Evolving Story Process

I put those three words in the title because a story has a certain neatness that is missing from real life. Real life is messy, random and, most of all, a continuous process. Although I'm comfortable these days saying "I am a literary editor", it would be more accurate to say that I am in a continuous process of becoming a literary editor. This is much like becoming a writer; we often call it 'development' as that has a suggestion that as time passes we improve (which I rather hope we all do), but 'evolution' is more accurate: we adapt and change.

My daughter and I play a game, usually at bedtime, of telling eachother subverted stories. It is as good a way as any of illustrating what a story is. Every story starts as follows:

"Once upon a time there was a lovely little pig called Margot and she wanted…"

The game is to find something she wanted, and thwart the desire as fast as possible:

"…a bedtime story, but her parents were both too tired, so she went straight to sleep the end."

This subverts Story#1, which is expressed as follows: person/conflict/resolution.

The more you write, the more you will develop a sense that most stories have a sort of underlying structure, built out of a standard set of characters and actions*. Initially, you will see the underlying shape of the story start to emerge as you write; presently, you will start to see alternate shapes, often in superposition, and you will start to steer towards the story that best satisfies you. Later, you may reach a point where you form a complete story before you start writing, however at some point before this stage, many writers settle into a personal process that suits their desire, temperament and creative preferences.

Some writers start recognizing tropes and archetypes and making use of them consciously. This is something that can be learned, but many writers are leery about learning tropes because they feel it will injure their spontaneity or otherwise prejudice the creative process.

The more you write, the more the process of writing evolves, and this evolution tends towards a stable, describable process, though the process may vary greatly from one writer to another. Writers who wish to allow their creativity to develop organically may want to stop reading here.

There are those artistic purists who claim that studying the art will stifle uniqueness in creativity. There are those hardened professionals who claim that only mastery of the requisite skills opens up the possibility of great achievements. I find I can walk a rather wavy line between these two points of view. What I seek to do when working with my author is to encourage him to follow a path that is natural for him, and I do this by trying to raise his awareness of his own process. If anything is essential, it is knowing the nature of your own creative process. Even if your process is to blind draft** everything, and if you aren't happy with a chapter, to throw it away and blind draft it again, you should be sufficiently aware of that process to be able to provide the best conditions for it (and to know that you don't need a literary editor, only a proofreader and a copy editor).

Most writers go through the evolution where they start by writing something and discovering the story as they go (or having the story pointed out to them by an editor after the writing is finished), and finish by consciously choosing the shape and structure of the story, either before or while writing.

In conclusion, here are some tangential thoughts, in parenthesis:

(By way of contrast, I know a writer whose characters are so well developed that she only has to drop them into a situation then watch what happens; if you are this instinctive with characters, then a story will appear with only a minimum of nudging.)

(Plot is something that I'll deal with in more detail another time. Plot is simpler than story to explain; nonetheless it is subservient to story. How conscious and explicit your plotting becomes is very much a function of the type of story you prefer to write.)

(As a literary editor I am conscious of the privilege of my position; I get to observe independently the development of writers and their skills. One of the reasons why I argue that storytelling is something human beings do naturally and instinctively, is that I have never known a writer who did not improve with practice (with or without my help).)

* commonly called 'tropes' but more properly called 'conceits'. The former is likely to replace the latter before too long.
** you start with a very vague idea of where you want things to be by the end of the chapter, and you sit down and write it, ideally in a single session, without any changes edits or corrections as you go.


How to Write a Your First Novel

Following on from yesterday, supposing you sit down to write your first story (if you can remember this event I'd like to hear from you).

Maybe you're arrogantly assuming that you are the next big thing, or humbly supposing that this will be the first of many failed attempts, or anything in between. None of that really matters. What matters is that you get it onto the page.

My process with my first book was that I would write like a demon for a few days, then gradually lose interest, then be inspired anew a few weeks later, at which point I would re-read everything I had written so far, make a few small changes, and then carry on writing. This is a slow and painful process, but thankfully at the time I wrote it I was not a professional editor, and I tended to think everything I wrote was great. Many first time writers spend a great deal of time going back over previous parts of the book to "improve" them instead of doing what they should be doing, which is getting to the end.

When you write your first story, possibly even your second or third, getting to the end should be the first, second and third priorities of the writing process.

There are a number of reasons for this:

As soon as you complete a first draft, you have become a writer. This is a psychological nicety, but an important one. Few but the most arrogant can actually think of themselves as a writer until the first draft of the first novel is written. Once that watershed is out of the way, it becomes possible to devote more time to redrafting and to thinking about getting started on the second book.

You can't edit a story that isn't complete. Actually just having a completed first draft doesn't mean you have a complete story, but it does mean that the editing process can begin, and you can start digging about in there to find a complete story. I've never actually seen a manuscript that did not contain a story. Sometimes it isn't the story that the writer thought it was. Usually its just buried. Sometimes it has features missing.

As you write your first draft, your style will start to develop. It will develop very fast in your first book, and start showing itself (on approximate average) around the 50k word mark (give or take anything up to 30k words). In the first book, there is a conflict between what you think is good style and the style you are developing as your own. It is worthwhile to become conscious of your style, but expect it to take at least three books to find something both personal and natural.

In your first draft, your vocabulary will develop, both consciously and unconsciously. You will also begin adventures in grammar, syntax and punctuation. A little more consciously, in general, you will also develop your ability with imagery. Much of our language is figurative*, and we use imagery both consciously and unconsciously. If you are unaware that, for example, the word "beady" in "he fixed a beady eye on me" is figurative, then you need an editor, or at the very least, you need to sit down with a volume of poetry, and bring yourself up to speed.

THESE reasons and many others all point to your reaching the brow of the learning curve of writing. A curve that will continue indefinitely (but which is an inverse exponent) as you continue to write.

In practical terms, this means that the last third of your first draft will be substantially and characteristically different from the first third. In short: you will have to rewrite much of the first half of your book, just to make it as good as the last third.

People will frequently tell you that the first three chapters need to be the best so you can capture the reader's attention. This is true. It is also true that in the first draft of your first novel, the first three chapters will be dreadful**.

The next step, therefore, is to find some kind friends and family who are prepared to read it for you. I suggest that for your first 1-3 novels, you ask them to read with an open mind, to avoid dwelling on details, and just to tell you:

  1. what the story is about
  2. which parts they like the best.
Repeat several times that you expect there will be plenty to dislike, but that this is a first draft and what you want is to take from it what's good and rework it. People tend to think that they are being helpful by pointing out your mistakes. A first draft is too early for that. A first draft reader who points out all your typos is wasting their time, as half the typos might be in parts of the draft that get cut or wholly rewritten***.

The feedback to this will tell you the most important two things: what the story you wrote might really be, and what you are doing right. Proceed to the second draft with that in mind.

Repeat the process with the next working draft, but try to vary the readers. This can start to get difficult. There are limits. But if this is your first novel, it's well worth it. Each of these read-feedback-redraft cycles improves your awareness of your own writing.

All the time in redrafting, be on the lookout for that feeling I mentioned yesterday, that the story feels right. If it does, and you can explain why, then the shape of the story is starting to crystallize. Go back and re-read with that in mind.


Next time I will talk about the process of writing once you have 3 or more completed novels, as the sense of story becomes more conscious and deliberate.

* rather wonderfully, the word "figurative" it itself figurative - though it became so before the Romans started using it... figuratively.
** this is not an absolute, and if you are going to be a good writer sooner rather than later, then those chapters probably contain material suitable for a first chapter, with a little, or possibly a lot of, editing.
*** that doesn't mean you shouldn't bother with a spellcheck before you give it them to read; that's only polite.


Where to Stories Come From?

I felt it only appropriate after the excessive ambition of my last post to give this one a similarly ambitious title.

Where do stories come from? I, as many writers, can write a story on demand, given a few basic ideas, or even no ideas at all. This is because I know what makes a story. Knowing what makes a story seems to have two elements, the academic and the emotional. The academic elements of a story are those that can be readily named, if not always easily described: plot, character, protagonist, antagonist, etc. The emotional element of what makes a story is a sense of when a story feels right. Part of this feeling is personal, but most of it is a shared feeling, shared between writer and reader in the same way that a play is shared between actor and audience. This means it isn't wholly subjective, and you can learn to judge when a story will feel right to more readers.

Often you can rationalize the successful story post-hoc in the hope of producing an academic explanation of why it works. Often this is spurious. Usually it is a waste of time. Sometimes it advances your understanding of what makes a story work. But not where stories come from.

When most people set out to write their first novel, they do so with an idea of the story already forming, perhaps completely formed. That idea has arisen from their experiences, upbringing, culture—especially, from all the stories they have read or heard or seen. It is especially common for people's first novel to arise from their experiences as child and adolescent; to arise from the difficult or traumatic experiences and relationships of growing-up. This is a pretty broad sweep—so much so that it could pass as a cold reading. But I stand by it because the more stories he writes, the more they will leave his personal experiences behind; the more the story itself will come from the writer's invention.

Most writers will have heard the advice given to first timers to "write what you know"; the apparent truth is that you can hardly avoid it; the story you have tapping away in your chest that makes you sit sown in front of the keyboard in the first place is a story that comes from you and will tell you. I wonder how many writers realize how much of themselves they have bound up in that first story. That's the major reason why it's so important to write that one before you get on with really developing your skill and art. That one story you've carried with you since whenever you were first aware of it needs to get out because it's holding you back.

Some writers (DH Lawrence, I'm looking at you) try to preserve the spontaneity, the emotional wellspring of that first story through all their stories. I find that even in the case of writers as good as Lawrence, they end up telling the same story over and over. (For goodness sake, man! The Rainbow is the same story as Sons & Lovers told three times in the same book!)

In telling that first story, you start to learn about how to get the story out of your chest and onto the page.

I think—tentatively—that subsequent stories are, at first, echoes of that first one. If the writer then tries to imitate others more consciously, whether imitating content, style or story, then other influences come to bear, and the stories diverge more and more from that first, personal story. Through this process, the writer develops more and more his awareness of those two elements of what makes a story; the academic and the emotional. Through this, he can develop the ability to develop a story from a few simple ideas, and as such begin to create as an artist.


More about the process of writing next time.


How to Write a Successful e-Book

I chose this hubris-laden title after some discussions with writers and editors, and after reading several threads on KindleBoards.

Obviously the main reason for chusing a title like this is that it will generate lots more Google hits for my Blog. Clearly I'm going to give you the magic formula for making $$$'s from your writing. That much, we can take as given.

Actually I hope there's a little more to it than that.

Publishing in Turmoil

Rarely do I think that a tabloid style banner headline is warranted, but it seems that indie ePub has thrown the world of publishing into confusion. This is a good thing. A writer can reach readers in a way that he never could before. And you don't need anyone's approval, you don't need anyone's permission, and you don't need anyone's help.

This certainly makes some big changes to the process of publishing. This in turn has consequences for the process of writing itself. Before I became an editor, I had a very narrow view of what the process of writing was. I thought that all writers were either jobbing hacks turning out formulaic pulp for the likes of Mills and Boon, or they were unknown geniuses wrestling with their magnificent octopus* until that golden day that they would send it to an agent and be trebucheted to global stardom, or that they were skilled and insightful airport thriller writers, one eye always on the bestseller list, predicting the next big thing and writing it as fast as possible.

I've no doubt that all of those people existed—and still exist. I learned that the field was a little more varied than that; but that all writers who got published had one thing in common; a publisher believed that their book would sell a specified minimum number of copies. To get to the point where a publisher made that judgment, they all had to go through a remarkably similar process, and most got edited in much the same way.

That bottleneck has gone.

To stretch a metaphor: readers thirsty for new books were drip-fed what publishers claimed was the purest, most rarefied, most refined selection. Now, we can all jump in the river. Readers have never had it so good. Not just because of choice, which is getting bigger by the day, but also because of art.

Since writers no longer have to satisfy the exigencies of a tiny elite of self-appointed "gatekeepers", their art is free to develop and flourish, do diverge and to deviate, to discover, to innovate and to bloom.

Writers should realize, recognize, that this freedom is of as much benefit to readers as it is to writers.

Then, they should realize that the process of creating a book can be whatever they decide serves their aim as a writer, an artist, a professional, an amateur, a hobbyist. Whatever. It doesn't matter. It has at last come to pass that anyone who writes can be read by anyone that reads.


In my next couple of posts I will discuss the process of writing a story, and what elements I think the process should contain, from my personal point of view as one for whom the story is the core, heart, purpose, the very point of writing fiction.

* ahem, magnum opus.


"Crossing the Line" and "Trophy Similes"

I was in two minds when I got up this morning as to whether to do a "fun" post or a "serious" one. Actually according to recently published research, since I'm bilingual I'm always in two minds, but probably best not to pursue that thought…

Crossing the Fine Psychological Line

Fine Psychological Lines are the boundaries between what is often called "appropriate" and "inappropriate" behavior.

There are, of course, lots of these lines, and the curious thing is that what weirds-out one reader may pass another by unnoticed.

These are some common lines:

Kind to children and animals / pedophile
Rugged male hero / indifferent misogynist
Laughing master-swordsman (often a swashbuckler) / violent sociopath
Gritty, man's-gotta-do hero / compulsive psychotic
Flirty / sex-maniac

Bear in mind that all these can be male or female, children or adults. It doesn't much matter. The author has to know that these lines exist, and that some characters may seem to cross them when he doesn't intend it. Your secondary characters are the ones that are most likely to approach these lines; since they get less attention and less development, you may find yourself using semaphore* to get the characterization across, and it may not always have the desired effect.

I bet there are lots more of these. Suggestions on a post-card. Or in a comment.

Trophy Similes

Similes come in two basic flavors: analogy and comparison.

Comparison is when you say "as xy as an xyz". David Mitchell's classic example is "as subtle as a lead brick in a bowl of rice pudding". Blackadder is full of subverted comparison similes: "We're about as similar as two completely dissimilar things in a pod."

This kind of simile rarely gets anyone in trouble, though they can be unintentionally comical. Their purpose, however, is plain to see; the simile acts as a qualifier for an initial adjective. Many of these are now clichés (happy as a sand-boy, blind as a bat, etc).

Analogy is rather more problematic, though both more literary and (I think) more often both necessary and justifiable. Analogy is where a familiar image, idea or circumstance is used to illustrate something new, unfamiliar or otherwise difficult to describe. An analogous simile is one which generally takes the form:

"Something happened like something else happening."**

These work well when they do either of two things:

1. Qualify the literal description, just like the comparison similes above, e.g.

She ran like all the demons of hell were after her.

2. Add to an otherwise indistinct, vague or unfamiliar description, often adding a qualitative or emotional experience e.g.

As he pushed his way through the crowd he felt more and more like he was struggling to get to the surface of a murky, stagnant pool.

For all that the first example is a cliché and the second a little clunky, both are doing a necessary job, and adding to the reader's knowledge and experience.

A trophy simile does no such thing. This year I have accused two of my authors of using Trophy similes. YKWYA.

The dungeon stairs were at the end of the hall, leading down into darkness like the gullet of some unfathomable beast.***

Here is the comment that the above example elicited from me:

First, this is a "trophy simile" - that's when you come up with a cool sounding image after you completed the decription and then tag it on at the end. You get top marks in Highschool for them but they usually don't work in narration. Second, you apply the simile to the wrong noun. The sentence structure makes the gerund 'leading down into darkness' the subject of the comparison, but I don't imagine a gullet leading. Maybe this would work of you put an indefinite article before darkness... but generally it would be better if you moved the simile earlier in the sentence:

"At the end of the hall, like the gullet of some unfathomable beast, the dungeon stairs led down into darkness"
Though frankly, "gullet of some unfathomable beast" is better left in Highschool!

Here's another, from a different author:

People weren't sure if it was the drugs or some territorial dispute or something else altogether, but there was a restlessness, an approaching dark which drove them deeper into their shelters and bedrooms like animals sensing an oncoming storm.

This is a great example of a simile that adds nothing.

Indeed, remove the simile from the phrase and it gains power and immediacy:

People weren't sure if it was the drugs or some territorial dispute or something else altogether, but there was a restlessness, an approaching dark which drove them deeper into their shelters and bedrooms.

Schoolteachers will expect you to provide trophy similes, and they are right to do so; it is a really effective way of developing your skill at expression. However, they should be treated as a training exercise, and you should be careful to use simile only when it adds something.
* a system of communication using flags. In writing, semaphore is using big, imprecise features to save time and space when describing less important details. 
** empirical formulae for sentences. Good idea?
*** after the last three days, I probably ought to point out that this is NOT Damon Courtney. He had one or two of these in the first draft of his first novel, but none that I spotted in the second novel.


The RPG Rythm - why a novel is, and isn't, like a role-playing game

In the third in a series of posts inspired by editing Damon Courtney's new book.

Tabletop role-playing games are an intensely creative group activity. A whole world is created in the shared imagination of the players, a process that has a lot more in common with theatre than it does with reading.

The act of creation is structured, to ensure that everyone shares a similar experience. Generally the Game MasterI (GM) describes the setting, and provides details of the situation in which the players find themselves. At this point the players will likely start asking questions of the GM. The nature of the questions they ask will give him clues about how they have responded imaginatively to the situation he has placed them in, and he will (often) start improvising details to further enrich the world in accordance with the players' needs, and of course, consistent with the challenges they face.

The most enjoyable games arise when all players and the GM become absorbed into the imagined world, and create a story together.

Since most of these games contain some fantasy element (whether mythical, magical, extra-terrestrial or technological), those things require rules to prevent the tedium that results from omnipotence and omniscience. The rulesets of RPGs are generally about what is possible and what is impossible; they set detailed boundaries about what players (or the characters they are 'playing') can do. This might be anything from how far you can jump through how much sleep you need to how much more trauma you can take while remaining sane.

Rules are essential in fantasy stories. Everything from the 1001 Nights to Twilight works on strict rules. The rules are what define the boundaries of the possible, and what enable the reader to recognize the drama in situations—recognition that arises from a shared knowledge of the rulesII.

The result of these similarities is a shared experience that is as satisfying as a really great theatrical performanceIII or reading a really good book.

It is inevitable therefore that players and GMs will have the thought: "Hey, that game was like a great story. I should write it as a story."IV

I have no specific objection to people doing this. Indeed, chronicling RPG adventures can be amusing, rewarding and improve your writing skills.

But there are very particular differences between the way things happen in an RPG and the way they happen in a storyV. The most glaring of all is that the narrator usually has a pretty good idea of what the characters are going to do.

Below is my generic editor's note on the subject:

Editorial note 11: the RPG rhythm

The RPG system developed by Gary Gygax and others requires some significant storytelling from the GM, and a certain degree of complicity from the players, but generally resolves itself to a particular rhythm, as follows:

  1. The scene is set by the GM. He describes the location and gives a few light details about what can be done, should be done, and what the risks or dangers might be. He also tells the players if there are any immediate threats.
  2. The players ask a whole load of questions about the details, to which the GM gives the answers, either from what he prepared earlier, what he thinks is reasonable or consistent or what he hastily made up. Sometimes he rolls a few dice to buy time.
  3. The players discuss various options amongst themselves. They may refer to the GM for clarification of further details at this point.
  4. The players agree a plan or the skeleton of a plan. They present it to the GM who either rejects it as impossible, helpfully points out the worst flaws or just accepts it to either maliciously watch it all go wrong or curiously see what happens.
  5. The players finalize the details of their plan. They tell the GM what they will do and in what order.
  6. Many many dice are rolled. Traps are found, doors are opened, bars bent, walls climbed, shadows hid in, backs stabbed, initiative won or lost, battles fought.
  7. return to step 1.

This pattern is not like the pattern of normal life, however it can sometimes creep in. Writers who have spent a lot of time playing D&D and the like will inevitably end up matching this rhythm of lengthy conversation alternating with intense activity. This sometimes happens in real life but very rarely, and I suspect even more rarely in good novels.
Finally, following on from what I said yesterday about fighting; RPG players get into the habit of thinking about combat in terms of rounds. A round is like a turn in a board game. It's your go. Imagine a group of heroes fighting a Dragon. The Dragon surprises them from above so he attacks in the first round. The heroes just stand there and get toasted. Once the Dragon has done toasting them, it's their turn in the second round. Those not welded into their armor start lobbing spells and arrows at the Dragon who hovers conveniently above them and either gets hit or doesn't. Repeat until one of the two sides is dead.

Real fights don't work this way, and so far I've never seen a (non humorous) fantasy book that depicts fights this way. However the structure of this system can give RPGers VI  a skewed sense of how fighting actually works, such as supposing that at any point a combatant is either defending or attacking (I mentioned this more briefly yesterday), or supposing that there is a hierarchy in types of armor, and that the higher up the hierarchy your armor is, the harder it is to hit you (in reality, armor is part of a strategic arms race; each type of armor has different strengths and vulnerabilities, and there is an upper limit to how useful armor can be. In some contexts, a man with no armor can be almost impossible to hit, while a man in massive plate mail almost impossible to miss).

Don't even get me started on hit pointsVII .


I really believe that the imaginative exercise of RPGs can and will make you a better narrator and writer. It will help you to think creatively, and to set yourself challenges and find satisfying solutions to them. But you must keep in mind that when you change media, not only are conventions different, but the whole mechanics of communicating your creations changes, quite beside what you chuse to call 'realism'.

I this is the politically correct title for the person who runs the game. In my mind it will always be Dungeon Master (DM), but there are now an awful lot of rpg systems out there, and most of them don't take place in dungeons. Indeed with systems like GURPS, any setting or situation you can imagine can be role-played. As a result, the more generic term GM is used.
II PTerry makes constant use of this, and often parodies it at the same time. On Discworld there is an element called narrativium and a rule called narrative causality that together ensure that stories follow their proper course.

III I studied theatre and have been to an enormous number of plays. I think I have seen two where the play and the performance really combined into a great shared experience. Maybe I just wasn't born at the right time, but most of the theatre I have seen has been stagnant, dry and sterile or desperately cheerily gimmicky.
V To say nothing of differences with real life. Most people do not throw dice to find out if they can do something or not. Most people.

VI role-playing gamers

VII Oh all right. Hit points indicate how much injury you can take before you die. Highly skilled and experienced heroes have hundreds of them while random peasants have 1. That suggests that to kill a hero you have to hit him at least 100 times as hard, or 100 times more, than you need to hit a peasant. This is obviously nonsense, but the game would be very different if it didn't work this way. Possibly more challenging and rewarding; probably less entertaining.


Swords and Bows - Arms and Fighting in Fantasy Stories

With thanks again to Damon Courtney for inspiring this post. I will say that though he inspired it, in this his second book he made a much better job of dealing with both melée and ranged combat both in individual, skirmish and battlefield situations. How did he do it so well? He avoided fine details and concentrated on characters' experiences and roles.

I should perhaps also add that I hate violence of all kinds, but several of my clients write fighting fantasy and other write thrillers, so I have to know enough to (at the very least) be able to send them off to do more research.

Part 1: Things you can't do in a sword fight.

1. Block.
Actually you can do this, but only if you're desperate. Even with a shield you don't want to block, and a shield is used best to protect you from projectiles and to prevent your adversary from seeing a clear target and, of course, to DEFLECT.

2. Parry.
You can do this a little more often than block, but a parry is really a sportsman's move, not a warriors. Literally, a parry is a defensive counter-move that prevents the adversary's gambit from succeeding. It requires a lot of skill and timing, but a warrior skilled enough to defeat his opponent without killing him might do this.

3. Batting-away
Two things make it impossible to knock your opponents weapon away to one side: one is the main strength behind a thrust. There is a lot of it. A thrust from a wooden walking stick can break your ribs, and when held in a strong grip you can't do anything to push it sideways. Two is inertia. You can't deflect a heavier weapon with a light one, let alone 'bat it away'. If you have a heavier weapon than your opponent, you are more likely to make a combined deflect and attack than first deflect and then attack. See 4.

4. Defend or attack
Okay, what you can't do is either defend or attack. You have to do both at once all of the time. The best sporting fencers, like the best duelists and the best kick-boxers, only ever attack; their defense is a combination of two things: adapting the course of their attack to avoid the adversary's attack and ignoring attacks that they think will do minimal damage.

5. Killing is hard
Actually a novice should ALWAYS attempt to kill his opponent as fast as possible. Only when you severely outclass someone should you attempt to leave them still alive. It is much harder and a really good way to get yourself killed.

Part 2: Making a convincing sword-fight:

Almost everyone's conception of what a swordfight looks like comes from Hollywood, and this is a pity, because what swordfights really look like is gunfights. That's why Leone was inspired by Kurosawa. A real swordfight is over before it started, regardless of the level of skill of the combatants. All their level of skill dictates is how long the fight lasts: very long for novices, less than a second for experts.

Here's the harsh reality: unless you have researched swordfighting in detail or have practiced reconstructive sword fighting (i.e. NOT sporting or stage fighting), DO NOT try to describe what happens in detail. The way to do it is to imagine yourself an ignorant onlooker looking at experts fighting. Many many writers seem to try describing what they think they would attempt to do. Unless you have some dramatic, plot or dare I suggest it symbolic or allegorical reason for describing a sword fight in detail, don't even try.

If you live in the UK, you can go to the Royal Armouries where a gread deal of research into historical techniques has been done, and they can actually show you how a real fight with medieval weapons worked. If you live in Japan there are still a fair number of schools that teach traditional swordsmanship. These things are worth researching! A well described fight can be really absorbing and exciting. 

But would you describe a boxing match if you had never boxed and never watched a fight?

That's what many writers attempt when they attempt to describe sword fights.

Part 3: A few words about Bows

++ Bows don't twang. Straight bows do creak when you draw them, just a little, and many of them "whoosh" when you release; a lot depends on the type of arrow. The string itself makes hardly any noise.

++ Crossbows (arbalests) are noisy buggers. Loading is a mechanical clatter, and there is a sudden clonk and the sound stops when the bow is cocked. At that point a quarrel still has to be loaded by hand. When it fires it makes a rattle and a crack more or less at the same time. If it is in poor condition then the springs (bow) will 'buzz' which is caused by the springs vibrating against the stock. This really should not happen. Crossbows have some serious stopping power at less than 100 yards, which is why they are principally a defensive weapon in skirmish and only used offensively on the battlefield. At under 10 yards a heavy crossbow will take your arm clean off, and is very unlikely to miss. What makes them scary is that once cocked you can wait for a target at leisure. You can raise the jeopardy by contrasting the danger of an unskilled opponent at close range who has a short sword with an unskilled opponent at close range who has a cocked and loaded crossbow.

Part 4: Youtube is your friend

Firearms and re-enactment enthusiasts film themselves demonstrating every kind of weapon. This is a good resource for getting an idea of the capabilities and characteristics of historical weapons, as well as providing you with sound. Many videos of the Royal Armouries have been uploaded here.

It all comes back to what you have experienced first hand. I have already remarked that too many fantasy writers rely on what they have read in the books of other fantasy writers. There is no substitute for first-hand research. It is wise to chuse carefully how much detail you will include in a fight scene.


Magic Items - Magic and Power in Fantasy

I am again indebted to Damon Courtney. I have just finished reading his "rough" draft of the sequel to "Baptism of Blood and Fire" (link on the right). I've really enjoyed it, and it has given me an excuse to talk about something that I've had on my 'bloggables' list for a while:

In roleplaying games, magic items are coveted objects of artifice or divine origins which enable the possessor to wield great of various types. Players will go on quests to obtain them, or be rewarded with them.

As such, in gaming, balancing MIs is all about ensuring that players do not get granted fabulous Godlike powers, but rather are given a small advantage over enemies who would otherwise be on par with them. The Gamesmaster has to judge quite carefully what MIs players will obtain and when.

Players will note that a really crafty Gamesmaster will sometimes throw in a MI that has a downside. It could be as simple as a curse, as annoying as a geas, or maybe even that the MI, while powerful is not especially useful, or while useful is not quite powerful enough.

In a story, the situation is different from in an RPG. In an RPG, the players have to use their imagination, ingenuity, knowledge of the game and luck to come up with solutions to tricky situations. In a novel, the reader is following or discovering the line of a story, and the author's duty is to provide reader satisfaction.

In a story a powerful MI is useful as a McGuffin (everyone is chasing after it, but noone actually uses it), or as a Doomesday Device (the Big Bad has it and is fixing to use it). If a protagonist has it, however, reader satisfaction rapidly wanes.

A magic ring that makes you invisible but not silent is great as long as both of those features are worked into the story together. If such a ring later turns out slowly to enslave its user... I guess you know what I'm thinking of.

A magic ring that makes you completely undetectable and invulnerable to harm, however, soon becomes annoying. The reason is that it destroys Drama.

Drama can be hard to pin down, which is a good thing. When it is pinned down it often becomes banal and even irritating. This is what soap-operas (and long running US "drama" series) do. They create Drama using the simplest known formula: the characters do things that the audience knows that the characters should not do.

But suppose even in this debased and degraded drama, you give the main character a Ring of Absolute Blamelessness. All he has to do is slip it on, and the Universe reorganizes itself such that whatever happened was none of his doing. The Drama evaporates without so much as a puff of smoke.

Supposing your main character is a Thief who gets his hands on the aforementioned Ring of Undetectability and Invulnerability. Thievery is rather going to lose its excitement, not merely for the reader but also for the author and for the character!

All this can go awry in another way entirely; the way that leads to madness rather than boredom.

Supposing my Holy Warrior obtains the Sword of Ultimate Cleaving, that can cut through even the bonds of death itself. Unfortunately his enemy obtains the Shield of All Defense which is the only thing that can resist the Sword of Ultimate Cleaving, so our hero has to obtain the Amulet of Irresistible Piercing which enables him to get through any magical defense but his enemy gets his hands on the Helm of Amulet Immunity which blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda the thing the thing the thing etcetera.

Walk away quietly.

In a story you have a fine line to walk. An MI must be essential, but at the same time it mustn't do more than give the character the smallest extra edge, and he must have his own skills and strength of character to back it up. Think of the spell imagined by PTerry which keeps you alive only as long as you don't think you're invulnerable. Think of he superpower of being able to turn invisible only if you are completely naked and everyone is looking the other way.

In a story, you see, magic is always a symbol. Usually it is a symbol for power and how it is obtained, but it can be many other things. As soon as an MI transforms mild mannered Will the Goatherd into Super Billiam, it has become a cheap device for wish fulfillment and will do the worst thing that any device can do: make it too easy for the author. 

When it is too easy for you, you will write crap.

That's probably the most categorical you'll ever hear me be, because so far it is the only sure rule that I have found for good writing.


Folklore Infestations - some of my writing

Peter LeStrange sat at the bottom of the rectory garden and watched the fairies dancing.

In recent weeks it had been becoming a source of increasing concern to the Priest of the parish of Tilford that where once he had seen only sunlight flashing in the little stream, now he saw fairies buzzing about.
- Not all the time, mind you.

Sometimes he'd be sitting on the garden bench, reading a book, sipping a pink gin (old Mrs Spacek next door produced a deep blood red molasses sweet sloe gin for which he had developed a liking) or just listening to the breeze, and the only thing moving would be the leaves and the water. Sometimes the air would be thick with clouds of little lace-winged bodies, squeaking and chattering to each other.

He had considered the possibility that he might have been going insane. But he only had his hallucination in the one place, and then not more than once every few days; besides, fairies at the bottom of one's garden was an eccentricity that was almost de rigueur for a country parson.. He had just about settled into the belief that he was, indeed, a little eccentric, when his wife asked him how he could remain so calm with elves whizzing around his head.

"They aren't elves dear, they're fairies."

"You can see them?"

"Of course I can see them, this is my hallucination."

"I think I'm real enough."

"But the fairies aren't."

The conversation had deteriorated into abject confusion, and they both decided to head indoors, and to try not to mention it again. Finally it became hard to ignore when the fairies, now visible most of the time, began to construct a city across the three willow trees.

"I'm going to call the council," said his wife.

"What can they do about it?"

"They can send an exterminator."

"Exterminator! They aren't wasps!"

"They're like insects, building their little nests everywhere."

"Their ‘little nests' are two-storey wooden houses six inches high."

"And that's another thing," she continued, "they're cutting up the trees."

"All the same, they're like little people."

"They're a pest, and I'm calling the council." The statement sounded final.

"I don't think they'll be much help," said the reverend, resignedly.

He overheard her on the ‘phone to pest control:

"We don't really know what they are; they've built nests all over the willow trees."


Two men in overalls stood staring at the trees. The short one rubbed his forehead doubtfully:

"Well it's a myth, really, isn't it?"

"I'm not sure they're mythical-"


"Illogical, whatever, I think it's more sort of folk-lore."

"Insect pest?"

"Can't be, stands to reason. The way I see it, your basic insect has three distinguishing features: you've got your single pair of wings, your six legs and your compound eyes."

He stood blinking for a moment.

"What we've got here," continued the short one, "is your single pair of wings, but simple eyes and only four limbs."

"Not to mention what I would define as distinctly mammalian characteristics," agreed the tall one, batting a tiny but perfectly formed naked female body away from his face with the back of his hand.

"Rather grubby, too. And why don't they wear leaves for clothes and bluebells for hats?"

"Wrong time of year for bluebells."

Peter LeStrange came down the garden.

"What do you think, gentlemen?"

"I don't think we're qualified to deal with folklore infestations Reverend."


Editing; the need for Thinking Time

I'd love to hear what other editors think about this. I quite often get emails from authors, from those who are self-confessed needy right through to the most laid-back, asking where I am with something or when I would reply to their previous message - often questions about my edit or general questions about their book.

The thing is I often don't reply right away because I need Thinking Time. I think about my clients' books a very great deal, when I'm not actually in front of my computer or actually reading something on the Kindle. It can be when I'm in the garden, in the bathroom, driving the car, walking the dog. This mental idle time is really critical to the quality of my service, in my opinion, and quite often I have some idea, question or doubt about someone's work where I know I just need to let a few days go by, and I'll thing the thought that I'm waiting for.

This can be hard on my customer, and on my pocket - since most of my customers pay a deposit and then the balance on delivery.

But as a story editor, my work is both creative and critical - it depends on my ideas as well as my knowledge and experience, and all the many books and stories I know or have read. This stuff often takes time to come up from the weird depths of my long term storage.

I encourage all my customers to chase me; this is so I can get a feel for their schedule - and how patient they can be with me and with themselves - so I can prioritize my Thinking Time as much as I do my working time. I also encourage them to tell me when they have specific deadlines or particular opportunities to get writing or editing done. Quite often that actually seems to speed up my thought processes.

Curious that at school I was constantly berated for looking out of the window instead of at my exercise book, and here I am declaring that what looks like daydreaming is essential to my work process!


Politics, Education and Conspiracy

With my usual apologies to those of you who read my blog for writing tips, the following is another political rant, this time about education.

The following was posted on Facebook by my friend, mentor and educator, Holly Eubanks:

On Preaching to the Converted

My great friend of many years Harry White Dewulf commented that my latest John Taylor Gatto quote was "preaching to the converted." He is absolutely right, because Harry is one of the converted. But what terrifies me is that a whole big bunch of America--and the world--(including many teachers) have no REAL inkling about what they have been systematically duped into doing to the minds of children, pre-adolescents, adolescents, and young adults. And by the time "professors" are working with the college-aged, the latter are already indoctrinated...then, it is just channeling the mind's skillsets into whatever niche it most suitably fits.

Over a decade ago, Harry and a few others of us wrote regularly on a Yahoo!Group. We had a number of lively and interesting conversations on that board about memes and memeplexes.

Back in those days, I was harboring quiet doubts about what we were doing in contemporary education, largely because of something I had read years before--John Gatto's acceptance speech for his Teacher of the Year Award. At the time (around 1990), I recall being very upset, indignant, and defensive about this paragraph:

"I've noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my twenty-five years of teaching - that schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don't really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers do care and do work very hard, the institution is psychopathic - it has no conscience. It rings a bell and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to different cell where he must memorize that man and monkeys derive from a common ancestor."

OBEY ORDERS??? John Gatto had the gall to allege that all we do is teach children how to obey orders??? His message seemed to me to be an indictment against all good teachers--myself included.

It has taken years for the layers of the educational onion to be peeled away, for understanding to set in..in parallel fashion, it has mirrored the uncovering and discovering and horror of understanding that our world governments are nothing but illusion and deception. What we have is government by Corporation, with tentacles that invade every aspect of our mental functioning. And part of that invasion has been into how we have come to educate children--and to what purpose.

Once on our Yahoo!Group we decided to create a favorite movies list, and one of the members--a brilliant contributor affectionately known as "Mr. Toad"--listed "Matrix" as one of his. That movie strikes me as the perfect metaphor for how insidious all of this is--and how imperative it is to fight.

Education today is one of those memeplexes we used to discuss. It is embedded in our culture and way of thinking and passes along from one generation to the next. And it's deadly. So Harry, or anyone else who might happen to wade through all this rambling, is it possible to strike any balance between what we need to learn to be human and what we need to learn to survive in today's economic structure? More and more, I am tending to believe that we need to have a return to a "classical" education, with no standardized tests, and dare I say it? perhaps no tests at all...

I'm going to try to take this point by point, but before I do I'm going to add a qualifier; one that I think essential to understanding my point of view and especially what action I believe should be taken. That qualifier is this: those in power broadly fall into two broad categories: the insufficiently competent (that I call incompetent for short) and the sociopathic. The democratic systems that we have evolved favor the promotion of competent people above their optimal level of competence, and favor the rise of sociopaths to positions of wealth and power. I do not believe that these two types of people are capable of large scale coordinated conspiracy. They tend to serve their own ends, which in the case of the incompetent is lining their pockets and securing their position on the gravy train, and in the case of the sociopathic, it is the endless acquisition of more wealth and power. These people see the value of grouping together, but they help one another only insofar as it helps them in the short term. As such, the image of the Matrix is a little too strong. However, it is true that the control mechanisms favored by the two types of people to whom we habitually give power take the form of a few simple ideas that can be spread throughout the systems of society insidiously, painlessly and simply.

Obedience to the clock, the whistle, the school bell, the voice of authority; all of these have clearly visible practical benefits in terms of planning, organization and safety that dovetail very nicely with testing, sorting, ranking, quality assurance, performance monitoring, each of which also has its own clearly visible practical benefits. When you have 1000 children in your care, all of whose parents expect you to provide them with the best possible, most equal possible, education, it is surely a source of great reassurance that you can test and monitor progress and attainment, and that you can stop and start teaching at fixed times, to ensure that each subject gets the maximum possible attention.

The system meets the requirements of the system very effectively.

Very effectively.

Indeed, it makes the whole organization of the school day so much easier if the children will stop their games and line up before the school door when the first bell rings, and lay down their pens (close their laptops) and clear their desks when the final bell rings. Children will naturally and quickly learn these group behaviors from other children with only a minimum of guidance from adults, which makes it all the easier.

Makes you wonder why so many of them seem to fight the system, doesn't it?

Makes you wonder why teachers are so preoccupied with dealing with disruption, disobedience, lack of motivation, laziness, given that the system takes such good advantage of children's desire both to learn and to fit-in.

Respect for the clock, the alarm, the teacher's voice, prepares them so well for the world outside, too. A world that is ordered around being on time, being in the right place, looking presentable, having the necessary skills and knowledge, and of course, the necessary respect for a car with a number and a siren, and a man in a uniform with a gun and a taser.

Hard to imagine a reason why so many people find the rhythm of the clock so hard to follow. Hard to imagine why so much of the working day is wasted*.

The simple idea or group of ideas (what Holly refers to as a memplex**) is this: plan, do, test, adjust (PDTA). It is a sort of application of a sort of scientific sort of method. The scientific method, in the same degree of r. ad. abs. is: observe, hypothesize, test, repeat-adjusting-the-hypothesis-and-hence-test-as-needed, until either the hypothesis stands satisfactorily or it can no longer be adjusted to fit observations, in which case, rip it up and try again. I might point out before continuing that the latter (scientific method) has never been applied to institutional education.

I feel a history lesson coming on. You might be able to skip this bit:

The memeplex represented by PDTA is derived from a series of historical events that occurred in parallel at more or less the same time on both sides of the Atlantic, and have everything to do with the fact that munitions are supplied to governments by private companies***. Arms companies supplied warring states with huge quantities of identical products. Bullets, f'rinstance. Governments decided a minimum number of defective products that was acceptable in each batch, in order for the supplier to be paid. If I sell you 100k bullets and 192 or less of them misfire then you pay me. I won't annoy you with spurious stat math, but if you fire a certain number and none misfires, then you have tested and accepted. This became known as the acceptable quality level (AQL). AQL is useful and valuable in manufacturing, especially for manufacturers of identical components - screws, rivets, valves, filters, engine blocks. AQL gradually spread through all areas of manufacturing until it started to creep into offices, under the guise of Quality Assurance.

Make no mistake, in manufacturing, AQL is of great value. It ensures that things that should be reliably identical are indeed identical.

QA is used to ensure that all business processes have the same level of quality. Let's imagine a financial transaction, like processing a check (cheque)****. A bank might decide that in order to minimize losses, all checks must be processed in exactly the same way, on the same schedule. Sounds pretty sensible so far. The bank might then decide that the system is good enough if one check in 10k goes missing - they have to compensate the customer, but it should be okay. Unless the amount on the check was for a really large sum. So the bank decides on a slightly more rigorous process for higher value checks. 

Financial transactions differ from manufactured components in that they are not identical. They are treated differently because of their arbitrary differences – one teller might be careful not to lose checks over $1000, while another might be careless with anything under $15.

The school system he have inherited has evolved during the same period as AQL and QA, and has been subject to the same assumptions based on the (miss-)association of two ideas: equality and indenticality.

Most people find equality a difficult concept to grasp, once it is applied to people. This is because most people can readily see how unequal we are. I'm not talking about unjust inequality. My neighbor and I both have drywall (plasterboard) to do in our houses. He is really good at plastering the joints. I'm terrible at it. So it takes me much longer and ends up costing me more. This is an inequality. It isn't unjust. It's a difference between us. My neighbor and I are not identical. But we are equal. We are equal since we share a world-view where we help each other, and others, in accordance with our ability to help, and our availability, not because of what we can get in return.

Equality is both an idea, and an ideal. It does not mean that everyone has the same thing, or even that everyone should have the same thing. It takes account of difference, and assumes that the contribution made by each person is as much as that person can contribute. Equality is about being aware of difference.

AQL works because all products are identical. QA works (when it works) because every run of a given process is simple enough to be nearly identical.

Planning and control (what I called PDTA above) assumes that every person should have exactly the same opportunity to succeed in life*****. Hence the same level of education in exactly the same subjects; the same education for everyone. Hence assumes that since every child is equal every child is identical. (That sentence should have had an ergo in it; something like omnes pueres sunt equus ergo omnes pueres parilis sunt.) Every child being identical of course suits the education system extremely well as it stands. Indeed, it is so much a requirement, that conformity to the norm is praised and nonconformity sanctioned, even in the youngest children.

It should be obvious to anyone wading through this rant that I don't think that all children are identical. I would even go as far as to say that a strong society is one that encourages difference. That much maligned (and largely redundant) species, the middle manager, knows very well that en effective team is one where each member brings a different set of skills, viewpoints and knowledge to the team, and that a well balanced team is one where the differences complement (complete) eachother. A team where everyone is the same generally gets nothing accomplished. I couldn't comment on whether this is true in all sports, but I know that in soccer (association football) the skills of a striker are very different from those of a defender. I believe that the differences between any two people are considerably greater than the differences between a striker and a defender.

Furthermore, I think that the more problems our civilization faces, the more it will need people who are different. People who do not conform, who have a viewpoint that is outside what the majority assumes, people whose skills are a little random, a little arbitrary. These are the people who find solutions; these are the people who have, historically, transformed society and assured the development and continuance of our civilization. The ancient Greeks had a word for such people: HERO.

The only way that we can have a system of mass education that will prepare a new generation for the challenges it will face is by identifying the differences between children and developing those differences. A system of mass education that nurtures difference, that appreciates how broad and how nuanced differences between people can be is a system that is truly equal. And it is true that just as testing is a waste of time and resources in a system whose prime assumption (that all children are identical) is false, so it is a nonsense to carry out testing in a system that seeks to encourage difference.

Nonconformity has myriad advantages for human society. But it is a threat to the incompetent sociopaths that we have placed in positions of wealth and power. They depend on conformity to remain invisible.

Difference leads to change, constant change. Teaching enforced conformity encourages people to fear change, and it is the fear of change that enchains and entraps. Change for its own sake (at least as far as concerns the institutions and instruments of the state) is both good and necessary. It exposes flaws and prevents exploitation from becoming entrenched.

Am I advocating revolution? As usual, yes, I suppose I am.

I believe that there is no limit to the number of different ways to get educated. I believe that in the ideal city, there should be a couple of dozen or so different types of education available. I believe that the form, and the control of education should be in the hands of parents and other educators, not in the hands of the state. I believe that the simplest reform that could be made in education is to sever state control of curricula, because this would de-politicize education which would remove the main reason behind testing. I believe that education should be allowed to evolve, and that such institutions that arise should be able to adapt to the children they educate and to the resources and opportunities in the community around them; I believe that parents and children should be able to find the education that suits them.

Ultimately, equality in education is giving every child the opportunity to fulfill his potential. Trying to teach the same curriculum to every child does no such thing. Trying to force every child to conform to the same timetable does no such thing. Requiring performance monitoring and testing does no such thing.

The world is changing faster than ever before. Those societies that manage to nurture and encourage difference will be the ones that fare best. Those that remain anchored to a cosy, safe traditional, institutionalized education system will fail, and be left behind, as, in my opinion, is happening. Thank goodness there are a few noisy minorities like the Occupy Movement different enough to insist on making themselves heard. They are the ones who will find a new way, the misfits, outsiders, the rebels, the heroes.

*  A survey conducted in 2008 concluded that of 2500 office workers, 65% wasted an hour or more a day, with 22% wasting two or more hours. Initially I was amazed that it was so little, even if you assume that most respondents "rounded it down a little". Then again, I have entire days that are wasted, and other days where I work non-stop for 14 hours. But wait—that's rather the point.
** I know that the estimable Richard Dawkins coined 'meme'. I rather suspect that 'memeplex' was coined by Daniel Dennett.
*** sounds like a massive digression, doesn't it?
**** these will be history too soon, I hear.
***** whatever the blazes that means