Jake and the Knight update

I’m now about half way through Jake and the Knight Who wasn’t there – so the detailed synopsis method seems to be working quite well at the moment. I feel I am pretty much sticking to the story as I envisioned it, with some deviations and deepenings of character and setting of course, but the basic plot is hanging together well. I think by having a detailed plan to refer to, even with a short story, it enables you to make sure you build the character and the setting in the right way, so that the reader believes the resolution of the story. So in my planning of this story, I have made sure to make a note of how Jake should react to certain things, or where he should reflect on something and what he thinks as well, as later on he’s going to act in a certain way that the reader will have to take on trust.

In the past I think I’ve perhaps not let my characters reflect too much – perhaps I have tried to show in actions and dialogue a bit too much and only build character in this way, but this time I’m taking a bit more time to build up the importance of the narrative voice, but still balancing that with action and dialogue to keep the story exciting and to build conflict.

Hopefully will have a first draft done before Christmas!

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Short Story Proceeding via Synopsis

My short story seems to be going fairly well at the moment. I’m working on it by going through iterations of more and more detailed outlines. Basically I started with a general outline of what the story was about, then went away to think about the characters and setting – giving things names and brief descriptions etc. I then wrote a more detailed outline of what would happen in what order during the story.

Having finished that process, which only took an hour or two I am now going back to fill in details about what POV is used in different sections, where there will be more detailed description of something, or a character’s reflections on something and a brief summary of what those are. I am nearly at the end of that process, which took about another hour and a half. I reckon another hour will finish this detailed outline or synopsis, and then I can actually write the story out properly by fleshing out the the outline, putting meat on the bones.

The great think thing is that I already have a good idea of the mood of the story now having thought through what happens in the story, so I am really just going to be deepening that when I write out the whole story.

So far, fingers crossed, this has been a fairly efficient way to write a short story. The main thing it has prevented is too many tangents and digressions that change the plan and course of the story, and reduce the tightness of theme and narrative you need for a short piece.

I’ll report back on how the rest of it goes!

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Fight, Fight, Fight – Writing Combat Scenes in Fantasy Literature

David Gemmel
Image via Wikipedia

How do you write a good combat scene? I set myself an exercise over the weekend of analysing what works for me as a reader in some of my favourite fantasy books.

Tolkien’s Avoidance

The weird thing that I found was that in some cases where I thought there would be quite a bit of material to look at – such as The Lord of the Rings for instance, there was little actual description of a full individual against individual combat. Even where Boromir dies, which is a big scene at the end of the Fellowship of the Ring move, the combat is described through a report by Legolas, Boromir dies bravely. Tolkien is more interested in the mass movement of armies and epic scope of battles rather than the nitty gritty of hand-to-hand combat.

Abercrombie’s Confusion

What I found was that in the best examples I came across, such as in Joe Abercrombie and David Gemmell, the way combat was described was very dependent on character and the character’s emotions. So for instance when King Jezal charges foolishly at a horde of Gurkish warriors the combat is very confusing as Jezal himself doesn’t really know what he is doing. He is hit from behind, he’s not sure what’s going on around him etc. Whereas in a scene involving Logen Ninefingers the combat is more precisely described as Logen is in more control of the situation – except when he gets berserk of course.

Gemmell’s Power

Gemmell though was the best example I found, especially when he deals with a straight-forward combat between a hero and his enemies. The action is fast and furious, none of the slow-motion nonsense you get sometimes when writers try to describe every detail of a fight, but lots of powerful, descriptive verbs, such as shattered, hammered, splintered, smashed etc. Every phrase and sentence describes a new attack or new movement. Everything happens rapidly and is conveyed with a sense of breathless energy.

In other scene’s Gemmell is not afraid to tell us what his character’s are thinking, and in some cases what multiple characters are thinking as well. So here again the character and their emotions plays a big part. A bigger, more important part than the precise description of the martial arts.

The energy and visceral power of Gemmell and Abercrombie is definitely something to aspire to I think.

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Cutting my writing teeth on the Chewy Sonnet Form

I have been having a go at writing a sonnet recently, and really I didn’t know how hard it was going to be. I have had to abandon my first attempt as I realised that I was going to find it difficult to find the right rhymes for each line.


But, undeterred I am having another go. The first prerequisite I have decided is to sort out the scansion issue. This is where each line of the sonnet has to be iambic pentameter, basically ten syllables, with alternating unstressed and stressed syllables. Stressed syllables usually fall at the beginning of a word, but sometimes, for instance the word “deceive”, it’s the second syllable that is stressed. Luckily most dictionaries provide a guide as to which syllable has the primary stress.

The stress of the single word!

But what about single words. In these cases they are stressed if the word is grammatically important – i.e. it’s a noun, verb, adjective, rather than a pronoun or article. This I think is where it gets a bit more subjective.


So, phew, once you get the hang of that you then need to sort out the rhyme scheme, which can vary a lot, but for your standard Shakespearean sonnets tends to be:




Now it’s quite challenging to get the rhymes, but doable I think.

Content and Structure

The big challenge is really what are you going to write about, and here I think the sonnet tradition gives the beginning poet a bit of help as there tends to be an accepted structure of what content goes where depending on which quatrain or group of four lines you are writing. So:

  • First quatrain: An exposition of the main theme and main metaphor.
  • Second quatrain: Theme and metaphor extended or complicated; often, some imaginative example is given.
  • Third quatrain: Peripeteia (a twist or conflict), often introduced by a “but” (very often leading off the ninth line).
  • Couplet: Summarizes and leaves the reader with a new, concluding image.

So, wish me luck! If I get this down I will hopefully be posting some examples here!

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Pick of the Week

Some of the most interesting blog and website posts that I came across this week:

Cory Doctorow is serializing a short story Martian Chronicles, that he is working on – quite interesting to do this with a WIP.

Scott Marlowe explains how to self-publish your own e-book – part 1 of a series of posts.

Sammy Hagar from Van Halen was abducted by aliens.

John Scalzi thinks some magazines take their retro payments policies a little too far

Hal Duncan discusses family bickering amongst the Science Fiction and Fantasy extended family

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Where do you get to learn magic?

Working on my current short story “Jake and the Knight Who Wasn’t There” I came across the issue of how one of my characters would learn about magic. The story is set in alternative version of the 14th century, so I can hardly have a Hogwarts or Unseen University equivalent. I suppose I could make my world much more alternative and include this, but really I want magic to be something that’s fairly secretive and under the radar.

How I Fudged It

In the case of my short-story I decided that the character would know how to perform certain magic because they had been visited by the ghost of a loved one.

From Books or Old Wives Tales?

But in other cases where would the knowledge come from? Well those who dabbled in trying to do magic were often clerics, monks, friars, priests. So this meant they had more access to books. They would probably search for books such as those by Albertus Magnus or those said to be written by Solomon. Alternatively there was what might describe as folk magic, or what would become seen as witchcraft, practised by uneducated men and women. This might have fed into newer books on magic perhaps, although they tend to look to antiquity as their source.

A Medieval Magical Underground?

But how were new methods tried out? Were medieval magicians just basing their practices on books, or did they have other sources. Was there an underground network of communication between different practitioners of the dark arts? I suspect we will never know, but it’s fun to speculate.

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For the Love of Money or for the Love of Chivalry?

John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster
Image via Wikipedia

Were English soldiers primarily motivated by profit in the Hundred Years War? John of Gaunt, although accused by his nephew, Richard II, of only being interested in money, according to the The Lancastrian Affinity 1361-1399 by Simon Walker he probably lost money overall.

Gaunt gets paid

However, Gaunt was able, because of his position, to get the money owed to him by the exchequer, a lot quicker than other war captains. Debts owed to him were usually paid in cash rather than promises on future revenue, and if promissary notes were required then they tended to be against secure income, such as farms owed to the crown controlled by Gaunt or his own retainers. Walker estimates that of the £170,000 owed by the crown to Gaunt for military and diplomatic expenses, only about £9,000 never reached him.

Financial or Political Motivation?

So did Gaunt gain? Probably not as he had to pay his soldiers, and if he didn’t pay them he wouldn’t have troops for the next campaign. Walker believes that what he did gain was political – Gaunt was the most important magnate of his day after his elder brother, the Black Prince. His status was increased by being the principal war-captain during this period.

Chivalry and Noble Identity

But Gaunt was also one for chivalry as well. He, apparently rushed off after his wedding to Blanche of Lancaster to go jousting, and was very involved in the rules of the tournament. He cuts a very military stance at times – for instance rather than imitating the decorous dress of the French diplomats during negotiations at Bruges during the mid-1370s, Gaunt and his retinue of soldiers arrive mounted in dark green attire, ready for serious work rather than frippery.

I suspect for Gaunt, war/chivalry was for him a way of defining his own noble identity. Although a growing number of the aristocracy and gentry were becoming involved in administration, law and parliament, many still held to war as being the main function of the class of miles.

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If e-books want to get serious

The logo of The Bookseller magazine
Image via Wikipedia

Then they will need to come down in price and also be available in more user-friendly readers, such as the Apple Tablet.

This is according to a survey of UK publishers and booksellers carried out by The Bookseller.

I think this has got to be a bare minimum before e-books can seriously gain any penetration in the general trade market.

a) Why would you buy a digital version if it costs more?

b) I am afraid the Kindle/Sony Reader are not really sexy/integrated enough with other media to encourage people to read books electronically for pleasure. I know there are advocates of these devices – but the iPhone phenomenon has neatly shown that specific portable electronic devices are a waste of time – devices need to be multi-functional.

Unfortunately the size of the iPhone counts against it as a serious reading device for more than a few minutes – I’ve tried it – the screen is just too small.

Also why would most sensible, i.e. non-geeks, non-tech industry or publishing people, really want to buy something just so they can read books on it? Duh – there’s books for that!?

I can see e-books happening in a big way at some point in the future, but not yet.

Physical books will always be my favourite I’m afraid – I’ve actually started getting snobbier about it recently – for instance I’m loving reading a special edition hardcover everyman which includes a ribbon bookmark – so much classier than your standard paperback.

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Jake and the Knight Who Wasn’t There – new short story idea

Black Monarch's Ghost
Image by StreetFly JZ via Flickr

As well as my novel, I have also been working on a new short story idea involving one of the novel’s characters. It’s working title is the snappy “Jake and the Knight Who Wasn’t There”!

Currently I am trying to take a fairly rapid approach to developing the ideas and the narrative. I already have a rough structure and plot for the story and I am now fleshing out the characters who take part and will then get some more detail on the plot progression – there are a number of combats that take place, which I need to detail before I get started, and will probably finish off with a few ideas on the locations before I get started with writing.

My aim is to get this written within the month!

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Press-ganged into the Lancastrian Affinity

Just a quick update on what I have been doing recently on my novel.

At the moment I am “just” doing research for my novel. This means I am reading a lot of books, making notes etc. The book I am reading at the moment is The Lancastrian Affinity 1361-1399 by Simon Walker. It describes in a lot of detail the retinue of John of Gaunt, son of Edward III and also Duke of Lancaster. After the death of the Black Prince, he was the most important noble in England, an important military commander and diplomat. Thus he also had the largest retinue in the land except for the King.

One thinks of English armies of the Hundred Years War as being professional volunteer armies hired for money, but the Duke still had the right to effectively press-gang soldiers via a commission of array, and he did this in Lancashire and Yorkshire to fill the ranks in campaigns such as the ill-fated expedition of 1373. The 300 archers raised were accompanied by men of Gaunt’s retinue on their way to the ships so that they didn’t try to escape. Some even paid money so they didn’t have to serve!

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