Word counts, and word targets

I've always used a 1,000 words a day as my target. Which means I'm not allowed to go to bed until I've written a thousand good words. Or at least 1,000 decent words. All right, 1,000 barely tolerable words. Thank goodness for revision.

Every now and then I've experimented with a different system, but I've never found anything that worked better.

In the last few days I've tried something which might, just might, replace the thousand a day rule.

It's 500 words in an hour.

The problem with 1,000 words in a day is it's so very achievable. I fiddle around, doing research, writing a few neat phrases, thinking I can finish the thousand any time I like, until ten minutes to midnight, at which point I decide maybe I should get this done, and start writing properly. I finish by 1am, or 2am. That wouldn't be so bad if we didn't have children who needed to be taken to school.

So I've tried 500 words in an hour, and so far I've impressed myself. Productivity has gone up. (But don't tell Janet, Kathleen, Keith or Belinda, or they might start having unreasonable expectations about me getting stuff done on time...)

With the 500 word per hour system, when the hour starts I don't allow distractions and I hit the target. Every time. Amazing how much those distractions hurt.

Word count for a book varies wildly between genres. Writing historical mysteries, I've always targeted between 80K and 100K, and no one's ever told me I should do otherwise. Beyond 100K, my observation is agents and editors become skittish. Below 80K, I become skittish. Anything within that range is goodness as far as I can see. Once I'm in the zone, I don't care how long it ends up.

In theory this means I finish a first draft in 80 to 100 days. Yeah, right. Still, I'm probably not too far off that. That's not the end of the story though. Personally, if you're using a target system like this, I suggest allocating three times as long for revision as you spend writing the first draft. Yes, three times as long. I'm sure there are people out there who can get it right the first time. In fact, I know there are. But I'm not one of them. On the plus side, when I send in an ms, I know it's as good as I can make it.

Location, location, location...

So I was inspired to this question by a comment in the last post from the inspirational Stephanie Thornton:

If you were a woman in the 5th century BC, where would you choose to live?

I include anywhere on the planet, not only Greece, or even necessarily the Mediterranean. If the 5th century is too specific, feel free to expand a bit.

My own suggestion would be Tyrrhenia, also called Etruria, home of the Etruscans, because the status of women appears to have been high there. If not Tyrrhenia, then perhaps a south sea island like Vanuatu because I like the place, and life would be relatively easy, if short.

The weirdness that was Sparta

It would need a book, probably in three volumes, to even begin to do justice to Sparta. The place was like nowhere else we know of, before or since. Spartan life was so removed from our modern experience, that it would almost be reasonable to say that while Athens strove to become us, Sparta was determined to be the exact opposite. It's no wonder the Athenians and the Spartans could never trust each other.

I won't try and write a book; instead I'll point out a few of the weirder parts of Spartan life:

Sparta had two kings, running in two ancient lineages. Presumably this was a carryover from when the city formed from multiple tribes. It did mean that a new, inexperienced king could be balanced by one with more experience. It also meant a certain amount of argument!

Each newborn baby boy was taken by his father to a committee, which decided whether the child was fit to live. If not, then the baby was exposed to die, by order of the state committee. But if, much more usually, he was fit to live, then the baby was allocated on the spot a plot of farmland which was his for life: his source of income and support. The plot came with helots to work the land; all the owner had to do was eat the produce. When a man died, his farm was returned to the state for allocation to the next baby that came along. It's hard to know what to call this by modern standards. Fascism? Communism? Beats me.

There was only one profession for a Spartan: to be a soldier. The other two classes were the helots—who were slaves—and a small band of free non-citizens called the periocoi.

Helots were a once-free people who were made slaves by the Spartans. The helots rose up on a semi-regular basis. Which is why the Spartans were dedicated soldiers: not to fight wars but to keep the helots in line.

Helots were not slaves in the normal sense that they could be bought and sold at will. They were tied to the land. In some ways they were more like serfs than slaves.

There was a rite of passage for young Spartans called the krypteia, in which the young men were sent alone into the countryside, with only a dagger, and orders to survive without being caught. Oh, and each young man was to kill a few helots. For practice, you know. It was a way of getting the young men used to killing before they had to do it much more dangerously in combat, and it seems as if helot troublemakers were particularly targeted, thus killing two birds with one stone, so to speak.

When a man came of age he was allocated to a mess, which also formed his fighting unit. He stayed in that mess for life.

Spartan women, surprisingly, were the most free of any of the Greeks. The theory went you needed women in good condition to produce strong children.

There was a council of elders, called the gerousia. Membership by invitation only, and you had to be 60 years or older (gerousia...geriatric). Any Spartan who lived to 60, considering the battles, had to be one tough guy.

5 ephors were selected each year from amongst the Spartiates. The ephors held veto power. Whenever a king left Sparta, 2 ephors would accompany him. Any 2 ephors together ccould overrule a king. All 5 ephors could overrule both kings. Ephors were rather powerful.

The first action of the newly elected ephors each year was to declare war on their own helots. So it was legal to kill them without fear of blood guilt, you know.

It was illegal to have a funeral stone unless you died in battle.

For a Spartan to surrender was the greatest shame. In fact to fail to die in battle with your comrades was pretty bad too. There was a man sent off on an embassy by King Leonidas, right before the last stand at Thermopylae. When this man discovered that he'd failed to be slaughtered along with his friends, he was so ashamed he hung himself. A small force of Spartans surrendered to the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War. All of Greece was shocked.

Sparta was structured like four connected villages, each with its own agora. It probably means Sparta coalesced in prehistoric times from four tribes. Unlike every other important city in Greece, Sparta had no defensive walls. The Spartans took the view that anyone who thought they could beat them was welcome to come on in and try.

The Spartans were totally convinced this new-fangled money stuff would never catch on. Instead, they used small iron bars for the few times currency was needed in their lives. Even a couple of hundred years after coinage was invented, the Spartans were still resisting.

The Spartans did from time to time hold general votes. How they voted was this: some men were sent outside the assembly hall. The Aye voters and the Noe voters then shouted as loud as they could, one group after the other. Whichever side shouted loudest won the debate, as decided by the listeners outside.

They called themselves Lacedaemonians, from Lacedaemonia. Try saying that ten times fast. Which is why you typically see the letter lambda on their shields.

Spartans were sometimes referred to amongst other Greeks as "crickets", because they were always ready for a sing-song and communal dancing.

The Spartans were renowned as a people of few words. Our modern term laconic comes direct from Lacedaemon. So the next time you describe someone as laconic, you're accusing them of being like a Spartan.

I could go on forever, but I'll stop there. If people read of a place like this in an epic fantasy, they'd say it was over the top.

Is it different reading an ebook?

Recently I've been reading an ebook, my first experience of such.

The ebook, by the way, is the very good Jester Leaps In, by Alan Gordon, part of the Fools Guild Mystery series, which has an interesting premise: the Fools Guild is a secret society of professional jesters, who in fact are spies working to keep the politics of mediaeval Europe on an even keel.

I'm reading it using Kindle for PC, which works fine for me because I have a good quality 24" LCD monitor hung in portrait mode on a wall bracket. It's like someone is holding up the book for me to read. I can see the day coming when I might acquire an ebook reader, but I've resisted so far.

Speaking as a techie for a moment and not a writer, single-use devices are a doomed strategy. Except maybe for your toaster; it's unlikely you'd want to surf the web and do word processing on your toaster. But there are many years of experience now to show that popular single-use devices—like, for example, a phone— are eventually replaced by general purpose devices which do the same thing and more, as soon as someone works out how to do it.

For that reason I wouldn't expect any of the current batch of ereader designs to survive. The only possible exception is...here comes the inevitable mention of the...iPad which actually had me interested. I might have bought one, until looking through the specs and hearing some user experience convinced me it's a lifestyle toy. No keyboard? Then it's unusable for writing. No multitasking? Do I really want an ereader that I can't also use for writing and email?

Also the iPad lacks the one and only feature which makes the ereaders so very attractive: E-Ink. E-Ink was invented at MIT, I believe, and spun off as a company. When you buy an e-reader, no matter which, you are actually buying access to E-Ink; everything else in the box is dross on the side, only there to support the E-Ink so it can show you a book.

But the iPad is nevertheless a step in the direction of the future.

It seems obvious to me that the right thing to do is put an E-Ink screen on a lightweight, general use laptop, with the E-Ink screen in portrait orientation.

Something I've noticed about reading an ebook: sometimes I find myself skimming the story in a way which I never do with a paper book. Has anyone else noticed different reading behaviour, ebook vs paper?

Rights sale to Penguin Australia!

I am delighted to announce that The Pericles Commission and its follow-on book have been acquired by Penguin Australia

Yay me!

I'm especially overjoyed because now, when I walk into my local bookstore, I'll see my book!

It also means I'll have to stop at every bookstore I pass to see if the book's there and sign every copy I come across. Which will cause the store owner to ask why am I scribbling in his merchandise. Then when he doesn't believe me he'll call the police and I'll be arrested.

So now I'm published by St Martin's Press in the US, and Penguin in Australia & New Zealand. It might seem a paradox that two publishers who are competitors will actually cooperate on a book, but that's the way the system works.

The acquiring senior editor at Penguin is Belinda Byrne, about which I am happy indeed because Belinda is a lovely person. I met Belinda for the first time a couple of months ago over lunch and I've been jumping up and down wanting to announce this ever since. Penguin HQ is in Melbourne and I'm in Sydney, so I still don't have an editor in the same place as me, but it's close enough I can pop down to meet the nice people at Penguin.

The Pericles Commission will be out in Australia & New Zealand in January 2011


So you need a typeface

I saw this on Hedgewytch's tumblr, who seems to have taken it in turn from a long line of pass-the-parcel.

I've read in the past some angst-ridden debates online about what's the "correct" font to use in submissions, so I copied this helpful guide here. You might need to click the image to read it.

Times New Roman 12 point seems to be the standard, by the way, but as far as I know, editors couldn't care less what font we use. I may test this theory by doing my next submission in Comic Sans.


Stoicism was a philosophy of life created by a guy called Zeno. It's called stoicism because Zeno liked to hang out at the stoas in the agora of Athens. The stoas were long, covered buildings to provide shade from the sun. When you look at any picture of the Athenian Agora, pretty much every building you see is a stoa. Stoas were, in fact, what we would call porches.

Hence stoicism in English literally means porch-ism. Or maybe verandah-ism. Which is an odd term for a philosophy which emphasized emotional & mental control, and self-discipline. Our modern word stoic comes direct from stoicism.

Zeno really hit the big time with stoicism. If he were alive today, he'd be on the lecture circuit flogging his bestseller self-help manual. Or perhaps not, because stoicism didn't encourage that sort of thing. As it was, before long, anyone with pretensions of grandeur had to claim to be a stoic, even if they patently were not.

It just so happens that Zeno's favourite hang out was the Stoa Poikile - the Painted Stoa - which by sheer coincidence happens to be the background of my book cover.

Stoicism did not appear until 160 years after The Pericles Commission. Which is just as well because Nicolaos would have made a terrible stoic.

Since I am not insane, I'm not about to teach anyone philosophy. Like Nicolaos, I would make a terrible stoic. As my wife will tell you, I have turned hypochondria into an art form, which means instant disqualification from the stoic ranks. In any case, this video will do a much better job than I could:

Probably the most famous, and certainly the most powerful, stoic ever was the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus Aurelius is best known today for his rather unfortunate death in the movie Gladiator, at the hands of his whacko son Commodus (which may or may not be true). But his real claim to fame, other than being an amazingly good emperor, is having written The Meditations, which was a compendium of stoic philosophy.

Irene Hahn's Roman History Book Chat will be talking about The Meditations at its next online meeting this week. It meets using Google's chat system from 9:30 to 11:00 p.m. US EDT (UTC/GMT -04). If you'd like to talk about stoicism, join us! Just email Irene at the time.

Metics, slaves and citizens...the population

If you lived in Athens you had to be one of three things: a slave, a metic, or a citizen.

At the bottom of the heap were the slaves. A citizen was considered poor if he could only afford two slaves. There was an active slave market in Piraeus, the nearby port of Athens. There seems to have been a clear distinction between house slaves and work slaves. House slaves were ruled by the lady of the house. Work slaves by the master. If you were bought by the master to maintain the olive trees on the farm, then no one would order you to sweep the bedroom floors. That was left to a house slave who was probably female and under the control of the master's wife. It's reminiscent of the division of labor among the servants of, say, a Victorian stately manor.

The state itself owned quite a few slaves—like public servants but without the pension plan—and if you were one of those then you were either very lucky, or hugely unlucky. The lucky ones had cushy jobs as clerks. The unlucky ones were sent to the silver mines, where life was terrible and brief. Being a slave in the mines was the worst thing that could happen to you.

But this didn't mean the lives of all slaves were terrible, not by a long shot. There was very wide disparity, and it was possible for a slave to be better off than a poor citizen. If you were the head slave of Callias, the richest man in Athens, then your life would have been one of virtual luxury.

The metics were resident aliens, with permission to live and work in Athens, but with none of the sovereign or legal rights of citizens. If you think of someone with a green card in the US, you'd be pretty close. Metics had to register with their local deme (suburb) and have an Athenian sponsor.

There'd always been some metics in Athens, but as the city came more and more to dominate Greece, people began to flood in from the poor cities, looking for work and a better way of life. Sound familiar? It's known from funeral stele (monument stones) that the metics came from at least 60 other cities.

Metics formed much of the merchant class of Athens. With its strong agrarian tradition it was somewhat frowned upon for citizens to indulge in trade (which didn't stop the smart, successful ones) but the metics were all for making money from as much trade as possible. The metics may well have owned a lot of the merchant fleet. The Athenians certainly understood how much the wealth of the city depended on the success of the metics. One of the three top archons—the Polemarch—was assigned to do nothing but make sure the metics were looked after. It was possible for a metic to gain mind-boggling amounts of wealth. Pasion, the world's first bank CEO, started as a slave, made a mega-fortune as a free metic, and only after he had enough money to basically buy Athens was he offered citizenship—a rare honor.

Citizenship was a tightly controlled club, and during classical times it only got tighter. A law was passed that to be a citizen you had to be born of a citizen father and a citizen mother. Which strongly discouraged the men from picking up wives from out of town, because to a true Athenian, death was preferable to being a non-citizen. (Quite literally in fact...there were citizens who chose death over exile. Socrates was one of them.) Citizens ranged from the desperately poor to the very wealthy, but they all had exactly the same vote in the ecclesia.

How many of all the people were there? No one knows for sure. Calculations are usually based on estimating the number of citizens and extrapolating the rest on ratios. Herodotus in a roundabout way says there were 30,000 effectives in the Athenian army in 480BC. Which isn't necessarily true, but it's all we've got for the beginning of classical times. People have used all sorts of weird and wonderful systems to extrapolate from there, such as burials and marriage records, and averaging the number of children for those few families which are mentioned in history. Keep in mind too that infant mortality was in the 50% range. None of this is accurate!

Let's multiply the 30,000 by 4, which means 1 wife and 2 surviving children per male citizen. The mild justification is that sixty years after Herodotus said 30,000 men, Aristophanes in a comedy also said there were 30,000. Hence the citizen population was more or less static. So that's 120,000 citizens.

There appear to have been about as many slaves as citizens. That's not a total half-assed guess because there are some documents to support the one to one ratio.

There's a magic moment in 431BC when Thucydides gives the relative number of citizen versus metic soldiers in the army (5,500 metics), from which we get perhaps 25,000 metics total. Maybe as many as 30,000 metics.

So that's a total population of maybe 270,000.

But don't trust me on this. I have to see any two papers on the subject which actually agree.

What interests me intensely is that this tiny place—smaller than many modern towns—changed the world forever.

Why does Gary write historical mysteries?

I'm glad you asked...you can find the answer in the Secret Archives of the Alliterati, where I have a guest post today!

An interview with Meghan

Meghan Sullivan is interested in all things Ancient Greek. Meghan runs the blog Ancient Musings, where she discusses ancient history, games, and interviews authors who write in the period.

You can read the dark secrets I revealed in my fun interview with Meghan on her blog.

The archons of Athens

The archons were the city executives.

Athenians had a clear understanding of the difference between sovereign power and executive government, and were careful to keep the two separate. More careful than all modern democracies in fact. The US President not only heads the executive but has influence on what laws are passed. In the Westminster system the Prime Minister is the leader of whichever party holds the most seats. In both cases the sovereign power and executive duties are mixed. An Athenian would have called that sloppy.

By classical times there were nine archons: the Eponymous Archon, the Polemarch, the Basileus, and six others who served as magistrates.

The archons were elected for a year and after serving, could never serve again. If you're wondering how Pericles managed to stay influential for so long, it's because he was at no time an archon! Seriously. He got himself elected year after year to the part of executive government for which there was no limitation: Pericles was an almost perpetual strategos - a military commander - equivalent to being a member of the modern Joint Chiefs of Staff.

There were only three archons originally in archaic times: the three with the ├╝ber-cool titles. The six magistrates were added as the population grew and the workload became too much.

The Eponymous Archon was in charge of the affairs of citizens. He was something like a city mayor. The Eponymous Archon was the one after whom the year was named. The Pericles Commission takes place in the Year of Conon.

The Polemarch was in charge of the affairs of the many resident aliens, called metics. In archaic times the Polemarch had been the war archon. The word Polemarch is conjoined of war and leader. Military command later became too big for one man and passed to the strategoi. The Polemarch then became in effect the equivalent of the Eponymous Archon for the metics.

The Basileus was the archon in charge of religious and artistic festivals. Basileus means King.

It's obvious if you look at their combined duties that the three main archons were a replacement for the ancient king of Athens. The Eponymous Archon managed civil affairs, The Polemarch led the Athenians at war, and the Basileus led them in worship. No one's too sure when or how it happened, but at some point the kingship was replaced with this triumvirate.

There were a few years in which social upheaval prevented the election of archons. Those years were considered ones of an-archy, literally no-archon. Our word anarchy comes to us direct from ancient Athenian politics.

Grammar check is bad for you, and spell check is not much better

I think I ran spell check on my first book four times. The first time before I sent the manuscript to my beta reader friends. The second immediately before I queried agents. The third when I finished agency-requested edits, right before Janet sent the manuscript to St Martin's Press. The fourth was when I finished edits in response to the St Martin's editorial letter.

I never run the grammar checker at all. In fact, the first thing I do when I install Word is turn off grammar checking. Then I turn off the option to check spelling as I type.

To me they're irritants that get in the way of writing. Every time one of those green spell check lines appears, it stops me in mid-flow and makes me go back to fix the misspelling. Yes, I know I don't have to go back, but if you're not going to stop and fix, then why ask to see the green line in the first place? So I turn it off. That way I actually write story, instead of a lot of correctly spelled words.

The grammar checker on the other hand is actively bad. The grammar checker thinks it can write better than me. It's wrong. The grammar checker has no idea of voice or style. And don't get me started on those style evaluation systems. If you took any great story of the past and ran it through grammar check, do you think it would pass?

When the option to check spelling as I type first appeared, I used it all the time. I noticed a strange thing. My spelling became much worse. Okay, my spelling was never great, but that made the slide all the more noticeable. And I became slower at writing, because I was always conscious of not wanting to provoke a nasty green line.

It probably does help that I use autocorrect all the time. But that works because autocorrect doesn't make me stop and redo.

So what I do now is, I write the story, and then I make the story right.

Happy Eostre or Happy Ostara or Happy Easter

I hope everyone's had a great Easter!

Easter is derived directly from a Germanic pagan fertility Goddess called Eostre, if you speak Old English, or Ostara, if you speak Old High German. Spelling is highly variable on this because, back in those days, most people couldn't.

Interestingly, Eostre is mentioned in writing in only one place, the work of the Venerable Bede, a mediaeval monk and early self-publisher. He said in De Ratione Temporum - which was a bestseller in its day - that Eostre's Month (= April = Spring) was once celebrated with feasts in honor of the Goddess. De Ratione Temporum means On Calculating Time and a lot of the book is about how to calculate when Easter is on.

It's interesting that Eostre appears nowhere in Norse lore. Her only mention is in that early Christian book by Bede.

So if you ever wondered what bunnies and eggs had to do with Jesus, now you know: nothing at all. They are both carryover fertility symbols associated with the Goddess of Spring. And a good thing too, or we wouldn't get all that chocolate.

I hope the Easter Bunny was good to you!

(This is a modified version of a post I did last Easter, but I think the origin of Easter is rather cool so I'm repeating.)

Sacred sex and temple prostitution

I was planning to write about this myself some time, but Mary Harrsch has done such a great job that you should read her excellent summary on whether sacred sex was practiced in ancient times.

Sacred sex is the idea that some temples - invariably dedicated to Aphrodite or the local equivalent - had in-house prostitutes whose service was considered part of the worship. Whether it ever actually happened is very controversial.

I have no choice but to form a definite opinion because I must describe these temples in my books! Particularly the Artemision at Ephesus which appears in the second book, and for which there's a claim of temple prostitution. (And my view is there wasn't.)

Most mention of this subject comes with the sound of ideological axes grinding in the background. Which makes Mary's article so valuable, because it's actually even handed.

We have a book cover

It is with joy that I present to you...

...my first book cover! (It's a bit clearer if you click on it.)

I have it printed and hanging above my desk, where it distracts me day and night.

The characters on the cover are our heroes of course, Nicolaos and Diotima. The building in the background is the Painted Stoa, which was under construction at the time of the story. The art director, David Rotstein (thank you!), has pulled the background from the third scene, in which the Painted Stoa makes an appearance:

This was the site of the new Stoa Poikile: the Painted Porch. The Stoa was a long portico with columns on the side facing the Agora, and a flat wall at the back. Two painters were using charcoal to sketch on the wall, far apart from each other, ignoring the chatter of the excited crowd about them. One had enough detail in that I could see he was about to paint a battle between the Hellenes and the Amazons; the other had barely begun.

“What’s it to be?” I asked the second man.

“The Fall of Troy,” he said, not turning. His eyes stayed on his work and his arm didn’t stop moving.

His lines were simple and direct, no fancy touches, not much detail, I marveled as the strong walls of Troy suddenly appeared beneath his confident hand. Without a pause he left the walls and began on a figure, a woman who I guessed to be Helen.

I said, “Well, don’t put me in it.”

That stopped him. He gnashed his teeth and said, “Gaah! Why must onlookers always say that?”

He threw a dirty rag at me, which I dodged, and skipped out of the porch.

Nicolaos was talking to a famous artist called Polygnotus, who really did paint a Fall of Troy on the Painted Stoa.

I have restyled the blog to match the book. I haven't done my actual web site yet, but this blog is where the action is and as soon as I had it remodelled I put it online. It'll be a small miracle if it works perfectly so please let me know if you have any problems.

You'll notice there is now a series name at the top of the blog. Welcome to The Hellene Mysteries. The jacket line on the cover however is A Mystery of Ancient Greece. You would not believe how much time went into considering those combined 8 words! A Mystery of Ancient Greece is instantly recognisable by anyone. That and the visual clues makes it instantly obvious to the casual browser what the book and the series is about. The Hellene Mysteries is something I can easily write in sentences and makes sense to you, the people who know history.

To add to my happiness, another milestone has also been reached as of last night. If you hop onto Amazon and search for my name or the title, you'll find The Pericles Commission is now up there. The Amazon page is missing a few things, such as a cover image and the blurb, but they'll come soon, and the book is there, and available for pre-order. Yay!

The book will appear on B&N, Borders, Books-a-Million, Book Depository.com and others from this point on as each store does its updates. I've therefore put a Buy the Book section at the top of the sidebar, and as stores come online with the book I'll add links to each of their pages.

The cover and the first bookstore page have made it all seem very much more real. It's like waking from a pleasant dream to discover that, actually, it's not a dream.