Saturday, 31 July 2010

Milestones Blogfest

This being my entry for the milestones blogfest. It's one of the more traditional heroic milestones, even if this doesn't work out quite as planned.

Norman’s muscles bulged, or at least creaked ominously, his fingers fighting for purchase on the hilt of the sword, his feet jammed against the stone below it. He paused, swore, and then took out an inhaler from the pack slung across his back. He stepped back, stared at the stone, and reached into the pack again.

A few seconds of work later, and he held the sword aloft. It caught a shaft of light perfectly, sparkling in the early morning sun.


A rather elderly figure hobbled forward at speed, leaning on a gnarled staff. He wore an ancient robe that Norman fancied was worked with mystic symbols.

‘What do you think you’re doing?’ the old man demanded. ‘I was in the bath!’

‘I have drawn the sword from the stone,’ Norman said. It sounded more impressive in his head.

‘I can see that. Set all the alarms off too. This thing is supposed to be locked down tight until tomorrow. Bugger off, you.’

‘But I’ve drawn the sword from the stone!’ Norman repeated. ‘I’m the rightful king!’

The old man looked Norman up and down. Or at least, given that Norman was five foot two, down and further down. ‘No you’re not.’


‘The rightful king is a stroppy great bloke called… hang on, I’ve got it written down somewhere… begins with A. Oh, forget it. Anyway, you’re not him.’

Norman put his hands on his hips and attempted to look the other man in the eye. After a moment’s thought, he stood on the rock to do it.

‘That’s not how this works. You don’t know in advance who’s going to pull the sword out.’

‘Of course I do. I’m a powerful seer and wizard, I am. Also,’ the alleged wizard added, ‘he’s not coming by until a little after ten tomorrow, so you can’t be him.’

That didn’t strike Norman as particularly fair, but he didn’t get much chance to say so. The wizard was too busy trying to put the sword back into the little groove it had left in the rock.

‘Honestly, I’ll have to glue it now. And it’s not even as though super glue works. You have to use the builders’ stuff. Have you ever stayed up three hours with your thumb on the pommel of a sword while the glue sets?’

‘Look,’ Norman said, ‘I know how this works. “Whosoever pulls the sword from the stone shall be the rightful king,” the legends say. Whosoever. Not some bloke you’ve picked in advance.’

The wizard shrugged. ‘Well… whosoever is a difficult word, isn’t it? And not just with the things chronicles do with the spellings these days. I mean yes, technically whosoever is right. It’s just that… well, it has to be the right whosoever.’

‘So all this is a fix?’ Norman demanded. This was just typical. Like that thing with the screaming stone in Ireland. Apparently, it only counted if the stone screamed when you stepped on it, not if you just happened to stub your toe…

‘If you want to look at it like that,’ the wizard replied. ‘I mean, it’s not like I’m about to go to the trouble of shoving three foot of steel into granite for just anybody, is it?’

‘Why can’t I be the rightful king? I think I’d make a very good rightful king.’

The wizard appeared to give this some thought.

‘Three reasons. First, you aren’t the right bloke, he’s tougher than you, and you’ll only get your head cut off if you try.’


‘Second, I can see that bottle of WD40, you know. Oiling the stone is cheating.’

‘Um…’ Norman hurriedly returned the bottle to his pack.

‘And third… blokes wandering around with swords almost as big as they are is fine, as far as it goes. Perfectly acceptable part of the fantasy landscape, that is. The thing is, generally the swords are almost as big as they are because they’re bloody great two handed things, not because the bloke in question wouldn’t get onto most of the rides at a funfair. It just wouldn’t scan.’

Norman sighed. There hardly seemed to be much point in arguing.

‘Look, just go away,’ the wizard said. ‘Fair play to you for inventiveness, but some of us have a job to do. More of a job now. And I've got to set up some sort of quest thing. Honestly... all I ever wanted from life was a chance to settle down and look after my garden, but do I get chance? They delivered a rockery last week, and... well, let's just say that someone wasn't reading the scale properly, but have I had chance to sort it with all this going on? Have I heck as like. So the last thing I need is some twerp adding to my problems.’

Norman hung his head and skulked off. Well, that hadn’t gone as well as he hoped. That was the problem with these heroic milestones. For some reason, people always seemed to demand heroes. Still…

Norman rooted through his backpack, drawing out a couple of faded maps with big Xs drawn in blood, a scroll labelled “to finde thee rightful kinge”, and a ring with some writing on the inside. The ring next, he thought. He had a good feeling about the ring.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Some Common Plot Problems

Below are what I believe to be some of the commonest mistakes people make when planning novels, based on my reading, my own writing, and my work as a ghostwriter. I would be interested to hear your thougthts:

  1. Character and plot are separate. This can lead to either characters who have no reason to play, or plots with cardboard cut out characters.
  2. Too many strands. Trying to do too many things at once leads to all sorts of problems. Most dangerously, it means that you no longer have a single story arc, and the pacing can end up very strange.
  3. Things just happen. The Deus ex Machina ending is the most obvious of these, but it can be smaller scale too. Random problems springing up out of nowhere aren't as bad as random solutions, but both suggest that the things that are happening aren't happening as part of any overall series of events.
  4. Repetition. Do you have your characters doing essentially the same thing over and over again? Do you have your characters doing essentially the same thing over and over again?
  5. Cliffhangers splitting scenes. I'm all in favour of a good cliffhanger, but it's possible to misjudge it. Sometimes, people will produce a dead scene with nothing in it, just so that they can have a cliffhanger leading to the next. This does not rachet up the excitement, it bores the audience for a scene and then makes them think "oh, a cliffhanger."
  6. Starts, but not ends (or rather starts, but not-). A symptom of the too many strands thing more than anything, this is where you start plots or subplots, but then don't do anything with them, perhaps because something more interesting has come along. Now look, you'd get irritated if I left my socks lying around like this...
  7. A lack of memory. If your character does something, or behaves in a certain way towards another, then having them turn around and behave completely differently later on requires an explanation. It is also difficult to have them being, for example, quite popular one moment, and then having a bit of the plot that relies on them being an outsider.
  8. Too many characters. Not every new action requires a new character. In fact, most don't.
  9. Characters who do not respond in character. If you have outlined a tough, take no nonsense female cop, for example, having her faint or scream like the heroine of a bad romance novel simply isn't on.
  10. Big surprises. There is certainly a place for revelations in a good plot. In fact, at least one definition suggests that plot is about managing the release of information. That strikes me as a different thing, however, to everyone being someone's long lost relative, or to putting in big surprises at the end that actually undercut most of what you have done.
Now, this is all very grumpy, so I would like to add the caveats "unless it's funny" and "unless you really want to." And yes, I have done most of these things at various points.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

It's working, then.

I write like
P. G. Wodehouse

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!


  • The national fencing championships are in two days. I'm entered in the sabre, and will have to fence well just to make it past the initial cut (also to deal with assorted ones at head height). Random fencing tips welcome.
  • Plot, I have observed a couple of times, is not quite the same thing as having things happen to your characters. I write this thanks to some plotting issues at the moment, though hopefully nothing sufficiently major to slow me down.
  • Australia were all out for 88 yesterday, playing Pakistan. :)
  • The ghostwriting proceeds apace. Occasionally at a considerable pace. I wrote three chapters of a novel the other day. I'm considering getting a life at some point.
  • I also had an email back for a short story some six months after I had decided that they had probably rejected me without telling me. It was a rejection.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Blogfest of Death Entry

Being the second half of the first bit of the third novel (sorry, I'm in that sort of mood) my entry into the Blogfest of Death:

Grave pushed the memory away and went back to searching. A few seconds of further effort yielded a pair of neatly wrapped egg and cress sandwiches and a folded piece of paper, only slightly stained so far by its stay in Grave’s possession. He unwrapped the sandwiches and ate one handed while scanning the paper. It was always best to check these things. Three names had been crossed off, in a mixture of pens that had, in the general manner of pens, proved impossible to find twice. Three other names were still neatly printed below.

‘Elizabeth Peters,’ Grave rumbled to himself, sending a faint spray of breadcrumbs into his beard.

Something skittered in the darkness at the sound, and Grave absentmindedly kicked a discarded can in its direction. A resentful squeak told him he’d connected. He was in the right place at least. That was a blessing. There’d been that time when he’d been sent over to Egypt and had found himself on the wrong side of the Nile. He’d had to swim. Come to think of it, didn’t he still have a pair of crocodile skin boots from that somewhere? Or was that some other time?

Grave sighed. Other times. There were always other times these days. A thousand years of other times, all tangled up like the web of some giant arachnid. He’d probably hunted one of those too, back in the twelfth century, or was it the thirteenth? His memory played tricks if he let it.

A faint scent brought his mind back to the present. Like cinnamon, but not quite, mixed in with the usual scents of humanity. Even over the car-fume stink of the city, it was easy to pick out. Grave took a quick look at the remains of his sandwich, wondering whether he should finish the thing or push it back into his pockets. The first raised the possibility of trying to do his job with a mouth full of egg and cress, while the second seemed like a recipe for pockets Grave could never put his hands in again. He threw it off to one side instead, hearing the scurry of rats as they scrambled for it. Grave filed the information away for later.

For the time being though, there were more important things to do. Now, which pocket? His massive hands resumed their search, darting between the inner surfaces of his coat, and fetching out objects almost at random. A piece of string? Usable, but no. An unused ticket to an opera that had closed two hundred years before? An antique silver cow creamer? How had that got in there?

Grave’s movements grew more frantic as footsteps came closer. They were a woman’s footsteps, light and fast, with the click of heels striking concrete. That was good. Even though Elizabeth Peters took the same route back from her work each evening, it was better to be certain about these things.

It would have been good, at least, if he could just find the right pocket. A tulip bulb? No. A pair of reading spectacles that weren’t even his? This was getting embarrassing.

She came round the corner right on time. Thirty years old, attractive, though looking worn out from a day spent planning marketing strategies. Elizabeth Peters was huddled in the jacket of her business suit against the evening chill. She didn’t even look across to where Grave stood. Everything was perfect, or should have been. At this rate, he was going to have to improvise, and the foremost Huntsman of the Courts working with… he looked down… an expired library card, just wouldn’t look right.

Elizabeth Peters was past him now, making her way along the side street. Much further and he’d have to go with what he had. One more try. Grave’s hand dipped into another pocket and he smiled as his fingers closed around the hilt of a knife.

‘Ah, finally,’ he muttered, loudly enough that Elizabeth Peters turned, startled that she’d walked past someone without noticing. The movement meant she was just in time to meet the sweep of the knife as it slashed across, throat high. She held her hands to her neck for a moment, her eyes wide with shock, before her knees buckled.

Grave caught Elizabeth Peters as she fell, lowering her carefully to the ground and watching as the light started to fade from her eyes.

‘Well,’ he said amiably as he stood, ‘that was almost a complete cock up. Still, all’s well that ends well.’

Cleaning the knife, he resolved to make a special note of which pocket he put it in this time. Grave walked to the mouth of the street as casually as someone the size of a small giant could, checking that no one would be running to Elizabeth Peters’ aid. That sort of thing was always annoying. About halfway there Grave stopped, looking around, and then sniffed as something came to him on the breeze. He sniffed again, just to make sure. His broad forehead wrinkled in puzzlement.

‘Another one?’

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Advice blogfest

This is for the peevish penman blogfest, and represents some random scraps of advice about writing that I think are important, but probably aren't.

  1. It isn't about the goblins. I first gave this advice elsewhere, but its an important one for fantasy writers. Fantasy creates a distance that you can use to explore things, play with ideas, and comment on the "real" world. Use it. Writing about goblins for their own sakes is boring. Writing about them because they behave the way we suspect we might secretly quite like to is far more fun.
  2. Have fun, and be funny. This might sound strange coming from an occasional purveyor of quite violent urban fantasy, or from the person who gave the above advice. The thing is, I think that my writing improved out of sight the day I decided to start making fun of things, because it was what I really enjoyed doing. If you have the same urge to try comedy, do it.
  3. Invite real criticism. There is a danger sometimes of not reacting to criticism well. I know I don't (in fact, it is only the cost issues that prevent me from putting together a suitable robot army to deal with critics. All donations welcome). The trouble is, it's easy (especially online) to fall into a situation where everyone says "yay, it's brilliant!". So you think your work is brilliant. And then you send it to an editor.
  4. Publication is not the goal. For some reason, people see that moment of publication as success. As an end point. It isn't. It's a start. Look beyond it, to growth and sales and eventual world domination (did I mention my robot army?)
  5. Did I also mention that you should have fun? I think that one is worth repeating. So many people get into this really intense "I will write and write, and do millions of writing exercises, and be incredibly serious until I succeed" mode where they have to get their words done each day, and they have to submit to so many editors. Relax a little. Remember that even with all this perseverance, the odds are not in your favour. It might seem unfair, but you can do all of this for years and not come out of it as a success story. Now, if you're being incredibly serious about it all, that is heartbreaking. You've spent years doing things you don't like, for nothing. Or you could do things you do like, enjoy the process, and probably end up writing better things anyway.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010


You can always tell if I'm bored, because I start hunting round for reviews of my work. I don't think I've seen this one of the last Semaphore anthology before.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Acting Appropriately?

My full length Brian Northington piece continues, though I'm a little unsure about one spot, namely the one where he first realises that fantastic things exist. I think it's quite a hard moment for writers to get right in general, because the most obvious reactions (extended disbelief, uncooperativeness, or running away from all the other characters) aren't exactly helpful when it comes to the plot. I've decided to go for what seems like the funniest option (passing out from the shock, then later getting obsessively interested by dragons, this is Brian after all)

I suppose the point here is that characters don't always behave like ordinary people, because they aren't. So long as the reaction isn't actually inconsistent with what we have seen of them, it doesn't strike me as a problem.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Tales From the Sidelines Blogfest

My piece for the tales from the sidelines blogfest, all about those huge battles that sometimes show up in a certain sort of fantasy literature.

Out on the Plains of Utter Desolation, the armies of Light and Darkness struggled like two ballroom dancers in hobnailed boots. At least, some bits of them did. At the centre, heroes clashed, great magics were worked, and people tried to work out exactly what you were supposed to do when faced with opponents consisting of little more than shadowy cloaks. Hang them up somewhere, presumably.

Of to the sides, things were a little more sedate. Orc sergeant Grunnash leant on his pike, took a drag on his cigarette, and then offered it to a nearby Elven Paladin of Light. The elf accepted it gratefully.

‘It’s always like this,’ Grunnash said. ‘Always the heroes at the centre. The likes of you and me don’t get a look in.’

The elf nodded. ‘Hardly worth us showing up really. I mean, either one of our heroes will succeed in killing your boss, or that evil wizard of yours will turn them all into assorted amphibians. Either way, battle over.’

‘Right.’ Grunnash nodded, then adjusted his spiky black armour as the helm slipped forward. ‘I don’t know why we’re even here.’

‘I suppose it adds something to the ambiance,’ a nearby goblin suggested, holding out a paper bag. ‘Boiled sweet, anyone?’

Grunnash sucked his thoughtfully. ‘I don’t know about you, but I didn’t go through ten years in the training Pit to be on the sidelines. I mean,’ he nodded to the elf, ‘why did you get into the whole paladin-ing business? Probably wanted to make the world a better place, right?’

‘Um… actually, it had more to do with my name.’

‘What’s that then?’

‘Flowerfriend Moonshine.’ The elf winced as he said it. Grunnash patted him on the shoulder. A name like that, and you probably would want to make sure you took a job where you got to carry a damn great sword around with you. It said a lot about elven war hosts in general, really.

‘Still, I bet you didn’t sign up to stand around doing nothing. I mean, what are we supposed to do while we wait? It’s not like they let you bring a book along to read.’

‘Talking of books,’ the goblin said, ‘I can offer you some very good odds on a Light side victory.’

Grunnash thought about it, then shook his head. ‘Nah. I mean, if they win, there’s not going to be much of me left to collect, is… hang on, I think they’re coming this way.’

As the heroes’ melee took itself past the spot where Grunnash and the elf stood, they sprang into action, slashing and cutting. After all, it wouldn’t do to be spotted lazing about. At least, not when the people doing the spotting could probably disintegrate them for it.
As the melee moved on, the soldiers around them settled back into something approaching normality. The elf gave a yelp of pain.

‘Ow! My ear! You’ve gone and had my bloody ear off, you oaf!’

‘Now there’s no need to be like that,’ Grunnash said, ‘I’m sure I have some gaffer tape of healing around here somewhere.’

‘Gaffer tape? I’ll give you gaffer tape!’

Afterwards, the bards would write with some perplexity of the role a late surge from one corner of the Light army’s forces that had largely been overlooked played in deciding the battle. They poured over it, checked the replays, and then decided that they would all much rather be covering the football, and got on with that instead.

Monday, 5 July 2010

A Writing Day, ish.

My mother finished the book, and seems to like it, though it can be hard to tell with mothers, can't it. Is that a real 'I loved it' or a 'that's nice dear' one? Hopefully the former. Of course, now my dad has his hands on it (which is bad news for the book because he is one of those irritating people who insist on bending the spine back).

Thankfully, I have nearly finished another in the series (the third) so my mother won't run out of things to read soon. I have discovered that the hard thing about writing a book is not getting it done, it is simply finding the time for it, as I am learning with my own efforts.

On that front, and thanks largely to some positive comments on the various stories he is in, I have decided to have a go at a full (ish) length Brian Northington effort. I have a plot of sorts worked out, and a few characters in place, so off we go. This is, you understand, all your fault.

My various efforts today may be subject to a bit of a break while the cricket teams of Pakistan and Australia play one another later today (from Lords. Apparently London now counts as a home match for Pakistan, what with people having security issues with matches in Pakistan). One high point should be seeing Shaun Tait and Shoaib Aktar vying to bowl faster than one another. Tait went past 100mph the other day, and Shoaib has done it a couple of times in his career, so I can't see either of them just trundling in to concentrate on line and length.

Friday, 2 July 2010

My Copy

The other day featured the arrival of my copy of one of the novels I have ghost-written, along with going online and seeing the first reviews of it. They seem to be positive, and while that is obviously nothing to do with me anymore, I am happy that somebody has liked it.

The next test is whether my mother will like it, since she is currently reading my copy. Given how hard I have worked to ensure that she doesn't read my urban fantasy stuff, I am understandably nervous.

I was, curiously, rather less nervous the other night when standing a few feet from some chaps who wanted to hit me with assorted knives and longswords. Probably, this had a great deal to do with them not being sharp, what with it being simply the local branch of a Historical European Martial Arts group. Fun, though possibly not as much of a challenge as fencing, simply because you don't get as many people doing it. I must also admit to being a little worried by some of the dagger techniques, which were based on a particular fourteenth century form of dagger with no real cutting edge, and so tended to ignore those moments when that edge was wandering across the arms.

Andy Murray is out of Wimbledon. No doubt, pundits will now declare the British summer of sport officially in ruins, what with being out of the football world cup as well. For some reason, they seem to be ignoring cricket, and particularly the bit where England won the twenty/twenty world cup. Apparently, failure at sports where we have very little chance of success counts as bigger news.