Shooting The Devil: Strategy, Tactics, and Tips For Crafting Compelling Combat in Your Novel

I’ve had this post in the wings for a while, trying to “strategerize” how best to communicate the message. Guest post? Breaking it up into smaller bits? New website? I figured it was worth getting something out there for now, and I may revisit the content in different forms later. This is primarily written for two audiences: those interested in the writing craft, and some techniques to add to your toolbox, and for those interested in how I approach my own writing and character/scene development. I do this imperfectly, but continue to practice in the hope of getting better and better over time.


I’m kidding about the devil, but I did punch a classmate in college. We took boxing lessons as midshipmen and sparred with one another the first day of class. One moment we were best friends; by the next, bitter enemies. Our 60 seconds of ring time was more than a bout for passing grades: it was an epic struggle against perceived evils like empty peanut butter jars left in the pantry. Midshipman memories…

As a writer, you need to capture the emotional swings and weightiness of such moments through your wordcraft. How will you pull the reader along with a compelling and believable episode of combat? Sometimes a fight is necessary to move the story forward. Maybe it’s the only way to move the story forward; few fantasy fans will suffer a story without good swordplay and sorcery. Fight scenes cross a wide spectrum from bar brawls to infantry squads taking out terrorists; military campaigns of thousands to the struggles of nations.

Let’s assume you read in your genre and know the tropes and obligatory scenes. Your author inspirations are one great example of how to craft a good fight scene. What did you like? Certain words? Emotions? Points of view? You probably have a place to start from and ideas already formed that you want to explore.

In this article, I’ll provide a strategy as well as several organizing tactics and writing tips to help you hone your combat craft, take things to the next level, and draw your readers into scenes they’ll never forget. If you are looking for more resources, check out these past guests of the Creative Penn: a mixed-martial arts perspective with Jarred Loh and combining martial arts and writing with Alan Baxter.

First, you need a strategy

Many aviators use altitude to describe their viewpoints. At the 50,000 foot level, you probably have a broad overview of your story, its plot, the character arcs, and theme. This is your strategy for getting from point A, that compelling inciting incident, to point Z, the stunning conclusion, through some tortuous path in between. If we drop down further, say to the 10,000 foot level, we can still have a strategy for individual chapters or scenes. One useful strategic framework for writing a fight scene is the Five W’s.

The Five W’s

This is a framework I learned in the military. It continues to serve me as a writer in many ways. If you don’t know where to start, you know you can always begin with the Five W’s. What are the Five W’s?

1. Who
2. What (and by association, “How”)
3. When
4. Where
5. Why

(Sadly, “How” does not begin with a W, otherwise we’d have the much more easily remembered “Six W’s”)

You probably already have a method for framing your story (let’s assume it’s a novel). Maybe it’s Foolscaping, or Snowflaking, or just a good old outline in your favorite journal. Consider the Five W’s another tool in your planning toolbox, and particularly well suited as a lens to look at your fight scenes through. You can do this in an Evernote, in Scrivener under your research files, your journal, or a blank piece of paper.

  1. Who is involved? Individuals or units or nations. Which of your characters need to be involved? Which do not?
  2. What is at stake? People don’t fight because everything’s hunky dory. They fight for something. You, the author, must understand why everyone is involved, even if it’s because they are collateral damage from a fight not their own. How will it begin?  Is it a surprise, or is it expected? Premeditated or reaction?
  3. When does it happen? You have an idea of where the scene occurs in the overall scheme of the book (you did Foolscap, right?), but you also need to think through how long the scene takes. This matters for several reasons. First, how much writing do you need to do? If you intend on detailing a dozen actors over the course of a night in Iraq, that might be an entire book in itself. You may want to unravel the emotions behind a recently divorced drunk banker who throws a wild punch at the local bar, laying out his best mate. You’re turning five seconds into a chapter. Second, what else is happening? In the bar scene, maybe the commercial turns over on the television. In the former, you may have changes in lighting, location, weather to keep organized. Did the trains run on time? The guard change over? You’ll need to keep track of these temporal elements through the scene so the reader is not confused.
  4. Where will it occur? – We’ll discuss a couple of tools later on for keeping track of location, but you should have some idea of where the scene takes place. At a bar, in the White House, across an entire city, or simply a street corner? Engineers use the terms “closed system” versus “open system.” Does the entire scene take place in a single location (like a throne room), bound by four walls and clear constraints, or is it a flowing car chase turned gun battle than lingers through the streets of Rome? Your reader needs cues to help them understand the possible changes in scenery through the context of the fight.
  5. Why is it happening?: Beginning and end – What is the polarity change you need to happen? How will this scene (or collection of scenes) move the story forward? How will your characters change?

This can be as easy or complex as you need it to be. It can be chicken scratch in a sidebar with one-word answers. Using the Snowflake method, you could build out your Five W list into the whole scene. As long as it helps you keep the scene straight in your mind and allows you to verify it works in the story, then you’ve succeeded.

Now that you have a basic framework for this fight, let’s look at a couple of tactics to help you keep all the moving parts organized, aligned, and working for you.

Tactics: Your Tools in the Toolbox

Below 10,000 feet we’re now talking about tactics. These are tools in your writing toolbox that help you execute your work. We’ve developed a strategy for our fight, and now we need tools to keep that framework in mind as we develop the scene. How can we do that?

Readers of the Creative Penn are probably familiar with many of the tools available in various software packages like Scrivener or services like Evernote. While these are excellent for capturing notes, images, ideas, and other research, and they can be optimized to organize those elements, your fight scene can benefit from these three additional tools:

Tactic #1: A Fight Map

My whiteboard for mapping out scenes. Here you can see details on time between locations and the settings for Exiles of Heaven’s final battle scene

My favorite planning tool for a fight scene is a map. I take a small white board and use symbols to visually plan how the scene will unfold. This was immensely important in my last novel, Exiles of Heaven, where I had a battle that sprawled across a medieval village, a castle, the lake front where my protagonists crashed ashore, and a demon army emerging from a sorcery-powered gateway to Hell. Without a map for context I would have lost track of where certain elements were in relation to one another (i.e., the gate and castle are east of the beachhead). A whiteboard also provides you a means to quickly change elements as you adjust the scene; you can easily replace the black knight with the rose-gowned damsel with a stroke of your marker. It’s easy to do this step first before you touch your laptop. Substitute similar tools like pen and legal pad, your kid’s coloring paper, or even a touch-screen drawing program to suit you.

Tactic #2: Army Men


Yes, I mean those little plastic figures available in any grocery store around the world, including Djibouti, Africa. You could substitute your favorite toy doll, or shredded wheat, or pencils, or rocks, or whatever. The point is: use simulacrums of your major players and walk through the event. I have a set of little plastic knights that live aboard their block-construction long ship docked next to my desk. Scene are quickly mapped out through acting empowered by the play of my youth. This may sound childish, but the modern military uses methods like this every day. Go to any Army outpost and you’ll likely find a sandboard built by creative sergeants that visually represents the surrounding environs in scaled detail. Platoons will plan their patrols and actions by moving rocks around the board with a god’s eye view of the field. They are called “Rock Drills” for a reason, even though the acronym of “Rehearsal of Concept” doesn’t include the K.

Tactic #3: A Character Audit
The more active characters you incorporate in a fight the more this tool will become necessary. If the scene is simply your hero and villain, mano i mano, the reader will not likely lose track. If you are crafting the final confrontation between your Demented Dozen and their arch nemeses, it’s easy to start writing the scene and forget who’s doing what, where, and how they resolve themselves. Your reader will pick up on the valiant knight who enters the melee but never has anything said of him until the very end when he’s committed some brilliant deed, saving the day, but you gave no details. A character audit is simply a quality assurance check on your scene. Create a list of who starts the scene and what you think happens to each of them. Then when you finish, go back to that list and check the boxes: did you really tell enough for that character’s story? Did you account for their movement from beginning to end? Did you account for injuries or deaths? Do they still have the same things they started with, or has that changed? Fans of turned-based role playing video games will be familiar with the end-of-combat update on rewards won, health and magic lost, and experience gained; this is the same idea. For example, you may keep a table like this:

Your New Character: The War of ______

The elements of the fight become their own characters in many aspects and you should treat them as such. The bullet, the gun, the sword, the fist of fury – these are all objects which will require more detailed descriptions of their actions. On the television the viewer simply watches the action happen and follows these animated but impersonal objects do their work. As an author you must tell your reader what is happening and provide closure for events you start. If the hero fires his gun, then you must explain what happens to the bullet. If the evil demon swings a fiery sword, then you must tell us who or what he strikes…or if he doesn’t. If it’s an end-of-chapter cliffhanger, then you must provide resolution at some point in the story or your reader will never forgive you.

Be careful though: it’s easy to become lost writing pages of “The fist did this, then his fist…” and lose your reader’s attention. We need to know what happens, but we really want to know about the emotions, effort, and feelings of the characters involved.

Tips to Hone Your Craft

The strategy and tactics provided above will help you with your novel, but maybe you want to go further and hone your craft? I found these two tips to be excellent ways of practicing my craft. They have also served as useful tools in the toolbox when I’m crafting a good fight sequence and need to get my choreography right before I start writing.

Tip #1: Practice your craft: Writing Out a Movie Fight Scene
How would you describe the fast-paced sparring between Neo and Morpheus in The Matrix? How about the din of combat as the Allies came ashore at Omaha or Sword Beach during Operation Overlord in Saving Private Ryan? Try this exercise to practice your craft. You’ll need a media player and either a device to record your voice or some other means of capturing your thoughts.

  1. Find of your favorite movie fight scene,
  2. Put it in slow motion on the player (less than 1x playback, preferably as slow as possible) and,
  3. Dictate the action. Even at slow speed, you probably won’t be able to type or write fast enough to keep up. Try using a dictation app or software package like Dragon and capture your verbal interpretation.
  4. When the scene is complete, read through how you described it or listen to the replay.

The purpose of this exercise is to hone your combat-related wordsmithing. While the entirety of your spoken script is unusable (you do care about copyright, right?), you can certainly consider using certain elements in your own writing. No one can legitimately claim copyright over an unnamed sword’s backslash through the generic villain’s incompetent defense.

Tip #2: Practice your craft: Swing a Stick and Fight


Movies with great fight scenes have a secret weapon: trainers and choreographers. You can do the same. Go big or go little, but go do something. Here are a few ideas to help seed your inspiration garden:

  1. Hit up a firing range. Buy a sword. Make a sword. Take a martial arts class. Try to get as close to the real thing as you can. The details you bring from reality will show through. It’s much harder swinging real steel than a wooden dowel. How will the puny squire wield his master’s blade? A real .44 kicks unless you brace yourself. How will your petite female detective handle that?
  2. Practice a sequence of movements to find the tricks and challenges. Spar against a willing partner or a tree or the poster of your favorite movie character on your bedroom wall. How will you describe that fatal blow? What about the wild, all-or-nothing swing? For those writing about fights with swords and knives, a particular challenge is changing the direction of attack. How will the knight go from swinging his sword to stabbing his foe? It takes time and intention to change a sword’s direction. The same is true for handguns: it takes time to draw, unsafe, cock, aim, and fire a pistol if you aren’t prepared.
  3. Film yourself. Then replay the action and critique what you see. Once you like how the movement appears, use your dictation skills to translate your action into words for your story.

Fight For Your Readers

Writing a great fight scene is hard work. Hollywood has a leg up on us: using visual elements, they can make magic happen in a timeframe vastly different than your novel. They don’t need words to describe the brilliant hues of that violet cloak or the flashing lightning of a sword strike. That’s what the graphic design department gets paid for. However they are also constrained to two dimensions and the director’s allowance of time for the scene.

Make no mistake: your reader is just as discerning reading your scenes as they are binge watching the latest thriller series.

They will call you out if a bullet pulls magical G’s to spin around corners and take out the Kevlar-wearing villain if it was clearly impossible (unless you are writing about magic bullets that hook through curves with sentient intention, in which case, you are probably fine.)

They will also stay up turning pages through the dark watches of the night, blankets pulled overhead, eyes skimming ahead to find out if the desperate charge of knights broke the siege lines and rescued the pouting princess and her cats.

Your readers will do this as long as you put in the hard work to write compelling fight scenes. We know you have it inside you. Use these tools in your author toolbox, hone your craft, and you’ll knock them out, literally.

How do you organize complex scenes? Share your tips and join the conversation in the comments below.

Want to read some great fight scenes and get drawn up into the war between Heaven and Hell? Knights and demons collide in my latest series, and you can get Ascent of the Fallen here!

 

Photo Credits:

Craft at Canva

Whiteboard by Travis Chapman

Army Men

Knights of Dufferin Park

Identity

One of my favorite questions to wrestle with is identity. For men, this often takes form as:

  1. Am I enough?
  2. Can I come through?

Beneath each of those questions is the foundation in our thinking of who we are. Are we self-made? Forged in fire? Or genuinely accepted in spite of anything we could do?

Chip Ingram shared a piece on this today on his blog:

http://livingontheedge.org/read-blog/blog/2017/04/24/seeing-yourself-the-way-god-sees-you?

I’ve enjoyed Chip’s teaching over the years, and his piece got me to thinking about the characters in the Chronicles of Outremer series (not to mention myself!) While there is a broader story going on, a plot with twists and turns, actions and consequences, the concept of identity is one I try to keep at the forefront on my thinking.

Lord Fallondon Breck thinks he’s a failed man who did not win acclaim in the crusades, has let his family down, and must redeem himself in order to redeem them.

His close mentor, Sir Baldur Blackwood, thinks he’s a diligent father and husband, seeking to protect his family as well as being there for the son of his liege, the dead Lord Walter Breck, Fallon’s father.

Each of the knights in Fallon’s company has a version of this story. A perception of who they are, and the story (hopefully) keeps us following their journey to reconcile these understandings.

Thought I would share this for anyone interested. I encourage you to think of this not only in your own life, but those around us.

 

On a different note, I’m working on the quarterly newsletter for Thorium Publishing and have been shirking my duties to post on my site! I’ll have a post coming out soonest with a few changes to my scheme of communication, some upcoming projects in development, release information on the Chronicles, and more! You can always follow me at my Facebook page and subscribe to the newsletter to hear more from me!

Image credit: Canva

 

 

Donald Trump is the Best Thing to Happen to Authors

inspiration

But before we get into that, an uplifting moment. We’ve had unusually good weather the past week here in Maryland, and I’ve tried to take advantage of morning/evening walks when I could. This is a delightfully comfortable evening stroll in our neck of the woods. Great opportunity to decompress from the day and try to get the mind to stop racing.

woods

As for the headline, I’ve been thinking on this for the past couple of months. I try not to get sucked into the media cycles, but we also appreciate keeping a moderate pulse on the world news and things that impact us as Americans. For the election we certainly wanted to cast votes that aligned with our values, so some research and understanding was necessary. There’s a steady drumbeat of anti-Trump sentiment that, if nothing else, feeds the news beast. Like many things, I’m sure some of it is warranted, and some is probably not.

But as an author, I can’t help but be inspired. Here’s a situation that’s ripe for a great story. A complex cast of characters that are definitely polarizing. A national & world-wide situation that will ensure plot twists all the way to the end. Probably well past the end! It’s a recipe for the perfect best-seller.

It’s been said that if you’re vanilla, your not going to break out. No one (deep down) really wants something lukewarm. If you don’t have a section of the population who hates your stuff, then you probably don’t have a niche of die-hard fans who will buy everything you create. You can’t please everyone.

The political climate of 2017 will certainly spawn some break-out best sellers. Doesn’t matter which direction you come from, which angle you take, there’s a segment of the population who will be aligned with you. Doesn’t matter the genre (although some will naturally do better than others). Doesn’t matter if you write crime dramas, military fiction, high fantasy, or even romance. You can probably weave the elements at play in the daily news into your story and strike a spark in some population of your fans. You may drive some away, but others will be drawn to you like a moth to a flame (or a midwest corn farmer to a New York real estate & business power broker?)

Surely policies and law will change here in the U.S. in ways we haven’t yet predicted, and the impacts will be equally as varied. Business rules, taxes, the general sense of good will and cooperation, etc. Those may have an effect on authors’ businesses. But I posit that it’s not different than any other time in our history when political change is afoot. Some folks are helped; some hurt. Each group probably has varying degrees and individual situations that make it feel better/worse than the time before. Everyone will look ahead with anticipation at a better future; pundits and speculators will hype their version of that future to draw audiences and on-lookers just like the town crier, the orphan boy calling out the day’s news at the paper stand, or any other time in history.

So roll up your sleeves, take some notes, imagine your cast of misfits and how they all interact with and against each other, and get writing. You’ve never been given an opportunity like this to craft a compelling story with all the elements given out for free!

Chapter 1: The Man With The Golden Hair. No one predicted what happened that fall. All of the experts went mum after their speculations fell far short of reality…

PS: If you struggle with anxiety, like thinking too much on our political situation, you may appreciate this post by Tammy Strobel at RowdyKittens. I use several of her practices in my daily routines to keep my head straight!

Photo credit: Canva (header) and Travis Chapman (Woods)

Exiles of Heaven: Sneak Peek

storypreview

This week I’ve got a sneak peek at Exiles of Heaven, Book 2 in the Chronicles of Outremer series. I’m in the editing process so some of this may change in final form, but I thought it was a good segment to include. If you’re a newsletter subscriber you saw this in my 1st quarter update (and if you’d like to get an early look at my work and other early insights, promotions, discounts, musings, sign up for the newsletter!)

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Shores of Lake Ardglass
Hart blinked his eyes as awareness came back to his dizzy head. A cocked vision of screaming figures resolved into reality. The taste of smoke burned through his nostrils. He was on the ground and something was causing his back to tingle. Was that burned flesh? His hand batted away at something.

“Paulson, what’s going on? What’s happening?” a groggy voice said.

“Well first off, you’ve got brimstone stuck to your mail. Hold on.” Paulson’s dagger tore into the links, and momentarily the heat lessened. What kind of rock did that? Brimstone? The pain was sadly still there. “That’s better, although we’ll have to mend it later. Let’s hope there’s a later. Come over—”

Paulson’s words were swallowed up in his mouth, and Hart’s breathing stopped cold. The forest had reached almost to the shoreline when they arrived. No longer. Trees were cast aside like twigs, their trunks crushed against one another. Through the newly formed clearing the men could see a nexus of light and energy. The pulsing brilliance drew their attention. Atop a crumbling stone foundation stood a gateway. This arch, what appeared to be the remains of an old church, rose higher than six men and could accommodate at least ten riders abreast on horses. The stones framing the archway were worn with age, but certainly of this world. Everything Hart and Paulson saw bound inside of them was certainly not.

A fabric of undulating light stretched across the arch liked a rippling silk sheet. Its milky color shifted subtly. Hues of blue and purple caught their eyes. It reminded Paulson of the ocean at daybreak, deep at sea, riding blankets of grays and blues, tranquil and mesmerizing. Whatever this thing was, its nature became apparent quickly. Like a toad’s head rising out of the lily pads, an enormous serpentine head emerged from the center of the portal. Intelligent eyes flicked back and forth, taking in the surrounding view. Villagers renewed screams of terror and ran in progressively disparate directions away from the arch. Steam rose from the creature’s nostrils, then a sharp intake of breath preceded an ear-piercing trumpet call. A thousand dying souls mixed with equal parts anger, sadness, despair, grief, rage, hopelessness, all flooded the air together. Malignant wine, mulled with spices of sorrow.

Hart grabbed Paulson’s shoulder and dragged him backwards, the pair stumbling through cast off fishing nets and baskets, “To the boats priest. We must warn them.” Then he turned his head side to side, trying to find their leader, “Fallondon! Where are ye? To arms men of Breckshire. En garde! Prepare for action!”

— —
I caught sight of the wyrm as Swayn tumbled backwards from his horse. My breath caught as events unfolded in a timespan measured by heartbeats. Energy washed over us. First the quake, then the archway lighting up like a beacon even in bright sun, and now this portal revealing its first traveler.

Pale gray smoke lofted up from the opening, masking just how wide it truly was. Small bits of scorched earth lay before us, blasted from the gateway as it erupted in power. Sizzling sounds caught in my ears at the red-hot stones scorched grass. Brimstone. Staring at us through the portal was a serpentine head the size of a horse. Green scales, iridescent in the fiery glow of the arch, covered the thing’s head. Tendrils drooped from its lips, covering teeth like sharp knives, yellowed with age. What drew my attention more than anything were the eyes. Vertical slits blinked over its pupils, but there was an undeniable intelligence, a greatness, behind those eyes. The neck emerged pace by pace, followed by sleek shoulders and lizard-like legs finished with wicked talons.

I broke my gaze and turned from side to side. Time slowed for me. Silence filled my ears, although I saw men and women screaming in fear, pain, and shock. Hart and Paulson were behind me but backing towards the boats. Good idea. Why were we so in awe of this thing? It was just a dragon. We’d all seen them in the luminaries at chapel, filling the pages of Revelation.

Without warning the creature threw back its head; a deathly call bugled from its toothed mouth, breaking our revere. The cry shot across the landscape around us, dropping men and horses alike. Our hands shot up and attempted to plug ears. A hopeless gesture showing how powerless we were. Great leathery wings stretched across a horny spine, ending in a long serpentine tail tipped with knife-like spikes. The spurs on its clawed feet gripped the edge of the foundation before tensed muscles launched itself into the air above. I followed it up for a hundred feet before noticing what my narrowed attention had missed. More creatures were coming.

Hell had opened up before us.

Serial Goodness: Comparing Hit TV Now and Then

craft

My wife and I watch TV. We’re American, right? We’ve come to know the excitement of a new series, the heart-pangs of a long-running series ending, and the all-to-frequent sigh of “Well, that was a good season and we’ll never see it again. Thanks for axing that one.”

We were fans of The Office. We were also fans of V, Community, Revolution, Galavant, and a host of other one season wonders.

As an author I’m often thinking of the question, “What makes this story successful?” and apply whatever definition of successful seems appropriate:

  • Is it watched by many viewers?
  • Did it make a lot of cheddar $$?
  • Did it last a long time?
  • Was it impacting and made me think?
  • How creative was it, and unique?

We’ve recently started watching NBC’s Emerald City, a steampunk-ish take on The Wizard of Oz and associated literature. With our DVR we tend to lump episodes together, so we’ll do a couple on a weekend. Not quite binge, but close. We just finished up episode 5, and our mutual comment was, “Well, we finally got to some place where I can make a decision to stay or go. But hopefully this gets better.”

emeraldcity

I compare our feelings with ABC’s Lost. We initially binged the first 2 seasons to catch up, but then faithfully watched the remaining seasons with anticipation. The story pulled us along, drew us in. Sure there were some less-than-amazing episodes, but in general the story was compelling and seeded the right level of intrigue to keep us (and millions of others) hooked. For ABC, it appears to be a highly successful show in that it lasted 6 seasons and still generates buzz. J.J. Abramms looks like he’s gone on to good things, and many of the cast have moved further in their respective careers.

lost

It’s easy to throw stones from the sidelines, and we look at Lost in hindsight, but what made one show so magnetic and another about as exciting as vanilla ice cream? An inverted question also comes to mind: can a show in today’s markets be as “successful” as Lost and how?

Emerald City, in my view, has several factors at play:

Pros:

  • Expansive and elaborate world building is at play, and the designers continue to excel in visualizing that effort.
  • Many complicated characters: there’s a lot to work with.
  • Story elements and interpretation: I was impressed by several elements of The Wizard of Oz and how they were interpreted for TV.

Cons:

  • Each episode is packing a lot of details and complexity, rushing the viewer along a complicated (and mostly unrevealed) story arc. At least we have the Yellow Brick Road as a constant guide.
  • Visual elements, for the screen, like magic and scenery are amazing and costly: for a weekly TV show they draw down the budget, making each episode that much more value-responsible.
  • No significant names to anchor the show on. As a viewer I like that, but I can understand a network leaning on name-value to get viewers to a show. That’s why we watch The Great Indoors; thanks Joel McHale.

When I think of Lost, many of the same elements were in play, but the story revealed itself much slower. In a single episode we dove into one single character’s backstory and interplay between side characters and only came out with a tiny sand grain of story understanding. “Oh, so that’s why Jack feels that way about…”

By comparison, each episode of Emerald City leaves me thinking, “Gosh, I saw a lot of things happen, heard a lot of dialogue, had a bunch of visual elements thrown at me, but it was too much to process well, I don’t have strong feelings for any of these characters, and frankly don’t have any stake in this story yet. Except for West, kind of. In some sick way I actually do want to learn what drives the whore house managing wicked witch.

There are a couple of forces at play in TV which make me reflect on authorship and the business of story telling.

Our Viewing Habits Have Changed

When Lost came on the scene, we were just hitting the mainstream idea of DVD seasons being released in box set and online streaming was just coming of age. The concept of a binge was born. Fast forward a decade and networks are purposefully releasing whole seasons in one swipe, placating viewers with several hours of their favorite show all at once. Serialized TV on the networks remains, but the competition between established networks like NBC, ABC, and CBS, their respective empires of cable channels like FX and USA, and newcomers like Hulu and Netflix have changed the way TV is produced and distributed.

Fail Fast, Fail Early

Starting up a new show is no small feat. There are many, many options available for viewers, making it all the more important to hook them early and keep them gushing about their favorite shows. If a show can’t do that, then get it off the air. There are many ideas out there, and the marketers and psychologists (I mean… analysts) are using science and big data to hone their offerings to target viewership.

Unicorn Syndrome

I wonder how many networks take an approach that says, “We’ll invest in these 5 staple, these 5 new things, and know that we’ll pull the majority at the end of the season but maybe, just maybe, we’ll get another Walking Dead (Lost)(The Office)(Game of Thrones).” They are looking for that unicorn, and looking to replicate it.

Sound like Silicon Valley? It’s probably a little too close to the truth!

You Are The Commodity

As a viewer, I realize I’m a commodity. My attention is for sale. I’ve come to appreciate producers that plan new series as stand-alone packages: I loved The Night Manager and am enjoying Taboo because they have a clear end point. No need to worry about hooking me to Tom Hardy; just need to keep me entertained for a couple of episodes. Like a very long movie broken into pieces. I liked Stephen King’s The Stand way back in the day for that same reason: no need to rush the story to fit into 2 hours on the big screen.

We’ll see where things go. My fear is burning out viewers. How many false starts will someone accept before they cry wolf? Networks need more than a great pilot to make a splash; they need a great pilot season! Special effects alone won’t hold viewers.

Great story, however, will.  A great lesson to keep in our minds as authors and readers.

What about you? What TV series have held your attention and remained compelling through time? Join the conversation in the comments below!

Image credit: Blog image by Canva; Emerald City and Lost poster art at IMDB

A Boy and His Dragon: Inspiration in Florida and the Author Mindset by Steven Pressfield

2cents

I’ve been a bad kid. Kind of. We ended up executing a slight change of plans last week that turned a family visit into more of a holiday, taking advantage of several opportunities that fell into our laps. As such, I did what every diligent writer does: take a break!

During our stay in Orlando, FL and Charleston, SC, I did get to enjoy some light editing of Exiles of Heaven as I’m reading through in its 2nd draft.  I also searched for inspiration in our daily activities and the wonderful worlds created by Universal Studios and Disney’s Epcot resort. Some pictures follow showing the happy little boy at play.

I continue to press on with the beats of Map of the Stars, as well as general work catching up or planning future activities associated with Thorium. One item of interest is a series Steven Pressfield is writing on the authorship business mindset. Other author entrepreneurs have provided me excellent inspiration and guidance in this area, and Steve’s article does  a masterful job of describing the mindset.

I’ll try to do a catch-up post this week, but if nothing else, know “more come soon.”

At the Norwegian Village, Epcot St. George and the Dragon At Gringotts Happy Boy

Photo credit: Travis Chapman at Disney’s Epcot Resort and Universal Studios, Orlando, FL; header image by Canva

Author at Play: Unplugging from the Machine & a 2nd Draft Update

Exiles of Heaven

While I have a general plan that keeps me tracking on my writing projects, sometimes the story just pulls you along. Steven Pressfield would probably call that The Muse. Many call it ‘flow’. For me it was just joy. I have three major tasks set before me this season with Thorium Publishing: mature and grow the business end of operations, finish book two, Exiles of Heaven, and start and finish book three, Map of the Stars. Now Exiles of Heaven is that much closer!

My bet with Ken is a good motivator, but I’m willing to suffer wearing my Three Wolf Shirt in order to produce good books in my own timing. Plus, Exiles of Heaven needs to be finished next; that would otherwise just be silly. So I’ve been parallel working my edits to Exiles and initial idea incubation for Maps the past few weeks. This past weekend I started editing the latter half of Exiles and got caught in the whirlpool. For me, it’s really good. I’d finish a chapter and think, “I should stop and do this chore,” but couldn’t tear myself away. I wanted to see the story finished. I was drawn in and couldn’t stop reading. That feels really good!

I finished the second draft and am now shifting into the beta reader and formal editing modes. Everyone should keep their fingers crossed for an Easter launch!

I also spent some time over the weekend working on a completely useless but undeniably valuable and fun project. As a kid I ran around the woods surrounding our farm wielding whatever melee weapon I could produce from scrap materials on hand. Sticks became barbarian clubs. Pitchfork handles became spears. I found an old steel framing square that, once cut down with a hacksaw and put to the grinder, became a perfect two foot long Roman pugil sword complete with wood and sheepskin sheath, horseshoe-sourced hilt, and a blade fine enough to terrorize the maple saplings of our farm. It wasn’t just a matter of beating up trees with whatever I could find; it was the act of creation as well.

Since 2014 I’ve collected a good kit of armor for wearing at our local Renaissance Festivals (having borrowed a friend’s and realizing that participating was 1000 times better than just attending). I’m OK with the idea of paying someone else for their skills and effort with things I’m not great at or don’t want to undertake. Could I make a chainmail hauberk? Sure, probably. Do I want to? Not really. One local festival will allow weapons to be worn if peace-tied. This past year I wore a crowbill on my belt, but a knight should really have a sword strapped to his hip. Kind of a distinguishing feature.

I could buy one, and I probably will at some point, but I wanted to do something for myself. I had already collected most of the pieces-parts over time. My workshop is pretty well stocked with tools from my sailing adventures and growing up farming. Nothing fancy at all: that’s on purpose too. Just some bar stock, some scrap material, and an old ball hitch with a rusted shank that couldn’t be used for towing any longer. Now it was just a matter of setting aside the time to do things.

Sword in the making

I’m not done, not by a long shot, but I had so much fun making this thing that words can hardly describe it. When I finished welding the pommel I spent minutes in the driveway just swinging away, testing the balance, feeling the heat draw through my gloves. In my mind’s eye, I was Balian the warrior-blacksmith, defender of Jerusalem (at least the Hollywood version); Aragorn holding Anduril, the Flame of the West, reforged and renewed.

I’ve got dozens of projects on the honey-do list, regular chores and upkeep for our house and vehicles, and no small amount of professional stuff to keep up with in the wings, but I’m glad I spent the time on Saturday working this one. Psychologists and experts expound the virtues of play for adults. I’m glad that for a few moments I was able to reawaken the same feelings I had in my childhood. Or maybe we should call it “Training for adulthood.”

A Bloody Good Map: Cartography Related to the Chronicles of Outremer

inspiration

I read a good deal of high fantasy, typically works containing elements similar to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and such. One of the fun parts of any fantasy novel is the map. Usually found just after the title pages, the map gives the reader context. It provides a framework to orient the story within. Usually the author and designer can incorporate some good artwork and make them visually appealing as well!

The sailor and former submariner in me likes charts. I have them on my walls at home. I can look and immediately recall the adventure of sailing my live-aboard sailboat down the East Coast of the U.S., or crossing parts of the Pacific in 2009. In the same way, every time I see the pen-stroked beauty of Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth, my mind recalls Frodo’s adventure out of Bag End and into the dangers of the wild.

Chronicles of Outremer is no different.

However, I did not include the map in the digital copies. Yet. I started with a hand-drawn image that is kept tacked near my desk. This map gives me, the author, context. If tells me where the major locations of my world are. If tells me the orientation to keep things in their right places. It helps me keep track of what’s between Wolford and Westfield, Ardglass and Athylford. It’s also fictitious.

When I started the basic idea for this series, way way back in the 2012 timeframe, I was unsure what setting the story would take place in. I did not set out to write historical fiction. I knew I wanted to write about a company of knights. The initial locations were developed almost independent of any historical map of the time, meaning I would not be tied to local geography, town names, or features. References to the Crusader States were pretty accurate, but my interpretation of England was unique and fictional, drawing only on elements of the place.

The challenge of that approach is missing out on the beauty that is history, and the rich timeline of changes that occurred in the real Broads. Places like Ipswich. Norfolk. What’s an author to do?

Well, this author decided to blend. There are great reasons not to do so. There are many folks who want to see top-notch historical accuracy, and will be turned off by my muddling with the location. Who knows how far I’ll be read, but there are real people who live in the real Broads who will wince at fictitious and fantastical towns and geography. After all, if I read a book about Cochranton, PA, that said the school mascot was a walrus, I’d be up in arms. For those readers, I apologize for any unmet expectations, and hope you understand this viewpoint.

What I have done is “sprinkle” some fact with my fiction. I do this on purpose. There is a real place called the Broads. There is a real Ipswich. There were real knights and retainers who journeyed to the Holy Land, who fought in places like Ascalon, Aleppo, Acre, and more. The Crusader States were real. My hope is that readers will take these seeds and water them as much (or as little) as they desire, doing their own research, learning about the reality behind the fiction.

I had little idea when I first watched it, but Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven is actually based on a true story. Not just the Crusade and Templars, but the fall of Jerusalem and the characters themselves. There really was a Guy d’Lusignan and Sibylla, his wife. If it weren’t for Scott’s telling of the tale, I’d have never dug further in to learn that.

My hope is to get some better graphics for the books going forward and include a map with each one. In the mean time, for you, dear reader, please find my working copy.

broads

The Crusader States

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Image credit:

Travis Chapman, Chronicles of Outremer

Norman B. Leventhal Map Center

Thorium: Goodbye 2016; Hello 2017

business

Goodbye 2016; hello 2017. I want to take a few moments to let everyone know how the year went, and where it’s going from here. The biggest event for Thorium Publishing and my authorship was simple:

I started the marathon and hit “publish.”

2016 was a year full of events: personal, professional, and in authorship. Trips to California for work, supporting NATO in Norway for the Navy Reserves, being selected for promotion to Commander, getting the sailboat out on the Middle River, getting a small group Bible study up and going, vacation in Gatlinburg, TN, and hosting Christmas at our place for the whole family! The end of 2016 at Thorium was a special treat over the holidays. Here’s how that panned out:

What I accomplished

In 2016 I continued to finish the 1st person perspective change to Ascent of the Fallen. I got contracts in place for editing and coverart, and pushed hard to finish the work necessary to hit “publish” on Amazon. This included registering the business, taxes, and all of that jazz. I was also able to get Exiles of Heaven‘s first draft completed. The sequel is also told through the eyes of Lord Fallondon Breck, and required a lot of work to complete. I had a number of placeholders (I use the editorial mark-up [TK] where I don’t know what’s going to fill the space) that required fleshing out. In the end, Exiles of Heaven came in at 52,000 words, almost a third longer than Ascent of the Fallen.

I also worked on many aspects of the business at Thorium Publishing. The website has become more active, with a nominal posting schedule of something out every Monday. My Amazon author pages, both U.S. and U.K., as well as Goodreads profile, are up and populated. I have a Facebook page. I have content. Want to help? Head over and follow or friend me!

There’s a lot coming down the road. I won’t commit to dates or even time frames at this point, but I want to share as much as possible for prospective readers. I’m adding graphics and write-ups to the “Buy my Books!” page on the site. Hint, hint.

I was able to get several professional development activities under my belt as well. To be honest, I was pushing hard in other areas of my life, including finishing a 2nd masters degree, which consumed a lot of effort. I did manage to keep up with some of my favorite writing podcasts, like The Creative Penn, and went back to The Story Grid and Productivity for Creatives whenever I could. Steven Pressfield’s “Writing Wednesdays” was particularly helpful, and I spent time each week digesting his wisdom.

Once I hit the button on December 20th (4 days ahead of the book going live), I listened to Joanna’s 2016 wrap-up podcast with Mark Lefebvre from Kobo. They both articulated a point I think worth repeating: it’s no use lamenting over starting late and wishing you started years earlier. It’s a great time to start right now, because in 10 years, there will be someone else looking back thinking, “I wish I started in 2016.” It would have been nice to publish in 2014 when I was finishing up deployment in Africa. It would have been nice to publish last year when the story was complete. But I’m happy I published this year and put in the hard work necessary to do things as well as I could. I’m still learning. I want to get better. This is the start of the marathon!

What’s coming down the road

2017 is going to be great! There’s lots of change in the air, which means lots of opportunities as well. We’ve got a lot of good things going on as a family. I’m particularly excited to continue my authorship and get more out there for you! In 2017, I’m trying to get the following activities complete:

Publish Exiles of Heaven by Easter

The book is complete, I just need to finish the editing and work of publishing. I think it’s a great sequel, and almost wish I could have published them both together so you could read the true “pilot” in one swipe. I’ll do my best to get it into waiting hands soon!

Exiles of Heaven

Publish Map of the Stars:

I made a wager to ship book 3 this summer. Watch out Ken, there’s no way I’m wearing my Three Wolf Shirt for a week or letting you write the dedication. I’m gunning for you, brother! Map of the Stars excites me because we get introduced to some of the female protagonists in the series. I hope I can do them justice.

Map of the Stars

Continue producing content for Thorium Publishing:

I’ve had failures to launch in the blogosphere before, but I hope to keep a consistent schedule with the website. For those who subscribe to the newsletter, I’ll have a quarterly update for you all, including exclusive looks at new material and additional stories only available to you, my readers.

Book 4 in the Chronicles of Outremer:

If I can manage publishing Map of the Stars this coming summer, I may be able to get book 4 out by Christmas 2017. I have several working titles and need to narrow that down, so stay tuned for where the story goes!

Maturing Thorium and myself as an author:

I’ll probably provide some insight into my other series in production, either as teaser chapters or short stories available here. I may also try to find some fantasy fiction outlets to provide material to for more exposure. We’ll see.

I intend to get through at least two or three new books on writing craft, and will try to review at least two I already own. I’ll also continue to learn from some of my favorite existing sources, like Sterling and Stone.

2017 is going to be a great year! Can’t wait to share more of my work with you, hear your feedback through Goodreads, Amazon, and this website’s comments, and continue to grow the Thorium brand. Cheers!

** Cheddar: For anyone interested, let’s talk about how well Thorium did this year. I’m well in the red. That’s not surprising. Ascent of the Fallen, my only income-producing asset, released late in the year and still needs to earn back its production costs. It’s fun to watch the Amazon rankings change, but I’m trying to avoid the magnetism of those metrics and focus on producing the next story, and the next story. I intend to provide some form of annual wrap-up as Thorium matures, so stay tuned for next year’s update.

 

Photo credit: Claire Rowland