Good ‘Guys’ Doing Bad Things…

CW: Spoilers, Marvel Civil War, Dresden Files: Battle Grounds

So, a really good friend of mine linked me to a YouTube video about ‘Allowing good MC’s or characters to do ‘bad’ things and asked me for my take on the subject. Afterwards it occurred to me that I haven’t posted a creative themed blog for a while now. Luckily the whole discourse happened across Discord, so I can share my take with you.

The original video ‘Let them be bad’ is by Bricky, and can be watched here;

So, Bricky makes some very good points here. Moral absolutism can be boring unless it goes counter to the status quo. A ‘good cop’ who does everything by the book is only compelling when they’re surrounded by corruption. Likewise the gung-ho loose cannon only plays if they’re surrounded by straight arrows. But, we see lots of characters who operate from a standpoint of moral absolutism and, when done correctly, they can absolutely compel the viewer/reader. We take characters like The Punisher (Lee, Conway, Romita Snr & Andru) and Judge Dredd (Wagner, Ezquerra, Mills, McCarthy, Spurrier). Both have survived for decades operating within a very narrow purview (it helps that both are anti-heroes). However, in my humble opinion, they work at their best when the stories aren’t actually about them, when the focus shifts to the colorful ensemble cast arranged around them and the very villains that they chase. Both Punisher and Dredd work at their best when treated like the shark from Jaws (Peter Benchley, 1974) as an orbiting threat, a figure of legendary proportions and iron resolve.

But, that’s not the question here, the question is about ‘Good’ characters, the ‘boy-scout’ stereotype, infallible in their moral compass. We’re talking about Captain America and Superman here however, in recent years, even Superman has benefited from a shift of focus. Another great position for moral absolutism is as the antagonist (I know we’re talking about protagonists here, but it’s worth mentioning). When, in the ‘Injustice’ universe (or as part of the mirror-verse Justice Lords) Superman tales a zero-tolerance position on crime, then that unyielding position becomes a terrifying thing, especially in the hands of a set of super powered individuals who can easily subjugate the entire globe. For Cap we look to the Civil War story line where the very structure the Avengers work within makes a decision that Cap finds unjust. The comic arc in Civil War is work of high standard narrative, bringing complexity to the existing relationships between various superhero groups and the authorities, fractures within the groups themselves, the existing relationships between characters and even with those characters themselves. The scene where Cap tries to bolster the anti-Super Hero Registration movement, by taking in super-villains (because the pro-faction have started to) and Frank Castle, the Punisher, (who saved Spiderman from a group of those enlisted villains as the wall-crawler defected, turning from Tony Stark’s side?) executes them out of hand, brings the two to each others throats as their moralities conflict. Of course, Frank won’t raise a hand against Steve since, as he puts it ‘You were always my hero’.

From a narrative standpoint, having characters who can’t adapt to changing moral situations can be a major hurdle, especially with audiences demanding more complex plots with deeper moral ambiguities. It’s like the ‘Lawful Douchebag’ Paladin stereotype in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign who stalls the story because ‘my character wouldn’t do that’. In stubbornly refusing to engage with particular story steps (even if it opens up the way for ‘good’ choices later) they stonewall any progress of any kind. In reality life is complex, it doesn’t always work out how you want and sometimes it all gets a bit mucky or murky. In story terms pushing a ‘good’ character to do ‘bad’ things is how you introduce conflict either into the characters social group, or into the character themselves. It has the benefit of generating complexity in the character. The other aspect of that is ‘Fallout’, both social and emotional. Was the ‘bad’ act witnessed by others? Is the character hiding their ‘crime’ from their team? Are they simply struggling to accept what they did?

It’s something handled very well in the TellTale adventure games, especially their Walking Dead series. As the Bricky says though, such events are not something to be dropped out of the blue and then immediately resolved. Gradually building up to the breakdown of a character’s guiding morals can be a deeply satisfying narrative route. Don’t get me wrong, when our hero finally gives in to their baser instincts and commits (or attempts to commit) some grievous atrocity against a figure who’s been tormenting them for a while, parts of the audience are still going to scream in frustration, and cry, and react, and that’s the important part. In establishing the circumstances in which this bad thing occurs, or the reasoning behind it (defending a loved one, punishing a villain etc) you want to hold on to the uncertainty, the question of what your character is going to do, or even if they *can* go through with it. Either that or the provocation has to be so immense that the character has nowhere else to go, and that’s when the after effects of whatever they did become so important. In the instance it’s a spur of the moment decision it’s the fallout that becomes the narrative payoff. I think it’s certainly a story arc that benefits from a slow burn, timing and pacing are key, the weakest examples come when a villain kills a hero’s friend/love interest, the hero bests the villain but restrains themselves from dealing the deathblow *all in one scene*. Which isn’t to say it can’t be done. Jim Butcher handled it beautifully in The Dresden Files: Battle Grounds when Rudolph fatally shoots Murphy and Harry *nearly* kills him in revenge but! That scene isn’t just that scene, it’s the culmination of a storyline running through seventeen previous books so, in that sense, it is anything but rushed.

The point is that, it’s all well and good to make your audience scream ‘WHAT?!’ at a characters actions. Heck, it’s the name of the game at times, media in any form is about provoking a response, but you can’t just drop a bomb on the audience and immediately resolve it or worse, walk away from it without dealing with it in a narratively satisfying way. Bear in mind that ‘narrative satisfaction’ has nothing to do with the outcome being ‘happy, ‘sad’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, simply that the matter resolves in a way that satisfies the reader and that can involve either rage or tears as much as smiles and laughter.

The final point I’m going to leave you with is this, the very nature of good or bad is itself subjective and entirely dependent upon your genre. In Militaria the act of killing enemy combatants isn’t considered ‘bad’ (although having a character struggle with it is a valid narrative avenue) but giving in to cowardice or worse, betraying comrades is. In anything tagged with Noir beating up an informant is generally not considered bad (as long as the snitch is set-up to be a weaselly stereotype), but taking bribes (as the ‘good’ guy) is a cardinal sin. During the Camelot 2050 trilogy the MC Rosalyn kills a whole mess of people but, since they are enemy combatants in a war setting, it doesn’t play as ‘bad’ to the audience, it’s necessary. The ‘bad’ thing that she does, the thing that is out of character, the thing that she agonizes over and eventually rationalizes to herself, is countermanding a direct order, going against the King’s authority, stealing Excalibur and charging off, half-cocked, to fight the dragon and, for her at least, the fallout from that is pretty big.

So, having ‘good’ characters do ‘bad’ things? Absolutely, it’s a mechanic that works across genres to promote story and rile up the audience. It is those reactions that we, as creators, are actively trying to provoke. The failure comes when these events within a story are seen as a gimmick, or a cheap gag without grounding or consequence and that foundation, or ongoing price are the hallmarks of good storytelling. There are plenty of instances in the world around us, in history, in our own lives when we, and others, have done bad things, either for good or bad reasons. Whether we’ve been hailed for them, villified by them, or still struggle to cope with ourselves over what we did, those are part of a shared human experience and a keystone of narrative conflict. So, yeah, let them be bad from time to time, just remember the keyword, ‘consequences’.

Is… Is This Thing On?

Okay, I *know* I’ve been quiet for a while and I *do* have a good explanation. Producing weekly content about my experiences in writing and publishing is only feasible when I’m having experiences in writing and publishing which, over LockDown has been a bit of a problem. So, let’s have a quick look back at whats been happening over the past two years, shall we?

Rendered Flesh released with little to no fanfare (I’m doing my best) back in 2021 by LevelUp Publishing, but it was still a huge deal for me because it is my first, traditionally published novel and it has opened the door for me with Ockham Publishing. I’m now contracted for a three-book series, my Riding the E-Rail project, with Vulpine Press and I’m looking forward to a long and happy association with this publishing group, I assure you I have *many* more ideas that I am working on across quite a diverse collection of genres.

Events! Well, what to say. I appeared on a few virtual panel items at the online Eastercon 2021 (notably, and to my great frustration, alongside several talented 2000AD writes, including Dan Abnett! Virtually! ARGH!). I attended Fantasy Con (with limited tickets sales capping attendance), Reading Comic Con, Dragonmeet and Eastercon 2022 ‘Reclamation’ and had to can plans to attend Worldcon 2022 Chicago in-person.

I know it’s a little crass to talk in terms of sales but honesty in regards to the self publishing experience is an integral part of this blog and, while said conventions were all to the good when it came to networking and meeting people and such, the physical cons where lackluster in terms of actual sales. This was not new, I’d noticed a downturn in spending at events leading into LockDown but I had hoped, once events started running again, that the audience would be eager to spend a little money. While none of these events was a complete write-off the difference in trade between, for example Dragonmeet 2019 and Dragonmeet 2021, was around 60%, in that I only turned over a third of the trade I did in 2019 in 2021.

However! All is not lost. Just this past weekend I attended the second Portsmouth Comic Con, organised by GoGeek Events CIC and hosted by the Portsmouth Guildhall. The event was a resounding return to pre-Covid form and an incredible boost to both my confidence and my motivation. Satellite 7, Glasgow’s sci-fi and fantasy con, is in two-weeks and I’ve got my fingers crossed for good returns here too. The next event down the line is the Young Adult Literature Convention in London, running alongside LFCC Summer and, fingers crossed, that’s going to be a big return in the ticket.

So, whilst my previous posts about getting back to events might have been a *little* premature I do now have hard evidence that, post Covid, events are getting back to normal. Looking ahead I’m dabbling in a new promotional platform so I’ll hopefully have something to say about that in the weeks ahead and I’m following avenues on the ‘how to win awards (or even get nominated!)’ front as well. So, buckle up, knuckle down, and get those ideas out there, a lot has changed, but a lot more remains the same and the most important part of that, is readers gonna read!

Am I Okay?

*CW Politics and discussion of mental health.

Over the course of the Covid Pandemic this is a question I suspect many of us have been asking ourselves and, if not, maybe we should? Right now, today, my answer is ‘I don’t think so’ and, at that point it’s important to ask ‘why?’

At the sharp edge I’d say it’s because I’m struggling to write, that’s the upshot but the journey to get there is a roller coaster in itself. There’s the whole macrocosm of external influences.

  • Covid of course, it’s not ‘gone away’ although many would like to believe so. The relaxation of safety measures is up there in causing anxiety whenever I leave the house.
  • The war in the Ukraine is another background cause for stress and anxiety. Let’s not kid ourselves, there are over twenty active war zones in the world today (some have been ‘active’ since the fifties) but none has the potential to go nuclear like the Ukraine.
  • Closer to home there’s the ‘knock-on’ effect of fuel prices. It’s not a knock-on, big oil has ever looked for excuses to squeeze the customers and they rarely drop the price once they’ve realised we’ll pay it. Reported profits of billions year after year and still they gouge and gouge.
  • The Government, always the government. The conduct of Volodymr Zelensky just serves to further highlight the shortcomings of our own rabble (Boris hiding from ‘This Morning’ in a freezer, remember that?) and their disaster capitalism, nepotism, inhumanity, disillusionment and sheer, shamelessness.

I think I thought things would get better somehow? We’d learn to be kinder to each other and ourselves but it’s just business as normal, less ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ more, ‘Ignore it and Hope it Goes Away (and Incidentally, Look-over-there-while-we-shovel-public-money-into-our-rich-friends-pockets). The stories in my feed are of common people making sacrifices and trying to do good, while the oligarchs, politicians and power-mongers take and take, and take. Wealth, liberty and lives, without any end or improvement in sight. I look for tolerance and kindness and I find ignorance and opportunism, the one steadily outweighing the other.

Tighten focus still and I feel I’m changing. I used to LARP (I still do occasionally), but do I still want to? I think it was my outlet for story-telling but… now that I write? There are people out there, friends whom I only see in the field, and I really enjoy spending time with them, I’m just not sure I’m still that enthralled by the game. It’s almost come to a head recently, a situation has developed where I have a ticket to a Labyrinth-themed game (specifically the ballroom dream-sequence, so lots of lush costuming) but it coincides with the Bristolcon literary convention. My hobby (which I’m not sure is my hobby anymore) in direct contest with my career (which I’m struggling to see going anywhere right now).

Moreover, I have this three-book deal on a manuscript I initially wrote as a stand-alone. I know the universe and the characters have scope (I’ve been told by my proof reader time and time again), but still I’m struggling. Years ago I discovered that anger was a powerful force, for creation and change. As an old Honda advert about diesel engines said (in song) ‘Hate something, change something’. I finished ‘Camelot 2050’ on a tide of resentment over my work, I bulled through ‘Rendered Flesh’ using my dissatisfaction in the government and I had fun doing it. I turned that anger into joy in my writing. Right now I don’t have that fire, I’m not angry now, I’m tired. I think many of us are.

For the past four years I’ve released a book a year, building momentum. But the situation with ‘Riding the E-Rail’ is, quite logically for the publisher, that I need to have the manuscripts done before we go to print. Neither I, nor they want a failed, half-finished trilogy. That’s a hit for my momentum, the momentum that already took a hit from Covid and the two-year hiatus from events. The result being huge dose of impostor syndrome and strong desire to disassociate via games.

I know this feeling will pass, optimism will emerge like the sun from the clouds. Like many things it is transient but, it’s harder and harder to resist the feeling of all-over grey that swamps my agency, my impetus to do anything. Which is why I’ve written it down here. I *know* I’m not alone in feeling like this, and I want you to know the you’re not alone either.

Editing: AKA ‘You asked for this Sucka!’

To date I have mostly been on the ‘Edited’ side of editing and, to begin with, it’s a difficult experience. I’ve talked about it before but, getting redlines? It reaches back to English Lit classes, getting your homework back and feeling embarrassed by the mistakes and affronted by the creative criticisms. However, back in the classroom I didn’t have the emotional maturity to accept those points for what they were. Editors (much like teachers grading creative writing) are there to help you improve, to get the most and the best out of the work. Now I have been given an opportunity to explore the ‘other side’ of editing and I wanted to share that with you so that, the next time you get your redlines back, or the first time you get your redlines back, you might have a better insight into where your editor is coming from.

It’s a running joke that writers (and directors) out in the world get approached by hopefuls with their own manuscripts or screenplays, think the running gag of Adam Shadowchild in ‘Paul‘ (2011). But, rather than a joke, it’s actually something of an honour to be approached this way, to be thought of as an example, or an authority on ‘how this is done’? It’s quite humbling. So, when I was recently approached by S.G. Mulholland to get my take on his new story? Well, I decided from the first that I was going to take the lessons I’d learned from editors I’ve had in the past.

I’m not going to talk about S.G.’s new work, there’s a trust there that I will not breach, but do head over to his website for previews. No, I’m here to talk about the process from the editing side and the things to look out for in your own work to make the experience as painless as possible. I’m not a copy editor, I *need* a copy editor, my grammar can get erratic at times and spellcheck can’t always help, especially when it comes to dialogue, which has it’s own rules compared to prose. In order to get the most out of your work there are several things to watch for.

Passive Voice – Especially in the RPG work that I’ve done, passive voice is a big ‘No’. The difference is showing over doing, viewing over experiencing. In works where wordcount is important, and where you want to engage the reader and keep them turning pages, Active voice is a must. As much as using compelling, evocative language, it’s how that language is used that’s important. To avoid sites selling software, here’s a link to the British Learning Council site about Passive voice.

Another important lesson I’ve learned is when to get wordy. Life is a five-sense experience, even when it’s experienced on the page. But it’s important to balance those immersive descriptions with pacing and the best way to do that is to ask, ‘Is it relevant?’ These days even Tolkien gets pulled up for excessive descriptions and world building but, without that, a book becomes a script, near enough. Balancing exposition and action, world building and character development is the essence of pacing. One of the best bits of advice I got in the early days of Camelot related to a lengthy exposition sequence taking place as the MC’s internal monologue. My partner looked at me and said ‘There’s more than one character here right? Couldn’t this be dialogue?’ and it worked. Rather than just explaining the politics and standing of members of the court it became an interaction that also built up the relationship between the MC and their liege knight. I’ve tried to carry that lesson forward and ‘get out of my characters heads’ as much as possible.

Still, a good descriptive sequence can really hook the reader, ‘Rendered Flesh‘ was an object lesson for me in twisting the knife, using everything I’d learned from my contract work to make the reader squirm. A lot of editing is looking out for those opportunities to either move the story on by cutting back excessive description, or seizing those moments when you can really go to town.

The editing I’ve now done myself, and experienced in the past, mirrors those schoolroom experiences more closely that you might expect. While editing all changes to the manuscript are tracked. Every added punctuation point, every deleted item of text, marked in red on the page, just like those school reports. This is never more glaring when it comes to the ‘obvious errors’, words missing from sentences and the like. Don’t get upset, sometimes your brain writes the sentence faster than your fingers can follow and then, when you read it back, that same amazing organ fills in the blank for you. It often takes a second set of eyes to spot those occasional gaps but, if you don’t have that understanding of what’s happened, it’s easy to see that flash of red on the page as a glaring criticism. Maybe, like me, you have feelings tied to that image. Certainly media properties revel in the negative connotations of red text corrections and grades. But it’s important to remember that all grades get written in red, good and bad. The critiques and corrections might be in red, but so’s the encouragement and praise, and it’s import to provide those too.

Again, the ultimate intent behind any editing should be to encourage the writer to improve the story. What it’s saying, how it’s saying it. An editor isn’t (or shouldn’t) be trying to take your story away, or change it’s fundamental message. The goal is to elevate your work, and for it to remain ‘your work’. Yes, editing is a critical appraisal but, unlike a review, it’s not intended for popular consumption and it’s not an ‘end of’ opinion. It’s an opportunity to get an outside opinion while there’s still time to make a change. If you don’t agree with a proposed edit? Challenge it, justify your creative choices. But do consider where the editor’s coming from, their experience of both the craft and the audience before you buck against the change.

It’s important to remember that, given how the process works, how the changes track on the page? Even a few minor corrections can, at first, seem like a heap of criticism but, no manuscript goes to print unaltered and I don’t think that there’s a book in print today that hasn’t had some errors slip through regardless. The editing process isn’t faultless but it should be approached with the intent of getting the very best out of a piece, and it will be obvious if that’s not the case. I’ll soon find myself back on the the other side of editing so, for now, I’ll just freewheel the creative process and have fun with it. In parting I’ll say this, on more than one occasion a suggestion that might initially have caused me to grumble, has resulted in a tweak or twist that actually had me punching the air in triumph.

It’s not the size that matters, but what you do with it.

A question that frequently does the rounds of the #WritingCommunity groups is ‘How long is a Novel meant to be?’ The answer as far as I can see is ‘Well, how long is a piece of string?’ I’m not trying to be a pedant but I’m also not entirely sure there’s a ‘right’ answer. So, let’s have a look at some of the ‘standard’ classifications for works of fiction of certain lengths, and what works fall into those categories.

The first stop is Flash Fiction, that’s anything around 500 to 1000 words. Here we’re talking about vignettes featuring in larger publications, say RPG books. They’re the samplers and flavour pieces to give the reader an idea of settings and archetypes. I admit, it’s not impossible to tell a full story in 500 words or less, but it’s bloody hard. They also feature in anthologies sometimes, which leads us into…

Short Stories, anything between 1000 and 10,000 words. Short stories usually feature in anthologies rather than being published as stand-alone. Sometimes they are published as satellite stories for ongoing series, filling in dark spots, or featuring background characters the author wants to give more page space or as ‘taster’ handouts to generate readership. The short story should never be sold *ahem* ‘short’. 2021’s BSFA (British Science Fiction Association) Award for short fiction, for works of 40,000 words or less, was awarded to Ida Keogh’s Short Story, ‘Infinite Tea in the Demara Cafe’. That story can be found in ‘London Centric: Tales of Future London’ edited by Ian Whates.

Next in line is the Novelette, here we start to see overlaps in the length classification and the reason for the uncertainty a lot of new writers face. A Novelette is classed as anywhere between 7,500 and 19,000 words so, are you writing a long Short-story, or a short Novelette? A quick search for ‘Famous Novelette’s turns up ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde‘ by Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘The Call of Cthulu’ by H. P. Lovecraft and ‘The Faerie Handbag’ by Kelly Link.

Now we reach the Novella, clocking in at anywhere between 10,000 to 40,000 words. Another quite massive overlap, the search for famous Novella’s turns up many of the same titles as the search for ‘Novelettes’. George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ clocks in at nearly 30,000 words, John Skalzie’s ‘The God Engines’ finds itself in the search as does ‘Aurora in Four Voices’ by Catherine Asaro.

Now, here comes the root of the problem. As a search ‘How Long is a Novel’s top hit is a Masterclass website article about Word Count. The article suggests that a Novel should be anywhere between 80,000 to 100,000 words. So where does anything between 40k and 80k reside (The article states that anything over 50k can be considered a ‘novel’ but there’s still a 10,000 word gap between that and a Novella). So, we’ve gone from overlap to massive gap hence a lot of folks confusion. James Herbert’s ‘The Rats’ falls through this gap at 52k, even though the first print of the horror sold out in three weeks. Searching for books by word count is tricky, you can easily look for the word count of a book, but books categorised by word count? Notsomuch.

Another answer to the confusion is down to different genre’s readers, supposedly, having different expectations (according to publishers). This is why Fantasy can be sub-categorised with ‘Epic-Fantasy’. Blog site The Write Life has a partial breakdown along the lines of non-fiction, YA, and a few genre specifics but the consensus I’m seeing across the board is this. If you’re an unknown trying to get a new book published the ‘sweet spot’ across genre is around the 80,000 to 100,000 word mark for a ‘Novel’, but does that matter?

At a workshop recently a writer in the room related the tale of their 30,000 word story that seemed ‘too short to publish’. So they added another five thousand words and then didn’t like the story anymore. The length, or lack thereof wasn’t the problem here, the story could absolutely have been published as a Novella, Novelette or even in an anthology, the problem was the writers perception that the story was ‘too-short’ and that might be due to this confusion about story lengths and the resulting classification. If the story is complete and compelling why pad it out? It can find it’s place among those categories listed above or, as a self pub, among the readers out there.

Length is only really important if you’re looking to get a traditional publishing deal and only to get that door open. Of course, if you hit it big, word count can go out the window. I mentioned ‘The Rats’ by James Herbert? It has two sequels ‘Lair’ and ‘Domain’. The advice for Horror is to stay under 80,000 words. After ‘Rats’ 52k (and massive success) ‘Lair’ clocked in at 72k and the finale ‘Domain’ hit it out of the park at 145,000 words and still and International Bestseller. So, go out there, do the thing and, if it clocks in at ‘a bit weighty’, save it for when you get famous.

Sowing in the Month of ‘Meh’!

January is just the worst month, I mean, really. The days are still dark and cold and we don’t have the winter festivals or new years to look forward to. The weather might not be such a blow if we had some money left after the holidays or, the lack of money might not be such a big deal if the weather was better. Our workout regime slipped through December due to all the food and visiting we ate/did, and our New Years resolution is already a fast-fading yet still, somehow guilty memory. To top it all off, all the official Ark: Survival Evolved servers have reverted to x1 rates and everything is a slog, from getting up for work, to harvesting meat for that new boss-rex team you need for ‘Lost Island’.

It’s always around this time of year that my creativity slumps. I mean, there are other times through the year but, I can always reliably and accurately predict that January is going to be a slow writing month. So, what to do about that? ‘Why do anything?’ is my counter-question. There’s a lot of conflicting advice out there (there’s a lot of conflicting advice in this blog!) and the reason is simple. People are complicated, no one tip works for everyone and no-one’s circumstances are exactly the same.

It’s a quote I keep coming back to;

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” – Stephen King.

And, at times, I have rebelled against it, I’ve repeatedly espoused that you should ‘Be kind to yourself’, and I still do. January is the toughest of times, creatively, for many reasons so, for this month, forgive yourself that blank page, that unfinished paragraph and pick up a book rather than trying to lay one down. January is the month to huddle under a blanket with a good book, or to binge that new series you told yourself you were going to. It’s a time to recharge your creative batteries.

Societally we place a great deal of emphasis on January and its ‘new beginning’, but we don’t have to listen to all that noise and that’s okay. Now, I could start on about social constructs being just that, constructs, and it being okay to challenge them. I can share my personal philosophy about challenging social expectations (They only have as much authority over you as you allow them), but it’s easier to boil it down to a short phrase.

January can get stuffed!

Of any time in the year (outside of extraordinary or unforeseen circumstances) December/January is the time when you can let it slide and forgive yourself for it. It is okay. Sometimes we need to be told that it’s okay, but there is a caveat to that too. You have to be ready to kick down the doors in February and really try. So, while we celebrate the turn of the Gregorian year in the depth of winter, and Financial New Year in April, and all the cultural/religious/sports even seasons, let us, the creatives, writers and artists, start our own New Years tradition.

January can get in the bin, February 1st is the start of the New Chapter.

Take care, read a good book, recharge and get ready.

Here We Go Again! (How to Write Sequels)

Hello again! So, the tone of the blog is changing, just a little. Initially this blog was set out to record my journey through self-publication and events, hopefully help others who had little or no idea how to start, a helping hand I wish I’d had. Of course, there’s that desire to do more and, as I’ve found out, these days ‘Hybrid’ publishing is where it’s at.

So, onto the blog. You finished writing your book, great, where do you go from there? Sequel? Sequel! I mean, in most instances a sequel is a pre-planned thing, you were going to do it anyway, already had the ideas rumbling around and so-on and so-forth. Just recently I submitted what I’d considered a ‘stand-alone’ adventure, entitled ‘Riding the E-Rail’ and the publisher responded with: ‘Yup, great! When can we have the next one? Maybe a Trilogy?”

Call me crazy but, when offered a three-book deal my immediate impulse is to say ‘Yep, no problem!’ and it got me thinking, since I’d pretty much written off that universe and started moving on to the next project, how I go about writing a sequel. Personally I think it’s important, in any series, that the first book is something that, even if the reader doesn’t want to pick up the next installment, that they walk away having had a fully realised story experience. Now, there are two ways to go about a series. You focus on the meta-plot, works best for short-runs of trilogies, but the main events are the events, the Meta-plot. That’s what you follow, supported by sub-plots and character arcs, think Tolkiens ‘Lord of the Rings’. The other approach is one that works for serials, a format of episodic stories along a shared formulae with the meta-plot rumbling along in the background, occasionally taking centre-stage as the story demands it, aka ‘The Dresden Files’ by Jim Butcher.

Either way, once the first book is out, a planned sequel (or an unplanned sequel) largely runs off threads. A series is, after all, just an extended story, the beginnings and endings of each installment marked by narrative crescendos. So you look for the unresolved, the natural progressions, or consequences, of the characters actions and relationships in book one. Widen focus into how the actions of your characters affected others in the wider world. Your job here is to rebuke the ‘Happily Ever After’ trope, life goes on and the past events impact on the present. That said, you also have to be mindful that the next installment doesn’t seem ‘contrived’ or ‘forced’ (the two key words used about failed followups). Certainly I think there are good reasons why some sequels succeed and some fail. Aliens (James Cameron-1986) worked because it switched up the formulae from Alien (Ridley Scott-1979), but then, successful horror franchises like ‘Jaws’, ‘Friday the 13th’ and ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ make their bank by doing the same thing over and over and the audience (myself included!) love it.

It’s the ongoing elements that can make-or break a series. Setting, Situation, Protagonists, Antagonists. The developing relationships between these factors make the story. If you change too much, you risk losing your audience, you don’t change enough, you become ‘staid’ or ‘predictable’. one thing that I think is essential to any ongoing property (or stand-alone for that matter) is staying faithful to the characters. They might change over time, growth and development is an important part of the best character arcs, but it should be based upon their experiences. The biggest turn-off for me in a book, is when a character does something that’s either monumentally stupid for no good reason, or does something inexplicably out of character. I’ve read books when the author has spent a page setting up ‘the one thing we don’t do!’ a massive in-world taboo or crime, only for the MC to go ahead and do it in the next scene on an apparent whim. I mean, I knew they were going to do it, it was explicit in setting up the ‘Law and the whole of the Law’ over that previous page, but it’s the absence of any serious motive, the lacklustre reasoning behind the ‘why’ that can make me put a book down and not pick it up again.

No part of the franchise is exempt from change but, it has to be established that it can be changed. Kirkman’s The Walking Dead and subsequent spin-off shows, established that no character was safe, ever. The cast (though not 100% changed) has gone through massive upheaval via death and disappearance. Sliders by Robert K. Weise and Tracy Tormé, or Stargate SG1 by Brad Wright and Johnathan Glassner changed the setting week to week. Of course, if you took a ‘Walking Dead’ approach to ‘Stargate’ half-way through a season you’d quickly lose the fan-base. The audience likes a surprise, but they also, kind of want to know what they’re getting. From character death to a relocation of Setting or a change of Situation, unless the ‘Out of the Blue’ nature of the change is the whole point and the characters have the rest of the book to deal with it, ever significant event should be treated as just that, significant. A character death can be the most impactful event you can inflict upon your readers. I’ve read some that were stirring, heart-breaking and handled with exceptional skill for maximum effect. And then I’ve read some that dropped the ball so completely that I never picked up the series again. It’s especially important in a series where the audience has more time to get invested in the characters to carefully consider the weight of a characters death.

There’s more, I’m sure there’s more but I’ve rambled on long enough. Whether you planned it, or it kind of crept up on you, a sequel or sequels are a chance to spend more time in the worlds and with the characters you’ve created. It’s great that you (or some one close to you) felt that your world had such promise and I urge you to get in there and make the most of it. I think the trap in writing a series is becomes ‘that thing you do’, I want an ending in sight, I want an exit clause because, more than anything else, I want to visit all the worlds in my head, and I want to take you to them too. I may return to previous projects in later years but, for now I’ll be hopping the Stargates, I hope to see you out there too.

In the Cold Light of Dawn

Well, ‘Happy’ New Year everyone. New Year is traditionally a time for a little introspection, a time to look ahead and make plans for the future. But, I’m tired. I’m not tired of writing, I have a three book contract to live up to and my desire to see my material reach a wider audience still burns bright. I must, however, face up to a single, unyielding, truth.

I cannot attend Chicago Worldcon 2022.

Back when I first decided to go it was pre-Covid, sales at Dublin where good, so good, I was optimistic and eager to go and promote myself and my stories. Then Covid, I held on to the goal of making Chicon22 as a kind of beacon of hope that things would get better. They have not. I’m not even talking about the risk of catching Covid (which I have, so far, avoided like the proverbial plague). Initially I would have taken a budget flight, the cheapest I could find, suffered the 14 hours in the air, ordered stock to be delivered to the venue and, probably, had a great time! But the uncertainty of Covid makes everything so uncertain. If I was refused flight I’d have to soak the costs, I can’t afford that. So, insured tickets? Massively expensive, can’t justify the outlay, even in the January ‘sales’. Even the added costs of the required tests push the budget above and beyond.

So, here’s the thing, the lesson. Events, especially with the impact of Covid and Brexit on footfall, sales and costing, have to be carefully weighed by cost/benefit. Dublin was a massive risk, it paid off and was a great experience. Chicon is and order of magnitude riskier in terms of both financial outlay and potential health impact. The event would have to generate sales to pay for itself and net me a movie deal to balance out the risks, neither of which is a given in the current climate.

So, as of time of writing, I have decided to put plans for Chicago On-Hold and the world seems a little greyer, a little duller for it (although, being an eternal optimist, I haven’t cancelled the hotel, yet).

2023 in Chengdu is out of the question. I hope the team (who seemed absolutely lovely at the Dublin bid parties) intends the event to draw attention to the human rights crimes of the Party but, given the Olympics debacle I don’t hold out much hope. I could go on, but I won’t. Suffice to say it wouldn’t even get to a consideration of costs.

2024 looks more promising, Glasgow running uncontested. That’s the new goal but it’s going to be a slog getting there (2024, not Glasgow). In the interim there will be events but, given what I’ve seen of event attendance so far, I’ll be picking more carefully those events I *do* attend. In the meantime the work goes on, the struggle to get those stories out there and recognised.

… I wonder how I’d go about getting a Camelot 2050 boxed set to Henry Cavill?

A Year in Review, Long Overdue.

My last yearly review was March 2020 so we’re a little overdue a new one and, well a lot has happened since then.

Camelot 2050 continues to gather steam, I have a couple of shorts on the site and may work on more. Eventually they may be gathered into an anthology. Rendered Flesh hit the shelves courtesy of LevelUp Publishing, my first traditionally published title! I have, just in this last week, signed a deal for a three book series, working title Riding the E-Rail , I’ve mentioned it a few times but now it’s really happening!

I’ve completed freelance projects, not only on behalf of Dirty Vortex and Onyx Path, but also for White Wolfs World of Darkness. Yes, my work now features in the Vampire: The Masquerade supplement, Children of the Blood.

The convention scene is getting back up to speed and my calendar is filling up quickly. Events by Showmasters, Go Geek and Creed conventions are largely where you’ll find me as well as Dragonmeet, Bristolcon, Fantasycon, and Chicago World Con 2022.

The Corona virus epidemic and lock-downs have made the past year and change difficult at times and yet, these past few weeks, easing back into events and relative normality (if anything is ever ‘normal’ around here) have been wonderfully refreshing, both emotionally and creatively. I’ve met some wonderful people and made new friends and contacts on the scene.

Aside from the new contract I have a couple of projects on the go but, as with many things, money is key and I will have to find funding or hope for a *very* good sequence of events. There’s certainly a lot to look forward to and even more to do over the coming year, I will be looking at the pro’s and cons of things like crowdfunding and Patreon so watch out for that. In the meantime I will excuse myself for the rest of December and see you all on January when, I hope, the blog will be easier to populate.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a Goodnight!

Walking with Giants

This weekend just gone by was the Bristol Literature Convention, only the second convention I’ve attended since Lock-Down and I’ll admit, after Fantasycon I was nervous. Not for any real discernible reason, I’ve been to Bristolcon the past three years it’s run as a physical convention and last year as a virtual con. This year, it showed. Previously I have attended to sell my books, attend workshops and appear on panels, occasionally making connections. The selling side never really worked out for me, it’s a better venue for publishers to showcase their stuff. This year I put aside the sales and focused on the other aspects and, whether it’s because we’re all desperate to make new connections post Lock-Down, or because I’ve been going a few years and my face is known now, it seemed like a curtain was lifted and a whole new world spread out before me, a land populated with literary giants!

A quick side-bar, I hate the term ‘literary’ when talking about figures on the writing circuit. It makes some people seem more ‘highbrow’ (and I dislike that term for its eugenicist origins) or intellectual, it’s elitism and I hate that idea that, although we’re all writers, some of us are ‘better’ for some reason that vaguely equates to ‘I’m smarter than you’. But, that leads into a pretty good con story.

A few years back my partner/editor came with me to Bristolcon and watched a panel with then Guest of Honour, New York Times Best-Selling Author, Jasper Fforde. I’d recently taken a hit to my confidence from some very critical, nay cruel, Amazon reviews and was questioning going forward as a writer. In the panel the question was raised as to how to deal with criticism. Jasper’s reply was absolutely spot on, ‘Don’t read it’. It’s pretty much where I draw my rule one ‘Thou Shalt Not Read The Reviews’ from. At that point my partner was determined that I would meet Jasper Fforde. Fast-forward to this year and we signed up to a workshop, given by Jasper, about ‘Your flagging, non-career in writing’. It was an eye opening piece about how, having achieved the status of a Best-Selling Author, Jasper was struggling to recreate that initial success. He posited the question ‘Who here feels qualified as a writer?’ no-one raised a hand, whatever the level of education (myself sitting on a meagre GCSE English and a GNVQ in Media studies) the overall feeling in the room (which also hosted the winner of this years BFA Award for best fiction) was of impostor syndrome. Of course, prior to the workshop I had, encouraged by my partner, sat with Jasper in the hotel lounge telling him all about how he saved my fledgling career. We talked for about half an hour before the workshop about politics, life, projects and it was amazing! Coming out of the workshop, headed back into the con, my partner announced that this was a goal achieved, four years in the making, to get me sat down with Jasper Fforde. A wry voice from behind asked “And how did that work out?” and there’s the man himself, following us up the stairs.

This year at Bristolcon I paneled down the table from Jasper, siting next to the indomitable Anna Smith Spark, the Queen of Grimdark Epic Fantasy. I will freely admit that, over the years of seeing Anna glide effortlessly through conventions in her amazing array of heels, I have been (and still am to an extent) massively intimidated by her comportment and poise but, having sat and chatted briefly on panel I can confidently say she is a lovely person whom I’m sure will be gracing the circuit for years to come.

Another very intimidating figure whom I’ve been reluctant to approach in the past (not-so-much because I’m not familiar with his ever-so-popular works but because of his amazingly terrifying eyebrows) was Adrian Tchaikovsky. This year, having moderated a panel featuring himself, the irascible Jaine Fenn, Kevlin Henney and Susie Williamson I found myself, that evening sat at the same table as Adrian, Gareth Powell, J. Dianne Dotson, and Allen Stroud whom (I discovered at Fantasycon) had been editing much of my freelance work.

Now, it might seem like I’m name-dropping and, to be fair, I am. There are famous authors and there are well-known authors and it’s important to remember that, under the hype, we’re all just people who wanted to tell stories. As Jasper said;

“You Don’t Learn Writing. You Discover your Vocation.” – Jasper Fforde

And there I was, at the Hilton Doubletree for a day, surrounded by other people who discovered the same vocation as me, as us, and they were’t imposing, or aloof or any ‘better’ (in a purely objective sense). They were wonderful and welcoming, funny and fallible. I’d recently seen a tweet from an aspiring author saying that they’d been advised to join Twitter to find ‘their people’, that they’d only found other authors and since we were all ‘the competition’ this author was quitting Twitter. But we’re not competition, we are a community. We talk about other works than our own, we recommend other authors books, we support each other when we struggle. My last blog spoke about how singularly isolating writing can be and, in process, it can be. But you go out there to talk about your stuff and you’ll find a whole community eager to listen.