Time’s Torment

Time's Torment 2018 Summer Branding Mini

‘Here is all you need to know about this world.

It’s dark.

It’s devious.

And its foul and rancid heart is bloated with an endlessly churning malice.

Still, an adventure could be fun, no?’

My new novel, Time’s Torment, is available now in ebook format. If you have access to Kindle Unlimited or the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library you can read it for free. Although it’s a standalone tale, it’s also the first in a series of adventures focusing on two rather unique characters and their bizarre entourage. I should say here that it contains some bad language. There are also several scenes of mild peril, but these tend to be sandwiched between moments of extreme danger.

UK readers can get it here.
US readers should go here instead.

To download a free sample, click here.

I hope you enjoy it.




Will This Be Just Another Day?

Waking up to news of the Parkland high-school shooting.

I don’t like to talk about politics here. Not because I don’t care about current affairs but because I would much rather discuss philosophy than policy. From experience, I think it’s more constructive to explore various ideas (the role of the state, the legacy of empire, the viability of military interventionism, etc) through writing than it is to grab someone by the scruff of the neck and shout at them, which is sadly what most political discourse is these days. Get people to think, get people to confront their own ideals, get people to engage and you have a more constructive process.

But there comes a point when this feels dishonest. As a writer I’ve always struggled with the aspect of professionalism that requires one to be diplomatic and, to an extent, emotionally distant. Eventually, I knew the veil would fall and I’d have to wade in on one side or the other. It’s inevitable, right? Especially in an increasingly polarised world.

You know what I’m talking about. There’s been another shooting in a US school and several kids are dead. America, once again, is in mourning. I don’t know when the last period of mourning ended, and by now it feels like a constant thing, a vast and incessant parade of public agony, but now the news anchors are weeping and people are calling for better gun control. Once again, people across the pond are lecturing you on how to run your own country.

Now, I know that the philosophy of ferocious individualism runs deep in American culture. You don’t like outsiders telling you what to do, and many of you like to think that you have enough firepower in your basement to take on drones, battleship-mounted railguns and Navy SEALS if the government decides to go full Stalin. You like to stand alone. You like to say ‘don’t tread on me’ instead of ‘don’t tread on us’ because solidarity sounds like communism to you. Decades of libertarian dogma can’t be deprogrammed in a heartbeat. But the US is also a country in which the spirit of community looms large. The first three words of your constitution are not “I the Individual” but “We the People”. And as one, you can change things. Individuals can stand together without losing their independence of thought, without losing their own little chunk of the American Dream. So when I say that, on gun violence, Europe is with you, the UK is with you, don’t be threatened by that. This isn’t some call for you to put on overalls and overthrow capitalism. It’s a message of unity. We feel your sadness. We don’t want to see parents in tears and their kids in the ground. We don’t want these sorts of wasteful, miserable, gut-twisting acts of slaughter to happen again. Anywhere.

So who does this three-eighths-Irish Brit think he is, poking his nose in your business? Well, despite my lack of geographical proximity I’ve got a stake in this too. I love the US. Growing up, my favourite TV shows were American. My favourite comedy show of all time is Seinfeld (Only Fools and Horses runs a close second). My favourite band is Smashing Pumpkins. My favourite poetry came out of the Modernist period, which involved Americans coming over here to show us how to get our mojo back. So many of my favourite movies and plays are American. I can’t count how many hours, how many years of joy your nation has given me. So when I say all of this, it comes from the heart. It comes from somebody who absolutely and categorically gives a shit. Somebody who, many times in his life, the lowest and most difficult times I’ve ever had, found kinship and solace in the work of American artists. Someone who might not have made it through his teens had it not been for Billy Corgan, a libertarian from Chicago. Believe me when I say that I have a vested interest in your country healing itself.

You stood up to the British Empire when it subjugated you. In 1941 you stood up to the Axis when it threatened to overpower the whole world. I’m pretty sure you can stand up to a handful of middle-aged men who run the NRA and the politicians nestling in their pockets.

I have faith in you. You’ve never given in to powerlessness and inertia before. Don’t start now.


The Last Jedi Lights It Up

A spoiler-free review (I’m 99% sure…) of Star Wars: The Last Jedi


No balls were dropped during the making of this movie.

The Force Awakens seemed an odd fit in an era of genre fandom obsessed with the badass and the dark. It shone, twinkled and joked its way through a story that leaned too heavily on J.J. Abrams’ trademark mystery box for its dramatic hooks, almost asking us to focus more on the secret of Snoke’s identity, or that of Rey’s parents, than on the incidents that took place on-screen.

Though punctuated with some momentous scenes (Han’s fate, for instance) it felt like a story about what lay behind the characters more than what occurred in front of them, and for that reason it felt incomplete to me. That’s the problem with mysteries that span multiple movies, of course; you have to wait for the next instalment to put your mind at rest.

But for all that, I had enjoyed it. There were some who found Rey’s force-grab of the lightsaber predictable, but this was Star Wars. They’ve always been, ultimately, predictable movies. You get the pay-off eventually, and that particular moment still, after several viewings, makes me grin. That’s the magic that these films have, and if you change that, you wreck the entire universe (I won’t say franchise. I grew up with these films. That word cheapens them).

Going into The Last Jedi, I had reservations. Will it have the same slightly hollow feel to it, as we are forced (sorry) to wait for the follow-up for our questions to be answered? Will Luke be mishandled, as we’ve seen Batman, Superman and the Transformers mishandled? Will it fail to give me that glow that Star Wars always gives me, even in the prequels? Will the worst of all scenarios occur, and I come out of the cinema having seen something that’s just, well, average?

I had prayers that I wanted answered. I didn’t want any more mystery boxes. I wanted the drama to come from the characters clashing, events unfolding, the cards being on the table, not hidden behind the back of the director. I wanted it to feel like a big deal, too, and to not waste these characters into which we had so much invested. It was all a big ask. So, as I sit here, 16 minutes after leaving the cinema, how did it measure up?

I’ll start with the negatives, because there are a couple. First – and I felt the same way when I saw The Force Awakens – I’m tired of the blaring orchestra and the yellow train of exposition that starts every Star Wars movie. It feels redundant to me. I would have been happy without any of it, especially since very little has changed between this movie and the finale of The Force Awakens. It’s a bit like an old friend who has a habit that was once endearing, but now just has to be endured if you want him to stick around (which you do, because he’s awesome, but damn that habit’s tired).

The other negative is that it contains a little bit of Disney Nonsense™. There are cute creatures, which are funny only if you fight against that sense of cynicism which separates grown-ups from their innocent child-selves, and maybe one or two bonkers sequences in which physics no longer seems to apply, one involving a sprinting, half-decapitated war-machine. Now these are precisely the sort of things that sunk* the prequel trilogy. So does it hurt The Last Jedi?

Categorically nope. The scant few moments that pushed the envelope too far in terms of space critter kawaii and theme-park ride/videogame cutscene craziness were completely forgivable because they come wrapped in several layers of lean storytelling and perfectly-executed action. The mysteries that made the first film sluggish are not quite jettisoned, but are instead touched upon with an almost ruthless desire to streamline the story in favour of what lies ahead, rather than behind the characters. New relationships are formed in the spinning wreckage of battle and the duels we all wanted to see are either provided, though cleverly subverted, or transform before our eyes into something superior to what we were hoping to witness, to the point where you find yourself hoping that what you’re seeing unfold isn’t some force-induced hallucination.

Most impressive was the pace of the film. It has it’s placid moments, most of them taking place on Luke’s island, but there’s a lovely pathos to these sequences as Luke ends up being less, yet also more, than we hoped. As a thrilling hunt begins to dominate the narrative, the audience is treated to a sequence of stunning set-pieces, each of which feels like a climactic battle, only to feed into another fracas, the palette cleansed by a costume-change of weapons, characters and location.

The sound isn’t quite as fierce as it was in The Force Awakens. Lightsabers don’t fizz and crackle with that distorted roar, and the ‘force moments’ lack the same, dominant thrumming bass that underpinned the mind-duel between Kylo Ren and Rey in the interrogation room, for example. But the sound is fine. It’s just less invasive.

In terms of visual grit, it follows the lead of Rogue One. Heavy laser blasts from swooping TIE fighters batter ground positions with double-bass drum potency and artillery chews up trench lines, tossing soldiers through the air. Despatched foes topple into generators and are shredded into confetti. Goodness knows how many fools are taken down with creative employment of lightsabers. Burgeoning fireballs consume countless minor characters (as well as some you could actually name). There’s an overwhelming amount of fighting and it’s all done with a grace that allows new characters to be introduced, enjoy a sweet arc and then perish without it feeling rushed, something we see less of in this age of workshopped-to-death screenplays produced in the heat of duels between studios and directors. Indeed, it’s partly the poor execution of other big-budget films that makes The Last Jedi seem more of a triumph, perhaps, than it is. But that’s hitting the wrong note; this isn’t a film that feels good because it doesn’t make as many mistakes as other big movies do. It’s a film that feels good because it is good. So good, that it takes you aback.

Is it the sci-fi film of the year? Well, I didn’t come out of it emotionally wrung out as I did when I emerged from Blade Runner 2049, a movie that dazzled me beyond words. But it’s very strong, well put together, leaner than its predecessor and full of hopeful messages we can all get behind, including a criticism of free-market capitalism which gels perfectly with the attitude of the Resistance and also makes the film feel politically relevant. C-3P0 gets plenty of metaphorical sand kicked in his face, Luke is wonderful, Hux is a properly-hissable space-fascist, Finn is brimming with agency, the ships are well-designed and the story of Rey and Kylo Ren takes centre-stage in thunderously engaging fashion.

Also, this isn’t as safe a film as I expected. Chances are taken in ways that we usually see in DC:EU movies with storyline twists that the safer (and more successful) Marvel universe tends to avoid in favour of playing it safe and getting the ball over the line. But here, the chances pay off. You hope they get Luke right, and they do. You hope something amazing happens in Snoke’s throne room, and it does. You hope to see the Falcon’s shadow carve across a landscape illuminated by the blaze of lasers, and you do. There’s even a nice nod to those of us too jaded to love the cute critters when one of them, hitching a ride on an iconic vessel, is slammed face-first into the glass when the vessel pulls a spin. Some of the jokes are a little flat (it’s not wholly inaccurate to say that Luke’s wink at C-3PO, which is amazing by the way, is as close as this movie gets to TFA’s “You’re cold?!”) but they serve the characters and the tone well enough.

So yeah, that’s my spoiler-free (I think) review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I really liked it. I’m relieved that they didn’t drop the ball with Luke. I like that they gave Leia a jaw-dropping force moment, which she should have had ages ago. Good job, people. Good job.


Rian Johnson, ladies and gentlemen. If you see him, buy him a beer. 

*The story the prequels told was good. The way it told that story was, for the most part, not good. That’s as much as I want to say about that here, except that Hayden Christensen deserves none of the blame, people. None. Of. The. Blame.



Worldbuilding, One Bridge At A Time.


The cover art for Katharine Kerr’s Daggerspell, by Keith Parkinson

Worldbuilding is an art in itself, a process that requires us to think about a range of different topics from geography to economics. We often find ourselves concocting detailed timelines showing the various wars, famines, necromancy-aided zombie outbreaks, dragon attacks, royal successions, orc invasions and other major incidents, and sketching out maps of the entire globe, with even the most far-flung nation states named and their kings, queens, customs and preferred methods of warfare carefully outlined. The reader might never even glimpse these places, or find them mentioned in the story, but that’s often the way with worldbuilding. Most of the hard work is hidden behind the text, never to be seen.

But sometimes we can overlook the simplest and most evocative method or worldbuilding: the exploration of the immediate world. It’s the struggle between the grand and the granular vision; do we peer into the distance and dream of what might lie beyond those gleaming, sun-clad peaks, or do we instead choose to describe how the hero’s wizened guide picks his teeth with what looks like an arrowhead which hangs fixed from his wrinkled neck on a filthy leather band?

Let’s think about the arrowhead. Perhaps our hero is erudite enough to know the history of this part of our world. She astutely judges the guide to be some years shy of sixty, though his hard life has made him seem decades older. From this, she deduces that he might have been around when the kingdom was attacked by the Gorrokhin Flood, a horde of warped creatures in the sway of a cabal of mad sorcerers. She might also know that the Gorrokhin were beaten back not by the celebrated Greatswords of the King’s Own, or by the well-armed militias, but by a large band of local huntsmen who placed themselves in harm’s way, completely unarmoured, with only their bows and arrows to protect them. At this moment, she sees the crooked guide in a different light. Pities him perhaps, that his glorious courage had not been better rewarded. That most – but not her, not now – might see him as a mere peasant offering to lead travellers through the countryside for a few copper pieces.

This tiny detail lets us peek into the history of the immediate world. Not the globe, with its distant power brokers, pensive empires and fabulous beasts, but the people around the protagonists. Their history, their pathos. By paying this kind of attention, we end up crafting a lived-in world, a place that feels authentic.

The Road Itself

I was clearing out some old books recently – a pretty gruelling experience in which I discovered not only the frightening number of books I purchased in recent years, but how many of them I hadn’t managed to read – and came across English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages. Published by J. J. Jusserand, it’s precisely the kind of charming old book in which wisdom is expressed in that archaic and convoluted way that we might call flowery and ‘very much of its time’. I can’t judge this too harshly, of course; it was published in 1889… and besides, that’s how I write now, so how can I point fingers at good old Triple-J?

Flicking through it, I found a lot of stuff that resonated with me, beavering away as I am beneath the mantle of fantasy writer. Things I would have found tedious before seem vitally important now. Take, for instance, the focus of the very first chapter: roads and bridges.

Now this is what I mean by the immediate world, the granular detail rather than the grand vista. What could be more commonplace, more emblematic of a fantasy world, than a battered old bridge over a trickling stream in the depths of the darkest forest? We can already hear the staccato clacking of the horse as it tentatively picks its way across the stones, unsure of its footing. Will the bridge hold? It’s sure to tumble down one day. Perhaps today?

But this bit of mild peril isn’t the point. I’m interested here in what our bridge might tell us about the world in which it finds itself. Jusserand’s book talks of the trinoda necessitas, the three obligations of the King’s subjects, one of these being the repairing of bridges. Now, most worlds we build are much like our own. They are shaped by three things: gods, gold and greed. The building and maintenance of bridges in England was seen as “pious and meritorious work”; it’s no coincidence that the word Pontiff means bridge-builder.

Bridges allowed the lifeblood of the nation to flow. And this lifeblood was of course labour, and therefore money. Jusserand tells us of the unscrupulous Godfrey Pratt who installed iron bars and a toll, charging travellers for the right to cross his bridge, but allowing nobility to cross for free (since they had the power to censure him). He was eventually removed from duty by an abbot who swiftly abolished the toll. Now there was a bridge with a story to tell.

We can unpack all of this. The drama tells us that the church had a great deal of power, as did the nobility. In this society money is exchanged for services. There must also be reasonable enforcement of the law, too, since Pratt wasn’t caved in with a mace for daring to try and extort money from wayfarers.

It’s not just the bridges that tell a story about the society that produced them. Jusserand also details how the Romans constructed their roads.

  1. Pavimentum, or foundation, fine earth, hard beaten in.

  2. Statumen, or bed of the road, composed of large stones, sometimes mixed with mortar.

  3. Ruderatio, or small stones well mixed with mortar.

  4. Nucleus, formed by mixing lime, chalk, pounded brick or tile; or gravel, sand, and lime mixed with clay.

  5. Upon this was laid the surface of the paved road, technically called the summum dorsum.

Not only is this interesting (if you’re into that kind of thing) but we can start to see how even the roads beneath a traveller’s feet can reveal a violent history of invasion, domination, rebellion and overthrow. The people who built these roads are no longer present, their empire no longer in command. But the roads themselves remain, and are absolutely essential to the function of the nation.

Dipping into Jusserand’s book helped to crystallise those ideas I was having about the importance of small details and perhaps from now on I’ll try to pay more attention to the immediate environment in my worldbuilding. I’ll think not only about the distant past, the loftiest peaks and the greatest wars, but also of the charms around the necks of vagrants, the old bridges and the roads that run from city to city over which tradesmen travel in horse and cart, without themselves looking down at the rich history beneath hoof and wheel.

Sure, we want to dream big. We want to show the reader how vast our world is and what wonders await later in our series. But we should never forget how the simplest, smallest details – those things that are closest, rather than hugely distant – can bring a world to life.



Chris O’Mara is a fantasy writer. His novel Healer’s Ruin is available on Amazon in ebook and paperback format. You can read it for free with Amazon Prime.

FB mini Healer's Ruin Winter Edition Cover











Create a Great Character with ‘Question Three’


The definition of a character is a work of art in itself.

Great characters are often what readers remember the most about fantasy novels. Sure, the world can be richly detailed and evocative, the labyrinthine plot as delicately arranged as the workings of a pocketwatch and the set pieces can be stunning. But a well-drawn protagonist who reacts in a seemingly natural and authentic way as the plot twists and turns will stay with the reader long after the final page has been turned.

There’s a wealth of advice on how to set about crafting a great character. Some of it involves brief exercises, other approaches include writing an exhaustive list of favourite foods, siblings, achievements and shameful secrets. Sometimes the points are too general, other times they feel like overkill.

There is no limit to how far down the rabbit hole authors can go when developing their characters, but there is such a thing as sinking too much time into extraneous detail. I draw the line at writing down my heroine’s favourite colour or holiday destination. I’m just not sure it’s going to elicit any more interest and engagement from the reader. But there are fundamental aspects of character that the writer must define early on.

Novels in the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres tend to be dominated by plot. Style and characterisation of course have their place, but the events are of central importance. So when we define our characters, we tend to begin by working out how they will fit into the narrative.

The basic questions we tend to ask are:

1) What does the character want?

2) Why do they want it?

Let’s see some examples of this.

The protagonist wants to become King because he covets power.

The protagonist wants to kill the King because the King killed her brother.

The protagonist wants to escape gaol to rescue his bride from slavery.

The protagonist wants to discover a magical secret to save his village from a curse.

These are practical building blocks for characters and provide us with the bare bones upon which we can drape finer detail. In many straight-up adventure tales, this might be enough (I’ve read plenty of books and seen plenty of movies in which this was as far as characterisation went). However, if we want to craft memorable characters that engage readers on a deeper level, there’s a third question we should always ask:

3) How does this make the character feel and how does this change things?

This is where we define the central conflict of the character, generating more depth and nuance. Let’s look at how this augments the above examples.

The protagonist wants to become King because he covets power. However, he feels nervous that people will not take him seriously so he tends to be more severe and cruel than necessary.

The protagonist wants to kill the King because the King killed her brother. However, she’s afraid of what will happen if she rebels against the Royal Family and this causes her to miss her opportunity, leading to her having to take a great risk to achieve her goal.

The protagonist wants to escape gaol to rescue his bride from slavery. However, his anger at the injustice of his incarceration and his bridge’s predicament causes him to become the very monster his enemies accused him of being.

The protagonist wants to discover a magical secret to save his village from a curse. However, he is afraid of the power he comes to wield and must decide whether to release this power and save the village – but possibly cause wider harm to the world – or bury this power and allow the village to die.

Just with this simple exercise we can see how the characters are becoming more defined. Now, as we slip these characters into the plot, we’ll see that this extra layer of depth might make the writing easier. After all, if we know how the character feels about his or her place in the plot, the writer can better judge how the character might respond to plot developments and the reader will find these responses more natural and authentic.


A Cure for Writer’s Block?


No, really. This works, folks.

We’ve all had it. Writer’s Block can strike out of nowhere and cause your mind’s grand industry to grind to a halt. It can last hours, days or weeks. It can cripple your ability to finish your story and make the entire writing process grim and unpleasant.

A little while ago, I found a way to avoid Writer’s Block, and I haven’t had it since. I stumbled upon this method while I was still working full-time, writing in my lunch break. I’d have just under an hour to feverishly type up all the ideas I’d had since the previous day, and when it was time to get back to the office I felt worn out…

…and I never got to finish the section I was writing.

Every session would end with me panicking, what if I forget what happens next? But I never did. I would sit down the following day, open the laptop and just carry on where I had left off, without missing a beat. Because I already knew exactly what I was going to write. There was no pause, no hesitation, no wasted time spent wondering how to fill the space on the page before me.

After a while, I had a few days off. Great, I thought. Time to sit and write without a time limit. And guess what? I got Writer’s Block pretty much immediately. I wrote incessantly until I had nothing more the say, and then I closed the laptop with a self-satisfied smile on my face. But when I sat down the following day, keen to continue the project, I couldn’t think what to write. I froze up. I jammed. I got Writer’s Block.

I realised that the solution was not to keep writing until I had nothing else left to say. Instead, I had to stop every writing session knowing exactly what the next line was going to be. I started ending each session in mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, mid-conversation. Or in the middle of an action scene. Anywhere but the end of a chapter.

Coupled with storyboarding, this trick has helped me completely avoid Writer’s Block ever since. When I sit down to write, that’s exactly what I do. No more staring at a blank page, no more biting nails and thinking, what now, what now, what now?

In the end, the novel becomes a carousel that is always spinning. When it’s time to write, you jump on. When it’s time to stop writing, you jump off. But you never, ever stop the carousel from spinning.

So if you find that you keep grinding to a halt, this might help you. It’s a simple trick, but the best ones often are. It worked, and continues to work, for me. I hope it helps you too.


Face Facts – Describing the Facial Features of your Characters


When the writer described the hero, the reader recoiled in horror.

Writers like to describe. We like to use metaphors and similes. We like to impress readers with the number of words we know for ‘blue’. “No, dear reader,” we cry. “His eyes were not blue. They were azure. Are you not entertained?”

But sometimes we get carried away. Because the image we see blazing in our mind’s eye is so vivid, we want to ensure that the reader sees exactly the same thing. So, we feel that we have to describe what our characters are wearing. Their boots and buckles, cape and codpiece. Their eyes, how far apart they are, what kind of brown they are, the hairstyle, the shape of the chin. Every time someone enters a room we find ourselves breaking off for three of four lines to describe exactly how this guy wears his beard. Or what shade of green he’s wearing now after his altercation with those orcs in chapter 4 in which gouts of foul viscera ruined his previous wardrobe.

But we don’t need to do this. In fact, we’re doing ourselves a disservice when we micro-manage our reader’s response to the text. We want the reader to focus on the themes and the drama, the plot and the tension, not overload them with so much extraneous detail that they end up fixating on the small things and miss the important, thematic material.

So how much description is too much?

When I think of description, I think of Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness. There’s a point in the novel where the expression on a severed head is described as ‘jocose’. It’s a very precise word, and unusual enough to feel as if it carries a certain amount of power. It’s bold. Yes, it violates the rule that you should never use words your reader may not know – a rule you should ignore, by the way – but it also captures the essence of the expression in a way that no more granular and detailed description ever could.

And this is the magic word: essence.

What would Brâncuși do?


Constantin Brâncuși was a highly influential modernist sculptor. Many of his works dealt with communicating the fundamental shape of an object. For example, his ‘bird in space’ is recognisable as a bird because of the curvature and the shape of the sculpture. Yet it has no eyes, no feathers, not even wings. Now think about those little ‘m’ shapes we draw to illustrate birds in flight, and how everyone knows that this is a bird, despite a complete lack of detail. It’s the same principle. As Brâncuși said, “what they call abstract is what is most realistic. What is real is not the appearance, but the idea, the essence of things.”

So when we are about to describe what a character looks like, we should ask ourselves, what is the purpose of this process? Do we want the reader to be able to pick the character out of a police line-up? Well, no. We want the reader to grasp fundamental qualities about the character.

Are they handsome?

Are they sinister?

Are they grotesque?

Are they intimidating?

We can communicate these things easily, and with brevity. If the hero is handsome, simply describe him as handsome, or her as pretty. That’s enough. You can mention their astonishing eyes, or drop other details in later about their phenomenal bangs. But there’s no need to info-dump. All your reader needs to know is, “how do I picture this person?” You’ll be surprised how little info a reader actually needs in order to create a strong image of the character in their mind’s eye.

But we can do better than that. We can be precise without being detailed.

For example, I recently described a main character as ‘sharp-faced.’ Nothing particularly inventive about this, it’s a term that has been used countless times. But we associate a lot of things with it. Immediately, we perceive the character as cold, predatory, cruel, dangerous. Vindictive, even. Because weapons are sharp. Things that hurt us are sharp. Straight away, we have communicated more about the character – their essence as well as what they look like – than a detailed physical description could ever have managed.

We can also reveal much about a character’s appearance in the way they move. Characters who stride or glide are recognised by readers as physically fit and/or attractive, or at least possessing the self-confidence associated with the physically attractive. Then, there is the way other characters respond to them. This too is a way of communicating the visual aspect of a character without having to info-dump on detail. He was stunned by her natural beauty is a much more economical and less overwhelming way of describing face, hair and manner. Handsome enough, she supposed, but weathered by grief and time, tells us more than any granular exploration of eye size, nose shape, hair style.

In short, we can accomplish a lot in a small space. This lets the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps, helping the reader form an attachment to the characters they themselves have had some hand in creating. Also, it lets us focus on communicating the truly important elements of the story. Not what the characters look like, but what they want, why they want it, and what this means.

Which, let’s face it, is the real stuff we want to be writing about, isn’t it?

Keen to hear your thoughts as always, and good luck with your projects.


Hooks Abound!

The Power of a Good Tagline


Someone, somewhere, was very proud of that tagline. Is this game made up?

As any indie author – or indeed, any book publisher – will tell you, covers matter. A good work of art can be the deciding factor between making money with your project and making a loss. An awesome image makes people look at your book at least twice, rather than pass it by. It’s also the best way to give prospective readers some idea as to what to expect from the novel itself.

But for all the importance of a beautifully-rendered dragon, spaceship or warrior’s pectoral, there’s another element that can hook a reader and drag them along on your characters’ journey.

The tagline.

The tagline* is that little bit of text on the front cover that isn’t the title or your name in MASSIVE LETTERS. Sometimes it’s a quote from the book, other times its an evocative hint at the perilous misadventures to be found within. You’ll have seen many examples. Thrillers often sport phrases like, “She thought it was all over…” or “His life will never be the same… nor will his death!” In fantasy, it might be something like, “One crown, two kings” or “A hero will rise!” In Sci-Fi, “Who can stop the Gel-Dar?” or “In space, no-one can hear you avoid describing how FTL works.” Some of them are brilliant, and make you click ‘buy’ without hesitation. Others make you think, “sure, that sounds like everything else!”

(One of my favourite taglines of all time can be found on the front of the VHS case of Clone Master, a 70s Sci-Fi flick: “Dr. Simon Shane has to save 13 lives… each of them his own!” Fantastic. There is no arguing with that level of genius.)


What teenage libertarian hasn’t lived by that maxim, huh?

When I was playing with the cover of Healer’s Ruin, back when it had the original artwork depicting Chalos and Samine, I played around with the idea of having a line of text along the top of the cover. It read, ‘What if the hero of the story… was fighting for the enemy?’ Now, I quite like this tagline, and it hints at the postmodern shenanigans I was attempting with the book when I first started writing it; the idea that the main protagonist was fighting for the wrong side, with the true hero of the story figuring only on the periphery of the narrative, really appealed to me because it was an unusual POV. As the book developed, it became about a lot of other things… Imperialism, war, bi-polar disorder, the power of myth. And eventually the tagline lost some of its meaning and began to feel less relevant, less central to the experience of the story. So, with a somewhat heavy heart, I dropped it.

But I remain committed to the lure of the tagline, and my next book – which is a couple of months from publication, touch wood – will most likely have one blazing fiercely above the cover art.

So how do you come up with a tagline?

The key to a good tagline, I think, is to ask a simple question. Some examples you will see are simply statements of what happens in the book. “An evil has returned” or “A hero must overcome his fear of the darkness”, that sort of thing. This is fine, but rather passive.

As taglines go, this is one of the absolute best.

The ones that work best on me involve active participation. Put the reader in a quandary, ask them how they would respond to a situation. You’ll be surprised how a single line can engage a complete stranger and make them buy into your narrative. So, “Can fear of the dark be overcome?” is more active than “A hero must overcome his fear of the darkness”. It not only gives a clue as to the challenge to the hero in the narrative, it also asks the reader how they would overcome their own fears… immediately linking them to the hero of the story. This kind of engagement is really important if you want someone to invest time in your work.

So to sum up, I’d say a good tag line does 3 things.

  1. Captures the tone of the novel.

  2. Achieves synergy with the message of the cover art, giving the potential reader a firmer grasp of what to expect.

  3. Engages the reader actively.

If you’re working on a tagline, it can help to list some of your favourites from books and movies. Remember that one from Alien, “In space no one can hear you scream”? It’s great, isn’t it? And notice the use of the word “you”. Not “them”, not “Ripley”, but “you”. A perfect example of a tagline that actively engages the potential audience.


*Alright, so if there’s another term for this, hit me up. But for now, I’m calling it this. Because the power of erratically naming things flows in my veins!

Big Screen Lessons

Or: Is Everything They Tell You About Storytelling Wrong?


Great shot. One problem: Superman would never, ever, ever pull this face. Ever.

Have we been lied to? Or just misinformed? I remember being told that my stories had to make sense. That my characters had to be boldly defined and delineated. That my villains had to possess motivations that made sense. I’m sure you were told this, too.

In fact, indie writers panic about this stuff all the time. We’re always on social media, asking our peers, ‘do you think my hero would do this?’ or ‘would it make sense for my villain to do that?’ Sometimes, we have beta readers who bravely trudge through our drafts, popping flares whenever they fall into a plot hole or suffer the Quantum Leap-style discomfort of bad continuity.

So yeah. We writers go to a lot of trouble.

Which is one reason why I was so frustrated with Batman Versus Superman: Dawn of Justice.

This isn’t a review. I’ve missed the zeitgeist by a country mile and there’s no getting on that train. Suffice to say, I loved the opening sequence, I thought Affleck was brilliant, Wonderwoman was great and bits of it rocked. But a lot of it was rickety and shambolic. At times, downright amateurish. And since I’ve been bogged down in trying to tell a story well for what feels like an eternity* seeing such errors on the big screen hurt.

I mean, this was stuff I couldn’t get away with. I couldn’t have a villain whose plan made no sense whatsoever. Nor could I wilfully warp well-known characters into almost unrecognisable shapes without incurring the wrath of an irritated readership.

I mean, here was Lex Luthor, whose plan involved being caught for a bombing that was meant to frame Superman but could easily be traced to LexCorp, then using alien technology to unleash a monster he couldn’t control, before getting his head shaved in prison. Could I get away with a villain like that? Well, no. I wouldn’t want to even try. A villain’s plan should make sense. You should be able to easily explain the villain’s motivation. Some will say, of course, that Luthor was jealous and/or afraid of Superman because he was an alien. Well, why did his solution to the problem of a powerful alien involve the unleashing of another alien in the form of Doomsday? An alien more powerful than Superman? And why did a villain obsessed with control create a monster that couldn’t be controlled? No, I can’t explain it either.

bm1Well, you can’t argue with that.

Then there’s the whole issue of changing characters like Superman and Luthor in fundamental ways. Superman is very clearly defined against Batman. In the animated Justice League series, their characters are extremely boldly drawn and starkly different. Batman is paranoid, fearful in spite of all his strength (to the point of pessimism), analytical and cold. Superman is bright, colourful, optimistic and embracing. This produces a wonderful dynamic that has delighted comic book and cartoon fans for years.

But in BvS, they’re the same. Both are miserable, gurning doom-merchants with frowns you could slip into and perish within. Both agonise over how much brutality they can unleash before they lose their grip. Basically, both are Batman. Superman should not be contemplating murdering people. Nor should he be smashing terrorists through walls at the speed of a freight-train. It’s not what Superman is. It’s not what he’s ever been.

Luthor, of course, is the result of trying to put the Joker in a movie without putting the Joker in a movie. The result? Lex Luthor, the man who hates Superman because he feels he is the pinnacle of human perfection, and is frustrated by the arrival of an alien usurper, a fascinating, engaging and entirely identifiable character, is smashed to pieces under the Studio’s clumsy hammers and remodelled as… well, as something nobody liked. Poor Jessie Eisenberg.

What I’m getting at here is that everything we’ve been told about how to tell a good story is wrong. You won’t automatically fail as a writer because you can’t tell a good story. Nor will you necessarily be a failure if your heroes dramatically change character for no reason at all. And if your villain’s plan makes no sense at all (even to you), don’t fret. The BvS team didn’t. And these guys made a lot of money. And are still getting work.


It’s not all bad, Zack. The beginning is fantastic. And I still love what you did with Watchmen. 

So What Does This Mean?

Well, it doesn’t mean we can give up and write a load of garbage. Sure, Hollywood can do this, and it can pay many hundreds of thousands of dollars for people to do this. But we have standards, damn it. We’re better than those hacks, right?

Seriously though, imagine you were attending a writing course and handed in the story to BvS. What would your tutor say? Well, nothing good. They’d complain that the two lead characters were practically identical, that the messages were muddled and muddied and that the villain’s plan was disjointed to the point of complete atomisation. And you’d have no defence. Because in the case of BvS, those things are true.

As writers, we can’t hide behind the flash-bang of cinematic spectacle. I mean, we can have massive pitched battles, monsters, demons and the kind of ground-blasting sorcery that would make Gandalf soil his breeches. But the act of watching a movie is, usually, a more passive experience than the act of reading a book. We soak in a movie like we soak in sunshine. But a book is a process that involves us to a greater degree. If something is wrong with a movie, we can zone out and accept it if the CGI is good and the spaceships look cool. With a book, you can’t really do that. If you zone out, you’re no longer reading.

I suppose the lesson is that we novelists put ourselves under a hell of a lot of pressure. We want to craft perfect tales with memorable and identifiable heroes and villains whose motivation and machinations make exquisite sense in the final reveal. We want to give readers something they’ve never had before. We want to make them think things they’ve previously avoided contemplating and feel things they’ve felt before in ways they’ve never felt them. We want them to be dazzled by the sublime balancing act of structural complexity and narrative slickness.

Sure, Hollywood writers want to do that too. But they don’t have to, or sometimes they just can’t, because a studio hacks up their work or forces too many ideas on them. Or maybe they just have a bad day at the office and turn in a load of nonsense. My point is, these people make a lot more than we ever will, and they sometimes suck. Really suck. Are they more successful than we are, even in those sucky moments? Financially, yes. And they usually get to carry on shaping popular culture in ways we could only dream of, however hard they drop the ball.

What I take from this is that it’s amazing how much attention we pay to getting certain things right. Plot, narrative structure, motivation, character. It’s drummed into us that these things are of absolute importance. Truth is, they’re not. Not really. Perfection isn’t necessary. Hell, half-assedness is pretty much adequate most of the time. In cinema, in business, in politics.

But not, my friends, for us. No, we’re made of finer stuff. We sweat over the kind of details Zack Snyder doesn’t even notice. We panic over plot holes that Studio Execs shrug off as irrelevant. We do crazy things like world building and cartography. Because it matters how far the woods are from the castle, damn it! It matters where the mountains end and whether there are two bends in the river or three. It matters why one people speak one language and another doesn’t, and it matters how magic works.

So next time you’re approaching burnout and it all seems like too much, and you’ve had six cups of coffee but you still can’t push on past that scene that’s got you totally blocked, just take a moment to think about Batman Versus Superman: Dawn of Justice and relax. You’re already trying harder than those guys did.

You are already aiming for a target they didn’t even see. Be proud of yourself. And push on.


* I’m most of the way through my second book. I had planned to follow up Healer’s Ruin pretty sharpish. That plan, like Lex Luthor’s plan in BvS, was… not a good plan. This next one is a knottier beast. It is on its way, though. I pinky promise.

Indie Marketing – How to Create a Youtube Book Advert

YT ad

A Youtube advert is an effective way to reach out to readers. 

As any indie author will tell you, publishing the book is half the battle. The rest is marketing. You need to get the word out, and that involves blogging, building a Twitter presence, getting involved in online and offline writing communities and generally being less of a hermit than might come naturally.

One thing you can do to spread the word about your novel is to create a Youtube advert. Now, if you’re doing really well, you can pay someone a lot of money to do this. You can have a beautifully-drawn animation or something involving actors. Most indie authors don’t have the resources to do this, though. But the good news is, whatever your situation, there’s nothing stopping you from having a go at this yourself.

What You Need

I recently put together an advert for my first novel and uploaded it to Youtube. The feedback has been pretty good, so I decided to try and write a rough guide on how to do this, so that all of you could do it too. It doesn’t require much technical aptitude, just a little bit of time and planning.

You can see the result of my efforts here.

Now, all I did was put together a series of still images in a sequence, before adding music. You can do less, and you can do more. But this process is pretty much what I followed to achieve the results above.

You’ll need the following:

A Youtube channel – this is easy to set up. Youtube itself is the best place to find tutorials.

An image of your book – you should probably have this somewhere on your hard drive, right?

Quotes from the book – to give viewers a taste of the content.

Review quotes – some glowing lines from people who enjoyed your writing.

Art software – photoshop and other high-end programs are great, but ‘Paint’ will do.

Movie software – something to assemble your images into a movie. Movie Maker will do.

Step One – once your Youtube channel has been set up, you might want to install an add-on to facilitate the uploading and management of content. I use TubeBuddy. It’s simple and awesome.

Step Two – plan out your advert. Now, you don’t really want it to be too long. Just over a minute is probably fine. I wanted to open with a few lines from the start of the book, then have a few quotes from reviews, before ending with the front cover, Twitter account and things like that. It’s at this point that you should decide whether or not you want music. If you do, then you’ll want music that fits the length of the advert. Whether you record something yourself, or hunt online for some royalty-free music, this is the right time to do it. Then you can build your advert to fit the music’s length. But bear in mind that the visual element is of primary importance. Don’t maul your visuals in order to fit a piece of music. Find a piece of music that gives you the space do what you want to do visually. Synergy is the key here.

Step Three – create a series of still images. These can include text or pictures, but need to be the same size. Also, you need to remember that these will run on in a sequence, so make sure that the text is roughly in the same place on each one, unless you specifically want some words to appear in other parts of the window. You can use something as basic as Paint to create these stills, and Movie Maker is an intuitive and straightforward way to assemble them into a sequence.


Stills for the advert, before and after some light treatment with the ‘glow’ effect. 

Step Four – jazz up the stills. I used Picasa to do this. It’s free, and powerful enough to do what I wanted it to do. I just added a little ‘glow’ to each still, so the text wasn’t quite as flat-looking.

Step Five – add the music. Movie Maker lets you see the soundwave running under what is essentially a slideshow, so you can easily see if the music runs out before the visuals do, or if the music runs on too long.


The sequence of stills in the advert. The green line underneath is the sound wave of the music.

Step Six – adjust the duration of each still. Stills with more text should stick around longer. Stills with less text shouldn’t stick around too long. Make the slideshow of stills dynamic by mixing up the duration from slide to slide. Watch it all back a few times and make sure it feels right. And if you can, try to make it fit with the beats in the music, to add extra impact.

Step Seven – play with the transitions between stills. Let some stills fade out, and others fade in. Even a free program like Movie Maker lets you do some clever stuff without much effort.

Step Eight – upload to Youtube. First, you’ll need to save the project in a movie format. Some programs will let you save it in a format specifically suited to Youtube. Watch it once it’s compiled and make sure you’re happy with it. Then, open up your Youtube channel and upload your file! It may take a few minutes, so chill out for a bit.

Step Nine – watch it again, on Youtube. If you’re happy, start sharing!

Depending on how much time you’ve spent with computers in the past, you may find this terribly elementary or utterly baffling. Don’t worry, the internet is your friend. Youtube is full of lovely videos showing you how to do stuff. And you should feel free to seek me out on Facebook or Twitter, etc, and ask me any other questions. But seriously, if I can do it, so can you. And it’ll just be one more way for you to let people know about your awesome book!

Good luck, stay amazing (I know you will),