The Art of Violence

Next month I’ll be at Arisia in Boston for my second year selling books, but I’ll also participate in a panel entitled, Writing Swordfights, Knives, and Hand-to-Hand Combat (Saturday, 2:30 PM in Otis, FYI).

I’ve been getting into the mood a little through chatting with my writer friend Patrick Hodges as he works on a fantasy novel, offering advice on how to write fights that make sense — something a lot of writers can’t do because everything they know about violence they learned from movies and television.

Since I’m in that groove, I thought I’d offer some basic advice to writers who want to make their fictional violence more interesting and realistic — by which I mean adding some actual consequences to in-story violence. Hollywood Violence is as a rule arbitrary when it comes to the effects of violence on a character and portraying realistic consequences, so that’s what I’ll chat about today by listing five of my (least) favorite violence tropes.

Unconsciousness

This is probably the most commonly abused trope in fiction. Someone gets whacked in the head, they lose consciousness, wake up when it’s convenient to the plot, and maybe complain about a mild headache.

People lose consciousness from a blow to the head because their brain has impacted the brain pan, the part of the skull that houses said squishy gray mass. That isn’t a minor injury, folks. If you’re hit hard enough to completely lose consciousness, you’re waking up with a concussion at the very least (assuming you wake up at all).

Even a so-called knockout blow doesn’t necessarily knock a person out completely. Watch a boxing or MMA match when someone is “knocked out” and what you’ll see is a case of “the lights are on but no one’s home” — a moment of utter blankness in a person’s eyes rather than falling totally unconscious — and even then, chances are the recipient of the knockout punch has suffered a mild concussion.

A quick addendum: the “knockout punch” is also overdone in Hollywood. Joe Average can’t knock a person cold with a halfway solid right hook to the point of the chin.

Selectively lethal bullets

Fun fact: according to Dr. Vincent J.M. DiMaio, who wrote a book on the subject (Gunshot Wounds: Practical Aspects of Firearms, Ballistics, and Forensic Techniques, SECOND EDITION (Practical Aspects of Criminal and Forensic Investigations)) 80 to 95 percent of gunshot victims survive.

However, if you’re a bad guy in an action movie, one bullet to the gut will kill you dead.

Conversely, if you’re a good guy, the same gut shot will hurt like hell and bleed a lot, but you’ll shrug it off in time. Good guys are also able to keep functioning quite well after being shot in the shoulder, in the meat of the thigh, or taking a graze to the skull. Movie and TV bullets somehow fail to shred muscles and tendons or fracture bones.

Oh, and the inevitable scene of someone digging a bullet out of a character whose been shot? In real life that’d kill the victim faster than the gunshot itself. Remember, Teddy Roosevelt got shot in the chest and gave a 90-minute speech before seeking medical attention and lived. His predecessor, William McKinley, was shot twice and died of sepsis in the hospital after doctors dug the bullets out but failed to properly clean the wounds.

bullet-holesWhich isn’t to say that the trope of a bullet passing “clean through” is any better, as evidenced by this handy chart of bullet entrance and exit wounds. Imagine a bullet going “clean through” a character’s shoulder, especially if the shooter is wielding your typical ridiculously large bad-ass handgun. That joint would be reduced to hamburger, so forget about powering through the pain to keep on fighting.

Instincts

Another common trope, most often used in a situation where a character with little to no practical fight training or experience needs to survive an encounter with someone who does have training and experience. The phrase “His instincts kicked in” usually leads into a moment when the character becomes suddenly proficient enough in martial arts to overcome his opponent.

Fight-or-flight instincts are real, but if you don’t have any fight training, following the fight instincts is more likely to get you killed than turn you into a fighting machine. If someone were to throw a punch at your face, your instinct would be to flinch away and maybe throw your hands up reflexively, not to execute a perfect block that sets you up for a counter attack. Those are an experienced fighter’s instincts, and he/she has cultivated those instincts through extensive training.

The Master Vs. The Prodigy

Another common scene: a character with some inherent, natural skill as a fighter mixes it up with a “master warrior” and prevails in the end — either through those convenient instincts kicking in, after landing a lucky game-changing blow, or after the master arrogantly lets his guard down.

Masters of a craft are masters because they’ve dedicated many long hours to perfecting their art. They are at the top of their game. For someone with far less training, skill, and experience to come in and win against them is not only unrealistic, it waters down the master character’s threat level. Imagine a talented high school basketball player taking on LeBron James or Michael Jordan in his prime in a game of one-on-one and winning. Would you buy it? Then don’t ask readers to buy it.

Breaking necks

Snapping an opponent’s neck is great in fiction, especially when a character is going for a “silent kill.” It’s brutal yet bloodless and pretty much anyone can do it simply by grasping the victim’s head and giving it a sharp twist.

Except, well, no. No to all of it.

It takes 1,000 to 1,250 foot pounds of torque to snap a neck. That’s what a large diesel truck engine generates. You’re fighting muscle and tendons and the spine itself to wrench the spinal column in the neck out of alignment and you can’t do that by just suddenly whipping someone’s head to one side.

You’re also not likely to actually kill the victim. People survive broken necks regularly and though they might end up paralyzed, they live, so even if you did manage to break someone’s neck and they don’t pass out from shock, you end up with someone who can’t move but is still very capable of screaming. So much for a silent kill.

Bonus topic: swords and swordplay

I’ve learned about swords and theatrical and historical swordplay from a variety of sources over the past twenty-something years, and I’m still learning things. The art of sword fighting is a staggeringly complex subject, which is perhaps why it’s so easy to screw up in fiction. Here are a bunch of quick-hit factoids regarding swords and sword fighting:

  • Swords are not heavy. Standard longswords weighed in the vicinity of two to three pounds because they needed to move quickly in order to be effective. So-called greatswords were more often ceremonial rather than practical battlefield weapons, Claymores ranged from five to six pounds but had very specific uses, and even then they were not the most practical of weapons because of their weight.
  • “Blood grooves” — the indentation sometimes found running along the length of a blade near the hilt — has nothing to do with blood. This feature, called a fuller, was intended to reduce the weight of the blade without compromising its strength.
  • Swords were sharp, but not sharp enough to cleave clean through plate armor. Penetrate it, perhaps, but taking a person’s arm off through steel plate isn’t plausible.
  • Parrying with the flat of the blade is a heated topic among historical sword fighting scholars. One general school of thought says parrying on the flat is the right way to do it because it spares the sharp edge from getting dinged up. The other points out that a length of steel a quarter-inch thick (the thickness of a blade taking a blow on the flat) taking a straight hit from another length of steel two inches thick (the width of the blade striking with the edge) can break the sword, and it’s better to have an intact sword with a nicked blade than a stump of a blade.
  • On a related note: a block is a move that stops an attack cold. A parry is a move that sets the defender up for a counterattack by redirecting or deflecting the attack.
  • The blade isn’t the only dangerous part of the sword. The pommel can be used to inflict blunt force trauma (the word “pummel” is derived from “pommel”) and a properly-designed crossguard can punch through armor, sevre as an impromptu war hammer, and can be used to snap an opponent’s weapon.

Weekly Update – December 6

WRITING PROJECTS

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

Action Figures – Issue Six: Power Play: In the editing process, on-schedule for a winter/spring 2017 release.

Action Figures – Live Free or Die: In the editing process, will be included as a bonus story with Power Play.

Action Figures – Issue Seven: The Black End War: First draft in progress. Didn’t get anything done this past weekend because my wife and I were moving into a new place. On the upside, the routine of moving stuff between floors in the same building gave me plenty of time to figure out all the details of the climax.

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

Action Figures – Issue Nine: Rough plotting in progress

The Adventures of Strongarm & LightfootBlades of Glory: Rough plotting in progress

APPEARANCES and EVENTS

  • otherwhere-promoTHIS WEEKEND! Saturday, December 10: The OtherWhere Market at Mill No. 5 in Lowell. I will be there, sharing space with my wife. This will be Storied Threads‘ last show for the foreseeable future, so come visit and grab some great holiday gifts from us.
  • Friday, January 13 – Monday, January 16: Arisia 2017 in Boston, MA. J.M. Aucoin will be in the dealers room at table A18 selling and signing books and talking about writing.

MISC.

I’m talking to my cover artist Tricia for the front and back of Power Play. Going with a bold but simple concept for the front cover, but the back cover image might be the scene stealer.

 

Weekly Update – November 29

abs-displayI spent my Saturday at Annie’s Book Stop in Worcester, which hosted a small, low-yet, but fun Small Business Saturday event featuring local authors. There were readings, a lot of shop talk, and a few book sales, so I’d say a good time was had by all — certainly by me.

Thanks to Trisha Wooldridge, who put this event together, and fellow participants Jessie OlsonCameron GarriepyLisa Shea, Brian McKeown, and H.L. Dancler (in absentia).

WRITING PROJECTS

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

Action Figures – Issue Six: Power Play: In the editing process, on-schedule for a winter/spring 2017 release.

Action Figures – Live Free or Die: In the editing process, will be included as a bonus story with Power Play.

Action Figures – Issue Seven: The Black End War: First draft in progress. Got a little more work done over the weekend, despite the chaos of the holiday. I might not get a lot done this weekend because my wife and I are moving (not far, just to a new unit in the same condo complex), but that only motivates me more to get the move done and over with ASAP.

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

Action Figures – Issue Nine: Rough plotting in progress

The Adventures of Strongarm & LightfootBlades of Glory: Rough plotting in progress

APPEARANCES and EVENTS

  • otherwhere-promoNEXT! Saturday, December 10: The OtherWhere Market at Mill No. 5 in Lowell. I will be there, sharing space with my wife. This will be Storied Threads‘ last show for the foreseeable future, so come visit and grab some great holiday gifts from us.
  • Friday, January 13 – Monday, January 16: Arisia 2017 in Boston, MA. J.M. Aucoin will be in the dealers room at table A18 selling and signing books and talking about writing.

MISC.

Speaking of Arisia, I received my panel assignments last week, and I am quite happy with my schedule. Here’s where and when you’ll be able to hear me yammer on about writerly things (plus each panel’s official description):

Writing Swordfights, Knives, and Hand-to-Hand Combat

Saturday, 2:30 PM in Otis

Violent encounters are a good way to up the tension in your story. Our panel of martial artists will not only explain the phases of combat, what goes through their mind prior to ‘going at it’, and what makes a realistic swordfight, knife-fight, stick-fighting or hand-to-hand encounter, but they will also demonstrate a few basic moves, answer questions, and help one lucky attendee work out the mechanics of their work-in-progress.

Getting Into Character

Sunday, 1 PM in Faneuil

From the way you walk, to the way you talk, getting into character is key to making your cosplay shine. Our panel of performance-minded costumers share with you their secrets for bringing their costume to life.

Writing a Worthy Adversary

Sunday, 8:30 PM in Douglas

Nothing brings a story to life like a worthy antagonist, but how do you figure out the yang for your protagonist’s yin? What is your villain’s backstory? What are some of the ways they can twist, torment, and temper your main character? And how can a good antagonist act as your protagonist’s mirror? Boo! Hiss! Come learn how to write bad guys your audience will love to hate.

Imaginary Friends: Crafting Memorable Characters

Monday, 10 AM in Marina 3

Even the most gripping plot will fail if you don’t have memorable characters. How do you create a sympathetic protagonist? How much backstory should you give them? How do you develop interesting supporting characters to accompany them on their journey? There are many ‘tricks’ you can use to flesh out characters, as well as ways to juggle multiple character viewpoints. Come learn how to write characters so realistic your audience will be talking about them long after they finish your story.

Cyber Monday $.99 Sale!

Happy “We Haven’t Yet Thought of a Way to Exploit This Day for Commercial Gain Sunday!”

Secret Origins coverTomorrow, however, we’re back to pushing the holiday spending, and I’m no different. For 24 hours beginning at midnight, the Kindle edition of Action Figures – Issue One: Secret Origins will be available for $.99 (regular prices $3.99). If you’re a fan of the series, this is a great opportunity to get a family member or friend hooked by buying a copy as a gift.

Weekly Update – November 22, 2016

I’m about to get a bit political here, so anyone who cares to respond I’ll tell you now: I welcome contrasting viewpoints and additional information, but if anyone goes off on a tangent or cannot keep their posts civil and based in verifiable fact, I won’t approve them.

As an independent author who relies on Amazon.com for the vast majority of my book sales, I am naturally concerned that the online retail giant has wound up on a list of businesses Americans are being urged to boycott because of its connections to our president-elect and his family.

What concerns me is why Amazon ended up on this list. It states that the company’s “business” with the Trumps is selling clothing and shoes with the family’s brand on it.

This, to me, seems like a bit of a reach. For starters, Amazon carries EVERYTHING. That it sells stuff with the Trump name attached is hardly surprising and doesn’t to me speak of a formal business partnership between the two entities in the same way Trump and Macy’s had a partnership — and note that I said “had,” because Macy’s dropped the Trump clothing line like a hot rock.

Now, could Amazon also purge all things Trump from its virtual shelves? It could, and there is precedent for Amazon removing items following a public outcry, but it wouldn’t necessarily be easy. A search of the site pulls up nearly 200,000 items with the Trump name attached to it in some way, from books to clothes to some amusing yet disturbing novelty items (the pen holder that allows you to insert your favorite writing implement in Trump’s ass, for example) — and only a tiny fraction of these items are in any way produced by a company with direct ties to the family, so it could take time to find and remove only those products. But I digress.

What I think is worth bearing in mind as you decide whether or not to participate in the boycott is that Trump and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos are NOT on friendly terms whatsoever.

The Motley Fool has a lengthy piece about the relationship between the men, and it does not paint a picture of two guys who like each other, much less do business with each other. Trump has chastised Bezos for buying the Washington Post, which was very critical of Trump throughout the campaign, and the president-elect has talked about using the power of the federal government to investigate alleged (or perhaps, imagined) anti-trust law violations by Amazon.

After the election, Bezos tweeted, “Congratulations to @realDonaldTrump. I for one give him my most open mind and wish him great success in his service to the country.” Some have interpreted that as at least tepid support for the candidate — Fortune.com called it a “neutral” response — and used it to fire up their anti-Amazon sentiments because it wasn’t outright condemnation.

I’ll make it clear here: I did not support Trump, at all, and still don’t, and I would be delighted if Bezos took a principled stand and purged Amazon of all its Trumpernalia, but I doubt it’s going to happen — not without a powerful display of opposition from the public (I’ll get to that in a minute).

So the question becomes: how do you, the consumer, respond to all this? How do you support indie authors who rely heavily on Amazon’s reach in the American and global marketplace without necessarily supporting Amazon itself?

Well, for starters, I’d say don’t just stop spending money on Amazon. What I mean by that is, a boycott doesn’t work simply because people stop supporting a business; it works because they let the business know in no uncertain terms that reasons X, Y, and Z and WHY they aren’t spending money there anymore. There needs to be context, so I’d say the first thing to do is go to that boycott list I provided, use the contact information to make your voice heard, and let Amazon know directly and explicitly why you don’t want to give them your money anymore.

I’ll also note that as a rule I do believe in boycotts as a protest tool, but they need to be constructive, productive, focused, and come with two expectations: you might cause unintended collateral damage in the process; and that the entity being boycotted might not accede to your message.

And if the latter happens here and Amazon doesn’t dump all things Trump, what do you do? How do you keep indie authors alive without going through Amazon?

Again, you’ll need to put in some effort here. A lot of authors use Amazon exclusively, but not all of them. There are numerous other retail outlets available to indie authors so you can check them out, and the best way to find them (aside from the almighty Google) is to hit up your favorite authors via their websites, blog, and social media platforms. They’ll be happy to hook you up. Some might even sell directly through their website, such as I do (he said in a shamelessly self-serving way).

I encourage everyone to follow their conscience, regardless of which path it takes you down. If you choose to avoid Amazon like the plague and buy through other retailers, great. If you decide that boycotting Amazon would only hurt indie authors and don’t want to punish them in the process of making a statement? Also great.

Regardless of whatever decision you make, make it an informed decision and make sure your actions are clear in purpose.

WRITING PROJECTS

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

Action Figures – Issue Six: Power Play: In the editing process, on-schedule for a winter/spring 2017 release.

Action Figures – Live Free or Die: In the editing process, will be included as a bonus story with Power Play.

Action Figures – Issue Seven: The Black End War: First draft in progress. Got a lot of work done on this over the weekend, so it’s safe to say I’m back on the Black End War groove.

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

Action Figures – Issue Nine: Rough plotting in progress

The Adventures of Strongarm & LightfootBlades of Glory: Rough plotting in progress

APPEARANCES and EVENTS

MISC.

I hope to hear about my Arisia panel assignments soon. If I don’t at least get on the panel I suggested (about writing fight scenes) I’ll be rather unhappy.

Finally, I’ll say this again even though I’ve remarked on it recently, but it’s come up in some of the writing forums I belong to so I think it bears repeating.

If you’re an aspiring author on the hunt for a publisher, remember that money is supposed to flow toward the writer. If an outfit calls itself a publisher but requires you to pay for editing, formatting, distribution, promotions, cover art, etc., they are NOT a true publisher but a self-publishing platform. More specifically, they’re a vanity press — a self-publishing service that masquerades as a true publisher for the purpose of enticing writers to cough up significant sums of money for services that a legit traditional publisher is supposed to cover.

If you decide that’s the route you want to go because you need things like editing and cover art, that’s fine, but do your research first, because some vanity presses claim various rights to the author’s work, and losing control of your own novel is a nightmare you do not want to contend with.

Also bear in mind that many self-publishing platforms such as CreateSpace do charge for support services, but those services are purely optional. CreateSpace also doesn’t claim any rights to the author’s work.

Weekly Update – November 15, 2016

Another quiet week, but I’m back to a regular writing schedule this weekend. Woo!

WRITING PROJECTS

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

Action Figures – Issue Six: Power Play: In the editing process.

Action Figures – Live Free or Die: In the editing process.

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

Action Figures – Issue Eight: The only movement here is that I think I have a decent subtitle. Unless something better strikes me, book eight will be known henceforth as Crawling from the Wreckage.

Action Figures – Issue Nine: Rough plotting in progress

The Adventures of Strongarm & LightfootBlades of Glory: Rough plotting in progress

APPEARANCES and EVENTS

MISC.

After chatting with a friend last week about murder mysteries, I remembered a spec script I wrote several years ago for a WWII-era murder mystery show (A Star-Spangled Murder) and took it out to see if it was still any good. It was, which was a pleasant surprise. If anyone happens to be in the market for a short, three-act show with interactive elements for a small cast, contact me.

Final thought for the week, inspired by posts I’ve seen on other writers’ various social media outlets: it doesn’t matter how many Facebook followers you have, it doesn’t matter how many Twitter followers you have, it doesn’t matter how many newsletters you send out each week, it doesn’t matter how many books you crank out, it doesn’t matter how many likes or shares or retweets you get. Success isn’t all about raw numbers. Stop worrying about quantity and focus on quality.

A Writer’s Anti-Scam Checklist

I’m writing this as an indirect response to a Facebook scammer who made an appearance on one of the writers’ pages I follow. She (if she was indeed a she) asked people to PM her if they were interested in an easy writing job that promised big money in return.

I was instantly skeptical and smelled a scam in the making. My instinct was confirmed to my satisfaction when I visited the poster’s FB page and found it curiously empty. I posted a warning to fellow page members. This prompted a brief exchange between the OP and me, and soon thereafter the OP was banned from the page as a scammer — after at least two people took the bait, unfortunately.

Scammers like this prey on aspiring and novice writers and depend on their naivete and inexperience to score some free labor and maybe a quick buck or two before vanishing into the Internet aether. Fortunately, having encountered quite a few of them, they’ve shown themselves to be fairly obvious if you know what to look for, so as a service to my less experienced fellow writers out there, here are some key warning signs that someone might be a con artist.

1: They ask the mark for money.

Neil Gaiman has a simple rule when it comes to writing professionally: money flows toward the writer.  Someone offering a writing job should never ask you to cough up any kind of fee or to cover costs associated with the publication of the end product (your writing). If any part of a writing gig involves you paying them for anything and getting reimbursed later, it’s a scam.

Similarly, a legit publisher shouldn’t ask an author to cover the cost of anything, from editing and cover art to distribution costs and comp copies to — and I’ve seen this before, no kidding — office supplies allegedly used in the course of working with the writer. All those expenses are supposed to be recouped from the sale of the writer’s work, not from any up-front charges to the author.

2: They ask for personal information.

If someone posing as an employer says they need a Social Security number as part of an application process or a bank account number so they can pay you via direct deposit, cease all communications immediately. Give them nothing and, if it’s a conversation over social media, report them.

3: They are stingy with details.

The FB post I referred to in the opening read something like this: “Want to work from home, control your own schedule, and earn big money writing? Contact me privately!” When I asked for specifics about the job, the poster got rather pissy (more on that later) and refused to say anything about the jobs they were offering — not the nature of the job, what kind of pay they were offering, not the name of the company — nothing. Even when asked directly she refused to say anything. Well, almost…

4: They behave unprofessionally

When I asked for more information, the OP became immediately defensive. I was told to back off, berated for expressing my doubts about her legitimacy, and shamed for not letting the adults on the page “make their own decisions.” The OP even threw an implied threat at me that she would wield “the power of my pen” (actual quote) against me if I gave her any more grief.

Despite what our recent presidential election might lead some to believe, responding to simple questions with belligerence is not mature or professional; it’s a warning sign that this person is offering nothing and knows it and didn’t expect resistance, so now he’s doing what teenagers trying to buy cigarettes at a convenience store do when asked for ID: they feign indignity to try and scare and intimidate the cashier into giving them what they want.

5: They have no distinct identity.

I checked out the OP’s Facebook profile and it immediately smacked of a fake account. There was no personal info, the profile pic was a stock photo (“professional woman with laptop”), she had all of 15 friends from several highly disparate geographical locations, and the page was only two weeks old, indicating that it had been set up very recently. Scammers regularly set up fake profiles for the express purpose of pulling a hit-and-run scheme, so if you’re suspicious about someone, look for telltale signs that a profile page might be bogus.

Added FYI: if someone’s profile photo looks a little too slick and professional, try using Google’s image search feature. Just right-click over the photo and choose “Search Google for image.” If a stock photo comes up, you know you’re being duped.

6: The company has no online fingerprint.

Someone might claim to represent a company, but far more often than not this is a Vandelay Industries type of thing. Run a Google search and see if the alleged business has full website rather than just a Facebook page or a Twitter account, which are much easier to set up for a quick con. If it doesn’t have a full-fledged website or any kind of serious online presence, be suspicious.

7: It has an online presence, but not the good kind.

I regularly advise neophyte writers looking for job opportunities, agents, or publishers to Google their prospects with the terms “writer beware” or “water cooler” attached, which will bring them to the Writer Beware and Absolute Write websites, which are great resources for ferreting out scammers and less-than-reputable businesses. Scammers either don’t realize writers talk to one another, or they hope that their current target is too naive to think of conducting a due diligence check.