Friday, 30 December 2011

Court of Dreams is Nearly Here

My comic fantasy novel Court of Dreams is officially going to be released on the 18th of January. My publishers have opened pre-orders for it today, making it probably the funniest thing you'll find in the January sales.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

A Suitably Seasonal Story

Well, it has Santa in it, at least. Sort of. Enjoy. And I hope you enjoy the holidays too. Oh, and I should probably put an official disclaimer on it: no Santas were harmed in the making of this short story. Probably.

A Very Evil Christmas

Lord Edwin the Moderately Unpleasant sat upon his Throne of Darkness and bit his fingernails in not very villainous anticipation. The anticipation was mostly because of the pair of goblins dragging a very large and very squirming sack into the great hall.

“You managed it then?” Edwin demanded.

The goblins stood to attention. One did so with gleaming elegance, the dinner jacket he always wore perfectly arranged. The other narrowly missed being squashed by the sack when his cousin let go.

“Grot assures me that he has succeeded, Sir,” the well-dressed goblin said.

“You didn’t go with him to make sure?” Edwin demanded, in what he hoped was his most boomingly villainous tone. It probably wasn’t up to much, even though he’d been practising.

“I believe I explained, Sir, that I would not be able to do so, owing to the duty coinciding with the Christmas party for the Society of Slightly Supercilious Servants.”

“Oh, yes,” Edwin said as he remembered, “that. But doesn’t that mean that your cousin did it all by himself?”

“I am sure cousin Grot is very capable, Sir. Indeed, I know from personal experience in the slime pits that he is capable of almost anything.”

Grot, on hearing his name, capered towards the front. “Grot done well,” he said. Edwin saw Tilesbury wince at the performance, though frankly, he thought it made a nice change. A henchman who actually behaved like a henchman, and who hadn’t been thrown out of hench-ing school for excessive politeness, could only be an improvement on… well, whatever Tilesbury was.

Edwin looked over to his manservant. “I didn’t know goblins even celebrated Christmas, Tilesbury. I thought they celebrated the Festival of Sludge, or something.”

“Slime, Sir.”

Grot capered some more. “Festival of Slime! Festival of Slime!”

“One likes to show willing, Sir,” Tilesbury explained, carefully keeping clear of Grot.

“Well, at least it gave me the idea for my Great Plan,” Edwin said, slotting the capitals into place with the ease of long practise.

“Yes Sir, though I feel I must point out-”

“Oh, you always want to point something out. Just because I came up with the idea to kidnap this ‘Santa Claus’ and thus hold an entire world to ransom, while simultaneously gaining stacks of presents.” Edwin rubbed his hands in satisfaction. The Big Red Eye would have to take notice of this one. Edwin might even move ahead of Lord Nasty in the league tables for villainy at last. That reminded him, he really should call round and see old Nasty at some point, it being the season, and so forth. Perhaps a small invasion?

“Even so, Sir I feel I should mention the fundamental flaw in any plan to capture Santa-”

“No. No even so-ing. Just open the sack.”

Tilesbury didn’t sigh as he opened the sack. He quite pointedly didn’t sigh, Edwin felt. A figure tumbled out. It was fat, wearing red, and sported a bushy beard. All in accordance with the explanation Tilesbury had given him.

“Aha! I told you we would get Santa, Tilesbury. And here he is! So you see, you aren't the only clever one around here.”

“Yes Sir, though I must point out that this particular Santa is wearing a false beard.”

Now that Tilesbury had pointed it out, Edwin could see that was indeed the case. Also, the Santa appeared to have a pillow case shoved up his jumper to make him look fatter. “Do they do that? You there, Santa, explain yourself or I will…” Edwin tried to think up a suitably unimaginable torment. As usual, he couldn’t quite imagine one. “Well, I’ll be pretty miffed, I can tell you!”
The man in the false beard, who looked faintly stunned, stared up at Edwin. “’m not Santa. My name’s Dave.”

“An imposter?” Edwin looked to Tilesbury. “Do they do that, Tilesbury?”

“I believe so, Sir.”

“To foil kidnappers and assassins and so forth?”

“Possibly, Sir.”

Edwin focussed on Grot for a moment or two. Given that Tilesbury was the only goblin Edwin had heard of with any concept of personal hygiene, it wasn’t a pleasant experience. “You. Where did you find this Santa?”

“In a…” Grot’s hands moved as he tried to put the concept into words. “Place. Place with shops. People. Place named after me. Grot-o. Man asked Grot if wanted to sit on Santa’s knee. Grot hit him.”

“I believe my cousin may have inadvertently abducted the wrong Santa, Sir,” Tilesbury pointed out. “Though in fact, this brings us back to the fundamental flaw I was talking about earlier-”

“Nonsense, Tilesbury,” Edwin said. “We just have to push forward, keep going, and jolly well put our noses to the grindstone until we find the right Santa. How exactly does one do that incidentally?”

“Sir-”

“One more objection from you, Tilesbury, and you’ll be spending Christmas polishing all the spikiest armour in the castle armoury.”

“I do that anyway, Sir.”

“Twice then. Now, obviously these shopping places are set up just to distract us, so we’ll just have to try a new tack. Where else did you say this Santa character might be found?”

“I believe various locations in the Arctic Circle are considered traditional, Sir,” Tilesbury explained.

“Good, then we’re going to need a sled, some suitable Things to pull it, and a map of the North Pole. Oh, and someone do something about that imposter.”

“Very well, Sir,” Tilesbury said, and pulled the lever to drop the Santa into what would have been the Big Pit of Spikes had Tilesbury not replaced them with mattresses some time before. Grot, who had been standing close by, attempting to explain that he wanted a big club with nails in it, and a pot of slime and..., fell through with a yelp.

“You know, Tilesbury,” Edwin said, “I really think this might finally be a piece of Evil worth doing. This will really show people what kind of evil overlord I am, don’t you think?”

Tilesbury sighed the sigh of someone who knew that the near future would almost certainly involve him having to rescue his employer from marauding reindeer. Not to mention digging him out of snowdrifts. Still, it was the season of goodwill, and at least all this attempted evil kept his employer out of actual trouble.

“Yes, Sir. If you don't mind, I’ll just fetch my warmer dinner jacket.”

Monday, 19 December 2011

Why watch test cricket?

It’s Christmas time, which means a number of things to different people. For the cricket obsessed, however, it means a feast of Test cricket, with Australia’s traditional Boxing Day Test being the most prominent of all. This seems like a good point to answer that most common of questions from the non cricket lovers out there: what’s the point of Test cricket?

After all, there are some things about it that are hard to understand. Why does it take five days, for example? Why, after that, can you still get a draw? Aren’t all those blokes just standing about? What is this obsession with tea? Don’t they realise that most of us have jobs and things, and so it isn’t convenient for us to watch this? I mean, shouldn’t we all just watch T20 (which is conveniently packaged at the length of an evening out) instead? Well, there are a couple of answers to that, and I’m going to give you both.

The first is what we might call the historical answer. In the early days of cricket, it quickly became a sport sponsored by the aristocracy, who wanted something to bet on, and occasionally to play. So no, it doesn’t care that you have a job, because the lord of the manor didn’t. They had the time for matches that went on potentially forever, or at least until both sides had been gotten out fairly. The trouble with that answer is that it portrays cricket as a whole as unduly burdened by the past. It’s not an approach that is going to appeal to anyone who doesn’t already love the sport.

There is another way of looking at it, which is to see Test cricket as kind of the ultimate sporting challenge. I should explain. Those blokes aren’t doing nothing. Instead, they’re pushing themselves to limits most sportspeople would find hard to understand. Let’s start with the obvious, which is that cricket is complicated. It takes mastery of an awful lot of skills to do it well, most of which are tricky to pull off correctly even once.

But they don’t have to do it once. They have to do it hundreds of times. A batsman scoring a hundred might be at the crease for hours, yet one slip could cost him his wicket. A bowler might bowl twenty-thirty overs in a day. That’s 120-180 separate deliveries, assuming he doesn’t have any wides or no balls to do over. One piece of research on South African bowler Shaun Pollock suggested that he covered something like 18km a day while playing. Test cricket is about taking an essentially technical sport and combining it with a test of endurance. There’s even an element of physical courage involved, when you remember that bowlers are perfectly allowed to bowl the ball so it hits the batter, and that fielders sometimes get positioned just a yard or two from the bat.

Mostly though, it’s about a combination of sustained physical, mental and technical pressure. It’s not about pacing yourself either. The players can’t get away with playing at half power for the match to conserve energy, because those performances will be punished by the other side. A batsman who tries to hold back will probably get out. A bowler who does the same will probably be hit to the boundary, or at least will not take wickets. A fast bowler will start the Test bowling at 90mph+ and might still be bowling only a little way down on that on the fifth day. It’s about the repetition of full power skills over and over until one side achieves victory.

That’s the part that really makes Test cricket gruelling. In most sports, the one with the most points at the end of the time wins, whether it’s a football match or a boxing bout. Yet most fight fans, for example, tend to see matches that end up with a points win as inferior. Test match cricket is closer to the old boxing bouts that went on until there was a winner. Now, obviously modern limitations mean that they can’t go on forever (although even I’ll admit it can sometimes feel that way) but they can say that you don’t get to win that way. You either defeat a team outright, or it’s a draw.

That’s why I watch this strange, maddening sport.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Deja Vu Blogfest

It being the deja vu blogfest, where we go back to a favourite post from the past, I thought I'd revisit July last year, when I produced this for the blogfest of death (a blogfest within a blogfest. If I keep going do we achieve the effect of standing between two mirrors?) I've picked this one because it's one of my favourite sections of writing, and because it also shows just how long the publishing process is, given that the book this is from comes out in January.

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?’

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Central Figure

I'd like to share with you an experience from a few years back. I was having a drink with a few friends (does it still count as 'having a drink' when said drink is non-alcoholic? I think so. It's more about the situation, and anyway, most of them were drinking). This was, as it happens, also the evening that happened to spark a whole clutch of zombie soft furnishing stories for me, so those who remember it will know that it really was a while ago.

I happened to mention to one of my friends that I quite liked the work of Tom Holt. To this, she replied that she didn't really see the point of reading him because Terry Pratchett was out there. This friend was not, I should point out, some kind of weirdo. She was certainly an avid reader. She just didn't see the point in reading more than one comic fantasy author.

It's a point that has stuck with me, because I have heard stories of exactly the same conversation occurring with publishers, but what interests me here is the either/or nature of the reasoning. Is there something about books, or about the genre, that suggests reading one author means not reading another? Is it something unique to the genre, or has anyone else come across instances of it elsewhere?
Or is it simply that some authors occupy such a central place in their genres that everyone else comes off to potential readers as merely a copyist?

It's an intriguing thought, particularly for someone who is going to be published in that genre come January (there are no giant turtles in my work, but hopefully you will forgive me that). I'd guess though that it's also a relevant thought for plenty of other people out there. After all, we all need to provide people with a way to understand that they should read our stuff as well as the most well known person in our field (it's at this point that I'd like to suggest that the way Tom Holt switched from those almost Pratchettesque front covers to strange minimalist ones may have played a role for him. It's not that they were ever that similar in terms of writing).

Or perhaps we should be asking ourselves a different question: how do we become that central figure? Hmm... in my case it might involve locking a number of other authors in cupboards somewhere. Just excuse me for a moment, would you?

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Regression to the Mean

In which I almost entirely mis-apply a statistical concept to make a point about writing. I'll point out right now that although I'm quite interested in statistics, much of my knowledge of them was obtained through the medium of cricket. My knowledge of regression to the mean, specifically, through an article by Gideon Haigh on freakish early career averages. The notion, as I understand it, is that over time the average of an expanding set of data is likely to become closer to any general average. Things become more averagely average as they go on, if you like. Also, anyone touted as the new Don Bradman will probably suffer a string of ducks to bring them back to the realms of mere mortals.

Why does this have any relevance to writing? Because of series, of course. Think of all those long series out there. Think how wonderful the first books were. How exciting. How different. Now think of the later books. They might not be bad, exactly, but they do tend to be far less original. They come back to the pack in so many cases. Why is that? Well, the first reason is that often the author isn't writing something they have been incredibly inspired to write, with all the unique plot elements that come from that. They're working more from the craft of writing. There's nothing wrong with that. Not at all. But it means they're less likely to come out with something new.

So those of us with series in our heads should probably think long and hard about them before writing the next book. I'm not saying avoid it. I'm just suggesting that we should only ever write that sequel if there is genuinely something we want to say with it that sets it apart. Otherwise, we're just drifting back, and I'm sure your writing deserves so much more than that.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Twelve Things to get the Villain who has Everything

  1. A new and improved robot of doom. This may cause some conflict with previous models. Please dispose of your old robots of doom responsibly.
  2. Piranha. Yes, you got him them last year, but villains aren't very good at looking after their pets, and so need frequent replacements.
  3. A small, glowing rock. It doesn't matter if it actually does anything or not. Either way, it will still become an essential part of the villain's schemes for years to come.
  4. A collection of minions. Hireable at any good theatrical agent. Though mysteriously, they seem to refer to them as 'extras' for some reason.
  5. One of those certificates where you get to name a star or a planet or something. That way, they can say that at least they've taken over a world this year.
  6. Bilge pumps. Those secret sea bases tend to be quite leaky.
  7. Evil Trivial Pursuit. Yes, all Trivial Pursuit is technically evil, but generally it doesn't feature categories such as 'Famous Assassinations', 'Secret Bases' and 'Mad Science'.
  8. Five golden rings, each inscribed on the inside, with one designed to rule them all.
  9. A grooming voucher for the inevitable white cat (because long haired cats take a lot of looking after beyond simply stroking them while you plot)
  10. Evil plotter's fridge magnets. Simply rearrange words such as 'moon base' and 'laser' on any handy fridge to come up with thousands of evil plots.
  11. Voice coaching. Those villainous laughs don't come from nowhere you know.
  12. A genetically enhanced super partridge sitting on a long range missle disguised as a tree.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Medieval Forgery.

Another thought for anyone writing anything vaguely medieval in flavour. This one is about forgery, which probably seems like a strange thing to focus on, except that it had a huge role to play through much of the middle ages, and is well worth understanding if you want to know more about the way medieval societies fitted together. I’m focussing on English examples here, but there are plenty of others.

The first thing to understand about forgery in medieval England is that there was quite a lot of it. As a historian, you come across forged or incongruous charters not all the time, but certainly often enough to make it clear that the practice went on. You find charters claiming to be older than the handwriting says they could be, seals that have nothing to do with the charters, and all kinds of other fun stuff. There are a couple of reasons for this.

One is the importance of charters and grants in that society. From the ownership of land to rights to dispense justice and collect taxes, all kinds of rights were granted to individuals and organisations through those centuries. You find Beverley Minster’s right to send just a single banner to the king’s battles, for example, alongside small grants of the right to take rabbits from the local warrens, and much broader freedoms from prosecution by outsiders for those living around particular monasteries.

Rights were not assumed to be automatic (though the law codes of even quite early kings do enshrine certain principles we can recognise today) but were instead given out. So were exemptions. The king made laws, or the pope made decrees, and immediately half the most wealthy people in the country wanted exemptions from castle building, or having to live at the religious institutions they were supposed to, or whatever.

Precedent was also vital. People, even kings, respected ancient rights. If you had a charter from Aethalstan in perpetuity granting a whole series of rights over the local area as Beverley and Ripon minsters did, subsequent kings tended to back those rights, even in legal cases against their archbishops as happened at Ripon in 1228. The thing is, of course, the charters I’m referring to in this instance were both forged, probably sometime in the twenty-five years before that case. People and institutions forged in the middle ages because it could re-shape their relationships with authority.

They also did it because it was easy. In the absence of modern forensic techniques, getting away with it was much easier. Moreover, while kings, archbishops and the rest started keeping collections of what they had handed out, there generally wasn’t one central record of every grant. People accepted too, that older charters would be copied and rewritten (my assertion of forgery above is actually only one point of view, but it seems like the most probable one, given that Beverley and Ripon suddenly acquired identical charters at the moment they most needed them). Even handwriting made things easier, with literacy being lower and handwriting being more standard as a result.

A note on forging coins. It happened. It happened a lot, despite some fairly severe penalties. Two things worth bearing in mind though. A multiplicity of different currencies could often find itself being used in different places and at different times, making ‘odd’ currency the norm, or alternatively, making someone with foreign coin seem to be a forger. Perhaps more interestingly, there wasn’t one centralised mint in England, but rather, specific individuals were given the right to mint coins on behalf of the crown. Or they assumed it. During the Anarchy of King Stephen in the twelfth century, at least one of the barons in Yorkshire started minting his own coins simply because he was the only real authority in the area.

All this is worth thinking about the next time you write a medieval fantasy, not just because it gives you all kinds of ways of causing trouble, but because I think it says something important about the way power worked in medieval England.

Monday, 5 December 2011

A week of thinking

It’s been a fun sort of week. I’ve been kept busy on the writing front, since including my own work, I’m working on around five novels at different stages at the moment. That invariably seems to spark the question among people of whether I get confused and start writing in the tone of one novel while working on another. I have to say that the answer to that is no. Partly, it’s because I’m quite careful about that kind of thing, partly, it’s because novels have more overlap than people like to think anyway, but mostly, it’s because ideas for me tend to have their own distinct spaces in my thoughts, making them hard to confuse.

On my novel front, since it comes out in January, I’m winding up to do the promotion for it. Obviously, I’m not just going to batter people with its existence on this blog, because I’m sure that’s not what people want from this space, but I am thinking of doing a bit of a blogfest in its honour (something reasonably straightforward, given that most of us will just be kicking off the year, more details when I’ve thought of them). Also, if anyone has any good tips for maximising publicity without making people go ‘oh, not another online author’ and switching off, I’d be grateful to hear them.

Fencing on Thursday featured a brief bout of left handedness from me, primarily because I was a bit bored, but also as an experiment. No, I’m not turning into a lefty, but I do find that with this, and with lots of other things, it pays to have ways to get more out of your practise. One of those ways is occasionally to do something very odd and difficult (like doing an activity with the wrong hand) to force yourself to think about what you’re doing more.

I’m re-reading Toby Frost’s Wrath of the Lemming Men at the moment. One of the great things about books with plenty of humour in is that they tend to support multiple re-reads, just so that you can pick out more of the jokes and references (though a good knowledge of sci-fi and stereotypical British-ness will be needed with this one).

Friday, 2 December 2011

My Cover Part Two

This is the official cover for my novel Court of Dreams. I think it looks rather nice.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Where does the treasure go?

Heroes, as we know, require treasure, yet there are obvious problems with that. They receive it by the bucket load, yet there they are at the start of the next adventure needing more. What is happening to it in the meantime? Some possibilities:

1. They’ve been paying it into a pension scheme that hasn’t been doing well, what with the economic problems caused when the dragons started just sitting on their wealth again rather than investing it.
2. They put it all on red in the kingdom’s largest casino, which seemed like a good bet until they realised that was not ‘mindlessly bloody slaughter’ night after all.
3. Since traditional barbarian skills don’t include much in the way of tax accountancy, they might be paying it all straight to the treasury as a way of making up for past defaults (and robberies).
4. It might have been turned into small cupcakes by passing leprechauns eager to ensure that the value of the gold at the end of their rainbows keeps appreciating.
5. A very large team of pickpockets might have been very busy for about half an hour.
6. They might be statutorily obliged to spend ninety percent or more on wine, women and song. Which could be a problem for your tea-total and tone deaf barbarian.
7. Large queues of charitable organisations might form the moment a quest is successfully undertaken. After all, without someone paying for a new temple roof, how will the priests of Xxllzgl ever get back to their traditional pastimes of sacrificing people, bringing reigns of terror, and winning scrabble competitions?

Monday, 28 November 2011

The Middle Ages. Things People Forget.

If you’re writing fantasy set in a fantasy world rather than a modern setting, more than half the time, you’re writing about the middle ages. By that, I mean that people’s default setting for fantasy is knights and castles, peasants and women with those hats that look like ice cream cones. It’s chainmail and plate armour. It’s long swords and long bows. Even when they’re not specifically trying to be historical, they’re using historical elements. If you do, then here are a few random things worth remembering about the Middle Ages. There are many more, but I've forgotten them.

1. There’s no such thing as the Middle Ages. The term is a renaissance one designed to demonstrate their link to classical antiquity. It’s a way of saying ‘there’s us, there’s the Romans, and then there’s all this stuff in the middle that isn’t important.’
2. There’s really no such thing as the Middle Ages. Remember that what happened in eighth century Ireland is not what happened in fourteenth century Tuscany. What we think of as the Middle Ages is firstly a designation covering some serious geography, but also some major amounts of time (roughly 400-1500 in England, so Edward the Confessor is closer to us than those at the very start were to those at the end).
3. Knights were not initially all that noble. Knights were relatively minor blokes on horseback, a step or five up from peasants, certainly, but not automatically in the league of the barons. Those only adopted knightly habits over time.
4. ‘Chivalry’ is complicated and possibly illusory. In the early years, ‘the chivalry’ meant the blokes who rode horses (knights) rather than any code of behaviour. In fact, what was considered standard behaviour for knights generally wasn’t that nice.
5. The Church was only connected and monolithic in theory. In practice, local clergy may not have had that good an idea of what they were doing in many cases. Heresy often wasn’t just an opposition to the established church. Sometimes, it was just that people genuinely didn’t know what they were ‘meant’ to believe.
6. That said, there were plenty of international connections around, and the Church was a major part of that. If we take my beloved (ish) minster churches, even in the twelfth century, they had a great many foreign canons holding prebends. Of course, how many of them actually showed up is more debateable.
7. Kings did not sit in castles waiting for people to show up. Mostly, they processed around their domains, demanding hospitality and reminding people that they were in charge. The same is true of bishops, barons, and many others.
8. Things did not run according to a neat feudal system. Instead, they ran according to a complex series of relationships, scraps of authority, and moments of beating people over the head with swords.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Ideas

One of the biggest things we need to do as writers is evaluate ideas. We all have ideas, whether good, bad or indifferent. Many of us have too many. The key thing is sorting them out into some kind of order, and working out which are worth giving up days, or in the case of novels months, of our time to. I don’t claim to have all the answers when it comes to this, but I think I do have a few of the right questions.

Question one- What is the idea? Often, we are distracted not by ideas, but by the ghosts of ideas. Faint flickerings of possible ideas work to grab our attention, but when we look at them head on, they aren’t really there. To find out if they actually are, try writing them down clearly and succinctly. It separates the real ideas from the general feelings.

Question two- Has it been done? Yes, obviously all ideas have been done, but some have been done more than others. What you need to ask yourself is whether you are exploring vampires, angels, or whatever solely because there have been a lot of books about it recently, or because you genuinely feel you can contribute something.

Question three- Can you see where it might go? Good ideas will help you to generate other ideas. They will serve as starting points, not things complete unto themselves. If half an hour after having your idea you still have one line rather than a whole page of brainstorming, you obviously aren’t that inspired by it. Which brings us to…

Quest four- Are you excited? You only have so much time, which means that you can only write so many things. Committing time to one thing means not committing it to others, so you have to be sure that the ones you decide to work on are the ones that really excite you. Trust me, that excitement will come through in your writing.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

A Beginning

I've known how my next novel starts for some time, because I've had three goes at it so far. Here's to number four. It starts like this:

One of the more curious things about… well, things, is the number of those things that begin in pubs. Not the biggest things, obviously. Universes only do so, for example, if they happen to be quite small, and exceptionally alcoholic, ones. For things more generally, however, pubs are traditional.
This pub, in the middle of the small town of New Wrexford was called the Frog and Spigot. It sat sandwiched between the town’s theatre, which appeared from the outside to suffer from a typically theatrical excess of architecture, and a small firm of architects, which didn’t. The landlord generally found it quite a profitable place to be, so long as he remembered not to offer any credit to anyone about to wander off on an extended tour of the Scottish Play in Madagascar. Or anyone else, for that matter.

Incidentally, I have a short story coming out sometime at the beginning of next week, in the new magazine The Empress of Mars, which is run by the ever busy Alex Wolfe. It's called 'The Green Planet' and features the words 'Martian tourist industry'. Hopefully, I don't need to say much more than that.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

One thing you find a lot in fantasy literature is that the heroes have to stop off for information. This usually involves a wizard, but there are plenty of other options:

  1. The traditional hermit. Hermits are surprisingly easy to find in medieval literature, showing up all the time to help people out with tricky quests, circuit diagrams and so forth. So why not have one show up to help your heroes out? They're in somewhere unsuitable, such as a modern supermarket, you say? Well, even hermits have to do their shopping sometime.
  2. Have a conveniently located citizens' advice bureau in the middle of that magic forest. Why? Typical government thinking, that's why (no, I don't know what sort of typical government thinking either).
  3. Ask a rather uncooperative magic mirror. I do this a lot in stories. In fact, one shows up as a rather amusing minor character in Court of Dreams.
  4. Demand it from a particularly legalistic group of baddies under the rules of full disclosure.
  5. Overhear it in an inn. Or better yet, find the bloke whose job it is to whisper such things in inns and make him tell you.
  6. Defeat dread powers in an unfathomable contest (or Scrabble, though this is only doable if the proper names of ancient Things are not allowed)
  7. Ask a wizard's apprentice, who is the one who has actually been out to get the information.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Things to Deal With

When writing, there are, inevitably, things that we have to come to terms with. At least if we want to stay remotely sane. Some of these things (like the part where we don’t have the talent of our favourite writer) will be big. Some of these things (like the universe’s ability to spontaneously generate paperclips) will be small. Here are just a few:

1. We don’t create in a vacuum. At least not without a spacesuit. Very few ideas are massively, hugely original, and waiting around for one that is unlike any other idea ever can cause significant delays. Better to get started and trust to your talents to make it unique.
2. Someone will hate your novel. Novels I have ghostwritten have received five star reviews. Novels I have ghostwritten have received one star reviews. Often, the same novel is involved. You cannot control how people will react to a piece. You can only put out the best work you can and hope that it is enough, then try to honestly assess what happened afterwards.
3. You will not always meet your writing word count goals. This is okay.
4. Your novel will not be perfect when you send it out, despite your efforts. There will always, always be some niggling little thing. If you wait for it to be perfect, you will wait a long time.
5. There will be things you dislike as you write them, but which you will like later. The reverse is also true.
6. You will never be able to prevent yourself from justifying a raid on the house’s biscuit supplies mid chapter.
7.  The novel will never look quite the same on paper as in your head.
8.  People will get the names and looks of your characters wrong, then insist that you have gotten them wrong.
9.  Big ideas written down after dreams will never make sense in the morning light.
10.  Any word learned from a word a day thing will find a way to show up at least five times in one paragraph.

Friday, 18 November 2011

I should just sleep to ease the shadows’ ache
Surrender flesh to sweet embrace of night
But yet I sit, meandering here awake
As tiredness brings a different sort of sight

That sees the world through eyes too tired to care
And skips across the stumbling blocks of day
As though the universe were never there
And life, unlike my thoughts, will never stray

Too tired to sleep, I sit, and stare and wait
As everything around me fades to clear
In dreams half caught by my unsleeping bait
That will, by morning light, have disappeared.
Made into a thing of silence
Of stillness, wrapped against you
Filling up less space, and less
With every movement in the dark

Every indraw of your breath
Claiming this quiet room as yours
My spaces yielding as I do
Fading to a happy second place

A spot from which to watch
The rhythmic rise and fall
Of crisp while sheets
Staying as close as me

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

It's not easy being small

Have you noticed how fantasy quests always seem to be aimed at big people? Oh, you get the odd hobbit and dwarf roped into quests to mount something or other, but frankly, they're not that far off normal size. Big enough to swing a battleaxe in either hand, in the case of most dwarves. What about quests for the really little people, like gnomes, pixies, and so on? Here are a few ideas, taking into account a few of the differences in scale:
  1. An epic journey to the other end of a garden to retrieve something from the fabled Patio of Doom.
  2. A quest to slay the great armoured beast (a tortoise. Note to tortoise lovers, it doesn't have to be a successful quest).
  3. A cunning theft, which works for the simple reason that our heroes fit into the evil wizard's pockets as he goes back into his home.
  4. An even more cunning theft, infiltrating somewhere through a mighty labyrinth that might or might not be a collection of mouse holes.
  5. A traditional quest for someone hobbit sized, involving a magical ring (which is about the size of a hula hoop on a very small fairy)
  6. Fighting a giant, troll, or other creature that would seem very big even to the rest of us. The first stage is to get its attention and convince it that yes, you do really want to fight.
  7. Protesting against the clearance of your ancient ancestral lands (someone's allotment)

Monday, 14 November 2011

My Process Writing Court of Dreams

A post about re-using, or combining, ideas that probably also gives you a few insights into my process as a writer (if anyone in their right mind should want such a thing). Specifically, this is a post about the rather strange process by which my novel Court of Dreams came into existence and became the version of the story now trapped in between covers by Pink Narcissus Press and awaiting release.

The basic process, as far as I’m aware, should go something like “plot the story, write the story, edit the story into shape”. That is at least vaguely what happened with the final version (although even there, plotting took place part way through). The thing is, it’s not how the story as a whole came into being.

Court of Dreams is in fact a bit of a mash up of ideas. Way back when, before I had even completed my urban fantasy novels Searching and Witch hunt, I had a go at a novel which did not get far enough to acquire a name. I knew I wanted it to have fairy folk, and the real world, and possibly something about finding out that you’re something you aren’t. In fact, without ever having read any urban faerie, that was what I wanted to do. So I started to write a story about a young woman targeted by fairy assassins for being something special. It had an evil fairy princess, accompanied by a big, thuggish henchman. It started off in a university, largely because I started writing it in a university library. It ran into problems, and I did what I always do at times like this. I deleted it.

I had another two goes at it. Many of the same elements reappeared each time, but some differences cropped up. The MC went from being a young woman, to a young man, to a young woman again. I picked up a couple of jokes about things like architecture. I started to think about themes of family and duty. I still deleted it.

We still aren’t up to Searching and Witch Hunt, incidentally. They came afterwards, and grew partly out of a second project I worked on, called Grey Knight. This was urban fantasy, with a faerie theme again, doing the typical thing of a supernatural detective type solving a strange case. The detective in this case was meant to be a human taken by the fey hundreds of years back and kept alive by their whim. That doesn’t matter so much as the fact that it introduced me to my vaguely Celtic sounding fairy queen of choice, as well as revisiting notions of the greater good and duty in a plot that was remarkably similar to my first one. I also came up with the idea of having lots and lots of supernatural Courts rather than just the usual ones (many other people beat me to it, but I didn’t know). I actually got to the end of that one. I may even have touted it around. I forget. It certainly didn’t get any interest, for the simple reason that it wasn’t very good.

Then I wrote the urban fantasy series that can be found through my sidebar, if you really want to. I wrote it essentially because it seemed like what everybody ought to be writing at the time, which is why it’s not a true reflection of what I do. I sold it, and got on with other things. More to the point, I finally decided that I wanted to be funny.

But what to be funny on? I didn’t have a plot. I didn’t have characters. I briefly considered doing a funny urban fantasy of the same type as Searching, but with gags. I’m glad I didn’t, but that idea got me thinking about whether I could rework Grey Knight with jokes, and that in turn got me thinking about that old, discarded idea I wanted another go at. It was at about that point that I realised they both used essentially the same idea.

So I stripped it back and rebuilt it, using favourite parts where it seemed like fun. I kept my fairy queen. I kept the idea of her having a favourite advisor, though I changed her considerably. I kept my evil princess and my thug, though he grew into just about my favourite character ever. I took my old, defunct idea, redid it in a completely new way, and came up with a book I really love.

So what's my point? Maybe it's that ideas we love stick with us. Maybe it's that the way you choose to tell a story is what really matters. Or maybe it's just the power of recycling, even when it comes to stories. Which begs the question of what old ideas you have lying around, really.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Alternatives to Spellbooks.

  1. Spell scrolls, spell tablets, spell e-books. These are just the spell book in a slightly different technology. Though I'm sure some wizards will still go on about the smell of the virgins blood on the pages and the lovely feel of the vellum, plus weight and space considerations aren't such a big deal when you have apprentices around to carry things.
  2. Have frogs that turn into the relevant spell forms with the right spell, which will presumably be stored on another frog and... well, you'll need a lot of frogs.
  3. Have some spelling bees. Yes, that's right, specially trained bees that fly in formation to make mystic runes. Effects of eating their honey may vary.
  4. Have all the reminders for your spells written on the back of your hand. Possibly one for wizards finding themselves under sudden exam conditions.
  5. Spell words attached to a mechanical manservant by way of fridge magnets. Some elements of this may be hard to get hold of. Oh, and mechanical manservants aren't that common either.
  6. For maximum permanency, carve them into a big stone wall that definitely isn't going anywhere ever, except when the Council of Mages points out that you forgot to get planning permission.
  7. For mages with castles in the clouds, balloons, or other flying machines, cut them into chalk cliffs to be viewed from above, or grow stands of trees in the right shapes.
  8. Have a single long piece of cloth on which every spell is written. Of course, it will need to be unwound every time you need to check an invocation.
  9. Find a creature with a famously good memory (such as an... no it's gone again) and get it to remember things, then communicate with it through a magical device which is perfectly safe, because you put it down just... um...
  10. Use small pieces of jewellery as physical reminders, though more powerful mages may end up clanking a little as they move.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Spell Books

Why do wizards always have spell books? It’s something that has just struck me as slightly odd. They always seem to have the same kind of big, leather bound tomes, which raises some fairly obvious thoughts (to me. I’m resigned to the fact that what I consider obvious strikes other people as slightly odd).

First, where do they get them? The decline of the independent book shop (and yes, it is a phenomenon that has spread to fantasy kingdoms) surely means that it is becoming harder by the day. All right, so maybe they send off for them, but really, we’re talking about some quite specialised bookbinding skills here. Particularly when you consider the effort involved in preserving these things. Speaking as a man who has had to sit on hard chairs in archives while the books got cushions, I know what I’m talking about.

Second, are they available as ebooks? Possibly not so applicable to medieval fantasy (though watch out for those magic mirror readers) but surely perfectly all right for anything urban fantasy related. Though I should point out that my urban fantasy series featured a witch who not only had the obligatory big leather bound books, but actually lived in an independent bookshop.

Third, with these books written by Things from Beyond, and various other capitalisations, do said things acquire their book deals in the normal ways? Does Xlarglpop the Destroyer have an agent, and if so, does that mean it will be postponing the destruction of the universe until after its next book signing?

Also, isn’t it worth experimenting with other approaches to aiding your memory for these things? Post it notes, for example, or carefully trained talking birds (I sense a list coming on). Why is it always the big, leather bound book?

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Fantasy Priests

A quick post for anyone writing anything vaguely medieval. Please get your priests right. Perhaps this is just something I notice, having written a comparative history of three medieval religious institutions as part of my PhD, but in a lot of historical fiction, historical fantasy and so forth, people don’t always seem to use their priests in ways that are remotely historically accurate. Here are just a few things to watch for:

Calling every religious figure a ‘priest’. Yes, I did it above, but there were canons and vicars, chantry priests and monks and friars and… you get the idea. Some will only be appropriate for particular time periods (no Dominican Friars in the early middle ages) while each one had a specialised and slightly different role to play in medieval life.

Not making your religious figures important enough. If you have a major lord, then why would he be hanging around with a very minor priest and treating him as an equal? For that, bring in a bishop, or even an archbishop. Remember too that for monasteries, the abbot often connected with the world much more than individual monks.

Remember that the landscape changed. Very broadly speaking Anglo Saxon England featured many more general purpose religious institutions than post-Conquest England. There was a focus on what are now termed minsters, and the system of parishes was not well defined for several hundred years. Post Conquest, we have the rise of new monastic orders, the birth of the friars, and enough other stuff to make it clear you can’t treat the whole thing as one big lump.

Remember that clerics had a role to play. They weren’t just shut up in churches. Noblemen retained minor clerics to do the medieval equivalent of desk jobs. Canons often found themselves seconded to their archbishops. Archdeacons had a constant job wandering around broad rural areas dispensing canon law. Don’t ignore them.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Worlds

The thing with magical worlds is that they can show up almost anywhere. Here are just a few of the places they might, if you aren’t careful:

1. Let’s start with the classic. At the back of wardrobes. This can be a problem for anyone involved in removals and/or the antiques trade. In fact, certain antiques dealers might well take steps to deal with anything that came out.
2. Under the bed. There’s a reason there are monsters there, and it’s mostly because some bloody idiot has stuck a piece of bedroom furniture right over their back garden.
3. A crack in the wall. As I believe I illustrated perfectly well in this old blogfest.
4. Just on the other side of a locked gate, to which the key has recently been found, in preparation for the renovations of the ‘vacant’ area on the other side.
5. Just down the road that your Sat Nav tells you really is the perfect short cut. After all, these things are never actually short cuts.
6. In someone’s pocket, under a selection of sweet wrappers.
7. In a book, accessible by reading it, and possibly very dangerous if the same principle applies to the very hungry caterpillar (I was watching a wildlife thing that happened to feature fluffy bear caterpillars earlier. I can’t remember the book mentioning anything about a fourteen year lifecycle)
8. Overlayered with our world, and accessed just by some ordinary action that is far too easy to be really safe. Getting back might be harder.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Historical Pitfalls

When doing history, as with almost anything else, there is a specialised body of theory that goes with it at higher levels. This is a body of thought that can be overlooked by people looking for a simple historical setting for their novel, or just looking to include a few bits and pieces here and there. That’s fine, but there are still certain theoretical pitfalls to watch out for. Things that will, in historical terms at least, be the equivalent of a big neon sign saying ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’. Politicians are particularly prone to them, being particularly fond of the now extremely out-dated Whig view of history. Here are a few of my favourites, to avoid where you can:

Historical Inevitability. Please understand, the past did not inevitably lead to this point. It was not a neat progression along an arc defined by your philosophy, whether that is the Marxist view of a defined series of stages towards a communist state, or the Whig view of an inevitable progression towards parliamentary democracy.

Indeed, the whole notion of progress can be a bit iffy, because progress implies progression towards a defined point. What point? Also, we must remember that things can be, and have been, forgotten. China, for example, largely forgot about the mechanical clock for several centuries. Don’t assume an inevitable rise of civilization/technology/little fluffy bunnies.

The notion of a single, big, easily finished off history. Thank Lord Acton for this one. In the nineteenth century, he and his fellows mostly did big history of the kings and dates kind (or History, as people tend to call it). Working from that, he came to the not unreasonable conclusion that, since there was only so much History to go around, and since the job of the historian was to get to the truth, eventually, they would. Probably by the end of his century, as it happened, leaving the remainder of the millennium off for golf so long as you kept up as you went along. Postmodernist thought about a multiplicity of histories put paid to that one, I’m afraid. Also I don’t like golf.

That rather peculiar reading of said postmodernist thought that effectively renders all history no more than mere opinion, and suggests that we might as well all go home. Yes, every historian is interpreting, and occupying a point of view. They might even be creating any sense of meaning for themselves, but that doesn’t render everything impossible. Nor does it render every interpretation of the evidence equally valid.

The idea that big history doesn’t matter. I made fun of Acton above, but there’s a danger in going to the other extreme, as some cultural historians do, and ignoring History of that type in favour of very small things that just happen to interest them. First, without an understanding of major events going on around them, it is impossible to understand those smaller points. Secondly, I happen to take quite a narrative approach to history, and I believe that it only becomes relevant as an act of communication. So if you’re doing something no one will ever want to listen to, it defeats some of the object. Worse, it can create a distorted picture of the past, where the deliberate examination of the less important can appear to reduce the place of a more important aspect (of course, there’s a whole argument about the notion of importance there).

So what does all this theory mean for writers? Possibly not a huge amount. As I said before, you can go a long way without ever touching on this stuff. There are some broad lessons to draw from it, though. My hatred of the notion of destiny in novels stems from the problems with inevitability, for example. Perhaps you will, at least be better placed now to spot one of these ideas if it should crop up in your writing.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

History for Writers

It’s always fun seeing the number of things people write with a vaguely historical basis. It’s not just the overtly historical fiction stuff either. Quite a lot of fantasy does alternate history. What I’d like to do, therefore, is provide two or three quick posts on the art of history for writers, drawing on the lessons I’ve learnt from my PhD in the stuff. We’ll start with a few options for doing historical research if you need some for your next project, then go on from there.

So you want to write something historical? Where do you start? The first stage is to probably pin down an era and location. That means some loose background reading until you find something that catches your eye. Here’s a clue: if you find that hard work, go into a different genre. You don’t have to like reading history, but if you don’t, why are you thinking about writing historical fiction? Look for what really grabs you. If you aren’t passionate about it, your readers won’t be.

Don’t just dive in. That’s a sure way to get yourself confused, put off, or trapped in highly technical arguments about herring renders in Domesday Book (for which, see J. Cambell, “Domesday Herrings” in C. Harper-Bill (ed) East-Anglia’s History (Boydell, Woodbridge, 2002).) First, work out what you need to know. Do you need to know specialised details of a particular area, or are you looking for more general information? Do you know which books or articles you should be looking for? It is often worth starting with the most recent general textbook you can find, and then working through the stuff it mentions in the footnotes as appropriate.

Curiously, that isn’t necessarily a question of interest. Yes, by all means read whatever catches your eye, but you will need some bits more than others. Use the general book to work out what you are going to need in detail, whether it’s more about societal structures, particular battles, or simply articles of dress. Make a checklist and tick things off as you go.

Don’t rely on purely online information. Online history can be all right, but it often isn’t. At best, much of it isn’t well referenced, so you’re only getting part of an argument. At worst, it’s out of date, incorrect, or deliberately lying. Wikipedia should never, never be anything more than a very rough outline. Even with paper sources, there are often significant arguments going on (historians are naturally argumentative) so you need to make sure you’re getting both sides. Try to be up to date.
Ideally, you want to get access to either your local university library or a specialist academic library, which isn’t actually that hard in most cases. Local libraries are good for most things, but the moment you need to do in depth research on a very specific period, they often simply don’t have the resources available.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask. You’ll be amazed how eager some academics are to bore you with their latest theories (sorry, help you to understand things better) if you only send them a nice email. The worst that can happen is that they delete it. Many universities even offer handy academic finding search engines to let people find exactly what they need. Oh, and if anyone wants to know more about my little corner of the middle ages, I’ll probably be happy to help, if I can still remember it all.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

In the event of a Last Battle

Things to remember for the Last Battle between the forces of good and the evil overlord’s Horde of Doom:

1. Arrive early. Finding parking space can be difficult once all the goblins show up. Also both sides tend to operate a ‘last one there gets beheaded’ approach to timekeeping.
2. Remember to take a packed lunch. Oh, the forces of good say that it will be fully catered, but remember that those halflings, hobbits and gnomes of theirs can eat five times their own bodyweight at a sitting. As for eating anything the forces of evil have dished up…
3. All participants must report to the armourer’s tent for an equipment check before the start of the battle. Remember that it takes time to measure armour spikes and test their pointiness, not to mention establishing whether that vorpal sword of yours fits in with the latest health and safety regulations.
4. Standing at the front is not generally ideal. Especially not if you are right next to a hero. Remember that it is always the people next to heroes who are hit by the fateful arrow intended for them.
5. Standing at the back, however, means that when the evil overlord springs his vile ambush (or the heroes execute their inventive and virtuous surprise assault) you are suddenly at the front. Avoid standing there too.
6. Oh, and the middle. The middle tends to be where giant boulders and dragonfire hit. In fact, avoid standing generally.
7. Remember that unless you are one of the designated Major Characters, you are not to do anything to significantly turn the tide of the battle. All battles are to be sorted out by duels between those major characters. You and the other ten thousand assorted creatures are just there to stop them feeling lonely. Failure to comply might mean the entire battle having to be re-run.
8. Remember to check the ultimateness of the battle and act accordingly. Remember that those on the side of evil must turn and run half way through any battle designated ‘properly ultimate, we mean it, honest’ by the referees, while those on the side of good must not succeed in any battle designated a major reverse.
9. Avoid taking a book to read. You will only get mud on it.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Sport Martial Arts

A lot of martial arts people profess to have no love for the sporting versions of their arts, but I am not one of them. There are arguments against them, raised from time to time either by traditionalists looking to preserve a pure form of an art, or by modern self-defence practitioners looking to highlight how well their own systems fill a particular gap. The arguments against sport arts usually run something like this:

1. They ban many moves on the grounds of safety that would be core components of a self defence system. Those moves dramatically change the game (for example, biting makes BJJs triangle choke much harder to pull off, while the rear choke is somewhat less perfect against someone who eye gouges).
2. They do little or nothing to preserve the traditions and respect of an art.
3. They narrow the scope of an art to only those aspects covered by the sport, so that Taekwondo has gone from an art with lots of kicks to an almost purely kicking art, Judo has lost touch with the strikes that used to be part of its kata, and so forth.
4. A sporting competition neither starts nor ends in the same way as a real fight.

To a certain extent, all of these observations are valid ones. Most sport arts do not cover the use of or defence against potentially very dangerous techniques. They are not a perfect recreation of a real fight. They do have comparatively narrow scopes. And it is certainly true that some sports types can be very unpleasant. However, having done some work with traditional arts, sporting arts, and more modern systems, I think there are also some advantages to the sport ones that need to be taken into account.

1. Because they work within relatively safe parameters, most sport arts allow for actual interactive, competitive practise between participants. You have to learn to do the moves on someone who is trying to stop you, in other words. I have felt the difference this makes, and it is huge.
2. While there are some singularly over-competitive and unpleasant people in sport arts, there are plenty in traditional and modern arts too. Most people you meet in sport arts, meanwhile, are genuinely lovely people. I believe it’s called being ‘sporting’.
3. Sport arts often attract younger, fitter people, who are therefore more of a challenge. I found this in my one foray into historical fencing. I’ll say now that I liked the idea of historical fencing, I could see that there was a lot in the moves being used, and the practise was genuinely interactive (plus there were longswords, which is just cool). Sadly, the club I went to was under-populated, and the students there simply did not provide the kind of challenge I could find in most fencing clubs.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Destiny

Do your characters have destinies? It seems to be fairly common in fantasy fiction, and indeed almost anything where someone has taken the Hero’s Journey a bit literally. Characters come complete with the lingering sense that they are special, the chosen one, the one true pizza delivery boy. Whatever. Is it something worth doing, though? Well, there are arguments both ways, which I will now horribly mangle.

In favour is that it lends a sense of epic scope to the adventure. It tells us quite clearly that this is being played for high stakes, and that not just anybody could do it. It’s a classic trope of fantasy, so you can put in a nod to that by including it, or make fun of it marvellously. It also gives the character the chance to run away from that destiny, only to be led back to it in the classic HJ structure style.

For me, the issue with it is that a grand destiny destroys the idea of the character succeeding through their own efforts. They succeed because they can’t really do otherwise. And because they can’t really fail, there is less of a real feeling of peril that they might. Yes, I know this is fiction, and the promise of a happy ending already does that, but this does it on a level that includes the character rather than just the author and reader. I’ve also blogged before about the kind of message that ‘special’ characters put out, and why I’m not such a fan.

One final worry is what I feel it does to character motivation. A great destiny works fine as a motivation for some characters (everymen out of their depth trying to avoid it and heroes struggling to live up to it both) but what if that isn’t the story you’re telling? Isn’t there a danger that too much destiny will get in the way by telling us who the character ought to be before we know who they are?

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Cupboards

Things someone might find in a chest, cabinet, or other container (based loosely on the contents of any old chest of drawers, kitchen cabinet, etc.):

1. A selection of old and out of date maps and A-Zs, which might or might not be to a lost city (begging the question of what restaurant recommendations for lost restaurants would look like. Could there be such things as lost restaurants? Presumably, they are sought by intrepid parties of critics)
2. Assorted batteries and other power sources that might conceivably include the only working perpetual motion machine anywhere. Or a tiny sun.
3. String. It is a well-known fact that such places generate string, so a particularly magical drawer might spawn a whole string farming industry, or indeed some interesting theories about the stuff.
4. Assorted healing supplies (which depending on the location might be sticking plasters, regeneration rays, or ritual toads)
5. Chutney, fruit cake, and all those other things that people always seem to give other people for no good reason, and which do not go off, thus meaning that they will be present even in kitchen cupboards that have been abandoned for a thousand years. Will they be edible? That rather depends on whether you think they are now.
6. Christmas cards from people you’re sure you don’t know (who may possibly know you only because they are staring in from another dimension)
7. Since everyone seems to keep a torch in a drawer somewhere, why not other handy adventuring supplies, though some rearrangement of the laws of physics may be needed to deal with the ten foot poles.
8. An entire pocket universe, which will make things very awkward if you need to move.

Monday, 17 October 2011

What do you do?

So, I’ve missed the whole of the Beverley Literature Festival again. It’s getting to be something of a habit with me, based on the twin points of not having the time, and not particularly being a ‘sitting in a room listening to other people talk about their writing’ sort of person. Also, it may have something to do with that word ‘literature’. I’ve never been sure what it means, but I am fairly sure I don’t produce it. I just write stories.

Specifically, I write them in novel and short story form, though I’m starting to wonder if I shouldn’t expand the range of forms I work in. I used to do poetry, while I’d quite like to try my hand at a script at some point, though I have yet to do so. I suspect that reluctance has something to do with the thought that, if there is one approach that is working for you, then it seems strange to jump ship into a completely different form. Yet obviously, there are many writers I like whom it has worked for, from Neil Gaiman to Oscar Wilde. There isn’t just one thing that they ‘do’ unless that thing is, again, telling stories.

Have you ever stopped as a writer to analyse what you habitually do? I’d guess that the majority of us only really do a small number of basic stories, forms and characters. I’d guess that, if you’re anything like me, you’ll find the same ideas and concerns cropping up again and again, while you write in a fairly consistent style. I know I’m saying this as someone who has hopped genres, but I think it’s true, and I don’t think it has to be a bad thing. Recognising what you do consistently is probably a strong step on the road to having a voice that is definitely your own.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Pay it Forward Bloghop

This is for the pay it forward bloghop, run by Alex and Matthew I must admit to not normally doing bloghops, and if you find yourself here, please don't feel you have to jump straight for the follow button. Have a look around. Hopefully, there will be things you genuinely want on your blog feed. If not, I won't be offended.

The idea here is to link to three blogs I enjoy reading, and which I think you will like too. I've picked three that offer something a bit different, so here they are:

Estella's Revenge
The Standing Invitation
Rachel Green's excerpts blog.

Exit, Pursued by an Author

When we write, the scenes and chapters we produce have different combinations of characters in them that work to advance the plot. Those characters might start a scene already grouped together, but it is also often the case that they do not, and one or more has to enter. Others might need to leave later on. The entries and exits of characters need to be tightly controlled by you as an author if you are to avoid potential problems. Here are some of the things I think you absolutely have to consider:

1. Who is going to be needed in the chapter? If you can work it out ahead of time, then it becomes much easier to have all the characters around, rather than trying to introduce them at odd points. Are particular characters needed to perform particular actions? Could they conceivably be done by others?
2. Have a good reason for arriving/leaving. People do not go to see one another without a reason (and ‘seeing someone socially’ counts as a reason) so make sure that your characters do. They might need to talk urgently, or might be visiting, or might even genuinely need a cup of sugar. The point is that they need to show up for a better reason than ‘I’m the author and I need them there’ and leave for another reason, even if it’s just that they’re bored with talking.
3. Make sure that they can get there. I once heard that British soap opera Eastenders times journeys across its square so that characters don’t just jump from location to location. If true, it’s certainly fun, and highlights an important point. Unless you’re writing sci fi, your characters probably aren’t teleporting everywhere, so the character who was in Scotland one minute should not show up in Wales the next.
4. Asides should be rare. In fiction of a certain kind, people always seem to be pulling one another to one side. Now, I’d like you to imagine what you would do if someone butted into the middle of a conversation you were having with someone and took them away so you could not hear what was being said. Unless it was in a context where secrets were normal, you would be curious, wouldn’t you? You might even be a little offended at being excluded like that. So shouldn’t your characters be? Again, this is a device for the author rather than something coming out of the character’s behaviour.
5. How do they know where they are? A variation on point three. If your main character has wandered into the middle of a safari park a hundred miles from home and their next door neighbour just happens to show up to chat, well, how did they know? Did they have a tracking device? Had they been told? Was it all a coincidence (which then needs to be written up as something surprising, not ignored)?

With all these points, the same principle applies. Even though characters are acting in the ways you decide to further the needs of the story, they should not appear to be doing so. They should appear to be acting in natural, or at least explicable ways. Ways that make sense to them, and to your audience. And remember, if you’re stuck for a way to get them out of a scene, you can always do what Shakespeare did, and reach for an enraged bear.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Sidekicks

Sidekicks interest me. They’re such a staple of fiction, whether it’s the companion who’s cleverer than the hero, some mild comic relief or an excuse for someone to get beaten up and kidnapped on a regular basis. Where would the Lord of the Rings be without Sam? Blackadder without Baldric? Granny Weatherwax without Nanny Ogg? The right sidekick in the right place can totally transform a character.

I think there are probably a few things to remember. The first is who your hero is. The thing with sidekicks is that they seem funny and brilliant right up to the point where you decide to give them real attention, whereupon it usually turns out that they don’t have enough to sustain the novel. Or they steal so much of the scene from the main character that we all stop caring.

One big question is ‘what does this secondary character tell us about the main one?’ More specifically, what does the way the main one behaves in the relationship tell us about that main character? Going back to Pratchett’s Esme Weatherwax, we learn quite a lot about her from her constant bickering with Nanny Ogg, not least because Gytha Ogg is the one who sees through her best, having known her for years.

In a lot of ways, the sidekick is a lens through which we see an otherwise difficult character. Think of what Watson did for Holmes, serving as a device to let us into a mind that might otherwise have seemed too alien in its brilliance. Or the way Doctor Who’s companions provide a human insight into situations, allowing the Doctor to work in his own odd ways.

The real trick with a sidekick is to do that without sacrificing their own identity as a character. One easy way to achieve that is to give them either a fractionally different take on a central issue, or to have them less totally absorbed. Let them be the one who has family, and normal hobbies, and friends, while the hero is the totally obsessed one. It’s just one way of doing things, but it has possibilities.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

York Open

I fenced the York University open today, and I always feel when mentioning this sort of thing that I should be announcing great victories to the world rather than a mid-low table finish that probably won’t accrue any ranking points. Though whether they matter is an open question. I mostly fence competitions for those moments of getting to play against people I don’t know well. It’s kind of the sporting version of blogging, if you like, because you aren’t just talking to the same few people.

It’s the Beverley Literature Festival next week and as usual, I haven’t quite gotten around to signing up for anything. I imagine one of the workshops might be useful, or even that going to one of the readings might be interesting. It just tends to be one of those things I think I ought to do rather than just doing.

I have a galley proof copy of Court of Dreams, sent over from my publisher just the other day. It’s nice to see it so real. Paperback just feels so different to an e-book in that respect, and it’s great how thorough everyone is being with this. It certainly puts some of my other publishing experiences into perspective.

I’m currently reading both Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey (which I’ve been slowly plugging through for a while) and Wodehouse’s Psmith in the City, which starts with a wonderful cricketing moment that is perfectly, quintessentially English, and also nicely funny. It’s well worth reading if you get a moment.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

A quick list of lists that might conceivably show up anywhere, given the tendency of shopping lists to wander off. Perhaps even at the bottom of that treasure chest your heroes are opening:

  1. A list of instructions for using the dungeon the heroes have just conquered, warning that catastropic failure (i.e. the place falling down) is likely to result if the things on it aren't followed very carefully. Which they haven't been.
  2. A list of warranty provisions for a magic sword, that your hero then has to follow, making fight scenes that much harder. No use against class 2 Things. No use more than twice per cycle of the moon.
  3. A list of evil overlords invited to a gala ball, which must be recovered at all costs so that someone can work out a seating plan that doesn't involve them all killing one another.
  4. A recipe or list of ingredients for the Big Red Eye's eye drops, essential for currying favour with that most despicable of villains.
  5. A list of wizardly nicknames, so that a new wizard can find a hue that hasn't been taken already.
  6. A list of monsters for heroes, arranged like those lists birdwatchers have of rare birds, only slightly more than spotting will probably be involved.
  7. A list of the contents of a magical library, which must be found if the hero doesn't want to spend the next three centuries cataloguing.
  8. A list of people to be eliminated by a gnomish hit man (what, you didn't think they were standing in your garden for no reason, did you?) 

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Castles

If you write fantasy, then the odds are you have castles in there at some point. They seem to be an inevitability; the one part of the medieval flavour no one can avoid. Yet castles are both older and more complex than that. The romans had square walled wood and turf forts, for example, while even iron age peoples probably had a certain amount of defence in mind with their hill fort enclosures. So here are some things to bear in mind:

1. What kind of castle are you writing? As far as I can tell, writers generally either write the Disney castle, or a classic concentric arrangement with successive walls. Yet there were so many other options, from motte and bailey stuff to simple keeps.
2. Is it dragon proof? Remember that castles evolved as an efficient way to keep out enemy armies. If said enemy army can fly, or reduce your wooden walls to ashes, there isn’t much point. If you create a fantasy universe where that sort of thing is common, you have to expect that people will have come up with answers.
3. Black spikes with everything. Castles were as much about show as function. That’s why you find castle-y stuff on relatively minor houses in parts of the UK. They were about a claim to status, and about extending power. So make sure yours shows off.
4. Castles need peasants. Castles were full miniature economies, needing a lot of people. More importantly, one of their functions was to extend power over an area, which needs to include people for them to serve a useful purpose. They aren’t just somewhere for knights to live.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Awards You've Never Heard Of

Because I've made them up. Being a series of made up awards for all things fantasy, and thus an excuse for a list:
  1. The Big Red Eye Award for outstanding services to evil. Awarded annually to... well, whoever steals it first.
  2. The Guild of Extreme Cartographers Are We Nearly There Yet Award. For the individual who has found the most fiendishly lost city during the year. Or lost the most obviously found one.
  3. The Thing Owners Club Breeders Award. For the breeder of the best in show, with the ideal tentacle to eyeball ratio.
  4. The Barbarian Beer Festival Award. Barbarians spend so much time quaffing that they're probably the best placed of all fantasy types to award this one. Though given what happens when barbarians get drunk, T-shirts saying 'I survived Barb-Fest' aren't as common as they might be.
  5. The Humble Minion Awards. Or Squishies. Awarded in a number of categories, including most servile grovelling, fastest escape from a castle being overrun by heroes, and most gratuitous Wodehouse rip off.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

A Brief Post

Preparations for the York University Open continue with me trying not to panic about all the things I've identified as problematic with my fencing technique (it's only my grip/distance/long attack/guard position/feinting). Plenty to work on in the next two weeks.

I'm currently reading Tom Holt's Open Seseme. Of all his books, I think it has probably been the slowest read for me, though that may just be that I rather overdid things on his back catalogue.

Incidentally, an idea for every person who ever has too many ideas, or trouble trying to choose between them. Simply write down everything you would ever want to see in a book, stare at the resulting mess of a list, and then have a blinding flash of inspiration as you see a single coherent thread through it. And no, I haven't.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

All kinds of things have been going on this week. I'm edging along slowly with a novel that I've been working on for a while now, although I'm slightly worried that I only vaguely know where I'm going with it. I suspect this one may be just something I do bits of more for the process than anything, though hopefully it will come out all right. I always think you can tell when someone is enjoying writing something.

That's something that very definitely applies to the short stories I've been working on. Helping to put together a short story collection is harder than it sounds, not so much because individual stories are difficult, but because you have to write them to order, and write quite a lot. But this one is so much fun it's not a problem.

I picked up a copy of the Wind in the Willows earlier in the week, and I'm reading it now for the simple reason that I never did so as a child. Is that something you ever do? Go back to things you wish you'd read? I'm enjoying it quite a lot. There's something about the whimsy of it that suits me.

On the martial arts front, I've picked up a couple of regular gigs writing about them, just putting together small blog posts and articles. One thing I've found with ghostwriting is that it's actually these smaller, regular gigs that give you peace of mind, because you know you have a certain amount of basic income coming in, without taking up so much space that it gets in the way of the bigger, one off jobs.

And finally, the start of the fencing season has rolled around, meaning that, as usual, I'm worrying about my technique. That's pretty much a given at this time of year, though.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

We Have A Cover

My publisher has just unveiled the front cover for my novel to the public. It's probably a bit early for heavy promotion yet, since we're looking at a January 1212 release what with all the stuff you have to do first, but facebook-y types can see it over at Pink Narcissus Press's account if they feel that way inclined. I would show you, but it's not in a file format that blogger seems to like, at the moment.

On the ghostwriting front, I'm working on a collection of short stories with Arran Gimba, which has so far covered the zombie apocalypse, meditations on lost cities, and building universes in sheds. I should also be starting work on another novel in a day or so, for a client who, understandably, wants to be named rather less than Arran does.

Just out of interest, did anyone have a look at the history one I did with Keith Lenart? It's one of the weird things with being a ghostwriter that while technically, the reviews don't matter to you, in practice, they generally do, because they're the best feedback you're going to get on what you're doing. Although, as I know from one of my more regular gigs, you do then spend your time staring at the bad reviews and trying to work out which bits were down to you, and which bits were assorted other people involved. Mentally shifting the blame is the first skill of the writer. It's rather like being England cricket captain in the 1990s in that respect.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Your Approach

The start of the fencing season has rolled around, and with it my usual concerns about whether I am fencing sabre correctly. To which the short answer is not exactly. I won’t bother you with the fine detail of my technique except to say that it is different enough from the normal one to be noticeable to me, yet not so different that opponents are constantly wondering what I’m doing.

The big point, however, is that it works for me. And this is where it spills over to writing, because as occasionally useful as I think the whole industry teaching us to write ‘better’ is, I think that people occasionally take it too seriously. They think that you have to write their way, when in fact, you should be writing in yours.

There is a caveat to that, however, which is that you should be writing in yours if it works, and if you aren’t getting better results from other approaches. The slight quirks of my sabre technique have not been adopted on a whim, but are rather an attempt to both disguise my major weakness and open up greater precision in my blade work. I adopted them only after working for some time with the precisely orthodox approach, and I still go back to it from time to time to keep connected with it and what it offers.

If you have a radically different approach to your writing, in other words, that’s fine, but it needs to be based on a deep understanding of what you’re doing. Some people are so quick to jump off into what they think is their unique voice that they don’t realise no one else is doing what they’re doing for a reason. Make sure you’re following an interesting path as a writer, not a dead end.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Dividing up the year

It’s the last day of the county championship season today, with Warwickshire needing to finish off Hampshire if they’re going to win the league. Coincidentally, tonight happens to be my first fencing session of the new season.

That particular combination has me thinking about the ways in which we divide up our lives. I’m not just talking about the big events; the rites of passage as Van Gennep called them. I’m talking about the little markers each of us has in the year as part of that very human tendency to carve time up into manageable chunks. They might be holidays or birthdays, the start of a sporting season or the official first days of the real seasons. They might, given that we’re writers, involve the regular appearance of NaNoWriMo (No, I’m not. I never do. The last thing I need is another deadline) or the publication of a favourite anthology. We have markers.

So what about your characters? How do they mark the passage of time? Is there any sense of it? This is particularly one for the fantasy writers out there, because I’ve got a pretty good idea what some of you will do. Mostly because I’ve been there as a writer and seen it as an editor. You’ll have the change of the seasons, and maybe a holiday linked to that, but there won’t necessarily be those other markers. Yet they’re so easy to introduce.

Just consider a few very traditional markers in rural communities for a moment. There are the first and last days of harvesting, which was a much more important endeavour in the days before mechanisation stopped it being something for whole communities. There were the major markets, which in some communities came around for just a few days each year, covered by royal or episcopal charters. There were the days when fishing fleets or regular trade fleets set off or came back. Normal life, in other words, and it’s always the sign of a good fantasy novel when there’s normal life going on in the background.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

A Writing Day

Today featured writing bits of a lot of short stories in front of the TV while watching the final county championship cricket of the season. Yorkshire are relegated, and the chairman is already making noises about how the players need to pull their socks up. That seems a bit rich coming from a committee that is happily and hugely in debt, and which initially didn’t want a run getting overseas player because they couldn’t afford one.

Where exactly does pulling one’s socks up come from? Does anyone know? I can’t see how it can imply taking things more seriously, or being ready to take things on when Nora Batty out of Last of the Summer Wine was always ready to take things on, often with her broom, and never knowingly had her socks unwrinkled. They make us pull our socks up when fencing too. Apparently, a thin layer of wool will stop us getting stabbed in the shin should a sword break.

Going back to short stories, it’s interesting how trying to write ten at once feels different to one at a time. Whenever you get stuck on one, you sort of flit sideways to another. Presumably, it still takes as long to produce them, since I managed about the same number of words as usual, but it feels less like I’m trying to tackle the hard bits head on.

If you haven’t heard anything about my novel Court of Dreams in a while, it’s because we’re waiting for things like the cover and the galleys and the final proofing. It feels like a much more involved process than with either of my first two novels, and I am taking that as a good sign. Eventually, I imagine I should beg all of you to help me out with arranging a suitable blog tour to draw attention to it, but possibly not until I know little things like the release date.

I actually have a sequel to it in first draft form (or possibly second, given that I started again on a different tack after I decided I didn’t like the first version.) I’m wary of doing much with it until I can see that the first one is doing well. It makes fun of vampires in much the same way that Court of Dreams makes fun of the whole urban faerie thing. While still having a story of its own, of course.

I’m also working on the thing that I deleted not that long ago after trying to write without a plan. I have realised that this is something I do. I actually went through three or four attempts at Court of Dreams before we finally got to the finished version, complete with Grave (who remains my favourite character ever. Imagine Hagrid as a forgetful faerie assassin in a truly amazing coat and you’ll be nowhere near what I actually intend, but probably near enough to get an idea.)

Sunday, 11 September 2011

On Goblins

Goblins always seem to get such a raw deal in modern fantasy literature. For one thing, they don’t show up that often. Entire series full of elves and dwarves, undead and suspiciously derivative short people on long journeys can go past without a single goblin. That’s particularly true for many urban fantasy series. In fact, I can only think of two off hand that bother with them.

The second problem is that people treat goblins like they’re stupid. Like they’re cannon fodder. Like they don’t matter or have individual personalities. Like they are, in fact, straight out of Lord of the Rings. The trouble is, those that show up there are essentially just target practise for the heroes. If it’s not Lord of the Rings, it’s the dungeons and dragons view of them, which again goes ‘stupid short green people for heroes to kill’.

Contrast that with the goblins who show up in European literature and folk myths. Firstly, they aren’t uniformly short and green. Goblin is a term used for almost any mischievous or unhelpful spirit, and so can cover a lot of ground. Just think of the wide range of ones set out by Christina Rossetti.

They don’t have to be stupid, either. In fact, if you look at most of the tales pre-fantasy, they’re actually brighter than most humans. They’re tricksters, albeit very dangerous ones. They’re as clever as your heroes, and they may actually be more cunning.

Of course, my own occasional goblins are a bit weird. I am coming mostly from the standard place, because I want to make fun of it, yet I have a certain fondness for goblin man-servants who seem to have read too much Wodehouse. It’s kind of a combination of the two approaches, because they manage to be cannon fodder by type, but far too clever to actually get caught up in it in practise.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

I Hate Elves.

I’ve come to realise that I hate elves in fantasy literature. No, that’s not quite right. I hate the kind of shorthand that lets fantasy writers just say ‘elves’ or ‘vampires’ or ‘merfolk’. I hate what elves have become.

I quite like the idea of fantasy literature that features woodland folk cut off from the human world, or ancient, long lived people who don’t see the point of the petty squabbles around them, or even magical creatures with faintly pointed ears who like to use intruders for archery practise.

What I hate is when people write ‘elves’ like writing it is enough. When it’s obviously shorthand for ‘I know you know what I mean, because we’ve all played too much D&D/read Tolkien’. When the things we know about them aren’t things that the author has told us, but things that we just have to assume. When their place in the world is… well, not an integral place in the world. There’s nothing about them that comes from the idea of the world. They’re just elves.

For me, strange creatures should tell us something about the world we’re in. Yet too often, what they tell us is that the writer is lifting ideas from the general mythos rather than coming up with something brilliantly unique. Or that they can’t be bothered with description.

Not too long ago, I wrote something with elves in. At least, I think they were elves. I was never really sure. I certainly never used the word. And each one was their own person, rather than just a dull fantasy cliché. That’s not a claim to any particular brilliance on my part. Pretty much anyone else could do the same easily. It’s just that sometimes, people don’t, and I really can’t see why not, when it could do so much good.

Monday, 5 September 2011

The Next Word?

A thought on the craft of writing today, and structure, with particular reference to that most obvious source of information on it: music theory.

All right, maybe not that obvious, but I do think there is something to be learned. For those who don’t know, I play the guitar. A few years ago, I was really into learning music theory, learning things out of different music instructional books, and picking up lots of different bits and pieces from guitar magazines.

That was great, except that I never seemed to get quite as much out of it as I hoped. I’d pick up the odd lick here, or learn a new mode there, but there always seemed to be something missing. It took me quite a long time to work out what it was. It was my creativity. I was going into these books looking for entirely the wrong thing, because I was looking for someone to tell me what note I should be playing next.

That’s not how it works. Scales, arpeggios and so on are great as far as they go. They give you a quick way of getting a particular sound if that’s what you hear in your head. Yet no one will ever tell you what you should play, because that’s your decision. And when it comes to many of my guitar heroes (notably Carl Verheyen, Guthrie Govan and Paul Gilbert) they have actually gone on record as working the other way round. What’s in their head comes first, and all the massive technique and theoretical knowledge at their disposal is just to aid in getting that out.

I sometimes think, as writers, that we can be caught up in the same trap. We go looking around in books on the craft of writing, not so much to understand what it is we’re doing, as in the hope that someone will tell us what we ought to be writing. We forget that the ideas we have and the natural ways we tell stories sometimes count for more than the rest of it put together. And that’s a shame.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Unlock your inner villain

Villains are useful in so many ways. So much so, in fact, that I think there are definitely some things we can learn from them as writers:

1. Plans for world domination invariably go wrong. You cannot decide that your book is going to be the most popular in the world, because you cannot directly control the actions of your readers (put that mind ray down at the back there). What you can do is enjoy the process of writing, do your best with the book, promote it well, and if you happen to achieve world domination as a result, well, at least you’ve saved yourself the expense of a robot army.
2. It’s vital to have minions. Publishing a book is a team effort. Even writing one is. The people around you are vital in making it easier for you to write your best, and in staying connected to the real world.
3. It’s easy to come back. Just as villains are rarely stopped by little things like falls into lava pits, and always find some way to show up in the sequel, it’s vital as a writer to be able to find ways to come back after setbacks. To find new ways to approach what you’re doing.
4. But occasionally, they should stay down. The key here is ‘new ways’. If something isn’t working, don’t just beat your head against a brick wall (there’s probably some furry underpant wearing barbarian type happy to do it for you anyway if you’re a proper villain) There are times when you have to acknowledge that merely working harder isn’t enough and you need to give up on a project, even if it doesn’t involve giant mutant penguins. In fact, especially if it doesn’t involve giant mutant penguins.
5. Check your plan for flaws. How many villains have been undone by some hitherto unforeseen problem with their grand scheme? Don’t be that person. Don’t settle for a plan or starting point that is good enough. Work on it until it is great.