Release: The Last Captain

Hot on the heels of last month’s release of “Either Side of Night” comes the second part of the Linear Cycle. Titled “The Last Captain”, it follows, logically enough, an officer of the Valtian Empire. If you read the first part, you’ll recognize him, but this story centers on him and his mission. The Touched are gone from Midra, but now the survivors are trying to rebuild their nation, and what’s a nation without a leader?

This second part of the series continues the dark atmosphere, but now makes it a bit more…mobile. Some might even say walking. It’s got action, it’s got drama, and it’s got zombies. Should be the perfect story, right? And it sets things up for future entries without, I hope, falling into a sophomore slump like some other Part 2s I’ve seen.

As always, you can click the link above to go to this story’s page here. You can also buy it at the Kindle store for only 99 cents, or, if you prefer, pledge at least a dollar to ny Patreon to gain access to it and the rest of the Linear Cycle.

Part 3, “Forged in the Fires”, is scheduled for release on June 19, 2017, so keep watching this site for more information.

Let’s make a language, part 25c: Business (Ardari)

Ardari has a large vocabulary for dealing with business, and its agglutinative nature expands that even further. But we’ll stick to the basics here.

Business itself is prejn; in Ardari, the same word can also stand for “economy” or “a transaction”. This is different from the actual root for “to trade”, chachen-, which refers to any sort of exchange.

Grammatically, a number of “business” verbs can be ditransitive, taking two objects. These include mänyt- “to borrow”, dyem- “to buy”, khipy- “to lend”, and vird- “to sell”. In all of these cases, the indirect object is in the dative, and it marks the other party in the transaction besides the speaker.

Back in the list of words, we see a few interesting and idiosyncratic derivations. “Generous” is derived from the noun tyamin, meaning “charity”, which thus also stands for “generosity”. And dròv is the root for dròvymat “greed”, rather than the other way around. Also, the general term for money, dènyèr, is a loan, possibly deriving from the French denier, but almost assuredly related in some way to Latin denārius.

Finally, the Ardari verb fors- “to own” carries much of the same connotations as its Isian counterpart. It’s more than a simple possessive, rather indicating the possession of something worth having in the first place. The derived adjective forsynt, however, has a bit of an idiomatic meaning: it’s considered poor form to use it to describe human beings, as it connotes a master/slave relationship, something Ardari speakers do not approve of. The further derivation ärforsynt, though, is used as a religious term referring to demonic possession, and it only refers to people. Language is strange sometimes.

Word list

  • business: prejn
  • cheap: zelk
  • cost: kamnad
  • expensive: long
  • generous: tyaminösat (from tyamin “charity”)
  • greed: dròvymat (from dròv “greedy, grasping”)
  • job: kroll
  • money: dènyèr (borrowed)
  • poor: nydor
  • rich: agris
  • to accept: lèp-
  • to borrow: mänyt-
  • to buy: dyem-
  • to gain: gir-
  • to get: baj-
  • to keep: chòll-
  • to lend: khipy-
  • to lose: malyos-
  • to offer: makej-
  • to own: fors-
  • to receive: bèrill-
  • to reject: lèghan-
  • to sell: vird-
  • to steal: tyek-
  • to store: jols-
  • to trade: chachen-
  • value: säfyn

Nocturne: Postmortem

It’s common in the development of video games to do what’s called a postmortem: a kind of developer’s wrap-up of what went into the production from the point of view of those on the inside: the programmers, the directors, the artists, and so on. It’s a chance to look back on both the finished product and its earlier stages, an opportunity to consider every step you took along the way.

That’s what I’d like to do today. Not with a game, but with my latest novel, Nocturne. It came out on Patreon not too long ago, and I’ll be putting it on Amazon’s KDP in the very near future. For the “outsider” perspective, you can look to either of those, where you’ll find all the usual publicity-type stuff. (On Patreon, I’ve even got sample chapters up, so you don’t have to invest anything but your time to get an idea of what I’ve written.)

Here, though, I want to take you into the gritty details. After a work such as this, I need a little bit of closure, a little chance to vent. And I also feel that, with this particular novel, some things need to be said. I putting this post on Prose Poetry Code, not Patreon, because I don’t think this is a “public” piece. This is mostly for my benefit. This is the postmortem for Nocturne.

The seed

Officially, I began writing Nocturne for Nanowrimo 2016. I put the first words down on November 1, I reached the target of 50,000 words before the halfway point of the month, and I finally finished the first draft on December 19. Some days, I wrote an entire chapter. Others, I barely wrote half that. But all in all, those were probably the seven most productive weeks of my writing life, and that productivity carried over even after the draft was done. In fact, I’m writing this at the end of March 2017, and I’m still calling myself slow when I “only” manage about 1500 words a day.

But Nocturne actually started before that. The original seed, as with so many of my stories, was literally a shower thought. I was in the shower one day last summer, and I’d been thinking about the upcoming solar eclipse. My thoughts ran off, as they do, and I came up with the idea of a magic system based on the dichotomy of day and night. And then I asked myself, “In that world, what happens when there’s an eclipse?”

That was the true genesis of Nocturne. It didn’t begin with a story idea, or a scene, or even a line. No, it came about because of a simple what-if. A thought experiment, if you will. At the time, I didn’t think much more of it. I noted it in my list of ideas, and I moved back to the Otherworld, my writing project at the time. When November rolled around, I picked it back up.

The process

I’m not a planner. I don’t chart out my writings in anything other than the vaguest of details. When I sat down on November 1, I didn’t know where the story of Nocturne was going. I didn’t even have names for the characters, save the protagonist, Shade. Then, all I knew was that he was the main character, that the main story would be told through his eyes, in the first person, and that he was special because he was born during a solar eclipse.

Everything flowed from those initial points. I’d like to say I planned everything that happened, the plot twists, the character interactions, and so forth, but that would be a lie. At no point during last November did I think more than a chapter ahead. Now, once I crossed into December, into the final third of the novel, I did start thinking about an ending. I had notes for the high points of the final five chapters, but nothing more than a line or two for each.

I also don’t write out of order. Nocturne was written as it is. The prologue came first, then 30 chapters, then the epilogue. I never skipped ahead to follow up on a storyline. But I never needed to. I was writing so fast that it never occurred to me to try.

The book itself isn’t divided into parts. It’s a single story told from a total of three perspectives. It also uses no scene breaks and no direct internal thoughts, two things I’m used to overdoing. Those were conscious efforts, I’ll admit, a kind of discipline for my mind. Looking back, I think that structure helps the flow of the story.

Prologue and epilogue

Although Shade is the main character of Nocturne (the book is named after his title in the story), he’s not the first one we meet. That was another conscious decision. I didn’t feel right beginning with a first-person perspective, so I came up with the “wrapper”, the bookends of prologue and epilogue. These third-person bits set the stage and take it down, something I thought was absolutely needed. The prologue naturally leads into the first chapter, while the epilogue was my cooldown, and a chance for me to do a bit of story-internal criticism. It also served the function of keeping things open for a sequel, should I choose to write one.

The opening arc

The first four chapters (not counting the prologue) are the same ones you can read for free over at my Patreon. They’re the introductory phase of the story, showing off the world, the protagonist, and the magic system. They set the tone, construct the central conflict, and provide the impetus for characters to begin moving.

Personally, I’m not that big a fan of in medias res. I prefer my stories (those I write, specifically) to begin at the beginning. With Nocturne, that was hard to do, but that’s where the prologue helped matters. Yes, it made the whole story a flashback, but that let me start off the main body of the work without diving into the deep end. The best of both worlds, you might say. I certainly thought so.

The inspector

Chapter 5 introduces the third and final point of view. At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to introduce another narrative voice, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I couldn’t write a complete novel in the first person. I mean, I could, but I’d rather not. Thus entered Kellis.

From a personal perspective, she was hard to write. I’ve got a post on here about characters I hate, and, although she’s not one of them, her chapters were hard. Here was a case where I forced myself out of my comfort zone. Given who I am, I didn’t feel the least bit of reservation writing a social pariah like Shade. But a police officer? That wasn’t easy. There were times where I had to fight my own brain to keep Kellis believable. She is, in a lot of ways, my opposite. But hers was a story that had to be told. Shade couldn’t only be seen from the inside.

The travelogue

About the first half of the book is kind of a travelogue. Shade goes to such-and-such city, meets some people, gets caught up in a rivalry, and moves on. Kellis chases him down, always a step behind, picking up the clues he leaves behind. I’ll freely admit that it gets a bit repetitive, though I like to believe I did a good job portraying each town’s unique situation.

Here, I’d also like to digress into the worldbuilding process I used for Nocturne. Namely, there wasn’t one. In my notes (all written on the spur of the moment, mind you), cities have names, rough sizes, and vague locations. That’s pretty much it. I came up with names on the fly (except Narsa, which is taken from my D&D campaign), and placed them where needed. There’s no glossary of the Velini language, no pronunciation guide for personal and place names, and no cultural notes except for those that directly affect the story.

Maybe that makes for a shallow story. I’ve certainly argued as much on this very site. But I hope I did a good enough job with the travelogue portion of Nocturne that a reader can orient himself in Velin without too much trouble. Yes, there are enormous questions left unanswered. (For example: are there nocturnes and diurnes in other lands?) Yes, a lot of details are left intentionally vague. The novel could have easily been half again as long, but my pacing is already bad enough. Adding in a bunch of “what do they eat?” type questions would only drag it down more.

The conflicts

Nocturne, as I said, was written last November and December. Now, unless you were hiding under a rock the past year and a half, you know what happened then. The novel is not a direct allegory of the events in this country over that time, but it was most certainly influenced by the political climate.

How you choose to interpret the story is up to you. I think I left it open enough that you can see whatever reflections you like in the characters and their beliefs. I will say that the conflict between Shade and Maxon, their battle of words and wills to sway the hearts of their oppressed people, is certainly inspired by the civil rights movement in general, and the Black Lives Matter protests in particular. Aures and the public army are not direct analogues of Donald Trump and his followers (or Bernie Sanders and his), but the echoes are there, and they are intentional.

I do not apologize for this. No book is written in a vacuum, and the events of the past few months have affected everyone in this country, everyone in this world. The only way I could refrain from commenting on them, even in the most oblique sense, was to write nothing at all. And I wasn’t going to do that. My intent was to cast them in a different light, to use our politics to tell a story, while also using the story to talk about politics.

The ending

Note: This section of the post contains spoilers for the ending of Nocturne. Read at your own risk.

After the flurry that was November—over 100,000 words in 22 chapters—I still had to finish the book. I knew about where I was, I knew where I had to get to. What I wasn’t sure about was the in-between. That’s really my biggest flaw as a writer. (Well, apart from all the others.)

This was about where I started plotting things out in greater detail. Chapter 22 was the eruption that had been building since the first time Shade and Maxon met; the fight scene still makes me cringe when I read it. After that comes a bit more building up of the “revolution” storyline, which begins to take center stage. Then I had to start putting the pieces into place, which finally finished around the end of Chapter 26.

From there, it was all downhill. The next two chapters (including the deaths of King Canius, Shade’s lover Raysa, and Inspector Dielle), physically pained me to write. Especially the part where Shade finds Raysa in the bed. I reread that the other day during editing, and I was close to tearing up. That was truly the “All Is Lost” moment of the story, in my opinion, and it triggers the finale.

People do strange things when they’re hurting. I know that all too well. That’s really the reasoning behind everything that happens in chapters 28 and 29. Mirac is a…conflicted individual, told he’s worthy of praise because of his family, but worthy of scorn because of the circumstances of his birth. It’s left him bitter and more than a bit irrational. Shade just found the only woman he’s ever loved dead in her home; once he learns who did it, it’s all he can do to keep from breaking—and he doesn’t entirely succeed.

I’m not completely happy with the ending. I never am. I like to think I hit all the notes I needed (Raysa, Shade finally killing someone, the bloodbath at the palace, enemies making common cause against the greater foe), but stringing them together is the hardest part.

One thing I’m certain I did like about the ending was that I didn’t tell it from Shade’s perspective. That, in my mind, leaves open the possibility that there are some things he doesn’t remember, or that he misremembers. It gives the story a chance to end a little better, since Kellis isn’t on the run. And it lets the epilogue wrap things up without giving too much away.

That’s one of the fatal flaws of first-person storytelling, I think. It’s too hard to have mystery about the protagonist. Either your character knows too much, or he acts like he doesn’t know enough. So, Nocturne ends with the two third-person points of view. That way, you don’t know how badly Shade was affected. You don’t know what he really wants to do next.

The future

Is Nocturne a standalone novel? When I was writing it, I certainly thought so. Now, I’m not so sure. The story is left open intentionally. There could be future novels involving Shade. Should they ever come to fruition, they would answer the questions he left behind.

As for other books, well, I’m working on it. I’ve got a few ideas kicking around, and this coming November will have an all new attempt at a novel. If what I come up with then is anything like last year, I think it’ll be even better.

Let’s make a language, part 25b: Business (Isian)

Isian, as we have seen before, is spoken by a culture that tends more towards the old-fashioned. It’s not the highly corporate environment of the West, nor the planned, centralized systems common in the East. It’s its own thing, really, a kind of land out of time.

Lucky for us, that makes things easier. We can look at the basic terms below (I’ll assume you can follow along), but I’ll pick out a few that have more nuanced meanings.

First up, masca, “to trade”, is a kind of catch-all. It’s intended more for the economic type of trading, a generic term for buying, selling, bartering, etc. That’s why “business” is translated as the derived noun mascanas. The Isian word might be better considered as “to do business with”.

“Cheap” and “expensive”, dib and gowan respectively, follow the style of other large/small pairs by having distinctive vowels: the high, front vowel i is characteristic of “small” things in many languages. “Poor” and “rich”, on the other hand, might seem backwards, but this could mean that the quality being measured here is poverty rather than wealth. Or it’s just happenstance. That’s a more likely explanation.

Next up, cosen is “money” when used as a mass noun. As a count noun, however, it means something closer to “price” or “amount”. (The difference is that count nouns take articles and quantifiers, while mass nouns don’t.)

And then we come to ama. It’s a bit of an oddity in Isian. It’s strictly translated as “to own”, and it does have an element of possession as its primary connotation. But it’s different from the simpler fana “to have”, because it carries a secondary meaning: the object being owned has monetary value to its owner.

Word list

  • business: mascanas
  • cheap: dib
  • cost: chake
  • expensive: gowan
  • generous: nemis (“generosity”: nemiros)
  • greed: sumat
  • job: bor
  • money: cosen
  • poor: umar
  • rich: irdes
  • to accept: achine
  • to borrow: mante
  • to buy: tochi
  • to gain: elge
  • to get: gana
  • to keep: ifa
  • to lend: hente
  • to lose (possession of): pulo
  • to offer: acate
  • to own: ama
  • to receive: rano
  • to reject: nuyana
  • to sell: dule
  • to steal: toya
  • to store: odaga
  • to trade: masca
  • value: luros

Lettrine and other packages

TeX and its descendants (LaTeX, et al.) have a vast array of add-on packages for an author to use. Most of these are so specific that they’d probably only be useful to a handful of people, but some are almost universal. Memoir, of course, is one of them, though I’ve already spoken about it. This time, I’d like to look at a few others that I use.

Lettrine

The lettrine package is what I use to make drop caps and raised initials, as you’ll recall from the debacle that is my Pandoc filters. For paperback books, especially fiction, these are a nice typographic touch, the kind of thing that, I feel, makes a book look more professional. Personally, I prefer raised initials rather than the dropped capitals, but lettrine works for both.

It’s geared towards European languages, and the examples are actually only in French and German, not English. The documentation, however, is perfectly readable.

Using lettrine isn’t that hard. Unless you need some serious customization, you can get by with just putting the first letter (the one you want to raise or drop) in one set of braces, then anything you’d like in small caps in another: \lettrine{L}{ike this}.

By default, that gives you a two-line dropped capital, but you can change that with options that you place in square brackets before the text. So, to get my preferred raising, I would do: \lettrine[lines=1]{T}{his}. The manual has more options you can use, mostly for tweaking problem letters like J and Q, typesetting opening quotation marks in normal size, and even adding images for something like a medieval manuscript.

Microtype

The second package, microtype, is one of the more complicated ones. Fortunately, there’s not a lot you have to do to use it. Just including it in your document already gets you something subtly better.

What microtype actually does is hard to explain without delving deep into typography. Basically, it gives you a way to change aspects of a font such as kerning and have those changes affect the entire document. I’ll freely admit that I don’t understand everything it does, nor how it works. And the manual is over 240 pages long, so that won’t change anytime soon. Still, I can’t deny its usefulness.

selnolig

Finally, we have selnolig. This one is a bit obscure, compared to the other two, but it turned out to be exactly what I needed for one very specific scenario. Thus, I thought it made a good illustration of the breadth of TeX packages.

If you look closely at a (good) printed book, you’ll notice that the letters aren’t always distinct. In printing, we use a number of ligatures to join letters, which helps them “flow” together. Letter pairs and triplets like “fl”, “ffi”, and “ft” are often combined like this, though there are cases where it’s recommended that you don’t.

The selnolig package handles all that for you, breaking up the automatic ligatures TeX likes to add in the words where they don’t necessarily belong. It also activates some “historic” ligatures, if you want them, so your book can look like it was written in the 1700s.

Far more important, however, is the ability to selectively disable ligatures that gives the package its name. The font I used in Before I Wake (which I’ll probably continue to use in future books) has a very annoying “Th” ligature. Personally, I just don’t like the way it looks; it makes that combination of letters look too…thin. So I went looking for a way to get rid of it, and I found selnolig. Ridding myself of this pesky addition was a single line of code: \nolig{Th}{T|h}. That tells selnolig to always break “Th” into a separate “T” and “h”, with an invisible space in between. This space stops the ligature from forming, which is exactly what I wanted.

Everything else

I haven’t even touched on the myriad other TeX packages out there. There’s not enough time in my life to go through them. Of course, there are quite a few that I couldn’t live without: geometry, fontspec, graphicx, etc. For my aborted attempt at a popular book on mathematics, I used tikz to draw diagrams. I tried to write a book about conlangs almost ten years ago, and I used tipa for that one. Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll probably find it over at CTAN.

And that concludes this little series. Now, it’s back to writing books, rather than writing about writing them. Look for the latest fruit borne from my work with Pandoc, LaTeX, Memoir, and all the rest coming in July.

Let’s make a language, part 25a: Business (Intro)

In today’s world, business is big, well, business. Commerce, economy, capitalism rules all. So it’s not surprising that we have a lot of words to describe such a topic. But it wasn’t always that way, and a lot of the terms we use to talk about business are, in fact, derived from strange places.

On the wealth of nations

The idea of value, of course, is about as old as civilization. From the first time one man noticed that his neighbor had something he wanted, we’ve had an economy. When trades became possible, when people became settled enough that they could diversify, business was born. Business then begat money, credit, coin, currency, and all those other nifty things we associate with wealth today.

Word-wise, a lot of basic terms in the business sphere are pretty old. Some English terms (e.g., gold) have come down almost directly from the Indo-European days with little change in meaning. Many others derive from Latin (credit, coin) or Greek (economy). Business itself is an example of an Anglo-Saxon native, dollar is a German loan, and so on.

Tracing the etymology of business and commerce words tells us a lot about the economic history of the English language. A lot of the “technical” terms are classical in origin, stemming from the past few centuries. Words that came about in medieval times represent concepts that existed in those times, and it’s clear that the Romans had an idea of credits and debts. In the oldest days, there might not have been a thriving stock market, but there was indeed a stock market.

“Stock” is meant here as “livestock”, which brings us to the next point: even if there’s no money, that doesn’t mean there’s no wealth. Coin only came about as an easier way to keep track of wealth, but anything can have a price. Land, cattle, grain, slaves, or anything a culture considers valuable will eventually be bought and sold, and the traders will need words to talk about those actions. The earlier they “discover” business, the more likely the base terms will be native, rather than loans from more advanced neighbors.

The day job

It doesn’t take a lot of sophistication to work out the rough outline of an economy. The things people do often will quickly become named, and those things a culture treasures will be among the first in line for native words. An agrarian society built upon a complex system of barter will have a much different set of “core” words than a highly capitalist mercantile empire. An expanding nation full of coinage will spread its money words to its penniless neighbors, as with the Roman denarius, whose descendants can be found throughout the Western world: dinars, deniers, and the “d.” abbreviation for pennies (whether old English coins or American nails).

Work itself can also be the subject of linguistic invention. Today’s English takes a functional approach to that, usually deriving an agent noun out of an action verb (programmer, cameraman). We’ve already seen some of that in earlier parts, but it’s pertinent here, too. And it’s another case where history and etymology mix: although many terms are simple agent derivations, we’ve got a few that aren’t, and those tend to be older.

Tools of the trade

On a more mundane level, the simple acts of trade, being so commonplace, so ancient, will almost certainly be nativized, if not fully native. We buy and sell, we trade and offer. Then again, we also exchange, accept, and reject, and all those are Latin loans. But those aren’t exactly newcomers to the language. They’ve been around. People use them all the time, because they do those things all the time, and the words aren’t considered foreign except by the most extreme purists.

So, once again, we can see the connection between language and culture. Business starts small, with trades, purchases, barter, payment, loans, and the like. Most everybody throughout history has done something of that sort, so there are common words to describe such actions and concepts in most languages. Loanwords will only come about here when an outside force presses them upon the speakers.

As economic science progresses, the terminology grows, but the same golden rule remains. A corporation might seem like a relatively recent invention, but the word is Latin, derived from corpus, the body. Pecuniary is a word that comes from ancient roots related to cattle, a valuable material good in such times. Economy itself? Greek, from an term roughly describing management or administration. The big-business words of today, like quant and blockchain, might not have the same pedigree, but they’re no less a product of their time.

Coming up

The next two weeks will see the usual posts for Isian and Ardari. Next month, however, is another “off” month for the series. Instead, I’ll be making a new translation special, just as soon as I figure out something to translate. Then, we’ll come back in July for Part 26, a study of government. Hopefully, ours won’t be as awful as the real thing.

On characters you hate

As an author (I love saying that), I’ve written a lot of different characters. Most, of course, are the “background” types, what players of role-playing games would call NPCs. But a few of them get the limelight all to themselves. These are the “point of view” characters, the protagonists or whatever term you’d like to use.

The way I write, I prefer a style where the narration is from the point of view of the character in question. Usually, this remains in the third person (in Nocturne, the title character is first-person, but that was mostly an experiment), but it’s not the “omniscient” third-person of a lot of books, where the narrator knows everything. In my writing, the character in focus doesn’t hear other people’s thoughts, he or she doesn’t know for sure what’s in someone else’s head. On the other hand, this style makes it more natural, in my opinion, to get into that character’s head. I find it’s better for extended thought processes.

The characters fit the story, but they’re also people, and that’s important. Since I get a good look at their minds—and I provide this to my readers—I can see what they’re thinking, how they think. (Yes, I’m aware that I decide how they think. That’s not the point.) On a few occasions, I’ve found that I’ve written characters I simply don’t like. In at least one instance, I’ve created someone I hate.

Now, it seems pretty easy to write a character you hate, right? Just tell the story from the point of view of the villain. Write the inner narration of a psychopath, a murderer, a terrorist, somebody undeniably evil. Simple as that.

But it’s really not. Sure, that gives you a character who’s easy to hate, but if it doesn’t help the story, what have you accomplished? No, I’m talking here about a character who has naturally developed into someone you just don’t like. Since I use a more “organic” writing style, where I don’t do a lot of detailed planning, this happens more often than you might think.

I’ve written characters who are devoutly religious (including both earthly and fantasy religions). I don’t hate them for that; the way I see it, I have to respect their choice the same as any person in the real world. I’ve made rich or noble-born characters, but I don’t hate them.

No, this post came about because of a character from my Chronicles of the Otherworld series. Her name’s Ayla, and she was mostly a major NPC throughout the eight parts of that work. She started out as a kind of foil for one of the main characters. The way I wrote the series, though, she gradually changed, becoming more and more bitter about the situation she found herself in. Others reacted to that, and she reacted to them. (Her actions, in fact, were the catalyst for the entire sixth volume.)

At no point in the first 400,000 words of the series did I write the first word from her point of view. She was always seen from the outside, and the reader doesn’t get a look at her inner thoughts until the final chapter of the final part, and that’s only for a single scene lasting about three or four pages. After I wrote that scene, though, I realized how much I couldn’t stand her. She was insufferable, a know-it-all who saw herself surrounded by lesser minds, lesser people. (This makes more sense if you’ve read the series, but it’s not out yet. Sorry about that.) She’s blunt to the point of offensive, she only cooperates when there’s something in it for her, and she’s just a generally unpleasant person to be around. If I were the type to use such language, I could think of a few choice words to describe her.

And thus I’ve written myself into a corner, because there’s a sequel to Chronicles of the Otherworld. It’s “season 2” of the story, picking up a year later and building on the events of the first eight parts. In between, though, is something I’m calling A Bridge Between Worlds, a six-part anthology of short novellas that fill in the gaps. Four of those six stories are written for the four characters who (spoiler alert!) stay in the Otherworld rather than coming home. One of those is Ayla, which means I get to write the better part of 20,000 words stuck in the head of someone I’d rather not be in the same room with. Yay for me.

I do think it’s educational and even productive to write a character you truly despise. It’s different from writing one you simply don’t agree with. I’ve done that plenty of times, and it’s not too bad; the hardest part is forcing yourself to write things you think are wrong. (Another character in the series, Jenn, is one of those religious types that I can’t stand, and she can be a pain to write. Fortunately, I have a whole family of people just like her that I can draw on for inspiration.) But a character you hate is something else entirely. It’s a balancing act between the story’s needs and your own. I can guarantee you, for example, that there will be times I’ll want to write a gruesome death scene for my problem child. I know I can’t, though. I’ll just have to deal with her. Hey, it’s a learning experience.

Meter, language, and culture

In verse, one of the most important parts of the work is its rhythm, the pattern of sounds and syllables and the way they “flow” together. Aesthetically, we perceive a poetic or musical utterance that is out of rhythm as dissonant, like a dancer tripping over his own feet. If you have any ear for music at all, you’ve probably noticed this. Think of when somebody you know tries to fit a bunch of words into the pattern of a familiar song, but he gets them all wrong. The line doesn’t scan, and it sounds awful.

This is one expression of the idea of meter. Now, if you remember English classes in high school, you probably recall those endless lessons about classical meter. You know, iambic pentameter, and…nobody older than sixteen can ever name any of the others. I know I can’t without looking them up.

But meter isn’t just important for reading Shakespeare and pleasing English teachers. (Personally, I didn’t care for either of those activities.) It’s actually an integral part of language as a whole, and verse in particular.

Unit of measurement

Now, I’m not going into a long digression about the kinds of meter and all that. I just don’t want to, and it doesn’t really help the discussion. Instead, this post will focus on the generalities of meter and how they relate to a language and a culture. That, I believe, is more enlightening than trying to memorize the difference between an iamb and a trochee or whatever.

Meter is the rhythm of language, as I said, and each language has its own, even before you start talking about poetry. Some languages, for instance, have a fixed stress position; according to WALS Chapter 14, about 56% are like this. Of these, most have a fixed stress on the penultimate (second to last) or initial syllable of a word, while the final syllable is a fairly distant 3rd place.

Now, if a language requires stress to be in a certain place, then that’s something verse has to work around. It forces a kind of “template” on meter. Initial and penultimate stress, for instance, both imply a stressed-unstressed (trochaic) pattern, while final stress gives the opposite (iambic) pattern. That doesn’t always have to be true, of course, but there’s an obvious pressure to do things that way.

A lot of other languages, however, are like English. Their stress can move around. In English, for example, affixes can and do affect stress: compare nation (stress on first syllable) to nationality (stress on the third from the last).

In such languages, there’s no obvious “default” meter. Now, there can be other factors determining which rhythms are acceptable, but any rules are more along the lines of convention than law. Thus, English has a rich history of different meter types, and these have come to be associated with different authors, styles, and even moods.

If you’re making your own language (and culture), then this knowledge gives you an edge on pursuing more creative aspects of your work. Say you’ve already decided that your conlang has a fixed penultimate stress. Well, the speakers will naturally gravitate towards poetic meters which go well with that.

Length of a meter

Now, that’s only half the problem. For a lot of verse, not only are you worrying about the rhythmic pattern of “heavy” and “light” syllables, but also how many there are. That’s where the “pentameter” part of “iambic pentameter” comes in: one line of that meter is five feet long, each of which is an iamb. (One meter, of course, is about 3.28 feet, but that’s neither here nor there. And so ends your daily dose of puns.)

English, thanks to its startling propensity for muttering, shortening, and just plain ignoring unstressed syllables, gets a lot of leeway in this department, but there’s only so far you can really go. Really, the length of a line is going to be measured in stresses, however a language counts them, and a verse in a consistent meter will have lines containing generally the same number of those stresses. (That’s where the “poor scanning” thing comes in: the words you’re trying to fit into the rhythm don’t line up with the expected stress pattern, so it sounds forced and unnatural.)

In languages without overt stress, the principle is roughly the same. Pitch-accent languages may be able to substitute high pitch or pitch drops for stress. Tonal languages are a bit harder, but there will be patterns there, too. And we can even talk about line length separate from meter, as in Japanese haiku, with their fixed structure of three lines, containing, in order, five, seven, and five morae. (A mora is like a syllable, except that, e.g., long vowels count as two morae instead of one. Some languages use these as the basic constituent of meter, rather than syllables.)

A musical note

Meter carries over from poetry into song, too. After all, they both come from the same foundations. In Western music, for example, 4/4 time is common, and the usual pattern is a heavier “stress” on the first and third beats of a measure. If you consider each beat to be a syllable (or mora, if your language is doing that), then that maps quite naturally onto a trochaic rhythm. Put the emphasis on beats two and four instead, and you’ve got something iambic.

There are a few easy ways you can use that to your advantage. One, you can assume that the off beats are unstressed syllables, making each measure two metrical feet, if we’re using 4/4 time. (Something like, say, 6/4 would be different, but the math should be easy.) Another option is to take one beat as the primary stress, turning each measure into a single foot.

Once you get outside the Western musical tradition, this pattern tends to break down, but not the basic idea of it. Beats match up with stresses, pitch changes, or whatever a language uses. That’s not even a cultural thing, really. It’s pretty much hardwired into our brains. The cultural aspect is all in deciding what patterns we want to hear.

Crescendo

Writing verse is hard. I can’t do it—that’s why I’m writing about it instead. Setting it to music is even more difficult. But the basics aren’t impossible to understand. Verse, whether in poetry or song, comes down to following (and knowing when not to follow) simple patterns in language. Meter is one of those patterns, an imprint upon our poetry, a kind of paint-by-numbers outline. If you’ve ever tapped your foot to a song or been entranced by a chant or speech, you know how powerful those patterns can be.

Pandoc filter for books

Pandoc is a great tool, as I’ve already stated, but it can’t do everything. And some of the things it dies aren’t exactly what you’d want when creating a book. This is especially true when working on a print-ready PDF, as I’ve been doing.

Fortunately, there is a solution. Unfortunately, it’s not a pretty one. The way Pandoc works internally—I’m simplifying a lot here, so bear with me—is by turning your input document (Markdown, in my case) into an AST, then building your output from that. That’s basically the same thing a compiler does, so you could think of Pandoc as something like a Markdown compiler that can output PDF, EPUB, HTML, or whatever.

In addition to the usual “compiler” niceties, you’re also given access to an intermediate stage. If you tell Pandoc to let you, you can use filters to modify the AST before it’s sent off to the output stage. That lets you do a lot of modifications and effects that aren’t possible with plain Markdown or LaTeX or even HTML. It’s great, but…

Cruel and unusual

But Pandoc is written in Haskell. Haskell, if you’re not familiar with programming languages, is the tenth circle Dante didn’t tell you about. It’s awful, if you’ve ever written code in any other language, because it’s designed around a philosophy that doesn’t really match anything else in the programming world. (Seriously, go look up “monads” if you’re bored.) For us mere mortals, it’s sheer torture trying to understand a Haskell program, much less write one. And Pandoc’s default language for writing filters, alas, is this monstrosity.

If I had to do that, I’d have given up months ago. But I’m in luck, because Pandoc’s developer recognizes that we’re not all masochists, and he gave us the option to write filters in Python instead. Now that I can use. It’s not pretty. It’s not nice. But it gets the job done, and it does so without needing to install extra libraries or anything like that.

So, I’ve written a few filters that take care of some of the drudgery of converting Markdown into a decent-looking PDF. You can find them in this Gist if you want to see the gory details, and I’ll describe each of them below.

Fancy breaks

In Pandoc’s version of Markdown, you can get a horizontal rule (the HTML hr element) by making a line containing only asterisks with spaces between them: * * * is what I use these days. It’s simple enough, and you can use CSS to make it not appear as an actual line across the page, but as a nice vertical blank space that serves as a scene break. It even carries over into MOBI format when you use Kindlegen.

But it doesn’t work for PDFs. Well, it does, but there’s an even better way. Since I’m using Memoir, I get what are called “fancy” breaks. In print, they’re nothing more than a centered set of asterisks, stars, or any other icon you’d like to use. Those can be a bit tacky if they show up after every seen, though, so there’s another option that only shows the “fancy” breaks when they’d be at the end of a page, but instead puts in a “plain” blank otherwise. In Memoir, this is the \pfbreak command, and it’s smart enough to choose the right style every time.

So all the fancybreak.py filter does is swap out Pandoc’s HorizontalRule AST element, replacing it with the raw LaTeX code for Memoir’s “plain fancy break”. Take out the boilerplate, and it’s literally only three lines of code. Simple, even for me.

Writing links

Another difference between print and digital editions of a book comes from the formatting available. E-books are interactive in a way paper can’t be. They can use hyperlinks, and I do exactly that. But it’s impossible to click on a link in a paperback, and blue doesn’t show up in a black and white book, so I need to get rid of the link part. Ideally, I’d like to keep the address, though.

For this, I wrote the writelinks.py filter. This one’s a little bit harder to explain from a code point of view. From the reader’s perspective, though it’s easy: every link is removed, but its address is added to the text in parentheses instead. It comes out as preformatted (or verbatim) text, in whatever monospaced font I’m using. (I actually don’t remember which one.)

The guts of this filter are only 5 lines, and the hardest part was working out exactly what I had to do to get the link address. Pandoc’s API documentation isn’t very helpful in this regard, and it gets even worse in a moment.

Drop caps and raised initials

Here’s where I was ready to gouge my own eyeballs out. If you look at the code for dropcaps.py and raisedinitials.py, you’ll probably see why. Let’s back up just a second, though, so we can ask a simple question: What was I thinking? (Don’t answer that.)

I like the “raised initial” style for books. With this, the first letter of a chapter is printed bigger than the rest, and the rest of the first word is printed in regular-sized small caps. Other people like “drop caps”, where the initial letter hangs down into the first paragraph. Either way, one LaTeX package, lettrine, takes care of your needs. Using it with Memoir is a matter of importing it and adding a bit of markup at the beginning of each chapter.

Using it with Pandoc, on the other hand, takes more work. Since I don’t want to sprinkle LaTeX code all over my source documents, I made these filters to inject that code later in the process. And that was…not fun at all. After a lot of trial and error (going from Haskell to Python and back doesn’t give you a lot of useful diagnostics), I settled on the process I used in these filters. They’re the same thing, by the way. The only real difference is their output.

Well, and dropcaps.py has to break up a Quoted element so it doesn’t blow up the opening quotation mark instead of the first letter. Doing that required some trickery. If you’d like to try it for yourself, I suggest drinking heavily. If you don’t drink, well, you’ll want to by the time you’re done.

Limitations and future expansion

Anyway, after I finished this herculean task, I had a set of filters that would let me use my original source files but produce something much more suited to Memoir and the paperback format. Now I’ve got fancy scene breaks, links that write themselves out when they’re in a PDF, and those wonderfully enormous initial letters starting each chapter.

Can I do more? Of course I can. The last two filters don’t take into account “front matter” chapters. For my current novels, that’s not a problem, as I don’t use those. But if you need something with, say, an extended foreword, then you’d need to hack on the scripts to fix that.

There’s also nothing at all I can do for the opening pages of the book, the parts that come before the text. Here, the formats are too different even for filters. I’m talking about the title page, copyright page, dedication, and things like that. (These, in fact, are considered front matter, but they’re not part of a chapter, so the last paragraph doesn’t apply.) I still need to maintain two versions of those, and I don’t see any real way around that.

Still, what I’ve got so far is good. It was a lot of work, but it’s work I only have to do once. That’s the beauty of programming in a nutshell. It’s automation. Sure, I could have done the editing by hand instead of writing scripts to do it for me, and I probably would have been done sooner, but now I won’t have to do it all over again for Nocturne or any other book I write in the future.

To close out this miniseries, I have one more post in mind. This one will look at some of the additional LaTeX packages I used, like the lettrine one I mentioned above. By the time that comes out, maybe I’ll even have another book ready.

Release: Either Side of Night

At long last, after months of writing, rewriting, editing, and “beta” testing, the Linear Cycle has begun. This set of 6 stories (call them novelettes if you wish) tells the tale of the Valtian Empire and its fall to the Touched, a horde of supernaturally animated dead that feeds off magical energies. The story opens with “Either Side of Night”, the tale of Dusk, a boy caught in the midst of this unfolding disaster.

This is probably one of the darkest stories I’ve written. It has a horror aspect in the zombie horde (though I specifically avoid both the term “zombie” and the phrase “walking dead”), and a kind of epic feel in later parts. I do focus a lot on the “negative” emotional aspects, probably more than in any of my other works. Pathos, drama, despair…they’re all here, and I don’t shy away from depicting some truly heartbreaking scenes. (Seriously. Reading the ending of the series without crying was actually harder than I thought.) But there’s a lot of hope buried in there, too. Yes, it’s the end of the world as we know it, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of everything.

You can click the link above to get to the main page for the story here on Prose Poetry Code, or you can pick it up on the Kindle store for 99 cents. If you like, you can also get it from Patreon for about the same price; if you keep up your pledge over there, though, you’ll get access to my other works, including future installments of the Linear Cycle.

Keep watching for the second part of the series, “The Last Captain”, coming May 22.