Hooks Abound!

The Power of a Good Tagline

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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.)

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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.
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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.

C.

*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!

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Big Screen Lessons

Or: Is Everything They Tell You About Storytelling Wrong?

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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.

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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.

C.

* 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

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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.

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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.

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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),

Chris

Name that Dragon!

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Dragons are to fantasy what spaceships are to science fiction. A picture of one on the cover is an indicator of what sort of book you’re holding in your hands, and they’re the go-to monster for fantasy writers who want to tap into the rich vein of historical and cultural literature from which modern fantasy derives.

Dragon spawn

At their root, dragons are the antagonist in chaoskampf, the struggle to assert (or re-assert after cataclysm) order over the wild and mysterious power of the universe. When the hero slays the dragon, it’s a celebration of the ability of Man (yes, it’s usually a man) to prevail over hardship and lay claim to territory. The dragon not only evokes the wanton power of nature to make mockery of human achievements (in a similar way to tsunamis and hurricanes) but also the untamed aspect of nature. The idea that beneath the emerald veneer of the fields, deep in the black depths of the forests, lurk things that can never be controlled. Ultimately, dragons speak to the human (or at least, patriarchal) fear of not being the one holding the reins. They are an agent of ‘Panic fear’.

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How they stopped dragons from nibbling on people in the Nibelung

Over the years writers have done a lot of cool things with dragons. They’ve explored other aspects of their nature, presented us with kindly dragons, friendly dragons, cuddly dragons… even heroic dragons. In tabletop wargames we see the champions of good riding in on them to decimate hordes of goblins. In epic fantasy, they take on more complex roles, such as the dragons of the Malazan Book of the Fallen; being able to shapeshift into dragon form makes Anomander Rake even more awe-inspiring, more in tune with the fundamental nature of the world in which he lives.

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He turns into a dragon too? Jesus!

And, of course, there’s Smaug, lording it over all of these. What sort of dragon is Smaug? Well, he hordes gold and says things like, “I kill where I wish and none dare resist.” He’s not a dumb beast. He’s more like a twisted, arrogant tyrant. But he is still tied into the ancient mysteries of the world he inhabits, and in the unleashing of his fury remains the stuff of chaoskampf.

What’s in a name?

So we love our dragons. We paste them on our book covers and loose them on our hero’s people. But what do we name them?

Every fantasy writer agonises over the names of characters. We don’t settle on a name unless it feels absolutely right, unless it evokes in us (and hopefully, therefore, the readers) all the necessary associations and feelings. We don’t call our villain Aleysha Brightstone; we don’t call our hero Widowcutter Nightspawn. We don’t call our wizard Thunk Cudgeon, or our barbarian brawler Zenbengowlian the Wise. We work hard to come up with fitting names for humans and it doesn’t get much easier when it comes to naming dragons. So here are some thoughts I had to facilitate the naming process.

First of all, you need to know your dragon’s history. Is it an ancient predatory menace that has tyrannised the land for centuries, is it a member of an ancient and intelligent race, or is it just a monster bred for war by a general who just wanted a really amazing steed? Answer this question and you’re well on the way to coming up with a really suitable name for your dragon.

The Ancient Predatory Menace

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Argh! It’s an ancient predatory menace!

Here’s a dragon who comes out of his cave once every hundred years or so to eat people, horses, elephants… and occasionally buildings. Given that he’s ancient, he would have been named in antiquity, perhaps in a language that is no longer spoken; or in an older form of the region’s current tongue.

Example: so, let’s have the people of the region call this creature The Derakyn because, in this particular fantasy world, this is the word for dragon in the ancient tongue.

The Ancient and Intelligent Race

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Good job, owns cave, GSOH

This dragon has lived for thousands of years. He is wise and vicious, as likely to quote poetry as he is to devour your men-at-arms. What sort of name would he have?

Well, given that his race isn’t human, and given that his race is old, it would be a name that would sound different. He wouldn’t be called Doomwing or Firebreed, because this is the language of people, not the language of dragons.

Example: so how about something like Galuel. It’s odd, and it doesn’t sound like the sort of name a human would give to a dragon. It sounds like the name a dragon would give to a dragon.

The Impressive Steed

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Nah, you can keep Shadowfax

Now, the king wanted something truly magnificent to travel upon, and a unicorn just wouldn’t do. So, he hired a mage and the owner of a local stallion stud farm to create a fabulous winged monstrosity. And they did. This dragon is a huge, gleaming animal, armour-plated and crystal-crested. Perfect to hoist the king into battle.

Example: so what name would such a beast likely have? Well, it was crafted by men, so it would have the sort of name a pet might have. Now we can brainstorm names like Skyspear, Hellwing, Fireswoop. Basically, ordinary human words that members of the society in question would use to describe something vast and winged and awesome. Let’s go with Skyspear.

These are just a few ideas of how to tackle the tricky process of naming a dragon, and ensuring that the monicker makes sense within the world you’ve built. I’m sure you have a lot of ideas too! Anyway, I hope it helps (or was, at least, amusing)!

C.

Into the Fray – Building a Battle Sequence

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No matter how high-minded we might be when setting out on the road to writing a fantasy novel, no matter how noble our aims and how just our purpose, oftentimes we end up mired in violence.

That’s because combat is to fantasy what the future is to science fiction; it’s rare to find a plot that doesn’t at some point require somebody to be skewered on a sword in order for the story to progress. And let’s be honest, most of us enjoy the bloodshed. It’s entertaining, cathartic and when done right it exposes hidden aspects of the characters. That’s because in times of stress, people’s strengths, weaknesses, hopes, fears and motivation are laid bare.

Theworld

(One at a time or altogether, you’re still gonna die. Because I’m in the sequel. Are you?)

Usually we begin with duels. A scrap in a village, a skirmish outside of town, a dangerous rescue mission in enemy territory… small-scale action scenes that are fairly easy to arrange. The participants are few, the combat brief. But eventually, we come to the big finale. Two armies square off on a field; maybe some dragons turn up or someone unleashes a giant demon. Then we find ourselves describing the movement of hundreds of warriors, dozens of graphic deaths, various tactical maneuvers with all their errors and ingenuity. And in the midst of this, our characters dice with death and glory.

Handling a large-scale battle sequence seems daunting. But with a little planning, such sequences become the most straightforward pieces of writing you’ll ever do.

Setting out the Stall

Action sequences are all about telling the reader what happens where, to whom, and in what order. They’re that simple. Flesh out the bones with some impressive rhetoric, a few lines of doom-laden poetic language, perhaps some well-placed zingers*. Make sure your heroes and villains stay within the delineations of their ability. Keep them vulnerable enough that their success is never assured, but strong enough that the reader doesn’t tire of their whining.

But most of all, keep mindful of where they are, where they’re going, and where they end up. This is much easier than it seems at first.

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(In the end it all comes down to this. Four heroes. Two… uh, dogs with goggles.)

First of all, you need to know what’s going to happen in the battle. What are your characters going to do? Your list might end up looking like this:

  • Alvic Greensprint kills the evil Thox Skullsmasher in a duel

  • Sonia of the Vale saves the Knights of Berno using magic, proving her worth

  • The Blades of Kulkmar get their revenge against the Bodyguard of Skrom

  • Lug the Dragonling finally manages to breathe fire, defeating Venomwing the Mirthless

  • Evil Baron Zuff flees with his men after Thox falls, and the heroes cheer, etc.

Now you need to get your head around the armies. Try making a list of all the different forces on the field. ‘Thousands of fighting men’ isn’t good enough. You need to know the names of the detachments, what they’re armed with, who leads them. Do this for each side.

Then sketch out the battlefield. It might be a patch of grass, or it might be a ruined city. Or it might encompass both. If you’ve got fast flying units like dragons, be mindful that this might boost the size of the battlefield. Also remember that flying lizards that breathe fire can easily outflank regiments of heavily armoured knights. That’s right – you need to work out the abilities of your units too. Heavy infantry will not – repeat NOT – outwit dragonriders.

Now place the units on the battlefield. Arrange them where you think the generals would arrange them. Place your heroes and other characters of note. Refer to your list of events. Are the characters in the right place? How are they going to reach one another in order to achieve what you set out in your list?

Sketch out a second view of the field. Keep it simple. Show where the units have moved to. Make notes about what happened during this part of the battle. Do this as many times as necessary, until all of things on your list have come to pass.

Now all you need to do is describe this to the reader. With the sketches infront of you, this will be as easy as pie. Much easier than that scene you had to write about Bullian Stormfold discovering that Laris Palaron was really his mother, or the scene where Jeroth had a wet dream about a kobold. That one was an editing nightmare, right?

Sources of Inspiration

Throw a rock at the bookstore’s fantasy section and you’ll hit a novel with a battle scene in it. Steven Erikson’s Deadhouse Gates is, for much of its 1000-page length, one masterfully-arranged running battle. Or, if time is short, watch Battle of the Five Armies (although I’m not super convinced this battle is that carefully laid out; it’s more a series of vignettes. That approach works better on screen than it does on paper). You should probably read the Iliad. In fact, do it. Read the Iliad.

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(Jeez. The glossary is going to be massive…)

In what I thought was my miss-spent youth (but actually turned out to have been rather diligently spent – who knew?) I read a lot of fantasy and wargaming magazines. One, UK-based Games Workshop’s monthly publication White Dwarf, contained regular battle reports. Along with the photographs of hordes of beautifully painted models were turn-by-turn descriptions of a) what the players did, and how the dice rolls went, and b) how this manifested in the narrative. Alongside the words were wonderful diagrams of the battlefield with little banners representing the units and heroes. Here’s how it looked. It’s a good model for your battle scene sketches.

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If you want to see how the internet has changed the reporting of wargame battles, Youtube is your friend. It’s full of ‘batreps’. For fantasy, Age of Sigmar or Warhammer Fantasy Battle are good things to look for if you’re working out a large-scale war. For Science Fiction, Warhammer 40k battle reports involve dozens of squads, tanks and flying machines. For skirmishes, where small groups move across the battlefield, bobbing and weaving through cover, you can’t beat Infinity (the Corvus Belli game, not the Disney thing) or Malifaux if Steampunk’s your thing. If this all seems a bit ‘boys and their toys’, then WarGamerGirl’s channel provides a less testosterone-driven view.

Of course, just reading lots of battle sequences in fantasy or science fiction may well do the trick. Absorb enough and you’ll develop good instincts for what works, and what doesn’t. But as with everything, a little planning and clarity in the early stages will make the execution that much faster, easier and more effective.

C.

* One of my favourite action scene zingers is from the 90s sci-fi movie Dark Angel. The evil alien says, “I come in peace,” to which the hero replies, “and you go in pieces.” Boom. Shakespeare would have been proud of that.

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.