All posts by Harry Dewulf

The 21st Century Writer, Part II

Man, 2017 is already so last year.

Way, way back in the distant past of 2016 I told you all about the 21st Century Typewriter.

In that post, I recommended getting yourself a tablet​ with a bluetooth keyboard. It's pretty portable, and pretty flexible, but guess what? Unless you want to pay out the big bucks for an iPad, or you're crazy enough to want a Windows tablet, you can't have Scrivener, as there's no version of it for Android. This rules out most of the best value tablets on the market.

When I wrote my previous post, there was already an alternative but it was getting a somewhat lukewarm reception at the time. There are good reasons for this, that I need not go into. But, let me introduce you to:

The PC Stick

​You are looking at the Intel "Compute Stick." Released in mid 2015 it caused quite a stir among techies and the IT press and everyone had a lot of cool ideas for what to do with it. And a lot of people overworked the poor thing. It's very small, and it gets hot.

So there were quite a lot of unsatisfied customers who were disappointed that they couldn't play Call of Duty or stream UHDTV on it. If you have no idea what I just said, your the right person for this device. Why?

It's a Computer. You're a writer. You need one. To write on. To do a little light research. To keep up with your social media. All the stuff you do on a computer.

This Year, Somethin's Bound to Happen

There's a great article over on Digital Trends​ all about the new offerings in PC Sticks for 2017. You can read it if you want to, or you can just use it to follow the links and buy the device of your choice!

Let me unpack it for you, with a little help from Mike, as usual. Right now, chances are, your computing experience looks like this:

​Mike on his laptop, poor lamb. But I hope you aren't sitting at a desk with a massive, whirring humming thing under, on or behind it somewhere. At least if you have a desktop let it be an all-in-one like the HP 22 b050 (below).

Hint: the computer is built into the screen. It's kinda nifty. But not very portable.

To have a 21st Century Portable Typewriter, using a PC stick, here's what you need:

  1. A PC Stick: from $100
  2. A portable monitor: from about $250
  3. A bluetooth mouse & keyboard: from about $40

​So this is a tiny, lightweight portable computing solution for less than $400.

What Little you Have to Know to Get Started

PC Sticks Choice

​Have a look at the article on Digital Trends (linked above). Basically in PC Sticks it's the same rules as with all computing:

  • The smaller you want it, the more it costs
  • The faster you want it, the more it costs
  • The more you pay, the better quality it is
  • Some brands cost a little more just for the badge (but some of them are worth the extra)

But my ONE RULE of computing for authors applies very soundly here:

You don't need much.​

Portable Monitor Choice

Your portable monitor must have an HDMI port. They are available in various sizes, and you can even get a touch screen portable monitor if you want to spend even more money. The GeChic 2501C is pretty practical (below).

Mouse & Keyboard Choice

Go straight for Bluetooth. Most PC sticks have only one USB port and you can't be clogging that up with the dongle of your wireless keyboard.

You have two choices - if you expect to be working on a flat surface most of the time, a Bluetooth keyboard and separate Bluetooth mouse​ are a good choice. For more portability, choose a Bluetooth keyboard with a built-in trackpad.

What's wrong with a laptop?

People do sometimes ask me this. It's about the science of ergonomics, and the art of comfort.

Posture and vision specialists tell us that the screen should be level with the eyes - your eyes should be at a height somewhere above the middle of the screen. The keyboard should be on a flat surface, and itself as flat as is comfortable for you. If (like me) you learned to touch type on a mechanical typewriter) you might want to be able to rake (tilt or incline) your keyboard a little​. These little but necessary adjustments are not possible on a laptop, and working for long periods on a laptop is difficult and uncomfortable for many, many people.

A portable monitor can be mounted on a tablet stand or a tablet arm when at home, and propped up or stood on its built-in stand when out and about. But bear in mind the PC Stick can be plugged into any screen with an HDMI port, including televisions.​ So you can PUT SCRIVENER ON YOUR 50" TV and type on your sofa.

I Even Hear Tell...

... of some retailers who have already seen the potential in this set-up and are offering bundles. 

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2 New Books! One available now!

I, Smith

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook you might already be aware that a book I co-wrote has just been released.

I, Smith is a sort of multiple pile up of comedy influences, from Ealing Comedy, through the Goons, the Pink Panther, Tom Sharpe, the Young Ones, and an unhealthy does of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue.​

It was originally written 25 years ago as a collaboration between me and my best friend, David Mitchell. (David has gone on to become a bit of a mainstay of UK television and radio, in particular on "panel shows."​ I'm vaguely conscious that a significant proportion of the people who read my blog are not British... and I suspect for the non British this book will be rather like an anthropological expedition rather than light entertainment.)

A few years ago the original manuscript—printed on dot-matrix fanfold​—resurfaced in my attic and I convinced Ray Fripp to help me make it into an actual book. I'm still waiting for him to forgive me.

Anyway, if you like a lot of silliness, and don't have the kind of exacting standards of storytelling you'd expect of your editor, you might quite enjoy ​reading it.

Who Owns Your Story?​

If you've been looking at my Youtube channel lately, you might have noticed that I'm talking a lot about fables - and telling them.​ This is not for nothing. I'm setting up a new project, and part of it is my new book (as opposed to I, Smith which is very definitely an old book). Who Owns Your Story? is both a collection of fables, and a fable in itself. But if you've seen my Youtube ep. on the subject, you'll know that doesn't mean it has a simple moral.

Instead, my book raises some complex but important questions about not only the role of stories and storytellers in our culture, but about what stories mean to everyone. Part of that is why ​you, as a writer, matter. And part of it is about how stories matter to everyone.

Who Owns Your Story? Will be available to buy early next month.​ If you want a reminder on launch day, enter your email address at the bottom of this page.

(The gorgeous picture, for the cover of my new book, is by my friend Heidi Love. She's available for designs and illustrations. Contact me if you want to know more.)​

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The Story Spell

Railing at the Sky:

Why isn't the World the way I think it should be?

Magical Thinking

I read a piece on childrearing recently that defined the "ages of magical thinking" as being from 0 to somewhere between 6 years and 8 years old.

This kind of magical thinking is characterized by the belief that things 'just are.' Food, warmth, comfort, appear as if from nowhere. Very young children have no conception of things coming from anywhere, but soon begin to associate communications with consequences.

"I cry, I am fed."

Magical Thinking is the belief that the crying is the cause of the feeding.

We encourage this sort of thinking in younger children because doing so encourages clear communication. I constantly asked both my children 'how do you ask nicely?' so that they would frame their demands as requests, but also so that they would make their requests clearly.

In "magical" cause and effect, the child (we are told) believes that making a demand "conjures" something from nothing. At some point (the developmental psychologist tells us), this is overtaken by the growing perception that there are more complex processes at work. That something cannot come from nothing; that the refrigerator isn't a cornucopia: once a week, someone refills it. 

Magic is Sophisticated

​Personally I think this idea that the child thinks something is conjured from nothing is overcomplicated. Magic is metaphysical; sophisticated. I don't think babies care about anything being conjured. I don't thing they think about anything further than cause and effect.

That's the reason toddlers start casting spells.

Parents the world over, to varying degrees and using various protocols, try to teach their children to communicate politely. Politeness is a cultural construct that has endured because it works. Although it has acquired a baggage of connotations of class, education, nationality, underneath, politeness is about clarity of communication. By formalizing the exchange of request and assent, it gives all parties time to consider and understand the nature of the request and the consequences of assenting. Politeness makes communication easier; less stressful. So we teach it.

The first thing children learn about politeness? Because of the way we teach it, they learn that if they find the correct form of words, they will get what they want.

That is indistinguishable from a magic spell.

The Game of Consequences​

From the age when children start forming their own sentences, we start teaching them about consequences.​

Consequences are a step beyond casting a spell with politeness. The politeness spell may have one of two outcomes. If I ask nicely for a second helping of desert, either I will get a second helping, or I will not.

But some situations have unknown outcomes, or worse, probabilistic outcomes, or even worse than that, far future outcomes.

Unknown outcomes occur as soon as you ask a stranger a question; step outside the protocols of your immediate family and things might not operate in the same way. Ask mummy for a chocolate at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way, and she will give you one. Ask the woman at the store to give you a chocolate, and she may not reply to you ​at all. Instead she asks your mummy, "is it all right to give him a chocolate?"

Probabilistic outcomes can be harmless; the sky is full of dark clouds. It might rain. But it might not. Probabilistic outcomes can be harmful; run out suddenly into the road and you might be struck by a moving vehicle. But there might be no vehicle.

​Far future outcomes are first encountered with things like diet and hygiene: "brush your teeth or they'll all fall out... eventually."

​The game of consequences is all about guessing a future outcome when the result isn't a simple binary yes/no.

The game of consequences is taught by storytelling.

if ... then ... else

​I'm a story hunter. I hunt stories. I've found loads of them. I find them everywhere. Whole goddam world is lousy with stories.

The most basic cautionary advice for avoiding dangers is an if/then/else statement that is the template for most stories.

If you are walking along the road then don't suddenly run across to the other side else the driver of a vehicle might not be able to stop in time and squash you flat.​

This is a story.​

Sophistication = Complexity

As we get older, the stories become more complex, and to play the game of consequences we have to combine different stories with our experiences in order to try to guess the possible outcomes of completely new situations. New to us, and even new to the world.​

That's why we need, desire, and consume fiction. It's practice. It's learning. And we repurpose stories constantly in order to find out the consequences of highly complex situations. That's sophisticated thinking.

But it's still magical, sometimes.

Can Stories Remake the World?

​Sometimes, in philosophical, moral or ethical discussions, I catch myself describing the world as if it were the way I think it ought to be. Here's a couple of examples:

  • People are getting less and less racist.​
  • The younger generation is much less concerned about gender and sexuality

Those statements sound like observations, and there is certainly some truth in them. They also don't sound much like a toddler's magic spell. But they are a description of the world the way I would like it to be. And I believe that by spreading stories about the way the world should, you influence it to become that way. If nothing else than by reassuring people who think that way already that it's okay to think that way, and that it's okay to talk about it.

The Hidden Power of Stories​

It's the hidden power of stories, which is routinely harnessed to manipulate you in anything from political propaganda to the feudal structure of the workplace to advertizing, to press scaremongering and sensationalism.

That hidden power can also be harnessed to do good in the world.

The more stories you tell about the world the way it ought to be, the easier, less anxious, less stressful it will become for people to change it.

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Chapter 24 – Geography

Chapter 24

About this chapter

From Edition 2016a
Shared December 2016

Yet another chapter that you could be forgiven for thinking was all about Fantasy. But lots of books have landscape in them. Lots of stories have many locations. This chapter is just about how you get the relative positions of your locations into the readers *cough* mental map.

Chapter 24 – Geography

24.1 Placing the Action in the Landscape

Whether you are creating your own fantasy world, or leading the reader through part of the real world that the reader might not know well, or even at all, keeping the geography present is both troublesome and full of pitfalls.

Many writers will be tempted to begin with lengthy descriptions of the world, or the general area where the action takes place. An omniscient narrator’s voice can get away with this, and it is often worthwhile.

If you use strong points of view, you can’t do this. And you have to be really subtle if you want to sneak the exposition into dialog or internal monolog.

Dark Lord Bob knew that his territory stretched from the Divine River in the north to the Stinking Bogs of the south.

This is clumsy and obvious. Don’t even go there.

Many writers will be tempted to include a map. Opinions differ as to whether this is a good idea. “Opinions differ” is a polite way of saying that this is a significant source of flamewars. If the writer wants to develop his skill, he should not draw a map. Tolkien has maps because his world was originally a thought experiment in the development of imaginary languages. No, really, it was. Many readers will take pleasure in pondering over a map, but only once they have read the story. Others will take pleasure pondering over a map whether they have read the story or not. Others will decide that the book is not for them, merely on the basis of the presence of the map.


Because it tells them that they have yet another fantasy world to learn.​

Here’s the thing: having no map will only discourage readers who read your book and are confused over the geography as a result. Having a map, and having readers confused over the geography unless they consult the map regularly is just as much a failure of storytelling.

A good fantasy world is accessible without a map.

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But a beautiful and simple map can enhance the pleasure for readers. If it is there as an aid, it is proof that you need to re-work your geography.

24.2 Approaches to Geography

​24.2.1 Modular

Use this in multi-book series. Each book introduces a new part of the map, and maybe uses a familiar place in a previous book as a startpoint or anchor. Limit the action to as small an area of your world as you can in each book. This way you can gradually build up the world. This is especially valid in fantasy, SF and fairytale/historical settings. Each book can then apply any of the methods suggested below.

​24.2.2 Make the geography irrelevant

This works well in fairytales, and fantasy where questin’ is involved. You can do it by keeping the journey on a single line; A to Z via each letter in the alphabet in the proper order. In general, this is good advice for storytelling. If a character has to go back for something, or off on a tangent (whose consequences do not affect future events), then the storyteller has made an error. This is as true in a kitchen-sink drama as it is in retro Sci-Fi.

Locations that are big and vague are good, too. The Dark Forest and the Haunted Mall are both places you can wander without a map or any need for one (unless that’s the point, in which case it's still the characters, not the reader, who need a map).

​24.2.3 Radiate from a central point

Lots of writers use this without thinking about it. It is very sensible. It can be as simple as your character’s home, or his home town. It can be a device, like the Hell Mouth in Sunnydale. Either way, the action always starts and ends there - and movement radiates from there. This way, readers won’t even bother to try to place other locations relative to eachother. They only matter relative to the home location.

​24.2.4 Be a hardcore Storyteller

If some of this looks like cheating, then you can, if you really want, go for developing your storytelling mojo. No maps, no tricks. This ties in slightly with my belief that real storytellers are always omniscient narrators.

I'll say that again, just in case you think I don't mean it.

Real storytellers are always omniscient narrators.

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You have to know the geography of your setting better than you know your own home. You have to be able to go for walks there, overfly it, undermine it. You should be able to look in any direction from any location and describe in detail what you see.

The more detailed and accurate your knowledge of your setting, the less you will need to describe and explain it to the reader. The internal consistency of each of the instances where you make reference to the locations will gradually build up a picture of the geography with only as much information and detail as each reader wants.

Doing this takes time, effort and (most of all) retelling. If you don’t retell, you won’t learn enough about your own creation to be able to narrate it.

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The 21st Century Writer – Hardware for Authors in 2016 and 2017

In my previous post, I talked about wearable technology, and the way that, for communications at least, the day is not far off when you won't need to wear or carry your 'phone around with you - but you won't need an implant or circuitry embedded under your skin either - you can be completely naked and still access your contacts, make a call, and all with nothing more than voice and gestures.

. . .

​And I've had some feedback on that post that suggested I may have been getting just a little ahead of myself - or at the very least, ahead of you.

In that previous post I did a series of scribbles showing Mike, my stick-figure-guy, interacting with various computer technologies, and from what I hear, an awful lot of authors' equipment rather resembles this one:

In my picture, Mike is supposed to look really excited because it's the early 1980s. A lot of authors are still typing on desktop computers, though I'm reassured to learn that many have flat, LED screens now, and some even have them mounted on a posable mount arm!

Increasing numbers of authors are also writing on laptops... which speaking as an ex-IT consultant, I have to tell you is very bad, long term. If you're writing, you need to touch type, and you need to keep your head reasonably level. Laptops discourage both. You learn to touch-type much more slowly because you can see the keyboard and screen at the same time. You do your neck (and it is suggested, your eyesight) long term harm, too.

All sorts of interesting interim solutions have been devised for this. I used to have my laptop on a book stand, with a USB keyboard connected to it.

So what next?

Technology is moving on really fast.

My dual mantra, "you will have to learn, you will have to search" is especially true here. But I can tell you where this is going - I can give you a few pointers, that will be especially useful to authors, in particular those who are still hammering away at the keyboard of a desktop computer.

If you aren't still chained to that ageing desktop, chances are that in recent years the number of different devices you own has started to multiply...

...and if you're busy working on both your pillars, then you also spend a fair amount of time online - working on your marketing, your social media, your advertizing, your networking, and so on.

Running your own business - which, if you are a writer, is what you do - requires you to be connected whenever you need to be, which means you need a device that's both portable and powerful, so you probably have a pretty good smartphone. And for the time being, you're going to continue to need one. If you already have one you can skip straight to device #2.

Device #1: Smartphone

It is conceivable that you don't already have a smartphone. If you don't you will have to find out what it is. And you will have to get it set up to do the following:

  • Have a data connection - 3g/4g when out and about, wifi when at home
  • Connect to your most frequently used social media - Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Pinterest, etc
  • Send and receive email
  • Browse the internet

Any specific advice I give you about Smartphone makes and models will be out of date in a few months, however one thing is unlikely to change soon, which is that there are three main "flavors" of Smartphone:

  • iPhone - if you have to have everything Apple
  • Android - if you don't fee the need for an iPhone
  • Windows phone - if you're a glutton for punishment

You will have to learn, and you will have to search, but with the information I've given you, you can get started.

Device #2: The 21st Century Typewriter

The way that the technology is going, if you're an author, and most of your screen time is going to be spent either writing your book or doing your promotion, marketing or communications, I strongly advise against getting a computer.

Neither desktop nor laptop should ye have. The modern writer should be equipped with (drumroll):

A tablet and a Bluetooth keyboard.

Most tablets are already more powerful than any personal computer was 10 years ago.

So they combine outstanding computing power with portability. Picture quality is better than the screen you're reading this on. Anything you can do on your computer, you can do on a tablet.​ Screen size is only a small concern, because for the good of your eyesight, what matters is the quality of the picture.

Of course, you'll want the screen at a healthy height for your eyes, and if you search for, and learn about tablet mounts​, you will be able to achieve this.

Tablets also come in 3 flavors, just like Smartphones. The only difference is that Microsoft's tablets are actually pretty good - but if you have an iPhone you'll want an iPad (Apple's tablet), and if you have an Android phone you'll want an Android tablet (there is a huge choice of these from many manufacturers. The best ones are made by the same people who made your smartphone - whoever that is.)

The keyboard in the picture is Microsoft's Universal Folding Keyboard. Even if you touch type it only takes a few days to get used to the small gap in the middle; it's slim, light, very portable, and can be used with all flavors of device. Other Bluetooth keyboards are available. Many, many others.

​This happy family may now be set up anywhere temporarily using a small foldaway tablet stand, or clipped onto that tablet mount when you're in your writing nook.

And because you'll now be storing all your manuscripts and notes "in the cloud" (you will have to learn, you will have to search)​, all your work will always be accessible to you wherever you go, and you'll never have to worry about breakdowns or loss or theft, because whether you store in the iCloud (Apple), on Google Drive (Google/Android) or Onedrive (Microsoft) or a third party like Dropbox, they will do all the backing up for you.

The Near Future

... is what I'm trying to show you; if you're thinking of getting a new computer right now, then what I've been talking about is exactly what you should be looking for, and you should not wait.

The portable typewriter allowed authors to take their work anywhere. Those days have at last returned.

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The Future of Wearable Tech… and of all personal computing

From the first time I "unlocked" my new 'phone, I could see that a change that I had long expected in personal tech was starting to take place.

The image is the sony xperia compact z5 - the cell phone I use. To unlock it, you touch the power button. There is a fingerprint reader in the power button.

The change I'm referring to is passive authentification.​

Passive Authentification

Passive authentification is when instead of your having to enter codes or passwords, the tech identifies you. You probably already have it on your laptop computer: when you switch on, the face in front of the webcam is compared with a stored image of your face, and your account/session can be started automatically.

The technology identifies you automatically, so you don't have to.

This terrifies people - but it doesn't have to.​

It has the advantage that once technology can identify you reliably, you don't have to memorize codes or passwords or carry tokens around with you.

You are your password - literally.

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Literally; technology looks at you, scans you, touches you, smells you, hears you. And uses all of this to be sure that you are you.​

Shell Technology

Another promise that failed to be delivered long, long ago now, was the revolution promised by Java - that it would no longer matter what hardware we used. Your computer would be stored on the internet somewhere, and all you had to do was identify yourself to the technology, and your computer would be there in front of you.

This is shell technology. A screen, a keyboard, a webcam, that aren't part of a single computer, but become the interfaces for whatever computer you need to use them through.

Personal Computer?

Now that everyone has (or seems to have) a smartphone, everyone has a hugely powerful computer in their pocket (if it's small enough to fit in a pocket). If you want proof that shell technology is becoming a reality you only have to look at the Superbook.

The Superbook looks like a laptop computer, but it's just a keyboard, a screen, a battery and some connectivity electronics. You connect your smartphone to it. The smartphone provides the computing power, the Superbook provides the interface.

Mobile Devices Evolution

"Mike" my stick-figure-guy (as opposed to my artist galihwindu's awesome stick figures) is shown here in a mainframe computer. As it turns out, I can just about manage a clipboard but it's very difficult to do a stick-figure labcoat.

In the beginning, a computer was installed in a special room, and did literally thousands of calculations a second. A computer was a place you went to get a job done that previously might have needed hundreds of people (whose jobtitle, incidentally, was either clerk, calculator or computer!)

Mike looks excited (I hope) because he's got his first personal computer, so it's probably around 1982. The first ones were commercialized in the late 1970s but they were for specialists. The tipping point for use of personal computers for work was the invention of the computerized spreadsheet, around 1983, and everyone started using it when Microsoft Excel for Windows was released, in 1987.

At this stage, a computer came in several boxes and there were all sorts of cables to connect, and you had to understand things like config.sys, autoexec.bat and system.ini - by which I mean you literally had to understand what the configuration information in those files meant. It was like the wild west, man.

The laptop computer is named for a way of using it to which it is singularly unsuited. However it was the first serious attempt at a portable computer, and the laptop was, for more than a decade, the most portable form of multi-purpose microcomputer available.

Mobile telephony has gone through its own evolutions, at the same time. A lot of people think the cell-phone is so called because 'cell' is another word for 'battery.' It isn't, but I'll leave you to dive down that rabbit hole in your own time.

I'm reminding Mike of his first "brickphone", his first flip-phone, his ridiculous "phablet" and his "smart watch".

You remember I said that a mainframe computer, that filled up often an entire floor of an office building, could do thousands of calculations a second?

Your smartphone can do billions of calculations a second. Think about that for a second. It's more than a million times more powerful than a computer that fifty years ago, could only be bought by governments and large corporations.

Games consoles?

The Microsoft Kinect is a device that enables you to control a game with your console without needing a control device. You don't have a mouse or a keyboard or a joystick or joypad.

The Kinect watches you, and you use gestures to control the console, making selections in menus or playing games.

It's important to understand that this technology exists, and understand how it's used, so if you want a demo:

Aside from the truly awful music, this is a good illustration of it's use.

The Smart Home?

You may have already heard of the "internet of things" and the "smart home" - all sorts of electronic devices are increasingly connected to the internet. You might not be surprised to learn that the latest printers from HP all use your internet connection to update their own software automatically, so you no longer get pestered by messages asking you to "download and install the latest firmware".

For a printer that seems pretty normal. But there are already other household devices that are run by their own software (usually called 'firmware' for unimportant reasons). There's no reason why you shouldn't see, in the near future, a message on the front of your washing-machine asking you to wait 10 seconds while it downloads an update to ensure it has a suitable wash cycle for the new pants you ARE WEARING.

Whatever Next?

All these things are leading somewhere very specific.

Right now, technology seems ubiquitous to the point of intrusive. But soon, it'll be discreet to the point of invisible.

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Here's Mike in the near future, with all the tech he ever needs to carry about with him:

I'm going to try to paint you a picture of a few basic things that you do now, and what they're going to look like in a few short years' time.

Making a phone call

If Mike's at home, all he needs to do is say, aloud, "I'd like to make a call."

Whatever room he's in will have a discreet flat screen which most of the time is probably matching the patterned wallpaper of his living area. It displays his list of most recent contacts, but all he has to do to place the call is say "call Alice and Bob."

A 3 way call is set up automatically. Alice and Bob's faces appear on the screen, and they start chatting. Mike decides to fix himself a cup of coffee, so he heads into the kitchen. The screen in the living area goes back to patterned wallpaper and the screen in the kitchen comes on, so he can continue the call unbroken.

If he's out and about, he might need to take a small, portable screen/camera/microphone with him as I don't think being followed everywhere by a phonedrone will be practical once everyone wants one! Implanted microphones and speakers are probably a little further in the future, right now. But the portable device he's carrying isn't a phone, it's a shell. It has a device that recognizes him, and downloads his preferences into it. It gets his contact list from the web - no need to store anything locally. Mike probably doesn't even own the device. If he's in the city he can probably pick one up at the coffee stand and leave it (at the end of the call) in a bus depot.

Watching TV

Netflix and the like are already transforming the scheduling experience, which is nice. And with TVs now able to connect to the web, you can already see how a TV is becoming a shell technology. It's just another screen; the sound just another sound. And if you have screens and speakers everywhere in the house?

Mike is binge-watching Game of Thrones series 22. Partway through he gets up to make himself a meal, so the show transfers to the kitchen screen. He decides to eat his meal on the deck, so the screen out on the deck rises up from between the begonias and the one in the kitchen switches back off.

Writing your Magnum Opus

Mike heads into his writing nook and sits in his office-chair. The screen comes on automatically, and he says "picking up where we left off."

Mike is old enough to have learned to touch-type and has never got into the habit of dictating, even though he knows it works extremely well now. So he rests his hands on the blank wooden desk in front of him, and a keyboard is laser projected under his fingers.

He begins to type, fingertips tapping lightly on the teak veneer.

When he has a correction to make, he makes a few gestures in the empty air, and a word moves to a different spot in the sentence.

Later on, he's back in the kitchen and he has an awesome idea for the next paragraph. He sits at the counter, puts his hands in front of him, and says "picking up where we left off." The screen on the wall opposite him lights up, and the keys appear under his fingers...

So in the near future... won't need a mobile device, because all the devices you need will be around you, but visible only when you need them won't need usernames and passwords because technology will recognize you the same way other people do. won't need to store anything "locally" - everything will be "on the cloud" in distributed storage (stored in multiple copies in multiple locations) so the only way you'll ever lose a manuscript is if civilization itself comes to an end.​

Good or Bad?

I can't say. What I can say is that looking back on the last 40 years of evolution in technology, in society and in world culture, that there is one thing of which you can be certain: 

Things change, and will keep changing.​

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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. ​

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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.

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​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.

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​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.

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​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.

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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."

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"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.

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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.

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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.

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