingdom never to return, and in return I will tell noone the secret of your vulnerability."

The Greedy King made no reply, but instead departed at once for his own Kingdom, and indeed handed over several other Kingdoms to the Prince who was really a Princess, in the hope that no longer surrounded, the Prince would be more likely to keep his promise.

The young Queen and the Kindly Duke were at once summoned, and preparations were made for the Prince's coronation.

It was, of course, the expectation of every subject that the Prince would marry the rescued Princess, so the Prince, who was really a Princess, felt that it was only fair to reveal his secret to her, also. At first she was downcast, because even if they kept the secret, they could still never have an heir. But the Prince pointed out that this was really of little concern, since they had magical chains that could make any woman into a man, and a magical gown that could make any man into a woman, and all manner of other magical objects and trinkets besides, so they could do much as they wanted.

The Prince who was really a Princess was crowned King who is really a Queen, and he married the rescued Princess and they lived long and happy lives. And she bore him several sons and daughters, and in his turn, he bore her several sons and daughters, since it didn't much matter which of them wore the chains. And of their many sons, some were probably really daughters, and of their many daughters, some were probably really sons. It hardly really matters.

Continue reading

How to tell Good Fantasy from Bad Fantasy

A literary authority (to me)

My mum can't stand fantasy, because it isn't real. If you ask her about fantasy, she'll complain about magic spells and monsters and elves and hobbits and whatnot.

My mum is one of the smartest people I know. She has a PhD (​Petrarch et le Pétrarquisme avant le Pleiade if you're interested), and has read way more books than I have. She's tried all the great fantasy books, and read C S Lewis as a child - but thought of it as more of a fairytale.

So why would someone with such broad and well educated literary tastes detest fantasy? Is it because it's unreal, or doesn't try to be real? Is it because it's escapist or trivial?

Or is it because a lot of fantasy is bad fantasy?​

The Two Towers

There are two distinct fantasy paradigms, and any fantasy from high, through epic, to urban, naturalistic or magical realism, is based in one of the two. To a less prominent extent, most Science Fiction also fits into one of these two.

One is Fantasy as Agency, the other Fantasy as Environment

In Fantasy as Agency, fantastical elements are built into the plot. The most common form of this is of fantastical elements acting as a means to and end; it's necessary to acquire and master them to be able to complete the quest.

In Fantasy as Environment, fantastical elements are part of the landscape, part of the everyday activities of people going about their daily lives; to complete his quest, the hero will encounter both fantastical and non-fantastical obstacles. The object of the quest might be fantastical in nature, but the objective of the story is not.

Either of these can result in bad fantasy. But Fantasy as Agency is the most usual culprit, and in one, very specific, form.

We Need to Talk about Magic

​Seriously, folks, we do.

What is magic in stories? What is it for?​

I've written about magic before. Quite a lot actually, and to help with this post, I've posted a couple of chapters from my book, Edit Ready.​

You can read them now, if you like:

In most fantasy books, magic is a means of achieving goals that would otherwise be impossible, or provides a variety of alternative means to solve problems that would be unavailable in the real world, because... well let's face it: because physics.

Magic is also a source of problems, difficulties and obstacles that don't exist in the real world. However, usually, when magic creates a problem in a book, it's an analogy to some form of real world problem.

A Boy and his Magic

Subgenre "a boy and his dragon" is all about how a young boy, generally an outsider or a loner, probably with a poor relationship with his parents (or an orphan) who fits in badly with his peer group, befriends a young dragon and through their cooperation, comes of age. It's an oft-mocked archetype (I often mock it, at least) but it can be (and has been) done extremely well, and it's popular. It's also rather fun to edit, and an extremely good story to attempt if you are a first time writer.

There are always elements of wish-fulfillment in it; there's usually a scene where the dragon chases away some bullying kids. There's usually a scene where the dragon saves a remote homestead. There's almost always a scene where the dragon saves the village and the villagers gain a grudging respect for the boy, and a fearful, grudging acceptance of the dragon.

But because the dragon is a separate entity, the author has to work with the interaction and cooperation of two personalities, and this generally results in characters that are more accessible, and a story that is less likely to wallow in self-indulgence or go completely off the rails than it's BAD FANTASY counterpart, A Boy and his Magic.

This story starts with the same boy. But he either discovers a magical artifact, or makes a faustian pact, or discovers an old tome, or is apprenticed to an aging, embittered, alcoholic wizard, and turns out to be naturally gifted.

The story soon becomes about how the boy develops in, and masters his power, and then, well...

It's Payback Time

Okay, so not always. Sometimes the boy doesn't settle old scores. But usually he does. Sometimes he doesn't lord it over all those who used to look down on him. Actually, sometimes he just laughs up his sleeve at them.

What's wrong with this story, apart from how predictable and lazy and banal it is, is that the boy's mastery of magic becomes a means to an end, and that end... it's just power over the world. It's a childish fantasy of adulthood, that most of us know adulthood is nothing like.

And that's what BAD FANTASY does.

Bad fantasy offers fantastical solutions to real problems.

Click to Tweet

Whereas the boy and his dragon is about how a relationship with another person helps the boy to grow up, boy and his magic just hands the boy a really big stick, and he beats all the bad people with it, without growing up at all.

Science Fiction's Fear of Fictional Science

It's exactly the same with Science Fiction. Most of those people who say they don't like or never read science fiction (yes, this includes my mum), expect Science Fiction to propose imaginary technology to deal with real problems. Just ask. That's what most of them think Science Fiction is - being able to do stuff we can't do (yet) through made up or at best extrapolated sci-tech.

And that sort of SF does exist. It's called "Bad Science Fiction."

Good science fiction provides an alternate setting for real problems, or, best of all, imagines real people in situations that can't exist, and explores their reactions to it, in a realistic way.

(With an honorable mention to all the SF where real world solutions are sought by real people for problems caused by imagined or near-future sci-tech, especially where this involves ethics. Yes. SF is often about ethics. Who knew?)

In Some Enchanted Glade

... there sits Pan, cross-legged, the trills from his pipe flowing downstream in harmony with the babbling of the water. And the boy with the dragon is hand in hand with the boy with the magic, the dozing dragon coiled loosely around the grassy tump on which they sit. The dragon boy is trying, patiently, to explain how listening, and how kindness, and friendship, are the routes to adulthood, while the magic boy stares in wonder at how it is possible to be so calm, and so contented.

You see, fantasy stories are almost always allegories for the process of making sense of the adult world. If you hand someone fabulous godlike powers when their a kid, they don't grow up. And no matter how much success they achieve, no matter how much dominion they obtain, they never really come to understand other people, and never find happiness.

Give a child a dragon to tame, and the child will learn to interact with other people or die trying.

I put it to you that one of this year's American Presidential Candidates is Magic Boy, and the other is Dragon Boy. I'll... er... leave you to guess which is which, and most of all, which one has read the most good stories.

Continue reading

Chapter 26 – Magic Items

Chapter 26
Magic Items

About this chapter

From Edition 2016a
Shared August 2016

This is one of those chapters that convinces a lot of people that my book is all about editing fantasy. But the principle behind this chapter - that giving too much power to a character destroys the story - can apply to any genre, any type of story.

Chapter 26 – Magic Items


Read this even if you don't write fantasy, SF or spec. fic. What those genres do explicitly, other genres do figuratively — or vice versa, depending on how you look at it.

26.1 The risks and rewards of powerful artifacts

In role-playing games, magic items are coveted objects of artifice or divine origins which enable the possessor to wield great power of various types. Players will go on quests to obtain them, or be rewarded with them.

As such, in gaming, balancing magic items is all about ensuring that players do not get granted Fabulous Godlike Powers, but rather are given a small advantage over enemies who would otherwise be on par with them. The Gamesmaster has to judge quite carefully what magic items players will obtain and when.

Players will note that a really crafty Gamesmaster will sometimes throw in a magic item that has a downside. It could be as simple as a curse, as annoying as a geas, or maybe even that the magic item, while powerful is not especially useful, or while useful is not quite powerful enough.

In a story, the situation is different from in an RPG. In an RPG, the players have to use their imagination, ingenuity, knowledge of the game and luck to come up with solutions to tricky situations. In a novel, the reader is following or discovering the line of a story, and the author's duty is to provide reader satisfaction.

In a story a powerful magic item is useful as a McGuffin (everyone is chasing after it, but noone actually uses it), or as a Doomsday Device (the Big Bad has it and is fixing to use it). If a protagonist has it, however, reader satisfaction rapidly wanes.

A magic ring that makes you invisible but not silent is great as long as both of those features are worked into the story together. If such a ring later turns out slowly to enslave its user... I guess you know what I'm thinking of.

A magic ring that makes you undetectable and invulnerable is called a "ring of drama killing"

Click to Tweet

A magic ring that makes you completely undetectable and invulnerable to harm, however, soon becomes annoying. The reason is that it destroys Drama.

Drama can be hard to pin down, which is a good thing. When it is pinned down it often becomes banal and even irritating. This is what soap-operas (and long running US "drama" series) do. They create Drama using the simplest known formula: the characters do things that the audience knows that the characters should not do.

But suppose even in this debased and degraded drama, you give the main character a Ring of Absolute Blamelessness. All he has to do is slip it on, and the Universe reorganizes itself such that whatever happened was none of his doing. The Drama evaporates without so much as a puff of smoke.

Supposing your main character is a Thief who gets his hands on the aforementioned Ring of Undetectability and Invulnerability. Thievery is rather going to lose its excitement, not merely for the reader but also for the author and for the character!

All this can go awry in another way entirely; the way that leads to madness rather than boredom.

Supposing my Holy Warrior obtains the Sword of Ultimate Cleaving, that can cut through even the bonds of death itself. Unfortunately his enemy obtains the Shield of All Defense which is the only thing that can resist the Sword of Ultimate Cleaving, so our hero has to obtain the Amulet of Irresistible Piercing which enables him to get through any magical defense but his enemy gets his hands on the Helm of Amulet Immunity which etc, etc, etcetera.

Walk away quietly.

In a story you have a fine line to walk. A magic item must be essential, but at the same time it mustn't do more than give the character the smallest extra edge, and he must have his own skills and strength of character to back it up. Think of the spell imagined by PTerry which keeps you alive only as long as you don't think you're invulnerable. Think of the superpower of being able to turn invisible only if you are completely naked and everyone is looking the other way.

In a story, you see, magic is always a symbol. Usually it is a symbol for power and how it is obtained, but it can be many other things. As soon as a magic item transforms mild mannered Will the Goatherd into Super Billiam, it has become a cheap device for wish fulfilment and will do the worst thing that any device can do: make it too easy for the author.

When the story is too easy for you to write, you will write crap.

Click to Tweet

That's probably the most categorical you'll ever hear me be, because so far it is the only sure rule that I have found for good writing.

Continue reading

Chapter 25 – On Fantasy Worlds

Chapter 25
On Fantasy Worlds

About this chapter

From Edition 2016a
Shared August 2016

It's a stub - so if you want more sections about fantasy, comment on this page and I'll add them!

I added this chapter because I felt the following chapter on magic items needed some sort of lead-in.

Chapter 25 – On Fantasy Worlds


25.1 Conventions of Magic

Fantasy worlds contain magic, and magic is a strange force that responds to an intelligent will, in accordance with certain rules, to bring about alterations or other manifestations without other more mundane means. Magic is sometimes used to do things that are otherwise impossible (without it), or as an alternative to conventional means.

Describing magic being used is tough if you don't want to use conventions like wands, spells, whatnot; and if you do, it is all too easy to fall into familiar clichés. Terry Pratchett famously invented a color for magic (and a smell, and a taste in the air), giving him a familiar, personal and non-clichéd shortcut each time he used it.

Describing magic is tough. Spend some time thinking about it, and describing it to other people – e.g. your highly critical spouse who doesn't like fantasy.​

Continue reading