Sitrep! Or, where’s the next novel, loser?

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Because it’s not all coffee, real ale and Netflix. Occasionally, there’s writing.

Hey everyone, hope you’re all doing well. Its been a little while since I published anything and I wanted to take a moment to let you know what’s going down in O’Maratown (except for my income, obviously).

The good news is, there are two projects nearing completion. The first is a fantasy novel that has been in the works since Healer’s Ruin was first published. Originally intended to be another short tome, it mushroomed into a much larger story. The plan to publish in April 2017 looks like it might have to be abandoned (you like books with endings, right?) with June looking more realistic. This June. Probably.

It’s a little darker than Healer’s Ruin, with a few more characters and multiple threads. This one will be a standalone narrative, so won’t be continuing on from that first novel. Sorry to those who’ve been asking for Healer’s Ruin 2: The Return of Happy Endings. You might have a longer wait for that.

The second project is a novella about two adventurers. It’s fun and violent, full of dark magic and mild (alright, extreme) peril, and will be the first of many forays for these quirky mercenaries. This book should be available by the end of May. Which is really exciting. Eeeeeek!

Artwork has been sorted out for both books and beta-readers will be invited pretty soon (although soon is, as you know, an elastic concept in O’Maratown) so give me a follow on Twitter and I can keep you informed of my misadventures.

I’m also doing a few chapter surgeries, in which writers send me a chapter of their work, and I give them notes. This is great fun, and humbling. There are a lot of really talented people out there. I really must do better.

So, that’s me. How are you doing? Well, I hope!

Stay cool,

C.

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NSFW: How much swearing is too much?

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The Big Lebowski is a fine film in which the word ‘fuck’ is used 260 times.*

“Bollocks,” said Aragorn, spitting into the frozen midden, the winter’s chill harsh against his cheek. “We’d have been fine if it wasn’t for all these fucking orcs.”

Now, you’re unlikely to remember this line of dialogue from The Lord of the Rings. Back when Tolkein was writing, this sort of language didn’t appear in mainstream fiction all that much, if at all. But today, writers of fantasy and science fiction can feel free to pepper their dialogue with profanities.

Horror, I believe, set the trend for this. But then, horror didn’t really have the same obsession with romantic heroism and lofty human ideals that fantasy and science fiction did, so was always in a better position to open those particular floodgates of shitfuckery. Nowadays, even popular videogames contain swearing. You’ll find it in poetry, too, and hear it at the theatre. Profanity is ubiquitous and it’s here to stay.

This doesn’t mean that it has free reign, though.

In popular culture, there are techniques that enable TV and film makers to employ swear-words without really having done so. In the popular drama House, for example, the main character is routinely referred to as an “ass”. We know they really mean “asshole”, but by using the alternative, they not only convey precisely what they need to, they do it without stepping over the boundaries set by the broadcasters and channel executives. We know what they mean… and that’s what matters.

This happens in translations, too. In the Japanese dub of Die Hard, our hero John McClane drops an improvised explosive down a lift-shaft and says, “Yippee kay-yay, motherfucker.” When this film was dubbed for the Japanese market, the insult became “you country bumpkin” instead. It’s offensive, in the context of Japanese culture, but not as offensive as the original dialogue.

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“Goodness me, but this situation vexes me no end!”

Interestingly, when movies are translated the other way, the opposite happens. Japanese films, especially anime, often have swearwords added. Baka, which simply means idiot or fool, usually becomes something much more adult when dubbed for the Western market, because a hard-boiled cop doesn’t say, “I’m going to kill you, idiot,” in Western culture. He says, “I’m going to kill you, asshole.” The former just doesn’t make sense to us. It doesn’t feel authentic.

Put simply, if someone wrote Lord of the Rings today, you could bet that at some point someone would utter the word ‘fuck’… and we wouldn’t bat an eyelid, because in the midst of all that drama and violence, we would expect people to lose their rag a little.

So should my characters swear?

There’s no reason not to, as long as your judgement is sound. If you’re writing a YA novel, it’s probably not a good idea to be too crude. Otherwise, feel free. Just make sure it’s in character. The High Elf Prince is unlikely to tell someone to “piss off”, and the grizzled soldier is unlikely to shout “fiddlesticks!” when he loses an ear in a duel. But with a little taste and a feel for what’s right you can ensure that if there is swearing, it at least comes out of the right mouth.

There are going to be those who don’t like to swear too much in their writing. Now, my characters swear a little, but not too often. They swear less than is realistic, in all honesty, considering what I put them through. But I like to use bad language sparingly, rather than cram as much in as possible, mainly because it can come across as juvenile if you do it too much, as if you’re simply trying to shock like some nihilistic internet troll. That gets old very, very quickly.

So how do we get around the issue of authenticity? For instance, how do we recount discussions between hardened soldiers without using hundreds of expletives?

Many moons ago, I took a linguistics course at the University of Kent. As you might expect, this often involved phonetically transcribing recorded speech. The one thing I took from this is that human beings do not say what they think they say. Let’s put this into context: say I ask a friend how she is, and she replies, “I, uh, well, you know, I think I’m, yeah, I’m fine, I suppose.” If I was writing this as dialogue in a book, her reply would have been recorded as, “I think I’m fine,” or “I’m fine, I suppose.” It conveys the same thing.

Notice in most novels people speak very clearly. They say what they mean. They don’t jumble their words. In reality, they wouldn’t speak with the same clarity, but fiction isn’t reality. In many ways, it’s an idealised version of reality, in which people enunciate perfectly all the time. Writers often take this further. In The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco, a character makes a long-winded philosophical speech whilst duelling, something which is pretty much impossible (although there is a sense of irony to the scene). But we forgive this, don’t we? This is because we subconsciously accept, I would say, that the writer is giving us an approximation of what would actually have been said. When two thieves meet and discuss their plan, we accept that the writing doesn’t convey all of their slang, or their dialect. For the sake of the reader’s comprehension, the writer has to sacrifice a certain amount of realism, and we accept it without question.

We do the same with swearing. Throw some never-do-wells together, and have them talk about cutting throats and stealing coinpurses, and your reader will imagine the sort of people who might well swear every other word. If you actually do this, your text may come across as boring and a little tasteless. Slip the odd “shit” in there, and the reader will get just enough of a hint of the character of these individuals to accept the dialogue as authentic.

What if I don’t want to swear?

If you don’t want to swear, you don’t have to. Seriously, you just don’t.

As a kid, I read 2000 AD comics. In this, they had their own swear-words. Characters would shout “Stomm!” if a laser blast arced past their head. In Judge Dredd, people say “Drokk!” In the magnificent RPG Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, the most popular insult you’ll hear is “Swit!” which actually sounds dirty. In the TV series Firefly, they used Chinese insults. If you want some funnier examples, there’s a Fry and Laurie sketch in which they invent new expletives to avoid censorship, including “Prunk” and “Pim-hole.” They sound filthy, but they’re not. There’s also an episode of King of the Hill in which a character invents his own swear-word and gets in trouble with his teachers when he is confronted with something that displeases him and declares, “this womps!”

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Now, if you’re writing fantasy or science-fiction, there’s no reason why you can’t invent your own swear-words. You don’t even have to explain what they mean. If you’re clever, you can come up with something that sounds offensive (“swit” is just brilliant; you could start a fight in a pub calling someone that, even if they don’t get it). So go ahead, be creative. Then you can swear all you like, and people will think you’re a genius, too.

To conclude, these days swearing is fine, unless you’re writing for kids. It can help to sharpen the jagged edge of a gritty scene, or convey authenticity and character. But if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to. And if you want to include swearing, but without actually swearing, that is also possible.

As with everything, whatever we do, we should it for a reason, and do it in a way that makes sense.

Thanks for reading, and keep fucking writing,

C.

*The Big Lewbowski is also one of my favourite films. As I’m sure many of you will remember, The Dude’s deadly-serious response to this question, is “what the fuck you talking about?”

Should we give the audience what they want?

star-warsyOften, climactic scenes can be predictable… but is this really a problem?

I recently finished a popular science fiction novel in which all the heroes’ hopes were dashed, they lost their spacecraft, thousands of sleeping humans were dumped into high orbit in vast cells presumably until the batteries of their cryo-tubes ran out and the galaxy was eaten by robots. I think some of the main characters survived, after a fashion.

It was brilliant.

It was also devastating. Having become emotionally involved in the narrative, and having invested a reasonable amount of time following the team’s misadventures, to see it all unravel at the last minute made me feel a little cheated. No matter how much I told myself that the author had no responsibility to make me feel good by page 400, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he had somehow sidestepped me and shivved me in the kidney. Backstab, critical hit.

We expect happy endings, don’t we? This is why so many writers choose to give us miserable ones. They play with our expectations and raise our hopes only to drop them from a great height. Sometimes, there’s a point to this; we’re reminded that in real life, things often don’t work out the way we wish they would, and in order to achieve a sense of authenticity, the writer has opted to go out with a whimper instead of a bang. Or just with the wrong sort of bang (the good guy’s spaceship going bang instead of the bad guy’s, for example).

Other times, the rug is pulled out from under our feet for reasons that seem cheap. I remember watching a very good film called Tzameti about a poor kid who plays a suicide game with other desperate people in order to make money. It hit home with some clever points about capitalism and competition, and the price of human life. However, at the end (spoiler alert), while he tries to process the devastation he’s feeling, the kid is killed by a robber on the train. So the whole thing ends up feeling completely futile and pointless.

Experiences like this make me think about what I want from stories, be they in book or movie form. Do I want the rug to be pulled out from under me at the last moment, or do I want to enjoy a straightforward arc that ends in satisfactory fashion? And what do I mean by satisfactory?

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Not the ending(s) I wanted. But an amazing ride nonetheless.

Well, I’m a big fan of American Horror Story, but in order to enjoy it without reservation I had to come to terms with the fact that the narrative would take ninety-degree turns without warning and the narratives that ran through each series would probably not end in the way I was expecting, or the way I wanted. In the end, I enjoyed the show more for its performances and sheer bravado than its capability at telling a good tale. Because it did some things so well, I could ignore the curious lack of satisfaction I felt when it was all over.

Do I want my work in progress to feel like that? Well, no. I want to surprise the readers, sure, and I want their opinions to change towards the characters as they discover more about them, but above all I want the ending to land like an atom bomb and for every reader to feel that sense of exhilaration and relief that comes after every cathartic moment. I want those last 30 pages to be an ordeal, in the same way that the last season of Breaking Bad was an ordeal, or Steven Erikson’s Deadhouse Gates. But I want the residual feeling to be one of satisfaction; things must end in a way that feels right (and in those two examples, this is precisely what happened).

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I made it. Phew!

I don’t know if I got that right with my first book, Healer’s Ruin. The ending felt right to me, at least. In fact, the ending was the first image I had in my head, before I’d even written a word of it, and the original title of the book was going to be Army of Ghosts. But even as I worked on the book, I couldn’t imagine it ending any differently. With my current WIP, it’s different. There are many ways it could end, because it’s a bigger book, and there are more protagonists and threads, and I can afford some happy endings and some miserable ones. I can even afford to have one thread end in the most bizarre way possible (I probably won’t do this… but you never know).

The challenge is predictability. We can’t afford just to let things run through the most obvious of motions.

Or can we?

I remember watching The Force Awakens in the cinema (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it). My favourite moment was when Kylo Ren, bristling with arrogance, reaches for the discarded lightsaber. It shudders, moves incrementally slowly, and then suddenly bursts out and flies towards his outstretched hand… only to whistle past him and land in Rey’s grasp. I loved this whole sequence. It sent a thrill down my spine. It was a pitch-perfect ‘Star Wars’ moment.

But a lot of people moaned about it, calling the scene ‘predictable’. Strangely, I agreed, but when I watched the film a second time, I still loved that moment. Predictable isn’t always a bad thing if it feels right. How contrived would it have felt if something completely left-field had happened? We’d be saying, ‘way to drop the ball!’ or ‘they only did that to be clever.’ We’d feel cheated.

So I suppose what I’m getting at is that there’s a real challenge to writing the end of a novel. As avid readers, writers usually have a good sense of what the reader is going to expect, especially in genre fiction where straight stories in clear prose are very popular indeed. We know the tropes and the clichés. We know how to play with the reader a little, tease them with one possiblity and then deliver something wholly unexpected. But the ending is a very delicate time (to steal a phrase from Dune); you can’t afford to fuck it up. It has to deliver something to make the act of reading the book worthwhile.

Perhaps this is my conclusion, then. The ending must satisfy and it should also surprise. But the surprise element is not as important as we think it is. Readers (and we know this because we’re all readers, aren’t we?) want to feel clever enough to have spotted the foreshadowing; they want to see the characters they hate get some sort of punishment and those they love get some sort of reward. They want to see a balance restored or a revolution succeed. But they also want something unexpected to occur in the midst of all the feel-good.

If we writers are as clever as we think we are, we can give them all of this in essence, just with an edge of verisimilitude. The heroes can achieve their goals, but feel hollow when they discover the true cost of their victory. The villain can fail, but in that last moment reveal the truth behind his malice, a truth that produces a pang of compassion in the readers – just as they get their wish and see him skewered (make those puritanical readers feel guilty!). The monster hunt can end with the beast killing the hunter, as we see that the hunter was the real monster. In essence, we’re being predictable. Evil is failing, Good is winning, Prey is turning on Predator, Rebellion is overturning Empire, and so on. But we are redefining what these terms mean in order to deliver something new along the way.

In short, the formula stays the same, but we define the elements that make it.

So what are your thoughts on predicable endings, and how to tie a story up in a satisfactory way? Do you want a straight story with an ending you can see from space, or do you want to be sucker-punched? Let me know your opinions, people!

Keep writing, stay amazing,

Chris.

Children of the Hit Roll

How embracing your inner gamer can help balance your world.

To grow up with pen-and-paper RPGs like D&D was to grow up with tables, lists of modifiers, pages and pages of mechanics. You knew how the world worked, but more important than that, you saw how the world’s mechanics could be represented. How it was made to fit together. How coherence was achieved.

So as one of the ‘children of the hit roll’, when it comes to creating your own world, you already know how it’s done. You know that culture, geography and history (narrative) can affect the skills, abilities and overall character of a people. You know that travelling a certain distance requires the consumption of a certain amount of provisions. And even more than that, you know that the agency of the players is what makes the games tick.

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D&D was never about plunging into war, with your CO barking orders into your headgear. It was about “hey, so what do you want to do now?” It was about people choosing a path in a living, breathing world full of peril and opportunity. Sure, there was a grand narrative at work, there were scenarios (an undead fiend, a crazed sorcerer, kobolds abound) but the heroes could approach these from any angle they liked. Even when the DM boxed the party into a corner, there was still choice. More choice than there will ever be in video games, even taking Bethesda’s superb output into consideration.

However, I think the most important lesson fantasy writers can learn from pen-and-paper RPGs, and from tabletop gaming in general is the hierarchy of ability.

This is the means by which such games allow us to see the statistics of every agent in the world – players, monsters, NPCs, even terrain features – and measure them against one-another. We can see in clear empirical terms that the rogue doesn’t have the same defensive resilience as the knight, or that the sniper rifle isn’t as good up close as the shotgun, or that the scimitar is less effective against skeletons than the club. We can see it in numbers. We can see it in the language of the game mechanics. It’s right there, in a table, clear as day.

And we know the limits of power. We know that the wizard’s fireball does between 2 and 12 damage, that the healing potion restores between 1 and 6 points of health. So when the wizard and the doctor step out in front of a horde of enemies, we hold our breath – because we know what they can handle and how much damage they can take. The drama comes from the numbers.

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So when we read a story in which the wizard suddenly leaps in power-scale, and just at the right time discovers that his fireball can do 48 damage because the plot demands it, the gamer in us twitches suspiciously. When the hero suddenly develops the skill to defeat the villain in a swordfight simply because the villain taunted him about the murder of his bride, we’re sceptical as to why everyone doesn’t get a weaponskill bonus every time they’re irked. We expect consistency from the mechanics of the world, because it’s what we’re used to.

We bring this statistical wisdom to bear when we write. We know that wizard A is more powerful than wizard B, which of our heroes is the better archer, who’s the most charming. We know how every element of the world measures up against the others, because we’re used to thinking that way. Sure, there’s always wriggle-room for mystery and surprise, but mystery and surprise only work when there’s a solid and logical structure that’s able to contain them. We know that characters can’t just suddenly become stronger than they were previously simply because the plot demands it, without some sort of magical explanation… we know how to balance the world.

And this is what can make the stories so exciting! If we have a clear idea of the hierarchy of ability of our characters, then we can communicate this to the reader. And when we place our characters in peril, when they reach the Grey Castle of Unguksradt, and square up to the Dread Prince Vanakul, or whatever, the reader knows what the heroes are capable of, what Vanakul’s capable of, and what the chances are of victory. They can gauge the peril the writer’s dishing out.

The drama’s in the numbers, and nobody gets this more than the children of the hit roll.

C.

OP Magic – Fun, yes. But worldbreaking.

It’s tempting to make your mage a siege-engine of shock and awe, but it can also break your world.

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I’ve come across this a lot. An author has spent hundreds of pages building a coherent world that feels lived-in and real. This is nothing to sniff at; creating a sense of verisimilitude in a place inhabited by goblins, elves and demons ain’t easy. But good writers do it all the time. It’s a strange and impressive alchemy that makes the fantastic believable and the outlandish relatable.

But then, the good guys get attacked. Some terrible foe emerges, ripping up the earth, raising devils, pummeling the lines of soldiery with blocks of ice, thunderbolts and gouts of molten lead. And the mage sighs, grits his teeth in concentration and WHAM!

When the smoke clears, all the bad guys are dead, and the mage is… well, he’s a bit tired and grouchy. ‘Cor, wiping out that demonic horde really burned through my Vitamin C,’ he groans. ‘I better have a rest.’ So he goes to bed, has a sleep, and then the next day he’s ready to lay down the law again.

The trouble with this is not that the mage is powerful. Magic is supposed to be powerful, it’s supposed to be a gamechanger. But it isn’t supposed to be a gamebreaker. It isn’t supposed to be so powerful that it snaps the carefully-rendered world in two and makes it harder for you to believe in it.

So what’s my problem here?

For me, it all comes down to one question – and this is a question I think all of us fantasy authors should ask ourselves when we’re building a world. And that question is:

Q.1   “Why isn’t everyone in the world a mage?”

Think about it. If mages are so powerful that they can smash entire armies and the only blowback is a bit of exhaustion, why bother learning to fire a bow? Why bother to learn swordplay? Why bother to climb into a suit of armour? Instead of learning how to kill a man with a hand-axe you might as well spend your time in the library, and learn how to kill ten thousand with a flick of your wrist and an arcane word.

(The Hobbit: BOTFA broke for me when Galadriel slapped down Sauron with a Level 10 Restraining Order… in a world where that can happen, would Sauron even bother – or indeed dare – to try and take over the world? No, he’d be in a bunker, soiling himself in fear every time someone knocked at the door, thinking it was Cate Blanchett.)

If the only cost of powerful magic is a headache or a bit of tiredness, then this makes it no more taxing than regular combat, and a heck of a lot more impactful on the battlefield. So why isn’t everyone a mage?

In my opinion, if you want to have awesome OP magic in your books (and I luuurve awesome OP magic), there needs to be a good reason why people choose NOT to learn the magic arts. In Healer’s Ruin, the various Slingers (from ‘spell-slingers’, a derogatory term for wizardly folk) are dicing with madness every time they use their powers. Because they have to immerse themselves in a seductive other world of energy in order to haul magic into the real world, there’s always a chance they’ll get stuck there… and that’s the end of them. And sometimes, they lose themselves piecemeal… a kind of dementia of the soul.

As a consequence, most people in the world of Healer’s Ruin prefer to stick with cold steel and the certainty that they won’t go mad. Even the Ten Plains King lets other people do the spell-slinging for him. It’s a nifty way of this author having his cake, and eating it too. I can have OP magic that burns the page as you’re reading it, but there’s a cost to that magic. Sure, it’s a nice get-out clause when the shit hits the fan on the field, but there’s always drama.

And this is the golden rule of fantasy fiction, right?

Whatever happens, if you’ve lost the drama, you’ve lost the reader. And there’s no magic spell that can pull them back.

So remember the risk and reward mechanic. It keeps people playing table-top games, and it keeps people playing poker. And if you make it an integral part of your magic system, it may just keep people reading your book!

C.

 

 

Saruman’s Skills (Or, Hey PJ, That’s Not How Wizards Fight!)

Quite a few strange decisions were made during the making of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies, most of which were skewered pretty well by CinemaSins. But watching The Battle of the Five Armies for a second time – admittedly with frequent use of the skip function – I came across something that struck me as quite odd. During the Smackdown at Dol Guldur sequence I found myself asking why Saruman fights like a 1980s D&D cleric.

It’s one of those scenes that looks cool, but makes little sense to me. Gandalf has lost his mojo and is at the mercy of a single orc. Then from nowhere, the Avengers turn up (well, the Tolkien equivalent) and a desperate battle ensues. Elrond slices and dices, Saruman gets stuck in and Galadriel rushes to Gandalf’s side, despite possessing the most powerful offensive sorcery in the team. The latter point didn’t bother me too much, beyond her power eventually being revealed as OP to the point of absurdity, since there’s an undertow of romance between her and the hapless wizard. What bothered me was Saruman’s fighting style.

He’s clubbing and jabbing with his staff skilfully enough, but that’s the problem. In the LOTR movies he flings Gandalf around with flicks of his staff, using it to accentuate his magical power, and whilst he’s still clearly using the stick to channel sorcery against the Ringwraiths, the process here seems to require him to bludgeon his opponents too. He might as well take a spear to the fight and not bother taxing his little grey cells on spellcasting if their application requires him to thump foes in the chest.

It just felt wrong to see a wizened mage ducking and weaving like Ezio Auditore da Firenze, battering ghosts with a stick instead of hanging back and assailing with waves of sorcery. What’s wrong with fireballs or thundering gyres of kinetic force? What’s wrong with magic missile? Even the mage in HeroQuest had Fire of Wrath, and that could attack anyone on the board. Saruman’s a world-renowned spell-slinger. You’d think he could kill foes from his armchair.

There’s no rule that says a wizard shouldn’t perform like a common-or-garden berserker in battle, but warriors don’t usually spend the better part of their lifetime in attics, libraries and mysterious shrines, immersed in dusty tomes that only a magic-obsessed mind can penetrate. They tend to be out on the grass, swinging their sword and conditioning their bodies. Which limits the time available for learning Muncie’s Supernal Mist Moccasin in Vlamodyr’s peerless Journal of Marginally Useful Shoe-related Spells of Antiquity. Not that I’m a warrior, or a mage, but this scene violated everything I learned from RPGs about magic use in a party setting.

The lesson, I suppose, is don’t play D&D with PJ. He’ll be the wizard and he’ll charge from the front, swinging his magic stick, and the warriors will get stuck mopping up the kobolds while he prances about, cracking ogre skulls with the gemstone-end and sucking up the XP like a vacuum cleaner in a toga.

Giving your mages the martial arts skill of David Carradine isn’t cricket. It’s game-breaking, is what it is. And we can’t have that. This isn’t Nam, this is Fantasy. There are rules.

C.

Healer’s Ruin is now available!

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Buy the ebook of ‘Healer’s Ruin’ by Chris O’Mara from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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