Saturday, March 27, 2010

Setting Goals

It's time for me to get back to setting goals. I used to be a big goal setter. It started in seventh grade when my father gave me Rhinoceros Success. Rhinoceros Success is a skinny self-help book starring a rhinoceros who always charges for (and achieves) his goals. The greatest thing it taught me was to write down my goals, read them every night and morning, and to visualize achieving them. The first goal I set was to break the mile run record at Unami Junior High School.

I wrote my goals as specifically as possible (including the splits for each lap of the race) and dutifully read them every night and every morning. I visualized the race, imagining my coach calling out the splits, and how I would feel at every curve and every straight. And I imagined crossing the finish line in 4:54--breaking the school record by one second.

The first meet of the season came and I was in the best shape of my life. I couldn't wait for the mile to start. The gun went off and I soon found myself in the middle of the pack. I didn't panic, but kept on my pace, and by the end of the lap was in third place. I was also exactly on my pace. Half way through the second lap I was in first place, and one second too fast. The third lap found me well ahead and one second slow. I finished the race with a big win, but more importantly I finished in 4:54. I had hit the exact time I had visualized.

Did visualization magically cause me to run the exact time I had visualized? No, it didn't. It was a lot of hard work. So what did the written goals and visualization do for me? It established a mindset within me that I would achieve what I had set out to do. It motivated me to do what was necessary to achieve my goal.

And why did I put all of this on my writing blog? Because visualization and goal setting apply to more than just sports. While in the "writing phase" of Eternal Knight I set a goal of 5,000 words per work day. A that pace the novel quickly ballooned to 200,000 words-- I didn't have a clue what I was doing back then. I loved that phase of the writing process. Meeting those goals gave me great satisfaction. And because I knew I had a goal for upcoming working days, a part of my mind was always focused on the story, planning what I would write.

Now I am in the "final reading" phase of the process. Writing goals are harder to create for this phase. And because the goals are harder to create, I have a harder time keeping my focus. Enough! It's time to wrap things up. I'll publicly state my goals:

1) I will "final read" at least one chapter per day. "Final reading" includes some light editing.

2) I will finish my query letter and synopsis by April 2nd.

3) I will send my first query letter out by... well, I've set the date, but I'm keeping it under wraps. No need to announce to agents who my top pics were.

I'll re-write the goals (in "proper" format) later, this post is LONG.

Finally, my friend, author Mike Shultz, has added a new writing lesson to his website. Take a look, his lessons are excellent.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Cold Wars Round One

Just for a change, I thought I would post a battle report on my writing blog. My other battle reports can be found here. I thought I'd give my "writing friends" a chance to see what I do with my "wargaming friends." The two circles don't often overlap.

For those of you who are total novices to historical wargaming.... it is the simulation of battles using painted miniature figurines and model terrain. Dice and rulers are used to determine where units can move and the outcomes of fights. Actually, we use dice, rulers, and thick rule books with lots of rules. And we love it. For me, half the hobby is painting the miniatures, and half the hobby is fighting the battles.

As I have previously mentioned, wargaming has played an important part in my writing efforts. Although I am writing a fantasy novel, realistic action and believable battle scenes are still very important. I don't want to put anything into the novel that turns the reader off and breaks the willing suspension of disbelief.

About a month before Cold Wars, Matt Iverson contacted me looking for a partner. This was very fortunate for me as Matt is one of the best Field of Glory players in the United States. As Matt (who I will now refer to only as Mr. The King) was the more experienced player I deferred to him on most of the decision making. "We" decided that since the tournament was to be played on a 8' by 5' table (larger than the standars 6x4) we would take a very fast, maneuverable army. Our choice: Western Turks. It is an army almost entirely comprising of mounted archers.

Our Army:

One Inspired Commander.
Three Troop Commanders.
Two units of Nobles (Undrilled superior armored cavalry with lance and sword).
Four units of Arsiyah (Drilled superior armored cavalry with bow and sword).
Eight units of horse archers (Undrilled average unprotected light cavalry with bow and sword).
Two units of poor quality light foot archers.
Two units of poor quality light foot javilenmen.

Mr. The King thought the biggest threats to our army would come from lancer cavalry armies as well as longbow based armies. So he suggested we do some test battles on the Thursday before the tournament. The test battle against a Bosporan (lancer cavalry) army was very close and resulted in us making some army adjustments. In particular we dropped our plan to take a list that included Tibetan allies. Our second test match was against a 100 Years War English army. I ran the English and was totally humiliated by Mr. The King. The fight gave us confidence that we could deal with longbows. This was fortunate as at the tournament our first opponent was...

a Free Company army from the 100 Years War time period! Our opponents fielded something like:

Three units of heavily armored knights.
Four units of longbow.
Two units of dismounted men-at-arms.
Two large units of crossbow.
One unit of light foot.

We won the initiative and chose (of course) to fight on the steppes. A basic map of the battle:

From our test match we knew we could win if we could concentrate bowfire against isolated longbow units. This became the core of our strategy. I took a majority of our bow-armed light horse and cavalry and drove hard for the Free Company's left flank. We wanted the flank threat to force them to break their line.

Mr. The King would take some mounted units and all of our foot and threaten the other flank. Our lancers would feint in the center, hoping to pull some longbow forward, before re-deploying to one flank.

Our deployment:

Their deployment:

Our Camp:

The camp was about five feet from the nearest Free Company unit. It soon became buried by the "tools" of war.

After a few turns:
The Free Company army has advanced very aggressively. In response to my sweeping flank attack, all three of their knight units start a re-deployment to the Free Company left. Surprised by the bold advance of the enemy crossbow, we quickly send our lancers to our left flank. One unit of armored cavalry is sent to skirmish a longbow unit in the center of the battlefield. This will not go well.

Near disaster:
Mr. The King set up a fantastic flank charge on an overextended crossbow unit (1). Armored cavalry hit the crossbow from one direction, while light horse hit it from another. The crossbow become disrupted at contact, and the proceed to win the fight! A second crossbow unit (2) is now in position to deliver a flank charge on our cavalry... except Mr. The King rolls a 12 and kills the enemy Commander in Chief! The second crossbow unit immediately becomes demoralized at his loss. On the horizon (3) an enemy longbow unit is a looming threat.

The Shootout:
My masses of horse archers swing left against the Free Company flank. Unfortunately, my opponent is going to roll several poor cohesion checks over the next few turns. Two units of light horse out shoot and (eventually) destroy a longbow unit. My armored cavalry disorder (with bowfire), and then charge and fragment a second unit of longbow. Concentrated light horse attacks on dismounted men-at-arms cause more casualties.

Another scare:
Mr. The King's lancers have arrived on the scene. They charge a disrupted unit of crossbowmen, only to lose two stands. They manage to heroically fight on and fragment the crossbows. To their right, a second unit of lancers crashes into, and disrupts another longbow unit. These units will eventually rout, breaking the army.

The battle is a major victory for the Turks. We lost one unit of armored cavalry bowmen in the center of the battlefield. Deciding to be cautious, we put the unit in one rank to skirmish with a six stand longbow unit. We figured our four dice of superior bowfire could take their four dice of average bowfire. We were wrong.

Shooty cavalry armies can definitely take on longbow armies in FoG. However, it is really important to break up the enemy line. Given the 8' by 5' table, the best our opponents could have done would have been to corner sit and hope for a draw. Coming out to fight us in the open was very dangerous.

Coming soon... Cold Wars Round Two.

And... if you are interested in historical fiction (Hellenistic) read my interview with Christian Cameron, author of the Tyrant series.

Monday, March 15, 2010

An interview with Christian Cameron

Christian Cameron is the author of Washington and Caesar, a historical fiction set during the American Revolution. He is also the co-author (with his father) of the Gordon Kent military thriller series. The latest book in Christian's Tyrant series was just published in hardcover in England.

A reenactor, wargamer, and former US Naval Intelligence officer, Christian brings his novels to life with great depth and realism. He recently took a few minutes out of his schedule to answer a few questions.

How did you learn the craft of writing?

I learned to write in high school. I went to a Jesuit School in Rochester New York, and in senior AP English, we had to write a five page essay, every day, in one hour. The priest (Fr. O’Malley, a fine man) would write the topic on the board—and bang, off you went. There is no better training. However, constant D+D playing also played a role—role playing games sharpen your mind for plot. Of course, that’s only true if you run them as plots—it isn’t true if you just cater to your players.

And in the US Navy, when I ran a shop of analysts, I had to produce a sixty-one hundred page “newspaper” of intelligence every day for a year. I had forty people working for me, but I had to assemble and edit the articles.

What is your writing process like? Do you write every day? Do you keep strict word count goals?

I sit down in a coffee shop with a laptop, every day, as soon as I take my daughter to school. I write without stopping for five hours. I pre-set my margins and so on so that a page of typed mss equals a page of a printed book. I write 15 to 40 pages a day. 40 is rare, and twenty is more like average. I used to write five pages a day and think I was being productive, but I realized that I could work a great deal harder than that. I don’t conflate research and writing—I spend months on research for historicals and I spend time plotting and writing out character arcs for my main characters—but to be frank, that’s all just practice, because when the words start to go on the page my characters all too often refuse to do what I thought they might, and my unconscious character arcs are almost always BETTER than my carefully drawn ones.

How did you get your agent? Did you go through the query process?

Nepotism. I got my Dad’s agent. And I wrote my first book with my dad, so I never had to endure the rejection. That came later—around book 7-8; suddenly, I couldn’t get a contract for three years and I got a flood tide of rejections.

The lesson I learned form that is trite—everyone has heard this. Write what you know and love. Never try to write what someone thinks you should write.

You've published modern espionage thrillers, a Revolutionary War historical novel, and your current Hellenistic historical fiction. Having written all three eras, has one become your favorite? Which era appeals to you the most as a writer?

Nil humanum alienum sum. Which is to say, I love history. All history. Black, European, Feminist, Military, Social, whatever. History is merely the sum of all the good and bad stories of the human race. So I’ll be a historical writer til people stop buying my books. But I have a hard time choosing between the ancient world and the Neo Classical world…

You reenact both the Revolutionary War and ancient Greek time periods. Would give up the modern world to live in either period? What if you could pick your social status?

At the risk of sounding smug—most people who want to live in the past would have had the same lives at Arthur’s Camelot that they have now. Adventure is all around us—I know guys who serve as mercenaries in Africa and women who have spent fifteen years having wonderful adventures with Medecins Sans Frontiers and so on. I had a few adventures of my own. I suspect that the world is what you make of it. The past was no more glorious, and lacked tampons and safety matches and free health care (sorry, it works…).

On another level, though, I’d love to be able to pick my staff and friends and go be Charles XII of Sweden for six years—to see if I could make Sweden and not Russia the northern superpower. I’d love to be able to form my own team to run the British counter-insurgency campaign in the Champlain Valley in 1777, or try my hand at saving the Phillipines in 1940-41. But live there?

To the reader, it appears you pay meticulous attention to the details of history. What have you fudged in order to make a story work?

Heh, heh. I should say I’ll never tell…

I just wrote a fairly angry blog entry about this sort of thing on my own. When you deal with the ancient world, there are NO FACTS. It’s easy when you are a wargamer, or a student—you read some well-written secondary sources and you “know the period.”

But the truth is we know nothing about, say, Alexander’s campaigns. We have a bunch of campaign histories written LONG after all the participants were dead. In fact, our knowledge of Jesus as a historical figure is better than our knowledge of Alexander. We don’t know the exact, archaeologically provable location of ANY of Alexander’s battlefields. We don’t know what Macedonians soldiers wore, despite the best efforts of all the modern Osprey artists. We don’t know their armor, we don’t know what their shields looked like—the world is full of people who will tell you that they do know—but they don’t.

We don’t know the real dates on any battle of the ancient world. In many cases, we don’t even know what year they happened.

Now—lest I sound like some sort of revisionist—we have a pretty darn good idea about a lot of stuff. But it is theories piled atop theories—don’t get me started on how our whole theory of the ancient world depends on the dating of clay pots in Egypt… and an honest writer understands from the git-go that it is all theory. So there is, in fact, quite a bit of wiggle room.

Did Alexander get whupped at Jaxartes River? (I say he did). Was there even a battle there? Did Alexander, in fact, invent Jaxartes to cover for his constant losses to irregular warfare? Or did he beat the Skythians just as Arrian says he did?

Who knows?

Anyway, I’m not above altering history a little—that is, playing with perceptions of it—to fit the story. But not in any concrete way. No magical medicine cures from China, no 7 barrelled guns with magical powers (the Nock gun did exist… it doesn’t really work the way some people imagine). In my books, the main characters die like rabbits—because that’s what happened in the ancient world. They die of disease and they die in battle and some of the women die in childbirth. And that represents the truth.

Your Tyrant series is experiencing great success in the United Kingdom. Why is it so hard to get historical fiction published in the United States?

US Publishers think that Americans are idiots. I don’t happen to agree, but there it is, and I’ve been told so, in just so many words, by US publishers. “British readers are more intelligent,” they say.

If you could take one person you know back in history to be your operations officer for a Hellenistic battle, who would that person be?

Bye and Large, Hellenistic officers were competent—or better. Among the main contenders—Cassander, Polyperchon, Antigonus One-Eye and Demetrios, Ptolemy, Seleucus, Eumenes, Lysimachos—there’s not one incompetent. The Macedonian system of brutal internal rivalry, murder, and insubordination, was not very good at running an empire, but it did create some really good leaders.

That said, my choice is Eumenes the Cardian. Military secretary to Alexander, later the weakest of the Successors in military power. He didn’t have really strong military leadership skills, or rather he did, but since he was a Cardian and not a Macedonian, the Macedonian aristocrats hated him. He was a superb hand to hand fighter, and he was a deep thinker, and even a cursory examination of his efforts shows that he routinely outmaneuvered Antigonus, and you have to admit that Antionus was consistently good. So in my bid for world domination, I’d like to have Eumenes the Cardian as my Operations officer.

On the other hand, I’d like to have Matt Heppe as my Chief of Staff. Matt and I have won more team wargames at various tournaments than—well, than lots of people, and I think that if I were going to be transported back in time and needed a chief of staff—

Ah, I knew there was a reason I asked you to do this interview. It was because you are an outstanding judge of character.

Visit Christian's website for more information on his Tyrant series. The Online Agora is an active site both for discussing the novels and for information on ancient Greek reenacting.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Excellent Day!

Worked on Eternal Knight for several hours today. It was great! I am on the final stretch and heading for the finish line.

What's left to do? Not much...

1) Complete the read-through. Wonderful and terrifying. No, I'm not describing the book--I'm describing my emotions. I really, really feel good about the novel. It reads like a "real" novel. This is where the terrifying comes in. What if I am utterly delusional? What if Eternal Knight isn't the book I think it is? Well, we'll find out soon.
2) Touch up my query. My query is definitely not incompetent. It won't be laughed at and instantly rejected. But is it good? I dunno. I have no prior writing accomplishments to boast of. Will the query land the hook?
3) Fix up synopsis. Ugh. Writing this was the worst.

I've gained several new blog readers recently. Welcome to Eternal Knight! If you're interested in learning a little bit more about the story you can...

Read chapter one. I am always looking for feedback on this chapter. If I can get the agent to page 50 I know I will have them for the entire journey. But they won't get to page 50 if they don't get through chapter one.

Read my query letter. Spoiler alert! My query gives away the conclusion and major plot points of the novel.

Read my synopsis. Same spoiler alert as above, but even more so.

Please feel free to comment on any of the above. I am happy to get any help I can find.

Have a great one!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Don't be an akinos!

About half way through my novel you start hearing of a character named Akinos--a figure of legendary evil. Unfortunately, as my critique partners pointed out, it was a little late in the novel to first hear of him. Couldn't I introduce him earlier?

But how? An info dump of ancient world history didn't exactly fit into the storyline. And when I say it didn't fit didn't fit in at all.

Akinos' legendary evil came as a result of his murder of his own brother. It was an act of betrayal that brought ruin to the world. Akinos disappeared immediately after the murder and his name became synonymous with treachery and evil.

Several hundred years have passed since Akinos' disappearance, and what's the first thing that comes to someone's lips when they are mistreated?

"Don't be an akinos."

By the time the reader reaches the half way point of Eternal Knight they have heard those words (in one form or another) on three different occasons. And now, when they read of Akinos the Betrayer, they should have an ahh-haa moment. They've read that word before, and always in a negative context. No info dump needed. The reader already knows that Akinos is infamous, important, and bad.

And a few chapters later, the reader learns that legends are legends and the truth isn't necessarily the truth.