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  • The End?

    Endings are funny things to write.

    I’ve started getting feedback on a big work in progress and one of the interesting questions raised has been about the ending. It closes off the plot arcs that I’d built the story around, but it also leaves a lot of questions open. One beta reader’s initial feedback was full of these questions – what happens next? what about character x? is this setup for a sequel?

    Leaving such questions open is one of two ways to deal with ending a story.

    On the one hand, you can deliver closure, providing neat endings for story arcs. This is satisfying for readers, in part because it’s so different from the uncomfortably open-ended nature of reality.

    On the other hand, there’s ending with questions open. This leaves readers thinking about the novel, considering what they think happens next, potentially yearning for more. It’s more real, but lacks the catharsis of a closed arc.

    Of course, most stories don’t just do one or the other. They’ll close some arcs and leave others open. The question isn’t which to do but which to do more of.

    The answer isn’t going to be easy. It depends upon your taste, your audience, the nature of the story, the message you’re trying to convey, and a hundred other considerations of craft, inspiration, and business. But it’s not an answer you can avoid providing.

    Every story finishes, but not every one has a neat “The End”. For the one I’m working on, I want a high degree of audience satisfaction, while still leaving some questions open. That probably means I need to provide more closure than I’m doing right now. For you, the balance might be very different.

    And for now, I’ll just stop there.

  • It’s OK to Ask

    One of the toughest things for me as a freelancer is convincing myself that it’s OK to ask for stuff. For advice from other professionals. For support from friends. For more work from past clients. For feedback from current ones.

    The thing is, asking does no harm, and it can lead to good things. It took me months to build up the courage to ask clients for testimonials, which I wanted to put on my freelance website. I felt like I was intruding, felt afraid of how people would respond. But these were people who valued my skills enough to pay for them, so of course when I asked they were willing to spare a couple of sentences recommending me.

    When you work for yourself, whether it’s full time freelancing or doing a creative side gig, you’re the one who has the power, the motivation, and the opportunity to push your work further. People aren’t always going to think of you or to know what you want. So it’s OK to ask. More than just OK. It’s what you need.

  • Back to Running LRP

    Life has a habit of repeating on itself, only a little different. And so, several years since I last did it, I’ve signed up to help run a LRP (live roleplay).

    This is going to be an interesting challenge for me in terms of balancing parts of my life. I’ll be writing plot for the event, which means I’ll be using similar mental muscles to the day job, but in different ways. I’ll be collaborating with other people in an act of creativity, which is great because I like people and my work can be quite isolating.

    But the biggest concern is how I respond to the emotional pressure of it all. I don’t always respond well to stress (who does?) and my brain has a tendency to register what could be excitement as stress instead. This is particularly true when other people are involved or I care about the outcome, which is obviously going to happen here.

    So how do I manage all that while ensuring that I do my part of the project and have fun along the way? I’ve got a few ideas:

    • Proper planning to tackle the tasks I’m responsible for.
    • Tackling them early to reduce background stress.
    • Looking at the excited and positive responses people will have to the project.
    • Stopping regularly to take deep breaths.

    I’m glad I’ve been given the chance to be part of something awesome. I’m looking forward to it. And with a bit of care, I can fit this into my life without turning it into a major source of stress. But that care is going to be important.

    And expect more details here as the project goes along…

  • When Fantasy Isn’t Fantasy

    Sometimes making a story look like something it isn’t can frustrate readers. Other times, it can be immensely satisfying.


    (Mild spoilers for The Shattered Sea ahead – don’t want this article turning into something you didn’t expect.)

    Joe Abercrombie‘s Shattered Sea trilogy is mostly a straightforward, if rather dark, YA fantasy series. In a world ripped apart by a long-ago war, Viking-style raiders plough the seas, looting, trading, and making war on each other. The story has its twists and turns, all in keeping with the style of story it lays out from the start – one of deception and betrayal in the cause of greater goods.

    There’s also another twist hidden in the world building, one that slowly becomes apparent as you read the story.

    This isn’t a fantasy world. It’s our world in the future. The elven ruins are the remains of modern cities, magical artefacts modern technology. Hints dropped along the way let the reader work this out without the characters ever finding the truth, which is irrelevant to their lives. They care about what those artefacts can do, not what it really means for magic to exist.

    This isn’t an entirely new idea. John Christopher did something similar in his 1970s Sword of the Spirits trilogy, and he’s not alone. But the reason this works isn’t precedentt. It’s the way it affects the reader.

    Finding out that you’re not reading the story you thought you were can be frustrating. The writer pulls the rug out from beneath your feet and then stands there smugly grinning, with a look on their face like “aha! I tricked you!” They’re proving how clever they are.

    Abercrombie’s books have the opposite effect. You as the reader get to feel clever, as you put the pieces together and work out the truth. That’s a great feeling. We accept the bait and switch because of the way that it’s presented.

    I’ve talked about this idea a bunch of times – that we feel good about books when they make us feel smart. From a little kid learning to recognise letters to an undergraduate student ostentatiously reading Ulysses, feeling smart makes you feel good, which makes you like the thing that made you feel smart.

    So yeah, I really liked The Shattered Sea series. Not just because of that smart feeling, of course. There are compelling characters and events presented in clear, enjoyable prose. But that fantasy that’s not fantasy, it certainly helps.

  • What if Games Were Real?

    Back when I was a kid, I loved The Last Starfighter. It was an incredible wish fulfillment film, in which a teenager’s arcade game skills made him the hero of a real inter-planetary war. It fostered the idea that games could be empowering not just within themselves but in the real world, that the geeky things we did for fun could be relevant. And at the time, there was nothing else like it.

    The Growth of Gaming

    When The Last Starfighter came out, the question of “what if our games were real?” was a pretty niche one.

    These days, things are different. There are games consoles in most homes, roleplay or wargaming clubs in most high schools. Glancing at a stranger’s phone on the bus (don’t pretend you never do it!) there’s a good chance I’ll see them playing some brightly coloured Skinner box of a mobile game.

    Now that gaming is mainstream, there’s space for multiple takes on the games as reality tale. Whether’s its a portal fantasy where teens are transported into a game world, a sci-fi story where consoles are training us for future wars, or just an exaggerated take on the skills gamers develop, these narratives are becoming increasingly prevalent.

    Armada by Ernest Cline

    Ernest Cline’s novel Armada is a very deliberate successor to The Last Starfighter. The protagonist, Zack, is an American teen living with his widowed mother. He’s also one of the world’s top players in an online spaceship combat game called Armada. When Zack sees a spaceship from the game flying over his home town, he starts to worry about his mental health. But that worry is replaced by new ones when the game turns out to be a recruiting ground for pilots in a war to save the Earth.

    I discovered this book through a review by my friend Jane, so I went into it with high hopes. And the further I got, the more disappointed I felt. This didn’t just feel like a return to the themes of The Last Starfighter – it was a cheesy rehashing of that film. And that wasn’t the limit of its faults.

    The geek culture references were repetitive and over-explained, with all the subtlety of an episode of The Big Bang Theory. The protagonist had, to steal a term from the Mythcreants, too much candy – his personal conflicts were quickly resolved and his wishes cam true in the most blatant ways. Why, I wondered, did a professional bookseller of apparently sound judgement like this book? It was just wish fulfilment fantasy for teenage geek boys!

    And as you’ve probably realised, the answer is in the question. Because the moment I thought about audience, I realised that Armada wasn’t meant for me. For a geeky teenage boy, it would be a world of excitement and wonder. Not deep, but not harmful either, and very accessible.

    This was a new generation’s The Last Starfighter, and who was I to begrudge them that?

    Die by Gillen Et Al

    If The Last Starfighter style fantasies are dead to me, does that mean that I, having reached middle age, can’t enjoy the “what if games were real?” fantasy anymore?

    Do you think I’d be writing this if the answer was yes?

    To the rescue comes the comic Die by Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans, and Clayton Cowles. Die tells the story of a group of tabletop roleplayers who were once magically transported into the world of their game. Years later, they return to that world. In doing so, they again become magically empowered, but are forced to face the horrors that almost destroyed them.

    Die is a much more substantial take on this topic. Instead of simply replicating familiar tropes, it dissects them, revealing the darkness behind the fantasies, the price that comes with getting what you think you want. As Alasdair Stuart deftly explains in his review, it’s a story with familiar yet compelling characters, a strong plot, and incredibly striking imagery. Just two issues in, it’s shaping up to be a fascinating comic that makes you look at its subject matter in new ways. In short, it’s everything you’d expect from Kieron Gillen.

    This is a grown up take on “what if games were real?” Problems aren’t easily fixed and they leave troubling scars. Wishes never come true in the way you want them to. But maybe there’s still empowerment and inspiration to be found.

    Different Stories for Different Audiences

    Reading these two stories in parallel, my first reaction was to see Die as the better of the two. It’s deeper, it’s darker, it’s far more inventive.

    But audience is important when judging a book, and for its audience, Armada is going to be great. To many teenage gamers, it will feel empowering and inspiring, like The Last Starfighter did when I was young. They don’t need the deconstructions yet. To most of them, the darkness of Die would be alienating. Let them come to it later, once they’ve had a chance to enjoy the pure fantasy. The deserve to enjoy the brightness for a while.

    This is what’s brilliant about now. There’s room for a Last Starfighter tribute and for its dark, gothic cousin. The question “what if games were real?” has all sorts of answers, and we have a chance to see them all.

    And once I got to that space, I started enjoying Armada again. I didn’t need it to be something weighty – I had Die for that. I could enjoy it on its own terms. I could get back to fantasising about the games becoming real.

  • The Poorly Writer

    It’s funny how having a job you love changes your perspective.

    I’m currently lying in bed, my head throbbing and my nose running thanks to a cold. Back in the days of my office jobs, I wouldn’t have minded this so much. Sure, it’s not comfortable, but a couple of days off work, watching TV and drinking lemsip, could be quite relaxing. I felt no qualms about taking the time to look after myself.

    Now, things are different. I’m passionate about what I do, so I want to make sure I do it well. On top of that, I have no sick pay – if I’m not working then I’m not earning money. Together, those two things make it harder for me to rest. Instead of giving myself that time to recover, I’m trying to plan interviews, answer emails, and of course write blog posts, because this stuff won’t sort itself out.

    I almost miss those days when being sick was simpler. But then I remember all the other frustrations and suddenly losing my relaxing sick days doesn’t seem so bad. After all, I’ve still got the lemsip.

  • The Other Side – a flash fantasy story

    It felt like ordinary stone, cold and hard beneath my hand. Just the wall of a Victorian town house, worn by the rain and darkened by pollution. The sort of wall where a portal might open.

    Some people believed that the portals would be our salvation, a way out of this exhausted city in this broken down country. Some people are bloody idiots.

    “Where the hell’s Downey?” I asked.

    One of the techs looked up from his camera just long enough to shrug. His photos would tell us nothing, just like always. But we had to take them, just in case, like we did all the rest of the evidence.

    When we first partnered up, Downey and I had talked eagerly about solving the mystery of the portals, finding a pattern that explained how and why they appeared. Those conversations had died somewhere around the end of the first decade. Now we focused on logging witness testimony, trying to stitch together a picture of the world on the other side.

    There was one witness this time, a man who had been out walking his dog. He’d seen the portal open in the wall, seen a park full of flowers on the other side, bright street lamps, children at play. It had all looked clean and beautiful, like something out of a dream. He’d wanted to go closer but his dog had held him back.

    “Tell me about the person who went through,” I said.

    “She was tall, red hair, wearing a suit like yours.”

    “Great. Now my partner’s going to be chasing her doppelganger.”

    I glanced at my watch. Downey was usually the timely one, said she needed to work to keep her distracted. I’d never seen her be this late.

    “She had those two-colour shoes,” the man continued. “Like in old gangster films, you know?”

    I frowned. It couldn’t be. Downey would never be stupid enough to walk through a portal. Sure, the city was a mess these days, but she had a job here, had friends and family. No-one even knew if we could drink the water on the other side.

    Looking to disprove my fear, I pulled a photo from my wallet. Me and Downey meeting Springsteen. Best damn day of our lives.

    “It wasn’t her, was it?” I said, showing him the picture.

    “A bit older,” the guy said, peering at the ragged-edged photo. “But yeah, I think it was.”

    I frowned.

    “She wouldn’t have gone through,” I said. “Maybe she was taking notes?”

    “Sure, she took notes. Dropped them over by that bin. But then she walked through, swear to God, and the portal closed up behind her.”

    The guy flinched from the look I gave him, but he stood his ground. The dog growled quietly.

    This whole thing had to be a misunderstanding. I went to the overflowing bin, saw a notebook lying in the litter, and picked it up.

    Downey’s notebook.

    Downey’s notes.

    I flipped the cover open.

    “I know you’ll be the one to find this Jonesy.” The words were written in that scrawl almost no-one could read. “Please don’t judge me. I can’t take this city any more – the pollution, the corruption, the despair. Since Dan took the kids, you’re the only thing keeping me here, and that’s not enough. Not when I can see hope three feet from my face. Maybe now there won’t be anything keeping you either. Maybe I’ll see you on the other side. Your friend, always. Jill.”

    I steadied myself against the bin.

    “Are you alright, Detective Jones?” the tech with the camera asked.

    I took a deep breath and straightened myself up.

    “Make a note for the report,” I said. “Missing person is Detective Sergeant Jill Downey.”

    “Fuuuuuck,” the tech said. “I’d never have taken Downey for a chump.”

    “Get some closeups of stonework,” I said. “You never know what we might find out. This could be the case that finds the pattern, lets us predict where the portals will come.”

    I ran my fingers across the wall. Was I imagining it or could I feel a tingle there, some after-effect of the portal?

    “We work out where they’re coming, won’t more idiots go through?” the tech said, raising his camera.

    I looked around at the grey skies, the littered streets, and the pollution-darkened buildings.

    “Would that really be so bad?” I asked.

    * * *

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  • Remembrance

    In all of human history, there have been few events as monstrously destructive as the First World War.

    For four blood-soaked years, the most powerful nations in Europe tore at each other tooth and nail, dragging other countries and colonies into their terrible fight. From the forests of Russia to the lowlands of Belgium, from the deserts of Mesopotamia to the South Pacific Ocean, millions of men and women died. For the first time, war was fought on an industrial scale. The results were horrifying.

    This war wasn’t fought for a noble cause. Yes, there were aggressors and there were victims. But every nation involved was fighting for self-interest. Nationalism had its grip on Europe. Making your own country stronger was viewed as the highest good, even if other people died horribly in the process. Both sides accused each other of atrocities. Both did terrible things. Among the most terrible was the feeding of a generation of young men into the meat grinder.

    When we talk about the Second World War, there’s a sense of right and wrong. The Allies killed thousands of innocent civilians in their bombing raids, but the actions of the German and Japanese regimes were so much worse that the end result looks like a victory for good. A century on, the same can’t be said for the First World War. Like almost every war, it wasn’t about good versus evil. It was just national elite versus national elite, spilling the blood of their countrymen for their own power.

    Of course, there were moments of heroism in that war. Acts of courage, determination, and self-sacrifice that are rightly praised. But don’t let that praise spill over in your mind into seeing the war itself as a noble thing. Europe watered the fields of Flanders with the blood of its young men, and the world was the worse off for it.

    One hundred years ago yesterday, the guns fell silent at the end of the First World War. It’s vital that we remember. This is what the tribalism of nation versus nation gets us. This is what happens when we let ourselves see others as worse because of where they live, the language they speak, or who governs them. This is why we should always challenge those in authority, however uncomfortable that becomes.

    Remember the courage. Remember the determination. But most of all, remember the futility of a generation lost.

  • Some Upcoming History Films

    I love historical films. I blame my dad for that. He raised me on a diet of westerns and World War Two movies, in between the sci-fi. It’s part of why I do what I do today, including writing scripts for Commando comics and articles for War History Online.

    But there’s a bit of a problem with historical film-making. A lot of the time, it covers stories people already know well. Like superhero remakes, those stories are safer box office options, as the studios know that people will be interested. It’s great that we had a movie about Dunkirk, but that’s an incident that’s already gone down in legend. What about the important stories we forget?

    That’s why I’m excited about a couple of upcoming films.

    First, there’s Hurricane, the story of Polish pilots flying for the RAF during the Second World War. It’s a reminder that no nation ever stands alone, and therefore important to busting some jingoistic myths. Even without that, I’d want to see the story of men who crossed a continent to keep fighting against the Nazis, who faced prejudice and confusion in a strange land, and who were part of one of history’s greatest conflicts.

    The second trailer makes it look a lot better than the first one did, which is a relief. Plus it’s got Iwan Rheon, who was fantastic in Misfits and Game of Thrones.

    Then there’s Peterloo, an incredibly timely piece of film-making from Mike Leigh. It’s about the Peterloo Massacre of  1819, in which peaceful protestors were attacked and killed in Manchester.

    The Peterloo Massacre has incredible symbolic importance as a reminder of the power of protest and how the powerful treat dissent. It highlights the connections between social, political, and economic factors in reinforcing existing power structures. And sadly most people aren’t aware of it even in the UK. At a time of growing inequality, protest, and political turmoil, it’s a story we could all do with learning again.

    Historical films have power. They keep the past alive in our imaginations and so help us understand the present. I can’t wait to see these less familiar stories on the big screen.