Sometime late last year I realised that while I like writing in the genre of crime and mystery, I haven’t read much modern crime, my reading in this had mostly been Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. The rest had all been derivative genres, such as steampunk crime, urban fantasy detective noir etc. So, to expand my familiarity with the genre I put some requests in for Christmas.

One of those was Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. I’ve seen some of Christie’s plays, most memorably The Mousetrap, which I very much enjoyed, but I had never read any of her books. I quite enjoyed her style in the book, her voice was instantly apparent and consistent. However, the story fell down for me by being a little too obvious in places; in other places clues would only be apparent to the reader familiar with children’s toys of the 1930’s. Overall, it was a quick, easy to read and fun, but I doubt I’ll be reading many more.

The next were’s Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus books. For some reason my mother gifted me with books 13 and 14, Resurrection Men and A Question of Blood, which worried me; I didn’t want to get bogged down in 15 years worth of backstory. However, I needn’t have worried. In fact the thing I thought was most accomplished in these two books was that the books stood exceptionally well on their own. Resurrection Men worked as a completely independent work and was very good for it. Furthermore, reading A Question of Blood didn’t mean covering a lot of history all over again. The background and personalities of the characters is shown, rather than spelled out in exposition. Not an easy task to accomplish and Rankin executed it excellently.

Also, the mystery was a unfolded in a very good balance of continual revelation and early foreshadowing. The best mysteries are ones where the reader is not light-years behind or ahead of the protagonists. Both frustrate the reader, by either making them feel stupid, or by coming to the conclusion that protagonist is an idiot.

I’d like to read more Rebus novels, but I think my next experimentation in crime fiction should be Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series.

I’ve been having another look at various tools available for making scriptwriting for comics easier. My requirements are somewhat unusual in that I use multiple machines, depending on where I am. If I’m out and about I tend to use my netbook which runs Ubuntu. I have a work laptop (Windows XP) and a home PC (Vista). File transfer between them is facilitated by the excellent Dropbox.

Many people don’t use scriptwriting software of any kind, preferring to use a word processor or even a text editor. But, having tried several, there are obvious benefits:

  • Doing all your formatting for you – When you press enter after a scene heading, the format changes to Action, followed by Character followed by dialogue etc. Rarely is manual intervention necessary, meaning more time is spent writing and less time is spent fiddling with formatting
  • Short cuts – Most scriptwriting software will track the characters you’re using, so that when you begin to type their name again it defaults the rest in. Again, more time spent writing.
  • As each section is properly headed with auto-numbered page and panel, moving things around and finding your position is quick and easy. Most will also have outlining features.

 

All these factors are important to me, but additionally I require:

  • Works on Windows and Ubuntu (Linux)
  • Exports into formats that other people can read without making them install extra software
  • Outlining

 

Here are my findings:

  • Final Draft 8 – An awesome piece of software; amazing for film and comic scripts, excellent file export options. Perfect, apart from the fact that it doesn’t run on Ubuntu, even under WINE. While the software installs it’s the final step, the entry of the license code, that doesn’t work, making this a mere demo. Unless I put Windows back on my netbook, which I’m not sure I want to do
  • Scrivener for Windows (Beta) – This is still in beta version but would fulfil my export and multi-platform requirements. However the comic script template is currently somewhat flaky, with no auto-numbering. Maybe when this will be better when it’s out of beta, but for now it remains an excellent novel writing tool instead
  • Celtx – This is free open source software and multi-platform. However, other than some flakiness on the formatting, the real downside here is export. A film script can be exported as text or HTML, but a comic script can only be exported as HTML. The only file format they support natively is their own .celtx format and currently there are no plans to change this. When I asked their community about it, I was told to make other people to install CeltX or to stop whining. Instead, I stopped using CeltX
  • Adobe Story – Free software, built in Air so it’s multi-platform. This is very good indeed, especially for free. However, it’s is meant to integrate with Adobe Premiere, so it’s film script oriented. There is no comic script option. However, as it’s quite a good all-rounder, I’m giving it a go using Scene Numbering. It does, however, have no real outlining features
  • LibreOffice Writer – Or any other word processor for that matter. It would mean creating a custom template, but it could end up being less stressful than trying to make the other software work how I want.

 

Update

Scrivener still has no auto-numbering or defaulting of character names, but its outlining and auto-complete are pretty good, as well as its handling of different document types, so this is what I’ll use for now.

 

Update 2

Antony Jonston has written a description of how he uses Scrivener to write comics.

There’s something joyous about completing the first draft of a major piece of work; in this case my radio play Judicial Algorithms which I wrote for the OU. The first draft was written through straight without giving in to my usual temptation to edit as I go. So right now it’s a bit like Schroedinger’s Script; it could be awesome or it could be atrocious. But right now I’m just happy that exists at all.

Tomorrow comes the next phase: editing the first draft and all the self-doubt that comes with it, while I try to make something decent out of it and iron out the inevitable inconsistencies. Time will tell whether I’ll be tweaking something that’s not too bad or whether I’m polishing a turd.

I was never particularly enamoured with the idea of getting a Kindle or similar ebook reader; I saw it as an expensive toy that would force me to re-buy books and, unlike the iPad, couldn’t even display comic books. I held onto this belief firmly until I was recently stuck in a hotel room in the outskirts of Milan with nothing to read. I had brought a book with me, of course, but I finished it earlier than anticipated and I was from then on bereft of prose. Had I a Kindle I would have been able to tap into the hotel wifi and pick up a new book, either free from the Gutenberg Project or something from Amazon’s ebook store; even PDF format books published under a Creative Commons license that I could have uploaded. But I had none of these and it pained me.

I realise though that, being an electronic device, I’d still have to put my book away on the flight during take-off and landing, an irritation that a paper novel doesn’t suffer from. And finally, I have an open question regarding regional licensing. All media is licensed for a region, and rights in one region do not necessarily transfer.

An example of this was when, upon learning that I had nothing to read, I logged into my LoveFilm account. I pay to have a certain number of streaming films every month, which means not having to wait until the physical disc arrives. However, I learnt that LoveFilm’s license to stream movies was only valid within the UK. Even though I was a UK resident and paid my bill in the uk, the fact that I was physically located in Italy meant they couldn’t give me access to my movies. I hope the Kindle doesn’t have this restriction, I haven’t tried looking into it yet, but I would certainly find this irritating.

I haven’t bought a Kindle, and there’s a chance I never will. But I am certainly less opposed to it than I used to be.

I’ve not been able to do much writing at all over the last week or two, work was successfully pummelling me into submission. The next week or two is likely to be similar, but I managed to snatch a window of time on Sunday to have a go at Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge: The Three Sentence Story. These are what I came up with:

 

Amelia’s parents chose her name to represent passion and individuality. She grew up as they hoped, strong, independent and headstrong. So much so that she resented the imposition of someone else’s moniker and changed her name to Doris.

 
Jeff felt physically sick at the thought of eating the meal his girlfriend had cooked for him. No amount of marinading and preparation could disguise the fact that she had served him lamb. It always reminded him of the time a sheep had touched him inappropriately as a child.

 
The wall around the city served both to keep the residents inside and the rest of the world without. The wall-builders had not thought, though, to build a roof over the prison. The inmates flew free and proud like Icarus.

 
I eyed up the magnificent woman before me dressed in the floor length dress. She clearly resented the imposition of my gaze and what it meant. But I knew the dress concealed her insectile limbs.

 

After some recent unexpected bad writing news, which I’ll detail at a later point, I submitted a pitch for a story I’ve written to a small number of periodicals of genre fiction. Last night one of those got accepted. It’s no guarantee that they’ll accept the story itself, but it’s an important first step. Doubly so as it’s a paying gig, which would be a grand psychological victory.

My goal today is to polish the story a bit before submitting it, whilst crossing fingers, toes and tentacles.

Since I am writing comics, I may as well add reviews of the comics I’m reading and re-reading here. Originally I wasn’t going to, worrying that it might come across somehow as less literary, less serious. Those fears, that the reading and writing of sequential art, that’s comics to you and me, might be seen as childish and frivolous, are a matter deserving of a fuller post.

Today, instead, I want to talk about Andy Diggle‘s Hellblazer: Roots of Coincidence graphic novel. The Hellblazer series has a long and respected history in comics, mature storylines of horror, fantasy, mystery and urban grit, and it’s protagonist, John Constantine the sardonic English street mage. Andy Diggle does a good job, as he so often does, writing the character and the setting and ‘The Roots of Coincidence’ finishes off along-running story arc. Sadly, that it also my issue with the book. Diggle is very good at writing the longer arc and has written some brain-bending short tales within that longer narrative; what I have issue with is the packaging in the graphic novel format, which is outside of the control of the writer.

The story that the graphic novel completes tells of the Laughing Magician, who he is, what he means, whether or not he and Constantine are one and the same, etc. This is all fine, but the story is split into several graphic novels. Each one will contain 4-5 individual monthly comic issues, two of which are often an adjunct to the storyline while the rest is part of the main narrative. This is frustrating and I would have preferred a collection of either the main story only, or the full story. ‘The Roots of Coincidence’ contains Hellblazer issues 243-244 and 247-249, resulting in about 112 pages of story. I know why the publisher does this, making readers buy many individual books increases revenue in a declining market, though sometimes I do wonder if it’s declining due to little things like this.

Again, to reiterate, I liked the story and  think Andy Diggle writes a difficult character well. The overall story arc is good, but reading it piecemeal in thin graphic novels is a shame and doesn’t do justice to the well-plotted story.

I’d apologise, but I doubt it will be long before something else changes, though I’m much happier now with the readability of the text. This is supposed to be all about the words, after all. I’m not too enamoured with the menu at the bottom of the page and the banner image needs some work. But overall, it will do for now.

So that this update isn’t all dull near-apologies about the colours changing, I wanted to touch briefly on why I finally caved in and started a site using my real name, rather than the pseudo-anonymity of an alias. The short answer is that it’s the same reason that I removed the word “aspiring” that used to prefix the word “writer” on my Twitter bio. I decided to take the writing seriously and just because I’m not published or don’t have an agent or whatnot, doesn’t  detract from the fact that I am writing every day. As J.C Hutchins writes, you’re either writing, or you’re aspiring to some day write. If you are writing, whether for fun or profit, you are not aspiring, you are a writer.

The other reason was that I realised that anonymity on the internet doesn’t mean much these days. It’s either paper-thin and hence redundant, or it is so impenetrable that it actually gets in the way of readers interacting with you. As I said above, I’m taking the writing seriously and I want this to happen under my real name.

I do still have an employer who pays me wages for things that have nothing to do with writing at all, but my extra-curricular activities don’t detract from my job and, as it says in my disclaimer, “the opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent anyone else’s view in any way, including those of my employer.”

I am a world-class procrastinator. If procrastinating were an Olympic discipline, I’d probably be doing something else that day. The way I keep myself writing, other than snatching time from the jaws of a full-time job, is to procrastinate writing by doing other writing. It’s okay to cheat on my radio play for the OU, if I’m doing some work for Broken Gears or Secret Comic Script B (formerly known as Secret Comic Pitch B). I have to keep doing this as I found out the hard way that writing is a lot easier if you do it every day. Once the breaks stretch into days, even weeks, then getting back into it is nigh-on impossible.

The context of all of this? This morning I wrote the first sentence of the novel that I’ll start writing in May after the OU is done with me. Happy days.

Sometimes writing is really hard work. I don’t mean that in the sense that learning the craft and finding the inspiration is tricky. What I mean is that sometimes writing is like constipation, where I’m painfully squeezing out one word at a time before eventually realising that it’s still all shit. I hate those days.

Then there are days like today, where words flow freely and no challenge seems insurmountable. That radio play scene that was kicking my arse last night? Totally nailed it in 15 minutes on the train this morning.

In no way though would I ever use the term ‘writer’s block’ or apportion guilt to ‘my muse’. The latter has always particularly annoyed me. I know most writers who refer to their muse don’t mean this as a literal spirit of enlightenment, but I’ve never felt the need to anthropomorphise my difficulties as the act of some skittish metaphor who must be appeased by ritual and superstition.