Word Frequency Analysis

I haven’t blogged for a while – I guess I’ve not really found anything worthwhile to say.

I’m currently preparing the third draft of the sequel to The Glittering Cage, and going through various stages of angst about form and structure. In particular, I’m obsessing on over-use of favourite words and those little beggars that seem to insinuate themselves into the text without you noticing: adverbs. So I wanted to find out just how often I use certain words.

You may be familiar with Wordle, or at least seen the strange graphics popping up here and there on the web. If you’re not, go and have a look… http://www.wordle.net/

I forced all 130k words of the novel down its throat, and it didn’t even hiccup. The visual map it produces shows which words I used the most, emphasising the most frequent by increasing their size. By default, it removes common English words such as, the, and, to, etc. There is a setting to include them if you want.

Book2 Wordle

This is fascinating stuff. As I’d expected, my main character Samanta is by far the largest word. What’s a little worrying is how prominent words such as; eyes, away, like, head and hand are. This suggests a penchant to convey emotion and interaction via the eyes and head movements, probably using too many similes (hence the prominence of the word ‘like’).

For confirmation, I did the same thing for the text of The Glittering Cage. Yep, I’m big on eyes in that one too, as well as, back, head and like. You could say this is stylistic, but less kindly and perhaps more honestly, it’s lazy and unimaginative. But now I know about it, I could probably address it.

Book 1 wordle

Even more interesting was a feature in Wordle I’d not noticed before. At the top of the word cloud, there are some drop down menus. Under Language, right at the bottom is a function called Show Word Counts. This gives a table of every word used and the exact number of instances. Use ctrl+A to select all, then copy and paste it into Excel. Now using sorting and filtering, you can really get to know how you use the language – and possible spot where you can improve your use of it.

But wait, there’s more!!! (Hmm, I used 62 exclamation marks in the book – which is 62 too many)

I found this link on the Wordle forum pages, (http://holme.se/stem/ )which lets you look at stem words and block others in the analysis. By removing character names, you can then clarify in great detail, the way you choose words, which has got to be a useful insight. You can even feed those filter results back into a Wordle word map.



Hardback The Glittering Cage in production

I’ve just spent all day getting the hardback version of The Glittering Cage ready on Lulu.com.

Lulu do make producing a book remarkably easy. They convert  your Word document to PDF and you just have to make sure the page size of your document matches the size of book you’re producing.They even have a cover design wizard which is very simple to use (though the results are distinctly amateur).

However, if you want more control over the cover design, you have to produce a full image consisting of the front and back faces, the spine, and for a hardback, the inside flaps as well. And here you have to be very precise. The front and back covers have to be exactly 1913×2850 pixels (for a 6″x9″ book), and the spine width has to be calculated according to how many pages are in the book (354 pixels in my case for 457 pages). You then have to combine these five elements into a single image which must be 300 dpi (dots per inch) or it will look blocky when printed. And then you have to generate an ISBN number, download the barcode image of it, and add it to the full cover image. You also need to allow a bleed edge around the whole thing to allow for the printer trimming the paper wrap cover.

It’s not a process for the faint of heart and requires some basic knowledge of graphics packages like Photoshop or PaintShop Pro. Even then, you really need to buy a review copy to check. And if you find you got it wrong, that’s £15 or so wasted.

The Print On Demand (POD) industry of which Lulu is one of the best is a quite remarkable tool for authors, and quite liberating. The only downside is the cost as printing a single copy of a book is bound to be expensive compared to the large productions runs the traditional publishers use.

Book Covers

I saw a tweet the other day by Gillian Redfearn who is the editorial director at Gollanzc. She put a link up to some new artwork for a couple of Joe Abercrombie’s previous books (He’s one of the most popular fantasy writers at the moment in case you hadn’t come across him).

His covers so far have been broadly similar, usually featuring an old map splattered with blood and perhaps an axe or sword. Not exactly high art, but variations on a theme that had become synonymous with his name. The new covers were more illustrative, heading towards photo-realistic; a muscled/heroic arm wielding a sword etc etc. Personally, I prefer the originals.

Three questions rise from this:

  1. How much involvement and influence does an author have on their covers?
  2. Why does the publishing industry constantly tinker with a cover, or have different ones for different markets and territories?
  3. Why are book covers so bad?

So I responded to Gillian’s tweet with the first question, and surprisingly and to her credit, she answered. https://twitter.com/GillianRedfearn/status/295926653111123968

I think I heard an expression once that you can always judge a book by its cover… no, wait…

Why do so many authors, having sweated blood on to the page and polished it word by word by word, sometimes over many years, allow such an agony of creativity to be wrapped up in the equivalent of a dirty old rag? And what’s more, different rags over time or territory?

a)      The publishers (contractually) sideline him in the process?

b)      He doesn’t care?

c)       He has no artistic abilities and cedes the decision to the business?

d)      Publisher persuades him their professional marketing team know better?

It’s not unreasonable to look for parallels in other creative media, and the music business is a good place to go. In terms of artwork, they couldn’t be further apart.

I challenge you to name more than one iconic book cover. Er… Clockwork Orange? Er…

I challenge you to name more than one iconic album cover. Bowie, Pink Floyd, Joy Division, The Beatles, The Clash, Nirvana, Sex Pistols, Yes, etcetera, etc.

We recognise these albums and the artists that made them even without seeing the name or title on the front – often an image is so strong, the band don’t even bother including them. And the other thing about this is that they almost never change. The American cover for Dark Side of The Moon is exactly the same as the UK cover, and the French cover, and the Australian cover. For forty years!

An iconic cover is an incredibly powerful image. How many times have you seen Abbey Road mimicked? How many tourists and fans have been to see the zebra crossing. How much revenue generated? How many T-shirts and posters sold?

Yet the American edition of a novel almost always has a different cover to the UK edition, I assume because marketing people believe we have different tastes and they want to maximize sales by catering to that taste. But when you think about it, this is nonsensical, because then the novel itself should by that logic have corresponding differences in tone, style and content. Put that to an author, and see how it goes down. Authors know a lot of words. You’d probably also find they know a few expletives as well.

A kind of FAQ – Part 2

But how do you turn ideas into a story?

Once you start creating a culture, power base and infrastructure for your world, the ideas for conflict and therefore stories in that world almost write themselves.

Not that I did a geeky world building mental exercise and then populated it. I started with some vague ideas for a couple of characters, my general aims for the book as above, and some general evocative themes – dark matter, water, stone, purity, fractals, infinity etc.

My central character is/was autistic. This is a condition many find fascinating, not least when there are savant abilities attached. Quite often these are untrained musical or artistic virtuosity, or mathematical abilities (see Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man). From my limited understanding, much of this is down to innate pattern recognition ability. Music is just numbers after all.

The first line I wrote for the book was “God is dead”, and it has never changed. Although Nietzsche coined the phrase, he was not speaking in a literal sense. Speculative fiction is all about the What If question. So what if, literally, god was dead? In a fantasy world where god can be real, what would the death of god mean?

And if god saw her own death approaching, what would she do about it? Would a mere human have the ability to succeed her? In my world, I decided no. What about an autistic savant with the ability to see the underlying beauty of form, connections, mathematics and infinity? Possibly. But he would have to become much more than human first. How could that happen?

So ideas become a story in a kind of join-the-dots way, where one leads on to another, where conflicts arises when there are opposing desires, when tension is created where there are obstacles to overcome and salvation is always in doubt.


So, what’s it about?

Don’t ask a writer this unless you want to see them turn red, steam billow from their ears and their hands start to shake as they try to condense 100 thousand words or more into a sentence. Instead, ask someone who has read it.

Authors are pretty useless at summarising their own stories. Writing a synopsis for a potential publisher is tantamount to self-harm. It’s not so much can’t see the wood for the trees, as can’t see the wood for the atoms in the cells in the leaves on the branches of the trees.

Yeah, whatever. What’s it about?

Ok, it’s fantasy, but nothing like Tolkien or Harry Potter. There are no dark lords, or dragons, or mystic crystals, or magic rings. No elves, or dwarves, or orcs.

Well actually, the maaladons could be a modern equivalent of dragons, the Baan have some Elvin characteristics, the powerful ovolith stones are a sort of mystic crystal – but there are no dwarves or magic rings. Definitely.

At the end of the day when all is said and done, there is nothing new under the sun, and there are only seven types of story. Originality is all about disguising your influences, recognising clichés so as to avoid them as much as possible, and using the seven basic story types in a new and interesting way.


I’ve never read a fantasy novel. Why should I read yours?

All genre literature has its conventions and peculiarities, from thrillers to police procedurals, to whodunits and romances. We gravitate to one or the other because they satisfy a need or interest we have. Crossing genres can therefore be disorientating as the conventions and peculiarities may take some time to absorb. Speculative fiction can be more challenging than most because more suspension of disbelief (Samuel Coleridge) can be required.

Someone pointed out that my opening line, God is dead, could be offensive to religious people who are not familiar with fantasy and be seen as an attack on their belief, therefore alienating them from the novel before they had even begun reading it. People familiar with the genre however, are more likely to understand we’re talking about a fantasy god in a fantasy world, where such deities might not be eternal and omniscient, and be in no way a commentary on real world religions.

There is a view that fantasy is a poor relation to literary fiction, and an arrogant assertion that it is shallow escapism without artistic worth. I try to remind myself of this when struggling through some pointless dirge on the Booker list, or when drowning in the cloying nostalgia of other supposed classics. For me, the best fantasy is all about exhilaration; whether in the beauty of a more simplistic world, the thunder of a cataclysmic battle, or the mystery of primal harmony. The prose of Stephen Donaldson can be breathtaking at times. The razor wit and thoughtful social commentary of Terry Pratchett is among the best in any genre. The pounding brutal action of Joe Abercrombie shames the efforts of many lauded thriller writers. If you want to feel alive, then fantasy is for you.

The Glittering Cage is full of action and clips along at a relentless pace. There are some strange, perhaps challenging concepts, and even stranger creatures. There’s love interest (a bit twisted), plenty of violence (moderate gore and brutality), two sex scenes (one definitely twisted), some intrigue and betrayal, and a lot of agony, torment, death and heartless manipulation in store for the main character. I even tried to make the reader cry at one point. But there’s no comedy. I’m not a funny guy.


How do you construct the plot?

I don’t. It all just falls together somehow.

Well, that’s not strictly true. Most novels have a story arc where the protagonist starts out in one state, perhaps in innocence or cynicism, and becomes the opposite by the end. Others can be cyclical, where the character takes a journey back to where he started. In the Glittering Cage, Rift is autistic as a boy, is “cured” by having the memories of past life cut out of him. This being a fantasy world, those memories grow into a physical person, becoming the antagonist Rift must defeat. That being established, the story could only ever have one conclusion, which was for him to return to an autistic state by re-absorbing his doppelganger.

More than any other genre, fantasy novels often incorporate a physical journey of discovery, mirroring the emotional journey of the main character; (We probably have Tolkien to thank for that, as with many other fantasy staples).

For that reason, I set off writing this book with no real idea where it was going to wander, and with only a vague idea where it would end. As with a physical journey into the unknown, sometimes you wander into dead-ends, but the joy of discover as new vistas opened up is what really fires the imagination, and hopefully that enthusiasm shines through.

Of course, when it’s done the journey is mapped, and you can go back and erase the wrong turns, sprinkling the text with hints of what’s to come, so that when you have your hero hanging from a cliff, the miraculous escape doesn’t come across as a Deus ex machina (i.e. a contrived plot device). You trod a meandering trail through the long grass when you first set out, but in the second draft, because you know where you’re going, you can drive a nice straight road.

Some authors plot in detail before they write a word. Others have a more organic approach. I lean more towards the latter than the former.

A kind of FAQ – Part 1

The Glittering Cage has only been published a couple of weeks, but quite a few people read it pre-release. Different things interest and intrigue people about the book and the writing process. I should do an FAQ, but I’ll first try to address some of the questions here by paraphrasing the common ones.

What were you trying to achieve in writing the book?

First and foremost, I wanted to write the sort of book I would love to read, but don’t necessarily find very often. It’s one thing to know your target audience and have them in mind when writing, but to write purely for the market at the expense of that core principal risks producing a work that feels a little hollow. And people are smart enough to notice something essential missing.

I also wanted to avoid the tired clichés that genre novels, and fantasy in particular, seem to contain these days. It had to be original, though such originality would have to sit roughly within the accepted parameters of the genre. Otherwise a reader picking up the book might feel misled.

I came across this quote, which made me laugh: “There is no plot so stunningly original that a journalist can’t make it sound hackneyed”. http://www.watt-evans.com/lawsoffantasy.html

I’d love to claim that The Glittering Cage is fresh and original. And that it’s a cliché free zone, but of course it can’t be, because we all stand on the shoulders of others. Hopefully what I’ve done is to eliminate the absurd, and maximize the originality whilst delivering a novel that is still clearly fantasy.


Where do you get your ideas?

Every writer and wannabe writer gets this one. There’s a bit of a quiet rant on Panoply blog about it (http://creativepanoply.wordpress.com/)

I think people ask this because if they don’t really have a creative bent, generating ideas for a novel might seem like some kind of mysterious magic. Other people might harbour a secret desire to write, but just don’t know how to generate ideas, and are therefore intrigued by others who seem to find it easy.

For me, the answer is “Everywhere!” Not very helpful, I know, but…

I have a deep fascination for cosmology and physics, and an important theme of The Glittering Cage is the creation myth of my chosen world, Edria. I took the Big Bang theory and gave it a mythological twist: the big bang was God cutting the bonds of her physical existence in order to create matter. From the particles, stars and planets coalesced, some matter becoming sentient as lesser gods (The Appatta), others remaining as defuse matter that we cannot detect, such as dark matter and dark energy. I characterised these as Dark Gods, or The Dark Appatta. The antagonism between the Appatta and their dark chaotic brethren lies behind all the conflict in the story, though this theme is largely kept in the background in preference to the more immediate conflicts between the protagonist and antagonists. So that particular idea has a very real world scientific basis.

Although in fantasy, anything is possible, it must still conform to its own internal laws. By weaving dark energy and matter into the story, I then had a potential source for the “magic” that exists in the story. I don’t call it that because I’m trying to avoid obvious clichés. The Lapilli nation are the magic practitioners in the story who use this power they call their Art, to form cities, buildings, bridges and artwork from bed rock (The word “Lapilli” in our world meaning a type of rock ejected during a volcanic eruption). In order that this power has limits, I created a law that means the Lapilli can only use it through the filter of the “Lapis Testa” they build, elegant stone and water structures inhabited by the memories of their ancestors who translate the power into a form tame enough to use.

How did my book get there?

It’s a strange thing to google your book to see where references crop up on the internet.

The Glittering Cage has been creeping it’s way out from Smashwords for a week or so now on their distribution train, due to pull in at iTunes, Sony, Barnes & Noble etc, and a google search already brings up several references: in my blog, Amazon, Twitter etc.

However, if I google my first book, Perpetual Light, which has been out as an e-book and paperback for a couple of years, the number of places it turns up for sale are quite staggering – as are the prices attached to it. It fills the first two pages of a google search. I’ve listed some of the links below.

One lesson I’ve learned from this is that when you release your own book, you  also release any control over how it, or references to it propagate across the internet. You have ceded partial ownership to a beast with a voracious need to feed on information and grow like some demented fractal or coral colony.

The second interesting observation is about choosing the title for your book, should you have a need to feed this ravenous beast. “The Glittering Cage” as a phrase it quite unique and finding it in a search on Amazon or other book retailers is therefore easy. Originally the book was called Pure, but I changed it as someone else had just used that same title in the same genre. In fact, a search for that title on Amazon brings up 6 novels. If you want to stand out and appear original, not only in subject and style to potential customers, but to the google information crawlers, then a unique title is critical. Potential titles should be test driven through google and all likely retailers.

Here are some of the places I found Perpetual Light unexpectedly: