Out Now – One Cog Dreaming

A shipwrecked sailor hunting for a way home from a land of talking animals.

A rebel desperate to carve out her own path in a steam-powered city.

A casualty from the trenches of World War One looking for a reason to live.

A time traveller seeking knowledge in the past while trying to protect history from the future.

Meet all these people and more in fifty-two short stories, ranging from the ancient past to the far future and into words utterly unlike our own.

My new collection of short stories, One Cog Dreaming, is out today in all the regular e-book formats. Collecting all the stories I published on this blog last year, it’s a journey through fantasy, history, steampunk, and science fiction. So if you missed some of those stories, if you’d like them all together in one place, or if you’d just like to chuck me a couple of dollars to say thank you for the entertainment, then please go grab a copy today.

How I Write a Commando Comic

My latest issue of Commando is out today, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to write about how I create a script. Buckle in, this is going to be one of my longer posts…

Inspiration

Desert Vultures cover art by Neil Roberts

My inspiration for Commando comics can come from a bunch of different places. TV shows, larp events, conversations on Twitter, things I studied at university, these have all fed into issues. Most come from plugging together more than one source.

The immediate inspiration for Desert Vultures was the 80th anniversary of Operation Compass, the first big Allied push of the Western Desert Campaign. Anniversaries are handy things for Commando, as they’re a good way to hook people into an issue. Sometimes my editor at Commando will send me a list of anniversaries they’d like to cover, and I pitch to those. Sometimes I spot an opportunity and suggest it myself.

My biggest source of inspiration, as I recently discussed in a video interview, is history books. I read a lot of them, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes for other writing projects. Back when I was writing for War History Online, I read a lot about the Second World War, which meant that I already had ideas for how to look at the Western Desert campaign.

When looking for a Commando story, I’m often looking for a conflict between people on the same side, not just a fight against the enemy. In-group conflicts often lead to more interesting stories, as characters argue and compete with each other – think about all the twists and tensions in Game of Thrones. I also like to cover the international nature of the Allied war effort. Fortunately, bringing people from different backgrounds together often causes conflict, so that became the hook for Desert Vultures – French and British officers forced to work together despite their differences, one of them rigidly rule-bound, the other relaxed and improvisational. Could they achieve a shared goal?

Pitching

Once I’ve got my inspiration, I write a pitch. This sets out the story in two ways – first as a three-sentence synopsis, giving the setting, the main character, and the hook for their story. Then a page-by-page breakdown of what will happen.

When I’m writing the pitch, my thinking is shaped by two things – the characters and the plot. As Robert McKee points out in his excellent book Story, these two aren’t separate, but it can still be useful to talk about them that way.

The character is the core of a Commando story. Readers have to care about the people they’re spending time with. That means making someone who’s interesting to Commando readers, and who will drive the story forward. There are dozens of different ways to achieve this, and I always consider the balance of competence, proactivity, and likability, as recommended by the team at Writing Excuses. Most importantly, the protagonist has to want something, to keep them motivated.

The nature of Commando does a lot to define the comic’s protagonists. They have to be involved in military activity, usually during the world wars. They need to have a mission or objective, something that propels the story forward, whether it’s saving lives, sinking a submarine, or perhaps escaping occupied territory. For Desert Vultures, it’s a specific military mission – finding and destroying a hidden Italian base.

The story is then driven by this mission. What does the protagonist have to do to achieve their objective? Who stands in the way? What setbacks do they face? I structure the broad strokes of the story around this, then flesh it out with cool details, often found in those books I mentioned. Give the plot a few twists, and I’ve soon got 63 bullet points, one for every page.

I send my pitch to my editor at Commando, then wait. After an editorial meeting, they come back to me with one of three responses:

  • Yes, write it!  My favourite response, for obvious reasons.
  • No, this isn’t suitable. This one doesn’t happen often, as I have a good idea of what Commando are after, but just occasionally an idea isn’t right for them, or has already been used.
  • Yes, but… The most common response. I’ve got a good idea, but it needs refinement. This might lead to a revised pitch, or just to me making some changes as I write the script.

Writing

Once the pitch has been approved and the outline adjusted, it’s time to write. My deadline is usually two or three months ahead, but I seldom wait that long, as I love writing comic scripts. As a fulltime freelance writer, I have the flexibility to make space in my schedule, but other projects sometimes have first dibs, especially if they’re on a deadline or offering a big payment. Within a few weeks of approval, I set aside some days when my focus will be on writing my script.

Having a detailed outline makes the writing relatively quick. I don’t have to think about the broad strokes of what’s on each page, just the details. How many pictures will there be? How will one lead to another, telling a clear and coherent story? What will everyone say?

For the flow of the images, a lot of my inspiration and guidance comes from comics guru Scott McCloud. His writing on comics is phenomenal and taught me about such critical topics as transitions. A comic isn’t just a bunch of pictures, it’s what’s implied by the way you move from one to the next, and thinking about that adds a lot of complexity.

I’ve recently changed my approached to scripting. At the time I wrote Desert Vultures, I wrote everything for one page, then moved on to the next, and so on, writing the descriptions and dialogue together. I’ve recently changed to writing all the descriptions first, then going back to the start and adding the dialogue. I find that works better for getting character voices right.

I’m no artist, but I do occasionally draw at the writing stage, to help me plan out the action. The things I draw are normally seen only by me and my waste paper bin, because I’m a terrible artist. But drawing can help me work out the flow of the panels, breaking a page down into a series of distinct images, each one with its own unique elements that together tell a story. Many stick men have died brutal deaths on scrap paper battlefields to improve my Commando scripts.

Writing dialogue is a funny thing. It’s never about being realistic, but it is about sounding realistic. In real life, people um and ah, they let sentences trail off and leave things half-said. They don’t deliver snappy dialogue while they’re busy fighting for their lives. But a story requires dialogue that flows while creating the illusion of people really talking. In the case of a comic like Commando, it means dreaming up things people could say while bullets whip past their heads or they punch each other in the face. It’s a fun challenge to create that sort of dialogue without it coming out stilted.

Creating distinct voices is important too. I’m the first to admit that I don’t always manage this, but if a character’s verbal ticks and preoccupations stand out, that makes them seem more real.

But the most important thing about writing isn’t any of these technical details. It’s sitting your arse down in the chair and having the discipline to keep going, even when you’re bored or distracted. Discipline, more than anything else, is how I get a script done.

Editing

Before I send a script off, I read it over a couple more times and make edits. This is usually just proofreading, as I’ve done my story edits at the pitching stage. Sometimes it’s adding more detail to the action of an image or sharpening up a piece of dialogue. Mostly, it’s finding my typos and grammatical errors.

If I have time, I leave a day or two between writing and editing. That way I can look at the script with fresh eyes. But the brutal truth is, often I need to be moving on to my next project. Then the script just gets left until after lunch, then given that polish and sent on its way.

Out of My Hands

From that point on, my work is done. The script vanishes into the ether for months on end, only to re-emerge some time later as a fully formed comic. To me, it’s magic, but this is where the hard work happens. I could never create the amazing images that Commando’s artists come up with. You’d have to ask one of them if you want to know how that part works.

Sometimes I’ll see the cover or snippets of art as Commando HQ build buzz for a release, but I don’t see the interiors until the issue comes out. This is also the point at which I get to read editorial changes to the story – how the team at Commando have sharpened up my dialogue, expanded on descriptive panels, or adjusted the plot beats to make the story even more exciting. The thrill of seeing a new Commando is as real for me the writer as for anyone reading it.

With a script finished, it’s time to go back to the beginning. Seek inspiration. Invent a character. Craft a pitch. Sit my arse down in my chair and start work on the next issue.

The circle of writing starts again.

Out Now – Silver and Gold

I have a new book out today, a novella about friendship, magic, and resistance, titled Silver and Gold.

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

I’m proud of this book. It contains a lot of my favourite things: the complexities of rebellion; art as a source of power; religion as a social institution; unlikely friendships; and a hint of redemption. I enjoyed writing it, and I think you’ll enjoying reading it.

You can buy Silver and Gold at this link.

Out Today – Flight to Freedom

How do you escape from an Italian Opera singer in a seaplane, when you’ve got no weapons, no aircraft of your own, and your only help is from a six-foot-six Soviet who makes up for his lack of English language with his fists?! Issue 5369 of Commando has the answer, in my latest comic story, Flight to Freedom. It’s a tale of daring adventure set during the Second World War, and is out now through UK newsagents and Comixology.

Out Today – V for Vitoria

Spain, 1813: Former opponents Tom Hopper and Samuel Jones are part of Wellington’s army, driving back the forces of Napoleonic France. When their captain is captured, it falls upon Hopper and Jones to rescue him. But it will take a daring escape and a lesson in humility before they can join their comrades to face down the French at the Battle of Vitoria.

Out today from Commando Comics, V for Vitoria is the sequel to my previous Napoleonic story, The Forlorn Hope. See Hopper and Jones continue their journey through a wartorn country, aided by Maria, a washerwoman who is more than she seems.*

V for Vitoria is available through Comixology and wherever paper copies of Commando can be found.

*No, she’s not Toad of Toad Hall,  though that would also be cool.

Silver and Gold to be Published by Candlemark & Gleam

I’m delighted to announce that my fantasy novella Silver and Gold is going to be published as an ebook by Candlemark & Gleam later this year. It’s a tale of magic, friendship, and rebellion set in a world inspired by the Aztec and Mayan civilisations.

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

You can read the full announcement for the book on the publisher’s website, and I’ll share more details here when I have them.

Durand’s Dunkirk – A Commando Comic

The second of two comics I wrote for the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation, Durand’s Dunkirk follows the crew of a French SOMUA S35 tank. With the French armies shattered and the Allies in retreat, Regis Durand and his indomitable crew gain a new mission – to hold up the advancing Germans and allow the British to evacuate through Dunkirk.

A Story of Sacrifice

Both Durand’s Dunkirk and its companion comic, Dodger’s Dunkirk, are stories with a message, but those messages are very different. During the Dunkirk withdrawal, the British showed that there could be courage and even triumph in a well-executed retreat, that not every battle should be fought to the bitter end. But the French army showed how sometimes you have to fight on, one person’s sacrifice becoming another’s salvation. The French fought hard to buy time for the Dunkirk evacuation, even knowing that it would leave their country undefended. That’s the battle that Durand fights.

Just as the evacuation didn’t only rescue British troops, the stand that made it possible wasn’t only fought by the French. The film Darkest Hour touchingly demonstrates this, in a section dealing with the fate of British troops in Calais who fought on as a distraction for the others rather than being given a chance to escape. But it was the French army that provided the greatest barrier to the advancing Germans in those last days.

An International War

Another point of this comic was to explore the international nature of the World Wars, a point I bang on about so much it’s probably getting boring, but that bears repeating.

Originally, Durand and Dodger’s comics were pitched as a single script, one that showed how the very different fates of the withdrawing British and the French rearguard were connected. I wanted to celebrate the British success at Dunkirk while remembering how many other countries were involved. It was thanks to my editor at Commando that the one story became two, and I’m really glad I got the chance to expand on that original idea.

In England, we refer to the First and Second World Wars but often neglect that “world” part. Our stories tend to be focused on British experiences, which is understandable but also a bit repetitive, limiting how many facets we see of an incredibly complicated story. There have been some interesting exceptions in recent years, such as the film Hurricane and the recent inclusion of a Sikh soldier in a scene from 1917. I think it’s good that we’re doing that more, as it makes the stories more interesting and more representative of reality. So of course I wanted to depict the French as much as the British in exploring Dunkirk, and also to show other nations, such as the Belgian soldier who plays a key part in both these stories.

One of these days, I might stop banging the drum on this subject. Today is not that day.

The Myth of National Character

This story is also about one of the big myths of late 19th and early 20th-century military thinking – the power of superior national character.

Across Europe, every country found a way to convince itself that it was inherently superior to the rest and that this was reflected in its armed forces. A superior fighting spirit would ensure their victory over a far less impressive enemy. This is a myth that Durand, the tank commander of this story, buys into.

The inherent flaw in this thinking is obvious – if everybody has a superior national character then nobody is actually superior. The myth falls apart based on logic, never mind evidence. It can be a useful myth in motivating troops, but it’s also a dangerous one if it encourages soldiers, commanders, and politicians to ignore reality. Germany didn’t win the Battle of France because of superior national character, but because it had better tactics and the element of surprise. Russia didn’t defeat the Germans in the east because of a greater fighting spirit, but because of superior numbers and a willingness to spend lives in a war of attrition.

Durand goes into the story believing in a superior French fighting character. The question the story asks is how that attitude can stand up to the prospect of defeat.

Out Now

Both of my Dunkirk comics are out now. Both work as standalone stories, but together they create something more complex, showing the same events from different angles. You can buy them electronically through Comixology, or get paper copies wherever Commando is stocked.

Out Now – Durand’s Dunkirk and Dodger’s Dunkirk

I have not one but two Commando comics out this week, with matching covers by the excellent Keith Burns.

Durand’s Dunkirk and Dodger’s Dunkirk tell the stories of two soldiers, one French and the other British, taking part in the fighting that led up the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940. The two stories stand alone but are connected, with events and characters crossing over between the two. It’s one of the coolest projects I’ve had at Commando, and I’m really pleased with the results.

You can get both Dunkirk issues on Comixology or wherever copies of Commando are sold.

Dodger’s Dunkirk – A Commando Comic

I have a pair of linked Commando comics coming out this week, to mark the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation. Today, I’m going to talk about the first of them – Dodger’s Dunkirk.

One Man’s War

Dodger’s Dunkirk follows a British infantryman caught up in the Allied withdrawal to Dunkirk.

The Battle of France, fought from May to June 1940, was one of the great disasters of World War Two. The Allies badly misjudged both German capabilities and the terrain they were fighting over. In one of the most dramatic campaigns of the war, the Germans smashed through the Allies’ weakest positions and ripped their forces in half. Thanks to the incredible blitzkrieg advances of German generals such as Guderian and Rommel, the bulk of the Allied forces were surrounded, forced to retreat into an ever-shrinking pocket against the coast, unable to effectively manoeuvre or bring their forces to bear.

This is the chaos that Dodger is caught up in – a shattered army trying to pull itself together, groups fighting desperate, heroic rear-guard actions while the generals try save what they can. But Dodger doesn’t want to withdraw. To him, retreat is failure, and the only thing a soldier should do is fight on. With a gun in his hand and a stiff attitude fixed across his face, he’s set for conflict with his own side as well as the enemy.

Different Forms of Courage

I created Dodger to represent a particular attitude towards courage and fighting spirit.

Holding strong in the face of danger takes a certain stubborn willpower, something that’s a necessity in war. Without the courage to hold your ground despite terrible odds and others’ fears, many battles would have been lost.

But that stubbornness can go too far.  Great military disasters have been born from an unwillingness to compromise, to back off, to accept the limits of what can be achieved and so to salvage something of value from a loss.

Dodger has that stubbornness gone too far. He has his reasons for this, which I won’t spoil here, but that doesn’t mean that he’s right. No Retreat is about a man learning that there’s something dangerous, something toxic in a virtue taken too far. Can he bend with the wind, or will the raging storm of Dunkirk break him?

Why Dunkirk Matters

The Dunkirk evacuation is rightly remembered as a significant moment in history, especially in Britain. The evacuation of 338,226 soldiers in eight days was an incredible logistical achievement, one that saved the bulk of the British army from destruction, along with 100,000 French troops and other Allied personnel. Without it, the Allied armed forces would have been significantly diminished and the remainder of the war might have been very different.

For me, there’s something even more significant about Dunkirk, and that’s the fact that we celebrate a retreat. Well-executed withdrawals are hugely important and hugely challenging to achieve, yet they’re almost never marked in this way. We just want to talk about the victories. With Dunkirk, we acknowledge the importance and the challenge of knowing when and how to give up. It makes the right retreat into a heroic achievement, breaking our narrow view of what qualifies as success.

In challenging and reshaping our view of history, it’s one of the key moments of the 20th century.

The Historical Details

While Dodger’s Dunkirk exists to explore the big picture, historical fiction is also about the little details. So what is there to look out for in this comic?

One of my favourite bits is the Canal Line. As in the First World War, the Belgians opened the slices of their canal system to waterlog the ground, bog down the enemy, and create a stronger defensive line. It’s a small thing amid the carnage, but it’s also a good example of looking beyond the obvious in tackling a problem.

As with many of my Commando stories, the international element is important. The Dunkirk retreat wasn’t just a British effort. Belgian, Dutch, and French forces also played a significant part, and without them the withdrawing British troops would probably have been overrun. An encounter with a Belgian sergeant helps shape Dodger’s approach to the fighting, and there’s also a French tank crew who we’ll come back to in a minute.

This being a Commando comic, you can be sure that the artist will have filled in a lot of extra details, like the uniforms of the soldiers and the equipment they use – enough to please fans of the period. I’ll leave it to you to explore the visual treats that I can’t claim credit for.

More to Come

Dodger’s Dunkirk is released on the 28th of May, alongside a companion comic, Durand’s Dunkirk, which follows a French tank crew through the Dunkirk retreat. I’ll provide some commentary on that one next week, and on Friday a short story tying into them both.

Until then, if you’re looking for more historical fiction then you can check out my mini collection of short stories From a Foreign Shore, and pick up copy of No Retreat on Thursday.