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First blog post …here we go!

No turning back now!

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.

Although maybe that’s just me.

The Couple In Ipswich

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.

Crafting That Brave New World -Vol 4

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.

Squad, dismissed!

The Christmas Tree Approach

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!

Crafting That Brave New World -Vol 3

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.

2020

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.

Crafting That Brave New World -Vol 2

Volume 2, detailing my exploration of world building.

Geography has never really been my strong suit, even after I got 99 out of 100 on a geography test in Year 9. The missing point was because I’d misplaced Bordeaux on a map of France. It is, however, maps that I’ll be discussing in this blog and how important they are when world building.

As well as not being much of a geographer, it will surprise few to learn that I’m not particularly skilled at drawing. Embarking on this new project has meant having to more than brush up on both, although admittedly the map I have drawn for the world I’m building will be most likely handed over to a professional at some point with a cry of “Make this look much better, please!” The map itself, crude as it may be, is something I’ve found to be surprisingly helpful in visualising not just the world, but the story too. As I said in the first volume of this blog, the story comes first.

I’d already worked out the basic premise of both the world and the story before setting out to draw the map, which informed a few key elements. There needed to be a main continent, with two large islands on the west and east coast of that continent. To the south, we see the top of another continent, which is as of yet, undeveloped. At first, I began dividing up the main continent into different nations. While this will be vital to the story, after a bit of research, I was reminded of a basic principle. The idea of borders as we know them are a fairly recent notion. It is geographical features and obstacles that would have formed the first, rudimentary national borders. It therefore become necessary to add a series of mountains along one border, which in itself then informed and enhanced the lore of the world I’ve been crafting.

Economics also have to be taken into consideration. The world I’m crafting is very much a fantasy world, and magic plays a part in everyday life, but it isn’t the answer to everything. The people living in this world still need to acquire food and materials, so the notion of trade comes into play. If I’ve got two continents, where is the best place along the coast to establish a port or two? How has the location of a settlement influenced its development over the decades and centuries? As an example, I have one settlement essentially right in the middle of a pass between mountains which border two countries. The settlement was set up as a fortress, originally, and has to rely on its friends to the east for supplies. The fortress has become a little less essential as a military post over time, allowing for a small city to develop, but nowhere near the level of those cities closer to the ports. All little details that should be considered when crafting a new world.

Time and space matter in storytelling. It’s still taking me a bit of research to nail this one down, because as I’ve said, this blog is an exploration of my journey. I’m not claiming to know everything. A map usually comes with a scale, to let you know just how great a distance a centimetre on the map represents. Ultimately, this informs just how long it takes a character to travel from one place to another. Of course, it depends on their mode of transport, and I have cheated just a little by creating a breed of horse that’s been trained and enhanced with spells for greater speed and durability. Still, the point stands. If you want a character to be in one place today and another tomorrow, you need to be sure of how long it’ll take them to get there. There’s no teleportation in this world, no great shortcuts.

Similar to this, being able to see one location in relation to another has helped me a great deal when it came to visualising the story. The bulk of the action in the beginning takes place in one location, but as my main character begins to travel, I found that having a map to look at really did inform certain decisions about the story. If your character needs to get somewhere but must avoid a certain place, the map shows you where they must go. It also allowed me to better visualise certain political alliances, based solely on geographical locations. It makes battles easier to see and informs the tactical decisions you make your characters take.

In summary, it really is true what they say. “Location, location, location.” This is the first time I’ve tried using a map to inform my story telling, and it’s been a revelation on many fronts. Even if it never ends up being seen by anyone else, I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone dabbling with the genre.

“That’s not a proper story …”

A blog on the importance of building confidence in young writers, not destroying it.

As I scrolled through Twitter this morning, a tweet caught my eye, which is what tweets are supposed to do. It was asking whether I could remember the first story I ever wrote. This got me thinking about something that I hadn’t thought of for many years, but now that I come to consider it, it explains a lot.

The fact is, I do remember the first story I ever wrote, and I remember the scathing criticism that came with it. My first ‘bad review’. Sadly, it came from my teacher, an issue that will form the bulk of this blog, but first, the incident itself.

I was in Year 1, so I must have been about six years old. Our teacher, whose name I have genuinely forgotten, asked us to write a short story. I decided to write a story about a pair of robots, one of whom was looking forward to Christmas, the other one didn’t like Christmas. I cannot remember the precise names I gave them, but they were something like RX-4B and TR-3P. When my teacher saw this, a look of pure disgust rippled across her face. “Those aren’t real names,” she said. I looked up at her and said “You’ve never seen Star Wars, have you?” Surprisingly, she and I never really got on very well.

Despite a strong sense of defiance radiating from my bad-ass six year old self, like everyone else I found that criticism can hurt. This isn’t me saying that children shouldn’t be criticised, but there are ways to go about it so that the criticism is constructive. I went on to train as a primary school teacher and despite deciding to go in a different direction job-wise later in life, I learned enough during teacher training to look back at my own schooling and recognise that I had some abysmal teachers at times.

Criticising a six year old’s names for robots just comes down to a lack of imagination in the teacher, which still isn’t an excuse for tearing down the work of others, let alone a child. I’ve never really let this hold me back when writing, but teachers in particular have a key role to play when it comes to developing children’s confidence, or destroying it.

My handwriting has never really been the neatest, even now. I can make it out, and if I’m writing something in a rush it can become illegible. While learning joined-up handwriting, I had a teacher who would literally gag if you presented her with a piece of work that wasn’t your neatest handwriting. I’m not kidding. I can clearly recall one incident, bringing my work up to show to this particular teacher, she took one look, blanched and said “Take it away.”

I would make mistakes quite frequently when writing, which meant ink blots and badly formed letters having to be crossed out. The fact that this teacher insisted on us striving to write neatly was not the problem, it was her visceral and over-the-top reaction to our mistakes. It got to the point where I was terrified to show her my work, because once you made one mistake, that was it. It was ruined. I would descend into tears in the classroom. To this day, when someone remarks about my handwriting, my insides tighten. I worked hard at improving my handwriting, but I struggle to recall receiving any genuine help from a teacher on this particular issue. I also, in all fairness, don’t recall any of my teachers in secondary school remarking one way or another on my handwriting, but this one teacher was all it took for me to develop a ‘thing’ about the neatness of my handwriting.

Again, I am not advocating only ever telling children what they want to hear. If a child’s handwriting needs improving, it’s the teacher’s duty to help them to do so. Refusing to even read their work because of their handwriting says one thing to me, namely “What you have to say doesn’t matter because I don’t like the way you’ve written it”. Reading the child’s work and discussing the content should come first, saying what you like about it and what could use improvement. If it’s the handwriting that needs improving, you explain why it’s necessary to be precise in how we write, namely so our words can be understood. You remind the child that this is still a relatively new skill they’re learning and that mistakes are going to happen. You allow the child time and give them the necessary support. Looking at their work and literally making a gagging noise is hardly good teaching practice, yet it’s how one of my teachers chose to conduct herself.

My own teacher training was an eye opener in so many ways, but even before I started my course, I learned about the rule of 2 to 1. Both my parents were secondary school teachers and they explained that this ratio was how to go about discussing a child’s work with them. For everything that needs some improvement, you sandwich it between two things you liked about their work. Constructive and confidence building. This is a principle I’ve always striven to employ when working with young people.

One thing I will say for the teacher who used to become quite ill at the sight of my handwriting, at least she did it in private. In my first year of teacher training, I was on a placement in a Year 6 class. Obviously, being a student teacher in my first year, I was mostly there to observe and support wherever I could. Not there to rock the boat.

The class I was assigned to had a supply teacher in one day. I’ve nothing against supply teachers, I’ve done it myself often enough, but there was something about this guy. The class was asked to write a story in fifty words. A great exercise in concise storytelling. One child wrote what I felt was a humorous, imaginative story in precisely fifty words. Exactly what had been asked of him, and he had the courage to read it out loud in front of the class. The supply teacher declared “That’s not a proper story, listen to what I’ve done.” He then went on to read out what he’d written about a man crossing a desert. Descriptive, yes, and under fifty words …but there was no story to it. It felt more like an extract than anything else. The class had been asked to write a story in fifty words, namely beginning, middle and end. This child had done so, but the supply teacher didn’t like it so he read out his own work to compare it.

To this day, I remember feeling utter indignation on this child’s behalf. He’d done precisely what had been asked of the class, written a funny and engaging fifty word story, and this teacher had the audacity to humiliate him in front of the whole class. Still, being a student, I was very good and said nothing to contradict the teacher openly. I did, however, make a point of speaking to the child later and telling him I enjoyed his story and that he was very brave for reading it out. I can only hope I undid some of the damage that could have been done.

Adults can have a devastating impact on children’s confidence if they’re not careful. Taking issue with my handwriting is one thing, but had I taken on board what my Year 1 teacher said about the names of my robots not being “proper”, I might have eventually decided that it was never going to be worth my time attempting anything creative. All writing is subjective, of course, but we should never dismiss a child’s efforts as “not being a proper story”. If you don’t quite follow a child’s reasoning behind writing something, ask them. Get them to talk you through the choices they made in their story. Teaching isn’t about giving answers all the time. It’s about asking the right questions that get children to realise their own potential for themselves.

It’s well known that a bad teacher can destroy a child’s interest in a subject. There are fantastic teachers out there who have inspired generations of children in so many ways. Confidence can take a lifetime to build, but in some cases it only takes a few knocks to leave a big dent.

Crafting That Brave New World -Vol 1

The first of a series of blogs, documenting my tackling of a whole new project.

One of the great joys of the fantasy genre is being able to step out of our own world and immerse yourself in another. So many authors have created fantastical worlds in their works that have captivated our imaginations to the point of making us want to believe that such a place exists. The ultimate question is, how do they do this?

 

I’m going to start this blog with a rare admission regarding that last question. The truth is, I’m still very much working it out myself. This blog, and possibly many more over the coming months/years, will document and explore my own efforts to craft a fully rounded fantasy world. There’ll be mistakes, pretty much all of which I’ll own up to. There’ll be a few dead ends and days when I want to bash my keyboard into oblivion. Hopefully some people out there will read it all and learn something from it. I’m certainly hoping I will.

 

I’ve had an idea for a new fantasy novel kicking round in my head for some time. During lockdown I’ve spent a great deal of time finishing off the final draft of the third ‘Figment Wars’ novel, but once that was done I decided it was time to get this new idea out of my head and onto paper, where it belongs. There were a few things I knew I wanted in this new project from the start. Firstly, that it would largely take the form of a dictation. A powerful man dictating his memories to a scribe. Secondly, I wanted to write something that reflected my own experiences as a gay man. This new project will most definitely touch upon LGBT issues.

 

More than that, I wanted to set about creating a whole world in which to tell this story. ‘The Figment Wars’, my first novel, tells the story of three human children plunged into a world populated by Figments of human imagination. In my mind, however, I’d always seen the Realm of Imagination as another plane of existence, rather than another world as such. It is very much linked to our own world, and broadly speaking there have always been two subsets of fantasy worlds. Ones that have links to our own world, and ones that exist entirely separate from ours. The Realm of Imagination very much fits with the former, with all its occupants having come from the imaginations of human children, and of course the main characters travel back and forth between the two realms.

 

So, having done that, I want to try my hand at crafting a world in its own right, with its own geography, history and natural laws. Ideas have been coming, sometimes thick and fast, other times in drips and drabs. The first thing I have discovered though, and I’ll share it with you all now for nothing, is as follows;

Story comes first.

I’d already started handwriting the overall draft of the story in my trusty notebook a few weeks ago when I got the urge to start thinking more about the history of this world I was creating. I’d already had a go at drawing a map of the main continent and islands that will provide the setting, and despite my poor drawing skills, I found that the map did help me move the story along, allowing me to plot where certain characters are going and what obstacles they might encounter. Considering that geography was not my strong point at school, this came as a welcome surprise. Yesterday, however, I felt the urge to delve more into the history of this world.

 

Now, it could have been a number of things. I’ve been experiencing some pain in my feet lately and I had an appointment to see a specialist yesterday. That may have been distracting me as I was trying to write. I’m a big believer in only writing when you really feel in the mood. Write in a bad mood and you’ll most likely end up deleting most of what you’ve written, which I did. I looked back at what I’d done, detailing the early history of this fictional continent, and I didn’t like it one bit. Deleted about half of it. Gone. *poof*

 

Then, when I stopped to think about it, I realised something. What I was writing was, at this point, not relevant to my main character’s story. I’ve drafted the outline of just about half my character’s story by now, and for some reason yesterday decided to take a break and begin giving some consideration to events that would have happened centuries before my main character was born. As it turned out, this was a bad idea. The story, as in theĀ main story, must come first. I must, and will, finish mapping out the journey my main character will take before I start coming up with entire histories for multiple cultures.

 

That was my little epiphany which I’m happy to share. World building can be fun, and it’s easy to get distracted by coming up with all the details that make up this fantastical world you’re creating. Indeed, it’s those details that make that world seem real to the reader, as though it’s a world that people actually live in. Historical accounts, myths and legends, sayings that mean something to the characters that inhabit your new world are what make it real. However, certainly in this early stage of writing, I must be on my guard not to get bogged down in coming up with those details. They’ll come, when the time is right, but for now I must focus on the main story. I know how it begins, and I have an idea of how I want it to end, but there’s a heck of a lot that goes on in between that still needs to be worked out.

 

I hope to write more in this series of blogs as I continue on this new project. There’s a great deal of research for me to do and a lot to learn about effective world building. I just hope somebody finds my musings (and occasional ramblings) to be at least half-way helpful!

A Little Less Speculation …

Thoughts on how the supposed right to speculate on the sexuality of others links to the dangerous practice of conversion therapy.

Stop the presses. A recent study by a team at Northwestern University in Evanston has made a ground-breaking discovery; male bisexuality exists. My takeaway from this? There’s a team with a little too much time on their hands.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the study of human sexuality, but the headline that goes with this announcement does come across as more than just a little condescending. There are a great many bisexual men who could have told this team in five seconds what they’ve apparently concluded after several years, namely that they’re bisexual.

 

In truth it’s not entirely the fault of the study itself. Much of the coverage of the study as well as media rhetoric regarding bisexuality over the years has to take a good portion of the blame. Ill-informed comments from pundits and celebrities claiming that bisexuals are “greedy”, “confused” or just plain “lying” have not helped. I identify as entirely gay, but I will never understand the tendency of some people to dismiss bisexuality. There’s a ‘B’ in LGBTQ for a reason. They stand with us, and they deserve to be treated with respect.

 

The central problem, as far as I can see, is this incessant need in some people to speculate over the sexuality of others. Again, I’m not talking about genuine academic studies, I’m talking about the gross assumptions and generalisations made by some people on a day to day basis. When someone tells you that they’re bisexual, one of the absolute worst responses is “Are you sure?”, followed by “Well, you might just be gay but haven’t come out yet.” It’s in a very similar vein to when someone comes out as transgender, only to be told that they might be “confused” or have they tried “just being gay?”

 

As I said, I’m gay. Gay and cis. That is me. This does not, however, give me the right to speculate on anyone else’s sexuality or gender based solely on my own experiences. I’ve never known what it is like to feel that I was born in the wrong body, nor have I ever felt attracted to girls. I tried to make it appear that I did due to pressure coming from all around me, but that’s a subject for another blog. The point is, my experiences are mine but that does not give me the right to assume that they’ve been shared by everyone else. The second someone says to me “I’m bisexual”, I accept it instantly, without question. Put even simpler, when someone tells me how they identify, I believe them.

 

It is quite sad that some see it as acceptable to make assumptions about and speculate over the sexuality of others. First and foremost, it’s distressing for the person who’s having this fundamental aspect of their identity taken apart so casually (or sometimes maliciously). Chances are that person has spent much time and energy working up the courage to divulge their sexuality to someone, only to be dismissed as a confused liar that doesn’t know themselves. Such speculation has consequences, and it isn’t the person doing the speculating who’ll have to deal with those consequences. I’d very much like to see a society where those who engage in such idle speculation over other people’s sexuality are, indeed, held to account. It should be seen as ridiculous, to dismiss or judge somebody’s sexuality. We don’t do it for any other aspect of our identity.

“Hello, I’m British.”

Oh, I don’t think so. You might just be a confused Frenchman.”

 

You might ask, why the big fuss? Isn’t it just people talking about matters of identity and sexuality? Are you censoring people? No. General discussion of matters regarding sexuality and gender identity must always be free to be discussed. This is not the same as dismissing someone’s identity in order to project something else upon them. On an individual basis, a person’s sexuality or gender identity cannot be allowed to be squashed in the name of academic discussion. Once someone asserts their identity, that is not up for debate. Share your own experiences and thoughts, by all means. The world is better when we talk to each other. However, don’t seek to use those experiences to override those of someone else, to stamp your own sense of self onto them. As I’ve said, having your identity debated and dismissed is never going to make someone feel better about themselves. Don’t make them run that gauntlet. Accept who they are.

 

There’s a tweet currently doing the rounds which has, rightly, raised some eyebrows;

Screenshot Redacted

I offer this as a prime example of someone engaging in gross assumptions on a rather massive scale. A man, rather embarrassingly declaring how little he knows of women’s sexuality and engaging in some wild speculation, presumably without actually asking a woman. This is the lower end of the scale when it comes to ill-informed speculation over the sexuality of others. Risible and easily dealt with. However, there are those who engage in speculation over the sexuality and gender identity of others with far more sinister intent. I’m speaking, of course, about conversion therapy.

 

The UK government has pledged to make the abhorrent practice of conversion or “reparative” therapy illegal, although at the time of writing this, not only has there been a great deal of delay already, but it now seems that even more time is being called for in order to carry out further research. There are those, currently in the UK, who offer conversion therapy but insist that’s not what they’re doing. They claim they’re engaging in discussion about gender and sexuality issues and offering counselling to those with “unwanted same sex attractions”. A turd by any other name would smell as foul. This is precisely what I described earlier, speculation and demolition of an individual’s identity, hidden under the cloak of “academic discussion”.

 

These organisations insist they’re offering impartial counselling for those experiencing “unwanted same sex attraction”. It can hardly be considered impartial when the rhetoric these organisations engage in is so vehemently homophobic. The leader of one of the more prevalent organisations has called homosexuality “a danger to all humankind”. The website of this particular organisation states that they do not offer LGBT affirmative therapy. This boils down to one thing: once they’ve got you, they will do all they can to make you straight, no matter the cost to you.

 

They’re engaging in the most extreme form of speculation in that not only have they decided what your sexuality should be, they’re going to tear you down completely in order to “fix” you. Once you’re in with them, they’ll do all they can to win your trust, get you to talk about a past event that you found traumatic. They’ll then perform all kinds of linguistic acrobatics to convince you that this event is linked to your sexuality. Should you express doubts, or appear to be heading in a direction they don’t approve of, they tell you how disappointed they are. They shame you. They’re gambling with the well being and lives of other with no risk to them. Hopefully, the law will soon be changing to make their practice illegal, and for the first time they will have to actually deal with the consequences of their actions.

 

Anybody struggling with an aspect of their identity should seek out someone to talk to, a professional if need be. A truly impartial professional will believe someone when they say they’re gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or non-binary. Any decent therapist knows how to genuinely help someone work out who they are. It’s the ones currently kicking up a big stink over the proposed change in the law that know they’ve got something to fear. Conversion therapists aren’t interested in helping anyone. They are simply indulging in their own, rather base instinct that tells them they have a right to speculate over and judge other people’s identity. They then take that instinct and act on it, patting themselves on the back when they’ve torn you down and rapidly distancing themselves from you when you come forward and speak about how they made you feel. They deal in sham and shame. Some people do change the way they identify over time, but this needs to come about organically, through impartial discussion and a journey of self discovery, not at the insistence of fanatics.

 

So, in summation, just remember that when someone tells you they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, pansexual or asexual, there are only two acceptable responses;

A) Thank you for feeling that you could tell me.

B) Thank you for feeling that you could tell me, now let’s go get some cake.

 

Don’t speculate. Celebrate!

Happy Birthday Figment Wars!

A blog celebrating five years since the publication of ‘The Figment Wars: Through the Portals’!

Last year, on World Book Day, I found myself addressing an assembly hall full of Year 10 students. An assembly hall of Year 10 students who’d never heard of me or my book. I acknowledged this from the beginning, telling them I wish I could tell them that I’ve sold thousands of books and that those books are about to be made into a film, but I can’t. I’m no good at bluster at the best of times and I was raised not to lie (bang goes any hope of a career in politics). I told them the truth because I felt it important to make a fundamental point; you don’t get into writing with the sole purpose of becoming rich and famous, and anyone who does is usually bitterly disappointed.

 

You get into writing because you love it.

 

That is why, when I look back over the last five years, I don’t feel any kind of regret. I’d made many attempts over the years at writing something I thought I could really do something with, all to no avail. Then there came that trip into Bath on the Park n’ Ride bus with a good friend. That’s when the idea first came to me, and I worked hard to turn it into something. I tried various methods of publication, and when Austin Macauley came along with an offer, I said “Yes”. I don’t regret that decision, not for a moment.

 

The past five years have been eventful, to say the least. When I first started writing ‘Through the Portals’, I’d only just moved in with my partner. A huge new chapter in my life had only just started, and there I was possibly embarking on a whole new one already. Since then we’ve bought our first house, a move that unfortunately coincided with a breakdown of my mental well being. I was signed off work and ultimately left my job. It was during that time that I joined my local amateur dramatic society, Sodbury Players, and not only rediscovered my love of performing, but made some excellent new friends. It was mostly down to the confidence I’d found from joining Players that led me to getting the second Figment Wars novel published. A novel that had been sitting in my computer for quite some time. As that book was published I began pursuing agency work that allowed me to balance work with writing.

 

When I look back at that moment when I first held an actual, physical copy of my book, it’s difficult to recall precisely what I was thinking. I know that I didn’t automatically expect it to be a runaway success. That wasn’t why I’d decided to write it. I’d enjoyed writing the story and I wanted to share it. It was as simple as that then, and the only thing that’s really changed is the ways I go about sharing the story. The world doesn’t owe anyone success, and even if you don’t achieve it, the point is to try. I’m still learning about the world of promoting books and there’s still a great deal for me to learn. Rather than obsess over the goal, I’m enjoying the journey.

 

There have been a number of experiences over the last five years that I’d like to reflect on. Getting to hold a copy of my book was fantastic, of course, but attending a comic con event and selling copies of my book for the first time was a truly rewarding experience. I’ve been attending such events for many years, so to be on the other side of the table was somewhat surreal. Collaborating with Ello Dave Media to create a live action trailer for the first novel was also a surreal experience, seeing my characters come to life, played by tremendously talented people that I’m fortunate to count among my friends. Getting honest feedback from friends and family about the story has also been something I cherish. Not only am I not obsessing over sales, I’m also not here to have smoke blown up my backside. I appreciate every thought and observation put my way.

 

It’s hard to tell what the next five days will bring, let alone the next five years. I’ve been hard at work on the next Figment Wars novel. I’ll give out no further details on that just yet, only to say that I’m hopeful about getting things moving fairly soon. Whatever happens over the next few years, I plan to do my best to bring my stories to the relevant audience as long as it is within my means to do so. As I said, I’m still learning a great deal about what it takes to get a book noticed. One thing I do know is that it isn’t easy, but it’s certainly worthwhile to try.

 

I’d like to end by thanking everyone that’s offered their support over the last five years and indeed, before publication itself. The team at Austin Macauley have always been supportive and without you all I would not have had these experiences. To all my family and friends, you give me the confidence to be myself at all times, even when being myself involves being a little strange.