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The blog of Stephen Arnott (aka S J Arnott). Writer of the Leofric Dark Age adventures and Jack Bleacher.

Just Published 'Leofric: Land of the Franks'

Stephen Arnott

Published earlier this month, Leofric: Land of the Franks is the sequel to Sword of the Angles, but you don't have to have read Sword to pick up on the action in this new instalment...

The story starts in the aftermath of King Hygelac's raid on Frisia. Hygelac, King of the Geats (the people who occupied much of southern Sweden in the 6th-century) was a real historical figure, and his raid is well documented event that took place around AD 520. It's always been a puzzle to historians why such a large fleet would travel so far afield to loot such a well defended area, and at least one academic has proposed a conspiracy theory to explain it (see 'Storms, G. The Significance of Hygelac’s Raid, Nottingham Mediaeval Studies 14,3-26 1970'). 

Hygelac was also supposedly the uncle of the legendary hero, Beowulf, and his epic poem describes some of the dramatic events that took place during the raid, a few of which are retold in this story.

Although the raid was a success in its initial stages, I won't be giving too much away if I say that things didn't turn out as well as expected. As a consequence, Leofric ends up alone and friendless on a foreign shore, and has to forge new friendships and complete a bizarre quest before he can find the road to freedom...

If this has sparked your interest, please click on the image above to be taken to Amazon. If you do, I hope you enjoy it.

 

The Great Quake of 1884

Stephen Arnott

For many years I used to write short factual articles for periodicals. Most were written on spec, meaning that I'd approach an editor with an idea, and if they liked it, I'd write it up as a feature and take a chance on it being accepted or not. Most of the time they were published; but a few escaped the printing press. This is one of them...

England is no stranger to earthquakes. In AD 103 a quake swallowed a town in Somersetshire “name and all”. A year after the Norman invasion a great earthquake “terrified the whole of England”, and in 1247 a “very injurious and terrible earthquake” stuck London throwing down several houses. 

Thankfully these events are rare (less than 100 notable earthquakes have been felt in the UK since records began) and the last significant quake struck on the 22nd April 1884, an event that subsequently became known as ‘The Great English Earthquake’.

The centre of the quake was Wivenhoe, a small Essex coastal village at the mouth of the Colne River, just a few miles south of Colchester. Fishing was the main trade of the village but it was also a popular retreat for weekend sailors. Once such was Lord Alfred Henry Paget who was aboard his yacht when the quake struck at 9.20 on Tuesday morning. From the deck he had a panoramic view of the destruction that unfolded.

“As I looked towards the village there was this terrible loud rumbling noise, immediately the vessel began to shake and the people around me fell like ninepins. I was flung against the rigging and, clutching for dear life, wondered if the boiler of the yacht had burst…The village was lifted apparently bodily up and, as I fell, I saw part of the church steeple, which towers over the village, sway and then topple into the mass of the devastation…The rumbling noise was almost immediately superseded by the dreadful sound of crashing masonry and the terrible cries of the people. Their shrieks rang out across the water even through all the din”.

Other ship-board yachtsmen gave similar descriptions. The following is the account of Captain Harry Harlow:

“I saw the church and all the houses in the place rocking about, some one way and some another. The only way I can describe it is that the houses looked like pleasure boats at the seaside with a ground swell on, with some of the boats rolling in on direction, and some another. The church appeared to go over several degrees to the south-east, and then back again to the north-west…The top of the tower came down with a crash, at the same time the huge chimneys of the Grosvenor Hotel also came down. Looking in all directions I saw chimneys, walls and houses coming down”.

Mr William Ham was also in a boat:

“As the [earthquake’s] wave rolled on I saw every chimney topple until the work of destruction reached the line of the church tower, and then the crashing masonry raised such clouds of dust I could see no more and I thought the whole place had collapsed”.

Needless to say the experiences of those on land were even more dramatic. On Mersea Island huge crevices opened up, the largest (150 yards long) almost swallowing an elderly fisherman. In Wivenhoe, Mrs Ham (landlady of The Anchor Inn) heard what she thought was a “traction engine under the floorboards” before being flung backwards by the shock:

 “Glasses began to tumble all around me, the beer casks rolled over with a terrible crash, and the door and windows buckled and broke out. Plaster began to fall from the ceiling all over me followed by debris, and then something struck me from behind which knocked me out”.

Luckily Mrs Ham wasn’t seriously injured, and her husband was on hand to dig her from the rubble.

The effects of the quake in nearby Colchester were no less severe. At the railway station passengers were flung from their carriages by the rolling motion of the quake. The spires of many of the town’s churches were toppled and the streets thronged as people ran from their homes and work-places. As the Essex Telegraph put it, “It is impossible to exaggerate the feeling of consternation which prevailed…women shrieked in their terror and strong men seemed utterly helpless to console them, being themselves completely unnerved and paralysed”.

It was not only the Colchester area that was effected it even provoked alarm in London. According to the Daily Mail the City was “violently shaken”. At Wimbledon the players’ balls bounced out of line, skeletons at Bart’s Hospital shook and gyrated as if “performing some mad dance” and on the Thames a three foot-high wave rushed up the river swamping several boats. The effects were also felt in Parliament. Books in the Commons Library were thrown off their shelves and officials were dispatched to the cellars to make sure no-one had attempted to blow-up the building.

Not everyone was affected by the quake, due to the vagaries of local geology some people didn’t feel it at all, an effect that resulted in some disconcerting experiences. One such was that of a young woman walking near Colchester Castle. According to the Essex Telegraph, “she experienced no sensation of the earth moving, but saw to her astonishment and consternation a cottage in Maidenburgh Street topple over and became a partial wreck without any apparent effect”.

Considering the violence of the earthquake it’s surprising that the death-toll was so low. In fact only one fatality can be directly attributed to the quake, that of a small child overcome by rubble falling down a chimney. There were, however,  a great many narrow escapes. The rector of St Leonard’s in Hyth was almost crushed by two chimney stacks that fell through the roof and plummeted into his sitting room. Mr Moore an elderly man “almost set fast with rheumatism” leapt to his feet to assist his wife and just missed being scalded by a boiling kettle hurled into his chair by falling rubble. While in Wivenhoe Hall, a young guest had just finished washing himself when two chimney stacks fell through the roof and smashed into the bath he’d vacated a few moments before.

Thankfully the quake was not the disaster it could have been. After the dust settled it was discovered that much of the damage, though widespread, was superficial. Dozens may have been injured and left homeless it was generally acknowledge that it could have been a great deal worse. As one local poet put it;

Accept our thanks for mercy shown                                  When danger came so near;                                                      Our humble homage at Thy throne                                          We pay in reverent fear.

Thanks for visiting. Please explore this site if you'd like to know more about me and my books. My latest novel is the Dark Age adventure Leofric: Land of the Franks due for release later this year.

 

 

 

How to write scenes

Stephen Arnott

When a writer is developing a stage play or a film script, scenes are at the forefront of their mind. Every piece of action has to be tied to a specific location, and for reasons of time and economy there will be a limit to the number of scenes available to them. For an author it’s different – the breadth of action within a book is limited by nothing but the imagination. Under these circumstances it’s easy to spread yourself thin and deliver the plot across a large number of insubstantial, weak and inconsequential scenes. And, as you might have already guessed, this is not good. We should aim to create scenes that are strong, substantial and meaningful.

Types of scene

First it helps to define what type of scene you’re hoping to create: is it active or passive? Most stories comprise strings of active scenes interspersed with passive ones. 

Active scenes

Here the protagonist is determined to reach a well defined, achievable goal, and by the end of the scene they’ve either succeeded or failed to accomplish it. Active scenes don’t contain time breaks, everything happens in the present as a single continuous sequence of events.

Passive scenes

These generally deal with the aftermath of an active scene. The passive scene starts with the protagonist facing a dilemma and ends with them reaching a decision. These scenes can contain time breaks. Passive scenes do the following:

• Give your audience a chance to catch its breath after the excitement of an active scene.

• Allow the implications arising from events in active scenes to sink in.

• Provide opportunities to introduce new information about characters and build up their back-stories.

• Provide opportunities to introduce twists.

• Allow changes in direction — the setting of new goals.

Example

Take the following. A bank robber approaches a bank; his goal: robbery of said bank. He barges through the main door, pulls a gun and orders the cashier to fill a bag with money. A customer sees his chance and tackles the bandit. The gun goes off and the customer is killed. Spooked, the robber flees the bank without his loot. The last we see of him he’s running down an alley, police sirens blaring in the background.

The above is an active scene. There are no time breaks, the robber doesn’t pull his gun and suddenly go into a flashback reminiscing about his unhappy school days, the sequence of action is unbroken.

If the next scene is passive we might see the robber facing his dilemma: to hide or run. He decides to run and furtively walks the streets as he tries to raise the cash to skip town from his lowlife friends. Eventually our robber ends up at the train station counting his money, trying to decide where to go. Then he sees a navy recruitment poster...

Scenes checklists

Your active scenes should include the following:

• A short-term goal for the protagonist. They must have an objective, and one they have a reasonable chance of achieving within the time-scale of the scene. If there’s no chance of success, there’s no tension.

• An obstacle for your protagonist to overcome. Without significant obstacles your scene will have no interest or suspense.

• A dramatic outcome. The best active scenes culminate in your protagonist suffering an unexpected setback. These raise the stakes and increase tension. Alternatively, if a scene is centred on your villain, aim for a positive outcome. What’s good for your villain is bad for your hero; again, raising the stakes.

In passive scenes make sure you have:

• An appropriate beginning. Most passive scenes follow on from an active scene. In these cases, what goes on in a passive scene should be a logical progression from the climax of the active scene that went before it.

• A dilemma. This should be a choice between two equally unpleasant alternatives.

• An outcome. Once the dilemma has been mulled over, your protagonist must come to a decision. It’s this outcome that will propel the story to the next scene.

 

Top 3 Scene tips

1) Treat each scene as a mini-story with a beginning, middle and end

Near the start of Star Wars: A New Hope there’s a passive scene in Obi-Wan Kenobi’s desert home. At the beginning of the scene, Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker that his father was a Jedi Knight, and R2D2 plays the recorded message of Princess Leia asking for Obi-Wan’s help.

Once we’ve established the background, Obi-Wan asks Luke to join him and help the Princess. This presents Luke with a dilemma, he can either go with Obi-Wan, or not. This dilemma is the meat of the scene – the middle.

Luke refuses, but agrees to give Obi-Wan a lift to the nearest spaceport. The offer is the end of the scene and resolves the conflict between Luke and Kenobi. The next course of action has been agreed on and the story has been moved forward.

Most good scenes follow the classic beginning-middle-end structure. If you find that one of your scenes isn't working, it might be missing one of these elements

2) Aim for visual interest

Make scenes more interesting and memorable by including a strong visual element. If you’re describing a conversation between two businesspeople, you could set it in a nondescript room, or it could be in the atrium of an office building, against the backdrop of an impressive water feature or bright mural — some image that will stick in the mind.

Many times you won't have a choice, as your story will dictate location, but when you start writing a scene, ask yourself if you could place the action somewhere a little more interesting and memorable. Make the reader glad they came.

3) Be economic

Try to lump action into as few scenes as possible. It can take time and effort to establish a new location, and this is better spent on the action and dialogue that will move your story forward. If you have three separate scenes that feature conversations between the same two characters, is there any way this information could be delivered in one or two scenes? Cut weak ‘bitty’ scenes or combine them to make strong, significant ones.

When you finish your first draft, go through your text and eliminate your poorest scenes; either cut them altogether or extract the action they contain and find ways to embed it into stronger ones. The director and screenwriter Howard Hawks once said that a good movie should contain three great scenes and no bad ones. It’s great advice that’s true of any story. 

 

The latest Leofric novel Land of the Franks will be released later this year. If you'd like to find out more about Leofric and his Dark Age adventures, follow this link.

Image: Frenzel (c/o Shutterstock)

Flashbacks

Stephen Arnott

Most writing guides argue against the use of flashbacks for the following reasons:

  • They’re unwelcome breaks in the main story. After a long flashback you have to do some work in re-establishing the central plot.
  • They lack drama. A flashback, by definition, is telling the reader about stuff that’s already happened. It’s old news.
  • They can betray a lack of skill. Flashbacks are often used to introduce information that the author should properly have included in the main story-line.

While I’d agree with most of this, I’d also say that writing a flashback is like any other kind of job – if you’re cooking dinner or painting a door, you can either do it well, or do it badly.

A bad flashback is usually the product of laziness, the writer finding they need to include some additional information to shore up the plot and using a flashback as the most convenient way of squeezing it in. Used this way, a flashback is equivalent to a parentheses, a big lump of text crowbarred into a sentence inside a pair of brackets. I’m sure we’ve all watched old TV melodramas where the protagonist looks into the middle-distance as they remember something, then the screen goes wibble-wobble-wibble-wobble and we’re taken back in time to that day in the lake-house when Jimmy hid the bloody knife in the drawer…etc.

However, there are some occasions when a flashback is legitimately the best way of delivering important plot points or otherwise summarising background information.

We should now point out that there are two types of flashback: those where you’re plunged back into a substantial scene complete with dialogue and ‘real-time’ action; and those where the protagonist merely recalls past events.

Substantial flashbacks can be tricky. If you indulge it too many of them, you risk rupturing the whole storyline. And for you to use them at all there has to be a good reason why you’ve not presented your scenes in chronological order. Isn’t it better to start at the front and jump forward, rather than start somewhere in the middle and keep jumping back?

In contrast, the other type of flashback – the small-scale recollections – are far more common and useful. They’re good for taking quick peeks into the past to deliver information that helps set up scenes and characters. The following is a paragraph from my current work in progress, Leofric: Land of the Franks:

"Their prison appeared to be a cellar of some kind, and the window was set just above ground level, offering them a worm’s-eye view of a broad paved courtyard surrounded by tile-roofed walkways. When Leofric had first arrived, he and few of the others had spent most of their time gathered at the slit to peer at the outside world, but those who preferred to sit complained they were blocking the light, so now they all sat on the floor. Only the youngest of them, a skinny youth called Brynjarr, stood watch to keep an eye on the comings and goings."

Unless you were looking for it,  you probably wouldn’t notice the flashback, but it’s there and helps us ease into the protagonist's new status as a prisoner. The flashback starts with "When Leofric had first arrived…" and ends with "…so now".

There are three important rules to follow:

  • Clearly introduce your flashback with the past tense.  (When Leofric had first arrived...)
  • Clearly identify the point at which we return to the present. (...so now)
  •  Don’t overuse the word ‘had’.

To explain this last point: flashbacks are often riddled with ‘hads’ and most are unnecessary. In the example above there are two, but there could have been more. See the bold text below:

“…When Leofric had first arrived, he and few of the others had spent most of their time gathered at the slit to peer at the outside world, but those who had preferred to sit had complained they were blocking the light, so now they all sat on the floor. Only the youngest of them, a skinny youth called Brynjarr, stood watch to keep an eye on the comings and goings.”

You don’t need the bold 'hads'. All you need is one or two at the start to reinforce the past tense. After that, any additional had’s are an unnecessary irritation. 

If you'd like to find out more about Leofric and his Dark Age adventures, follow this link.

 

(Image: Ollyy c/o Shutterstock)

 

 

 

 

Cause and effect

Stephen Arnott

Cause and effect is the simple one-way relationship between something happening and something else happening as a consequence. For example, the postman steps on a banana skin, then slips and lands on his backside. Cause (banana skin) and effect (a bruised bum). Unless you want to violate the laws of physics this sequence can happen only one way, but if you describe it incorrectly (which is easy enough to do) you can cause your readers some confusion. 

Take the following:

“Gerald got up from his leather armchair and stepped to the window. Looking out, his face was briefly illuminated by the headlights of a silver Aston Martin as it glided into the courtyard.”

The problem with the above is that Gerald seems to have extra-sensory perception. How does he know there’s anything outside to look at? The fact that Gerald gets out of his chair for no discernible reason is jarring. And if he did get out of the chair for no reason, why on earth are you bothering to put it down on paper? It’s surprisingly easy to lose the thread between cause and effect when you’re writing. This is largely due to the author’s vivid mental image of the unfolding events – they have a very clear idea of what’s going on and it seems inconceivable that such a simple story element might be misunderstood.

A better way of writing the above passage would be:

“Seated in his leather armchair Gerald heard a car approaching the front of the house. He stepped to the window, and his face was briefly illuminated by the lights of a silver Aston Martin as it glided into the courtyard.”

Here cause and effect are clearly stated in the right order: Gerald hears a car, so he gets up to investigate. 

Reversing cause and effect is confusing to the reader and, while occasional incidents might not ruin a story, too many will spoil the flow. Think of your story as a path the reader is cycling down, and these inconsistencies as bumps. No-one minds an occasional rattle, but string too many together and it’s like cycling down a cobbled street – an exhausting pain in the backside.

However, like any rule there will be exceptions. For example, sometimes you might want to see the effect, but postpone revealing the cause to build up tension:

"Gerald reeled. He clutched his chair for support as the jackhammer blow to his back flooded his body with pain. His ears ringing, he turned and saw Jenny standing at the door, a smoking revolver in her hand."

Another exception is a surprise event where the effect is felt before the cause is even known. Let’s say that instead of shooting him, Jenny creeps up behind Gerald's chair and explodes a fire cracker under his seat (she’s fun like that). If we were following the story from Gerald’s point of view you could justify describing his reaction before showing the cause, because Gerald would have leapt out of his skin before he was even aware of what had happened.

The proper description of cause and effect can be tricky, but these errors, though minor, can be irritating, and are well worth the effort of seeking out and correcting.

Yet one more thing to add to your revision checklist.

(Image: The Everett Collection c/o Shutterstock)

Complications, Reversals and Changing Goals

Stephen Arnott

I think it was the script guru Syd Field who observed that, in the old days it didn’t take much to satisfy film fans. A typical 1930s Tarzan movie plot might go along the lines of:

Tarzan is happy living in the jungle — An evil hunter enters the jungle — Tarzan defeats the evil hunter — Everything goes back to normal.

However, as audiences became more sophisticated, they became less satisfied with these simple linear plots and expected something more 'twisty' and interesting.

The problem of predictability has always been less true of books (where there is a long history of imaginative story structure) but you'll admit that even now there are plenty of lacklustre novels whose plots run on predictable tramlines that you can second-guess from the start.

To best way to avoid the mundane and predictable is to make sure your story is well peppered with Complications and Reversals.

Complications

Complications are the problems that your protagonist encounters when they try to solve whatever crisis you’ve burdened them with. In any good story the problems will pile up, whether it’s an action movie, play or romantic novel. The complications start off small and get larger and larger. Each problem raises the stakes — the penalty for failure becomes greater and greater.

Take the movie First Blood (based on a novel by David Morrell). At the start of the story, the ex-vet John Rambo is picked on by a small-town sheriff and his deputies. Rambo beats up the lawmen, escapes from jail and tries to run for the hills. This isn’t made easy, the writer throws in all sorts of complications to keep Rambo on his toes. First, Rambo has to clothe himself to stop him freezing to death; then he has to fight a posse; then eliminate a pack of dogs; then he has to dodge a helicopter; then he injures himself falling out of a tree...

More genteel complications can be found in Sense and Sensibility where the elder Dashwood sisters are searching for suitable husbands. However, just like Rambo, many problems are strewn in their path. First, their father dies leaving them without money for a dowry; then they’re thrown out of their house; then they have to move miles away to the wilds of Devon; then they discover their chosen partners are promised to other people...

Reversals and Changing Goals

Reversals are also problems, but on a bigger scale, to the extent that they often force a change in the protagonist’s gaol. Giving your main character a fresh objective is an excellent way of maintaining the surprise and excitement in a story.

In First Blood the appearance of the National Guard represents a reversal. Up till then, Rambo had been doing quite well for himself. He’d beaten everyone sent against him and had looked on top of the situation. So the writer calls in the National Guard to put Rambo in his place. As it turns out, the National Guard don’t defeat Rambo, but they do make life very difficult for him – they blow up a mountainside and trap him in an old mine. Rambo now has another complication to solve – how to escape from a labyrinth of claustrophobic, rat-infested tunnels.

After he escapes from the mine, Rambo’s reversal leads to a change in goal. He could easily slip away, but instead he sneaks back to the town and wreaks havoc. Rambo’s original goal was escape; now his goal is revenge. He wants to get his own back on the people who have hunted him so ruthlessly and the society he believes has rejected him. His thirst for revenge overrides his instinct for self preservation. Rambo’s escape at this point would have been an anti-climax, but his change of heart maintains the pace of the story and gives it an unexpected twist.

In Sense and Sensibility both sisters suffer reversals. The eldest Dashwood girl is devastated when she finds her gentleman friend is affianced to someone else, and her sister’s hopes are dashed when her young man moves to London. However, not all stories involve changing goals, if in Sense and Sensibility the Dashwood sisters suddenly gave up their pursuit of husbands to become clog dancers the reader would feel cheated (not to say confused).

More examples of changing goals:

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the children’s original goal (to get home) is overtaken by a greater one — to help Aslan fight the forces of darkness.

In Babe, the piglet’s original goal is to be accepted as a sheep-pig by the farm community. His goal changes when he’s entered into a sheep-dog trial; now he has to find a way to win and prevent the Farmer's humiliation.

In Ben Hur, the goal of our hero is to revenge himself on Messala, the Roman who sent him to the galleys. After Messala is defeated, Ben Hur is given another goal: to rescue his mother and sister from the Valley of the Lepers.

Conclusion

If you think your story is lacking fizz, have a look at the outline and see if you've made your protagonist's life too easy. What other banana skins could they reasonably be expected to slip on as they pursue their goal?

If you think your story is predictable, think about changing the protagonist's goal, what's the biggest plum they could aim to pick, and what motivates them to go for it?

Review: Leopards and Lilies

Stephen Arnott

Another Duggan review. This and the others I've written are posted to Goodreads, but I thought I'd blog it too. I’ve read all the Duggan ebook titles, now I’m working through the out-of-print second-hand paperbacks.

Leopards and Lilies is real-life tale of Norman Britain set around the time of the demise of King John. Ostensibly the story follows the life of Margaret FitzGerold who was the daughter of King John’s Chamberlain, Lord Warin FitzGerold; however, its main focus is on her husband, Falkes de Brealte, Captain of the King’s Crossbows.

Falkes was the bastard son of a Norman noble who first won fame by killing a knight who was trying to make off with his father’s horse.  According to Duggan’s version, Falkes was stripped to the waist and armed only with a scythe, while his opponent was in full armour. The combat earned our hero (whose real name was ‘Fulk’) the nickname ‘Falkes’, based on the French word for ‘scythe’.

(I'm guessing the front-cover picture is meant to be Falkes himself – you can see the full cover at the bottom of the page – though here he looks more like a cross between Vincent Price and a leather handbag.)

I’d never heard of Falkes till reading this book, but researching him afterwards I found that many sources accuse him of murdering someone with a scythe. However, Falkes was obviously proud of his name and didn’t seem the type to take an insult lying down, so I think it’s more likely that Duggan’s telling is the truer one.

Aside from characters such as Margaret and Falkes, Leopards and Lilies also introduced me to the concept of the Norman diaspora that settled in England after Normandy was over-run by the French. Men like Falkes were eager to return and fight for their homeland while the English-bred Normans were keener on keeping what they had. This led to a situation where the English Normans tended to look down on men like Falkes as upstart foreigners, while Falkes and his like regarded their Anglicised brethren as cowards and traitors. Mentally, I’ve always lumped the Normans together as one group and this division was a surprise to me.

The book's title refers to the leopards of the Angevin Empire (which morphed into the three lions of the Royal Arms of England) and the lilies of the French monarchy, though the story only touches on international intrigues and concentrates instead on England’s attempt to pull itself together after the Baron’s Revolt, Magna Carta and the loss of Normandy. In particular its focus is on Falkes’ attempts to retain his lands and status after the death of King John, the man who raised him up from a common sergeant.

All this action and intrigue is told through the eyes of Margaret, and since she spends much of her time removed from the action we get to learn most of the plot second-hand. This is not an terribly exciting way to tell a story, but it’s useful when Falkes or some messenger visits Margaret to explain what’s going on because it’s really the only chance the reader has of understanding the labyrinthine machinations of the Court and the flock of legal and religious disputes that come to flap around Falkes’ head. 

I would have liked Margaret’s character to have been more interesting and spirited, but Duggan is trying to paint us a picture of a real person and we can’t all be heroes. Instead our protagonist veers towards the snobbish and self-absorbed; though she’s barely fourteen when the story starts so we should make allowances. The following passage sums her up character nicely:

“The world was very unfair to her. She ought to have a beautiful mother, and a dashing elder brother whose gallant friends would play with her in the real rose garden which should surround her father’s castle. But here she was, a neglected orphan, living in a mere palisaded manor. Someone was very much to blame, though it was difficult to name the culprit.”

Over all it’s not one of Duggan’s best books. But I’m glad I read it and, as usual, Duggan introduced me to an obscure slice of history that I’d barely been aware of before. And if you’re into the history of names, think on this: Falkes built himself a large London manor that was known as Falkes’ Hall, which in turn became Fox Hall, then Vauxhall, the name of a central district of modern London, which became the home of the car makers ‘Vauxhall Motors’ (part of General Motors) whose emblem is the gryphon-and-flag that was the heraldic badge used by Falkes himself. So the next time you see one their cars, or hear the name, think back to a bare-chested Norman teenager fighting for his life in a sunny hay meadow.

 

Clichés, and how to avoid them

Stephen Arnott

Do clichés leave you fuming?

Do clichés leave you fuming?

We’ve probably all read a book or watched a movie where we’ve discovered we have the power of premonition – because we know exactly what line the character is going to come out with next…

We've got company.
We’re going to get through this.
We need to talk.
I’ve got a bad feeling about this.
You’ve got to be kidding me!
We can do this!
Make it stop!
Gentlemen, it's been an honour serving with you...

To the ranks of these overused dialogue snippets, we can add hackneyed idioms such as:

Fuming with rage.
Ace up her sleeve.
Look on the bright side.
Armed to the teeth.
Back against the wall.
Grin and bear it.
Bone chilling.
In over his head.
White as a sheet...

And if you did guess what was coming next, you don’t feel pleased about it; you feel disappointed; let down by the writer’s deficit of imagination. It’s almost as if the line was churned out by a writing robot loaded with tired phrases. I’ve seen movies and read books where the same familiar lines are batted back and forth like the ball in tennis match I’ve already watched a dozen times. It can be depressing.

The reason that clichés plague so much writing is because their familiarity makes them virtually invisible — we hardly notice them when they arrive and, once they've nestled down in the text, the eye of the incautious writer tends to skim over them in re-writes.

But the wary writer is vigilant...and ruthless. During a read-through, if any phrase gives you a sense of déjà vu, stop for a moment and see if you can think of a better, brighter way of expressing the same thing. Sometimes there won’t be — the cliché might be the most accurate, apt and economic way of getting across your idea, in which case, chalk it up as a draw and move on. But usually there’s something better waiting in the wings.

For example, ‘waiting in the wings’ is what I’d call a cliché. Can I improve on it? (No point replacing one cliché with another, so ‘Up your sleeve’ won’t do.) How about ‘there’s something better waiting to skydive onto the page’? Meh. It might not be Shakespeare, but at least it’s fresh.

Beware the cliché. Seek and destroy.

(Image: PathDoc c/o Shutterstock)

Leofric: Land of the Franks

Stephen Arnott

The cover for the latest Leofric adventure - Leofric: Land of the Franks.

Thanks to James at GoOnWrite who does all my cover work.

Land of the Franks is a sequel to Leofric: Sword of the Angles and follows Leofric's battles and intrigues as he journeys through the lowlands of northern Gaul. It's going through its final drafts now and should be ready to publish as an ebook later in 2016.

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Murder You Darlings

Stephen Arnott

“On the third or fourth draft, pencil in hand, I reread my test, by this point practically a fair copy, and eliminate whatever can be eliminated, whatever seems useless. Each deletion is a triumph…It gives me great pleasure to get rid of what is futile.” Marguerite Yourcenar

It’s astonishing how so many cherished scenes, lines of dialogue, descriptive passages, even characters, can survive every edit but the last. 

I’m sure we’ve all had a niggling feeling about text that, while having the superficial appearance of being solid and needful, has often given you second thoughts. You might have considered getting rid of the text many times, but you liked it for whatever reason, and you’d become used to seeing it on the page, so it stayed.

That is, until you reach the closing drafts. You now have a much better idea of what’s working and what’s not, and some of the clever lines and daring twists you were so proud of in drafts one and two are now looking more than a little shaky. You hit the delete button to undertake some drastic surgery and, when it’s over, you find that the patient has not only survived the operation, they're positively thriving.

This kind of hatchet job is often called ‘Murdering your darlings’, and it can be a disturbing process for two reasons. Firstly, there’s the regret and angst over the wasted effort involved - the effort of writing the stuff in the first place, then the effort you went to in carefully working round it in every subsequent draft. Secondly, you wonder at your own critical faculties. How could you not have seen it as lousy from the get go? If you had, all this unpleasantness could have been avoided. Though that’s a little unfair. Quite often the text isn’t bad in itself, there might be nothing wrong with it at all. It could be just that it no longer fits – the story has outgrown it. Sometimes it helps to think of your darlings as pieces of scaffolding; you need them while you need them, but once their work is done, they can go.

I guess all writers go through this process, though it’s hard to tell since we very rarely get to see early drafts of books. We do, however, get to see the early drafts of movies. These drafts are called shooting scripts. In a perfect world, the shooting script would represent the final cut, the finished movie, except that there’s one more stage to go through, because the real final cut belongs to the editor, and it’s in the editing suite that the real murdering goes on.

Take the film Nightcrawler. If you read the script (you can find it online at Go Into The Story) you’ll find a long scene near the beginning where the anti-hero Louise Bloom ‘romances’ a middle-aged nurse in a diner. The scene helps to establish Bloom’s character, but is unnecessary to the plot, slows down the action, and distracts us from the main story. Not surprisingly, it was cut and doesn’t appear in the movie. However, the cut wasn’t made in the writing stage, the entire scene was shot, then dropped in the edit.

Think of all the work that went into shooting that scene: the casting, rehearsals, lighting, location scouting, set design. And it may have taken a whole day or more of camera time to get it on film. Shooting that scene was an expensive proposition, and all that effort was for nothing, it didn’t even make it as a DVD extra (I only know it was shot was because it’s mentioned in the director’s commentary). That scene was a darling that almost made it to the very end.

Take another movie example, this time from Whiplash. [Mild spoiler alert] Towards the climax of the movie, our protagonist, Andrew, who is performing at Carnegie Hall, suffers a terrible humiliation on stage and runs into the wings where his father has fought past security to see him (this all happens around page 100 of the script). The father tells Andrew that he loves him, only to have Andrew disown him before turning away to return to the stage...Except that very little of this action gets onto the screen, mainly because, as written, the scene makes Andrew seem like a complete ass. The whole scene was shot, but it was edited around so that we see only the brief reunion of father and son and the expression of affection. It’s a good cut that keeps Andrew sympathetic and maintains our focus on the drama of the drum-kit. Another last, last minute decision that really helped the movie achieve its potential.

The moral of all this being:

Don’t be afraid of making last minute edits, they're often the most valuable. And don't feel too bad about them afterwards. Perhaps you should have cut this stuff earlier, but even the best of us have blinders on (note examples above). Kill, kill kill.

If you've enjoyed this post, take a moment to check out some of my books.

(Image: Alex Malikov c/o Shutterstock)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Becoming an early bird writer

Stephen Arnott

Are you a committed night owl? 

Are you a committed night owl? 

For the writer who also has a day-job to contend with, finding the time to work can be tricky. Unless you can squeeze some writing time into your lunch hour, you basically have two choices: to write in the evening, or in the morning. Most people prefer one over the other, and many seem to think that the choice between night owl and early bird is hard-wired into their genes, but if you're prepared to experiment, you might find it's largely a matter of habit.

As a part-time writer with a full-time job, I used to wait till I got home before I sat down at the computer. However, as I went on, I found that working in the evening was becoming increasingly painful and unproductive. Instead, I decided to try and shrug off my aversion to pre-dawn rising – to abandon my night owl ways and become an early bird.

It worked. Once I’d got over the shock of getting up at 5:30, I felt the benefits almost immediately:

Moral superiority 

I get a buzz about being the first in the household to be up and about (I might even be the first in the whole neighbourhood). While the rest of the family are in bed sleeping the fat from the cabbage – as the Dutch would put it – I'm already hard at it. It’s a good feeling.

You're fresh

You've got a full night's sleep under your belt and your brain isn't frothing with all the distractions and worries you’ve accumulated over the working day – all that hassle is ahead of you. As long as you don't burn the candle at both ends, you'll start your writing alert and clear-headed.

You'll enjoy your 'off' time

Some days I’d dread getting home from the office knowing I had yet more screen-time to clock up. Motivating yourself can be hard at the best of times, but it was often a drudge to sit down and force myself to write after a full day's work. Nowadays, I can come home knowing that I've already done my writing quota. All my free time is exactly that – free.

No distractions

It’s quiet in the morning. No blaring TV, feet charging up and down the stairs, requests to change light-bulbs, dispose of spiders, or help with dinner. You might not realise just how many distractions you normally face until you're able to cut them out.

It helps you be consistent

Getting into the routine of writing is important, even an hour a day, done regularly, will allow you to build up a healthy word count in a short time. However, evenings are often taken up by social or family commitments that you can’t (or don't want to) get out of. In contrast, the early morning hours are your own, so it’s easier to keep the writing chain unbroken from one day to the next.

Give it a go. I'd never considered myself to be a morning person and thought my experiment would quickly fizzle out, but once I got used to it, the morning writing habit proved to be surprisingly painless and productive.

It might be that inside every night owl there's a morning bird trying to stretch its wings.

Why I Love Scrivener

Stephen Arnott

When I got my first home computer (a Mac LCII) the writing app I started out with was the legendary WriteNow, a tiny, but powerful word processing application that many still consider to be a miracle of programming. I loved WriteNow, but it didn’t keep up with the times; technology outstripped it and eventually I had to find something else. I could have gone with a native Mac app like MacWrite Pro, but, like many others, I decided to choose the system I used at work, in this case Word 5.1 for Mac.

I adored 5.1. It was the best. It could crowbar its way into any text file I fed it, and it offered me all the features I could possibly want in a way that was intuitive, elegant and hassle free. Alas, when I upgraded to Mac OSX on my iMac G3, Word 5.1 bit the dust. Naturally I went to Microsoft to find its replacment, and this time I ended up with Word 2004 for Mac…. Which I didn’t love. At all. In fact, it was a steaming pile of manure...Scrub that, it was a cold pile of manure. You could warm your hands on steaming manure, but 2004 had close to zero utility as far as I was concerned. It was full of bells and whistles that I had no use for and seemed to be deliberately obtuse when it came to simple bread-and-butter functions such as text formatting.

Unfortunately Word 2004 was still on my computer (by now an Intel iMac) when I started my first novel Leofric: Sword of the Angles. Word 2004 had a notebook facility that I used to plan the story on, creating one notebook section for each chapter. This worked pretty well for the first draft, but when it came to editing I realised that I’d made a fundamental mistake in organising the book on a chapter by chapter basis. It’s useful to divide a book into chapters, but these divisions should be applied after the book is written, not before. What I really needed to do was to divide my story into scenes, then weed out or combine the weaker ones and beef up the ones that were left. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see any way of doing this in Word 2004 rather than cutting and pasting, and even then I’d be cutting and pasting back into 2004 documents, and I’d already decided the app was not worth the trouble. So I went in search of some new writing software, simple stuff that would let me organise and format my text in a sensible way, without breaking the bank...

My first thought was to try out some bespoke creative writing software, applications such as StoryMill, WriteItNow and ScriptIt! There was a lot of choice at the time and when I visited a few review sites to check them out I also started seeing mentions of a package called Scrivener. At first I only read about Scrivener in the context of academic and non-fiction writing, but the name kept cropping up again and again, so I decided to take a look. After a quick dip into the developer's Literature & Latte website, I downloaded a free trial copy, and less than ten minutes after that – literally – I bought it. The reason for my enthusiasm was ‘command-k’,  a handy Scrivener function that allows you to place the cursor anywhere in the text and automatically split it into two new documents. This was pretty much heaven for me considering my chapter/scene conundrum, and I cut and pasted my entire first draft (roughly 200,000 bloated words) into a Scrivener book template then spent the next couple of hours slicing it down to scene level, a job I originally thought would take me days. Formatting was also a breeze, a far cry from the hair-pulling frustration of 2004 where even the simplest commands were buried so deep in the menus that I’d eventually give up looking for them. 

But don’t read this and think that Scrivener is a bare-bones application; it has a load of features, far more than I’d ever use, but whereas the feature-rich Word 2004 always seemed to want to slap my face when I tried to get it to do something, Scrivener has always been far more helpful. I’ve never felt frustrated using Scrivener, it’s one of those programmes that always seems to be on your side.

By now you'll have gathered that I think there’s lots to love about Scrivener, but there are three features in particular that I use all the time. And here they are:

Snapshots

This allows you to make a copy of your current document with the click of a button. I find this particularly useful in keeping a record of my edits. Whenever I’m about to embark on a heavy re-write, I take a snapshot of the current version so it’s stored away for posterity. If I later decide I don’t like the changes I made, I can consult the previous version and cut and paste the text I want back; or, if I decide I didn’t like any of my changes, I can ‘roll back’ the editing and restore the whole thing.

Document notes

A simple notes facility, easily accessible from the document you're working on, that allows you to keep track of any ideas you have, or changes you need to make. I also use this a lot in editing. I’ll often cut and paste a section of text into the notes, play around with it there, and if I’m happy with the results, copy and paste it back into the original document. I also use it to store chunks of cut text in case I can use it again elsewhere.

Auto-complete

A huge time-saver. If there are names or words that you find yourself using a lot, you can add them to an auto-complete list that will then prompt you to select them when you start typing them. This was immensely useful when writing Leofric: Sword of the Angles (and its soon-to-be published sequel Leofric: Land of the Franks) as it's full of Nordic and Anglo-Saxon names that are often long and/or hard to spell ("Have at you, Magnhildr!"). Auto-complete has been a life-saver.

I doubt any of Scrivener's features are unique, but they're bundled up in a way that makes the whole package a pleasure to use. If you’re still not convinced, take a look yourself and download a trial version. If there’s a better app to organise, edit and format a novel I don’t know what it is.

If you'd like to check out Leofric: Sword of the Angles, you can find out more here, or see it on Amazon.


How long is a writing day?

Stephen Arnott

Some people can write till the cows come home.

Some people can write till the cows come home.

The author J. Robert Lennon once analysed one of his four-hour writing sessions and found that he only spent 33 minutes actually putting words on paper.  He calculated that, over a year, as little as 2% of his time was devoted to writing. In fact, considering the hours he spent on other activities, he decided he was not so much a writer as he was a sleeper, or an eater, or a naked girl imaginer…

Although many of Lennon’s lost 207 minutes must have been devoted to authorial activities such as thinking and mulling, and necessary support activities such as pencil sharpening, or finding new batteries for his keyboard, his example helps illustrate an important point: you don’t need to set aside great chunks of writing time to produce something worthwhile.

Some professional authors will write till the cows come home, and be willing and able to spend most of their waking days at the keyboard (Dean Koontz will apparently work for 10 or 11 hours at a stretch). However, many don’t. In fact, some authors get by on remarkably few productive hours. A good example is Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson series, who started his writing career while he had a full-time job as an English teacher. When he became successful enough to give up the day job, he was surprised to find that his writing time didn’t ratchet up; it stayed the same. In other words, he did as much writing as a full-time author as he did when he was a full-time teacher. The few creative hours he managed to squeeze out of each working day were all he needed to establish himself as a professional writer with a string of titles to his name.

I actually find it counter-productive to write for extended periods. Even following the Pomodoro method (taking a five minute break every 25 minutes), two or three hours is the most I can manage. Anything more and I get exhausted and start to make mistakes. I begin to churn out bumf for the sake of seeing something on the page, then have to spend more time re-writing it the next day; or, more usually, trashing it.

Little and often works best for me. As long as you can establish a solid routine, the small slices of time you can spare for writing quickly add up.

When I was a teenager I went on a school trip to Wales to climb Mount Snowdon. It’s not a hard climb, only a four mile walk through around 900m (3,000 feet) of elevation, but it looked a tall order to me, and for some reason I was wearing a pair of Wellington boots rather than walking shoes. The trail was a huge stairway carved into the slate and it looked a long, long way up. But I couldn’t back out, so I kept my head down and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Step after step after step; not once lifting my eyes to avoid the discouragement of seeing how much more lay ahead. Then it ended. And I looked around me and saw the incredible view and the long trail stretching down behind me into the mist.

It was a good lesson. Each small step, inconsequential on its own, had combined to lift me above the clouds.

If you'd like to find out more about my books, click the covers below...

Rick Riordan has some good advice for writers on his website. You can find it here. For writerly advice from Dean Koontz, go here.