Writing, illness and outlining

“It creeps up on you,” says my writer friend.

33_chef_banditos

Like a live lobster being cooked… gosh can I smell seafood?

“Yes!” I swig from my third coffee. It’s the only way I can stay alert. “Like a live lobster being cooked… gosh can I smell seafood?”

We’re talking about the experience of getting ill, slowly, almost imperceptibly, and then one day sitting down to write and nothing happens… or nothing worthwhile. (I’m sure this experience is not unique to writers; I could have entitled this post “Brain work… etc”)

Over the second half of 2014, my sinuses gradually closed up. it was like having a continuous, worsening hangover leavened by periods of being a sleepy-drunk. The lost of mental acuity, putting it mildly, absolutely sandbagged my creative output after Storyteller Tools 

Like that lobster, I had no idea what was happening to me. Without thinking, I slowly upped my coffee until I was drinking two double shot lattes in the day just to function–that plus the one in the morning to wake up.

Then the cold damp weather hit, the caffeine stopped working and I just couldn’t finish the short story I was working on.

Cue rising sense of panic — writing like any vocation is an identity as well as a source of income. If I can’t write, I’m not me anymore.

And then you realise you’re an idiot and that we’re all vulnerable to bad health. (And dear God(s) I’m glad I’m not Terry Pratchett right now.)

But here’s the interesting thing.

The weather cleared for an afternoon, the curtain of fug lifted just long enough for me to re-outline the story. Then, despite the sinusy miasma, I wrote the draft to The End.

Now, I’ve compared notes with other writer friends. It seems it’s quite common for bad health and mild depression to knock out the more abstract structural faculties while leaving us able to lose ourselves on the details of the narrative. So, if we know what we’re writing we can write the prose and — perhaps — that prose is all the more vivid for the vivid day-dreamy state of our brains.  .

It explains why, back when, time off work with flu rarely resulted in wordcount , and why writing — though it makes a great leisure activity — is hard to fit into the late evening once you’re past that adolescent waking literary dream phase.

It also explains why I was nevertheless able to write my first novel in lunchtimes in the old Blind Beggar and on the train; I was working from outline.

For me, one of the powers of outlining is that it captures that first flush of sweeping creativity; we can paint with a broad brush without getting lost in the details.

I now realise that outlining also captures the output from moment when you can create at a structural level.

So, if you write in snatched and stolen time, or battle ill health, then my advice is outline — or at least plan — when you can so that you can lose yourself in the draft in those other darker times.


 

Try Storyteller Tools, my book on outlining and planning! In it I show you how to use Conflict Diagrams and other tools to create an effective outline.

 

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The Strife Ray

(An old LJ post recycled for a friend.)

Fantasy as a genre seems to exist to transfer the Fantasy Vision from the head of the author into those of their readers. Look! Look! Here’s my Gate of the Death. Cool isn’t it? Look at all those dancing skelingtons!

Alas, fantasy authors have a harder time than artists and filmmakers in the same genre. Where they have visuals, music and mood, the writer has only what I call the STRIFE RAY. Pray allow me to demonstrate.

Try reading this at the normal pace:

The forest fell away and the Vale of the Little Happy People opened up before Torahg. A great river oozed along the valley bottom, feeding the many ditches which in turn watered the fields of miscweed. A herd of white unicorns gambolled amongst the cultivated flowers, swirling around the bases of the lazily spinning windmills. Further off, a natural hill or mound rose from the flood plain. Little cottages dotted its sides. At the crest rose a squat temple box-like temple. Before its open wooden doors, diminutive natives danced in a circle, no doubt celebrating a rustic wedding.

Oh dear god(s)! This is how a lot of published fantasy is written. How far did you get? I have difficulty reading it end-to-end, and I wrote it.

 

An artist could have just painted the scene. A film director could have pumped up the Hans Zimmer score and swept the camera through the bucolic Vale. No worries about maintaining tension: watching costs us no  effort, and – if the script and directing are good – we know that Something Is About To Happen.

Writers don’t have these luxuries. Reading takes effort. The reader quickly tires of a passage which doesn’t reward them with some visceral kick. Then they skip it, and so much for the Burning Fantasy Vision™.

The only thing guaranteed to stop the readers from skipping the descriptive bits is CONFLICT. (Why conflict is so compelling is a question for better minds than mine.) No matter how wonderful your Burning Fantasy Vision™, nobody will really see it unless you tip red-hot conflict over the top.

Warning: This is a bit like tipping burning petrol over your granny’s flowerbeds to improve their night visibility – it can leave your cosy utopia charred and corpse-strewn.

So, the landscape’s been daubed with conflict. Now, like Ming the Merciless, the Fantasy writer must roll out the Strife Ray in order to illuminate it.

Similar to active radar, the Strife Ray illuminates wherever you aim it. However, if it doesn’t reflect hot conflict, it dims, or – worse! – switches off entirely, leaving the reader with a vague, fleeting impression of that part of your vision.

So, let’s point the Strife Ray at the Vale of the Little Happy People… oh, bugger. We can’t, we haven’t got a conflict.

Grant me a second while I open can of ready made conflict… there… and splash some over the valley and its cute flora and fauna. Right. So now I boot up the Strife Ray and here we go…

Daylight shone between the great oaks. Torahg raised his hand to halt the Hero Riders. Heart in mouth, he inched to the edge of the forest and peered down through the screen of miscweed.

There below was the Vale of the Little Happy People. Already war galleys tore up the great river, prows gouging the placid surface, archers scattering arrows over the fields. Unicorns fled the river banks. Some of the white-skinned creatures tripped in the irrigation ditches and plunged into the high miscweed, never to rise again.

Torahg registered a bitter taste in his mouth. “We’re too late. Mount up lads and watch out for ditches!” He led his charger into the neat rows of miscweed, swung into the saddle and set off at a trot for the valley bottom. From behind came the reassuring thunder of the hooves trampling the crops.

Now the Warriors of Doom disgorged from their galleys. Windmills smoked, blazed, then turned into columns of fire.

Toragh glanced at the cottages which dotted the low hill above the flood plain. The Little People went about their normal business. Outside the boxlike temple which crowned natural mound, diminutive dancers even circled a bride and groom as if life would go on as it always did.

He gritted his teeth. If their way of life was so special, why wouldn’t they defend it? But, he’d made himself into their overlord. If he ever wanted to bed Pixy, he needed to prove he was more than yet another robber baron.

A band of warriors came into view, toasting live Little Person on the embers of a windmill.

Toragh grinned. Sometimes duty was pleasure. He drew his sword. To his rear, fifty snicks answered the gesture. He filled his lungs with the damp river valley air and bellowed, “Charge!”

Not perfect by any means. (I bill for perfection.) But I think the Strife Ray brings alive the Vale of the Little People: the forest, the miscweed, the river, the unicorns, the ditches, the windmills, then finally the Little People and their Quaint Rustic Customs.

Of course, the Strife Ray destroys most of the things it touches, but – hey! – that serves the little peaceniks right. :)

 

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Medieval HEMA Tournaments and Competitive Freeplay and the Nah Mate Fallacy

A nice parlour–by which I mean pub–game is Spot the Fallacy. For example, if  say “A real HEMA person wouldn’t have done that!” then I’m guilty of the No True Scotsman Fallacy.

I’m starting to think we need a new fallacy; the Nah Mate (I can see why an amateur might think that) Fallacy. (Try saying it in a Cockney accent to get the flavor). Basically, the fallacy is that the most depressing opinion expressed the most confidently not only proves the speaker’s insider status, but following from that, must be correct.

You see it all the time in normal life. “Nah mate, I can see why you might think you can improve the interface, but if you understood SQL…” Sometimes people who transcend the Nah Mate Fallacy make themselves very rich indeed.

Nobody – yet – has got rich off Historical European Martial Arts. However we too are burdened with the Nah Mate Fallacy, no more so than in our ambivalent relationship to competitive freeplay and tournaments (NB I’m just going to use the latter word to cover all competitive swordplay where a points system is in operation).

In its extreme form it goes like this:

Nah mate, they might look flashy, but you don’t win a tournament using proper technique, so tournaments are almost inherently worthless. Besides, you can never replicate the feel of mortal combat. If you really must judge people, it ought to be using a board giving marks out of ten like Olympic Synchronised Swimming.

Let’s leave aside that any competitive physical activity brings a much-needed blast of immediacy to our alienated from cause-and-effect modern lives, and set aside the way that any “smoke-filled room type of judging” undercuts this. Let’s also not get hung up on other fighting arts laughing at us if it seems our styles will only flourish in a walled garden either.

Instead, let’s look at the HEMA arguments underlying this, which, I hasten to add, when set out be somebody who’s actually thought about are not subject to the Nah Mate Fallacy.

These arguments are roughly as follows:

  • The Biology of Combat: In real combat, the human body does odd things including distort our sense of time, shuffle blood and sensation around the body in ways helpful to two ape-men bashing each other but not so good for weapon users, and put us into a fight-fly state not conducive to subtle technique.
  • Sharp Blades Bind Different:   Sharp blades stick to each other in interesting ways. Some techniques like Duplieren become much easier, others harder.
  • Judging Effects is impossible: Even a forensics expert would have trouble saying what any particular sword blow would do to any one person at any one moment.
  • Risky Tactics: Since you’re not actually going to get killed if you screw up, it’s theoretically possible to adopt tactics that produce – say – a 80% chance of a double defeat and a 20% chance of a victory, and then win on attrition.
  • Suicidal Tactics: People do stuff that they would never contemplate with sharps, or if they were  a naive ploughboy with no knowledge of swords, would never survive far enough to try.

The first is actually easy to dispose of. Guy Windsor quotes a post-medieval fencing treatise (his translation, my emphasis).

Gio: They say this because one rarely finds men who aren’t moved by wrath or fear or something else when it comes to acting in earnest, which causes their intellect to become clouded and for this reason they can’t employ them. But I say to you that if they don’t allow themselves to be defeated by these circumstances , and they keep their heads, although they may be difficult, they’ll do them safely.

Lep. But what’s the reason for teaching them if they’re so difficult to employ in earnest?

Gio: They’re taught so that courageous men can avail themselves of them in the appropriate occasions. Because one often sees many who were somewhat timid and fearful, yet nonetheless were able to perform them excellently when done in play; but then they were unable to avail themselves of them when the occasion arose in which to do them in earnest.

Lep: I believe it, because when one loses spirit, one consequently loses art as well. From: On the Art of Fencing (1572) pp. 32 recto and verso, translated by Jherek Swanger.
Guy Windsor. The Medieval Longsword, The School of European Swordsmanship.

The text reminds me why I prefer Medieval Martial Arts — oh god the Rambling Renaissance! — but also disposes of the Biology of Combat issue.

You and I thrown into combat might be discommoded by fear and adrenaline. The likes of William Marshal or Don Pero Nino, less so. We might flail or do only basic technique. However, a veteran swordsman though they might play it safe can certainly carry off the complex stuff with sharps. Thus, the absence of fear merely makes we modern fencers fence like heroes with the full range of techniques.

(And let’s not get into this We’re Not Worthy riff. True, trained soldiers are special people, but they’re not  an actual separate breed. Though we might lack the vocation to be a professional fighter, if – God forbid – we had to do it, then like the generations before us we would train for it. None of us can know whether we could make the grade. However, we don’t know we couldn’t either. Just be glad you don’t have to find out.)

The second issue — Sharp Blades Bind Different — yep, can’t do anything about that! However not all Medieval HEMA techniques rely on edge-edge contact. Typically we “Germans” parry by whacking the other guy’s flat. So though it’s a pity, I don’t think it’s a disaster.

The third through fifth issues — Judging Effects, Risky Tactics and Suicidal Tactics? On the face of it, these are damning. However they need not be.

Let’s rewind a bit. Where does HEMA come from?

It’s all reconstructed!

We start with a manuscript, or pile of manuscripts, some swords and some mates and try to make it all work without injuring each other overmuch. Though the original texts are sometimes big on maxims and principles, we are usually forced to work from a set of implicit assumptions, let’s be grown up and call them axioms.

In our case these are:

  1. A hit on you may be immediately disabling.
  2. A hit on your opponent may may not be immediately effective.
  3. You are unlikely to be able to start a new attack immediately after taking a hit.

The first two together are sometimes called Double Pessimism. Roughly: You could clip my wrist with your tip and I could spurt to death. Meanwhile my sword could plow into your head, turn on your skull and merely take off your ear.

The third axiom takes into account: (1) the psychological and physical effects of any kind of strike – it’s one thing to complete a strike with your ear hanging by a flap of skin, entirely different to then lift your sword and cooly execute a new attack, and certainly really foolish to rely on being able to do that, and (2) the way the person who just hit you can continue to press, saw, hack, kick or barge you after the initial hit.

Not only are these axioms our basis for reconstructing our martial art, they’re also implicit in how we judge any freeplay we see on Youtube, and how we judge — and often dismiss — tournament rules and play; “OMG! Did you see those double defeats? WTF did they think they were doing? Epee?”

Now, suppose instead of sitting on the sidelines going “Nah mate…” we were to take the axioms we used to reconstruct our martial arts and then use them to build tournament rules? Wouldn’t that be at least worth a go, since we have the axioms lying around?

What would that be like?

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Kurtzhau and Rosemary Sutcliff’s Beowulf

This summer we went to the British Museum for the Viking exhibition. After drooling over the real longship, the weapons, the rare shields, wallowing in pagan relics, and wowing over executed Viking skeletons (with authentic defensive wounds) we had coffee and split down gender lines to see different highlights. Morgenstern and K went off to look at Egyptians. Kurtzhau — 10 — and I marched upstairs to see the new(ish) Dark Age gallery.

I lost track of my son for a few minutes then found him staring at the Sutton Hoo helmet:

Kurtzhau and Sutton Hoo

Last time he was this transfixed, it was four years ago, a Summer evening on the Isle of Mull. Mesmerised by the dark waves lapping the rocky shore,  he waded into the cold water still wearing his shoes. The West Coast being somewhat damp, the shoes took a week to dry. Sometime during those seven days, I read him Rosemary Sutcliff’s Beowulf which helped to kick off his love of the Dark AgesHe was 6, so this was legend without spoilers. Here’s the old LJ entry:

* * *

The wind howls outside the holiday cottage, and Beowulf nails Grendel’s arm to Heriot’s roof beam.

As the hero makes his way home across the foam-flecked whale-road, all to the soundtrack of Jethro Tull’s “Broadsword” album (on to drown out Morgenstern’s War Against Sleep in the next room, rather than to provide mood), Kurtzhau bbecomesrestive:

“I’m bored Daddy.”

“Oh. OK. I’ll stop for now,” I say, closing Rosemary Sutcliff‘s “Beowulf”.

Like the original poem, it’s a work of genius. She’s done what I would do for the Battle Abbey Sword; pared away the Christian accretions and given us back the authentic original. In this slim volume, a pagan Beowulf bestrides a pre-Christian north, invoking the All Father and Wyrd more fittingly than he would ever have invoked a deity of Mediterranean origins.

Shorn of a more civilized viewpoint character – her usual gambit – Sutcliff still manages to capture the unremitting otherness of the milieu, and carve out a tale of mighty-thewed warriors that would sit well between the best of Robert E Howard and Harold Lamb – a hell of an achievement, given she was a wheelchair-bound Telegraph reading English lady, trained to paint miniatures, rather than a Texan brawler, or a real-life Indiana Jones.

(It’s also a book I recognize. I must have read it – but when?)

However, the language is rich and difficult, and Kurtzhau is only six and –

“No, Daddy. I don’t mean stop. I just mean I Want To Play while you read.”

“OK.” I’d rather he didn’t because it seems disrespectful, and “I am not a TV”, but he seems to follow whatever I read and parrot it back with unerring accuracy if I spot check.

Before he can leave the bed, I start the next chapter and the narrative skims 50 raiding seasons and suddenly Beowulf is an old king and a dragon stalks the land.

The rain hammers the window, loud enough to be heard over Jethro Tull.

Kurtzhau stops with one foot on the floor. “What happens next, Daddy? Does he kill the dragon? Does he survive?”

I smile. “You only get to hear this story for the first time, once. So, I’m not telling.”

He squirms, but he knows the rule. Me, I’m envious. Imagine experiencing Welch’s “Sun of York” and not knowing how Tewkesbury will turn out? Or, his “Knight Crusader” and not knowing whether anybody will survive Arsuf, given how badly the Horns of Hattin went?

And the finale of Beowulf, in all its forms, packs a punch on the first reading, and Kurtzhau somehow can’t quite make it to the floor where his Playmobil knights and galloglasses are at war.

The white-bearded king dons his ringmail war-sark and his boar-crested helmet and prepares to go alone to what will be his final battle. As they arm him, he sings his death song. Kurtzhau huddles closer—

–and just then the track changes to “Broadsword“.

Bring me my broadsword and clear understanding.
Bring me my cross of gold as a talisman.

The story resonates with the song’s theme of fighting for hearth and home, and – damn me – now there’s a lump in my throat and I struggle to read on.

The two of us together live through the dragon fight, the flight of Beowulf’s thanes, all except Wiglaf who tips the balance in his lord’s favor. Now Beowulf lies dying, poisoned by dragon venom.

Kurtzhau and I both hold each other, sharing a blast of emotions from our ancestors’ cold Dark Ages.

Abruptly, Kurtzhau slips off the bed and rummages with his plastic figures.

“Oh well,” I think. “He’s done pretty well for a—”

He bounces back to join me and thrusts a Playmobil barbarian at me. “This guy can be Wiglaf from now on. Now read the end!”

Afterwards, he’s outraged that the story is so short, and we talk about how lucky we are to have the story at all, and about bards and praise singers, and the irony that the two episodes of Beowulf’s life to come down to us are the ones that emphatically did not happen.

“What happened to Wiglaf?”

I shrug. “Was there a theory he lead a Germanic tribe to Britain? Sorry – I can’t remember and we’ve no Internet access here. But if there were any poems about him, they’re lost.”

Kurtzhau considers. “Somebody ought to write a sequel.”

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Outline of Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Somebody suggested I do a basic story outline of a familiar tale, so here it is:

Goldilocks goes for a walk but is lost and hungry.

Goldilocks finds a house but it’s empty.

It’s somebody else’s house, but hunger makes her go inside.

She finds porridge, but it’s not hers.

She shouldn’t but hunger makes her sample the first bowl.

She tries the first bowl but it’s too hot.

She tries the second bowl, but it’s too salty.

She tries the third bowl with low expectations, but it’s perfect and she eats it all up.

She’s no longer hungry, but now she’s sleepy.

It’s not her house, but the owners haven’t returned so she goes upstairs.

She tries the first bed but it’s too hard.

She tries the second bed but it’s too soft.

She tries the third bed with low expectations, but it’s perfect and she falls asleep.

Now she’s no longer sleep deprived, but she wakes up to three angry bears….

Plenty of buts in that one! The odd thing about fairy tales is that they are almost outlines anyway…

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Loncon3

Had a blast at Loncon3, though was a very small fish in a very large literary pond.

A couple that geeks together...

A couple that geeks together…

Got to hang out with Joshua Palmatier after knowing him online for years, and spend quality time with Peadar Ó Guilín, another LJ veteran.

Made some new friends, including Darusha Wehm who is almost as forthright as I, and the couple behind Bundoran Press and a gamer from Belfast (whose card scrap of paper) I’ve lost.

I also got to see some of my literary heroes on stage, and watch a good friend get their Hugo.

Best of all — thanks to my folks looking after our kids for days on end – I got to go to the con with my wife.

A couple that geeks together…

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At Loncon 3!

We’re shortly off to Loncon 3. A lot of my heroes will be there, but hopefully I can avoid any embarrassing fanboy moments like at World Fantasy Con last year:

Charlie: Martin. Look behind you…. Hello Joe.

Me: What..? (leaps to feet) HOLY SHIT! Joe Haldeman!!!

Mostly I’m hoping to get the lie of the land, enjoy a rare chance to share geek space with my wife and muse, and meet a few friends from my livejournal days, including Joshua Palmatier who once wrote an amazing Fantasy novel I’d describe as Honor Harrington does Sim City.

We’ll also be attending a friend’s 50th birthday party while there — a bit scary how time flies.

Watch this space.

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Using Scapple to plan a dungeon (or a mystery)

I’m experimenting with ways to use diagrams as a creativity tool when planning a Mystery.

My tool of choice is Scapple (from the same people who brought us Scrivener). This is really simple but intuitively usable diagramming software. It’s very much a creativity aid, rather than a display tool which explains its… optimised functionality. The limited range is actually a good discipline.

The system I hit on uses a format like this:

Mystery Diagram

In the above Murder Mystery, yellow post-its indicate clues etc, clouds, conclusions. However, this isn’t nearly layered enough. Will the system work on a more complex Mystery?

Since my WIP has a dungeon in it, and since the Fate: Core System talks in passing about how good dungeons are all about the unfolding mystery, I thought I’d have a go creating a dungeon…

First step, do the usual creative brain dump. This isn’t an intellectual exercise. This is arm waving and visualising captured on screen.

Dungeon 1

 

I’m still using post-its to capture factoids, clues and entities. Arrows indicate how one leads to another physically and/or intellectually.

Second step, flesh it out with attention to what’s cool, and what’s a logical requirement.

Dungeon 2

The clouds indicate thoughts, conclusions and theories arising from the clues.

Third and final step, make all this matter to the story.

Dungeon 3

 

Colour coding indicates where thoughts etc point to things that matter to the players. For example, goblins are notorious for their traps. It follows that knowing goblin contractors built the tomb might make you aware of the possibility of a lethal trap, hence the green thought and thing.

* * *

The next task is to try this in earnest with my Work in Progress. Eventually, I’ll tidy up the terminology and add it to my Storyteller Tools

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Conflict Diagram for Die Hard

A reader said it would be useful if I did some diagrams of movies, so here’s a conflict diagram of the classic 1988 Die Hard. (You can read a full synopsis here.)

Die Hard Conflict Diagram

I’ve used green to show McClane’s team, red to show the forces ranged against them.

  • The Good Cop has a sub plotcan he use his gun in anger? I suspect the hostages also have their own sub plots.
  • The Building & Hostages have a mixed effect on JM’s Survival. The building provides both a survival-friendly environment and a  dangerous prison. However, the hostages are merely a liability.
  • Wife’s Safety is both a Bone of Contention and a force that works against JM’s Survival while at the same time motivating him to survive.
  • I’ve left out thematic forces since I’d have to rewatch the film to snag them with confidence. However i suspect McCane’s team all represent Rugged Individualism, while the others represent Corrupt Power or something similar.

Looking at the diagram, I can see that it’s quite a complex film, albeit an unsubtle one. Perhaps this explains its longevity?


Take a look at Storyteller Tools, my book on outlining and plotting! It shows you how to use Conflict Diagrams and other tools to work up your novel idea into a writable outline, and then to blitz through it in record time.

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The opening rarely survives contact with the completed draft but here it is

As the dirigible hurtled up the darkened pass, something glittering rose above the black lip of the mountains.

Stomach fluttering, Jascinda leaned forward against the gondola’s rail. The word dragon filled her mind.

Beside her, Captain Ulreo laughed. “Just moon rise, princess,” he said.

Jascinda flushed. Of course. She was just seeing the lights of the dwarvish cities blazing away on the nighttime surface of the moon.

The buzz of the ship’s engines reflected back from the valley sides setting her teeth on edge. How could the mercenary flier seem so calm when any moment the dragon would hear and know they were coming?

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