Putting Real People Into Unreal Stories

I’ve been making my friends fight each other.

It’s OK though, it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Someone writing outdoors.

I quite often pick the names of characters based on people I know. The names have to come from somewhere, and scanning my social media feeds is a good way to get them quickly. Usually, I mix and match first names and surnames, rather than use one person’s full name.

Recently, I’ve taken a different approach. I put up a message on Facebook asking my friends if any of them would like characters named after them in my Commando comics. I got a lot of positive responses and started using those people in my story pitches. Some became protagonists, others villains, and many got bit parts in the stories I was developing.

This was all fine and theoretical while I was writing pitches, but now Commando have commissioned some of those stories, so I’m writing the scripts. When characters have the names of people I know, it’s hard not to picture them as those people, even if they’re very different in character. In my head, I’m making people I know fight, chase, and argue with each other.

It’s a little weird for me. I imagine it’ll be even more so for my friends when these stories are published.

Sometimes, this can work out really nicely. Years ago, I wrote a flash story featuring a character named Mantaj, after one of my friends. She never saw characters with her name in stories, and so was delighted with it. That made my day.

A lot of people get excited at having characters named after them, and as a writer that gives me an extra bit of fun. Still, it’s never going to stop being weird when I make them fight each other.

Deciding What History To Write

I’ve been writing a lot of historical fiction lately, both on this blog and for Commando Comics. I’ve also been writing articles for places like History.com. That raises an interesting question – how to decide what to write.

For me, there are several factors.

One is what I know about. With a few exceptions, I focus on topics I have plenty of sources for or already know a lot about. This narrows the field and helps avoid misrepresenting history I don’t understand.

Then there’s what’s interesting – both what I’m excited about and what I think other people will be intrigued by. That means finding novelty in the subject matter. For fiction, it also means finding an engaging character.

The audience I’m writing for comes into it. Commando readers mostly want stories about 20th-century warfare, especially World War Two, and they want them action-packed. While I try to make my Commando stories more diverse and varied than they’ve traditionally been, that has to come within the limits of what their readers will go for.

The format matters. What makes an interesting article is very different from what makes a visually exciting comic story, and both are very different from prose fiction, where you get inside a character’s head.

Then there’s the desire for variety. Editors want stories that haven’t been told, and I want to help show diverse stories and perspectives. That means I’ll sometimes pick a piece of history I don’t know quite so well because I think it should be seen.

Picking what history to write about is never as simple as just picking up a book and going with that. It’s a big challenge even before I set my fingers to the keyboard.

And that makes it part of the fun.

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Live Fast and Leave a Beautiful Story

There’s something of futility in a writer’s work.

We’re always trying to capture a moment, real or imagined, to pin it permanently into place.

But nothing lasts. Your favourite blogging site might close down. Your book might go out of print. Google could refuse access to the ideas you’ve set down in a document because they claim it breaches their terms. And in the end, the terms of all our lives are impermanent. The words we set down will turn to dust, like all of us.

That’s not an argument against trying. Taking those words to a new site, saving your notes where Google can’t steal them, laying down a novel that gives joy long after you’re gone, these are all ways of asserting our own existence, of forcing meaning on the universe, of making ourselves just a little bigger and the world just a little better. You can’t escape death, but everything else is up for grabs.

Stories told around a campfire are as valid as those etched in marble a hundred feet high. It doesn’t have to be permanent to matter, because nothing is forever.

Live fast and leave a beautiful story.

End of Year Review

It’s the end of the year, a time to review my achievements over this circling of the sun. And while it hasn’t always been easy, it’s been a good year.

And yes, I kept doing my weird dressing up hobbies too – photo by Oliver Facey.

I’ve had five short stories published, and others accepted for publication. I’ve even written a few new ones, mostly for projects I was specifically invited to, which was an honour.

I’ve written and published a flash story every week, which will now become a neat little e-book collection.

I’ve had two comics published, and written several more scripts that will appear in Commando next year.

Russell Phillips and I finished and published our novel, The Bear’s Claws. It’s had the best sales of anything I’ve self-published so far.

I’ve had a fantasy novella accepted for publication next year. More news on that when I have it.

I’ve written the majority of a fantasy novel, which I’m very pleased with so far. Again, more news on that sometime soon.

I’ve kept the freelance work ticking over. Though the latter half of the year wasn’t as profitable as the start, I’m still earning more than enough to get by, while keeping enough time for my own writing. I’ve written a huge mix of things, from history articles to fantasy novels to business content. It’s occasionally been frustrating or boring but is still far more satisfying than any other job I’ve had.

And through it all, I’ve fended off the depression that I struggled with a few years ago. Exercise, mindfulness, and doing a job I enjoy have all contributed to keeping me sane and happy, even in a world gone mad.

Not a bad year, all in all.

Blogger’s Block

Sometimes you just need to start writing. It’s a thing I’m realising more and more, as I try to find ways past writer’s block, or past just not wanting to do my work. You put down words, and they might not be the best words, but at least they get the ideas flowing out of your bain.

Picture by Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons

Like today, I couldn’t decide what to blog about. Tor.com had a piece on characters who we love because of how damaged they are, so maybe I could reflect on that. Or there was the larp I ran recently, I could talk about its story or my involvement in it. There’s the incident last night where I spent half an hour chasing down a mouse in my study, because this is what happens when you have a cat. Honestly, the possibilities are endless.

And that’s the problem. When the possibilities are endless, how do you work out which one is good? Which one is relevant to my readers, and might grab attention in search engines, and will be satisfying to write? Because when your blog is part personal venting and part marketing tool, all of those things are relevant.

In the end, I’ve taken a copout path by going meta and writing about how tricky it is to write. Instead of deciding what to discuss, I’m discussing how difficult that decision is. Problem solved.

I mean, not really solved. I’ll be back to it next week. This is a regular blog writing problem.

Everyone gets stuck from time to time, staring at the screen and not knowing what to write. And sometimes the answer is just whatever comes into your head.

FantasyCon 2019

I’ve had a week to catch up on sleep, so it must be time to talk about FantasyCon.

The first thing to say is that I had a great time. I always do at cons. The people are lovely, the panels provide entertainment, and it’s great to browse the books of the indie presses that don’t make it into mainstream stores.

The highlights for me this year were about fun rather than learning new things. Breaking The Glass Slipper live and the Dungeons and Disorderly panel were both very entertaining, playing around with familiar characters and tropes. BTGS had panellists explain how their chosen sf+f character would deal with a difficult scenario, with the audience voting on their favourites. D&D was a ridiculous, improvised 45-minute roleplay game featuring the underdork, conspiring cows, and seven kobolds disguised as a dragon.

My panel seemed to go fine, though it’s hard to judge when you’re on the inside. I certainly got more insight into how franchise writing works, and now have some thoughts on what I can do to hunt out more work. But for me this was mostly a relaxing con, with a lot of bar chat.

Inevitably, I bought a couple of books. Luna Press are doing great work and I’ve already enjoyed dipping into their latest essay collection, as well as Gareth Powell’s new writing guide.

Going to Glasgow, or more accurately the edge of Glasgow, seemed to reduce the number of attendees, which was a shame. FantasyCon is a great event even when, like this year, it has a few organisational problems, and it should go as far north as Scotland once in a while. Multiple conventions close together also seem to have cannibalised membership, and hopefully con runners will consider that next year.

It’s a shame more people didn’t make it, but then that’s always going to be true. If you live in Britain and you enjoy fantasy then this is one of the most rewarding events of the year, especially for writers. I’m really glad I went.

Trying to Write Amid the Chaos

Writing is a lot about focus, and that’s hard to find right now. In both Europe and America, politics is going batshit crazy. The extent of our damage to the environment becomes clearer every day, as does our failure to tackle it. The economy has become this crazed web of investment instruments utterly detached from reality, which somehow holds people’s fates in its hands. And that’s just the distant, impersonal stuff.

This shit is not good for your mental health. It weighs down on you like the ocean on a submarine’s hull, a constant pressure that can threaten to split you at the seams.

When that’s happening, it’s OK to feel like crap. It’s a natural response. To quote Christin Slater in Pump Up the Volume, feeling fucked up doesn’t mean that you’re fucked up. Feeling fucked up is a perfectly normal response to a fucked-up situation.

It’s important not to beat yourself up if you find this stuff distracting or you struggle to work through it, if your thoughts are constantly off-kilter or scattered to the wind. Mental health is a societal issue, not just a personal one.

But it’s also a good idea not to let it get to you. Find ways to set the unsettling thoughts aside. Go for a walk. Try some mindfulness. Treat yourself to a massive bar of chocolate and gobble that tasty treat down in front of your favourite sitcom. Whatever takes some pressure off your brain. Then take the few precious minutes of happiness you’ve bought yourself and use them to get something done. Write a page of your novel. Cook a cool new meal. Make that phone call you’ve been putting off. Anything that will make you feel more productive, more in control.

That’s how I approach work at times like this. Just banging my head against the words won’t help. I have to take time, take breaks, and then take care to use the energy I’ve saved. Because if I let this completely stop me writing, if I let it trample me down, then I might never get up again.

It’s OK to feel fucked up. But that doesn’t have to mean letting the fucked up win.

Writing About Sex

I’m about to tackle one of the greatest challenges an Englishman can face – writing about sex.

I should be used to this by now as I’ve ghostwritten over a dozen sex scenes in four separate novels. But each time I freeze up at the thought. Right now, there are people out there in the world happily reading things that I squirmed at writing.

Part of this is my personal hangups. I live in a culture that’s terrible at talking about sex and I’ve let that shape me. Even with a partner, I find it difficult to talk about what we’re doing and what we both want. Such mundane activities as finding a condom can feel crushingly awkward.

But the culture that’s shaped me has also shaped the way we write about sex. Directness feels too functional. Metaphors create the accidental comedy of absurdity. Slang brings discomfort because we use these words as obscenities.

Obviously, people have found ways to tackle this. They depend upon the genre and audience, and often tread a delicate line of atmosphere and allusion. But even using those techniques, I clench up inside.

Some people write about sex with skill and panache. But until we’re better at talking about it as a society, we’ll be setting artificial limits on how we write. For an activity that’s so important to many people’s emotional lives, that’s a real shame.

Storytelling About Storytelling

I was recently given the chance to pitch a novel to a mainstream publisher. This forced me to do something I don’t do often – write a pitch.

Novel pitches are weird. Articles often describe them as condensing a story down into a single page. Except that that’s not really true, as I realised when a far more experienced friend gave me feedback on my first draft. Really, pitches are stories in themselves. They don’t tell your story. They let you tell a story about why people should be excited about your story. You do this by setting the emotional tone, showing some of the thrilling high points, and creating a sense of drama.

Pitches are stories about stories, and as such they’re a useful part of the publishing process. They refine and test a writer’s skills on a different scale.

But they are really weird.

Into the Woods by John Yorke

I read a lot of books and articles on writing. After all, you don’t improve at anything without learning from others. And one of the best ones I’ve found recently is Into the Woods by John Yorke.

Plotting Stories

The book cover of Into the Woods

Into the woods is all about storytelling. Specifically, it’s about the overarching shape of stories. Yorke takes a range of different approaches to this, including three-act structure, five-act structure, and the hero’s journey, and demonstrates how they follow a similar pattern. From this, he draws out a set of principles for how to tell stories.

One of the most interesting things about Yorke’s work is the variety of examples. There’s a lot of mainstream British TV here, as that’s his writing background. But he also takes examples from classic literature, Hollywood movies, and even indie films that claim to break the mould. He shows how they all, in their way, follow the same pattern.

Connecting Plot and Character

Like the best books on plotting, Into the Woods connects character and plot. It shows how the tensions and the thrills of a good story arise from the protagonist’s needs and desires.

More than this, Yorke brings together a lot of the hot topics in modern writing advice and connects them together. The gap between wants and needs. The centrality of conflict. Making the internal external. Showing versus telling. He artfully demonstrates how they aren’t just a useful set of tools – they’re an interconnected web of ideas from which a story is built.

My Favourite Writing Book Since Story

I’ve taken in a lot of good writing advice recently, from sources like the Writing Excuses podcast, the Mythcreants blog, and Lessons from the Screenplay’s videos. Some of that is as good as this book, and even reflects similar lessons. But as a book, a single substantial text on the subject, this is the best thing I’ve read since Robert McKee’s Story. So if like me you’re looking for lessons on writing, I heartily recommend it.