Monday, 31 December 2012

A Quick Review of the Writing Year

First, let me wish a happy new year to everyone reading this. I suppose it's that time of year when everyone looks back at what they've done and tries to work out what they're doing next year. I'm going to save the thoughts for next year for another post, but it's probably worth thinking about some of the writing things for a bit.

By my calculations, assuming I've added it up right and not including various smaller bits and pieces, I was a ghostwriter on around fifteen novel length pieces of work this year. That's quite a lot, I think. There were times when it even seemed like a little too many. Although since I've added some new sources for jobs, I think that number might come down a little next year.

This year is also the year that my comic fantasy novel Court of Dreams came out. Thank you everyone who bought a copy, and also to some of the reviewers who have said often very nice things about it. If you would like one here are the details of my page, while this is the publisher's site.

Things completed for myself? Well, there's another novel, which is out with publishers at the moment. I think I managed a grand total of about one short story though (which will be coming out in Wendy Tyler Ryan's Second Avenue Second Hand anthology), and probably about as many poems.

Did I learn anything as a writer this year? Probably, I learned something about the business of being a writer, and the difficulty of promoting yourself. I think I learned that honestly, people don't want to hear you just promoting yourself endlessly, that being part of a trend can help a lot, and that otherwise, it's better just to say whatever's on your mind. Writing wise, I think that possibly, I've learned just to tell the story a little more.

Saturday, 22 December 2012


Things I've been doing today include buying a Christmas tree, learning some old music, and playing around with bits for a novel I'm working on.

The Christmas tree came when it became clear that our usual artificial one wasn't going to stand up any longer (or indeed at all) without help, so it brought a trip to the local supermarket for what has to be the shortest tree we've had at 3'. Also one of the few real ones. I'm used to trees being this looming presence at the back of the room, not a small one off to the side. Getting it was surprisingly easy, given how close we are to the big day. Actually being able to park somewhere on the 22nd? There's something wrong with that. Although it did take me half an hour to push my way around the supermarket and locate some cheese. What is it about little old ladies that they think I'm not going to elbow them out of the way?

The old music came in the form of O'Carolan's music for harp, which works very well on acoustic guitar. Or any guitar, because I'm increasingly finding that the electric/acoustic division is an artifical one. If you haven't heard any of O'Carolan's pieces and don't know about him, he was a blind harpist from the 17th/18th centuries, who composed many of the most beautiful folk melodies of the time. I can take or leave classical music, but older folk songs often have a simple purity to them. So does a lot of pre-classical early music.

The writing is on yet another piece I've had two or three goes at. The tone I'm aiming for with this one is kind of that of a mad fairytale, just writing any old thing and seeing how it comes out. It's chaotic, but in some ways that's perfect. I remember watching the penultimate episode of Merlin earlier, and I found myself seeing just how easily the standard structures can overwhelm imagination in the writing of these things. If you're writing fantasy, but you're doing the same thing as everyone else in the same ways, in what sense is it truly fantastical?

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

History for Writers: Making Sense of Charters

Getting back to the idea of writers using historical research, what if you want to go the whole hog at your local archives and research some old charters, grants or other documents relating to a specific event? How do you get the most out of them? What possible use are they? Shouldn't you just be reading a general history of the time and making up the details instead?

Well you could, but sometimes single documents can give you real insight into tiny moments of history. I've been playing around with a short story based on historical events, and the documentary evidence is crucial to it. In fact, without my primary source research, I wouldn't know about it at all. I'm going to use that experience to suggest ways of going about this.

First, the task generally isn't as daunting as people think. Charters, wills, grants, legal procedings and other documents, even back to the Anglo-Saxon period in the UK (please don't call them the Dark Ages) are frequently collected together, and generally translated for those without much Latin. Even when they aren't, charters in particular tend to follow standard forms, making them relatively easy to translate. Specific institutions tend to have collections of all their various documents, often published, while governmental ones are usually available in suitable libraries (usually university ones).

What can you get from them? You'll be looking for a description of a key event as a starting point, probably. Generally, if it's recorded, it will have been done either as a 'history' of events, or as part of a legal proceeding. The one I've been playing with shows up in an account of legal proceedings kept by Ripon's canons.

What can it tell you? Well, first, it can give you a rough idea of what happened. Usually only a rough one though, because either it will be perfunctory and legalistic or it will be skewed by the writer's prose in the histories. It just seems to be the way these things work. But it can give you a rough outline of events, where they took place, and crucially, who was there. Look at the witness list at the bottom to see who was present at the signing. You now have at least a potential cast of characters.

Now look for other documents around it. Look for continuations of the same problem, or precursors to it. Look at the documents relied on by the one you're researching. In my case, the story only gets interesting when you realise that the canons relied on one of a pair of matching charters to prove their claim (the other being held by Beverley) and that those charters were forged. They did that rather than relying on previous grants by the Archbishop. So suddenly we have a story. We have the canons wanting to push away from the control of their boss, and using any means to get it.

But that isn't the whole story, because we haven't gone out to look at the wider context. The context of a charter is crucial and can often come down to looking at the lives of the people in the witness lists in more detail (where it is available, it often won't be). Looking for other documents with their names can tell you a lot (or just look in a big book of prosopography for the relevant period, like biography, only much more limited). For example, looking at other charters featuring Geoffrey de Lardare, the hero of my tale, tells me that he must have been around in 1216, and that he was still there a whopping seventy years later in 1286. It tells me that he was pretty active between those points too, to the point where we get the sense of him being the dominant personality in the place.

We know that the King was there in 1228, too. So what do we know about Henry III at that time? Well, he wasn't married by then, despite being around 30, and his general concern in life seems to have been the way the barons and others took power away from King John, his predecessor. So we can see that his involvement in all this was probably to get back a measure of control from the Archbishop of York. Because he was king, we have descriptions of him and his actions through his reign. We have some pretty good descriptions of the things Archbishop Walter Gray did too, among them plenty of grants to Ripon in the past and a general programme of rebuilding churches.

So suddenly, behind this one event, we have these two big characters. A king trying to build his powers, and an archbishop trying to exercise his for what he sees as the good of the Church. In the middle, we have this community of priests prepared to use forgery to gain a little autonomy, and a single figure among them sufficiently memorable to show up in the sources. We have the beginnings of a story, in other words.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Working on a short story.

Finally, after a couple of years, I'm putting my PhD to some use. No, I'm not lecturing, I'm having a go at a historical fiction short story. That's proving interesting, because one of the things with it seems to be getting the detail, without letting it become just a list of details. It's an intriguing balancing act, and also one that shows how much isn't there in terms of the historical record.

I'm focussing on my favourite piece of thirteenth century forgery, and on an event that involved both Henry III and the Archbishop of York, so there are some fairly major figures involved, but how much do we know about them? I can tell you, thanks to the PhD, things about their probable intentions over the course of the period, and the interesting conflict for power that was going on at the time. Yet I can't tell you with any certainty what they looked like (because even tomb effigies like Henry IIIs were as much about projecting an image as the reality). I can tell you the names of some of the canons of the churches involved, but certainly not all, and definitely not those of their vicars. Even with my MC, who is one historical figure I know more about than most, I can't tell you for sure what age he was, or what prebend he held, or much else. I have just enough information to get a sense of his probable intentions, and I can take a guess as to his rough age, because I know the earliest and latest charters that show him as alive, but that's it.

Hopefully, it's enough.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012


The thing that's intriguing me this month is the thought of crossing media. I think it comes from having picked up a copy of Neil Gaiman's Death (deluxe edition), and being reminded that there are people out there who do novels, and short stories, and poems, graphic novels, film scripts, episodes of Doctor Who...

And here I am, drifting along doing mostly just novels. Which I enjoy doing, obviously, but wouldn't it be fun to do a bit of everything. Except that each new form is... well, a whole new form to learn. With all the usual bumps in the road along the way. So why step away from the stuff I do well for one of them? It's a risk. Maybe one worth taking, but still a risk.

And just for a moment, I'd like to talk about the opposite of risk, because earlier today, for the first time since I started writing, I realised that I had enough writing work for next year to make a living already kind of lined up. That's a good place to have got to.

Monday, 3 December 2012

The Key Text

Let's start with a brief thought about history, and it's the notion of finding the key text on a subject. For most time periods and topics, there is one. It's the one that's going to give you enough of an overview to get you through whatever you're researching/writing, while also pointing you in the direction of everything else you need to know. How do you spot it?

  1. It should probably be reasonably recent. Historical thinking, like everything else, moves on. I might still read George Duby's work as that of a very influential historian, but I would not look to him for an up to date view of the middle ages.
  2. It should be broad reaching, covering the whole of your subject/interest, rather than a specialised look at one tiny sub-set of it.
  3. It should have plenty of references to other things. You're looking for the hub of a wheel, or a starting point on a map, but you still need somewhere else to go.
  4. It should ideally represent a dominant view of the subject. This can be hard to judge, except through other books, but in general, you don't want the one book on the subject that takes a view that other historians have torn apart.
  5. It should be readable, because otherwise, how will it keep your interest long enough for you to learn?
After those thoughts, some others relating to life in general. I'm nearing the end of a couple of ghostwriting projects, and somehow it seems that I always arrange my life so that I have great swathes of writing, followed by tranches of editing. Never a nice balance of the two. Maybe it's because they're such different mindsets.

On the guitar front, mine is still not quite perfect. I have contacted the one guitar tech in Hull I have not spoken to so far, but if he can't help, I'm honestly going to either sell it as a whole (which is probably not the most efficient way to go about it) or sell off individual parts and replace them to get closer to what I'm looking for. Listening to some MSG earlier, I got the sense of the one tone that I'm really missing, which is that big, thick rock one.

I'm still working away at the new project, and have achieved the most difficult part, which is to get the hero into as much trouble as possible at the start. The main thing is just to have fun with it.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Overlords, Goblins and Anthologies

I've started work on a new thing, which is in fact an old thing, which actually fits in quite nicely with the way I write things. I never seem to just write projects. I come back to them instead. Court of Dreams was put together when I realised all the things wrong with about three things I was writing, picked out the best bits and came up with a story that worked them together. The Glass, which is out with publishers at the moment, was finished on the second or third try. I think it may just be the way I write.

Which bodes well for this, a fragment from which some of you will already have read as part of a blogfest. It features goblin minions who owe a little something to Wodehouse, evil overlords, people wandering out of their home dimensions and trips to the Big Red Eye Awards for Extreme Unpleasantness. Also, me making fun of a lot of fantasy cliches while suggesting that they may still be better than real life.

Of course, that isn't written yet, so if you want to read my stuff, you're going to have to go with Court of Dreams for the moment (why do I make that sound like a punishment rather than a fun adventure filled with things, and possibly Things?) Also, I've just done my edits for a short story that should be coming out in Wendy Tyler Ryan's Second Avenue Second Hand anthology at some point in the near future.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Using the Hero's Journey

Earlier, I did some plotting using the whole Hero's Journey structure, which may not sound like much of interest, but bear with me. Because, as some people may know, I generally get quite stroppy about it. Or rather, I get quite stroppy about the way that, because George Lucas once used that tool of analysis as a way to give his work a more mythic structure, some people insist that using it as a blueprint is the only way to write.

I'm actually not a fan of any rigid obsession with a particularly structure, yet at the same time, I feel that the structure of a novel in general terms is an important part of the way it works. In the same way that we probably wouldn't give a song a twenty minute first verse and a twenty second last one, the balance and pacing of the individual components across a nice story arc is a good thing.

Ideally, I like to do that by simply looking at what is right. Like a chef working with ingredients, you can look at the recipe as long as you want, but your individual tasting of the balance of ingredients should count for more. Yet, when I'm stuck or in a hurry, it's important to be able to rely on craft to get me through, because this is my living.

So to balance that, I like to break things up by experimenting with different structures. It does two things. First, it allows me to pick one that suits what I'm trying to do (I find that John Truby's approach, for example, tends to suit slightly slower, more character based stuff). More importantly, it reminds me that I can switch structures. That the structure is something I'm choosing to use as a guide, not something that is absolutely essential to every story.

Sunday, 18 November 2012


I stopped using a thumb pick to play the guitar earlier, which might not sound like much of an announcement, but it seems to me like a comment on the way people sometimes choose to go about doing things. I'm generally more guilty of it than most, but people do have this tendency to want to do things a different way, a new way, a way that is all theirs. Like playing rock guitar with a thumbpick rather than the easy way.

What changed my mind was simply thinking about what my various guitar playing heroes do. While I can admire players like Scotty Anderson and Brent Mason, frankly, their music isn't what works best for me, so why would I copy them rather than, for example, Joe Satriani?

It's a thought that translates across quite well to writing. Sometimes, we wander off because we don't want to be the same as "everyone" else, when in fact, that can mean wandering away from the things we want to write. I have a deeply silly novel idea in the works, incidentally, and I won't be drifting off from it out of concerns that it isn't what I 'should' be writing.

Yet obviously, there is a case for being different. For just being yourself. In the realm of grappling, I'm playing around with something called the "inverted shot". It involves attacking an opponent by doing a kind of backwards roll thing at them. I'm doing it, not because it happens to be very unorthodox, but because it happens to fit in with my game. How can that be the right thing to do and messing around with thumbpicks be wrong?

It seems that the criteria here is, as so often "are you doing it because it takes you in the direction you really want to go?" I'm not talking about some sort of overarching life plan (because it would have to be a very strange plan indeed to encompass all these things) but rather just a simple sense of identity and what you want it to be.

Oh, and I can't say much about the novel idea, but it encompasses fantasy heroism as a kind of extreme sport, the difference between generic Villainy and actual evil, henchmen, quests, and an assortment of concepts I've played around with in much shorter form. Also possibly goblins, though I haven't decided on that yet.

Thursday, 15 November 2012


I'm currently shopping around with my novel, trying to find a publisher that's the right fit for it. That's quite hard work, even though I feel that this one is at least as good as any of my previous efforts, because it really doesn't fit neatly into any of the most popular categories. It is, broadly speaking, comic fantasy, but it's fraction more serious than Court of Dreams, having a little more plot in between the jokes. It has angels and demons in it, but it's not particularly religious in tone. It does the urban fantasy thing a little, but without the obvious romance angle that people seem to need (because frankly, urban fantasy has moved a lot closer to paranormal romance in recent years).

It's just a case of keeping going, I suppose. It's a question of hunting around until I find a publisher that's really interested in a story featuring fake fake psychics (not a typo), deceptively grumpy former angels, the topography of the UK, parodies of medieval vision literature and strange forays to meet Death in a small cottage on the Welsh border.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

I'm just thinking about novel ideas at the moment. It may be a little early to start another; after all, I have ghost writing projects to finish, more to set up, and one of my other novels is only just out to publishers. I'm still not sure which bits are my thoughts and which bits are just hangovers from other projects. I've been thinking that perhaps I should just write down every idea I've ever had and try to work out how to fit them together.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Guitar project, initial thoughts

So, it’s done. No, not some new novel or other. Something that doesn’t quite come along quite that often. My guitar. After almost a year, it’s together, even if it isn’t quite the way I expected it, so how better to celebrate than by putting together a blog post about the process of construction and what I’ve learnt? Writing people may want to look away now.


First, a quick note about the finished product: it’s a telecaster style guitar in korina with a Warmoth standard thin maple neck featuring a bloodwood fretboard and stainless steel frets. The hardware is mostly Wilkinson (three saddle compensated bridge and E-Z lock tuning pegs). The pickup combination is unusual, in that it’s a Creamery standard size wide range copy in the neck, a Creamery strat style dual rail in the middle and a Creamery tele style dual rail in the bridge. The overall effect is of something similar to Brent Mason’s setup, only with what has ended up as simpler strat style controls.


So, to things I’ve learned:


1.      Building a guitar from scratch will never save you money, and should only be attempted either because you genuinely enjoy the process, or because you can’t get what you want off the peg. Even then, it will be cheaper to modify an existing design than to build from the ground up.

2.      Sufficient research will reveal a wide variety of guitar models in the world, many of will fit that hole in your imagination very neatly. Perhaps if I had heard about the Baja telecaster or assorted Fret Kings earlier, things would have been different.

3.      It’s important to have a clear idea of what you want before starting planning the details, because additional features quickly add themselves to the list otherwise. I ended up with a very unusual pickup combination because I didn’t pay attention to what I needed at an early enough stage.

4.      It’s important to look at all your options for achieving what you want (if you want a strat style in between sound, my advice to you is not to add half again to your pickup budget by putting in a third pickup, when you can just add a phase switch. I found this out too late). The internet is surprisingly full of helpful people.

5.      Yet there is also a place for ignoring advice. My current choice of neck pickup is down to outside advice, and though it sounds great, I think if I were doing this again, it isn’t the way I would go.

6.      The time and effort in building, along with the cost of the tools and unexpected materials, is always going to be more than you think. Small things won’t fit, so that you’ll have to spend time doing things like expanding the tuner holes.

7.      Compatible parts are worth a little extra expense. I bought a beautiful Warmoth neck, but I didn’t want to spend the money for one of their bodies. Instead, I bought one from TK guitars. There are problems with it. The string through body holes on it are slightly too far back from the bridge pickup rout, meaning that stringing through the bridge is now the only option. Two of the three pickup routs had to be expanded to fit the pickups they were supposedly designed for. The neck pocket had to be deepened to allow the neck to set up properly. In short, fixing the problems probably cost me as much as getting it done properly in the first place, and I have a marginally worse result.

8.      Not all guitar techs/part builders are created equal. The good on my build include Colin at the Beverley Music Shop, who solved a problem in two days that had foxed the local guitar shop for three months, Jaime at the Creamery, who built wonderful custom pickups and repaired them when they were damaged in the process of construction, Wudtones guitar finishes, Warmoth, and the guys at Trinity Market Place music, who finished the project.

9.      Though having said that, they still weren’t able to give me the wiring I wanted, which included either a blend control or a neck on switch. Instead, I have standard strat wiring. So even with good people, you sometimes don’t get what you want.

10.  The end result will never be perfect. It’s not a custom shop guitar. It’s one you’ve made, with all the imperfections that go with that. I’ve ended up with a guitar I like, but could it be better? Of course it could.


Actually, let’s play that game. If I were designing it again, what would I do differently? Aside from immediately checking out off the peg options? Well, first, I think I would find an existing guitar I liked the neck from to use as a base. Probably still a t-style, but if you can find a complete cheap guitar you like the feel of, you can have a neck and finished body (probably in solid alder or basswood these days) for as little as a hundred quid. It would be two pickup, not three. I would still go with hum-cancellation, but I might go with a fraction higher output, because even on my high gain settings, my pickups don’t crunch the way I expect them to. They’re beautifully clear, but almost too clear. I’d use a phase switch for the strat tone, not a pickup. I’d still use a tele bridge pickup, but in the neck, I might use a strat style pickup.


That’s if I were doing it again. I’m not. At least not for a while. My basic theory with musical instruments is that you have to get to know them. And if this sounds like I’m a bit ambivalent about this one, I should point out that there isn’t a single one I have ever owned that I haven’t hated after about twenty-four hours, with the possible exception of my acoustic guitar. I have to learn to love them over time.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Embrace the Chaos

This one, for the IWSG (and about five minutes early), is a post that's largely about priorities. For the last month or two, I've been putting things aside to make time for a course to qualify as a fencing coach. At the same time, I've been pushing things aside writing wise to make room for some ghost writing gigs. Then there are the moments when I've been approaching publishers, talking to potential reviewers...

The point is that none of this is stuff I particularly planned, so I sometimes find myself wondering how useful these detailed point by point plans are that people occasionally have. You know, the ones that say they will have the novel done by x date, revised by y, and an international bestseller by z. Life is so chaotic. Life as a writer particularly so. We can keep sight of what we want, what makes us happy and what is right for those around us, but we can no more make something as complex as life abide by our wishes than Canute could command the sea.

In particular, I find it's worth remembering that these choices aren't straightforward good v bad ones. Often, they're between many things that we care about, which is as it should be if we're interested in the world around us. And it's a good thing. Perhaps sometimes, we should spend less time trying to impose ourselves on the writing life and more time just embracing it.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

A piece of historical theory you need to know

The problem when doing any kind of history is deciding on what it all means. You have all these individual facts, but what's the story? What's the message? What meaning jumps out of them at you? If you don't have some kind of analysis... well, the only way you can do that is by making a dry list, which won't be much use to your novel or historical work.

Historians used to think that the meaning would just come out of the facts at them. That they would somehow understand the underlying truth of it all if they just stared long enough. There's a problem with that, which is essentially that the meaning you get is the meaning you bring with you. I'm not talking about bias. I'm talking about the simple division between historical fact, which happened, and what those facts mean, which is made up by the historian to explain the facts.

Every time you make a historical judgement, you insert yourself into the picture. Every time you find a pattern, you again. Every time you focus on one aspect rather than another, or decide that one thing is more important, that's you. Even if you think you aren't doing much with the history, just finding background details for a novel... well, which background details are important enough to include? What attitudes do you choose to show? What bits of history are you commenting on through their inclusion?

Accept that while facts are facts, the story at the heart of your history is made up. Now accept that there is nothing wrong with that. Life gets easier once you do.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Historical Research for Writers: Archives

When doing historical research, you may find that you want to work with original documents. There are many reasons for this. It represents the most effective way of doing high quality research, and the only way that avoids being derivative of others. It is necessary for anything academic. It also gives you a much more direct insight into the time you're playing around with. So, how do you do it?

First, find your archival source. Many have transcripts online these days, from census records to even quite obscure sources such as medieval fight books and official charters. Project Gutemburg has a lot, while general sites on areas of expertise will often be able to point you in the direction of more. Forums can be your friend here, as people will often post links or upload copies of out of copyright documents.

If it isn't online, you may need to visit in the flesh. That means finding where to go. In the UK, the National Archives keep records of many public archives throughout the country, along with their contents. General books on the topic may contain references to key archival sources in their bibliographies, along with their locations. A little travelling can bring you face to page with anything from fourteenth century minster charter collections to an original Domesday Book. Generally, they get the cushions in the archives. You don't. Getting access is mostly a question of asking, then possibly paying a fee for access to the library.

Consider whether you really need or want the original. If you're doing serious academic research, then yes, it's a good idea to check for charters people might have missed, or phrases they might have mis-translated. Otherwise, you might find that books of collected primary sources might be just as good, if not better. They still give you access to words from the past, but suddenly, you might not need to learn Latin, or learn to read seven hundred year old handwriting. Plus, sources from several places can be collected together. Generally, there are series for major sources of archival material, such as the Admiralty, the royal pipe rolls, archiepiscopal papers, etc, as well as one off volumes for individual institutions, often produced by regional historical societies. Large university libraries will usually have many of them, or will at least know where they can be found.

Finally, keep your objectives in mind when reading them. It can be fun to go through aimlessly, but the danger is that the wealth of material can make it easy to be overwhelmed. Ask questions of the archival material instead. Literally write out a set of questions, and search for sources that could answer them.

Remember to think about why the sources were written. We get a lot of material from old trials, for example, because they tend to be some of the few records ordinary people show up in for some medieval towns. The danger is that we then think that medieval people were a bunch of criminals. Think about who was writing it and why. Then think of all the uses you can put it to that have nothing to do with what they intended. Charters, for example, are sometimes more interesting for who was there as a witness than for their content, because they help to place important people in particular places at particular times.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Historical Research for Writers

I thought, since my PhD is in history, and I'm currently working on a project based around modern history for a client, that I might take a moment or two to reflect on ways writers can go about historical research. It's useful whenever you have something set in the past, or when you want to bring in historical references. It is, I think, essential for most fantasy writers, who often neglect the fact that culturally, they are writing some sort of generalised European Middle Ages without fully understanding how things fit together. I think I'm going to have to do this in several parts, so for now, I'm just going to look at some general priciples, for those people who don't know where to start.

  1. Get a general overview. Historical research is like doing a jigsaw where each piece is composed of smaller pieces, which are in turn composed of smaller pieces, which are... you get the idea. You can end up doing one corner of things without understanding the implications if you don't get a broader view. A general textbook, or even Wikipedia, may help.
  2. Work out what you need to know. My PhD contains a reference to herring renders in Domesday Book, not so much because medieval canons were big on herring, as because I'd found it interesting and come up with a way to get it in. There's a danger in any historical research that you get sidetracked by research into civil war hats when you should be looking up the battles, or vice versa.
  3. Check the date of your history books. Some of the 'classic' history books you may remember are fifty years old, Or more. Opinions change, as does the information available to historians. It's easier to start with something more modern. Not least because the modern ones will reference all the older ones if they're an academic text, letting you use it as a guide to everything else you need to read.
  4. Don't rely on one book. If you only read one, you don't know if this is the one proposing a radical and ultimately flawed view that no one really subscribes to. And make sure you read books, as well as just websites. Most websites on history are done by enthusiastic amateurs who don't necessarily know as much as specialists in the field.
  5. Do (just) enough. You need to do enough research to be authentic, but for most novels, you don't need to know every last detail.
  6. Get access to primary sources if you're doing a work of history, or even if not. Archives will have them, and many will be available online (project Gutemburg for example). They will give you a feel for the time much more quickly than many textbooks, even if they only cover a very narrow range of things.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Where Does Your Villain Live?

If you have villains, baddies, or just general antagonists in your story, then presumably they have to live somewhere. Or, if not live, at least show up somewhere for your heroes to interact with them. But where? After all, piranha filled volcanoes aren’t that easy to get hold of these days.


Actually, that’s sort of the first point, which is that the location should be appropriate for the individual concerned. That should be true in both practical and symbolic terms. The practical ones are “could this character get hold of this location or show up in it?” A slightly miserly neighbour, for example, is not going to have his own Tower of Doom (unless he’s been watching the pennies to save for it) but he might have a bungalow. A firm of accountants probably wouldn’t work out of a magical world (unless they were were-accountants, forced to do tax returns every full moon), but they might work out of a block of Georgian offices.


Notice that they’re specifically Georgian offices. Now, what about if they worked out of modern glass fronted ones, or an office above a shop? Don’t those things immediately tell you something about the accountants concerned? The same should be true of the locations you pick for your antagonists. I’m not necessarily saying that their home should look like it belongs to the Addams Family, but it should always say something about them.


Sometimes, of course, what it says is that they’re very good at fitting in. The villain who lives in a sweet little house just like the hero’s can be an interesting trope too.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Rules and Regulations

Villains and creators of villains, I would like to draw your attention to some of the new League of Ultimate Evil (UE) regulations floating about (not to mention those spherical things with all the eyes. Who put those there?) Failure to comply with them could result in exposure to liability, or at least to the Big Red Eye’s gaze of doom.


1.      In response to a campaign from the Council for Elven Safety, it has been decreed that all dungeons, pits of doom and castles should provide protection for their little pointy ears. Noise in the workplace can be a real hazard. And if they happen not to notice your minions creeping up as a result, that’s their problem.

2.      Chronomancers, mad scientists and possessors of wormholes, please note that the latest UE working time directives limit the working week to no more than three hundred hours.

3.      Please note that night school qualifications are no longer acceptable for Stage Two and above Minion positions (Knight School ones may be, at the discretion of your Inhuman Resources department). Only degrees from accredited universities are appropriate for Stage Four and above. These include the University of General Griminess, Black Pit of Doom University, and the University of Hull. No, we don’t know why either.

4.      Blades of Infinite Sharpness must now be clearly labelled “caution, may be sharp” in elven runes. Alternatively, corks for the end may be provided.

5.      All Things must be correctly classified according to type. If you need assistance with this, UE qualified inspectors will be happy to help, though they would appreciate it if you were happy to help them after they’re eaten by the Things.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

IWSG:Three Things

This is for the insecure writers support group. There are two or three things that are hard for me when it comes to writing at the moment, but it's the way they interlink that makes things really tricky. The first is simple workload. Because I do this for a living, I have to write at a rate that is like doing Nanowrimo every month. It should be good that I'm getting the work, but truthfully, I've reached the stage where I've had to cut back a couple of clients just to keep things manageable.

The bigger danger that comes from this is that now so much of me is invested in writing. Writing is the main thing I do now, rather than a hobby, so when things go wrong with my writing, it's hard to keep a distance from them. Even simple things like edits or rejections feel like more than they used to, and that gets in the way, because perfectionism is one thing no writer can afford.

But what they feed into are moments when I wonder if it's all worth it. When I don't actually love writing, and then I feel guilty for not loving it. Because what's the one thing people always say when you tell them you write for a living? That it must be a great job. Must. There are moments I love, but there's a pressure that comes with the idea of doing this for a living, and it's the pressure that says if you don't love every minute, you're doing something wrong, or somehow not being grateful enough for the opportunity.

Friday, 28 September 2012


As I've found out recently, learning through workshops and similar environments is very popular these days. In the context of my training to be a fencing coach, everything seems to be workshop based, and I'm sure the same is true in a lot of writing environments.

My worry is that it may not be the most effective way to teach people something. What do workshops do? They give people an opportunity to put across their ideas and try things while getting feedback. Now, there are undoubtedly many circumstances in which that is the most appropriate thing (sharing pre-written work, for example) but there are also occasions when it isn't ideal.

Because it isn't really a teaching tool. It's a sharing tool. It's a great way for people to pool their knowledge, but when dealing with a new thing, it becomes a way for them to pool their ignorance. It becomes a way for the loudest members of the group to talk while everyone else sits there bored. It becomes a way for there to be awkward silences before the workshop leader supplies an answer, in a way that could have saved us time and effort if they'd made the effort to teach us it in the first place.

Take individual lessons in my current coaching training. The last time I was there, we were asked to put some together on particular topics. We weren't told how to go about doing that, or the most appropriate way to fit together a fencing lesson. As a result, I, and several other people, spent half an hour messing about trying to work something out from first principles, when we could have been doing it properly.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Love and Other Near Death Experiences

This is a review of Love and Other Near Death Experiences, by Mil Millington, which I finished reading not that long ago. It's the comedic tale of a local radio jazz DJ who survives the total destruction of a pub by being late for an interview there, and his quest to find some kind of meaning in life in the wake of it, not to mention the ability to make the smallest of choices without spending hours working out which one is most likely to allow for his survival.

It's a clever concept, and one that potentially allows for a lot of thought about the nature and meaning of life. Indeed, we have several characters who have been through similar things, and who come in along a spectrum ranging from complete nihilism to cheery belief that their continued existence is ordained by God.

That's where the problems start a little. There's a sense here of the issues not being fully explored, which for something so high concept seems a little odd. Instead, there's a meandering kind of quest that doesn't really go anywhere. It's probably a brilliant metaphor for the meaning of life, but it's also a meandering quest that doesn't really go anywhere. The same is true of other parts that don't make a lot of sense, like the sudden addition of a would be serial killer, the speed of the 'romance' angle, and the way the ending ties things up. Oh, and the fairly blunt declaration of what the main character has learned.

That's would be fine if we could just sit back and revel in the elegance and brilliance of the prose. I mean, China Mieville doesn't always make sense. Here, it's kind of a mixed bag. There are some great moments and turns of language. There's also some real humour in places, mostly character based. The trouble for me is that in the quest for laughs Millington reduces everything to a lot of swearing and a lot of poor taste jokes about sex, mixed in with a few about bodily functions just to be on the safe side. I don't mind any of these things as far as they go, but there is more utterly gratuitous swearing in this book than in any other I have read, to the extent that it gets both dull and predictable.

So it's not really a light, fun read in that sense. And yet it's not really as deep as it could be either. It feels like something that's a decent enough read, but it could have been so much better.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012


It occurs to me that I haven't done any author interviews or reviews in a while. Now, while I'm probably going to review some of the things I'm currently reading, if anyone particularly feels like being interviewed, let me know.

Friday, 14 September 2012


Quite a few things going on at once at the moment, so I've decided to resort to bullet points for this one (also, I miss doing posts with bullet points):

  • I'm training as a fencing (sabre) coach as of Sunday. I'm a tiny bit worried that one of the booklets British Fencing sent over contains instructions on teaching the fleche to sabreurs. Especially since the book in question (Learning Fencing in Groups, Laszlo Szepesi) purports to be a 2009 publication. Perhaps someone will know better than me. Is this a reprint? A cut and paste job badly edited for banned moves?
  • I'm currently reading The Theory That Would Not Die, Sharon Bertsch Mcgrayne (Yale, 2011), all about the development of Bayesian statistics and methods. So far, it's an intriguing history, but it's a little light on the detail of applications and on the explanations of scientific approaches. Whenever it says 'such and such did x using bayes rule' I find myself asking 'yes, but how?'
  • I'm writing quite a lot of different things at once for other people, so separating my time has become important at the moment.
  • I've sent a novel out to the publishers, and I'm waiting to hear back. I'm quite hopeful about it, though inevitably for me, it's a slight shift in tone from Court of Dreams.
  • I briefly tried writing down the bits of medieval history I'm actually interested in at the moment, and I came to the slightly odd conclusion that I'm actually more interested in medieval combatives than in my main field of ecclesiastical institutional history. For some reason.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The Next Day

It's time for the monthly Insecure Writers' Support Group post, and I thought I'd chat about the Next Day. Because I write for a living, that's what writing is for me. It's what I'm going to be doing tomorrow, and the next day, and the next... That sounds like a complaint, so I'll preface this by saying that I enjoy writing a great deal, and I'd rather be doing it for a living than working in an office, or practically anything else.

Having said that, the moment you have to do something, that's when it gets tricky. The difference between writing professionally and as a sideline isn't the quality. The quality comes down to the writer. The difference is that the professional (certainly in ghostwriting) has to come back and do the same thing again tomorrow to the same standard, whether they're inspired or not.

So it's nice to be able to get some of my own stuff done for once, including some work on a novel idea I've been playing with. Now I just need to work out what I'm going to do with it.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Martial Arts Ranking Systems

After many years of not quite getting around to it, I've signed up to take my coaching qualifications in fencing (specifically in sabre). The way they're structured made me think for a moment about the differences between the way the oriental martial arts and those related to them handle concepts of ranking and ability, and the way western ones do. I'm going to suggest that perhaps there is a case to be made for avoiding the approach favoured by many martial arts.

The main difference comes down to what appears to be a conflation of coaching ability and personal technical ability in the eastern martial arts. The widespread adoption of the Japanese system of belt ranks has contributed to that, and makes sure that it survives as an attitude even in a world featuring blended together martial arts systems, thanks to the influence of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

What I mean by the conflation of coaching and personal ability is that in some martial arts at least, it is assumed that you are in a position to coach once you get your black belt (or a particular lower rank generally accepted in the art). Yet you don't get a black belt for being able to coach people. You get it for being good at kicking people in the head, or strangling them, or doing the forms of your syllabus dominated system perfectly. You get it for being a good martial artist, however your art chooses to define that. In many arts these days, you get it after a great many incremental steps towards it.

Contrast that with arts/sports such as fencing (or boxing, wrestling, some forms of historical martial arts, etc). In theory, there is a system of numbered grades for personal ability in fencing. The majority of fencers I have met regard it as a useful tool for initial teaching, but essentially something for beginners or children. If you want to know how good I am as a fencer, I will not quote the bronze award I picked up as a child, or the level two I acquired for being able to perform components of the AFA sabre syllabus. It's about my national ranking in relation to other fencers, or a general self assessment, which doesn't matter much, because it has nothing to do with whether I can potentially coach.

Instead, these arts focus on specifically coaching awards. These days, they have been brought into line with Sport England's overall approach to coaching in regard to the number of levels of coach they have and some of the requirements, but the focus on training for coaching as something separate has been there for many years.

It is one that I believe to be a good thing. The ability to do something and the ability to teach it are two separate things. A good friend of mine who will readily admit to being completely uncoordinated as a fencer is nevertheless a good foil coach. If fencing used a Japanese style system, he would never be a coach. On the other side of the divide, other people I know, who have tremendous levels of personal ability in martial arts, nevertheless struggle to explain them or replicate them in other people.

In this, I feel that the spread of the Japanese approach in particular has done a certain amount of damage. Prior to its spread to other areas of the martial arts, I know that Chinese systems favoured a system of almost letters of recommendation, saying 'you're an advanced student' and 'you're ready to teach' as seperate things. It might have seemed a little ad hoc, but it seems to avoid a major danger with the belt system. Even leaving aside the issues it raises regarding fixed syllabi and the pressure for regular grading among students, the emphasis it brings with it on a level of personal ability as an indicator of coaching effectiveness is simply not a valid one.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

World Building: Countries

One of the things we do as fantasy writers when we get the crayons out and start drawing maps is to sketch in rough borders between countries. If you're anything like me, those borders will be largely aesthetic. It becomes an exercise in producing interesting shapes, rather than in political theory/history/economics. Now, I'm only really qualified to talk about the history aspect, but I do think countries generally have more to their shapes than that.

Here's a quick question, how do countries come into being? Obviously these days, there's a formal process of recognition, but in the past, things were generally quite complicated. Look at the formation of Germany or Italy in the nineteenth century. Look at the gradual creation of the UK from the post Roman period up to 1707 (formal joining of England and Scotland) and beyond.

So, where do they come from? Ideas play a part. One idea is that distinct ethnic groups ruling areas, and its replacement with broader administrative areas. In the middle ages, for example, we had a transition between Kings 'of the Franks' whose will generally didn't apply to the Normans, and Kings 'of France' whose will eventually did, at least in theory. Part of that was selling people on the idea of France as something real. The same can be said of Britain. The notion of 'Britian', as well as its flag, is actually a marketing ploy created by James I (and VI). When he started his reign in England after Elizabeth's death, he was not king of Britain. He was the king of Scotland, and he was, separately, the king of England. He strove to create a notion of shared national identity through symbolism. It didn't work quickly, or arguably well.

Warfare plays a part. Historians are generally wary of the notion that there 'has' to be a war to sort out major issues, or that these things sort anything out, but there very frequently are wars to build countries, for the not unreasonable reason that the rulers of separate little bits of land tend not to want to be swept up in other people's empire building. In many cases, medieval nations were the shapes they were because of the ease or otherwise of sticking an army there to remind the locals whose kingdom they were in. Borders were however far the warriors on the other side of them let you push them forward.

Which may explain why geographical features often end up not quite being the border. Things like major rivers and ranges of hills offer natural ways of hampering an advancing army, so they tend to get settled on as borders. Except that things are never quite that simple, because people push for a bit of extra land, and the other side push back, and then they make a treaty with a lot of complicated maps.

Which can lead to the concept of overlapping countries. Or disputed regions, if you want to think in today's terms. Except that it's not quite the same, because often you were talking about rather larger regions. And also bad mapmaking. And a lack of international oversight. With the result in the UK's case that Scotland would sometimes claim as far south as the Humber as its legitimate teritory, and try to impose its laws, while England would claim... well, most of Scotland, really. And the people in between often didn't see anything of their kings or their retainers for years on end and spent their time stealing from both sides and trying to live a quasi-independant existence.

What I'm saying is that countries aren't just pretty shapes on maps. They're all kinds of other things. They're symbols. They're attempts to define an identity. They're ongoing arguments with the neigbours over the exact position of the dividing hedge. And any world building you do needs to reflect that.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Medieval Fight Books and Writing How To Books

I still occasionally like to chat about the middle ages, and I’ve also read a couple of those writing self-help books in my time. You know, the ones that tell you that only their way of doing things is going to let you consistently sell work, and that persuade you that whatever you were doing before is therefore automatically wrong. How do these fit together? Well, I found myself thinking of medieval fight-books.

Fight-books (Talhoffer’s is described as a Fetchbucher, which is presumably where the term comes from) are big books that show up at various points through the (mostly later, but occasionally central) middle ages. Two of the most famous outline the systems of Fiore Di Liberi and Hans Talhoffer, and are big in Historical European Martial Arts Systems today, largely because they take a lot of the guesswork out of how people might have used the weapons available to them.

The thing is, while they’re instructional manuals in the broad sense, and people do learn moves straight out of them (such as some longsword moves, throws and dagger moves I picked up one sunny day a few years back), that isn’t the only way they function. Or perhaps even the primary way they function.

For one thing, they don’t always show all the detail. I’m told that with some techniques, practitioners are working from experience to piece together the gaps between hand drawn illustrations. Certainly, one of Fiore’s dagger ‘plays’ only made sense to me and the class I was in because I happened to know aikido’s ‘gokyo’ or fifth technique, a kind of straight armlock press down from the front. It showed the finishing point, but not the whole way into it. There are whole categories of technique where the teacher would be needed for additional detail.

That’s probably deliberate. Like the self-help types mentioned above, these medieval fight masters often weren’t primarily interested in their book. In the middle ages, when making individual books was a labour intensive and time consuming process, who made money from books? Instead, the book was about establishing them as an expert in their field.

Why do that? For the same reason that Chippendale produced beautifully hand illustrated catalogues of furniture centuries later. Present the right person with it, and suddenly, you’re hired. These fightbooks contained huge swathes of techniques and weapon types, covering everything from personal combat with the longsword, to wrestling, judicial duels, even designs for war machines. They were designed not so much to teach as to show off the breadth of knowledge that someone could bring into a lord’s service, if he was willing to pay the fees of the fight master behind it. Another parallel perhaps with some of the self help crowd (except for the war machines. Why do they never do that?)

Looking at these books can be a lot of fun, but it’s important to understand some of what they were for when looking at them. It’s all too easy to assume that the writer’s claims are true, and that what they show represents all of what was done combatively at the time. In fact, there are differences between each book, and individuals would often have had their own methods. Maybe that’s a lesson worth bearing in mind today.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Some Events that Weren't in the Olympics

1.      Competitive eating for hobbits. The winner being the one who can eat the most and still have enough strength left to make it to the handily placed volcano at the end of the course.

2.      Goblin Dire Wolf Dressage. Because horses aren’t the only creatures that can learn to do this sort of thing. Though their version doesn’t include taking large bites out of specially positioned elves, for some reason.

3.      The ten foot pole and vault. Where the competitors have to get into a vault using nothing more than those handy ten foot poles they carry around everywhere.

4.      Barbarian gymnastics. Including such apparatus as the twenty foot hole with spikes, the bar room chandelier and the conveniently ivy clad wall.

5.      Sword from stone pulling. Rather a limited one, given that only rightful kings can compete, but great fun as they try to overcome different strengths of super glue on the day.

6.      Thief to wall knife throwing. The goal being to pin the official games’ pickpockets to the handily placed walls by their sleeves within the time limit. A fairly easy one, given all the improbable things fantasy types seem to be able to do with thrown knives.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Zero risk?

One thing I’ve noticed from the Olympics (particularly in things like the judo, fencing and Greco-Roman wrestling, but also in a lot of other things) is that the emphasis at that top level is often not on what you’d think. When we think of top level sports people, don’t we think of them doing brilliant things? Performing impossibly high level skills that we couldn’t hope to emulate? Yet often their focus is more on simply not making any mistakes.

The theory is simple. In an interactive sport, rather than one where you just go as fast as you can over a distance, generally, there are limits to the amazing things you can do, and by going for those amazing things, you open yourself up to being beaten. What is the result though? Generally, it’s stalling, or dull uninteresting play.

Which is why we need to take a very different approach while writing. It’s possible to concentrate on not making mistakes while writing, keeping an inner editor looking over your shoulder for structure and content the whole time, and it’s likely that by doing that you won’t break any of the ‘rules’ of writing. The trouble is, it’s also likely that you will simply produce the same book everyone else is producing.

We don’t want to play things that safe as writers. We’re aiming to produce something beautiful and spectacular, and that is only possible when we also free ourselves up to the possibility of producing something not very good. Because the alternative is trying to write with our inner editor on full, and that simply doesn’t work well.

Now, if only I could persuade some of the people in the Olympics of the same thing.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

IWSG- the next thing

They say that one of the big things when writing is to get on with the next thing. Just finish something, send it out and find the next thing to do. I’ve always found that a bit complicated, because it feels like things never run quite that smoothly. Either there’s a pause while I try to think of a new thing, or I started it before I finished the first thing, with the result that I probably didn’t finish the first thing.

Then there’s the stuff I do for a living. The game there with the ghostwriting is managing the workload, so that I have enough projects at a given time. Thankfully, I’ve hit the stage where I’m not worrying too much about where my next project is coming from, or at least, I shouldn’t, but you can always find a way to worry if you try, right?

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Olympic Sports and Interest

In theory, the Olympics is meant to be a huge showcase for sports, opening them up to the world and exciting people about them so that they’ll want to do them. All that, of course, presupposes a sufficiently interesting sport. It might actually be possible for the Olympics to have the opposite effect on some people, so that after seeing a sport they had a vague interest in, they decide that it’s not so much fun after all.

Take fencing. I love fencing sabre, but I’m pretty sure that anyone who watched the men’s individuals would believe that it was purely about crashing into one another and waiting for the referee to sort it out.

Or take judo. I’ve recently taken it up, having grappled with judo people and found that they have good throwing and holding skills along with an emphasis on the top game that I like. Yet when you watch the highest level of their sport, it’s a stalling game. It’s not a game of throwing the opponent and then attacking on the ground. It’s a game of throwing yourself face down on the floor to keep from being thrown, and then turtling up on the floor until the referee stands it up. It’s a game, in many cases, of wasting five minutes and then winning with a minor score. And don’t get me started on the idiotic leg grab rule.

There have been sports that have been changed to make them more spectator friendly. Fencing is, in theory, one of them, though I have to ask “what spectators?” They did it by introducing visored masks that then proved very dangerous when fencing epee. What no sport ever thinks to do is concentrate on making itself as much of a genuine contest as possible.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Right, so far, I’ve watched fencing, judo, swimming, rowing, archery, shooting, cycling and handball. I may be going a little overboard with the Olympic coverage. I think watching the judo brought home to me all the bits of it I don’t like as a sport more than the bits I do, but the fencing was fun.

The opening ceremony was… interesting. There were some very spectacular elements, but I have to admit my favourite bit was Rowan Atkinson’s role in the Chariots of Fire section. It was certainly better than Danny Boyle’s vision of British history, which seemed to be a collection of random stereotypes.

As I’m writing this, Natalia Sheppard (our only fencer through to the last 32) is 5-0 down in the women’s foil. It’s about what we might expect, but it’s amazing how just a small difference in ability can make a huge difference to the score line and the apparent ease of victory in this sport.

A quick explanation of the fencing concept of Right of Way, without which the Olympic foil and sabre will be incomprehensible. Though it will be anyway. The idea is that, in a sport where the weapons are blunt, it’s quite easy for people to hit their opponent just by ignoring an attack being made on them. To counter that unrealistic tendency, the rules say that if both fencers hit, only the one with right of way gets a point.

If no one is doing anything, right of way is gained by starting an attack (by extending the arm with the weapon threatening the target) or bringing your arm up into a point in line (fully extended) position. For your opponent to get the right of way from there, they have to parry your attack or beat your blade. That, or they can just dodge as they hit you so that only one light comes up on the scoring box.

On a couple of non-Olympic notes, It’s been a while since I’ve said anything about my own writing. I have some friends beta reading a long-ish piece at the moment, so there might be more on that in the future. I’ve also been playing with the way I play the guitar, going back more to the way I played it a few years ago (very legato). In doing that, I’ve been thinking about how often the ways we do things naturally get swamped under a wave of later lessons.

In playing the guitar, for example, picking a lot of notes is common, not necessarily because it’s the best way to do things, but simply because it’s the most difficult thing and there are consequently lots of exercises around for it. People practise what they can’t do, or what they think they ought to do, rather than what they do beautifully. And the whole structure of music teaching encourages that, because telling people that they need to be able to play these things is a good way to ensure lots of business for the people teaching them.

I think that’s often true for writing, too, as people’s early tendencies can find themselves slightly squashed as they try to learn all about form and structure, the ‘rules’ of dialogue and characterisation. I’m not saying that you can just ignore all these things, but I do think that it’s important to remember what you do well, as well as what you can’t do.

For now though, I’m back to watching the fencing.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Guitar Tips

One from me in guitar playing mode for once (and also guitar waiting for mode. I asked my local guitar shop to sort out one moderately tricky problem three months back and I still don't have my guitar back, which is annoying since earlier I worked out at least one simpler fix for one of the issues that they really should have suggested). Anyway, here you go. A few quick tips for instantly sounding better, or whatever it is that these things invariably promise at this point:
  1. Play in time. One of the simplest points on any musical instrument. Acquire a metronome. Use the metronome. Learn to tap your foot on the beat or otherwise mark it physically. Keep your picking hand in motion in time to the beat. Suddenly, you'll find that your playing sounds 'tighter'.
  2. Play in tune. Obviously, you should tune your guitar, but also make sure you set the intonation correctly (adjust the saddles at the bridge until the twelfth fret harmonics are the same pitch as the open strings). Practise those elements of playing (bending and vibrato) that take you beyond the fretted pitches, so that they are perfectly in tune, every time. You can do this by playing a variation on the classic blues intro lick. Play a note, go down a fret and bend up to it. Go down two frets and bend up to it. Go as far as is comfortable, and no further.
  3. Hit chord tones. If you are playing over a chord, the most 'correct' sounding notes are the notes of the chord (usually the 1st, 3rd and 5th of a scale, plus others). Be able to identify them within your favourite scales, and grab them consistently all over the neck. Use them at strong points in a phrase like the start and end to sound like you know what you're doing.
  4. Explore dynamics. Play the loudest note you can. Now play the quietest. Now take a simple phrase, start quiet and end loud, or the reverse. Or start loud, go quiet, and dig in for the last note. You could also vary the techniques you use to provide tonal variation (such as legato v picked, tapped v legato, or hybrid picked v swept)
  5. Listen to what you play. The only deciding factor on the guitar is whether your music sounds the way you want, but you won't know if it does unless you pay attention to the way it sounds. One of the classic ones here is the whole alternate v economy picking debate. Economy picking gives much greater speed when crossing strings if you're picking all the notes, but proponents of alternate picking make the valid point that to them, it sounds 'better' (probably with more pick attack and more rhythmically accurate). Whatever sounds right to you, do it. Even if that means playing your guitar with a modified electric drill a la Paul Gilbert.

Friday, 20 July 2012

More World Building

Most fictional worlds are not whole worlds. There has to be the sense of a world around your characters, obviously, but that does not mean that every area of your world gets an equal amount of attention. It may seem like a very basic point to make, but the area immediately around your characters is more important than the rest of the world. Take something set in the modern day in a small village in the Home Counties (because I want to make the point that world building isn’t just a fantasy thing). We know that Wales, Germany and Denmark are out there somewhere, and it probably contributes something to our understanding of the world to know that, but they won’t be detailed in the work.

Generally, your actual world, in terms of the space that shows up in the text, will consist of one of two things. Either it will be a single broad location (a city, a village, a room that people wander in and out of in extreme cases or plays) or it will be a line of such locations arranged to make a journey. You will never have heroes visiting every location in the entire real world, because you don’t have that many pages, and because that wouldn’t make for much of a story.

What that means is that you actually have different categories of places to define in constructing your world:

Places that will actually show up in the story- if you’re going to set something there, then it needs to be fully detailed, whatever ‘fully detailed’ means for you. Your level of description won’t be the same as mine, or anyone else’s, but in general, these are the places you need to know most about. Setting a fight in a bar? Then you should at least know the layout, not to mention whether there are any handy chandeliers to swing on. And possibly whether the landlord has decent insurance, what kind of patrons it attracts…

Places the heroes know well- these are places that they won’t actually go, but to which they have probably been, because they know them, and will refer to them, remember them, etc. You need to know enough about them to make those memories real, but probably not so many of the physical details. It’s about tone. Actually, that’s true of everywhere, but particularly so here.

Background places- these are places they’ve heard of, places things come from, or people, or ideas. They’re the place that war is happening in somewhere else, or where that magical sword must have come from, or where their cousin’s brother went to get a job in cabbage packaging. You need to know far less about these, because people know far less about far off places than they often think.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

BJJ and Judo

A post unrelated to writing today. Recently, I’ve taken up judo, and I also practice no-gi submission grappling where the basis is Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. In theory, these two martial arts should be pretty close, because BJJ sort of comes from judo, in that one of Jigoro Kano’s students was the guy who taught the family who came up with BJJ, yet playing with both has thrown up some interesting points:

First, the whole gi v no gi debate. I’ll say now that I’m not in a position to comment on which is better, though I do think that people need to do whichever is closest to the way they plan to compete/fight. But I will say that I think I prefer the fluidity of no-gi. I can see that wearing the gi slows things down enough to think, but honestly, my experience of it in judo is that it doesn’t promote advanced tactical thinking so much as people just latching onto a collar and stalling like crazy.

Secondly, small differences can sometimes have a bigger influence than you think. Take the difference in the scoring systems between submission grappling and judo. For SG, you get points for passing the guard and taking advantageous positions. For judo, you get them for holding someone down. That means that the bottom game is much more about turning face down and then stalling. Which you wouldn’t normally do in SG, because the opponent has as much time as they like to set the choke.

Of course, there are bigger differences in the moves allowed, yet weirdly, the absence of leg locks or shoulder locks alone hasn’t been the thing that has been getting in my way with judo. It’s more the way those gaps mean that I have a space in an established game plan. I can work around that part.

Other things are actually more of a problem. Like the way things stop when your opponent stands up. That means that all the cool standing guard stuff from BJJ no longer applies, but it also means that the butterfly guard stuff is a problem, because standing as the opponent tries to roll you over is a common thing (which would ordinarily force all the fun standing guard stuff mentioned before)

One interesting observation for the BJJ types though, which is that judo does a lot more ground work than you think. It might just be the club I’m at, but while competition judo newaza is only a few seconds at a time before the referee stands things up, that actually translates to training very hard on the ground to try to make something happen against a defensive opponent. I actually feel that the judo people I’ve run into have stronger hold downs and escapes than most of the BJJ people I’ve trained with.

There’s also a real sense of continuity between throwing and the ground, which is both good and bad. It’s good, because no fight or grappling match these days starts on the knees. It’s maybe bad because the throw lets you bypass the guard game a lot, so that doesn’t seem as developed for many judo guys.

All in all though, it’s a fun combination, and I particularly like the way doing one is making me think differently about the other.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

What does your plot give your world?

One obvious question in terms of your fantasy/sci fi world is what you need for your story. Just a simple nuts and bolts question of what your story needs to run. If you have, for example, a very classic fantasy arrangement of a barbarian in civilised lands, undertaking a quest for royalty that brings him or her into conflict with a wizard after a long journey and many fights against non-human monsters, then you know a few things about your fantasy world from the start.

You know that it has a division (false or otherwise) between civilised and barbarous lands. You know that it has at least one kingdom or empire, which might be small, but at least has a royal ruler (and thus presumably a social structure that supports that). You know that you have a world with either magic or the appearance of it, and it is a world with monsters in it.

These are very simple observations, but I find one of the things about world building is that it’s possible to build from simple observations to something more interesting and useful. Whereas if you build from complex thinking about your world to your story, it doesn’t always work. If you know what elements are in your story, then you know the bare minimum of things and relationships that have to be in your world, whereas I live in dread of creating a world that has no room for the story I have in mind.

More than that, you can create a lot from these simple piece by piece observations simply by asking yourself where each element comes from and where it fits in. Rather than stifling creativity, it should spark it, by giving you a whole list of things where you have the space to build detail. It also helps if you’re constantly asking two questions in conjunction.

The first is ‘so, what’s an interesting way of approaching that element?’ The idea of these story components leaves you usually with a list of clich├ęs mixed in with some more imaginative things from your original inspiration. Because it’s just a list, rather than a worked out world at this stage, you have the freedom to brainstorm more imaginative options. For example, if we take the royalty before, we might go with the stock all powerful emperor or pseudo Egyptian/Persian god-king. Or we might go with the nominal king of a country who is in fact in charge of very little (a la Louis VI of France), or the chief Elvis impersonator on a planet full of them, or a monarch in hiding after a revolution, or a constitutional monarch so tied down by convention that an outsider is the only way to get anything done.

Which brings us to the second question we have to ask, which is ‘yes, but how does it work?’ For me, a lot of fantasy is about the interaction of the imagination and the consequences of that imagination. Thinking about why things are as they are, how they could possibly work, or simply what comes out of them logically is a great way to get more of your world on a plate. For example, a world where everything is made of cheese might give us as an obvious threat a horde of super intelligent mice.

I put that one in to make the point that I’m not asking everyone to switch over to hard sci-fi levels of rigour here. It’s about one part of the imagination sparking another, to whatever level of rigour, common sense and logic you feel is appropriate (in comic fantasy, there will generally be more logic than common sense, so that if there are dungeons full of traps and treasure, then of course there will be strange little companies that build the things, industry awards for doing so, and magazines entitled ‘What Dungeon’)

It’s just… well, if we take our monarch without much power or land above, then we have to ask the question of how he or she is still a monarch, and the answers to that tell us more about the world. And when we pick at how that fits together, that tells us more still. So maybe we have a situation where our ruler rules a very small area that is effectively shut off from the world, and his near godlike status is down to his own delusions, while the ‘barbarians’ outside the gates aren’t all that barbarous, but don’t invade because he is nominally their ruler still, and if you go around overthrowing your ruler, then maybe people will start wondering why they can’t overthrow you. Suddenly, just from taking an idea and asking how it could work, we have the beginnings of somewhere that feels a bit more real. Beginnings that we can expand on by reverting to our first question, or by bringing in some of the other ideas we generated. Combining ideas is always fun.

So give it a try. For me, the advantage of this approach is that it puts you somewhere between the plotter and the pantser when it comes to world building. You’re sure that your world is connected to your story, but you also have the time to come up with novel elements for it that you might not have put in on the fly.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

What is your world about?

One thing I think writers sometimes don’t think about with their fantasy worlds (and perhaps worlds in general to a lesser extent) is what that world is about. About? How can a world be about something? It seems contrary to all common sense. After all, a world is just a place for your story to happen, right?

Right, but because it is the place where your story happens, it should reflect the themes of your story. It should reflect the tone of your story. It should add extra dimensions to it and provide other points of view on it. It should be the space where things happen that affect what your book is trying to say, and will always be the circumstances in which your character acts. So yes, it can be about something too. Every aspect of your world will grow up from the main ideas on which it is based, whether you have decided on a tough world where nothing is easy, or a world where everything is shrouded in intrigue, or one that is about the classic conflict between good and evil.

So what is your world about? Well, what is your novel about? What themes does it explore? What kind of elements interest you? Are you interested in the complex internal politics of great houses? Ideas of true love? Big, sweeping battles? Do you want to say something about nations and the way they work? Families? Do you want to explore the darker realities of ‘heroism’ in the fantasy sense?

The point here is that if you understand the kind of ‘big idea’ behind what you’re writing, you’re more likely to put together a world that allows you layer after layer of commentary and exploration on that theme, rather than running off in directions you don’t have much interest in. You can create it, secure in the knowledge that everything you put in has meaning, and isn’t just there as filler. Better yet, you can be sure that the decisions you make about your fantasy world contribute to the overall story, so that they aren’t just background anymore.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

World Building 1

I’m thinking of doing a quick series on world building for fantasy and sci-fi, particularly aimed at novel length fiction, but probably applicable to just about everything else. After all, the worlds in which these things are set are often the most memorable things about them (although with Game of Thrones it may be the beautiful lego version of the TV title sequence).

I thought I’d start by saying what I believe to be the wrong way of going about it, inasmuch as anything can be truly wrong in an aesthetic endeavour. The wrong way, for me at least, goes something like this: you sit down with a big piece of paper before you have come up with any story ideas and you draw a big map, being sure to draw lots of individual trees, marking out a neat area for the elven nation and writing in ‘here be dragons’ everywhere you can be bothered.

What’s wrong with that, I hear you ask (actually you probably don’t, because you’re sensible people who don’t talk to your computers, but I’m going to pretend). That is, after all, how almost every RPG type started off making worlds as a kid. It’s fun, it’s simple, but actually, there’s a number of potential problems there.

The first is the timing of it. Even if your story is fantasy, where the world is a major selling point, it is my belief that the essence of the story should come first. Without it, you are making a story (probably a fairly standard one) to fit a world, not creating a world for your story. If you sit down and do your world first, how does it reflect and support your story?

Then there’s the map drawing. Believe me, the least important part of your world is that straggly coastline you’re spending so long over. It isn’t about how it looks. Nor is it hugely about the areas of empty forest signified by those trees I mentioned, except in special cases (such as where huge swathes of forest are important to the character of the world in the story. See Robin Hood). It’s about people, and themes, power centres and economics and all kinds of interactions, not lines on a map.

The problem with the elven nation thing? Well, it means that in drawing a map, you’ve made major decisions about both the composition of the people of your world and the politics of it. Decisions that could radically shape your story. Because you happened to scribble the word ‘elves’ on your map, you’ve committed to the presence of at least one traditional fantasy race, probably along Tolkein’s lines, and you’ve given yourself over to the idea of them having a country, which means that you’ve probably also committed to the idea of every other species having a distinct homeland. You can see how major that could be in terms of the feel of your world.

And finally, we have the dragons. Again, they’re a commitment to an element of traditional fantasy, but they’re more than that. They are implicitly a commitment to either a western European, vaguely medieval feel or (possibly, but not probably) a vaguely oriental one. Again, it’s a prejudgement of the whole tone of what you’re doing.

So am I saying that you shouldn’t draw maps? No, of course not. There’s a time and a place for everything, but what I’m saying is that a map should be an illustration of your decision making process, not something that does it for you.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Insecure Writers' Support Group

This is my first post for the whole insecure writers’ support group thing. Do I qualify as insecure? There’s obviously the school of thought that says all writers are, and I imagine just belonging to this particular blog hop suggests I might agree. Yet isn’t that just one more of those ‘you have to be this kind of person to be a writer’ statements?
Still, there must be things I worry about as a writer. Next novels. They're on my mind because I've just finished the first draft of one. That’s always a good one, because it doesn’t go away just because you happen to have three novels out in the ether, or because you’ve worked on thirty odd other ones for other people. It’s always ‘is the next one any good?’, and I suppose that degree of insecurity is actually a useful thing.

At least, it keeps me looking for the holes in my work. It keeps me thinking about what could be wrong with it enough to actually go out and fix the bits that are wrong. Maybe without the worry that our work won’t be good enough (to please whom, incidentally?) we’d just dash off any old thing and call it a body of work. Not that I have. Um… excuse me while I just go back and check.