Well, I’d been threatening to do it for long enough, so here it is! A blog.
I’ll be touching on various topics to do with writing, maybe a dash of acting thrown in here and there as they’re both very close to my heart. They form a symbiotic relationship as far as I’m concerned. One compliments the other.
A guide for newly published authors of all kinds on setting up your own book signing events.
As always, I begin by pointing out that this isn’t necessarily a guide from an expert. It’s my experiences, laid out in a way that I certainly hope is helpful. Essentially, I’ll be discussing my top tips for putting on a book signing, and how my own efforts have evolved over the years. This is very much aimed at those who are self published or are just starting out after recent traditional or hybrid publication. Chances are if you have an agent, they’ll look to take on most of the work themselves when arranging a signing event. For those of us without agents, it’s down to us to muck in and do what’s necessary to give a book signing event the best possible chance of success.
Firstly, let’s think about the type of event. The venues can vary a great deal. It could be at a school, a library, a shop, a comic con or a literary festival. I’ve certainly had the most experience selling and signing at comic cons, because ultimately I’ve been attending them for many years, as have my target audience. Whatever the venue, you’re essentially allotted a space in which to set up. It’s important to be sure of how much space you have. When booking a table at a comic con or literary festival, you should be able to determine the size of it. At a smaller event, perhaps a small shop or a library, the space is likely to be smaller. Either way, use the space to your utmost advantage.
When I was a student, browsing through the local Waterstones, I recall seeing a man literally standing by a relatively small display of books and telling people he’d written the book and would they like to buy it. While I had no cause to doubt him, I have to say the direct approach didn’t sit well with me. There was no signage, nothing to attract the attention of passers by, just this individual approaching people with what verged on an ultimatum. However you set up your book signing, don’t do that. While it may certainly get people’s attention, it is not going to convince them to buy your book.
What gets people’s attention, by and large, is a display. The overall look, the presentation, the razzle dazzle. Take a look at my very first set up:
This was at my very first book signing at a comic con in Worcester. Apart from the red table cloth, it doesn’t exactly grab you, does it? I’ve since traded in the red table cloth for a more inviting dark blue. Suffice to say, putting on book signings has been a learning experience for me, and my display has slowly evolved over time into something a little more eye catching;
This was at my most recent book signing at Bristol Comic Con & Gaming Festival, which itself was a welcome return, having not done events at all since late 2019. Looking at this, it really does feel like a great deal has changed over the years. Not only have I published two more books, but my approach to selling them has evolved. You won’t catch me claiming that I’ve got nothing left to learn. There are always ways to improve. Again, this blog is more about sharing my experiences with those who are just starting out, so we’ll proceed by looking at each component.
My first book banner was, shall we say …a little basic.
Simple design, with a simple phrase designed to suggest what the book is about, and of course the book cover (always include your book cover!). For some, the image of the book cover alone might be enough to capture their attention. However, as I published the second book and began producing the live action book trailers for the Figment Wars, I figured that my promotional roller banners should include these. I therefore had a new banner commissioned for the second book, and eventually commissioned a new banner for the first book to mirror the second.
Having this second banner, rather than trying to incorporate both books onto one banner, certainly felt right. It contributed more to the overall display, providing a more full backdrop. When the third book was published and I decided to get a new banner again, I opted for the one, larger banner that you can see in the more recent photo. Just as before, this provided a full backdrop to the display and is large enough to catch people’s attention.
There are many things to take into consideration when going about getting a promotional banner. First, decide on the size. If you’re more likely to do events that provide a large table, then perhaps a larger banner is better. If you only have the one book, there is nothing wrong with having a smaller banner that focuses entirely on that one book. The key in either case is to have the book covers displayed prominently, with anything else going further down the banner. Smaller banners like the ones above are more ideal for smaller events, where ultimately you might only have space for a small table for your books, a chair and some space behind. Such banners still let people know that something special is going on.
Be prepared to invest in your banner, for it is certainly the largest piece of equipment you’ll have to bring along. They come in a variety of styles and sizes. Some can be set up in seconds, whereas some require more construction. I personally favour the roller banner because it is simple to set up, and there are times when I do these events without assistance. If you have a gift for graphic design, then all power to you, or if you have a friend who’ll design one for you, all power to them. I personally have always gone with Roller Banners UK, as they not only offer a range of different kinds of banners but they also offer a design service, ranging from the basic to the more complex. There is a cost for this service, but I still maintain that you might as well invest in a decent looking banner.
The Book Display
Now, this is one aspect that I’ve made several different approaches to, sometimes even changing the layout of my books during an event. You need to take a necessary amount of copies of your book to sign, that much is obvious. I keep the vast majority of them in large boxes under the table, ready to replenish the displays where necessary. Space is at a premium on your signing table, and while it is important to display your books, you can go overboard.
At first, I just had stacks of books, on one side of the table or the other, ready to sign. I’ve experimented with different ways of stacking them, and eventually splashed out on some single book stands so that at least one copy can stand atop the others. It ultimately depends on how many individual books you have to sell. After I published my third, I decided a better setup was required.
I’d seen a few stalls over the years with some amazing book stands for the table, but I’ll confess it was not easy finding them online. Eventually, I came across this on Etsy;
Probably intended for a different kind of product, but I found it suited my book display needs admirably. That isn’t to say that there weren’t challenges with it. After putting it together for the first time (it comes apart for ease of travel), I decided to try turning it 90 degrees to see how it would look.
Now, while this looked brilliant in my view, this was for a matter of moments at home. What I discovered when setting up at Bristol Comic Con was that the slightest breeze sent the top level of books crashing down, taking everything else with it. I therefore swiftly turned the display up the way you see it in the other photo. While the individual covers weren’t as prominently displayed, they at least stayed upright. I wish I had more to offer about where to find decent book displays for exhibitions. Indeed, there are a fair few for other literature such as leaflets and brochures, but not so many for books. I had my eye on what was essentially a card stand, a wire frame that could hold six levels of books, but sadly it wasn’t going to be back in stock in time for the signing. For the moment I’ll keep my current display stand, but in the future, who knows?
If you can produce free giveaways such as bookmarks, postcards or business cards, do so. Then have them displayed right at the front of your setup, so that they are easy for people to access. As a general rule, I strive to be generous with these, not making them conditional on making a purchase. An item displaying your book cover is better off out there with someone than it is just sat on a table. You may want to purchase holders for these, but personally I think they’re better off lying flat on the table. Reserve upstanding positions for your books!
Now, if you’ve made it this far into the blog, first of all, congratulations. Secondly, if you don’t have an agent and must rely entirely on your own wits to set up a book signing, it’s important to consider everything you’ll need. There’s nothing worse than arriving at the venue and discovering you’ve forgotten something. Be as organised as you can. I find making a list is helpful.
Pens. You can’t sign books without pens. Invest in some decent ones and get a few. Nothing worse than your pen running out halfway through the day. There are plenty of types to choose from, and ultimately I’ve bought a fair few of most of them over the years. These days I tend to favour a V ball 0.7.
Post Its. You may find yourself needing to scribble on something from time to time. Testing to see if a pen works or writing out a name before you commit it to the book. Get some post its and have them to hand.
Cash. You want people to buy your books, obviously. Even pre-covid, people would ask me if I took card payments and unfortunately at the time, I didn’t. For Bristol Comic Con I invested in a SumUp card machine and it was remarkably simple to use. I still use a simple cash box to hold money, for even now there are still some who prefer to pay with cash. Be prepared for both, and make sure you have a bit of change to hand.
Blu Tac. The best friend of exhibitors everywhere. Whether it’s attaching posters or other promotional material to the front of your table, attaching price tags to part of a display or to your books themselves, it’s always a good idea to have some blu tac on you.
Be tidy. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to set up before the event starts, and be meticulous in your presentation. Tuck all boxes and everything else you used to transport your wares away. This not only makes for a more appealing presentation, but removes any potential hazards to the public.
Paperwork. Keep a tally of how many books you sell. This is better than trying to remember how many books you brought and how many you sold after the fact. Keep it tucked away and just take a moment after each sale to add the necessary tally.
Insurance. Some events don’t require traders, dealers or in this case authors to have Public Liability Insurance, and some make it a necessity. I find it is better to not exclude yourself from any events, and ultimately to be covered is better than not being covered. There are a range of types of insurance available from a range of trusted providers.
Let the display do its job. Once you’re set up, let your presentation do the initial work of attracting people to your stall. Position yourself comfortably behind the table, standing or sitting, and be mindful of staring into space. It’s important to be welcoming when people do approach your desk, but let them take a moment to really look at it before engaging them properly. Being too full on will put people off. Answer questions, but don’t let yourself be taken advantage of. If you feel someone is monopolising your time, ask them gently if they’re interested in buying a copy. This usually either prompts them to make a purchase, or to ultimately move on. You can be friendly, but you’re not there to make friends with every person who approaches your table.
I certainly hope this has been helpful in some way. As I said, my own experience of selling my books continues to evolve. I hope yours will too.
A look at the process of creating characters that never actually get seen.
Some of the greatest characters are the ones we never get to see. This sounds odd, I’ll give you that, but hear me out. I’ll soon be returning to the biggest manuscript I’ve ever attempted. The delay in editing is intentional, as I believe I’ll be able to tackle this 228,000 word piece better if I do so having forgotten most of what I had written. What I do recall, however, which will need some more attention in edits, is a character I created. A fearsome and, indeed, feared warrior, who will never actually appear in the book. He’ll only be mentioned by others.
This got me thinking lately about the characters who are never actually seen by the reader or viewer. Just like any other character, from the writer’s point of view, they need to be crafted and developed. Any one character can be partly defined by how other characters view them. With the Unseen Character, the reader or viewer must rely entirely on how others view that character, yet the writer must in turn develop that by having a very clear idea of the character. The major difference is that the writer keeps a great deal to themselves. This can be vital, for reasons I’ll get into presently.
From the beginning, the writer must decide if this character is ever going to be seen, and in my view they must stick to that decision no matter what. If you intend this character to make an appearance later in the story, then slowly drip feed details about them to the reader where necessary. It should be enough to capture the reader’s interest, but not be so sensational that you risk disappointing the reader, unless that is indeed part of the story. Reputations are not always deserved, after all, in real life or fiction. I have no intention of ever featuring this character, yet when he is spoken of by others there will be a sense of awe and fear throughout. The fact that he has been defeated by another, more prominent character, will provide a greater sense of awe for that character, and thus his service to the plot has been rendered.
Creating an entire character, even an unseen one, purely for the purpose of world building can have its uses, but a writer must be careful not to litter their work with them. Particularly in fantasy, too many names being thrown about can serve only to confuse the reader, especially if those names end up having no further part to play in the story. This is not to say that the characters in a story must be kept only to the core players, as it were. There is a fine balance between effective world building within a story and effectively writing a full history. In other words, make up a character on the spot if necessary for a one off mention, but do so sparingly.
The reason I say a writer must decide whether a character will eventually be seen or not is that it’s a matter of expectations. If the details about a character are scant yet tantalising, the reader will instantly begin to fill in those details with their own imagination. Although we as writers can never please everyone, this is ever more the case when it comes to Unseen Characters. We run the risk of disappointing our readers, having built up their hopes and their own idea of this character, only to have them dashed to pieces by what the writer actually intended for them. This can, at times, be used as a device to further the plot, or indeed as a bit of comic relief, but if you’re going to build up a character and have them be a major player then be sure to up your game. Make sure they are every bit as honourable or dishonourable as you have made them out to be, and just maybe you’ll exceed the reader’s expectations.
The importance of the Unseen Character as a comic device cannot be overlooked, and there have been one or two examples lately which reinforce my point about deciding from the beginning if this character is ever going to be seen. Comedy is, of course, subjective, and much relies on the audiences own sense of imagination. Comedy allows us to delve into the absurd and the extreme. A character can be described in such a manner that provokes such extreme reactions from others that the character could never actually be portrayed. This is not always the case, of course. Some characters such as Godot in Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting For Godot’ is never seen, and is ultimately described very little. His existence, however, is the very reason for the piece and the comedy is generated through the anticipation of his arrival. Of course, he never does (spoiler alert!).
As far as creating characters as a writer, I don’t hold much distinction between crafting a character for a stage play and crafting a character for a television script. Both require the same degree of effort and thought. Let me jump, therefore, to another unseen character, in the form of Mrs. Mainwaring. The wife of Captain Mainwaring, commander of the Walmington-On-Sea Home Guard, is often referred to but never actually seen. She provokes a certain degree of trepidation from her husband, while she herself is well known for being something of a recluse. It is believed that the writers of ‘Dad’s Army’, Jimmy Perry and David Croft, considered featuring her at some point, but the cast agreed that everyone had their own idea of what Mrs. Mainwaring was like, and to reveal her would “destroy the character”. Yet, she appears in the 2016 film version, and this is ultimately what I was talking about. In my view, she was completely different from what had been established in the original series, and the fact that she appeared at all really seemed to fly in the face of this fundamental comedy principle, that the unseen characters should remain unseen. This, of course, takes nothing away from Felicity Montagu’s performance, I just feel that her character could just as easily have been someone other than Mrs. Mainwaring.
Comedy is, quite frankly, one of things that has got me through these last few years. We’ve all had a rough time during this pandemic, and revisiting old favourites has certainly lifted my spirits. There are many examples of Unseen Characters that have been crafted exceedingly well;
Sheridan, Hyacinth Bucket’s spoiled (and very possibly gay) son in ‘Keeping Up Appearances.
Maris, Niles’ wife in ‘Frasier’.
Joe Maplin, the greedy and unscrupulous owner of Maplin’s holiday camp, heard of only through the clipped and reserved reading of his letters by Jeffrey Fairbrother in ‘Hi-de-Hi’.
Stan Walker, the on-again, off-again husband of Karen in ‘Will & Grace’.
Though we may at times take these characters for granted simply because we don’t see them, the fact remains that a writer has still put a great deal of time and energy into crafting them, to ensure they have the right impact on the plot or to have us roaring with laughter at the thought of them. I am looking forward to returning to editing my latest manuscript (even though it is huge), as I am keen to expand this Unseen Character just enough to build up the reader’s own sense of who he is, or rather, who he was.
The Figment Wars trilogy is complete! A short blog reflecting on the journey of the last six years.
Back in 2013, if someone had told me that I’d soon have not one, but a trio of fantasy books published, I’d have laughed. Writing had always been an ambition, but part of me never thought I’d actually make a go of it. That was something that happened to other people. I didn’t even know where to begin, so it all seemed very much a pipe dream.
Now, you won’t get me claiming that all dreams come true, nor indeed will you find me claiming to be something I am not. Am I published author? Yes. Am I a best selling author? No. I don’t believe in throwing that phrase around unless you have the sales to prove it, and I don’t. That’s not to say that I’ll never be a best selling author. I’m learning every day and striving to do my utmost, which is all anyone can ask of anyone, really. I started endeavouring to get published in 2014, after finishing the manuscript of ‘Through the Portals’. I got plenty of rejections, then came the e-mail from Austin Macauley. They were saying “Yes” when everyone else was saying “No”. I took the opportunity, and over six years later, I haven’t regretted it for an instant.
Today (November 30th), is Publication Day for my third YA fantasy novel, the final instalment in the Figment Wars trilogy, ‘Shadows of the Worst’. It has to share its Publication Day with my second book, ‘Search for the Caretaker’, but like any middle child, my second book is going to have to get used to the idea. It really is an extraordinary feeling, to see a copy of all three books standing together on my shelf. There was a moment, during the writing of the first book, when I considered making it a stand-alone, one-off piece. I am so glad I decided not to do that. I can now say I am the author of a fantasy trilogy.
While the writing journey for the Figment Wars may be over, my journey as an author certainly is not. As I said, I’m learning every day how best to promote my books and I have other, separate writing projects in mind. I look back on the person I was back in 2013 and I feel a tremendous sense of personal growth. I’ve learned that there are opportunities out there, if you are determined enough to look for them. I’ve also learned that there are degrees to success. Not everyone can get a title on the Best Seller list, but this doesn’t mean you stop striving for it. Ultimately, as I’ve said a number of times, the main reason for writing must be because you love it.
And I have loved every minute of writing the Figment Wars. I hope you enjoy reading them just as much!
It usually bemuses me when people volunteer the words or phrases that irritate them. Common sayings, conversational habits or filler words that annoy us. It bemuses me because, in my experience, the one way to guarantee that people will use those phrases more often is to let everyone know they irritate you. Maybe it’s the company I keep. Now of course, I’m not talking about vulgar, rude or offensive phrases, just everyday phrases such as “I was about to say” or “Going forward”. Maybe one or two of such phrases might rankle me a bit, but I don’t usually volunteer this information. There is, however, one phrase that’s been doing the rounds lately that I find to be something beyond just irritating.
“Facts don’t care about your feelings.”
It’s being thrown about quite a lot lately, usually by anonymous trolls online or certain individuals engaging in what they believe is just a debate, when really their intentions are motivated by bigotry and hatred.
It comes in a few variations, such as “facts over feelings”, or “facts > feelings”, but it is always uttered with an undercurrent of contempt for the people it is directed at. It is meant to belittle and, ultimately, to dehumanise. To put a group of people firmly in their place and dismiss their concerns as irrelevant. It is a phrase I abhor.
Let us imagine (grim though it may be) taking this phrase as a universal truth. Facts over feelings. From a writer’s perspective, taking this approach is going to make for some pretty boring novels. Do we imagine, for one moment, that the greatest writers of history were so dismissive of the importance of feeling? Poets, novelists and playwrights have plunged into the very depths of their emotions for centuries to produce works that reflect what it means to be human. More often than not, those who champion the phrase “facts don’t care about your feelings” are also proponents of “bottling it up” and “not talking about it”. A distinctly unhealthy approach to life, quite frankly, and it doesn’t exactly help produce anything beyond a rather strained bowel movement.
Our emotions, our feelings, are what make us human. They’re what make life worth living. Look an animal in the eyes and you’ll see just how it’s feeling. Yet, the proponents of this nasty little catchphrase consider themselves so above such things that they would dismiss the emotions of those they dislike so vehemently, robbing themselves and others of the essence of humanity. When they say “Facts don’t care about your feelings”, what they are really saying is “I don’t care about your feelings.” I cannot fathom living with such a lack of empathy, such callous disinterest in the lives of others.
It particularly saddens me when I see this phrase aimed at members of the LGBTQ community, particularly when it comes from cis gay men and lesbians, aimed at transgender people. The dismissal of gender because it’s “just a feeling”, whereas sexual attraction can apparently be considered a fact. Well, it wasn’t that long ago that we were being told that our attraction to those of the same sex was “just a feeling” and that “it would pass”. We were being told by a great many people in positions of power that how we felt didn’t matter, because the fact that men and women come together to produce children was considered important enough to override how we felt. A fact that mattered more than our feelings.
The dismissal of gender as just a feeling makes no sense to me. What is attraction, if not a feeling? How do we know if we’re attracted to someone? We feel it. How do I know I am a man? How do I know I am cis? I was born male, and I have never felt that I might not be. I have always felt attracted to other men. Therefore, through my instincts (another word for feelings), I know that I am a gay, cis man. I didn’t come with a manual when I was born. I had to discern who and what I am based on how I felt, and how I continue to feel. This, again, is the very essence of being alive. To dismiss transgender people and belittle their “feelings” is a repulsive thing to do. Their feelings exist, just as everyone else’s do, and that is a fact.
There will always be those who say “But I’m just stating facts!” as though the things they’re saying are just a casual contribution to an academic debate. Whatever the sphere of discussion, they’ll say “I don’t have a problem with (blank), but this is a fact”. Yes, I know sex is real. So is gender. It’s as real as sexual attraction, which is what unites the LGBTQ community. Whether cis and gay or transgender, both groups have at some time or another been told that facts override how they feel about themselves. We were told we had to conform because it was a ‘fact’ that everyone was meant to be a certain way. That was the thinking behind Section 28, and it was flawed thinking at best. Those who pipe up with certain facts as though they’re making a profound point that nobody’s ever considered before are usually just revealing their intense discomfort and sometimes outright hatred of a group that is ‘different’ to them.
As I said, sex is real. I know that. I don’t feel the need to go pointing it out to everyone because, frankly, to do so is unnecessary. Sex is real. Gender is real. Both heterosexuality and homosexuality are real, as are bisexuality, asexuality, pansexuality. Being transgender is real. Being gender fluid or non binary is real. All these things, and so many more, are real. They are facts. Those who employ my most hated of phrases wish to ignore the complexity of life and hammer through their own narrow view of what is real and valid. Those who use that phrase are almost never just looking to engage in debate. They’re looking to invalidate entire groups of people based on nothing but their own prejudice.
I can accept a great many facts and acknowledge the feelings of others, because those feelings exist. They are a fact. The dismissal of people’s feelings as invalid is not a path any of us wish to go down. Once you can invalidate one group, you can justify acts of unspeakable cruelty towards them, and they never stop at just one group.
Why having some time away from writing can be beneficial.
“If you don’t write every day, how can you consider yourself a writer?”
First of all, let’s have none of that. A more unhelpful and unrealistic approach to writing, in my view, does not exist. More than anything else, such a statement is ultimately geared towards making those of us who do not write every day feel inferior. Not as dedicated. Not as good. That’s a mess I’d rather not get into, save for saying that those who espouse such views are guilty of the worst kind of snobbery. Let us instead focus on the positives that come from not just not writing every day, but from taking planned breaks.
I’m currently very much on a break from writing. A planned break. I have not thrown my hands up halfway through a project and decided to give up, though sometimes if a project is causing you distress than taking a short, unplanned break can be immensely beneficial. Our writing is important to us all, but your health must come first. Taking regular breaks, doing something else entirely, not only helps to reduce your stress level but can improve your writing when you do come back, refreshed and ready.
What I mean by a planned break is that I know precisely what projects I will move onto after this break. I have just finished the first draft of a new novel, the word count of which is currently sitting at 228,00. Editing that is going to be a monumental effort, and I’d very much like to feel genuinely rested when I begin to tackle it, coming at it with fresh eyes. There is, of course, a fine line between taking a break and procrastination, but this is where an element of planning comes in.
I shall soon be receiving the manuscript of the third Figment Wars YA novel for my final proofread and seal of approval, ready for publication. This is a vital part of the writing process and will require my full attention when the time comes. I worked extra hard to get the first draft of this other novel done before the manuscript was sent to me, and I have. I’m now enjoying a brief rest period as a reward for that effort. I also know what will signal the end of that break, and what will be required of me. Once I’ve signed off on the manuscript, I have an idea for a One Act play that I shall be tackling. Once that is done, I shall return to the 228,000 word draft and be able to be entirely objective in my editing. The key is planning, knowing which projects you’re going to tackle and in what order. Sometimes there’s a sense of logic and necessity that guides such decisions, other times we have to make some tough choices. We all have a hundred and one ideas floating around in our head. Sometimes you just have to choose, and once you have, stick with it.
Taking this planned break has allowed me to catch up on a few things. I find I’m reading more, and allowing myself to indulge in a few old video games that I’ve always found enjoyable. As restrictions ease I’ve been able to meet up with a few people and catch up with friends. Of course, we can do all these things while we’re working on a writing project. It’s a matter of balance, keeping ourselves driven in writing while not neglecting other aspects of our lives. Still, I am very much a proponent of the idea of taking planned breaks where no writing is done at all. I firmly believe that our best ideas come to us unexpectedly, when we’re at rest. That’s where notepads come in, of course!
Not all writers are able to write full time. The vast majority of us have day jobs and other projects that require our attention. I’m about to return to work in TV and film production as an extra/supporting artiste, something I’m very excited about. During the times when such work is coming thick and fast, it is more than likely that I won’t have much time to write. Forward thinking and planning come into play once again here. Rather than look back and lament the lack of time for writing, I am acknowledging it beforehand and accepting that I will be able to make time for writing later.
Whatever your circumstances, I always advocate making time to rest and take a break from writing every now and then. It can be a gruelling and demanding process, as we all know, so it is important to be kind to yourself. Never beat yourself up if you don’t write every day, and pay no attention to those who would think less of you for it. Life is what we’re all aiming to reflect in our writing, so be sure to make time to live!
The identity of one person does not erase another.
There’s a couple who live in Ipswich. One is a cis man, the other is a trans man. They’ve been together for five years. They particularly enjoy going to concerts and will happily spend an evening together watching a history documentary. If anyone should ask them, they will say they are a gay couple.
Now, if this angers you, let me start by saying the problem is entirely of your own making, not theirs. They’re living their life, harming no one, while you are twisting yours into knots.
I am unlikely to ever meet the couple from Ipswich. Firstly, it’s a fair old trek from Bristol to Ipswich, but even so it’s just plain unlikely that this couple and I will ever cross paths. My boyfriend and I occasionally double date with some friends of ours, another gay couple. They live their lives, we live ours, and the couple all the way in Ipswich continue to live theirs. Yet, there are some who believe that the couple from Ipswich effectively erase me and my boyfriend, and presumably the couple we double date with. Strange how they can do that from so far away.
The truth is, that the existence of the couple from Ipswich does not affect me or any other couple one iota. Their being together, and their being precisely who they are does not impact me or anyone else, and frankly I’m more than a little tired of being told that they are somehow a threat. Last time I checked, I have not been erased. The existence of one person cannot erase another.
I am a gay man. I am cis. I am in a relationship with another cis gay man. That is me, and that is us. We are, as Stonewall says, free to be. Those are powerful words that must and do apply to everyone. So long as an individual is harming no one, they must be free to be themselves regardless of what others think.
“But they have no right to say they’re a gay couple! One of them is female!”
Words carry a great deal of power, especially the ones we employ when talking about ourselves. If we are all free to be, then we must be free to describe ourselves in the manner that befits us most. Let’s take a little look at why this belief that a trans person cannot refer to themselves as gay is not only ludicrous, but futile.
Let us say that I did actually meet the couple from Ipswich, and they mention the fact that they’re a gay couple upon our meeting. If I were inclined to take exception to this, what options are available to me? I can insist that they are nothing of the kind, and openly state that because one of them was born female, they must be a straight couple. Alternatively, I could continue chatting with them and manage to avoid stamping my own view of the world on a couple I’ve only just met. As I say, this is if I were inclined to take exception to how they describe their relationship. I am not. Who they are, together or individually, does not change one thing about who I am. It is none of my concern.
Apply to this a wider setting. Imagine the effort it would take to ensure that all such couples do not refer to themselves as a gay couple, or indeed that transgender individuals only use certain words when talking about themselves. It would be exhausting and costly, not to mention a complete waste of time. If a trans man says he is a gay man, he is a gay man. This does not make me any less a gay man too. Frankly, I don’t have the time or energy for such gatekeeping. If he says he is bisexual, then he is bisexual. If he says he is straight, he is straight.
There is a marvellously rich array of words we in the modern era can use to describe ourselves. As I say, I am a gay man in a relationship with another gay man. I know people who are bisexual, and you certainly won’t see me trying to suggest that they are ‘confused’ or should ‘pick a side’. If someone tells me they are bisexual, they are bisexual. I respect self determination, and trust me it isn’t all that hard to do so,
“Ah, but if the man is in a relationship with a trans man, he must be bisexual!”
Not necessarily. Again, I go by what people tell me about themselves. To some people, being gay means being attracted to someone on the basis of sex. To some people, it means being attracted to someone on the basis of gender. Both of these are valid and neither cancels out the other. If we truly live and let live, then there is truly enough room for everyone to get along.
Of course, the term ‘pansexual’ exists, which is being attracted to someone regardless of sex, gender or gender identity. Am I therefore going to go up to the couple from Ipswich and insist that they tell me they’re a pansexual couple? No. I still don’t have the time for that level of gatekeeping. If any couple or individual tells me they’re pansexual, they are pansexual. I can accept that with greater ease than once again trying to stamp another word more to my liking on them. I am still not inclined to do that anyway. People are what they say they are.
“But you can’t even say you’re same sex attracted anymore! You’ll be called a bigot!”
Here’s the thing though, a relationship takes at least two to tango. If you do not wish to date someone because they’re transgender, nobody can force you to. Consent is very much a thing, and the efforts by some to paint transgender people as roving predators who will insist on you dating them is reprehensible. The gross generalisations being thrown about are sickening. The subjects of attraction and relationships are immensely complex, and the vast majority of people, regardless of sexuality or gender identity, value the importance of consent. I have found trans men of my acquaintance attractive. Does this make me any less a gay man? No. I know who and what I am.
We do not do ourselves any favours by engaging in petty squabbling. There are those who would genuinely like to see LGBT people across the world crushed underfoot, and they figure the best way to do it is to get us fighting amongst ourselves. Divide and conquer. The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community are united because we have all, at one time or another, faced those who dub us ‘abnormal’. We are not abnormal, and we never have been. If we continue to argue over what people get to call themselves, we open the door to some powerful groups who would like to dictate what we all call ourselves, and for the most part they’d like us to identify as ‘dead’.
You have the right to be attracted to someone on the basis of sex. You have the right to be attracted to someone on the basis of gender. You have the right to be attracted to someone regardless of sex or gender, and you have the right to self determination, to stand up and say who you are in your own words. Nobody can dictate who you are attracted to, no more than we should be dictating how people identify. We are free to be. All of us.
Oh, and in case you hadn’t clocked it already, the couple from Ipswich are hypothetical, yet they represent a great many real couples. Real people. Some are far too inclined to lose sight of the fact that when we discuss LGBT issues, we are talking about people. Not ‘ideologies’, but people, and their lived experiences. We could all do with a reminder of that from time to time.
Volume 4 in my World Building series of blogs, looking at the structure and purpose of the military.
Ten-shun! Stand at ease!
In this latest volume of my ongoing blog documenting my efforts at world building, we shall be looking at the military. Please, as always, keep in mind that this is me sharing my thoughts on an ongoing process, during which I am learning a great deal. I should not necessarily be viewed as an expert, particularly not on matters regarding the military. This blog will look, of course, at fictional armies, how they are structured and the role they play in the fantasy worlds we create.
Our own history proves one thing; you can accomplish a lot when you have an army behind you. Julius Caesar probably would not have cut such an impressive figure had it been him crossing the Rubicon alone. Whether for good or ill, leaders inspire their troops to follow them in their cause. How they go about doing this is something that every writer should consider when creating an army for their world. Essentially, how a leader motivates their troops can be broken down thus.
Fear -This is usually the domain of the antagonist. Hordes of soldiers all doing their master’s bidding through fear of their individual power. One can certainly argue that the orcs under Sauron, while generally unpleasant natured in themselves, function as an army under the fear of his gaze. Fear is a powerful motivator, but can be unstable. Should the leader lose their power or falter in any way, they risk the wroth of their own troops that they have misused for so long.
Reward -While it may seem mundane, the vast majority of troops throughout history and even in fantasy settings do what they do because it’s a job. Going back as far as the Romans, soldiers received yearly pay. Whatever hardships they faced out in the provinces, it was better than starving in the streets due to lack of work. Indeed, each new Roman emperor would seek to secure the loyalty of the legions through large payments upon their ascension. The financial incentive is definitely one to take into account when creating your army. There are other rewards such as being granted citizenship or a plot of land. Soldiers need to make a living just like the rest of us, and most will be looking to their retirement even in the most fantastical of fantasy settings. Rather than just giving them something to fight for, it is important to consider what they’re being given for their fighting.
Common Cause -This is certainly one of the more noble motivations. Keeping our focus on fantasy settings as an example, we can assume that when the Rohirrim rode to Minas Tirith under King Theoden, they did so because of the threat posed by Sauron. A threat that would come to them, and so they rode to the aid of their allies to help deal with the enemy. To the best of my knowledge, Tolkien never went into any kind of detail about how the soldiers of Rohan or Gondor were remunerated for their service, so we are left with the altogether loftier notions of comradery and and unity. However, the same idea of fighting for a common cause can be used to justify terrible actions by an army. Perspective and context, as always, are key.
Now that we have had a look at motivation, let us take a look at structure. On the face of it, the idea of a horde seems the most simple structure for an army. A mass of brutish, horrific fighters, determined to wipe out anything that stands before them. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with this, if indeed it fits with the structure of your story and the world you are seeking to create. An army with such an apparent lack of structure could only really have one purpose, utter destruction and anarchy. If you have crafted an antagonist for whom this is most definitely a goal, then go for it. Even so, in most hordes there is still some form of structure. Even the Orcs have captains, and of course the Nazgul stand above them. Hierarchy of some form or another can usually be found even in the most chaotic of organisations.
The Romans have always held a particular fascination for me personally, and the way they organised their armies essentially allowed them to become the dominant power of the ancient world. 5,000 soldiers would form a legion, each of these consisting of groups of 80 men called centuries, commanded by a centurion. Many of the armies that have come since have ultimately emulated this approach. Sections, squads, platoons, companies, battalions and regiments are not just words thrown about. Each signifies a number of soldiers and each one feeds into the other when it comes to the structure of the army. It is ultimately a variation of this that I am attempting to work into my own current work.
Geographically, my current work-in-progress is set in a world in which the main continent is governed by a single empire, with various provinces contained within that continent and overseas. Being a fantasy setting, I have elected to make the use of magic fairly commonplace, though some are more skilled than others. This has led to the creation of a form of martial magic, degrees of which are used by the soldiers in this world. The sword is still very much a weapon of choice, wielded by most as well as magic.
Officially, the only single unified and professional army is the Silver Guard, loyal only to the emperor. The emperor commands all, by merit of a talisman gifted by higher beings that affords the emperor a greater command of magic than any other individual. Beneath the emperor are eight sorcerer lords, all of whom wield a less powerful talisman than the emperors. Each would still be a formidable opponent to anyone wielding magic without a talisman. These eight sorcerer lords act essentially as governors for their region of the empire. Each takes on one or more apprentices that they train so as to one day inherit their talisman and command of their region.
Some sorcerer lords keep a contingent of soldiers, men and women trained in the most basic forms of martial magic. Some act as a kind of bodyguard for their sorcerer lord, while some do act as a kind of army necessary for the protection of the empire, depending on their location. This being a very specific and ongoing purpose necessitates the creation of a clear structure. I elected to have companies, posted at each respective geographical point, though this may very well change when it comes to editing. I have commanders giving orders to the regular soldiers, but as of yet have not sought to create many more ranks.
What is certain, however, is that my antagonist will seek to change the balance of power. One of the ways he does this is not only by increasing the overall size of his army, but by restructuring it. As well as having his apprentices, he trains up other above-average magic wielders and puts them in groups of eight. The idea being that they fight together as a unit with a clear advantage over regular soldiers. The loss of one or more of their number, however, results in the entire group being thrown off balance. In terms of numbers, this would be similar to a squad. Fantasy is, of course, fantastical. but there is usually a grounding in some form of real life parallels. When it comes to structuring a fictional army, we can get as creative as we like, but we’re hardly reinventing the wheel.
One thing that should always be considered when creating an army is how they are maintained. An army marches on its stomach, and to keep them moving requires strong supply lines and sources of food. Naturally, if your soldiers are supernatural (such as an army of zombies) then these considerations go out the window. Such forces are usually sustained by the enemies they defeat. However, if your soldiers are regular flesh and blood, you need to treat them as such. Remember to have them eat, drink and stop for a rest. Few armies could march solidly for days on end and arrive ready for battle. They’ll also need to attend to other matters, such as digging latrines when they make camp. There are always no end of logistical considerations to take into account when such a large body of people gets together, and ultimately I’m still learning just what it all entails. The main point is, give a mention now and then to some of the things that keep your army going. They are not invulnerable, and the call of nature comes to them just as it does to all of us.
A seasonal metaphor for an approach to drafting your story.
I’ve just finished drafting chapter 31 of my current ‘work in progress’. Thirty one chapters! It’s certainly the biggest writing project I’ve ever taken on, and is proving to be quite a challenge. It represents a departure from the kind of storytelling I’ve stuck to in the past, and ultimately is part of a much larger story already mapped out. This is essentially proving to be quite a learning curve for me, and I’d like to share some thoughts on the drafting process, if you’ll indulge me.
In previous works I have adopted an approach to drafting that led to certain complications. I would sometimes strive to get it just the way I wanted it first time, looking to include as much ‘fanciful’ language as possible, which ultimately left entire paragraphs looking convoluted. For this current, very large work, I’m taking on a more bare-bones approach. Now, there is every likelihood that what I’m doing has a very distinct name that has escaped my notice. However, I’ve taken to calling it the ‘Christmas Tree Approach’ to drafting.
Now, for this metaphor to work, I’m afraid it has to be an imitation Christmas tree, not a real one. Sorry if you prefer the genuine article, but let’s keep in mind it’s a metaphorical tree. The reason it has to be an imitation tree is that such trees are usually able to be broken down into sections for storage, and in trees of average size, this means three sections. The larger base, the mid section, and the top.
Or, in writing terms: Beginning, Middle and End. Such is dramatic structure.
The most complex stories in the world can be broken down to these three key sections. When working on this new project, I mapped out the entire story in a very basic, hand written draft. Some of the details have evolved during the later writing process, but the fact remains that the overall structure remains in place. I know how my story begins, the central event in the middle, and how I wish it to end. The three key sections are in place, without which we would not have a story, or indeed a Christmas tree.
Now, with the various Christmas trees I’ve had over the years, once you’ve put it together, you need to go around taking hold of the imitation branches and begin manipulating them into position. Pulling this way and that way, bending up or down as necessary, pluming the tree until it begins to take a more pleasing shape. This, when writing, could be thought of as either the overall editing process, or the little bits of editing we sometimes do while writing.
I have striven to refrain from doing too much editing while still drafting the overall story, but it does happen. A key plot point, or indeed a hole, appears that needs your attention in order for the story to work. There is nothing wrong with this, but I have tried to limit the amount of times I go back over a chapter and start changing too much. Instead, I’ve been keeping notes about various plot points I may wish to address or indeed add once the overall draft is complete. This ultimately allows you to get a fuller picture of the story and where these edits fit in. This is why, ultimately, the pulling about of the branches can be thought of as the process of editing. Getting all the details in place to make sure the story takes shape the way you want it.
Once the basic dramatic structure of the story is in place, and you’ve edited it to make sure it all works, we come to the final stage of our metaphor. Decoration. Every home that celebrates Christmas will have their own way of decorating the tree, and I’m sure there is many an argument to be had over the correct way of doing it. However, for the purposes of this metaphor, you are the only one who gets a say over how you decorate your writing. You are in charge here.
Apart from a few moments of inspiration, in this current draft I have not been too worried if some of my dialogue or prose comes across a bit flat. What I have been focusing on, in the overall draft and the little bits of editing is the fundamental point of each chapter. What is it I want the character to say or do in this moment? What, on a basic level, is happening? This is ultimately part of making sure the story works in its entirety before you go about beautifying it. During the editing process, once you’ve filled in any plot holes you find, you can go back and look at what you’ve said and ask yourself one question: how can I say this better?
This is where you can allow yourself to have some fun and get truly creative. Play with how a character speaks and how they behave in order to craft that sense of individuality that is going to make your reader identify with them. Take that bit of dialogue and jazz it up a bit, so long as the underlying message remains. Find a better way of describing what is going on so that your reader is transported into the scenario without the event itself being lost in description.
Many writers struggle with the notion that their first draft has to be near-enough perfect. They will strive to make sure it all sounds wonderful from the get-go but risk sacrificing the story in the process. I know, I’ve done it myself. Like most of us, I’m learning as I go along. No approach to writing is going to work for everyone, but I’m certainly finding that this is currently working for me. I’ve experienced a sense of flow in my writing that I’ve not felt for a while, and it’s allowed me to persevere with a project larger than anything I’ve taken on before. I focus on the essence of the story first, then seek to beautify it later.
Essentially, one cannot decorate a Christmas tree without first putting it together and pulling all the branches here, there and everywhere. The fun comes in making it look pretty, but you have to do the boring bit first.
I hope this has at least made some sense to you all, and in some cases actually proved useful!
Volume 3 in my World Building series of blogs, looking at the nature of belief in a fantasy setting.
I’ll start by acknowledging the fairly lengthy gap between this blog and the last in this series. It’s been a long time. There, consider it acknowledged. Truth be told, I started a new part time job back in October which has meant my blogging efforts (such as they are) have taken a back seat. In all fairness to myself, I have also been very busy actually writing. Indeed, the very project that prompted this series of blogs on world building is coming along nicely.
A swift reminder, folks, that this series of blogs is to document my own experiences and discoveries when taking on the creation of a whole fantasy world, and should not necessarily be taken as expertise. One day, perhaps, but for now I am stumbling through and trying to make as much sense of it all as I can. Nothing new there.
This particular entry shall focus on the subjects of belief, faith and organised religion. The chapter I just finished drafting has my main character come face to face with the equivalent of a demon in his world. I may even go so far as to say the devil himself. Obviously I don’t wish to give too much away regarding this particular project, but suffice to say the being he comes across is not quite what it seems, or what my main character expected. This got me thinking as to the nature of belief.
My current project is being written, by and large, in the first person. My main character is reflecting on his life, during which his beliefs have undergone a great many changes, mostly as a result of his experiences. What I have found tricky recently is reflecting this in my character’s voice. He must describe his actions, his feelings and his beliefs as they were at that time in his life. The fact that he is recounting the events after many years could, if I am not careful, lead to too much being given away about how he will change throughout the story. So far I believe I have avoided this, but no doubt some points will be picked up in editing. That’s what it’s for.
So, without giving too much away here and now, just what are my main character’s beliefs? As a child, he listened to the sermons he was required to, and was forbidden from speaking of the devils he would later meet in person. He had, in my view, a child’s faith, but one with room to erode over time. He comes across many more devout than him, some of whom would not have coped with the experiences he ends up having, simply because their faith would not allow them to. My main character ends up conversing with both angels and demons, and discovers that the lines between them are blurred.
This might all sound a little woolly, but I firmly believe that it better reflects the full and in many ways true nature of belief. There are always those who believe more resolutely than others. Some people’s beliefs change over time and find their faith either growing stronger or waning. Some will hold firm to their beliefs, seemingly no matter what. Of course this is not always limited to religious beliefs, but for the purpose of this blog, we are very much discussing the main religion of the world I have set out to create.
When creating a whole culture, it is far too simplistic to say that everyone within that culture believes the same thing, or even if they all follow the same religion that they all follow it with equal devotion. You will always have your silent doubters, unwilling to speak up about their misgivings. Then there are the shallow, paying lip service to a system when it suits them. You will also get those who seek to use religion to further their own ends. Take a good look around our own world and tell me I’m wrong.
Then, of course, there will always be the equivalent of atheists. Those who reject the dominant belief system entirely. Then you’ve also got those who interpret the dominant belief system differently to others. Again, take a look at our own world and you’ll see what I mean. When crafting the religion of a whole new world, I believe it is important to reflect the nature of belief. Your characters live in this world, but they are not automatons. They each see the world differently, and will have their own thoughts and levels of belief. To have everyone believe precisely the same thing is robbing yourself of the chance for great conflict.
So, with all this in mind, what are some of the things to consider when crafting a religion in a fantasy setting? Again, remember that these are just my own thoughts on what I’ve done so far. You’ll find no theological degree attached to my name, but here we go just the same.
In any organised religion, there is a structure. A hierarchy. The person at the top. In my case, it is a race of beings seen and spoken to only by one person at a time, the Warlock Emperor. These beings, these angels, select one person to rule over the empire, their chosen representative. They do not present as omnipresent gods, however, more like guides or teachers. Their choice of emperor, however, is absolute and to suggest that their choice is flawed would be considered heresy of the worst kind. The Warlock Emperor sits atop the throne, commanding both the civil and religious bodies of the empire.
Of course, as with any religion, the ministers and followers are organised. In my world, there is the Congregate, the body that administers the teachings of these higher beings to the masses. Of course, there are plenty of names to give to such religious bodies, all of which can sound grand or intimidating when spoken by a character with enough reverence. I went with ‘Congregate’ to suggest a more humble purpose, but the reality is quite different. Once again I’m verging on giving too much away, and this first draft isn’t even finished yet.
Within this religious body I’ve created, there are the ministers, responsible for preaching. I’ve gone with the simple term ‘Followers’, to once again suggest a kind of humble nature to this system of belief. The duplicity therefore lies in what the characters within this system do, despite the image of humility they present.
I certainly haven’t forgotten the dissenters. Those who go against the dominant belief setting one way or another. Indeed, I’ve got a civil war brewing over whether or not these higher beings actually exist, as well as a secretive, forbidden cult that are considered highly dangerous, and not without reason.
The main point to consider when creating a religion for a fantasy world is how that religion and the society you have created intertwine. Do you have characters for whom religion is not necessarily a big factor in their lives? Do you have characters that would do anything in the name of their beliefs? Are there conflicts between differing factions, and how did they come about? All these are things you can look at to give your world and the beliefs of those in it greater verisimilitude.
The main impact this can have on your actual storytelling is that it can greatly inform and enhance the interactions between certain characters. What one character says can provoke a number of different reactions depending on who they’re talking to. Does what they say carry more weight with another character because of their beliefs? This is very much how much of the real world works, so weaving it into the world you’re building can only enhance your writing.
A little blog reflecting on what has been a most unusual year for us all.
Well, it’s that time of year again, namely when it’s nearly over. I think it would be the understatement of the century to say that this past year hasn’t gone as planned. Many lives have changed and a great many of us have lost family, friends and loved ones. As much as we might like to put this year behind us and forget about it, I believe we owe it to ourselves and to those we’ve lost to still take a moment this New Year to reflect.
Ultimately, I look upon the New Year with a sense of hope. Nothing is going to happen overnight, but a gradual return to normalcy is on the horizon. Will things be entirely the same? Perhaps not. Some industries may find they benefit from having more people work from home more regularly. I won’t pretend to be an expert on the possible outcomes of this pandemic. Being able to get together with others, when we desire to, is something that will not change. I’ve greatly missed being able to rehearse a play with friends, or the chance to get on a set and see which of my new friends I might run into. Whereas some individuals (usually with a greater amount of influence than I) have been demanding that we simply ‘get back to normal’ straight away and pretend nothing is happening, I see it as our duty to stay away until such time as it is safe for us all to be together again. Do I lament the lost opportunities of this past year? Sometimes, yes, but pretending we aren’t in the grip of a pandemic helps no one. I want to be able to meet up with friends, but not if it means putting them and their loved ones at risk of catching this terrible virus.
Heading into the New Year, I believe we do need to look for the positives, the ones we’ve had and the ones to come. What I take away from the fact that we have had to stay away from others is that when we can get together safely, it will be all the sweeter because of this time away. I intend to hug others more, to let them know how much I appreciate them. Days out and trips away will be planned, more than I might have otherwise, simply because we can. There is too much I was taking for granted before all this. Never again. We can come out of this stronger than before. I don’t buy into the conspiracy theories and the ill-informed scaremongering of certain individuals. I trust the experts and the spirit of those determined to get through this without trying to make things worse in the process. We can do this.
Furlough gave me the chance to edit the third book in the Figment Wars series, which is now set to become a trilogy. Yes, this next book will be the last of the Figment Wars. It has long been envisioned as such, but with the announcement of its publication set for 2021, it is now official. Working on it has been wild, to say the least. This was the first literary venture that I felt I could really throw some weight behind, and I’ve learned a great deal in the process, though of course there is still so much to learn. The trilogy will still get plenty of attention from me marketing wise, and I’m very much looking forward to my first signing session, wherever and whenever that may be. In the months to come I shall steadily be releasing details about the newest book, including the title, front cover, and eventually the release date.
I’ve also begun a whole new writing project these past few months, which has occupied a great deal of my time and energy (both of which are well spent). Even while the Figment Wars was being unleashed, I’ve had a few ideas for further books but few really came to anything. This one, however, has already proved to be much bigger in scale than Figment Wars. It’s another fantasy, but very different in style to my previous work and touches upon some LGBT themes, which are very close to my heart. What will happen with this latest project, I cannot say. It will be some time before it is even remotely ready to see the light of day, and of course I shall make every effort to get it published. One thing I feel I’ve definitely had affirmed this past year is my belief that I do not write with the sole intention of getting published. I write because I want to, and because I enjoy it.
The next few months are going to be tough. There’s no denying that. I remain firm in my belief, however, that we can get through this by working together. I offer all my readers my very best wishes for the New Year. Stay safe, keep reading and writing, and we shall meet again soon.