Posts Tagged ‘The Art of Writing’

I am once again at a period where the amount of work I have isn’t quite enough  to induce some sort of brain infarcation, so I’ve been topping up my load by posting more frequently, especially as I’m still trying to get the majority of my journalism onto the web. But here’s a new post I’ve been meaning to write, like oh so many others, for some amount of time.

The below are answers to some of the most common questions I’ve had this year about writing. (more…)


Upcoming4me have collected together essays on writing from their archives to create Story Behind the Book : Volume 1. The essays are by a whole range of SF/fantasy authors, and contain a host of interesting insights into the writing process. All proceeds go to Epilepsy in Action, so if you buy the book you’ll get the satisfaction of supporting a worthy cause, as well as a variety of good advice.

Story Behind the Book: Volume 1 is currently available in ebook from and

Happy Mondays!

Last week I did an interview with Combat Phase, mainly about Skarsnik. So, if you want to hear me talk (and I warn you, I talk a lot) about writing about goblins, go here. AFTERNOON UPDATE: The link works now;  a technical hitch their end, so sorry about that if you were wanting to listen.

I’ve been doing a bit of work over the last few years for Mantic Games, part of which was aiding in the creation of their gaming worlds. With something like this, you’re working within a very tight brief, and in some respects this kind of writing is a weird synthesis of the disciplines required for creating fiction and journalism.

Recently, I was asked to pull everything together to create a background section for their upcoming rulebook. Even more recently, they asked me for a blog describing how I got on. You can read it on Mantic’s blog, or if you can’t be bothered to depress your mouse button, it’s presented below. The only real difference is the lack of pretty pictures.

Forging Mantica

How do you make an entirely new fantasy world for a wargame? That’s a question I had to ask myself when Ronnie at Mantic commissioned me to piece together an overarching background history for The Kings of War rulebook.

I’m no stranger to worldbuilding, I do it all the time in my own fiction, but creating something for a wargames system is a bit different to making a world up for your own stories. Game worlds come about in one of two ways – they’re either planned out in detail by a small group, or they evolve from the ideas of many gamers over the course of years. Both continue to develop organically over time, of course, but only some start that way.

Mantica came about by a hothoused version of the latter; organically grown, but at speed. It involved the input of quite a few people, all whose ideas were somewhat different. This is a good thing, as gaming ideas born from the brains of the many are generally more involving than those that spring from the few.

It was my job to pull it all together.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

I’ve been involved with the world of Mantica from near the beginning. In fact, I came up with large parts of it while we were making the Mantic Journal – I came up with a rough outline some time ago that formed the basis of the final version in the book, I drew the map, and I wrote the history for the orcs and dwarfs from scratch, among other things.

With a project like this, you’re always drawing on the ideas of others. For example, much of the undead and elf material had already been written when I came on board. This material provided plenty of detail, while their histories were fortunately vague enough to stand adaption.

Other directives and bits of background material came from the models themselves. They were designed to a brief after all, to fit a certain look and evoke Mantic’s ideas of what an elf or goblin should be. Further concepts came from Alessio Cavatore, the writer of the rules. In most cases he decided on a direction for the armies, and wrote a list to suit. So I knew, in the main, how a race looked, how they fought, and what their traditions of war were. I’ve had conversations with Ronnie and Alessio about the world and how it works, with both of them giving input and ideas to my suggestions and coming up with major elements themselves. The Abyss, for example, a key part of our world, that one was Alessio’s. The rest, particularly the history of the world, was up to me.

Archetypes, not cliché

There’s a big danger when creating fantasy that it doesn’t immediately slide into cliché. Elves, dwarfs, orcs, men and more, all living on one world… Pick up any sub-Tolkien fantasy trilogy and you’ll find variations on the theme. A wargame, especially a fantasy wargame, demands the full menagerie, and there are certain aspects of each creature you can’t mess with. A dwarf is never going to love an orc, otherwise you might as well call them both something else. The trouble is, there are some highly original wargames out there that have all manner of different characters and species, but they’re not particularly popular. I completely understand why – when I play a fantasy wargame, I want to play out battles between haughty elves and wicked monsters, not refight the last stand of the cat people of Mew-mew. That’s not to say that cat people aren’t cool, but they’re perhaps not wise business.

The difficulty for a writer in this situation is not to come up with something that’s completely derivative. You want to employ heroic fantasy archetypes, not rearrange tired cliché. There’s not a great deal of room for manoeuvre, but sometimes having strict boundaries drives creativity.

Firstly, I tried to make Mantica obliquely topical. A lot of the fantasy games and books from the 80s that are still popular today play upon apocalyptic themes, many indirectly inspired by the then-prevalent fear of nuclear war. Fantasy needs a threat, a reason for conflict, it’s a defining part of the genre, so I plumped for something similarly world-ending – environmental ruin. Mantica is a wreck, reckless elven magic in the dim past caused half its gods to go insane, and precipitated a series of terrible wars. There was a magically induced ice age, a great inundation that drowned many kingdoms and all manner of other upheavals. Most of the remaining societies in our “present” are fragmented, and struggling to recapture their ancient glory. There’s plenty of new land revealed by retreating ice, and a lot of ancient enmity – perfect for never-ending war.

Unlike some wargames, I wanted Mantica to have a story that could move forward. I didn’t want a “one minute to midnight” feel that renders the actions of our heroes somewhat hopeless, so I put the great wars in the past. In some ways, Mantica is a post-apocalyptic world. Now is a period of retrenchment, but the threat of dark gods returning hangs over all. There are dangerous ruins everywhere, while deadly artefacts and monsters created in the God Wars can be found across the world. The inhabitants of Mantica might pray for a bright future, but it could all go horribly wrong…

I also tried to move away a little from the standards of each racial stereotype: Our dwarfs are powerful and resurgent, mankind’s glory days are in the past, the elves are crippled by internal tensions. The elves in particular are interesting, as it’s been their arrogance and meddling with magic that have unleashed two of the world’s greatest evils. These aren’t huge divergences from the accepted fantasy norm – they fit the archetype – but cumulatively they make the world our own. Hopefully, this keeps us out of the realm of cliché.

A bit of Tolkien, a bit of Beastmaster

For the tone of Mantica, I drew upon two specific influences. I went back to Tolkien for the grand sweep of history: the rising and falling of nations, the reforming of the world, doomed love, the conflict with the divine… We’re talking The Silmarillion here rather than The Lord of the Rings. But the detail of it, at the day-to-day level, comes purely from Sword and Sorcery. Sword and Sorcery pretty much was the be all and end all of fantasy before Tolkien came along, and it’s a sub genre I love – Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, The Eternal Champion… These stories are about the actions of individuals, good and bad, rather than the relentless push of fate. They’re full of horrible creatures, dark magics, and mad wizards, desperate struggles in dark places against terrible foes. Sword and Sorcery is darker than Heroic Fantasy for sure, but there’s a grain of hope in it, and an ownership of one’s actions. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, for example, is a creation in a state of perpetual degeneration. Other heroes find themselves just pawns of destiny. Mantica needn’t be like that.

What Mantica looks like in the future is very much up to you, as the world is now established, so it’s entering its secondary phase, a time when there’s still tons of stuff to be defined, and great sagas to be written. By choosing this mix of deep history and individual action I’ve tried to put the fate of a world in your hands. Have fun deciding it.

This is one of my earliest surviving short stories. I have always wanted to be a writer, but I can pinpoint two phases that set me on the path to being one – when I became serious about it in 2000, and when I became really serious about it in 2005.

This story dates from that second, super-serious time, when I decided that as well as trying to write novels, I should also write short stories alongside them. I thought they’d prove a valuable training ground, which is pretty much what everyone says, and they’re right, mostly because you can actually finish a short story in something less than a lifetime, and if it sucks, it’s not too disheartening. “She Said” is an early effort and fairly clunky because of it, so I hope you’ll forgive it its inadequacies.

The story itself was inspired by the Outer Hebrides, particularly the Isle of Lewis where I spent several booze-soaked holidays in the 2000s , fishing and pissing about in boats.

You can buy more of my short fiction at the Robot Trading Company.

She Said

“Let’s go,” he had said one day. “We have to, now. Please. You know we’ll be safe there.”

She had dreaded the moment, knowing what it meant. He’d always wanted to go away from their jobs, their friends, their families; away from civilisation, away from all she knew and loved. He’d bought the cottage years ago. He’d always dreamed of living there, but had never done it, because of her. But now it was his turn. He had an excuse, a real reason to go, and she had no choice but to follow; she was scared.

They sold everything, and left. Far, far north they went, as far away as it was possible to get before the land ran out for good and the cold ocean went on forever. Twelve hours by car, three by boat, another hour again by car. To the isles that fan out from the mainland, far from the sun, far from the warmth; far from everything. Their house was miles from town, high above a sea loch whose steep sides sheered through heather and grey stone to plunge nearly vertically into the cold and ravenous sea.

He was happy there. He loved the solitude, the quiet. He loved the mist rising from the water in the morning, he loved fishing for his own food from his own boat. He enjoyed not working in an office, loved the feel of the open air on his face, no matter what the weather. He enjoyed wresting enough hay from the ground to feed their herd of animals over the first long winter. He loved the never-ending days of summer, the clear skies at night, the changing face of the sea.

She hated the bleakness of the land, the nudity of the earth, the surly, mealy-mouthed locals who were watching their way of life be usurped through the amber tint of a whisky bottle. She hated their prying, their hypocrisy, their lassitude. She hated the frequent rain, the constant wind, the way the temperature rarely broke into double figures. She hated what it did to her body. She hated the silence, the biting insects, the endless nights of winter. She hated the ugly clothes she had to wear and the way they were never dry. She missed the noise. She missed her freedom.

“This is the way to live,” he’d say, his smile broad and satisfied as they ate. She’d rarely respond for fear he’d see the lie. She never had the appetite for the fish before her. Soon she stopped replying altogether, he was blind to her suffering.

But still she stayed. She never went back to the city. She knew he was right. The crackling picture on the television brought the news of slow defeat. The broadcasts were optimistic, but he could see the patterns, and so could she, she didn’t need him to point them out anymore. Things were coming undone.

Two years passed, years that brought summers of baking heat and winters of endless rain to the south, though the lives of her friends went on as normal despite the little hardships which multiplied, unchecked, like cockroaches. It was not to last.

In the spring of the third year, in Africa, the bird sickness finally took hold, thwarting the measures that had contained it for a decade. Quickly, it blossomed from a seed to a deadly harvest, laying low millions already ravaged by AIDS and TB. And the disease changed, the bodies of the dying incubators for a hundred subtle new strains. One was unstoppable. The healthy began to die. All who were infected died. A state of emergency was declared. Troops panicked, thousands were killed. The UN descended upon the continent. For a time the sickness was contained once more, but not by vaccination or screening. Ruthlessness became the norm. Villages filled up with the dead, towns became ghost-towns, cities became villages.

Travel was circumscribed. Trade faltered, the world economy wavered. Fuel became unaffordable. War broke out in the middle-east, a surgical strike that became inflamed to engulf a region. Half a continent was under arms. America’s empire grew unwillingly, blood being traded like for like with oil.

The weather worsened. Famine exacerbated the sickness. The sea was rising, coastal communities were torn and scattered by storms whose uncommon ferocity became commonplace. New Orleans was inundated, never to rise again. Hong Kong was swamped, Shanghai began to sink. The monsoons failed in India.

Life became harder on the islands, they began to grow much of their own food, where it would grow; they had no money to buy the goods in the shops. The winds grew stronger, the seasons more erratic. Still he came in from the fields and sea so happy, proven, secure. He began to work together with others, some new like them, fleeing before the crisis; many others who were returning. The withered stumps of ancient family trees flowered again as families from the mainland crammed into the long, grey houses of neglected relatives. She had friends now, of a kind, but she could not engage with their flinty pragmatism, their grim joy.

The economy of the world reeled. Martial law was declared in China, flocks of birds were gassed, whole cities razed at the first sign of the sickness, the gun became the only arbiter of any argument, and all arguments concerned infection. In Russia, impoverished citizens fell by the score. Europe braced itself, Asia suffered. Africa died.

A wave of millennial madness washed the island; on Sundays, the churches were full.

It had come at last, the ’flu, crossing the English Channel eighteen months after she had followed him to the islands; just as the scientists had predicted it eventually would, just as the politicians had said it wouldn’t. It spread from the east, breaking in waves of death over the few barriers the governments of Europe could muster. New and potent vaccinations were hastily concocted, only to fail within weeks as the virus changed again and again. Sometimes it was quicker than at others, sometimes slower, but almost always fatal. Society began to break down. A third of the world’s people had perished. Isolation was the only real defence.

The trips to the supermarket in town stopped altogether, there was little point, its shelves were empty. If they went anywhere, they went by boat under sail and oar. The electricity supply became intermittent, to finally cease a few weeks after the television went off air. Elsewhere, anarchy reigned.

“We’re stockpiling refrigerators at the school, we’ll use that as a food distribution centre, there’s enough energy for that,” he explained happily. “In a few years we’ll be able to rig up more wind turbines. We’ll just have to make do with oil lamps until then.” It was his latest project, power. He was active in the islands’ ruling council.

All their food now had to be torn from the infertile earth or the fickle waves of the sea. Sometimes they went hungry, but not often. The ancient ways of the islanders had almost gone, but not quite. Old techniques were recalled, old ways re-mastered. It was a hard life, but they were alive. Only the ugly scenes at the docksides and on the waves as refugees were turned away marred their triumphs. Sometimes they were not turned away, though they did not set foot on the shore.

But it worked, that and the culling of birds. The sickness did not come.

“I was right, love. I was right, and we are safe,” he said to her, holding her tight in the cold night. “When this is over, we can make a new world, love, a purer world. A better one.”

He slept soundly, his warm arms clasped tightly about her. She lay there, eyes open, unblinking, listening to the wind howl in from the sea to screech unimpeded over the hard stone and sodden peat of the island. The ancient zinc roof rattled. Sleep did not come, it never did.

She awoke early after a few hours of snatched, grey rest. It was late summer, she knew, though she herself had stopped counting the days long ago, for the room was full of light, the island’s harsh light that pressed down mercilessly through the flat sky for twenty hours of every day. She looked at her husband’s face: bearded now, craggy, all softness burnt from it by the wind and sun. The city worker he had once been was long gone. His cracked hands curled a little, and he smiled as he slept. He looked like a stranger to her. A dull pain passed through her heart.

She rose quietly and went outside. The sun was coming up, low in the east, breaking over the cloddish mountains of the island’s interior. Below pink clouds the sun’s rays coloured the newly ordered fields a subtle copper, and the long, pale grasses of the moors danced like light reflected off gold. The sun struck off the loch, turning the surface of the water into a sheet of hammered silver. Sometimes, like this, she almost found it beautiful.

She squinted against the sun. Upon the mirrored water was a dark shape; a boat. It was coming in to land. Slowly, she picked her way down the steep hillside and then onto the road, walking along crumbling tarmac towards the loch’s small and awkward harbour.

By the time she arrived, the boat was hard to the concrete jetty, built years before for long-gone fish farms. It towered incongruously over the stone piers beside it, their construction identical, only their various states of disrepair hinting that some were centuries older than the others.

The boat was large, almost a ship. How the crew had got the fuel to bring it here she could only guess. Hollow-eyed men cast desperate glances about as they tied up. They knew that they would be driven off if seen. They shook with exhaustion as they spoke to her. They had come from The Netherlands, they said, their voices thick with foreign sounds and unspoken fear. Much of the country wasn’t there anymore. A week-long gale had battered the coast, a storm surge had flooded old lakes and inland seas; a second had followed within months. There were not enough healthy people to rebuild the dykes, all were dead, or fled, to perish elsewhere.

She looked at their faces, pale with stress, dark with stubble. They were too weak and haggard to be a threat, though they would be judged one. They pleaded with her, begging. They could make a life here, contribute. They had skills the islands could use. This one here, an engineer, another, him, a fisherman. Just feed them, if only a little, and they would be strong and productive.

She should raise the alarm, she replied. She should have them chased away, they were afflicted with more than tiredness. She could see that, others would see that. One of the Dutchmen began to cough violently, barking almost, his mouth biting at the air for breath. A concerned man held him up; it could have been his brother, they all could have been his brothers. Dirt and desperation had made them all the same.

It fell silent, but for the lapping of the water and the wind in the heather. A small wave broke over the foundation stones of a new pier. It was difficult work, it had been washed away once by a ferocious squall, but the men were confident it would be done by the winter. They laughed about it.

A cloud passed over the sun. Cold shivered up her spine, it was threatening rain again. She would have to work quickly today; and the next. The work was never done. She looked at her hands, they were filthy, her nails cracked. They had been elegant once.

Somewhere out in the loch, a seal splashed.

She thought of the man she’d seen hanged a week ago, for stealing a sack of oats.

It was almost beautiful there.

“Come in,” she said. “Come in.”

At the very close of 2007,  ex-Games Workshoppers Gav Thorpe, Matt Keefe established a short story group called The Quota. Our goal was to write a short story a month in order to improve our writing. We didn’t manage it, but it was a very useful exercise. I wrote about eight stories specifically for the group before it fizzled out early in 2009.

The idea with The Quota was to incentivise ourselves to write fiction, and to have searingly honest criticism on it Personally, I found the experience enormously helpful. To have a collection of like-minded folk, all of whom had some experience with writing, but who nevertheless wrote very differently, giving feedback boosted both my abilities and my confidence.

The single most important characteristic of a would-be writer who is successful in ditching the “would-be” part of their title is taking criticism. My mantra when learning anything is “Seek out people who know, ask them how to do it, listen, and then do what they say“. I italicise this last part as I think a lot of people get the first three steps right, but disregard the precious advice they sought because it does not fit with their own opinions. WTF? You ask an expert, because they are an expert, and you are not. Obviously, you can add in your own experience and opinion to what they say, but their experience invariably trumps your own. It can be demoralising, and learning when to take advice to heart and not is a difficult, subtle act, but you first have to let it into your head. Listen! And obey. This applies even when it feels like a professional is telling you your wife is ugly and is murdering your babies.

Scratch that, it applies doubly when people are murdering your babies. If they tell you those word-kiddies won’t amount to anything, then man, they won’t.

Some people don’t listen. Some get huffy and upset (I think some pros are deliberately harsh, to see if you can take it. Those that can are easier to work with than Captain Precious-Pants). Misplaced self-belief is the main culprit. Last year I sat on a panel at a convention where the topic was the new digital era, and how it was going to revolutionise publishing. The panel’s consensus was that it undoubtedly is, but not in an” overthrow the state and behead the monarchy, vive la revolution!” type way. This did not go down well with the audience, who seemed impatient for the ancien regime of paper to fall. I got an impression of impatience and disenchantment with the traditional gatekeepers – agents, publishers et al. I suspect that was a room full of people who didn’t think “My book might not be good enough”, but “They can’t see my genius, and digital offers me a way around these elitist know-nothings.”

I had a few angry letters on the same theme, back in my full-time journalising days.

It’s not just writing.  I see it especially in dog training too. Both bad dog-training and self-publishing can result in unwanted piles of shit, although I suppose a badly written book isn’t going to bite anyone’s face off.

The maulings you can get from agents and publishers are worth it, because if they care enough to maul you, they see some promise. If they think your stuff is awful, they’ll not bother. If this happens to you, then go away and write something else. (I speak from experience, you know, I’m not casting paper planes of wisdom from an ivory tower here).

Although not made up of pros, the great benefit of a writing group is that you can get feedback quickly. Because, let’s face it, when it comes to unsolicited submissions the publishing engine operates at three settings: dead stop, glacial, and slightly quicker than paint drying.  It can be blood-boiling to hear your mates tell you your story is a bag of bloodied monkey balls, but at least they’ll tell you this week, not when the Age of Aquarius grinds to a close.

A writing group offers a good halfway point too. They’re people you know and trust. They may not be the bloody-toothed publishers you want to deal with eventually, but they’re also not your family. The feedback you get from your mum and dad or baby sister is worth nothing, really. They love you, hey, they told you the cack-handed daubs you made at primary school were great art. You need someone with a little more objectivity, really, don’t you? Eh? Good.

I subsequently sold a few of the stories I wrote for the group. Some of them became parts of other works. I also trialled bits of novels there, so it honestly was all really useful and helpful. So it’s great that we’ve reopened The Quota, (imaginatively titled “The New Quota”! Are we not wordsmiths?).  It’s a secret group for now, although we may open it to the eyes of the public at some point. Anyway, the great thing about now, as opposed to then, is the progression of tech. We used to have The Quota on Facebook, but we’ve got our new group set up on WordPress, like this blog. A blog site gives you a ton of capability, everything’s in one place, there are fewer emails whizzing around, you can stream the content into categories, there’s space for stories and comments… Need I go on? Top stuff.

Give it a try. Set up your own paddling pool of literary endeavour and build up your wordchops, before you throw your paper babies into the ocean and see which can outswim the sharks.

But above all else, when you do make it to the quayside, if those sharks tell you your efforts taste like sheep doo-doo, listen to them, okay?