All posts by Alice Leiper

About Alice Leiper

I am a writer and freelance proofreader. I write fantasy and research ancient history and mythology.

Game review: Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles

Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is a gorgeous open-world fantasy game in which the player can explore a colourful array of environments, discover the source of the mysterious Murk that plagues the island, farm, craft, fish and complete quests. It is available on PC (via Steam), PS4 and Nintendo Switch.

The two adjectives that, to me, define Yonder: the Cloud Catcher Chronicles are “peaceful” and “sweet” – it’s ideal for chilling out at the end of a hard day. It’s suitable for kids, too, but in such a way that adults can have just as much enjoyment.

Your character starts out on board a ship heading towards the island nation of Gemea, an ancient culture suffering under a curse in which vast swathes of the island are inaccessible because of a mysterious purple haze called Murk. Your task, with the aid of cute little magical creatures called Sprites, is to discover the source of the Murk and clear it away. To achieve this, you must explore all across the island, finding more Sprites and completing quests, gathering resources, trading with the population of the island, and discovering truths about the past.

The main story is fairly straightforward, and doesn’t take particularly long. But there is plenty else to be doing besides: completing quests for the vibrant array of characters inhabiting the world, building farms and caring for the animals, gathering resources and crafting useful items with them, customising your player character to look and dress how you want, discovering unique locations, searching for treasure, and fishing in the various waters of the island.

All of this takes place in a beautiful world. The art style is bold and chunky, giving a friendly, non-threatening feel to the world that perfectly suits the tone. Each of the eight environments – from open grasslands and sunny beaches to shady woodland and icy peaks – has a unique, easily recognisable feel to it. The unique fantasy animals have the same feel – they’re cute, cartoonish, and easily recognised from a distance.

One of the towns in Yonder. Source: yonderchronicles.com

It’s a charming game, and easy to get caught up in, searching for different animals to bring to your farms, or finding the resources needed to complete quests, or discovering what secrets might be hidden in shrines.

The music, too, is charming, with the same sweet feel to it as everything else about this game, and input into the game with thought and care – for example, as musical cues at sunrise and sunset.

There are a few little easter eggs to look out for too. Fun little hidden things that demonstrate the creators have a sense of humour, not to mention a sense of mischief. I won’t spoil them, but some require you to be quite thorough in your explorations!

Altogether, this makes for a well-rounded game. It is, perhaps, a little short – I have 21 hours playtime according to Steam, and I’ve completed the majority of the content. If you’re a fan of the more relaxed type of game, such as Stardew Valley, then Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is a great choice. It’s fun, engaging, relaxing and absolutely beautiful. I rate it 9/10.

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Even more writing retrospection; or, Fear of Old Stories

There is a piece of music called Reverie by Ludovico Einaudi that I love, but haven’t listened to in over 6 years, until now. It’s a beautiful, calm, emotional piece, that at one time I listened to on repeat for hours. That time was when I was a student, my third undergraduate year and my Masters year, when I was working on a story called The General’s Secret. Friends from that time might recognise the title. I was obsessed with it. It consumed my thoughts, filled my dreams. I have on my computer 33 documents related to this story: notes, manuscripts, scenes, alternative endings, alternative beginnings, character sheets, outlines and restarts. And Reverie was the piece of music I listened to when writing all of them.

Reverie is on Einaudi’s 2009 album Nightbook.

At the time I was writing this story, I was convinced it was a great work, a magnum opus. The emotions I poured into it exhausted me. My obsession with the story led me to make notes about or even write scenes when I was meant to be paying attention to lectures or seminars. I spent time writing when I should have been studying. I pulled all-nighters to get essays done in the nick of time because I’d let the story take over my thoughts, fill my breaks from studying and push them beyond all reasonable boundaries.

In the end I came to the realisation that I had to drop the story, or I wouldn’t get a good grade for my masters degree – or wouldn’t get the degree at all. And when I dropped it, I had to drop Reverie too. The track that had been inexorably linked to the story could derail my determination to study hard.

I can see it in the “last modified” dates of my files. Ordered chronologically, there’s a fairly constant stream of documents from mid 2009 through to 26 May 2011, but then a gap of four months, ending the day after I handed in my MA dissertation. But after that I only created six more documents, none of them long, spread out over the last few months of 2011 and into early 2012: two new starts, three notes documents, one alternative ending.

I was scared of that story for the longest time. I dropped the protagonist and the world entirely from what I wrote about for a couple of years. I didn’t listen to Reverie, and after backing it up on my external hard drive, deleted it from my computer. It wasn’t until 2015 I felt able to return to the world, though the protagonist had changed a lot, and I picked a setting right at the start of her story, long before the events of The General’s Secret. I didn’t look back over my old notes, either for GS or for the other stories in the same world and with the same protagonist. I still didn’t listen to Reverie.

Partly I feared the obsession. If I’d let it get to me, that story could have ended my studies. As it was, it certainly contributed to lower grades than I might have had otherwise; work that I know I could have done better on. It harmed my relationships because I spent my time on that instead of with my fiance and my friends.

Part of it was the fear that I couldn’t write that well without the obsession. I cried when I was writing The General’s Secret. Writing betrayal scenes made me distrust everyone for days after; writing the final departure left me feeling as bereft as my protagonist was. The intensity of my writing experience convinced me that the quality of what I wrote must be incredible. Compared to what I had written before, it certainly felt like it was.

But here I am, six years after the last word I wrote on that project, listening to Reverie again for the first time since then, realising how much utter bullshit I had convinced myself of.

Because it wasn’t a magnum opus. It wasn’t incredible literature. It certainly wasn’t insurmountable quality that I could never even aspire to without also submitting to the obsessive and destructive mindset I had when I was writing it.

I’ve reread it. I finally overcame my fears and worries, and looked again at this story that, even when I was writing about my old stories last month, I couldn’t quite face. That’s how powerful that fear was: even when I was deliberately looking back at old stories to see how far I’d come, there remained a single exception that it has taken me three weeks to get over.

The General’s Secret is a juvenile story with stilted dialogue, contrived plot points, minimal characterisation and a very poor understanding of human emotion and motivations.

Thank goodness I didn’t give up my degree for it.

The reason that I can see that now is that my ability to judge the quality of writing has improved vastly in the last six years. That, I think, it due to a combination of factors: more experience of the world, more exposure to other stories both good and bad, and more practice writing.

But at the same time I can still recognise what I was trying to achieve. The clunky dialogue and contrivances and unrealistic reactions don’t completely obscure the powerful emotions I was trying to evoke. The betrayals, the loss, the realisations, the fears. The problem was that I didn’t have the skill or experience at that time to convey them well. And maybe I still don’t now, but what I do have instead is just enough experience to recognise where the gaps in my knowledge are, and the wisdom to write stories that don’t rely on them.

I won’t be writing The General’s Secret again, I think. There might be something in there that’s salvageable. Themes, worldbuilding elements, names. But not much. I’ve moved past it. My stories have evolved. My writing has improved. But most importantly, my own experiences have introduced me to a whole range of new things to write about. Conflicts I couldn’t have imagined, fears I didn’t understand, and all the beautiful ways that people can be.

And once more, I can listen to Ludovico Einaudi’s Reverie with all the implications of the title, instead of the obsession that I indulged in when I was meant to be studying.

Some more retrospection

At the end of last month I took a look at what I’ve been doing in 2017. This week I’ve been looking further back and reading some of what I was writing since the start of this decade. And I’ve come to realise just how far I have come in that time as a writer. I’ve gone from writing sporadically or when I am inspired to writing every day. I’ve gone from tenative to confident. I think my approach has become more mature and nuanced in that time too.

But there’s a lot that has stayed the same too. There are certain themes and tropes that I have returned to time and time again during the last eight years. I am a total sucker for a redemption arc. I’ve done them repeatedly in several different ways, both in fanfiction and original fiction, across half a dozen settings. Even my latest story has an element of it.

Though it’s a theme I’ve used repeatedly, I think the strongest use I’ve put it to is when I’ve turned it on its head somewhat. I said in my New Year’s Eve post that I wanted to return to the Horrible Monster project (though it really needs a better name than that). In that story, early versions had it as a straight redemption arc for the second main character: a criminal who ultimately helps the protagonist uncover corruption and becomes a hero. But I was never happy with that. It fell flat. It was too easy. It meant that my protagonist didn’t really develop much. She occupied a saviour role, in which her actions enabled the secondary main character’s redeption arc, of which she was the primary judge. And that was boring.

When I finally managed to write a full draft, the saviour element was gone and the protagonist’s arc was much darker. Her motivations were more selfish, her actions to help the secondary character driven by goals other than to benefit him. The arcs for these two characters became mirrors of one another. They were not lifting one another up, but holding each other back from the extremes of what they might have achieved alone or with other allies. There remained something of the redemption arc, but there was also an inverted version, a character development that went in a very different direction. And it made the whole story so much stronger and more compelling.

In a lot of what I have been reading of my old stories, I noticed the tendency to succumb early to the idea of a happy ending, even if there was a lot of plot to go. My favourite characters would join forces, reach a truce, and work together towards a common goal – even if those goals had changed radically for some characters to enable this teamwork. I was too eager to see concord, but it cost the stories I was writing because there is a lot of power in conflict to drive a story forward, to explore themes, and to develop characters, that everyone getting along cannot achieve so easily or at least so interestingly.

I often think about my favourite character arc in fiction: that of Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I explored four years ago on this blog. What makes Zuko’s arc so powerful is that we, the audience, root for him, and specifically root for him to see that Aang is right and his father is wrong – but when he first is presented with a real choice to side with Aang, he doesn’t. And that’s not because he’s evil, because he isn’t. It’s because Zuko has spent so long working towards a powerful personal goal that he is incapable of making the selfless choice. All Zuko has ever wanted is his father to be proud of him. For three years he has lived in exile trying to redeem himself in his father’s eyes, and no amount of lessons from Uncle Iroh or understanding the impact that the Fire Nation’s attacks have had on the people of the Earth Kingdom or kindness from Katara can override that for Zuko.

It is not until he sees the consequences of his choice, and experiences the reward of it, that he can understand the context both of his original exile and of what Aang is trying to achieve. It’s only when he gets what he wanted that he begins to understand whose approval is really worth getting. If Zuko had sided with Aang in Ba Sing Se like so many of us desperately wanted, he couldn’t have completed his redemption arc fully, because he couldn’t have seen the harsh reality of what his desires really meant, and contrasted that reality with the way he had imagined it. He couldn’t have come to realise that his own opinion of himself is much more valuable than his father’s opinion.

A lot of what I wrote when I was much younger took the Ba Sing Se choice and closed the redemption arc too soon. I was focussed too much on the destination and not enough on the steps that needed to be taken to reach it. The endings fell flat. They hadn’t been worked for. The characters hadn’t been developed, I’d written wrongs into them and nearly instantly forgiven them, and then I’d written circumstances to help my other characters forgive them too.

Thankfully, I have got a lot better at this. My more recent stories, Horrible Monster in particular, have been more powerful because I have resisted the urge to indulge in the destination without making the journey.

The other pitfall I wandered into in a lot of my earlier stories, especially those that I abandoned quickly, was to make the redemption arc the centre of the conflict. It is an interesting arc that I am very much drawn to, and it is all too easy to fall into the trap of making it the only arc I spend much time on. The stories I like the best now, months or years later, are those in which there are other themes involved too: grief, identity, coping with illness, friendship, community and so on. Those stories had different types of conflicts, nuanced relationships, changing contexts, and better opportunities for those redemption arcs that I am so fond of to go somewhere different and interesting.

A little self-reflection and analysis is a very good thing, and after spending some time looking back at my old stories I feel I’m a lot better equipped to move forward writing stories which have something interesting to say, featuring characters who are more human and more entertaining.

Retrospection and Resolution

The new year is always a time for looking back at the year just gone and making plans for the year ahead.

I don’t feel that 2017 has been a good year for me. I lost my Granny, had a sick partner to take care of, I haven’t had any luck with the job hunt and I didn’t do nearly as much reading or blogging as I hoped. I didn’t achieve the goals I set out to do in January.

But it hasn’t been a complete write-off. I’ve gone a year learning Italian on Duolingo, and since November my writing has really picked up. This last week in particular, I’ve written loads and felt reinvigorated about my fiction.

A little under a year ago I set myself one reading and two writing goals:

  • To read 39 books. I read 17.
  • To rewrite “Horrible Monster”, the story I finished in 2016. I haven’t touched it.
  • To improve my writing by copying and studying twelve authors. I gave up after the first one.

So not exactly a great track record for 2017, but given all the stresses of job hunting, grief, hospital visits and all the rest, it could have been worse.

For 2018 I’m going to set some more realistic goals:

  1. To take time to read every day, even if only for 10 minutes. There are a lot of books on my reading list right now, including some released in 2017 that I ought to have reviewed, some I got for Christmas, and some classics I’ve been meaning to get around to for years.
  2. To finish my current story and bring it up to a standard read to submit. This is the story that I’ve been working on at full steam ahead since November, a pulp science fiction story set in the Second World War, under the working title Aliens in Pendleford. It’s been fun trying something a little different from what I usually go for, and it’s inspired by a combination of the BBC TV series Land Girls and H G Wells’ War of the Worlds – one of those books I’d been intending to read for years.
  3. To revisit Horrible Monster and write a strong second draft. It’s certainly a stronger story than anything I attempted in the first ten months of 2017, but in places it is bloated, and I didn’t quite understand my theme until I was half way through writing it. With a bit of refocusing, I think it could be quite good.
  4. To write more blog posts. With more reading, I should manage more reviews, and with the rate I’ve been writing the odd progress update should be manageable too. Watch this space.

Also in 2018 I’m hoping to get a better job, so that will keep me busy. I will continue practising and studying Italian, and perhaps take an exam in it if I feel ready by the time I need to book it, and I’ll be picking up German too. I was never very good at languages at school – except English, of course. But I think part of that was that I didn’t much like the teachers and had the arrogance of the English to believe I didn’t need another language. But now I’m finding it quite satisfying to see the progress I’m making, the ability to understand written Italian and some spoken, and even slowly compose short sentences without looking at a dictionary or phrase book.

Review: The Last Jedi (no spoilers)

Just in case there’s anyone out there who has managed to avoid all the hype while simultaneously having the internet to read this blog, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the latest film in the Star Wars saga. In the previous episode, The Force Awakens, scavenger Rey and ex-stormtrooper Finn joined the Resistance against the First Order, met Han Solo and Chewbacca, and helped destroy Death Star 3.0, a planet converted into a massive space cannon capable of blowing up multiple planets in one go. Now Rey has gone in search of Luke Skywalker, and the Resistance have a vengeful First Order out for their blood.

The stunning promotional poster for Star War: The Last Jedi. All images used in this blog post are copyright Disney, used under fair use for review purposes.

I had a lot of fun watching The Last Jedi. It is tempting to compare it to The Empire Strikes Back, the second installment in the original trilogy, and while there are some parallels, I feel The Last Jedi has done a lot that’s new too. That said, it doesn’t quite live up to its illustrious predecessor, and there is a very specific reason for that I will explore in more detail in a separate spoiler-full post later.

Let’s start with the visuals, because they were stunning. The design of evry single part of this film was staggeringly brilliant, from the simple efficient spaceship interiors, to the wide open landscapes, the shining architecture and the brilliant CGI animals. Anyone who has seen the trailers will be familiar with the Porgs, a cute little bird critter, but there is other wildlife to be found in the galaxy, and it’s brilliantly inventive and rendered with gorgeous attention to detail.

Costuming is fantastic too, each outfit designed perfectly: the costumes reveal a lot about the characters wearing them and their roles within the universe, what is important to them and where they fit in.

Stepping up from costuming to the ships and other vehicles in the Star Wars universe, they too all feel well-chosen. The First Order’s vessels and vehicles are larger, more intimidating upgrades compared to those Darth Vader and the Emperor had in their fleet, with the same feel to the interiors – even the same lack of railings on the walkways. I’m particularly a fan of the new AT-AT walkers, which give a sense of being larger and sturdier than their predecessors, not to mention meaner.

The new AT-AT walkers are bigger, stronger and scarier than those Luke faced on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back.

The Last Jedi really accomplishes a sense of scale, both through the wide shots of ships and locations, and through the timescales involved in the story. The space battle sequences are spectacular, with all the things we love about Star Wars battles: lasers, zooming fighter ships and explosions, but with a greater sense of structure and strategy than I ever got from the original trilogy: it’s about more than sending fleets of fighters out for a dog-fight.

The plot seems to be very character-driven. It comes about because of the choices that Finn, Poe, Rey, Luke, new main character Rose and others make. The downfall in the plot, and the key problem I will discuss in my spoiler-full analysis, is that some decisions hinge on a lack of communication between characters rather than an actual conflict or obstruction. Another gripe I have is an over-reliance on time-critical and last-second actions – a transparent attempt to increase the tension. The film could have slowed things down and given some of the dramatic themes more time to play out in between the action sequences.

Rey was played by Daisy Ridley

But for all that, it is exciting to watch, with events leading naturally to an exciting climax, and a few funny moments that fit organically into the plot without feeling like the film is taking time out for comic relief.

There’s a definite feeling that there’s a big challenge ahead for our heroes: the situation is significantly changed compared to that at the end of The Force Awakens, not all of it in good ways. The final installment has a lot to achieve, but based on The Last Jedi, I am sure it will manage.

I rate The Last Jedi 7/10. It looked incredible, from the wideshots of hermit Luke’s island to the battles. It was fun, exciting and epic. But some serious problems with the writing prevent it from achieving full marks.

I’m sort of doing NaNoWriMo after all

In October I started writing some fanfiction as a means of giving myself space to think about my novel. This month, I restarted the fanfiction story and added aliens, which I completed at 16,000 words after three days – my biggest daily output in years. It was fun and silly and all about a core character relationship developing across frankly absurd circumstances. There’s a type of relationship I love to explore in my writing, in which advertisaries must work together against a common foe, and the scene I started with, combined with an alien invasion, gave me a chance to write just that.

Then I realised that the only parts of the story that actually involved the original show it was a fanfiction of were the setting, the opening scene and the characters’ names. After that point, well, obviously there are aliens, but that wasn’t the only difference: my two key characters were the one I created and the one who had died in the source material (and in any case was only in about three scenes in that). Other significant characters were original too. The fanfiction part was really an ignition point, and provided a shortcut to remove the need to create a setting from scratch so I could dive right into the story.

So on the 22nd of this month, I started writing a new version, with a new opening scene that ended how I wanted it, but began a little differently. I’ve made a few tweaks both for story reasons and to distance it from the source material, but the general idea is the same.

I’m now over 12,000 words in, so I decided to record my total on NaNoWriMo anyway. Originally was going to be continuing the novel I was working on last month, which wouldn’t be in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, so I didn’t feel it was right to sign up. Since I have started a new story, and been writing a lot more per day than I usually do, I’ve decided to use NaNoWriMo after all. I don’t expect to hit 50,000 words, both because I’d need to write as much each day until the end of the month as I have in total over five days and because I don’t think it will end up even half that long when it’s finished. It’s really more about recording my progress somewhere (my One Million Words spreadsheet hasn’t been updated in about a year) and challenging myself to finish the story within November.

This story and the fanfiction that it spawned from have really invogorated me. I haven’t written this much in a long time. I’ve gone from averaging around 400 words per day to regularly exceeding 1,000 words and, a few times, writing over 3,000 words in a day. I’ve been waking up and going straight to my manuscript to write, without even making coffee or checking Twitter first (yeah, I know, right?!). I’ve written in my notebook when away from my PC, and typed up as soon as I’ve got home.

It’s so nice to feel so excited about what I’m writing, without having to slog over it and work out complex networks and interwoven plotlines and detailed worldbuilding.

Review: The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, by Mark Forsyth

I don’t know if you lot have noticed, but I’m a bit of a nerd. Last year I went to my local library and borrowed The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth and enjoyed it so much I bought a copy and then read it again. It now resides on my desk in my “reference” section. So when I spotted The Etymologicon by Forsyth in a bookshop a month ago, I had to go back on payday and buy it.

The Etymologicon is, as the title suggests, about etymology. Forsyth examines the roots of common words and how they connect to one another, in a familiar and engaging style that wanders this way and that through Latin, French, German, Chinese, Greek and all the way back to Proto-Indoeuropean. He fills his account with snippets and quotes that delight and amuse, such as this from the chapter “Dick Snary”:

I do love a pun, and I am impressed that Forsyth has found such an old one. And what better than some word-play to illustrate the history of a book that lists words in a book about the origins of words? Wonderfully approriate!

If you are looking for depth, this isn’t the book for you, since Forsyth lingers only long enough to impart the important information, plus perhaps a tangent or two and and an amusing story, before moving on to the next word. The benefit of this approach is that you never get bored and you’re always learning something new; if you want to delve a little deeper into a word, there’s nothing to stop you heading over to Google or Wikipedia, or Forsyth’s key sources (provided at the end of the book), to find out more.

I rate The Etymologicon 9/10. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and heartily recommend it to anyone who’s a bit of a word nerd. It’s easy to dip in and out of too, so it would do nicely on a coffee table – or in the bathroom.

Five phrases people on the internet keep getting wrong

If there’s something I really hate, it’s when people on the internet are wrong.

Obviously this happens all the time and I don’t much care when they get it wrong in ways I wouldn’t notice, because who has time to look up every claim made when chances are the top comment will be a snooty correction by someone who does care?

No, what I care about is when people spell idioms and phrases incorrectly. Of course, I can’t correct them in the comments, because that looks petty and snooty. But in a blog post is a different matter: it’s not a direct response to anyone, and in any case my intent here is to educate and entertain, so even if you are getting these phrases right, you’ll still learning something interesting along the way.

So here are five phrases people get wrong on the internet:

Toe the line

Often misspelled “tow the line”, the origins of this phrase are disputed in the detail but not the effect: it comes from the need of a group of people to line up neatly, with their toes touching a line on the ground. Whether these individuals were school boys being inspected at roll-call, sailors in the Royal Navy lining up along the lines of the planks of the deck for inspection, or people in a foot race starting at the exact same starting line is disputed. In modern parlance, “toe the line” means to conform with specific standards, usually of behaviour or productivity.

The phrase has nothing to do with hauling upon a rope, though the Royal Navy sailors of the 18th century who might toe the line would be plenty of that too!

The Battle of Camperdown by Philip James de Loutherbourg. “Toe the line” might originate from inspections of sailors, standing with their toes touching a line between the planks of the deck.

Lo and behold

“Lo and behold” is used to express a turn of events or situation which might have been predicted or considered predictable. When I hear it used, it’s usually to emphasise the speaker’s foresight and the lack of wisdom of their subject, as in “I told him if he let her eat sweets she wouldn’t want her dinner, and lo and behold, five o’clock comes round and she’s throwing her spoon on the floor.” It’s also used when there is a surprising coincidence: “I met a lovely lady while I was on holiday in Cyprus, we really got on, and lo and behold, she lives only a mile away from me!”

It’s an odd one, this phrase, because “lo” is a very uncommon word used only in this idiom and a few archaic and Biblical contexts. It is commonly misspelled “low”, a far more common word which is pronounced identically. “Lo” here is a shortening of “look”, but with a more exclamatory tone; literally the phrase would be equivalent to “look and see”. Being fairly informal, it’s easy to see why it is so commonly misspelled: it’s spoken far more often than it’s written.

With bated breath

As with “lo”, “bated” isn’t a common word outside this idiom. It is an abbreviated form of “abated”, which means reduced or lessened. So “with bated breath” could be interpreted as holding your breath – which you might be doing as you eagerly await to hear news of something, which is the idiomatic meaning: “eagerly, with great anticipation”, according to Wiktionary. The first recorded use of the phrase, like thousands of others, is in Shakespeare, who used it in The Merchant of Venice. And while perhaps we shouldn’t be taking spelling lessons from a man who spelled his own name in several different ways, that spelling has indeed stuck, in parallel to the word it abbreviates.

The homonym “baited” is the incorrect alternative – and it crops up even in published books like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, according to The Phrase Finder. But how can you bait breath? And what are you attempting to catch with that bait? It makes much more sense when spelled correctly, once you understand the root.

The 2004 film adaptation of The Merchant of Venice has quite the all-star cast.

Free rein

The alternative (incorrect) spelling of this phrase, “free reign”, appears in 46% of uses of this phrase, so it’s a very common error (according to Jeremy Butterfield in the Oxford A-Z of English Usage). The image it conjures up is persuasive, as if a king or queen can act as they wish, though in that case they wouldn’t need a free reign at all, only a reign. The actual origins come from horse riding, where the rider slackens the reins and allows the horse to choose where to go and at what speed. This makes more sense considering the meaning: someone is given the freedom to make decisions where they might not usually, such as a junior team member having free rein over a project, where normally their manager directs their work.

For all intents and purposes

I end with a phrase that is both commonly misspelled and commonly corrected, so hopefully you’re getting this one right anyway. It means “in the practical sense” or “in respect to what is important”. It may be used in contrast to what is technically the case but not viable: “While producing this part itself isn’t banned, importing one of the raw materials is illegal, so for all intents and purposes it is impossible.”

The origins of this are even older than Shakespeare (though not by much): in an Act of Parliament under King Henry VIII in 1546, the phrase was used as “to all intents, constructions and purposes”.

The incorrect construction, “for all intensive purposes”, is pretty old too: The Phrase Finder quotes The Fort Wayne Daily Gazette from 1870, where a political figure is described as follows: “to all intensive purposes, politically speaking, he might as well have been dead.”

A portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger; an Act of Parliament unde the Tudor monarch is the first known use of a variant on the idiom “for all intents and purposes”.

What misspelled phrases and idioms do you notice people getting wrong a lot? Which phrases have etymologies that are particularly interesting or obscure?

Some reflections on NaNoWriMo

I’ve been aware of NaNoWriMo for about 12 years now. I first attempted it ten years ago, in 2007 when I first went to university, so a city that had an active NaNoWriMo group. Since completing my studies, though, I haven’t done much with NaNo: I’ve signed up several times, updated my profile, filled in the novel info, and so on, but after winning in 2008 and 2009, I have not been successful since.

If you are not familiar with NaNoWriMo, it is an annual writing challenge that takes place in November. The goal is to write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days. The website provides pep talks, community forums and a tracking system, as well as rewards for successful challengers.

Over the last decade I have learned a great deal about writing. I’ve read a lot of books, including several about writing; I have written several novels and numerous short stories; I have agonised over scenes and despaired of ever writing something I could be happy with. NaNoWriMo was an important part of that journey, but it is no longer a good fit for me. At least, not at this stage; I won’t rule out the possibility of it becoming useful to me again.

Part of NaNoWriMo is building discipline: to succeed at such a challenge, a writer must write an average of 1,667 words per day for a whole month. That’s not a trivial amount of words; if I know what I’m writing, I’m not interrupted and I don’t get stuck, that quantity of words would probably take me about an hour and a half. If you miss a day, an even higher daily time commitment would be needed to meet the 50,000-word goal, so writing every day is pretty important.

Developing discipline is an important tool for a writer, but it’s not one I need NaNoWriMo for anymore. Since July 2015, I’ve been writing every day without fail: I’ve got that discipline, even it doesn’t involve as much of a time commitment as NaNoWriMo would require.

NaNoWriMo is a fantastic motivating tool. There are a lot of people who want to write a novel some day but never manage it, or who spend a lot of time planning and never start. Having a major global event which has a start and end date and a clearly-defined goal, in which tens of thousands of people communicate with one another, and regional groups arrange in-person meetings, is incredibly powerful.

But those are not problems I currently have: I’m not a “some day” writer, I’m an “every day” writer. I’m not stuck in the rabbit hole of planning. I’m four chapters deep in my current WIP (work in progress) so I don’t need help starting. I don’t need community forums to motivate me to write, and I can’t easily access regional in-person meetings from the rural backend of the west midlands.

As for deadlines and word targets, I don’t think that suits the way I write at the moment. I don’t want to rush. When I rush for word targets, I write a lot of useless fluff, which only creates more work in the editing stage. I can see the value in it, certainly: a way to prevent self-editing in the writing stage and let the story flow, a challenge to spur you forward. But the pace that suits me is a lot slower than NaNoWriMo aims for. Perhaps in time I will increase my productivity to a rate that makes NaNoWriMo more viable, but that is not the case right now, especially since my current process involves planning and writing one chapter at a time rather than planning everything in advance and then writing the whole story in one go.

That is perhaps a long way of saying “I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year”. It’s been a useful tool for me in the past, and I don’t want anyone to think my decision not to use it this year means I don’t think it’s useful: it is. It just doesn’t fit with my process this year.

Review: Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

After stealing an airship at the end of Senlin Ascends, Thomas Senlin and his crew still have plenty of hardships to struggle through and places to explore on their journey to find Senlin’s vanished wife Marya. They encounter outcasts, people who live on the edges of society, and people who hide in the shadows, as they continue to work their way up the immense Tower of Babel, ultimately seeking out a mysterious figure known as the Sphinx to get help in their search.

Arm of the Sphinx is the second in the Books of Babel series by Josiah Bancroft.

The fantastic original cover by Ian Leino

Where Senlin Ascends kept to a single point of view, that of protagonist Thomas Senlin, its sequel branches out. Senlin himself remains the primary point of view, but there are also numerous scenes from the perspective of other members of his crew. While this dilutes the focus of the story, it feels like it fits: Senlin is now responsible for other people besides himself, and those people are engaged in parts of the story Senlin never sees.

This widening of the perspective meshes wonderfully with the wider view of the world of the Tower of Babel: where in the first book, Senlin was a newcomer learning about the Tower, now he is an experienced hand with it, a leader to others, still learning but now seeing deeper than the surface level. There is a greater sense of complexity to the world that parallels the wider complexities of a larger cast of point of view characters.

Bancroft has a wonderful talent for building a sense of menace. The more Senlin learns, and the more we learn, the greater the impression that there is a lot going on beneath the surface, a sense of strange occurrences, subversion, manipulation – that nothing is quite as it seems.

There’s also a strong feeling of mystery surrounding the Sphinx in particular, but other characters the crew encounters too. Even as Senlin learns more, there are plenty of questions left unanswered, drawing the reader onward.

Each of the point of view characters is given the space, in their scenes, for the reader to learn about their motivation, their goals and the things that are or have been holding them back. This is balanced beautifully with the action and more tense moments to create a compelling tale that kept me on the edge of my seat, and my finger hovering over the screen ready to turn to the page so not a second would be wasted.

Arm of the Sphinx is a solid second instalment to the quadrilogy*, with all the wonder and exploration of the first in the series and a stronger feeling of sinister undercurrents. It is a natural progression building on the foundations created by its predecessor and full of promise for the rest of the tale.

I rate Arm of the Sphinx 9/10; it is an enthralling, exciting read and I look forward to reading Bancroft’s next book.

See my review of Senlin Ascends here.

*A previous version of this review refered to the Books of Babel series as a trilogy. Mr Bancroft has confirmed here that it is planned to be a series of four, or “foursie” as he prefers to think of it.