Guards! Guards!: Revisiting an old favourite

This week I’ve been listening to the unabridged audio book of Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett. Terry is one of my favourite authors, perhaps the favourite, but I haven’t read this particular book in years. It’s one of his Discworld books and is the first of the Watch series. It was the book that really elevated the city of Ankh-Morpork to something above a bunch of jokes tied together with plot. 

Perhaps some of my readers are wondering what all this means so hopefully the rest will wait patiently while I explain.

The Discworld books started out as a satire of fantasy writing tropes but over time morphed into a fully realised fantasy series with deep lore, compelling characters and rich stories that also somehow satirised both fantasy writing tropes and all kinds of real world bullshit.

The books are set on the Disc, a flat world that rests on the back of four huge elephants who, in their turn, stand on the shell of a vast space turtle. The Disc can only exist because of magic. That magic is woven into the very fabric of the world and while it doesn’t follow strict, clearly stated rules in the ways we find in some fantasy novels it acts more like a fundamental force of nature within the world than it usually does in Fantasy settings.

Ankh-Morpork is one of the principal cities on the Disc. To give you an idea of what it’s like I can’t help thinking of Terry’s famous piece of advice about fantasy city building. Start by wondering how the water gets in and the sewage gets out. In the case of Ankh-Morpork the answer to both questions is the river Ankh which enters the city as a brown slow-moving river, heavy with the silt of the plains where much of the city’s food is grown. It exits the city as something that only counts as a liquid in the same way that tar counts as a liquid. You’d have trouble drowning in the Ankh but people do occasionally suffocate.

The Watch books are the stories of the Night Watch of Ankh-Morpork. They mainly focus on Captain Sam Vimes, the commanding officer; a skinny collection of bad habits in a battered uniform, usually drunk, always cynical. Or at least that’s how he starts out. Pratchett characters have arcs. They either grow and change or reveal themselves to have always had hidden depths. Many characters do both. But they do it slowly. Vimes doesn’t straighten up and stop drinking in the first book. You need reasons to stop drinking and in Guards! Guards! Vimes begins to find those reasons.

In Guards! Guards! The night watch is low on manpower and consists of Vimes, his two NCOs Sergeant Frederick Colon and Corporal ‘Nobby’ Nobs, and new recruit Lance Constable Carrot. Colon and Nobby are as close as Pratchett gets to writing one-note comedy characters and Carrot is a 6’6” human raised by dwarves and sent away to the city because he keeps bumping his head in the mines. 

For those keeping score that’s three comedy coppers led by a grizzled alcoholic and they should be completely unprepared for all the threats of the big, bad, fantasy city nevermind the sudden appearance of an honest to Gods dragon. 

It all sounds very… obvious. It’s the perfect set up for very broad humour with a lot of slapstick but that’s not what Terry had in mind at all. He had a much lighter touch than that.

So what was it like to go back to one of my most beloved books after years away from it? It was educational. I was struck by how much of the novel would today, by some standards, be considered ‘bad writing’. 

I want to be clear that I do not believe that it actually is bad writing. Some of it is writing that was once popular, but has now fallen out of favour. Omniscient third person narration that occasionally hops into a character’s head to show you their thoughts was once both common and widely accepted. Established writers can still get away with this kind of storytelling, particularly when they have a narrative ‘voice’ as strong as Terry’s. His writing is incredibly rich. His densely layered narratives are held in place by running jokes and sarcasm and told with a dry wit and an eye for human nature. However, I can’t help thinking it would now be a lot harder for a new writer to get out of the query trenches with writing like this than it was when Terry first got published.

I don’t know who decided that adverbs are bad but someone did and now we’re told they’re the hallmark of the amature. Terry uses a lot of adverbs. Particularly when he’s attributing speech, which is even worse because that’s telling, rather than showing. When Terry describes Carrot saying something gently he’s committing two sins at once. And yet it’s still good writing. It’s better than good – it’s beautiful and true and entertaining and I am a better person for having read it.

This is all very confusing for me. Terry is the writer I’ve been attempting to emulate the most. I don’t mean his prose so much as his work ethic and his commitment to world building. I wanted to create a persistent world and set stories there. I wanted to tell stories with that kind of strong, confident narrative voice. I wanted to be funny. I wanted to satirise the fiction tropes that I hate. I wanted to give my characters the chance to grow and change over time.

I thought if I could excise all the adverbs, and rewrite all the tell, and stick to close third person narration with only a couple of point-of-view characters then maybe I could sneak my epic secret world series onto some agent’s list.

I suppose the conclusion I’m coming to is that if I want to write, and specifically if I want to be a published writer, then I’m going to have to self publish. The kind of writing I want to do is no-longer what the industry is looking for. This is a painful conclusion for me to come to because I don’t have the skills necessary to do it properly. Self publishing without those skills means letting go of the idea that I’d be able to support myself through writing. But at least it means finishing things. Maybe finishing things is enough.

Finishing things

Well, that last year was definitely a thing. This new year is proving also to be a thing. It’s all very distracting and I absolutely do not want to be writing this post. I’d much rather be playing video games, or doomscrolling twitter, or watching WandaVision with my finger on the pause button, but I’m choosing to write this instead.

A couple of weeks ago, in a moment of uncharacteristic optimism, I decided that 2021 would be my Year of Finishing Things (YoFT). The idea is that rather than making a list of resolutions to fail at I will give the year a theme, a focus, a habit of thought that I want to cultivate. I’ve even made a spreadsheet to keep track of all the tasks I’ve completed.

Last year was meant to be my Year of Showing Off (YoSO) and while the hell year derailed my plans just like everyone else’s I did at least manage to set up this website, and send my novel out to some agents, and sell some t-shirts. I did, by my own standards, show off. It didn’t result in much in the way of success but that wasn’t the point. The point was to cultivate the new habit of thought. I am now a person who shows off what they’ve made. I hope that by this time next year I’ll be a person who finishes what they start.

Which is all very nice but which things? I’ve got a lot of works in progress and there’s a limit to how many I can be actively working on at once. 

In theory I could use my YoFT as a guide and pick the things that will be easy to finish. As if any of them were going to be easy. If they were easy to finish I would have finished them by now.

 Maybe I need to change my definition of ‘finished’. Does writing a complete podcast episode count as a task finished? How about recording an episode? Surely that’s two different tasks? How about a novel? Do I count it as finished when I’ve written enough to share with Beta readers? What about when I feel it’s ready to query? Does securing an agent count as a finished task? I ask because it’s really only the beginning of getting a book published.

What about my health? I’ve been trying to increase my activity levels and eat a more varied diet. That’s not really a task that’s ever finished. It’s more of a habit to be built and then maintained. Maybe I should set myself a target for maintaining the habit of health and then call that a completed task? Or is that cheating?

The more I think (and write) about this the more I think that I need to break everything down into projects. Rather than thinking about finishing, editing and querying an entire novel I should be thinking about sorting out the outline as one task and then working out where I want to go from there. I could decide on an experimental protocol for my attempts to eat more healthily and then follow that through, then write up the notes, and hey presto a finished task.

And now to the final question. Do I get to count things that happen in video games? They’re not real, and I very rarely truly finish a game but I do complete tasks. You know what? That’s between me and my spreadsheet. I’ll count what I want to.

Black Holes and T-shirts and Pitches oh my

It’s been a wee while since my last post so I reckon it’s time for a general update.

NaNoWriMo and Preptober

It’s nearly that time of year again. National Novel Writing Month. Every November millions of people around the world come together to write the first draft of a novel (at least 50,000 words) in thirty days. I’ve done it every year since 2004 and as Municipal Liaison I organise my local group. Preptober is the even more informal challenge of preparing for NaNoWriMo.

You might think NaNoWriMo would be easier this year than it usually is. More people working from home, less pressure to go out and socialise and the shitshows of the US elections, Brexit and a global pandemic to want to escape from. On the other hand there is also the crushing existential angst, the financial worries and the fight for democracy to distract us and make us feel like our silly little stories are unimportant. We can’t even meet up in person to support each other.

I’m doing my best to build my local group up using tools like Discord and the NaNoWriMo forums. I get the impression that a lot of people just aren’t feeling it this year so I need to work particularly hard not to tie my feelings of self worth to the success of the group.

Black Holes

Over on my personal blog there’s a new post up in the ongoing Zeppelin Watch series. It’s full of Black Holes and Science! Check it out.


Also on the blog is the link to the new Zeppelin Watch t-shirts, also stickers, tote bags, mugs and face masks. If you choose to visit the site don’t be put off by the shipping charges. I’ve had customers tell me that the price they were initially quoted for shipping dropped when they got to check out. I have some other T-shirt designs I hope to upload in future. Here’s a sneak peek at one.


The other thing I’ve been working on is a pitch. I can’t say much about it just now but I do have some thoughts on pitches and how they differ from querying agents or submitting to publishers. Once those thoughts crystallise I’ll have a blog post about it. It’s entirely possible that it will mostly be me complaining that I have to actually write stuff down like some sort of peasant, rather than publishers and production companies coming to my door to beg for my golden words.

Why can’t I achieve success just by thinking about it?

False Impostor Syndrome

If you’ve never heard of Impostor Syndrome it’s that thing where talented, hard working people doubt the quality of their work because they feel unworthy of success. When you first learn about it it can feel like such a relief – that’s what’s wrong with me, I’m not a hack, I just have imposter syndrome.

However, at some point you start to wonder if it’s really impostor syndrome. What if my work really is trash? When I feel like a hack maybe that’s because I am a hack. When I feel like my work is good, and should be published, maybe that’s just the Dunning-Kruger effect in action.

If you’ve never heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect it’s that thing where stupid people are so incompetant that they don’t know they’re incompetant. There’s even a graph to track when it’s most likely to strike. If you know nothing about a subject then you know that you know nothing but if you know a little bit you’re likely to overestimate the value and scale of your knowledge. It’s only once you gain a bit more knowledge and experience that you realise the vast scale of your own ignorance.

I propose that False Impostor Syndrome is that thing when someone gains just enough knowledge and experience to overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect, but then misidentifies the realisation that they’re not actually very good as Impostor Syndrome. This is, in fact, applying the Dunning-Kruger effect to Impostor Syndrome. It’s possible to know just enough about Impostor Syndrome to wrongly self diagnose it.

I read this all out to my beloved spouse who insists that I do not have False Impostor Syndrome but have, rather, inaccurately self diagnosed myself with it as a result of the intersection of genuine Impostor Syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger effect.

These two intersections of Impostor Syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger effect are horrible on the small scale but relatively benign compared to the large scale intersection. The brilliant, creative, hard-working, intelligent people succumb to Impostor Syndrome. Meanwhile, the Dunning-Kruger effect allows mediocre white guys with connections and inherited wealth to imagine themselves as geniuses. Picture me gesturing at everything in this, the year of our lord Satan, 2020.

The technology problem

Technology has been such a boon for writers. In a single lifetime we’ve seen multiple hurdles between the writer and success either completely destroyed or considerably lowered.

When I first thought of writing as a career the typewriter was still king, though it was increasingly an electric typewriter, and there were already dedicated word processors, and even a few early adopters writing on computers. Being a writer meant going through a lot of paper. Querying meant paying to send a precious physical copy of your novel through the post. Backing up your work required carbon paper or access to a photocopier.

That era lasted longer than you think. Even once it became common for writers to own computers or high end word processors we had to be aware that dot matrix printer outs were not acceptable for the finished manuscript. We had to shell out for other printers which were invariably noisier, less flexible or more expensive. We had to know that because it wasn’t acceptable to submit a floppy disk and even if you could work out how to email a whole novel no agent or publisher would look at it.

Now we live at a time when you can, if you really need to, write a novel on a mobile phone and send it to an agent or publisher using a coffee shop’s free wifi. The only upfront cost is the phone and a maybe a couple of quid for the writing app.

And yet I’m still looking for the perfect solution to some of my writing problems. I write most of my novels using a program called Scrivener. It’s very useful for structuring and outlining and for writing the earlier drafts. It can back up to Dropbox automatically and I can work on the same file using my PC and my iPad (though not at the same time). It’s very reasonably priced and it’s even cheaper if you win NaNoWriMo. The one place where it falls down is when it comes to collaboration. You can’t have the same Scrivener project open on two different devices simultaneously. That means it’s harder to work on something as a team and it’s less useful for sharing with beta readers and editors.

When I get to the beta stage I compile the Scrivener project as an RTF or a word document and then open it in Google Docs. Google Docs is great for collaboration. You can have multiple people typing on the same document at the same time. Where it falls down is in organising the parts of a project. With a really big project like a long novel or a Tabletop RPG book you only have two options. Keep the whole thing in a single, unwieldy file, or break it up into parts and then risk getting confused about the order of things.

What I need is something that allows me to build a project file full of discrete scenes, notes, timelines, research and also to have two or more people working on it simultaneously. If I can easily turn the separate scenes into a single narrative document for beta readers to look at that would be great. If it can export to a Microsoft word doc for sending to agents that would be excellent.

Maybe you’re wondering why I need that? Well, I have two projects in mind that are going to require a certain level of collaboration. In both cases I’m going to be doing most of the actual typing but I’m going to need input from other people.

One is a very complicated heist narrative that requires a lot of world building. I’ve already mentioned that in This is Not a Project File. The nature of the narrative will require some non-linear storytelling. A lot of things will be happening simultaneously and these things will be linked to events in the past that will need to be fit into the narrative somewhere. Therefore I need to be able to write in a lot of little scenes that I can move around easily. That’s the sort of writing that Scrivener works well with. But I also need a detailed timeline and Scrivener doesn’t have one of those built in. I can always produce one using different software and then import it into Scrivener as an image. But what I can’t do is allow my collaborator into the Scrivener project file to work on the world building and background stuff unless I first close Scrivener on my computer and then go and do something else instead.

The other thing that I’m thinking about is at the extremely early stages and I hesitate to even mention it. Partly because it’s such a cliche. But I am exploring the idea of doing a podcast. A fiction podcast. It will tell a bunch of linked stories but doing the idea justice is beyond what I can do alone. I have friends that I can call upon to get involved. But first I have to solve the problem of workflow. How can we work together?

There’s a part of me that thinks that it’s ridiculous that I’m having any trouble with this. In previous generations people collaborated by letter. They sent each other handwritten maps and timelines. They typed stuff up on flimsy carbon copy sheets so they could pass their work around. If they were suddenly struck by a brilliant plot idea they might even send it via telegram. I have the luxury of text and email to keep in touch with my creative friends.

As things stand I have no solution in mind. I’m open to suggestions but I suspect that I’m going to end up cobbling something together out of multiple programs and web apps.

Lochnagar – on names and legends

Colin Smith / Lochnagar – Mountain and Corrie Lochan.

I love names. However I’m aware that I’m not very good at them. The names of my stories are a bit hit and miss, and it’s a part of world-building where I feel I have a lot of room for improvement. 

In fiction the names of things are an excellent place for environmental storytelling and stealth lore dumping. In the real world names can carry all sorts of meaning. A place name can seem offensive until you research the origin, and find out that the name comes from some completely wholesome, long obsolete word. Or it can seem bland, but have some epic or terrible tale tied to it. 

You can walk down a street every day for years, and only be dimly aware that the street name sounds like a surname. You just assume that it’s named after some local worthy, or the landowner who commissioned the first buildings, or some business that was once a local landmark. Then one day you find out that it’s named after a slave trader, or a war criminal, or a man posthumously revealed to be a rapist, and it doesn’t feel like the same street anymore. 

And then there’s how they sound, and how that sound changes over time. In Scotland we have a lot of place names that are accidental shibboleths. Cults, Maryculter and Alford are all places in Aberdeenshire. Guess which ones have a silent L. If you have trouble with the CH in loch and the R in Aberdeen you’re going to struggle with Garioch. Particularly since it’s pronounced ‘Geerie’. You have to be pretty Scottish to pronounce Aberchirder correctly. You have to be really local to know everyone actually calls it Foggyloan or Foggy.

So let’s talk about why there’s a mountain called Lochnagar when everyone knows that loch means lake. When I was growing up my Uncle John told me that it wasn’t the real name. He said that the real name was so rude that someone invented that name out of embarrassment when Queen Victoria asked what the mountain was called and they didn’t want to explain the real name.

When I was ten that seemed like a perfectly reasonable explanation and I barely thought about it for years. Until I mentioned it to my spouse and realised that I’d never heard that from anyone other than my Uncle John. So I looked it up and, well, there’s no mention of Queen Victoria but…

The English language name is listed as Lochnagar and the Gaelic as Beinn Chìochan. My first thought on reading that was that Chiochan would be a bugger for any non gaelic speaker to pronounce so maybe that’s why the change. 

Then I read, “Technically, the English name is a misunderstanding, being named after Lochan na Gaire, the ‘little loch of the noisy sound’, a loch to be found in the mountain’s northeast corrie.” So that made sense, someone misheard Lochan na Gaire as Lochnagar and they just went with it because the real Gaelic name is so hard to say. That made far more sense than that the real name was too rude for the Victorians.

Reading on I found this gem, “The summit itself may be referred to as Cac Càrn Beag”. Which means ‘small cairn of feces’, or in colloquial English, ‘little pile of shit’. 

Oh. Well maybe they did find the name a bit rude. I wonder what Beinn Chìochan means? 


It means ‘mountain of breasts’.

You know what? If I were a 19th Century Ghillie and Queen Victoria pointed to what I knew to be Little Pile of Shit peak on Boob Mountain and asked what it was called I’d probably pretend she was pointing to the sun glinting off the small body of water near the peak and say “Lochan na Gaire, your Majesty. It means ‘little loch of the noisy sound’,” and then find something else to do before she could ask me why the mountain is named after a lake.

This is not a project file

It’s too early for this to be a project file because what I have right now is a bundle of ideas that might, one day, become a story. I’m going to do something new and share a little bit of my creative process. I have no idea if this is a good process or not. I can only say that it works for me.

Mostly works for me.

It started with character. With two characters. Two characters with similar names from very different sci-fi settings and me idly wondering what it would be like if they met.

Then by some strange alchemy a plot appeared in my mind almost fully formed. These two, very different characters, would be obvious rivals but if you know the characters well enough you know that they’d also be secret friends. The story would need to have them secretly working together on something. That sounded like it could be a heist. With their rivalry as a distraction. A rivalry that would certainly play out in a casino in front of a bunch of witnesses.

At this stage my writing todo list has a few items on it. Create my own versions of these characters and the Casino they’re in. Decide on the game of chance that they’re playing, maybe invent one depending on the setting.

So now I have a framing scene, two legendary gamblers on opposite sides of a high stakes game of chance in front of a large audience. While these two spar a robbery is underway. An extremely complicated robbery. Narrative structure demands that the robbers are stealing a macguffin. So that’s a couple more things added to my todo list. Invent macguffin. Plan heist.

Which leads me to ask why the team doing the robbery are willing to risk so much? Who are they, what do they owe and to whom? How are they involved with my two gamblers?

At this point it became clear to me that the team was stealing something that one of the gamblers already had but wanted to get rid of it. He has this macguffin and everyone knows it, which means he’ll have to hand it over to his masters and he doesn’t think they should be trusted with it. Why does he think that? Is he right? Am I sure this character is a dude? Does he have enough motivation for his actions because now would be the time to add a bit more?

That’s when his backstory came to me. Sadly I can’t share it with you without major spoilers so I’ll only tell you that he’s far more complicated that he appears.

It’s at this point that I realised that I had some major themes developing. Themes around imperialism and colonialism and that if I wanted to proceed I needed to pick a setting.

In the past I’ve had trouble with settings. Sometimes I get so enamoured of my characters that I forget to build the world to hold them. This is where the creativity has to stop for now. Since writing the first draft of this post I have, in fact, come up with a setting and began work on world building but that will have to wait for another post.

Back to the Query trenches

I think I can now officially say that I’ve been querying too long.

Last night I was preparing a query package and double checking the requirements on the agent’s website and I discovered that I’d misread one of the requirements. I thought they wanted a synopsis of under 500 words. No problem, I thought, I’ve got mine under 400. However, on checking I realised that was the requirement for nonfiction queries. For fiction they want the synopsis under 300.

Well, shit.

The standard advice on synopsis length is that it should fit on a single page. That’s around 600 words with single line spacing. Writing a sub 600 word synopsis is hard enough. If I could tell my story in 600 words I wouldn’t have spent months writing 110,000 words. After a week or so of struggle I got a presentable synopsis. I left it a week, went back, realised it was trash, rewrote it entirely, decided it would do and then queried with it a few times. Synopsis version 2.

Then I learned some more about querying and realised that part of the job of the synopsis is to entertain and entice. I took a couple of days to rewrite it completely – to better reflect the journey of the central character. Synopsis version 3.

Then I queried an agent who required a synopsis of under 400 words. I spent a day complaining about that to all my writer friends. I got the word count down to just over 400 without dropping any of the plot. One of my writer friends volunteered to edit it (thanks Vanessa) and she came up with an elegant version that was just under 400. Synopsis version 3.2.

So how do I know I’ve been querying too long? This time I didn’t even bother complaining. I dumped the entire existing synopsis apart from the first and last paragraphs, rewrote the rest, ditched a huge chunk of plot, got it down to 265 words. Took me just over half an hour.

Now. I’m not saying it’s a good synopsis. I’m saying that it fits the requirements and that’s good enough for me.

The Project Files

When I was a kid there was no world wide web. The backbone of the internet already existed but it wasn’t something the general public got to use. So when big movies wanted to generate advance hype they had to do it by television and radio. the bigger the movie they more they would throw at it. There would be tie-in singles released by famous bands and half the time the track wouldn’t even appear in the film. The director, the stars, the producer and the person that wrote the book they were largely ignoring for the plot would all get interviewed. They would be on day-time TV and late night chat shows. If the film claimed to be high brow the director would go on Radio Four. If it didn’t then the star would go on Radio One.

The big franchise moves used to get these ‘documentaries’ about how they were made. In retrospect they were just extended trailers but I loved those things. I would sit in rapt attention while Harrison Ford explained that the reason why Indiana Jones always wore his hat was so you couldn’t tell when it was him and when it was the stunt man.

My intention for these project files is to write the blog equivalent of those ‘documentaries’. I hope that they’ll be entertaining in their own right and will make you want to read the finished work. Maybe they’ll even be useful to other writers.

Alternatively they could just end up being self indulgent trash but that would still be pretty close to some of those ‘documentaries’ so I wouldn’t be too far off target.

My timing is impeccable

Welcome to my new author blog.

As I write this the world is on fire (mostly metaphorically but there are a few literal hot spots). There’s a clown in the White House and a buffoon in 10 Downing Street. The whole world faces the crisis of a novel virus which is just deadly enough to kill a lot of people but not quite deadly enough for the average layperson to instinctively fear it.

You know what absolutely nobody needs right now? Yet another (so far) unpublished author spewing dubious entertainment in an effort to get you all to (some day) buy my books. On the other hand it’s not like I’ve got anything else to do today. How about you?

I suppose my first job with this blog should be to make it clear where I stand on certain issues. I’d hate for anyone to follow me based on some inaccurate assumptions about what a white GenX woman like me might believe.

Black Lives Matter
Trans rights
If your feminism isn’t intersectional then it’s worthless
Independence for Scotland
Climate change is real and dangerous
Vaccines cause adults
Disabled rights are human rights
The scientific method isn’t perfect but it’s still the best game in town

Now we’ve got all the big important stuff out of the way let’s talk about the other stuff that I believe. The stuff above is the stuff that I absolutely will end a friendship over. Everything else is just a matter of opinion.

I like swearing and I think that in the right context it is both funny and clever. I understand if you don’t and I won’t try very hard to persuade you otherwise but you might find that you don’t enjoy this blog. You might also dislike many, but not all, of the books that I’ve written.

I like it when there are moments of humour amidst the darkness. I try to put that in my writing. I can see how that wouldn’t be for everyone. I just hope you’ll understand that if I use humour at times when you find joking inappropriate then I’ve done it as a deliberate stylistic choice and not out of ineptitude.

I believe that since this is my website I can write what I want in it. I make the rules here the same way that I make the rules in my home. I’m open to suggestions in the same way that I’m open to suggestions about different ways to do things at home. It’s still on me to make the final decisions.

So here we are. Well, here I am. It’s really only me. Shouting into the void and hoping that someone will hear. Sometimes I feel like blogging is like keeping a personal diary but hanging it from the town noticeboard.

I’m going to stop writing this post now. I’ve been trying to work out how to bring it to a close for more than an hour now and this is the best I can do.