Weekly Update – April 25, 2017

The spring New Bedford Book Festival is done and gone, and thank you to the readers who came out and to my wife for covering my table while I was at Robin Hood’s Faire rehearsals. PS: come to Robin Hood’s Faire.

WRITING PROJECTS

The Adventures of Strongarm & LightfootBlades of Glory: I managed to finally get through an action scene that was giving me some problems. The first draft is now up to 44,000 words.

Action Figures – Issue Seven: The Black End War: Second draft finished.

Action Figures – Issue Eight: Crawling from the Wreckage: I sneaked in some work on this last week, enough to wrap up the second draft. I’m waiting a while before sending it out to my test readers, who haven’t even finished work on book seven.

Action Figures – Issue Nine: Rough plotting in progress.

Action Figures – Issue One: Secret Origins: Audiobook recording in progress.

APPEARANCES and EVENTS

MISC.

My cover artist Tricia Lupien has launched an official Patreon account. Go check it out and support her!

Weekly Update – April 18, 2017

It’s almost New Bedford Bookfest time! More on that below.

WRITING PROJECTS

The Adventures of Strongarm & LightfootBlades of Glory: Got some work in, but it’s still slow going setting up for the next big action sequence.

Action Figures – Issue Seven: The Black End War: Second draft finished.

Action Figures – Issue Eight: Crawling from the Wreckage: I got a little work in on the second draft to keep me going while I puzzled out some stuff on S&L book three.

Action Figures – Issue Nine: Rough plotting in progress.

Action Figures – Issue One: Secret Origins: Audiobook recording in progress.

APPEARANCES and EVENTS

MISC.

Thanks to my sweetie for her little nod to my work with the upcoming as fight director for Robin Hood’s Faire.

The 2017 Diversity Report

For the past few years, I’ve taken a look at my own writing to see how I’m doing in the realm of diversity and representation. I check out my major character rosters and break them down to see whether I’m not falling into the trap of writing primarily straight white cis people.

This year I’m not going to engage in that practice because it’s come to feel rather smug and self-congratulatory. Oh, hey, look at me, the straight white cis man writing characters not like me. I’m so progressive. Go me. All I’ll say about that is I remain dedicated to maintaining a strong sense of diversity in my work.

But I’m not enough. Literature, especially genre fiction, needs more women, more people of color, more writers from the LGBTQ community to tell stories I can’t, represent perspectives I will never fully understand and appreciate, and relate experiences I will never have. We need more diverse voices in fiction.

Further, writers like me need to be more diligent about presenting diverse characters in their own work — and if they can’t see fit to do that, they at least need to stop actively trying to oppose diversity, and yes, this is a problem. Over the past few years two organized groups of genre fiction authors, the so-called Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies, have tried to game the Hugo Awards to undermine efforts to acknowledge diverse authors and works (it failed spectacularly, by the way).

Why would they do this? you might wonder. I’ve wondered that myself, for quite some time. Why would any author be so vigorous in his or her efforts to snuff out representation?

Because that author fears obsolescence.

Genre fiction has long been the domain of straight white cis men, both on the writing and the reading side of things. People like me are the default. But over the last several years there has been an increase in diversity — among authors, among characters, and among readers who have shown that there is a powerful appetite for such material. Women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, they all want to read stories about people like themselves written by people like themselves.

So where does that leave the traditional straight white cis male genre writer?

Well, really, it doesn’t leave him any worse off than before. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center has since 1985 charted the presence of authors of color and children’s books featuring lead characters of color, and the statistics show a steady increase over time — steady, but the increases are incremental and there is still plenty of material out there written by and for white people.

If that’s any indicator — and I’ve been unable to find a similar source for YA or adult publishing to confirm or refute the hypothesis — it’s not like white guys are getting muscled out of the game. There is still a demand for their stories, and it’s not like we’re all playing in a zero sum game in which one writer loses sales every time another writer gains sales. Readers are not, for all intents and purposes, a finite resource.

But that’s not the way the old-school genre writer sees it. In his mind, if readers are buying books with diverse casts written by diverse authors, they’re not reading his books. That means he’s becoming irrelevant.

Faced with that prospect, the “endangered” author has a few choices. He can accept his fate and be content to continue practicing his art, knowing that there are still plenty of people out there who want it. He can adapt and start injecting diversity into his own work to capture readers outside his standard demographic.

Or he can pitch a fit, blame the success of others for his own real or imagined failure, and dedicate time and energy to fighting against diversity — and that is what happens far too often. You see that pointless, fruitless resistance every time a writer makes a disingenuous comment about the evils of “pandering” to an audience — and I call it disingenuous because those writers are not acting in anyone’s best interests but their own. They might say, “Pandering to diverse audiences is nothing but a transparent cash grab! Publishers just want your money! I’m trying to protect you from these exploitative capitalists!” but what they mean is, “I view your buying habits as a threat to my livelihood and I’d like you to go away now.”

You’ll of course note that straight white cis male authors who churn out nothing but the same-old same-old are, somehow, not pandering to their demographic.

I take it as a powerful indicator of a writer’s skill if something as relatively simple as injecting more diversity into their work is such a daunting challenge they feel compelled to shut the whole concept down. As storytellers, our whole job is creating characters unlike us. If a science fiction writer can create realistic alien races and sentient robots with no problem but finds the challenge of writing a lead character who is a woman or black or gay or — gasp! — all of the above too great, he’s failing at his job.

And if you can’t do your job anymore, it’s time to step aside and let those who are capable of doing it take over.

Weekly Update – April 11, 2017

WRITING PROJECTS

The Adventures of Strongarm & LightfootBlades of Glory: Got a little work in, but I’m heading into a fairly large action sequence and those often take time to percolate in my head before I start writing them down. What did I do to clear my head and stay productive? Well…

Action Figures – Issue Seven: The Black End War: I finished the second draft of this! It’s going out to my test-readers for their thoughtful analysis and merciless criticism, though I don’t expect to work on this again for a while. Have to finish S&L book three, after all.

Action Figures – Issue Eight: Crawling from the Wreckage: First draft finished.

Action Figures – Issue Nine: Rough plotting in progress.

Action Figures – Issue One: Secret Origins: Audiobook recording in progress.

APPEARANCES and EVENTS

MISC.

 

Weekly Update – April 4, 2017

WRITING PROJECTS

The Adventures of Strongarm & LightfootBlades of Glory: Managed to sneak a little more work in over the weekend. My Saturday was occupied with Robin Hood Faire auditions but I had Friday and Sunday to work, and my word count is now past the 42,000 word mark. My last full writing weekend is coming up, so I hope to push through a good chunk of the story before I have to dedicate myself to teaching people who to pretend to kill each other.

Action Figures – Issue Seven: The Black End War: First draft finished.

Action Figures – Issue Eight: Crawling from the Wreckage: First draft finished.

Action Figures – Issue Nine: Rough plotting in progress.

Action Figures – Issue One: Secret Origins: Audiobook recording in progress.

APPEARANCES and EVENTS

MISC.

The final details are still being hammered out, but this summer I’ll be participating in the 2017 Cape Cod Teen Writers Conference, specifically on an authors panel on the final night of the conference. K.R. Conway is putting this thing together and invited me to participate, since I’m a native Cape Codder and need to periodically return to my native soil — or sand, as the case may be — to recharge.

Weekly Update – March 28, 2017

Another slowish week, but there’s something important down in the miscellaneous section you should definitely read.

WRITING PROJECTS

The Adventures of Strongarm & LightfootBlades of Glory: Made some decent progress over what may well be the last full writing weekend for the next several weeks. I passed the 40,000 work mark so I am very close to the approximate halfway point in the story.

Action Figures – Issue Seven: The Black End War: First draft finished.

Action Figures – Issue Eight: Crawling from the Wreckage: First draft finished.

Action Figures – Issue Nine: Rough plotting in progress.

Action Figures – Issue One: Secret Origins: Audiobook recording in progress.

APPEARANCES and EVENTS

MISC.

Over the weekend, a friend passed away after her second fight with cancer.

Her real name was Alexandra Hastings, but a lot of people knew her as “Calypso Bordeaux,” co-founder and leader of the all-woman stage combat performance troupe the Vixens En Garde. She was a talented, delightful woman who surrounded herself with equally talented, delightful women in the Vixens. I have yet to meet a member of the group who isn’t awesome.

A crowdfunding page was set up for her, originally with the intent of helping defray her medical care, but now it’s to help her husband and young son endure what is unquestionably the hardest time of their lives. Even if you never met her or saw her perform, consider making a donation to the family.

Constructing a Fight

This is an essay I’ve wanted to write for a while, but past efforts have always wound up feeling rambling and pointless — and then I was named fight director of the Connecticut Renaissance Faire’s upcoming Robin Hood Springtime Festival and found myself building fights from the ground up, which means I had a way to illustrate some of the techniques I use when crafting fight scenes in my books.

I’ve always prided myself on writing action sequences that were not just exciting and well-paced, but had substance to them, substance that’s often missing from other prose-based fight scenes because so many writers really don’t understand that a good fight is more than just a series of cool moves; it’s a story in and of itself — and that’s where I’ll start.

Getting Inspired

I often refer to certain movies to find inspiration for creating a fight scene, something that captures the nature of the fight, the style, the tone, etc. For example, when I was getting ready to work on the climactic third act of The Adventures of Strongarm & Lightfoot – Assassins Brawl (cheap plug), I watched a lot of siege movies, such as The Two Towers for the Helm’s Deep sequence, Dredd, The Raid: Redemption, and Assault on Precinct 13.

One of my all-time go-to fight scenes is the Paris/Menelaus duel from Troy. To me, that sequence, choreographed by Simon Crane, is the gold standard for incorporating the situation and the characters into the action.

I know, it isn’t the most dynamic fight or the flashiest, but it tells a story better than most such sequences.

For those unfamiliar with the movie or the original epic poem: Paris (Orlando Bloom) steals away Menelaus’s wife Helen, essentially cuckolding the man in front of two nations. Menelaus (Brendan Gleason), naturally, wants to kill Paris for this offense, and do so in a public and humiliating manner, which leads to this duel.

Notice how they each fight. Menelaus — who is bigger, stronger, more experienced, supremely pissed off, and not at all intimidated by his opponent — comes right at Paris and pummels him with big windmilling sledgehammer blows. He is mostly on the offensive. Paris, in contrast, is mostly on the defensive, and you get a sense of his inexperience, his desperation, and his fear in the way he hides behind his shield; by his wild, desperate attacks and defensive parries; and by his mistakes, such as getting too close to his opponent and by trying to match Menelaus’s raw strength.

To get in the right mood to choreograph a Robin Hood fight, I re-watched the classic The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone, which very much informs the rollicking, swashbuckling tone of the Robin Hood Faire.

Once I’m in the right headspace, it’s time to start thinking about the fight I want to write — not plotting it out, mind you; thinking about it. I have some groundwork to lay before I start choreographing anything.

The Situation

One of the things that drives a fight is the situation. You need the context of the setting and the reason behind a fight to help set the tone and determine what’s going on in the characters’ heads. Two adults engaged with each other in a duel to the death are going to fight with a greater degree of aggression and desperation than, say, two little kids scrapping in a playground after school. A man in a drunken barroom brawl is not going to approach a fight the same way a seasoned soldier facing an armed enemy combatant would.

In the Flynn Robin Hood, you see several examples of fights with different attitudes. Robin’s early scraps with Little John and Friar Tuck are lighter affairs. Robin is, to John and Tuck, some obnoxious rando, not a sworn enemy, and the only thing at stake for anyone is personal pride. No one is out for blood, as opposed to the Robin/Sir Guy duel, which has two longtime enemies fighting to the death — and even then, their motivations are slightly different. Guy wants Robin dead dead dead, whereas Robin is ready to kill Guy but out of self-defense rather than anger or hatred.

The script I’m working off calls for a training fight between Robin Hood and some of his Merry Men. I’m setting the intensity level at about a five, max; Robin and his men are training to keep their skills sharp for when they’re fighting for their lives against Prince John’s soldiers, so it’s serious business, but they’re not out to hurt each other – they’re close friends, after all — so they’re not going to go all-out.

The Characters

For this sequence, I’m using along with Robin Hood his three key Merry Men: Little John, Friar Tuck, and his cousin Will Scarlett (who, in the faire version of the story, is a woman). That gives me four very distinct characters to work with, which means I have to take into consideration four very different sets of characteristics. Let’s break them down:

Robin Hood is a very experienced swordfighter; he’s been portrayed in some iterations of the legend as a former soldier who fought in the Crusades alongside King Richard the Lionheart. He fights using a one-handed sword (sometimes called an arming sword), which is a lighter, faster weapon than a proper medieval longsword. His attitude toward everything is rather cavalier; he rarely takes anything too seriously.

Little John is a large, powerful man. His weapon of choice is a quarterstaff, which he yields effectively but in a rather basic manner; he is not a nuanced fighter. He tends to be gruff and blustery, and contrasts Robin’s attitude by taking everything a little too seriously.

Friar Tuck is a deceptively skilled swordsman, which is directly inspired by his portrayal in the Flynn Robin Hood. Physically he is no longer in his prime, and attitude-wise, he is similar to John in that he takes things more seriously than his leader.

Will Scarlett is a scrappy, rambunctious tomboy who models herself after Robin, to a fault; she takes things far less seriously and is more reckless than her cousin, and is consequently more likely to get into trouble because of it and less likely to know how to get herself out of it. She’s also quick-tempered and constantly out to prove herself. She fights with twin daggers.

A further note on Will, which warrants emphasis: her gender has NO bearing on her ability to fight whatsoever. None. Arguing that her gender makes her weaker or less capable is bullshit sexism, period, so basing any character’s capacity as a fighter solely on his or her gender is weak writing with no basis in reality.

Added note: in an ideal world I’d know exactly who the actors in these roles are so I could incorporate their physicality into the fights, but I only know for certain who will be playing Robin. The others are question marks, so I had to proceed under the assumption that the actors who will play these roles will be approximate matches for the characters’ physical natures. When writing a fight for fictional characters, this is of course a non-issue, but I wanted to mention it nevertheless.

The Weapons

Let’s take a closer look at the weapons being used in this fight.

Little John is using a quarterstaff, a six-foot length of hard wood that is a surprisingly versatile and effective weapon. It inflicts blunt force trauma, but as one of my instructors likes to say, it’s still trauma. A staff is unlikely to cause any cut-based wound but it can break bones and wreck joints easily. Its greatest advantage is its reach, and reach can make a huge difference in a fight, but of our four weapons, it’s the slowest — which, I’ll note, is not to say it’s a slow weapon in real life. An expert can generate a lot of speed with a staff, and thus a lot of power, but for dramatic purposes I’m treating this as a slower weapon than its real-life counterpart.

Tuck is using a proper longsword, a cutting and slashing weapon that has a blade ranging about 30 to 40 inches long. A standard longsword can be used one-handed but is designed to be held with two. It doesn’t have the reach of a quarterstaff but is better in that regard than the other weapons. At 2.5 to four pounds, it can be moved with considerable speed, but again, I’m slowing it down for dramatic and stylistic purposes.

Robin is using an arming sword, a one-handed cutting and slashing weapon with a blade in the neighborhood of 30 inches long. Such weapons weighed only two to three pounds, which make them pretty fast. Its reach is only slightly inferior to a proper longsword.

Will is using two daggers, which are primarily thrusting/stabbing weapons. These have the worst reach but the best speed, and give her the benefit of being able to attack two different targets at once, which is significant; it would be very difficult for John and Tuck to guard two targets at once considering they have two-handed weapons. Also, having researched knife fighting, I’ve learned that a trained knife fighter is absolutely terrifying. If they get within your range, you’re screwed. The best defense, aside from running away, is to keep them out of reach.

Putting It Together

Here’s what I came up with. Don’t worry, I’ll explain it.

The notations are based on the Society of American Fight Directors’ stage combat system, which assigns numbers to the a performer’s limbs and head. It’ll make sense in a minute.

Robin is stage center, facing the audience. Will is off to his left, John to his right, Tuck to his right and slightly behind Robin. Robin invites his comrades to attack him as part of the training exercise. They waffle for a moment before John takes the initiative and comes in hard, winding up for a big strike to Robin’s left arm (phrase 1, line 2). Robin blocks the blow, as well as the next two attacks to his right leg and head (lines 3 and 4).

Because the head shot is coming in with a lot of force, Robin reinforces his block by gripping the blade of his sword with his free hand (which is a real thing) so the barrier he’s creating with his sword is nice and solid. His next move is to reverse the momentum of the fight by smacking the end of John’s staff away using his weapon’s crossguard (line 5) — again, a real-life move, as is driving the pommel of his sword into John’s face (line 6), because a trained swordfighter knows how to use all the parts of his sword.

Now, because this is a training exercise, Robin pulls the pommel strike at the last second and doesn’t actually make contact, but it throws a good scare into John, who flinches away instinctively.

Will, seeing an opening, charges in, expecting to tag Robin in the back (line 7). Robin hears her coming and whirls around, sword raised, which causes Will to freeze in a moment of panic (line 8). Robin, scamp that he is, then teases his cousin with a playful boop on the nose — which, of course, irks Will and goads her into attacking. She tries to stab Robin’s left arm (line 10), then his right (line 11), and locks blades with him — something that does not happen in real swordfights as often as Hollywood would have you believe, but I’m throwing it in for a reason.

While they’re locked up and Will’s in close, where she’s the most dangerous, Will goes for a sloppy slash to Robin’s left arm. Robin stops the attack with a forearm block (line 12) and sasses Will again (line 13) before pushing her away to get her out of distance and reclaim the reach advantage (line 14).

He then goes for a cut to her head, again pulling the blow before making contact, thus scoring a symbolic deathblow (line 15). Angry at getting caught like that, Will angrily slaps the sword away with her right dagger (line 16) and rears back for a big double slash to Robin’s midsection — which Robin aborts by bringing his sword up to her belly — another symbolic killing blow (line 17); in a real fight, he could easily drive it right through her. Robin gives his cousin a smug grin and she stalks off to fume.

Robin then glances over to Tuck (line 19, which has a stagecraft note instructing Robin to keep his face toward the audience) and prompts the friar to come at him, bro. Tuck adjusts his position (stagecraft reasons again) and demonstrates his prowess by striking a right ox guard, a real longsword guard in which the sword is brought up to head level — on the right side, in this case — and the blade is held parallel to the ground, with the point aimed at the opponent.

Tuck closes the distance (line 20) and thrusts at Robin’s right arm (line 21). Robin blocks the attack. Tuck brings the sword around in sweeping arc to get over to Robin’s now unguarded left arm (line 22). Robin executes a hanging block, in which the sword points down instead of up.

Robin carries the momentum through and goes for a head cut, which Tuck blocks with his sword (line 23). Robin’s sword skates off Tuck’s, again letting the momentum carry his blade past the friar, who counterattacks with a cut to Robin’s left leg. Robin blocks it (line 24) and goes for the head again. Tuck again deflects the blow (line 25) and once more goes for Robin’s left leg (line 26). That moment creates a brief back-and-forth exchange that changes up the fight’s tempo.

Robin again blocks the shot to his leg, and then reclaims the fight’s momentum by forcing Tuck’s blade up and over to the other side (line 27). Tuck winds up with the point of his sword on the ground — and his ass sticking out as an irresistible target. Robin gives Tuck a playful kick to the rump and sends him sprawling (line 28).

Fun side fact: it took me an hour at the very least to write the original choreography, which I worked out by myself, in my living room, playing the four different roles simultaneously. It took about a half an hour to write the description you just read. It probably took you five minutes or so to read it. In performance, this fight lasts two minutes, tops.

Writing the Fight

The process I just detailed for creating a stage fight is very similar to the process I use when crafting a fight for a story. I work through the situation, the characters, the weapons, and choreograph the action.

The next step is turning all that into prose that is well-paced, exciting, and conveys enough detail to describe the action without turning it into a play-by-play, which is generally neither exciting nor well-paced. I’ve encountered precious few writers who can detail every single step in a fight without compromising the excitement level or pace (Jim Butcher is the only name that immediately comes to mind, and I’m calling him the exception rather than the rule).

One thing I do is figure out which elements of the fight don’t need to be detailed. Take lines 2 through 4 of the training fight. I could easily describe that like this:

“Little John barreled toward Robin, his quarterstaff raised to strike. Robin took a quick flurry of heavy-handed blows on his sword.”

That gets the point across without telling the reader where each strike was going; that’s unnecessary detail. But what about that head strike and Robin’s counter? That’s a key moment in the fight and could benefit from a little more information, along with a little color.

“John brought his staff around in a high arc, as if to cave in Robin’s skull. Robin brought his blade up, bracing it with both hands in anticipation of the crushing impact. The staff fell, sending a shockwave down Robin’s arms all the way to his feet. Unwilling to defend a second such blow, Robin smacked the staff away with his crossguard. John stumbled. He caught himself and looked up in time to see Robin’s pommel coming straight at his face. He flailed away in a panic.”

There are highs and lows throughout the fight, and one of the keys to turning a literal by-the-numbers piece of choreography is finding those highs and lows and treating them accordingly. To use a phrase I’ve been using a lot lately, what you describe in a fight sequence has to add value — to the pace, to the clarity of the narrative, to the emotion of the scene.

If this all sounds too challenging, it might be wise to heed some advice I read recently: if you can’t write a fight in terms of its moves, focus on conveying the emotion and the psychology of the sequence and write more poetically than literally.

Final Advice

This is a lot to digest, and there is so much more to be learned if you want to write solid fight scenes. To wrap things up, here’s a quick-hit list of final bits of advice:

  • Use movies and TV for inspiration, not information. Visual media is generally terrible at accurately portraying how armor and weapons actually work, in which situations they work well (or poorly), or how people respond to injuries, so look for sources that have studied these and related topics. I highly recommend the How to Fight Write blog as a general source of info on all things fighty.
  • Avoid fights that happen for the sake of an action scene. Give them a reason to be there, a reason that supports the story you’re telling and, conversely, is supported by the story.
  • Don’t rely on tropes such as Natural Talent, when a character who has little to no training reveals him/herself as a martial arts prodigy, or Instinct Kicked In, when a stressful situation triggers an adrenaline surge that turns a regular person into an ass-kicking machine, to get a character through a fight scene. Untrained fighters lose fights, period.
  • On a related note, turning an untrained fighter into a skilled combatant takes a lot of time. The old theory that it takes someone 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill might not be true, but a person also can’t become a black belt in the space of a few weeks. Let the development be part of the story and don’t gloss over it.
  • Avoid group fights in which the hero stands in the middle of several bad guys, who all politely wait their turn to attack the hero one-on-one (e.g., Bruce Lee vs. Han’s minions in Enter the Dragon, The Bride vs. the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill Vol. 1).

If anyone has any questions or comments, let me hear them!